Kasteel de Haar (Castle de Haar), in the Netherlands, is one of the most impressive mock-castles I’ve seen. It’s got everything you could dream of in a fortress: a grand moat, mighty drawbridge, teetering towers and impressive battlements.
Of course, there’s a catch: this isn’t a true Medieval castle.
The foundations of Kasteel de Haar were laid back in Medieval times, but pretty much everything you’ll see today is a c19th rebuild of what architects thought a Medieval castle should look like.
Nonetheless, it’s an impressive place and a pleasant day out. It’s located in the (exceedingly flat!) countryside just outside of Utrecht, the Netherlands.
I visited it in 2014. Here are my photos from the trip, alongside the history of this beautiful castle.
Shaped Like a Pentagon: The Early Castle
Although you won’t see anything of it today, the first castle was built on this site in about 1391. It was owned by the De Haar family.
This castle was almost entirely destroyed some 100 years later, in 1482, as retribution for an argument with the Bishop of Utrecht. By that time, the castle had passed to another family: the van Zuylens.
During the 1500s, the castle was re-built in the shape of a lop-sided pentagon. Two huge towers crowned two of the five points of the pentagon: a rare image, from 1550, gives us some clue how the castle might then have looked.
From the late 1500s onwards, the castle fell into severe disrepair. It only came to the attention of a very wealthy couple in the late 1800s.
A Pet Project: To Build a Medieval Castle
In the late 1800s, the ruined castle passed to Baron Etienne van Zuylen and his wife: Hélène de Rothschild. Hélène came from the fabulously wealthy de Rothschild banking family.
Baron Etienne was fascinated by his ruined castle, and wished to strengthen his ties to his ancestors, who had owned the site for hundreds of years.
As a result, he drew on his wife’s significant wealth to entirely rebuild the castle.
He commissioned an architect, Pierre Cuypers, to re-create a Medieval castle, which could become a decadent home for his family.
Pierre was an extremely talented architect: one of the most famous in the whole of Holland (he’s also responsible for the glorious Central Station in Amsterdam, and also the city’s Rijksmuseum).
Pierre drew on the latest Neo-Gothic styles for inspiration, and designed a pentagonal structure that remained true to the floorplan of the original fortress. Many of the external walls you see today are built on the foundations of the old castle.
For practicality, Pierre altered some elements of the original design. Originally, the castle used to have a great courtyard: Pierre turned this into a grand, undercover hall.
However, great chunks of the original castle remained a mystery. For these, Pierre used his imagination. The tall, pointy towers; elegant flying buttresses; arched stained glass windows and pleasantly sloping roof-lines are the work of his expert eye.
Work began on building the new castle from 1892. It took about twenty years in total.
Let’s Demolish a Village!
Today, Kasteel de Haar is surrounded by expansive parkland and some beautiful gardens. However, there’s an interesting story behind this!
During the years when the castle lay dormant, a small village named Haarzuilens had sprung up alongside the ruins.
Well, Baron Etienne certainly didn’t want so many poor people to be so close to his majestic new home. So – rather unbelievably – he ordered the village to be razed to the ground.
He decreed that only the old church should survive (you’ll see it in the grounds today). Obviously, he probably spared the church out of some degree of piety – but apparently it also looked the part, as it was architecturally similar to his new home.
The entire village of Haarzuilens was re-built, some 1.5km to the west.
In its place, the Baron was left with, well, some rather barren land. As money was evidently of no object to to him, he simply imported around 6-7,000 mature trees from all over the Netherlands, and planted them around the new castle.
Touring the Decadent Interior
To see the innards of the castle, you have to follow a guided tour. Although there are around 200 rooms, you can see only a handful of the most impressive.
I find guided tours a bit claustrophobic at the best of times. Unfortunately, this guided tour also chooses to focus on some rather strange things.
Although the castle is filled with an eclectic collection Medieval relics and old antiques, the tour focuses on snooze-worthy stories of minor members of the gentry who once stayed in the castle.
As an example, in the ballroom, you’ll see two incredible c15th tapestries of the resurrection of Christ. These were both probably the life’s work of some weaver, and they’d be the pride of any museum.
However, for some reason, the English language tour glides past these beautiful relics. Instead, it focuses on telling a trashy, boring story of two members of the Dutch gentry who once danced here about sixty years ago. It’s very strange.
Nonetheless, there’s lots inside the castle to hold your interest. When it was built, the castle was one of the very first mansions to boast hot and cold running water.
It was also one of the very first places to be hooked up to mains electricity. This unexpectedly explains why there are no light-shades. Because electricity was so fashionable, the Baron wanted to show-off the bare bulbs to prove his cutting-edge credentials!
Exploring the Castle Today
I love Holland: and one of the reasons why is because it’s blissfully easy to reach anywhere by public transport.
The castle is situated just outside of Utrecht. I came on a daytrip from Amsterdam, taking an Intercity train to Vleuten: from there, it’s an easy twenty minute walk along flat ground (the castle is sign posted once you’re in the outskirts of the town).
You could just as easily reach the castle on a daytrip from Den Haag or Rotterdam.
You can enter the impressive gardens at anytime, but to see the interior of the castle, you have to take an aforementioned timed, guided tour. At weekends, there are a couple of tours a day in English: at the other times, you’ll follow a Dutch tour and be given a personal audio-guide.
There’s a pleasant, pricey, cafe on site.
All in all, Kasteel de Haar is an interesting piece of architecture – and worth a visit. It’s a similar in its grandiose ambition to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (although the setting’s not nearly as impressive).
It’s also interesting to glimpse the aristocracy of Holland – a country which you don’t typically associate with such a stratified class system.
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