Connecting Global Cities: Castles and Palaces

Sep 30, 2013 10:58:53 AM / by Stephanie Sadler

“Connecting Global Cities” is a monthly column written by Colin Speakman, Director of China Programs for CAPA International Education.

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"My home is my castle" is a famous English phrase, but few actually get to live in a castle or a palace. That is what makes them fascinating. CAPA's global cities each have examples of one or the other, if not both. Tourists love to visit them and they are very educational as these magnificent buildings observed the pages of history with important inhabitants. England's castles echo stories of knights rescuing damsels in distress and come complete with defensive moats and the all-important drawbridge. Palaces have those high ceilings, walls on which fabulous paintings and portraits hang, historic furniture and beautiful gardens. We can find a famous castle in Dublin, at least two in Istanbul, an alliteration of Pink Palace in Buenos Aires and Pitti Palace in Florence and the Emperors' former palaces in Beijing.

When in London, students often head out to see Leeds Castle, which is not that far! Yes, the City of Leeds is in the North of England, but Leeds Castle is much nearer in Kent in the South East of England so it can be a little confusing! We are spoiled for choice with palaces in London. Buckingham Palace is home of the Queen, but who can forget Kensington Palace at the time when the late Princess Diana lived there?

London, Buckingham Palace
Photo: Buckingham Palace by Vlad Bezden

Kensington Palace Gardens, London
Photo: Kensington Palace Gardens by Polsia Ryder

In Beijing, the Emperors had different palaces according to the season. The Imperial Palace downtown is certainly the most famous, but the center of Beijing can be hot in the summer - so the leading inhabitants decamped to the Summer Palace, to the North West of Beijing and enjoyed the cooler air on hill tops and further cooled off by a huge lake. Both these geographical features were, in fact, man-made.

Photo: CAPA's Director of China Programs Colin Speakman and students at Summer Palace

The Yedikule Castle in Istanbul is also known as the Castle of the Seven Towers because it was multi-purpose, used to protect the city, but also to house prisoners and the state treasury. Then there's the Rumelian Castle in the same city - three towers atop a hill and overlooking the Bosphorus Straits. Again a tough choice.

Yedikule
Photo: Yedikule Castle by Vince Millett

So when you're studying abroad in one of CAPA's global cities, which castle or palace should you visit if time is limited? Here's our top choices:

BEIJING, CHINA

The Imperial Palace

Beijing has been the capital of China in many dynasties and several palaces have come and gone in the city center as a result of invasions. In the Yuan Dynasty, the city was known as "Dadu" (big capital) and a magnificent palace stood there. It was visited by Marco Polo. However, the Ming Dynasty invaders set that palace to flames and established their capital in Nanjing. It was the third Ming Emperor who decided to build the Imperial Palace on the ruins of the old Yuan dynasty palace and move the capital back to Beijing in 1420 after beginning reconstruction in 1406. The Emperor also built the Temple of Heaven nearby during the same period. The buildings look impressive after many refurbishments including for the 2008 Olympics. The Starbucks Coffee shop on site had also disappeared by then; a China time-honored brand was built on the ruins!

A palace inside Forbidden city glows in the evening sun
Photo: Imperial Palace by Nagarjun Kandukuru

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

The Pink Palace

When I first visited this "Casa Rosada" in Buenos Aires, I felt I already knew it. That was because of the familiar shots from its balcony in the movie "Evita", the emotional scenes in front of huge crowds that regularly gathered. The Pink Palace is like the equivalent of the USA's White House, except that the leader does not live there. It houses the presidential offices for daytime work, with the presidential home being a mansion in the suburb of Los Olivos. The explanation of the pink color is varied. Some believe it represents a mix of the red and the white colors of Argentina's two main political movements. Others say it was painted with cow's blood that dried salmon pink.

LA CASA ROSADA (North Wing), Buenos Aires, Argentina  (I)
Photo: Pink Palace / La Casa Rosada, in Buenos Aires by Kevin

DUBLIN, IRELAND

Dublin Castle

This impressive structure just off Dame Street in Dublin was, until 1922, the seat of British rule of Ireland (I told you that we Brits love our castles!). It was a chilly and breezy day when I last walked past Dublin Castle - strange how those memories stick in the mind, but perhaps that happens with special places? Nowadays it is a major facility used by the Irish government, but like castles everywhere, it was originally built as a defensive fortification, for the City of Dublin in Norman times. England's King John commanded it be built in 1204 so these structures had staying power, though they are rumored to be drafty. Norman castles had a specific design. They were built around a courtyard and featured high defensive walls with a tower at each corner. In fact, only one of the original four towers remains today - the Record Tower. Like the Imperial Palace of Beijing, some refurbishments and rebuilding have been necessary in Dublin. Most of the current structure dates from the 18th Century. To protect the city, the castle was adjoined with city walls, but as in most cases, those didn't remain as the global city developed.

Dublin Castle
Photo: Dublin Castle by David Dawson Photography

FLORENCE, ITALY

The Pitti Palace

The Palazzo Pitti is a Renaissance era palace - an era I always associate with Florence of course. It is located South of the River Arno while most of Firenze is actually North of the river - it is fun to cross the Ponte Vecchio to get to this impressive structure. There is a big stone square in front of the palace and some little cafes opposite that square. I can remember myself sitting in one (outdoors) regularly enjoying a cappuccino. Construction started in 1446, commissioned by Luca Pitti, and in its time it was the residence of the grand-dukes of Tuscany and later the King of Italy. Nowadays it is an art museum housing paintings, sculptures, porcelain, silver and period costumes. There are works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens among others and, like most palaces, these are set in lavish interior decorations. It is a pity I did not get to spend more time there!

Pitti Palace, Florence, Italy
Photo: Pitti Palace, Florence by Andree & Edward

ISTANBUL, TURKEY

The Topkapi Palace

I dodged the question of which of the famous Istanbul castles to feature by choosing a palace instead - not hard really as who can forget the Topkapi Sarayi? It's such a wonderful museum today and, for nearly four centuries, home to the sultans and harems of The Ottoman Empire (I needed to get that off my chest!). The palace dates from 1459 and sits on top of a hill with high walls and giving views of the sea on two sides. It is near the Cannon Gate of those ancient city walls that were once so important in defining and protecting cities. The palace contains historic imperial treasures, portraits of the sultans, paintings, calligraphic documents, porcelain, historic clocks, sacred relics, guns and armory and more. A visit gives a great sense of the history of this ancient empire.

Topkapi Palace
Photo: Topkapi Palace, Istanbul by Marie Bryan

LONDON, ENGLAND

Windsor Castle

You may be getting the picture here; this time I dodged the hard choice between London's palaces by choosing a castle. Windsor Castle is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world so it deserves this spot. It is a fairly quick train ride just outside London in the town of Windsor and perhaps also known for the famous Eaton school nearby. It is home, on many weekends, for the Royal Family and they often choose to go to church locally in Windsor on Sundays. There's a connection with Buckingham Palace as sadly there was a fire at Windsor Castle in November 1992 and so as not to put a huge burden on the public purse in restoration, it was decided to open a section of Buckingham Palace to visitors to raise revenue for the Windsor a castle repairs. The original castle dated from the 11th Century after the Norman invasion, was rebuilt in The Restoration under Charles 2nd and, after neglect in the 18th Century, was significantly renovated under George 3rd and George 4th.

Windsor Castle
Photo: Windsor Castle by Jessie Leong

SHANGHAI, CHINA

China Art Palace

There is no history of palaces or castles in Shanghai. It has never been a capital of China in the Imperial dynasties. However in 2010, this economic capital of China hosted the World Expo and the signature building erected for that was the China Pavilion. It has now been relaunched as the China Art Palace and is home to many galleries of modern and contemporary art as well as rotating temporary exhibitions of art loaned from other countries from this year. Thus a true bringing together of global cities. In May 2013 a theater was also opened in this palace. It is good to see an iconic building, located in the Pudong side of the city, put to an important use after a temporary event and the Art Palace is expected to become a major attraction for visitors to Shanghai.

Shanghai Art Museum 中华艺术宫 (China Pavilion at Expo 2010 中国国家馆)
Photo: China Art Palace by Kwong Yee Cheng

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Fort Denison

Australia's relatively young history does not contain a palace or strictly a castle in Sydney, however castles also act like forts and Sydney boasts Fort Denison, on a small island called Pinchgut Island, in the harbor. It contains a Martello Tower - somewhat castle-like - made from 8,000 tonnes of sandstone. It is the only one ever constructed in Australia and the last one ever built in the former British Empire. Completed in 1857, it took its name from the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir William Thomas Denison. Like many of these historic buildings, the fort is now a museum, including an exhibition of the Island's history from Aboriginal times. Linking global cities, London's Ealing Studios made the film "The Siege of Pinchgut" (in USA, it was known as "Four Desperate Men") which featured Fort Denison in 1959.

Fort Denison, Sydney
Photo: Fort Denison, Sydney by Frank Jones

Do you have a favorite castle or palace you would like to tell us about?

Topics: Global Cities