Living in true medieval fashion

Castles can be as dreamy as one can imagine it to be, but also a challenge in other ways to those accustomed to efficiently modern amenities.



As a boy growing up in the early ’60s, I devoured tales of chivalry and medieval mayhem from Junior Classics Illustrated and TV series like Ivanhoe (which gave Roger Moore his first starring role), and always wondered what it would be like to have lived in those castles with the turrets, ramparts, and drawbridges. I imagined myself a pageboy in the service of some worthy knight, perhaps passing a letter to some fair damsel in exchange for a valuable token, like a shiny coin from an Arabian outpost or a silken handkerchief from Persia.

Those stories, and my fantasizing mind, helped turn me into the writer I eventually became. Little did I realize that my being a writer, in turn, would open the gates for me to some very real castles—not just for an afternoon’s visit, but for extended stays as a guest of the manor, thanks to the generosity of a patron, in true medieval fashion.

The first castle I inhabited dates back to the 15th century, and it stands on a promontory overlooking a silvery ribbon of the River Esk—in Midlothian, Scotland, about an hour’s bus ride from downtown Edinburgh. Long the domain of the Drummond family, the castle passed on to Drue Heinz, the American widow of the famous Heinz food company magnate, and a patroness of the arts. That’s how I found myself taking a train to Scotland from London in 1994, on a Hawthornden Castle writers’ fellowship, as the castle had now been turned into a writers’ retreat by Mrs. Heinz.

In those pre-cellphone, pre-Internet days, my three weeks in the castle—which, though picture-book pretty, was also chilly and damp—could have been very lonely. I was there with just two other fellows (there were more staff than residents), and we could have been seen to be privileged prisoners, with our lunches being sent up to our rooms (quaintly named after writers like Boswell, Herrick, and Jonson) so we could work. But the isolation proved to be extremely productive, allowing me to finish four long stories and the draft of a pictorial essay. Hawthornden was reputedly haunted—previous fellows had reported hands grabbing their feet as they slept—but being an unbeliever, I was mercifully ignored by the castle spirits.

Hawthornden was Scotland at its traditional finest—we tried haggis (more tolerable than one expected), roamed the thistle-lined woods (Rosslyn Chapel, which would gain fame in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, was just around the corner), and ritually drank sherry (Poe’s amontillado) before dinner.

Eight years later, I rode up with my wife Beng in a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz to the gates of yet another 15th century landmark—the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, in northern Italy—to take up a month-long residency as a Rockefeller fellow. Overlooking Lake Como and the Swiss Alps in the distance, the villa had been acquired by the Rockefellers, who had converted it into a retreat for artists and other intellectuals. My ticket to the place was a proposal for a novel that I had submitted online, and the fellowship covered my wife as well (or any partner you declared), which guaranteed I would not be lonely.

That would not have been a problem; as solitary as Hawthornden was, Bellagio was a social whirlpool, with about a dozen fellows in residence at any given time (my batchmates included, among others, a South African arms expert, a Russian pianist, an American sculptor, and an English Bible scholar). Formal dress was required for dinner, marked by place cards with one’s name; uniformed waiters and chambermaids completed the effect. A self-confessed culinary philistine who abhors cheese but loves instant noodles, I broke the chef’s heart by asking him to open a tin of canned sardines, while my more adventurous wife savored the exquisite Italian cuisine.

At some point in its history, the hilltop estate had attracted and hosted such distinguished visitors as Pliny the Younger, Leonardo da Vinci, and Queen Victoria. (More recently, Lake Como would become the setting for the Star Wars saga’s The Phantom Menace.) From the window of our suite, I could only agree with what the poet Shelley wrote a friend in 1818: “This lake exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty…” Had I loved cheese and artichokes I might have enjoyed the experience more, but I felt full here from the visual feast alone.

I had not seen the last of Italy, nor of castle living. In 2011 I was back—courtesy of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, which grants month-long residencies to fellows from the arts at its castle (also from the 15th century, by strange coincidence) in Umbertide, Perugia. Among all the three domiciles, this was the most castle-like, in the massiveness of its architecture and the presence of halberds and other medieval weaponry in the hallways.

I was again by myself in Perugia, among about ten fellows, mostly from the US, and we were each assigned a room; mine was a three-room suite, Pontenuovo, the bridge between the castle’s two wings. In one respect, the place seemed visibly unchanged for centuries, with a heavy wooden door scarred by age and held fast by a hammered iron bolt; even my wrought-iron bed felt a hundred years old. But the castle grounds were also thoroughly covered by Wi-Fi, and we had fridges and cooking facilities at hand (a welcome facility, as again I often disagreed with the slow-food specialties of our Paris-trained chef).

I’d learned to accept, from previous experience, that living in a castle can be as dreamy as one can imagine it to be, but also a challenge in other ways to those accustomed to efficiently modern amenities. Unless there is heating, it can get terribly cold and drafty; the toilets and baths may last have been refurbished decades earlier (responsible managers will make sure they work, but the fittings themselves will be quaintly antique); floors and windows will creak; the wind will howl and whisper down the eaves and through the shutters. The nights will be full of shadows.

But the days in a castle will be incomparably vivid, with every door and walkway promising new discoveries from ages past. The discomforts recede, and magic fills the moments—all too fleeting, you realize, when the gates close behind you for the last time.