The kings and queens of Europe long ago lost their constitutional powers, and even the aristocracy has beaten a hasty retreat. But the legacy of their imperial days is writ large on the landscape of Europe. From France to Italy to England, the European countryside is packed with castles and palaces that recall a bygone era of unbridled power and opulent wealth.
Fortunately for contemporary commoners, many of Europe's highfalutin' homes are now available for rental, from one night to a week or more. Think of it as a chance to live like royalty for a week, complete with rolling estates, fine dining, and recreation galore. Or, if you're so inclined, rent a yacht instead and ply the Mediterranean like a king.
The prices may seem astronomical at first glance. After all, who has $25,000 to drop for a weeklong vacation rental in France? But these castles are big, often accommodating dozens of people. If you can put together a group -- whether for a wedding, a family reunion, or a business offsite -- renting a castle for a week can turn out to be cheaper than a boring business hotel in the center of town.
LAP OF LUXURY. And when it comes to charm and character, 300-year old estates can't be beat. What's more, many have stepped up their amenities and services to match those of regular hotels. For example, Germany's castles, or schlossen, have mostly been turned into conventional hotels, with rooms available by the night. The famous Dornröschen Schloss -- named for the Grimm's fairy tale Sleeping Beauty -- is now a four-star hotel surrounded by a huge nature park (see BW Online, 2/22/06, "The Old Stones of Germany"). And the faux-Gothic 19th-century Schloss Eckberg, near Dresden, has a spa, fitness center, and high-quality restaurant, all for rates starting at $140 a night.
Perhaps you'd rather rent an entire Château in the French countryside (see BW Online, 3/6/05, "Your Castle Awaits"). How about Château de Villette, where Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown set scenes in his novel and Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal hosted his daughter's wedding? Okay, it costs $5,130 a week, but for 17 rooms, that's a steal. And if you really want to splurge, there's always Château de Grimaldi, near Aix-en-Provence, whose 10 bedrooms rent for $23,850 a week during peak season.
PRISTINE PALAZZOS. Maybe Italy's your bag, whether you're after stunning coastal properties or a quiet retreat in Umbria (see BW Online, 11/15/05, "Italian Villas with a View"). Villa Cerato, replete with ceiling frescos and floor mosaics, will set you back just $2,720 a week between October and May for 10 bedrooms. If you're after the ultimate in privacy, try Al Palazzaccio near Lucca, whose swimming pool is rimmed with olive trees.
Some folks are thrown by dealing in languages other than English. But the Sceptered Isle offers its fare share of converted aristocratic dwellings for weeks of royal living (see BW Online, 3/16/06, "Manors and Castles of the British Isles"). The richest trove lies in Scotland, including Skibo Castle, where Madonna married Guy Ritchie in 2000, and Myers Castle, which features a "Victorian Kitchen" for down-home dining Scottish style.
SAILING AWAY. If being tied down to a stone manor with moat seems too, well, stationary, you could take your royal urges onto the high seas instead with a floating palace (see BW Online, 3/28/06, "Yachts: Floating Palaces"). Gorgeous yachts for hire throughout the Mediterranean could let you taste Corfu and Corsica in the space of a single blissful week. Mind you, these boats don't come cheap: The Annaliesse will cost you and 35 of your closest friends a mere $805,500 per week -- helipad included. For more modest seaborne retreats, check out the mahogany-lined Anne De La Belle Europe.
It's March. Summer vacation is just four months away -- and you've got things to celebrate. Perhaps getting through the day is your current concern. But a royal life awaits you in the palaces of Europe, and with a passel of friends or family, it's well within your reach.