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De Haar Castle

A Fine Fake Medieval Castle

De Haar Castle in Haarzuilens, near Utrecht, is the brainchild of Baron Étienne van Zuylen van Nyevelt, who in 1887 married the wealthy banker’s daughter Hélène de Rothschild, whose capital allowed him to rebuild the ruined castle he inherited in 1890. For that purpose, he hired architect Pierre Cuypers, who also built the Rijksmuseum & the Central Station in Amsterdam, and numerous churches. From 1892 onward, it took Cuypers, together with his son Joseph, twenty years to restore the castle to a degree of glory it had never attained before. Cuypers’ design included not only the castle itself but also its interior, the chapel & even the village of Haarzuilens, which was relocated to make way for the garden. A highlight of Gothic Revival architecture, De Haar became the country’s most luxurious castle at the time, surpassing even the dwellings of the royal family in opulence. And to think that the family occupied the castle only in September, just to entertain their guests.

The Main Hall at De Haar Castle
De Haar Castle’s Main Hall

On the bel étage, the Main Hall, a spectacular neo-Gothic hall with an 18-m-high vaulted ceiling & stained-glass windows that glorify the Van Zuylen lineage, leads to the dining room, the library, the Knights’ Hall, a grand reception room with ghost-catching spikes on its ceiling, and the ballroom with a minstrels’ gallery depicting Le Château d’Amour. An interesting aspect on the next floor is the entrance to the Baroness’ bedroom, which has two doors. Hélène was, to put it mildly, not particularly keen on Cuypers’ style, and she asked the Parisian cabinetmaker Henri Nelson, known for his Louis-XV- & -XVI-style furniture, to come up with a design for her own room; Cuypers hated the result so much that he put an oak door in front of Nelson’s fancy white door to hide it from outside view. So much for the total work of art Cuypers wanted to create, but it’s nevertheless a great delight to wander through De Haar’s sumptuous rooms & enjoy its overwhelming splendour, for it is beyond doubt one of Europe’s finest fake medieval castles.

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Below stairs, in the kitchen, there is a cooking range by Briffault & Drouet, which required some 50 kg of coal per day to heat several hotplates, four ovens & a bain-marie, and a batterie de cuisine worthy of a good-sized hotel, consisting of over one hundred copper pans, casseroles, bowls & moulds.


Hélène de Zuylen de Nyevelt is not only known for financing De Haar Castle’s reconstruction & steering the style of its bedrooms towards the Goût Rothschild; she was an adventurous woman with a taste for travel, motor sport, literature & women, especially her lover Renée Vivien, a poet who dedicated several of her works to H.L.C.B., which are the initials of Hélène’s given names. She was among the first women in France to hold a driving licence, and the first woman ever to enter a motor race, in 1898, chasing her husband.


The Rothschilds kept their fortune within the family by repeated endogamous marriages. When Hélène wed a non-Jewish outsider, her mother, Adèle de Rothschild-von Rothschild, cut her daughter — who was already a woman of fortune, owing to the inheritance from her late father — out of her will. Étienne’s relatives did not look on the match with a friendly eye either, because he married outside the Catholic faith, and Hélène was from an upstart noble family that had been ennobled only three generations before her, while the Van Zuylens commended themselves for having joined the Crusades. (On an unrelated note, it was Adèle who donated Wilhelm Tischbein’s well-known painting Goethe in the Roman Campagna to the Städel Museum in 1887.)


De Haar is basically a private hotel, designed to entertain private guests. Étienne & Hélène were fervent party-givers, as was their grandson Thierry (‘Teddy’), whose guest lists included Coco Chanel, Georges Pompidou, Gregory Peck, Maria Callas, Roger Moore, who learned how to ride a bicycle at De Haar, Michael Caine, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren & Yves Saint Laurent.


Hard to imagine that our omnipotent hero Bond, James Bond, didn’t know how to ride a bicycle.


Other fine fake castles are Pierrefonds Castle in Northern France, Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps, and Drachenburg Castle, near Bonn. Pierrefonds, by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, may be regarded as the mother of all Gothic Revival castles, but it is not as opulent as De Haar Castle or the two German ones.

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