There was a time when city walls were really useful – they stopped barbarians getting in, they stopped citizens getting out and they provided a handy spot from which to tip boiling oil on the heads of anyone trying to breach them. But times have changed and we live in a more sophisticated age – a time when invasions are done from the air, with the backing of an international “peacekeeping force”. It seems like city walls are obsolete, but there are some that are beautifully preserved and impressive. And it’s reassuring to know that should we ever revert back to barbarianism, there are places for us to all hide out. In case that ever happens, take a note of our Top 10 Walled Cities.
10. Brielle, Netherlands
The Netherlands is full of walled cities – not surprising for a country bordered by the aggressive powers of France and Germany (and of course Britain just across the water). Many of the city walls have been demolished or were damaged during World War II, but Brielle remains intact – a fortified city boasting not only walls but also earth ramparts supporting them.
Despite its fortifications, Brielle has changed hands a few times, including being ceded to the English in a treaty in 1585. A few years earlier, the Spanish invaders had failed to hold on to the city and the Dutch rebels captured it on 1st April 1572. This is remembered every year as “Chalk Night” (when locals deface the city with chalk”) and the events have been immortalized in this line of verse “Op 1 april verloor Alva zijn bril“. Literally translated word-for-word, this means “On 1 April, lost Alva his glasses”. Alva refers to the Spanish Duke and “bril” (glasses) is a pun on the city name. If you ever visit, recite it to a local. They’ll love it…
9. Toledo, Spain
The Spanish, meanwhile, had their own impressive fortified cities. Toledo is famous for its beautiful cathedral, but the medieval walls are an interesting sight too. The city used to be the center of the Spanish Empire, under the Visigoths, and so good defenses were essential. Toledo had natural advantages – it was sited on a hill and had a river on three sides, so the walls only needed to cover one side. It was always a cultural melting pot, with Christians, Jews and Muslims mixing within its walls and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its outstanding architecture.
8. Binche, Belgium
Another small country that felt the need to fortify itself against France and Germany, Belgium is home to many former walled cities, but it is Binche that retains the greatest sections of wall, with 2.1km of fortifications dating from 1230. Binche is also known as the home of binge drinking (apparently that’s where the term came from), and its annual beer festival takes place just before the start of Lent each year. There’s a surreal atmosphere – some would say downright terrifying – as men in clown masks parade through the streets, drinking hair-raisingly strong beer and beating drums. The 1,000 “Gilles” also wear hats with large ostrich feathers on them and throw oranges into the crowd (and occasionally through nearby windows). You’d be forgiven for thinking you were hallucinating due to all the beer but no, it’s really happening…Worth a visit to see the walls and the festivities, but remember to pace yourself when it comes to the beers.
7. Carcassonne, France
Next, a French city that is a classic example of a walled city, so much so that it’s had a game named after it. In the game of Carcassonne, players lay down tiles to gradually build up a settlement, including castles, farms and walled towns that look much like Carcassonne does today (above). Like Toledo, it’s a natural fortress as it’s built on a hill and the walls have been restored so that they’re in formidable condition, even though it hasn’t needed to withstand attack in a long time. The restoration took place in the 19th century, but to walk through the city now you could still be in medieval times. As one site describes it, “Disneyworld perfect.”
6. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Another city that uses its natural advantages – in this case, being almost surrounded by sea. But the old town is also surrounded by 2km of walls, which were useful when it suffered a 7-month siege in 1991 by the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army) as part of the ongoing war between the Croats and Serbs. 56% of the buildings were damaged in the siege and sadly, hundreds of people lost their lives. There was some damage to the city walls but it was not destroyed and has since been restored by UNESCO in the original style. Now, around 7,000 tourists walk the walls each year and Dubrovnik has regained its place as a tourist attraction after years of conflict.
5. Diyarbakir, Turkey
The walls of this city are so ancient that they don’t have a date – but they were restored by the Romans in 349AD, which gives you some idea of how long they’ve been there. The walls are almost intact, and are 5.5km long, surrounding the city in black basalt. There are 4 gates, as well as 82 watch towers. The town itself is well preserved, with mosques and madrasas dating from the medieval times as well as museums and churches.There is also the 11th century Dicle Bridge that spans the Tigris river.
It’s still an important city in Turkey, being the center of its own province, but hasn’t had to use its defenses for a while and became a refuge for villagers fleeing their homes during the Kurdistan – Turkey conflicts of the 1980s and 90s. The population grew hugely during that time, but rural dwellers slowly returned to their homes as fighting died down. The city today is worth a visit for lovers of history and anyone who likes to feel protected from the rest of the world!
4. York, England
You’d expect English cities to be full of history, and many cities do retain a bit of their original walls. However, there aren’t many where you can still see the walls in the same condition as they used to be. The most complete set of walls are found in York – the center of the city is almost entirely enclosed, with all the gateways still intact, and the walls form a 4km circuit. Some bits are Roman, some are Norman, some medieval and some are even from the last two centuries, thanks to restoration works. But with the historical feel of the city as a whole, dominated by York Minster means that you can imagine just how it would have been in the past. A great example of historical England.
3. Itchan Kala, Uzbekistan
Another UNESCO Heritage site, this was the last oasis before the desert and so was traditionally a resting place for caravans on their way to Iran. The walls are 10m tall and are remarkably intact, given that they date from the 10th century. The town itself is a mix of eras, with some 18th century buildings and some more modern, but they are all in the Muslim style and the new buildings blend seamlessly with the old. And if you’re planning a trip across the desert, it’s probably still a good idea to stop off here for supplies first…
2. Taroudant, Morocco
Another stop-off on a caravan route, the walls of this city are even more impressive than Itchan Kala, at 6km long. This was once the capital of the Saadi Dynasty, before they moved on to Marrakech and today Taroudant is still known as “The Grandmother of Marrakech” due to looking like a smaller version of that city. Like most Moroccan towns, its economy thrives on crafts such as carpets and jewlery and there are two souks near its two main squares. At present, the entire town is contained within the walls, but there are plans to start building outside the walls soon, to link up with a nearby university. Until then, it is a rare example of an entirely walled city.
1. Pingyao, China
But the biggest and most impressive walls are, as ever, to be found in China. The 12m high, 6km long walls enclose what UNESCO describe as an “exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city”. There are 6 fortified gates in the wall, as well as 72 bastions and the city inside is full of beautiful Ming-dynasty-era houses and temples from the 10th and 12th centuries.
Pingyao is nicknamed “the turtle city” because the shape of the walls resembles a turtle (head, tail, 4 legs) and it is hugely popular with tourists, so much so that the population reaches 3 times the maximum capacity during peak times. The Global Heritage Fund are working to control the effects of mass tourism, and it could see visits to the ancient city restricted. So go now, while you still can, and experience one of the world’s most incredible cities.