Explore these magnificent palaces and mansions and see how the other half lived.
1. Marble Palace Mansion, Kolkata, India
The extraordinarily grand 1853 Marble Palace Mansion is indulgently overstuffed with statues and lavishly floored with marble inlay. The house is a blend of neoclassical and traditional Bengali architecture, and filled with chandeliers, mirrors and clocks. Amid the eclectic jumble of objects you’ll find a mahogany bust of Queen Victoria and paintings by Rubens and Titian. There’s also a lake and an aviary with peacocks and cranes. Yet the mansion’s fine paintings droop in their dusty frames and the antique furniture is haphazardly draped in torn old dust sheets. It would make a great horror movie set. The Mansion is still a private residence and you can only see it by tour. You’ll also need a permit from West Bengal Tourism.
2. Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Malaysia
Built in the 1880s, the magnificent 38-room, 220-window Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was commissioned by Cheong Fatt Tze, a local merchant trader who left China as a penniless teenager and ended up as ‘the Rockefeller of the East’. The mansion blends Eastern and Western designs, with louvered windows, art nouveau stained glass and beautiful floor tiles, and is a rare surviving example of the eclectic architectural style preferred by wealthy Straits Chinese of the time. The house sits on the ‘dragon’s throne’, meaning that there is a mountain (Penang Hill) behind and water (the channel) in front – the site was chosen for its excellent feng shui. The building was rescued from ruin in the 1990s. You can visit it and also stay in the exclusive hotel.
3. Werribee Mansion, Australia
The 19th century was boom time for this corner of Australia; at one stage during the gold rush, Melbourne was the richest city in the world. The good times are reflected in the city’s lavish Victorian architecture. Werribee Mansion was built in the Italianate style by the Chirnside family, wealthy pastoralists, in 1877, and is a solid testament to colonial ambition. It sits in charming formal gardens with a lake, glasshouses, a grotto and a sculpture walk. The Werribee Park Shuttle runs return services from central Melbourne. Check www.werribeeparkshuttle.com.au for schedules and fares.
4. Villa d’Este, Italy
In Tivoli, near Rome, the High Renaissance Villa d’Este was a Benedictine monastery before Cardinal Ippolite d’Este (Lucrezia Borgia’s son) transformed it into a pleasure palace in 1550, and withdrew here to recover from his disappointment after a failed bid to be pope. It’s set around a courtyard, and has frescoed ceilings and a central room looking out onto the fantasyland of the gardens, with their hundreds of whimsical water features: fountains, pools, grottoes, nymphs, dragons, winged horses and a water organ. The villa is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to one hour before sunset.
5. Castle Howard, England
Stately homes may be two a penny in England, but you’ll have to try pretty hard to find one as breathtakingly stately as Castle Howard, a work of theatrical grandeur and audacity set in the rolling Howardian Hills. This is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, instantly recognizable from its starring role in the ’80s TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It took three earls’ lifetimes to build; it’s still inhabited by the Howard family, but you can take tours of the house and grounds (18th-century walled garden, roses, delphiniums, temples, fountains and all). Castle Howard is 15 miles northeast of York, off the A64. There are several organised tours from York.
6. Fallingwater, Pennsylvania, USA
A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece from the 1930s, Fallingwater is a typically clean-lined, cantilevered structure that appears to float over a waterfall. It was built for the Kaufmann family, wealthy department-store owners, in the woods of southern Pennsylvania. The house is made of locally quarried stone, bringing it into harmony with the landscape – it’s almost like rocks have risen up out of Bear Run creek and shaped themselves into the house. Inside it has an almost Japanese minimalism, with the sound of the waterfall burbling in every room. It’s set in forested gardens that also blend seamlessly with the natural environment. To see inside the house you must take one of the hourly guided tours; reservations are recommended.
7. Château de Chambord, France
Chateaux don’t get any grander than Chambord, built in the 16th century by François I so he could hunt deer and hang out with his mistress. Its most famous feature is its ingenious double-helix staircase. Attributed by some to Leonardo de Vinci, the two helixes ascend three stories without ever meeting. Then there’s the Italianate rooftop terrace, where you’re surrounded by so many towers, cupolas, domes, chimneys, mosaic slate roofs and lightning rods that it’s like being in a small city. It was here that the royal court assembled to watch military exercises, tournaments and the hounds and hunters returning from deer-stalks. Chambord is in the Loire Valley. Get a train from Paris Austerlitz to Blois; there’s a Blois–Chambord shuttle from May to September.
8. Catherine Palace, Russia
The baroque Catherine Palace was initially built by Peter the Great’s wife, Catherine I, as a summer pleasure palace. Elizabeth, her daughter, spent her life remodeling and extending the palace with the help of her architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who later designed the Winter Palace. In her day the entire exterior was picked out in gilt. Catherine II made slightly less flashy additions such as the Agate Room and a Chinese drawing room. The Catherine Palace was raided and gutted by German forces during WWII, but has since been largely restored. Don’t miss the stunning (replica) Amber Room with its solid amber panels and amber parquetry floor. The Catherine Palace is in the village of Tsarkoye Selo, an easy day trip from St Petersburg.
9. Sleeper-McCann House, Massachusetts, USA
The lavish ‘summer cottage’ of interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper has over 40 rooms and is also known as the Beauport House. Sleeper toured New England in search of houses about to be demolished and bought up selected elements from each: wood paneling, furniture, wallpaper, colored glass and china. In place of unity, Sleeper created a wildly eclectic but artistically surprising – and satisfying – place to live. The mansion sits on rocks overlooking Gloucester Harbor and has Arts-and-Crafts-style terraces leading down into a series of garden ‘rooms’. The house is in Gloucester, Massachusetts. You can visit the house between June and October, Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. The last hourly tour begins at 4pm.
10. Powerscourt, Ireland
Powerscourt is a phoenix house, gutted by fire in the ’70s but now restored to its full Palladian glory. It started out as a 13th-century castle but was remodeled in the 18th century – additions included a stunning double-height Georgian ballroom. The house is set in the Wicklow Mountains amid 47 acres of Italianate gardens with fountains, grottoes, terraces, cascades, fish ponds, a walled garden and a mile-long beech avenue with 2000 trees. Visit the nearby village of Enniskerry, built in 1760 by the Earl of Powerscourt so his laborers would have somewhere to live. Originally published as “Live it up! The greatest mansions and grand houses.”
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