Pirates have always been a popular part of folklore, and even more so since those darn Johnny Depp movies. Children enjoy dressing up as pirates for Halloween and costume parties, while their admiring family will snap photo after photo and remark to each other about how cute the kid looks. History has a way of watering down things, and real life pirates (whether in the Caribbean or elsewhere) were far from cute. Centuries ago, an unfamiliar ship entering your harbour at speed was a cause for alarm, and it might have been a pirate or the flagship of a foreign armada, there to attempt to conquer your city (again). There are some stunning coastal fortifications around the world, and it’s remarkable to think that these impressive structures once served a very real purpose in protecting a settlement from a water-based attack. Their days of service are over now, but the solidity of the buildings mean that many of them are still around to be admired. So what are some of the most beautiful coastal fortifications in the world?
Maungauika / North Head Historic Reserve, Auckland, New Zealand
New Zealand is so isolated that it’s funny to think that they once feared foreign invasion. OK, so the indigenous Maori had already put up with the invasion from the British who colonised the country, but New Zealand was once afraid of being forcibly made part of the Russian empire. This was not a Cold War thing, and was actually a real fear in the 1880s. A number of fortifications were built around Auckland, and the North Head fort is the best preserved of the bunch. The fortification was never used for its intended purpose and once the Russian fear subsided, the fortification remained active throughout WW1 and WW2. It was then used as a training ground for New Zealand’s military and was only vacated in 1996. A number of the original 1800s fortifications remain, and is an interesting place to spend an afternoon, with sweeping views of Auckland Harbour.
Fort System of Valdivia, Valdivia, Chile
The Spanish invested significant resources in conquering and settling South and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, and so they sought to protect their investments by fortifying key coastal cities in the region. The British and Dutch in particular were considered a major threat, and the strategically located settlement of Valdivia in Chile was a frequent target. The cliffs around Corral Bay near Valdivia are dotted with forts, some of them dating back centuries. Valdivia itself is located on a river, slightly inland, and the forts that protected the entry to the river made foreign invasion by an ocean-based large scale force a near impossibility. The town of Valdivia only fell when Chile claimed independence from Spain in 1820. A rather pragmatic British Admiral by the name of Thomas Cochrane was helping Chile in its battle for independence. Cochrane acknowledged the impossibility of conquering Valdivia by ocean, so his forces landed out of sight of the forts, marched inland and successfully attacked the coastal forts from the one direction they were not expecting… from the land behind them.
Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba
Utterly beautiful and yet unfortunately positioned, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Forces) is an absolute must see on a Havana tour. The fort was completed in 1577 but it quickly became evident that despite the fact that the fort overlooked the harbour, it was too far from the bay to offer much defense against pirates and unfriendly foreign forces. Its panoramic views of the harbour were still useful for defending the city, and a large watchtower was added to the building in 1634. The forbidding building is now a maritime museum, meaning you’re able to enter the fort and explore. Check out those amazing views and think how frightening it must have been to see a fleet of ships entering the harbour and making their way towards you with murderous intentions.
Fort Saint Angelo, Malta
It’s utterly astounding to think that a fortification has been in place here since the 13th century. Malta’s Fort Saint Angelo in its current form dates back to the 1500s, and various ruling parties have added to it over the centuries. Of all the forts listed here, Saint Angelo has seen the most military use, defending the surrounding district (primarily the town of Birgu) against attack from the 13th century all the way up to WW2. The UK Navy only left the fort in 1979, handing it back to the Maltese. Jutting out dramatically into the water, the fort is truly a sight to behold. There was a plan to transform it into a luxury hotel in the 1980s, which never happened. The fort can only be admired from the outside at the moment, but it’s hoped it will be open to the public (after extensive refurbishment) at some point in 2017.