The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 14, 2001

Witness to the romance of Middle Ages and ravages of history
Sushil Kaur

ONE can drive for over a week along the Rhine, since it is one of the most picturesque drives in Europe. After that, one can decide either to move towards the French Alps or go north towards Strasbourg, the old university town on the Rhine.

Haut Koenigsbourg is Europe’s most impressive fortress
Haut Koenigsbourg is Europe’s most impressive fortress

Choose a sunny morning, pack your lunch and drive right into the Alsace plain that will remind you of an Alsatian pet you once had, or the Treaty of Versailles, according to the provisions of which this territory had been taken away from Germany, depriving her of her rich natural resources.

After an hour-long drive, you will come to this red sandstone castle built on a 2,200 foot-high ridge on the site called Stophanberck. This overlooks the Alsace area as well as the Liepvrette valley. This is the Haut Koenigsbourg, Europe’s most impressive fortress along the eastern foothills of the Vosges. The steep slope of the mountain gives it ample tactical importance during its various occupants from the Hohenstaufens, the duchy of Lorraine, the bishopric of Strasbourg, the Habsbourgs and the Hohenzollerns. The first castle was built here in 1114, by Frederic the one-eyed, then Duke of Swabia and Alsace, as a major line of defense against the Staufens. In 1192, the castle became the property of the Hohenstaufen family. Ever since, it has been known as Koenigsbourg.

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In 1517, the Emperor Maximillian I bought back the castle from the last Count of Thyestean, who after being, ruined gave up all his fiefs and retained only the right to occupy Haut-Koenigsbourg until his death in 1519. By 1533, the upkeep of the castle was suffering and it was getting more and more neglected. Its equipment and furnishings were getting diminished. The Thirty Years’ war dealt the castle a final death blow. The Swedes, at war with Austria, devastated Alsace and in July 1633, laid siege to the castle which was bombarded. In October 1633, the victors burnt down the castle. It was under the treaty of Westphalia (1648) that all Austrian possessions in Alsace, including Haut-Koenigsbourgh, passed to France.

By the year 1825, the ruined castle was bought by Dreyfus of Ribeauville and then in 1851 by Messrs. Mannheimer. In 1865, the castle and the forest became the property of the town of Selestat. Swathed in silence and reflection for over 200 devastating years, these ruins and their mysteries inspired the romantics.

Engravings of coats of armour and names stir up long-forgotten memories
Engravings of coats of armour and names stir up long-forgotten memories

On May 8, 1899, the castle was gifted to the German Kaiser, Emperor Wilhelm II who then recreated the medieval fortresses that remarkably reveals the basic aspects of feudal life — so rough and ready, yet romantic and so courteous. The majestic rooms, the paintings, the stained-glass windows, the water-tanks, all throw light on the life in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Austerity emanates from its bleak walls that have 10 semi-circular bastions, a defense system intended to withstand gunfire. All the gates are massive and the entries are further protected by bar-type drawbridges equipped by counterpoises.

The entry to the citadel lies in its centre. In order to reach it, attackers had to break cover and race under a hail of stones, bolts and arrows combined with a cascade of molten tar and boiling oil. Once you are through the main entry you feel safe. The way to the apartments is via the mill; steps partly carved from the rock lead to the lion gate renowned for its semblance to that guarding the entrance to Agamemnon’s tomb in Mycenae. From the inner bailey, four staircases lead up to the great rooms and the apartments. The galleries linking the chambers are decorated with frescoes linking the history of the Hohenzollerns with that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and with the epic of Charlemagne; you can also discern the expression of the courtly poetry through the fable of Tristan and Isolde.

The palace is centrally placed and sheltered from enemy shots. It consists of a vaulted cellar on the ground floor, the Knights Hall (armoury) on the first floor and the ceremonial hall on the second which has suits of armour, banners and the names of the imperial towns that stir up memories of long-forgotten victories. Chairs covered with embossed leather bear the imperial eagle whose wings spread even the vaults. A colossal table stands before a commanding chimney-piece on which is emblazoned "I did not want it" with which Wilhelm II articulated his condemnation of the World War I. Sideboards bedecked with wrought iron, doors with highly structured locks and candelabras of deer antlers give it a grandiose look.

The armoury is an absorbing place to spend some time viewing the medieval warrior’s equipment. The collection of close-combat weapons includes lances, halberds, daggers, pikes and the impressive two-handed fighting swords that weigh between 35 to 50 pounds. A profusion of arrows and crossbows are there to remind us of the defense weapons of the medieval castle. A selection of clubs completes this arsenal. To these may be added some lighter spears and bolts for hunting, showing that firing pieces were conceived for a specific purpose. Samples of the cannons and culverins are to be found in the artillery turret of the great western bastion.

The western windows afford an extraordinary view over the plain of Alsace and the neighbouring valleys. The modern visitor can sample the charm of rural tranquility from the walls of the fortress, can view the town of Colmar and its surroundings, the villages of Orschwiller and Kientzheim, the town of Selestat, the Rhine, the canals, and the roadnet-work.

When the weather is bright, the summits of the Black Forest and the Alps are also visible. We should not be surprised that the castle was restored, since at the time the neo-Gothic style bore witness to historicity and the German imperial family’s desire of an architectural achievement in the Rhine valley enhanced the Hohenzollern prestige. Some may remember it as a feudal castle but for many it will leave a memory of all that transpired in this beautiful valley and all that has left a decisive impact on the movement of western history.