Travel: Castle Hohenzollern, Germany

Atop a windy promontory thirty miles south of Stuttgart, on foundations dating back to at least the 11th century from which feudal robber barons launched raids on the peasants below, sits the neo-Gothic ancestral home of Germany’s Prussian monarchy, Hohenzollern Castle.

Reduced to rubble or ruins at least twice in its 955 years, the castle’s latest incarnation began in 1819, when Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia decided to restore the castle from damage and neglect it had endured during the Thirty Years War. More than a hundred years and two world wars later, his heir, Prince Louis Ferdinand, began filling the castle with some of the historically significant art and furnishings that still grace many of its 140 rooms. In 1970 and 1978, earthquakes caused significant structural damage to the castle, which the Hohenzollern heirs paid an estimated 10 million Deutsch marks (about $5 million) to repair.

Perched 855 meters (2,805 feet) above the small towns of Bisingen and Hechingen, on a solitary mountain in the Swabian Alb highlands, Hohenzollern castle offers spectacular views of the surrounding towns and countryside. On clear days, visitors can see all the way to the Black Forest from vantage points on the west side of the castle. During the winter there is little respite from cold winds on the exposed mountaintop, thus the family has seldom lived within the castle. Even today, however, the castle remains privately owned by the family whose ancestry is painted on the walls of the first castle room on the guided tour.

The guided tours include explanations of the castle and family history, the artwork, and some of the design motifs, such as the House of Hohenzollern’s earliest coat of arms design in the stone flooring, a simple five- or six-point star with a dot in the center. The emblem would have signified affiliation with its specific feudal House for the knights who wore or saw it. Visitors on the guided tours wear felt slippers over their shoes to protect the floors, and then shuffle and slide through the library, the ballroom, a study, the former queen’s “Blue Room,” and several rooms full of art. The artwork hanging on every wall shows the people and events directly relating to the history of the House of Hohenzollern. Furnishings aside, every other detail of the interior, from floor to stunningly ornate ceiling, has been carved, gilded, frescoed, opulently patterned, or otherwise bedecked to impress. Royally.

At the end of the tour through the living spaces in the castle, visitors return the slippers and take a spiral staircase down to a room with ancient armaments and armor, and then on to another room with rows of glass cases featuring the Prussian crown jewels and a variety of royal household artifacts.

At 12€ (about $13) for an adult admission to both the grounds and the guided tour, it is well worth the price. Guided tours and the occasionally available unguided Royal Castle Strolls are the only ways to see the inside of the castle, the income from which pays for the castle’s ongoing repair and preservation requirements. The Royal Castle Strolls and many special events only require the purchase of a Category 2 entry, which is 7€ (about $8) for adults and allow visitors access to everything except the guided tour. For that admission price, visitors can explore the castle gardens, take in the views, and go into the oldest remaining building on the castle grounds, the beautiful 15th century Chapel of St. Michael. Special events at the castle include an open-air Shakespeare theater, perseid meteor viewing with cocktails, and a history-evoking falcon hunting exhibition.

Hohenzollern features a biergarten in the castle courtyard, where snacks and drinks can be purchased. There is also a restaurant serving very good Swabian fare at the castle. Similar to Bavarian cuisine, but with a French-style use of sauces, Swabian food is hearty and comforting. The Hohenzollern Cafe serves, among other dishes, free-form Swabian egg noodles called Spaetzle enrobed in Emmenthaler cheese sauce, breaded and fried pork cutlet schnitzels , richly savory stewed lentils topped with sausage, bratwurst and potato salad, and meat- and vegetable- stuffed pasta rolls called Maultaschen. It also has a kid-friendly menu.

The only thing remianing to be seen after all of that is the gift shop, the proceeds from which also contribute to the cost of castle’s upkeep. Due to the castle’s constant maintenance requirements, the family encourages gift shop purchases by prohibiting photography inside the castle. The gift shop has a variety of reasonably price items, from postcards to books, as well as royalty-themed novelties.

The House of Hohenzollern produced the celebrated Prussian King Frederick II, aka Frederick the Great, in the 18th century, as well as the scorned last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, about a century later. Within the past five years one present-day heir to the House of Hohenzollern, Prince Philip Kiril of Prussia, has called for a reinstatement of the Germany monarchy, to no effect. Hohenzollern Castle has witnessed wars, insurrections, follies, failings and triumphs, and the fleeting nature of power, all from its pediment. And now it is primarily a tourist attraction, dependent on tourist money for its upkeep. With so much history, art, and beauty in one place, Hohenzollern Castle is an attraction not to be missed.

 

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