Few royal residences built in Europe’s medieval era going as far back as the 10th century have been preserved and restored to their almost original grandeur like Wartburg Castle. Rahul Basu shares his euphoria of walking through a crowded castle in Germany at the peak of the festive season
Words & Photography: Rahul Basu; Year of visit: 2013
I come from a part of the world, whose history and heritage speak of great Maharajas (Kings) and their breathtaking palaces. Much like the fortresses that were built in medieval Europe to serve as fortifications to protect their king, in India palaces served as symbols of wealth, power and a sense of royalty.
Fast forward a few hundred years and many of these structures stand tall even today , albeit serving a different or should I say more multifarious purpose. Umpteen examples can be seen in the state of Rajasthan, in the western part of India, which have gone through major renovation and serve as ideal structures for five star hotels. The commercial and long term preservation aspects of such palaces are understandably inter dependant, but on a recent visit to Wartburg Castle in central Germany I witnessed a very different approach to the promotion of tourism around such magnificent structures.
The first thing that completely mesmerizes you when you turn in its direction for the very first time after stepping out of the bus is how high its perched on the hill. Unlike many medieval fortresses built on artificially created mottes for strategic and military advantage, Wartburg Castle was built on a naturally formed elevation, which incidentally had its founder – a Thüringian Count smitten well before blueprints of its architectural grandeur even came into being. The rest I imagine is for all of us tourists to just see and keep scratching our heads in astonishment.
Overlooking the town of Eisenach in the state of Thüringen, this 10th century castle has been carefully restored with the use of architectural methods, which were implemented by Eisenach architect Sältzer, who started the reconstruction in the 1850’s based on plans drawn up by the Giessen architect Hugo von Ritgen. Ritgen built a keep, a new bower, gatehouse and the Dirnitz building on the top of old cellar vaults and the foundations of the previous structures. After completion in 1890 Wartburg Castle served as a secondary royal residence for the Grand Duke of Weimar, as well as a national monument, which very deservingly made it to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1999.
Much of castle’s original medieval-style exterior has been so wonderfully re-built, at times it was hard for me to differentiate the old from new. Walking through the gatehouse and into the lower courtyard (Video – http://on.fb.me/18SELHP) of Wartburg Castle made me suddenly feel like I was little Bilbo Baggins stepping into the ‘Prancing Pony’ for the very first time after an adventurous day out in the wilderness. A band of musicians dressed in traditional clothing marched through the castle streets playing their pipes, trumpets and drums, thus filling the festive air with the sounds of medieval melody. I haven’t seen so many people gathered inside a castle in my life. At this point had someone told me I’ve travelled back in time to get a real taste of the feudal period in central Europe, I’d just say “Oh how wonderful!” and put in my application for Court Jester.
I’d say most Indians really look forward to celebrating Christmas each year, but Christmas in Germany is like Santa’s very own house party. You just can’t ignore the change in atmosphere, the Bratwurst and Glühwein (gluewine) at every corner, wonderful Christmas markets in every city and most importantly the fact that everybody is out on the street just to be a part of the celebration.
It was was no different at Wartburg with numerous Christmas market stalls selling everything from Baguettes, Honey pork, caramelised almonds and fruit beer to Christmas souvenirs and even medieval age weapons carved out of wood. Distancing yourself from the wide assortment of consumables on offer was indeed very hard, but for the sake of my love for history I eventually took some time out and visited the museum and other historically significant sections located inside the Castle’s many buildings.
The architectural extravagance of Wartburg however is just one side of the coin. The cultural Eulogy of the place is what makes it really stand out. This is the same castle where following his excommunication by the Pope, Martin Luther disguised as the Knight George translated the New Testament into German. It was indeed an honour to stand right beside the very desk and 19th century replica of Luther’s chair at Wartburg.
Some of the Castle’s other major attractions are its Sängersaal (Hall of the Minstrels), which is in fact Wagner’s setting for Act II of Tannhäuser and the Festsaal (the Feast or Festival Hall). The museum located in the same building is quite a fascinating exhibit in itself.
From an ornamental suit of armour from the 1600s to 17th designer cutlery and woven silk and linen depicting the birth of Christ, this museum really has your undivided attention from start to finish. Two items on display that really caught my fancy was the 16th century gilded silver Last Supper Chalice and a Six-stringed lute with bent-back peg box. Martin Luther incidentally knew how to play the lute and considered music to be of second importance only to theology.
I’ve always found the simplicity yet sturdiness and functional aspects of medieval architecture just so fascinating. Being the ancient monument buff that I am the freedom with which I was able to just hop in and out of Wartburg’s inner structures without any “No Admission” notice boards in my way, not to mention the unique charm of the Christmas crowd gathered there made it a very satisfying visit. It can’t think of a better time in the year to go visit something this remarkable.