Picture yourself in Alsace, a northeastern region of France that had been the area of contest between this country and Germany for centuries. Geographical names such as Riquewihr, Ammerschwihr, and Kaysersberg bear witness to German settlements now a part of the mosaic of diverse populations of the modern French nation.
I arrived at the Alsatian plain, the rounded ancient Vosges mountaintops to the West, on a drizzly early fall afternoon to find a long line of tour buses and cars snaking their way up to the crest of a steep hill overlooking the village of Selestat shrouded in mist below some six miles to the east.
Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, an imposing twelfth-century ruin perched on top of this wooded Alsatian hill, had been restored at the cost of 2.2 million marks in the reign of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Rugged, spare, monumental, and functional Haut-Koenigsbourg lacks the amenities and esthetics of the chateaux of the Loire River; but as a medieval fortress it seems to have been impregnable due to its forbidding location and its solid, formidable construction. You can imagine the challenge of planning and launching a military assault on a castle that dominates the countryside below using an arsenal of spears, axes, arrows, ladders, and possibly a few muskets, catapults, and muzzle-loading cannons.
Yet during the Thirty Years War, Swedish troops stormed the fortress and left it in ruins. For centuries it remained a desolate vestige abandoned to the encroachments of nature. Then came the Romantic period, when Europeans, first in England, then in France, Germany and beyond, began to take a renewed interest in medieval ruins, and to spend time, money, and effort in restoring these relics of bygone days.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, this part of France came under German control, and Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to restore the castle as a symbol of Germany. Under the direction of the Berlin architect Bodo Ebhardt, who had to conduct a thorough research in archaeology, medieval castle architecture, building techniques, and household items as part of the rehabilitation project, Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle once more rose to its present impressive height. After World War I, Alsace became French again, and so did Haut-Koenigsbourg.
As I scaled the wooded hill to the castle I realized that the long, at times steep, climb was not for the faint of heart. With legs still stiff and sore from a trans-Atlantic flight and a mild jet lag, I braved the early autumnal drizzles among crowds of German-speaking visitors who were attracted irresistibly by the sprawling, powerful structure. They came in droves from across the Rhine River like so many nostalgic wayfarers eager for a glimpse of the glorious past. If you have seen other castles in the Ile de France or the Loire River regions replete with centuries-old furniture, rich draperies and rugs, priceless paintings, sculptures, and porcelains, or resplendent mirrors and chandeliers, Haut-Koenigsbourg is somewhat Spartan: few furnishings are on view. As you stroll through one room after another you are struck not by the opulence of its decor but by its austere appearance, and get no clear impression of what it was like when occupied centuries ago.
In the large central hall, called the Hall of Arms, below the top level, racks full of fearful spears, halberds, hooked axes, swords, and other close-combat weapons look rather quaint and anachronistic today. Climb up to the low-ceilinged top floor of the central tower, and you are confronted by a huge solitary bronze cannon sitting in icy silence in the middle. Was it placed there for the modern visitors only, or did it in its heyday spell terror for many of the fortress's assailants? From here you emerge onto the open-air deck for a breath-taking view of the surrounding countryside. The only thing that separates you from the tree-covered precipice is a waist-high stone wall. Although the dark low clouds were menacing that day, you could imagine how stunningly beautiful the view would be in clear sunny conditions.
Present-day Haut-Koenigsbourg seems to me to spring out of a mythical past with primal force. Don't look for grace and charm in this lumbering giant, but rather for a shadow of the untamed might of rugged personalities in the rough-and-tumble world of medieval Europe that called it home. And you will come away with an indelible impression of that unbridled power.