19 May 2011

Castle Hunting: Danube Ruins

When, as a child, I used to think of castles in Europe, they were generally complete structures inhabited by knights and villains, fully functional. It’s the dream of the American castle-fanatic, and it’s quickly dispelled when presented with a real, stone fortress – peopled by other tourists and housing a quaint self-service restaurant and postcard shop. For some reason, ruined castles feel more historic than their better-preserved neighbors. Decrepit, tumbling walls and roofless rooms conjure up medieval echoes better, I think, than repaired and refurbished rooms do. It doesn’t feel like a recreation, it’s the real thing. In the past few days we’ve hiked to two ruins in the Wachau region of Austria, both with great views of the Danube. One was satisfyingly crumbly (and deserted), while the other was being fixed up and had an ambitious, tour-highlight feel (and a lot of people).
The Burgruine Aggstein is slowly trying to lose the “ruine” suffix. The brochure insists that this isn’t merely a “fabulous castle experience for all the senses,” but also a “party spot, wedding chamber, exhibition hall and cultural climax.” Castles are big attractions, of course, and they can make a town or an owner some money. If they’re left alone to disintegrate, people won’t come as readily. It’s possible to drive right up to the gate, which was a little disappointing to us after a difficult, steep walk up from the river.
Built in the twelfth century, Aggstein was once a nearly impenetrable stronghold. In fact, the castle has been captured several times, but never by direct force – many sieges were successful, largely because of limited water within the walls. But the walls were nearly perfect. The site is amazing, incorporating two jagged pillars of stone on this jutting spur of mountaintop. The rock helps protect the flank of the walls, while also providing a nice spot for two tower-like structures. The rear of the building is so secure that a balcony was cut into the edge of the residential quarters, more for taking in the view than defending the keep.
More than fifty-five thousand visitors filter through here every year, and much of the generated income goes towards construction. A brand new dining hall – adorned with suits of armor and smelling of new wood – took up a good deal of the space in the old armory, conceivably to house all those weddings and “cultural climaxes.” A chapel, with nice new pews, stood empty, though a tape recorder played clerical chanting noises. The concession shop was busy and most visitors seemed to spend more time at one of the picnic tables than walking through the ruin.
A more satisfying ruin - Hinterhaus, above the town of Spitz - really was ruined. There were grape vines planted right up to the lowest tumbles of rock and we didn't see a single person while looking around. Although there are some guardrails and steps installed, it's pretty much been left untouched. It's fun to clamber up to the top of the surviving tower and to go spelunking in the "keller." There are no off-limits places here, and no information boards marring the photos.
Only about fifteen miles downriver from Aggstein, Hinterhaus was built around the same time and expanded several times. There is little information about it available, but it seems to have been well-defended enough to have survived into irrelevance, when a number of similar structures likewise began to fall from neglect.
The path up from below was described in our walking guide as being angled in such a way that the attacker's right side would be vulnerable during attack - the right side of the body was left unprotected by a soldier's shield, usually held in the left hand. The castle's small size seems to have been an advantage. Strong towers and few exposed walls made it easy for a small force to maintain control of the defenses. This, however, is more purely a military structure than Aggstein, which was occupied by some of the more important people in the area and thus needed larger residential quarters.
It was a lot of fun to look around without knowing what we were looking at or having a prescribed path to follow. The view over the Danube and the vineyards was beautiful, and - in a strange way - the crumbling ramparts made it easier to imagine that the countryside around was full of roving bandits and armies on the march.

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