26 August 2011

Castle Hunting: Burg Gutenberg

Of the two castles still standing in Liechtenstein, Burg Gutenberg is the slightly more accessible. While Schloss Vaduz is home to the ruling prince and is closed to the public, Gutenberg can be visited and sometimes even hosts concerts and festivals. Not that it’s ever open. The courtyard door was ajar when we arrived, but the buildings were all padlocked and shuttered. Gutenberg, despite being quite well preserved, doesn’t seem to be a focal point for the country’s tourism offices.
Located near the southern tip of Liechtenstein, rising on a little hill in the flat Rhine valley, the castle enjoys a strategic location at the meeting point between the high cliffs to the east and the river to the west. The point is more significant now, though, than it was in the past – Liechtenstein was something of a political afterthought for a good deal of its history, and the Rhine here isn’t very difficult to cross, meaning that this little area wouldn’t have been defended as a borderland.
The burg’s history suggests that it has been an important site for much longer than the principality has existed, though. The 70 meter high promontory has been in use since the Neolithic period, with some bronze-age finds in the area suggesting continuous occupancy. One segment of dry foundation dates from approximately 800 BC, and other sections were part of a defensible, roman-era church. The castle’s real beginnings, in a form that resemble it’s current shape, date from the late 12th century, and subsequent enlargements were made after the Swabian war of 1499.
The highest walls are at the rear of the structure, as part of the primary keep and residence. They were built up to protect the more gently sloping side of the hill. Lower down, Gutenberg’s walls are lower because they’re in a more defensible position atop the sheer rock. The early approach to the structure was made along an exposed track beneath the walls, where attacking forces would be required to travel a long distance within firing range from above before making contact with the battlements themselves.
Inside, the keep is almost equally well protected, meaning that it would take a second effort to break into the main building, even if the outer walls were broached. This courtyard was all that was accessible to us, and was decorated strangely by this vaguely Trojan statue.
A firing tower and blunt exterior wall at the rear of the defenses left little exposed. Most of the roofs, timber structures and other flammable parts of the burg were further in along the ridge, protected from fire and missiles. The compact size of the fortress meant that it could be held by only a few soldiers.
The castle is semi-surrounded by the small town of Balzers, which is the cultural and commercial anchor of southern Liechtenstein. On the day we were clomping through the village center in our hiking boots, a little farmer’s market was going on. For stamina: some coffee and a very moist, tasty apple muffin. At a picnic table in the shade, we were surrounded by a chatty group of women with full grocery bags.
Gutenberg is a fun castle to walk around because the view keeps changing. From some angles, the castle seems like a complex mess of walls and towers. Looked at from another perspective, it appears to be little more than an enlarged keep. The vineyards below it were fragrant with grapes, and our walk was kept tolerable by a stiff breeze - it was well over ninety degrees.

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