Wednesday, 17th September 2019 – Illkirchen, Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, Colmar
Wednesday morning, with even more insect bites decorating both of us, we got ready to check out and move on. I’d been for a run before breakfast and stopped off at the rather odd park near one of the tram stops. For reasons I couldn’t begin to fathom, the park contained a number of “Easter Island” heads. No. I have no idea. Apparently Place Malraux contains an Armenian Oak, which counts as a remarkable tree, but there’s no connection there that I can find. And the really weird thing was that they wouldn’t be the only Easter Island head style sculptures we would encounter, we would find more on the penultimate day of our holiday.
Anyway, they amused me. By 10:30 we’d got the car packed and were ready to go. Our landlady turned up on time, despite us not having done so on check-in and we were soon on our way to Robert Blanck to buy the wines we’d decided on. That was easily achieved, and the lovely lady serving us insisted on slipping a few extra goodies in (a couple of “top hat” Champagne bottle stoppers), especially after we bought a creme de peche as well (made from vineyard peaches) and we wended our way onwards to Famille Hauller, but could find no one around, despite Ludovic having suggested he would be there between 11 and 12. We decided to save Domain Sylvie Spielmann for later in the afternoon and thus headed for Chateau Haut-Koenigsbourg. We’d heard more about it on our wine tour, when Olivier asked if anyone on the tour was a “Lord of the Rings” fan, because if so we needed to visit the castle. Apparently “some guy” had used it as inspiration for some of the set design. Given our proximity to Switzerland, Lynne and I put two and two together and figured he was probably talking about John Howe, the Canadian artist who lives in Switzerland and who was one of the two artists deeply involved in the look of Peter Jackson’s films. A minimal amount of research later and I’d confirmed this was indeed the case, and that there’d even been an exhibition there last year. We had to go. There was no choice, not when the information I’d found said: “Several decades later, John Howe, the famous illustrator of Heroic Fantasy publications, fell in love with the château’s mysterious atmosphere on his first visit here during the 1980s. He used it as the inspiration for the design of the Citadel of Minas Tirith after he was appointed to the post of Conceptual Designer for Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy”. Just for good measure it also appears in its real form in Jean Renoir’s 1930s masterpiece, “La Grande Illusion”, and the considerably less famous “Les aventures d’Arsène Lupin” in 1956, but to keep the masterpiece theme going, it can also been seen in the animated classic “Howl’s Moving Castle”. 3 out of 4 then!
We drove up a winding and slightly white-knuckled road and eventually found ourselves on the loop in the road that leads up to the castle and then back down again. It was very, very busy and we decided that we’d try and get a good parking space rather than having to flog up the hill on what was another hot day. As we passed the apex and started to drop back down again we found a space that was actually big enough for my car (and it’s not a big car). And then we looked up! The castle is a monster of a structure, and looks just like you think a medieval castle should, looming massively against the skyline.
Its history, however, is slightly different to what you might expect, as with so many things in this part of the world. There’s mention of the Buntsandstein rock as Stophanberch (Staufenberg) in a 774 deed issued by Charlemagne, and it crops up again in 854, by which time it belonged to the Basilica of St Denis and may have been the site of a monastery. It all goes quiet again until 1147, when there is a record of a castle built by the Duke Frederick II of Swabia, one of the Hohenstaufens and called Castrum Estuphin, something the monks were not happy about as the record is a complaint to King Louis VII of France about it. The offending builder’s younger brother Conrad was elected King of the Romans in 1138, and was succeeded by his nephew, Frederick’s son, Frederick Barbarossa in 1152 and it wasn’t long before the name of this commanding fortress changed to Koenigsburg (king’s castle) or Kinzburg.
Eventually it passed to the Dukes of Lorraine, who entrusted it to the local Rathsamhausen knightly family and the Lords of Hohenstein, but the behaviour of a gang of robber barons who used the castle as a hideout so enraged the neighbours that it was occupied by the Elector Palatine in 1454, and less than a decade later it was set ablaze by the unified forces of the cities of Colmar, Strasbourg, and Basel. The Habsburgs handed the ruins over to the Tiersteins who rebuilt and enlarged the castle, supposedly in a way that meant it would be able to withstand modern artillery fire. No one told the Swedish artillery forces who broke through and overran the castle during the Thirty Years War and it was finally burnt to the ground in 1633 and left to fall into ruin for a couple of centuries. You wouldn’t know it though.
It was classified as an historical monument in 1862, and in 1865 it was bought by the town of Sélestat. There were plans to restore the place, but there were no funds to complete the work. Alsace was in one of its phases of being part of Germany, so the ruins of the castle were offered to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1899. Having abandoned his plan to restore Schloss Rheinfels, he must have pretty much snapped their hands off. What followed was a remarkable 8-year long building project, where money was no object, and the most modern techniques were used. The castle would be completely restored, with the emphasis on as much historical accuracy as possible. To that end, a young architect, Bodo Ebhardt was put in charge. It helped that he was also an architectural historian, a castle explorer, and the founder and longtime president of the German Castles Association (Deutsche Burgenvereinigung). He was very thorough and after he had analysed the remaining ruins and façades, he read up as much as he could in old documents and records, and looked at other castles to draw comparisons.
He even made sure that those who came after would be able to easily identify the new parts of the walls, creating a new set of ‘mason’s marks’ to be used on any replacement stones, and gave different marks to different years. You can still see the marks if you know what to look for. It’s a fabulous place with some startling detail and although much of it is not authentic, you can completely forget that as you go round.
After an 8-year build, on May 13th 1908 the château was unveiled to the public with a parade and pageant involving five hundred performers in period dress. Of course after World War I it reverted back to being French, and became a tourist attraction, though apparently the French visitors would regularly criticise the restoration work because it had been carried out by the enemy. Surviving both World Wars undamaged the building was classified as a Monument historique (listed building) in 1993 and is now owned by the Conseil Départemental du Bas-Rhin.
As we wandered around, the views were staggering. You could see just why anyone with an ounce of strategic sense would want to build a fortress on just this spot. No one is going to be able to sneak up on you, that’s for sure.
After a couple of hours poking into all the nooks and crannies, we reckoned we needed a refreshment stop. The Library restaurant offered all sorts of options including some and cake. We were booked for dinner at our hotel that night and really didn’t need any more than a light snack. As there weren’t any of those on offer (Alsacian cuisine really does lean towards German sized portions, or at least ravenous vineyard worker sized portions alongside French refinement) I had a slice of mirabelle cake, and a bottle of cold water.
We had a look around the medieval garden that had been set up outside, but it had somewhat gone over due to the extremely hot weather and a general lack of care. Afterwards, we sauntered back to the car and headed over to Sylvie Spielmann, where we made a massive dent in our wine buying budget. We also made a massive dent in the bottom of my car when we collected a piece of ironwork that was sticking up out of the sandy base level that a road under reconstruction had been reduced to. It got stuck, dragged along for several feet, and I was only able to get off it by reversing and then rocking forward a couple of time. I’ve yet to figure out what damage has been done precisely, but it is going to need looking at.
From there we reloaded the car again, shuffling everything round as best we could to keep the next night’s bags at the top of the luggage pile, and headed to Colmar and the our hotel for the next three nights, the Hostellerie Le Maréchal. We arrived in good time, and unloaded. I then had to drive the car to the nearby underground car park, because a hotel built in 1595 isn’t going to have built in car parking! It was a hot walk back and I annoyed myself by leaving my handbag in the car and having to walk back again almost immediately. Once in though, we were able to get ourselves organised and cleaned up and then investigate the possibility of an aperitif in the hotel bar prior to dinner in their restaurant a l’Echevin.
We had a lovely view from our window of the canal and some of the typical local barques which were the only vessels shallow enough to navigate from the market garden areas to the market hall back in the day, and which now carry tourists up and down.
Colmar looked lovely, the hotel was glorious, we had one of the suites with a “Little Venice” view, and we looked to be in for a lovely stay. As we had dinner at the hotel twice, I shall write about that elsewhere.