As we drive around on our explorations, they watch over us like sentinels – ancient castle ruins high in the hills.
They are many in number and diverse in their degree of decay. I knew nothing of their existence before arriving here. And so, yet again, I’ve been surprised by another delight of Alsace – it’s home to the largest number of mediaeval castle forts in France.
They started being built from around the 12th century. The weakening grip of the Holy Roman Empire left a power vacuum in the region and local lords were keen to protect themselves from the disorder. They built great chateaux forts to be their home and safe hold, both for their family and their followers. In time, some became the central administration for the region, which is why some towns here are still centred around their chateaux today.
Silas loves castles. So he’s been thrilled at their regular appearance on the skyline. He’s enchanted by stories of knights jousting, sharp-eyed archers perched atop ramparts and the possibility of dragons lurking in the dungeon. So he was begging to visit one soon after we arrived.
The first castle we visited was Chateau du Hohlandsbourg. It’s been fairly recently restored from an overgrown sleeping beauty state to a pristine semi-ruin.
The view from the ramparts was astounding: to the west, the Vosges mountain range rippled all the way to the horizon and to the east lay the city of Colmar below. We could hear its church bells pealing at 11am to announce the 100thanniversary of the end of WW1. It felt fitting to be in this place, once a site of ancient combat but today a peaceful place of gentle pleasure, on this day of remembrance.
Our second chateau was closer to home and lesser in remains. But its story made up for the lack of apparent castle. L’oeil de la sorcière – the eye of the witch. This castle had been deliberately rendered a ruin, and by King Louis XIV no less, who had ordered it to be destroyed in 1673. The walking notes from the tourist office in Thann hadn’t explained just why Louis had felt so inclined, so I was left to ponder with Silas and Delphine what could have possibly made the King so angry. What ever might have been the cause, the result is, a-hem, eye-catching. The explosion caused one of the towers to break apart and fall on its side, becoming a great ring of stone jutting out from the side of the hill. As we approached it in the late autumn afternoon sunlight, it was eerie in its beauty.
Castle number three came after a visit to Kaysersburg Christmas market last week. At the last minute, we had decided to continue by foot through the village and up the walking path to its hill-top castle. I was feeling tired. I’d skipped our usual lunchtime rest and refresh at home, and had instead picked up the children from school and headed straight out on the one-hour drive to Kaysersburg. I hadn’t expected to do a bushwalk and so had said yes to Delphine when she’d asked to go in the stroller for our wander around the town. But here I was, half-way up a mountain path, folded stroller on one shoulder, camera slung on the other and marching up the stairs in my heeled boots. My eye was caught by two laminated plaques attached to a rock by the side of the path. I stopped to read:
“Out of breath or not… You are in !
The effort engaged – important or not in your eyes – nobody would have done it in your stead, and nobody else other than you will reap the benefits…”
The message from French philosopher, doctor, musician, and native of this village, Albert Schweitzer continued on for several paragraphs. It spoke straight to my heart. To that part of me that had decided to embark on this three-month long Alsace adventure.
Something settled inside me. I resolutely straightened the pram strap on my shoulder, reached out my hand to help Delphine up the rocky stair and followed my castle-loving son to the summit.