There’s a Mountain in the Way

In my two trips to Germany, I’ve had the good fortune to visit several of the country’s numerous castles and palaces. Having done so, I have one piece of advice for prospective visitors:

If you don’t like walking up steep hills, save yourself some pain and do not, I repeat, do not, let yourself be convinced that it will only be a short, leisurely stroll up to your destination.

A view of the Wartburg as seen from the south-west, c. 1900. You don't really want to climb that, do you?

The Wartburg as seen from the south-west, c. 1900. You don’t really want to climb that, do you?

This thought kept running through my head as I trudged my way up to Eisenach’s Wartburg castle. I really, really should have known better than to let my friends persuade me to conquer the mountain (at least it felt like one) on foot. I’d already had the lovely experience of fighting my way up to Neuschwanstein a few years before, and while this trek definitely had a more nature-trail vibe, I was still getting flashbacks.

Summer days in Germany are usually considerably cooler than those in Missouri, and nowhere near as humid, but at noon in the direct sun it can still get a little toasty, as we were all rapidly discovering. I like to think that I’m not totally out of shape, but a 45 minute hike up a mountain still got me a little winded. Needless to say, by the time we reached the actual castle my lungs hurt (note to self: hiking = asthma trigger) and I was pretty sure my face was the color of a lobster.

Me posing in front of the view, and trying to conceal the fact that I couldn't really breathe.

Me posing in front of the view, and trying to conceal the fact that I couldn’t really breathe.

Of course, the view was completely worth it.

The first steps of construction on the castle were taken in 1067 and are historically attributed to Count Ludwig der Springer. It’s first mentioned as a strategic base in 1080, but over the years it has been added onto and grown in an almost organic manner. The Wartburg is well-known as the site where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German during his exile there. It is also known for being the home of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary from 1211 to 1227.

When Eisenach was bombed during 1945, the castle was miraculously spared, and later the GDR made the site a national monument after numerous and extensive restorations. The Wartburg was officially recognized as a World Heritage site in 1999.

And like most of the mountaintop views I’ve seen in Germany, the surrounding countryside, complete with the town sprawled out below us, was utterly beautiful.

The view once we finally made it to the top (from another direction).

A shot of the view from another direction.

After filling our bottles with water and our lungs with air, we followed our tour guide through the creaky, cool interior. Even in the middle of summer the thick stone walls protected us from the warm day.

My favorite room was the room reported to be the chambers of Saint Elizabeth. The room had been redone after her death, so it didn’t appear to us as it had to her. However, every surface except the floor was covered in exquisitely detailed mosaics that depicted the saint’s life, the regularly colored tiles punctuated by ones of gold and mother-of-pearl.

The ceiling of Saint Elizabeth's rooms. Yes, that's all mosaic.

The ceiling of Saint Elizabeth’s rooms. Yes, that’s all mosaic.

Another surprise came when we ended our tour in the great hall. Here I was surprised to find more echoes of Neuschwanstein. Except, as I was soon informed, it was actually the other way around.

It turns out that when Ludwig II of Bavaria built his now-famous castle, he drew inspiration from its far-older predecessor to the north. That is to say, he borrowed the design of the Wartburg’s great hall when he planned his own.

After our tour we took a quick turn through the rooms where Martin Luther translated the New Testament (and, according to legend, fought off the devil with an inkwell) before we headed back out to the courtyard for a few last-minute pictures.

The room where Luther translated the New Testament.

The room where Luther translated the New Testament.

I’m sure you can imagine my relief at finding that we didn’t have to make the whole hike back. Naturally, it wouldn’t have been as bad on the way down (seeing as how it was downhill). However, we didn’t even have to try, as the bus was meeting us about a third of the way down.

It seems that the requisite mountain hike is the price to pay for visiting a German castle. If there’s no other option, I would say that it’s definitely worth it. Then there’s the lazier side of me that swears next time I’ll be hitching a ride up that mountain, if I can find one.

Of course, that’s what I said after Neuschwanstein, and I think we know how that turned out.


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