While I was staying in Munich, I went on a Gray Line tour of Harburg Castle, a medieval Bavarian gem and then on to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of the most picturesque towns in the world. I had been very satisfied with the Gray Line Munich tour I had taken to Palace Linderhof and Neuschwanstein Castle some months earlier.
Harburg Castle is one of the best preserved, oldest and largest castles in south Germany. In addition to the rooms open to the public, it houses the archives of the Oettingen-Wallerstein branch of the family that took control of the property in 1731. Spanning the 11th to 18th centuries, an art collection is on the premises, too, but unfortunately is not open to the public. Harburg Castle dates from the 11th century. It was first mentioned in writing during 1150.
Standing on the grounds, you can feel its history. Death penalties were carried out here, and bloody battles were fought here. The Oettingen Princes owned the castle for some 700 years. The Prince’s Building even goes back to the first half of the 10th century, where the archives are now located. The two towers were first mentioned in writing during 1150 but are actually much older, dating from 600 or 700 AD. The portcullis was built in 1752. Nailed behind it is the skull of a wolf, the last wolf ever shot in the region. The granary served judicial purposes from 1806 to 1852.
A significant part of Harburg’s history began when Ludwig III von Oettingen gained Harburg in 1251. The Oettingens made the castle their home after 1418. The clan made a name for itself in the military and in politics. Construction of a two-storey hall took place in the late 15th century. In the early 16th century the Oettingens took up the Protestant faith as the Reformation greatly influenced the history of the castle.
The Schmalkaldic War, pitting the Catholic Habsburgs against the Protestants in their Lutheran Schmalkaldic League within the Holy Roman Empire, was fought from 1546 to 1547. The Imperial troops won, triggering devastation for the castle during 1547. Still, the teachings of Martin Luther had already spread throughout the lands and could not be stopped by force.
Things did not fare as badly during the Thirty Years’ War, when it was not heavily damaged, though the area was in ruins. The Oettingen-Oettingen line of the family were elevated to princes during 1674. There was much reconstruction in the 17th century. Pillaging occurred during the Spanish War of Succession from 1701 to 1704. The castle soon rebounded, though. More repairs were carried out in the early 18th century. That’s when the Banquet Hall was built and the church was given a Baroque appearance.
In 1731 the Protestant line of the family ended, and the Catholic branch the Oettingen-Wallerstein line took charge. During the War of the Second Coalition, which was fought between the Austrians and Napoleon’s armies, much pillaging took place. In 1797 a military hospital was located on the premises. The Austrians were unable to protect the castle on June 24, 1800, when Napoleon’s troops captured the decisive victory. Even though there was much damage, that day is now celebrated at the castle as it was a blessing in disguise. Under French rule the 18th century was a time of imperial visits and reconstruction. Kaiser Franz II, the last Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation paid it a visit in 1766. Napoleon even rode by the castle in a carriage during October of 1805.
We did not go inside the Castle Church of Saint Michael’s, but I read that its Baroque interior hails from 1720 and 1721. A Baroque pulpit and ceiling frescoes are a few of the highlights of this church. The tomb of the Oettingen-Oettingen line of the family has been under the pulpit since the 16th century. The church is still used for services. Now the church’s denomination is Lutheran. Take a good look at the well that is 450 meters deep. It took an hour to get water from its depths to the ground.
The castle featured many intriguing devices used during wartime. One loophole in its side was situated so that the defender could throw hot water on the enemy and burn him. Quicklime was often used, so that the opponent would go blind immediately. Another window in the wall had a beam to which a soldier could hook his weapon. Then there was a loophole that consisted of a wooden wall within a wall. It could swivel around so you could see in all directions. The hole was too small to be seen by the enemy.
We went inside and saw many richly decorated shields. Because people could not read or write, symbols of various clans decorated the shields. One featured the color red for blood and a yellow X for money. Three more showed a donkey, two wheels and a wooden shoe, which reminded me of an advertisement for L.L. Bean. A black shield with a red cow head symbolized the family of Cow Mouth, which would certainly not be a popular name in today’s world.
Then we entered a room that featured a stunning chair that was 500 years old, symbolizing that the person who would sit in it was very powerful. The richly decorated ceiling was made for another castle in Italy in 1750, and the princely family bought it in 1920. The Habsburg clan is not missing from the castle, either. (They seem to be present in all the castles I visit.) Decoration of ladies’ portraits in circular frames showed off females from this distinguished clan.
The two family trees also caught my attention. One dated from the 17th century and was painted on linen. The other dated from the 18th century and was painted on cow skin. That one was made with one hair of a pig. I could not believe it was possible to design a family tree with one hair. What exquisite craftsmanship! I thought of my own family tree and how many questions it posed. If only I had all my ancestors accounted for as the Oettingens did on theirs. From where exactly in Bohemia were my Czech great grandparents? Who exactly were my Mareš ancestors, and from where in Moravia were they?
Situated in many castles, life-size portraits also decorated the room. I recognized Charlemagne. The next room was in front of the first keep. Each wall was 2.5 meters thick, and below each wall it was three meters thick. The inside room was 9 meters deep. Because it was so cool there, it was possible to use it as a sort of refrigerator. A man went down to the fridge with a rope around his stomach and brought the food up. A dungeon was also below us. There’s no way I would want to be stuck down there. Other spaces featured weapons and hunting trophies. A beam was 1,000 years old while a middle pillar was 800 years old. A clock had a 24-hour face.
I was intrigued by the tour but disappointed that it was so short. It would have been nice to have seen at least four or five more rooms. The castle had such a fascinating medieval flair and some stunning objects, but people only got a glimpse of its character. Still, the castle was architecturally intriguing on the exterior and interior. It was worth visiting if you are combining it with a day trip somewhere else. It proved an excellent stop on the way to Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Still, I considered Karlštejn Castle, Křivoklát Castle and Pernštejn Castle in the Czech Republic to be superior because you were able to take extensive tours and get a real sense of their medieval character. On the way to Rothenburg, our tour guide, an eloquent, friendly woman, told us that Michael Jackson at one time had tried to buy Harburg for 25 million euros. At the last moment, though, the deal fell through. I, for one, was glad. Who knows if he would have opened it to the public at all?
Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.