The Chateau de Haut-Koenigsbourg is France’s answer to Germany’s fairy tale castles, although it was, in fact, built by the Germans. Perched on a mountaintop overlooking the rich province of Alsace, this Castle of the High Kings has spent much of its history caught up in the thousand-year dispute over the region between France and Germany. For centuries this symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and later Germany was abhorred by the largely French local populace. However, now that the matter of Alsace has been permanently settled by the creation of the European Union, the French and Alsatians have embraced this majestic medieval fortress as their own. It is now considered the architectural highlight of Alsatian wine country.
Alsace has been at the center of Franco-German politics and diplomacy since the middle of the 9th century. When the empire of Charlemange was divided up between his three grandsons in 843 AD, Alsace was annexed into the central kingdom, which included much of the Low Countries and Rhine Region. This kingdom was geographically untenable, and collapsed a little more than a decade later. Alsace and Lorraine were subsequently divided between France and the Holy Roman Empire. However, the terms of this subdivision were unclear, and as a result Alsace spent the next thousand years in a tug-of-war between the two powers.
By the 12th century the region was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. In order to secure the region from the French, the Hohenstaufen emperors established a series of castles in the area. The High King’s Castle, built in the 1190s, became the most important fortification in the area, as well as a chief residence of the Dukes of Lorraine who held the region in trust for the emperor. The French sacked the castle in 1462, but it was replaced by a newer and stronger castle a decade later. Alsace remained a possession of the Holy Roman Empire until the end of the Thirty Year’s War, when it was ceded to France following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and at which time the castle was abandoned.
The French held the region for the next two hundred years, even after the defeat of Napolean. In 1871, German forces disastrously defeated the French in the Franco-Prussian War, and Alsace was incorporated into the new German Empire. In 1899, Wilhelm II, perhaps inspired by a visit to the Ludwig Castles of Bavaria, decided to restore the High King’s Castle as a symbol of German authority, although this was for purely aesthetic reasons as the site was militarily obsolete. Work was completed in 1908 on the eve of the First World War.
The 20th century saw Alsace change hands four more times in 27 years. It declared independence in 1918, was annexed by France a week later, occupied by the Germans in 1940 and liberated by the Allies in 1944. The High King’s Castle effectively avoided action during the two World Wars, although the Germans did use it as a local command and observation post. World War II effectively ended the seemingly interminable Franco-German feud, and though Alsace is part of France, its citizenry is comprised of people from all over Europe who are Europeans first. The Castle, long despised by the French, is now one of Alsace’s most beloved monuments.
Unlike the broad, river-side chateaux that dot Normandy and the Loire River Valley, the High King’s Castle enjoys a commanding hill-top position visible for miles around. Although clearly a fortress from an older time, its fairy-tale appearance was due to a deliberate effort of the German Empire during the remodeling of the lte 19th century. From the exterior, the red-brick edifice consists of a thick clustering of walls and towers piled one on top of the other up the slope of the mountain. At the very top is the turreted keep with its imposing watchtower. The castle is accessible via a gate directly into the keep. Inside the walls the castle is dominated by two main buildings: the royal apartments and the great stronghold. A small courtyard gives access to both. Because of the castle’s distance from the nearest village, the courtyard boasts a number of small buildings including a forge and an inn.
The great stronghold is the most medieval portion of the castle, and its purpose was exclusively defensive. It is protected by thick walls and an interior drawbridge. The royal apartments predate the Renaissance, and unlike most other French Chateaux, were never updated due to the long abandonment of the castle. The restoration efforts returned the apartments to their pre-17th century condition, with little in the way of more fanciful embellishments. The interior includes the north and south lodges, which feature an impressive collection of hunting trophies, arms and armor, making the place appear more like a true hunting lodge than any of the other so-called hunting lodges around Paris. The Imperial bedchambers are located at the top of the castle. The view from the uppermost ramparts of the castle includes most of the Alsatian Plain, the Black Forest, and occasionally the Alps.
The Chateau de Haut koenigsbourg is located in Orschwiller approximately 25 miles southwest of Strasbourg. The castle is open from June through August from 9:30am-6:30pm; in April, May and September from 9:30am-5:30pm; and from October through March from 9:45am-5:00pm. Admission is E7.50 (extra costs apply for special tours and events). Web: www.haut-koenigsbourg.fr (official website).
Because of its coveted position between France and Germany, the region in and surrounding Alsace is packed with castles. The nearby Rhineland Castles are included in their own section, as is the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg. Eastern France was also home to later fortifications of the turbulent 19th and 20th centuries, including Mutzig Fort and the fortifications of the Maginot Line. The nearby village of Ottrott is also home to the locally famous Pagan Wall, which may be the remains of a pre-Roman Celtic fort.