Hohenzollern Castle, tucked away in southwestern Germany, is one of Europe’s most overlooked architectural gems. The ancestral home of the Hohenzollern family, who produced a number of Holy Roman Emperors as well as the imperial line of Prussia, this was arguably the most impressive castle in Germany until Mad King Ludwig arrived. While it is overshadowed by Neuschwanstein in neighboring Bavaria, it is just as magnificent, even more genuine, and from a traveler’s standpoint, much less touristed. Moreover, it is still in the possession of the Hohenzollern family, who do still exist and who still reside in Germany. Extremely off the beaten path, this architectural masterpiece is a must-see for all castle enthusiasts.
The Zollern family is one of the oldest aristocratic families in Germany, and may have been an offshoot of the ancient Burchardings. If this is the case, then the Zollern’s can trace their beginnings to the time of Charlemagne. They were certainly around in the 11th century, when they became powerful allies of the Hohenstaufens. By the early 13th century, the Zollerns ruled most of Swabia in what is now southwestern Germany. In 1218, a new branch was formed in Nuremberg that eventually went on to rule Prussia. It was at this time that the family took on the new moniker, Hohenzollern.
At the height of the Middle Ages, the Swabian Hohenzollerns established themselves at Mount Zollern where they founded the first family manorial estate. They ruled from here until this first castle was sacked by an alliance of the Swabian Free Imperial Cities, backed by the neighboring state of Wurttemberg, in 1423. This event marked the beginning of the eclipse of the Swabian branch by the future Prussian branch.
In 1454 Hohenzollern Castle was rebuilt, when it became politically and strategically one of the most important fortresses in Europe. It saw considerable action during the Thirty Years War. It fell before the onslaught of Wurtemberg for a second time in 1634, after which it was occupied by the Hapsburgs. It spent the next century under the control of foreign powers, first Austria, and then France. By the beginning of the 19th century, Hohenzollern Castle was obsolete, effectively abandoned, and crumbling into ruin.
Hohenzollern Castle got another lease on life during the Romantic era of European castle construction. The Hohenzollern family, long absent, took a renewed interest in the castle in 1819. It was completely rebuilt in the 1840s in true fairy tale style that later inspired Neuschwanstein. In a strange coda to the history of the castle, and the family, Wilhelm, the last crown prince of Prussia, fled here from approaching Russian armies at the end of World War II. He and his family resided here until his death in 1951. Hohenzollern Castle remains a family possession to the present day.
Hohenzollern Castle is very reminiscent of Neuschwanstein, and in fact was one of the castles used by Ludwig as a model for his own fairytale masterpiece. Moreover, like Neuschwanstein, the castle as it now stands is mostly a monument of Germany’s Romantic age. Built on the foundations of the earlier medieval structures, the reconstructed castle was designed both as a secure residence as well as to attract tourists. Cream-colored walls surround a massive keep-like palace crowned with soaring, blue-tiled roofs and towers. If Neuschwanstein has a rival, this is it.
The castle interior is as charming as they come. Surrounded by a palace and a veritable jumble of interconnected outbuildings, the courtyard resembles a movie set straight out of Harry Potter. The grand halls and chambers of the palace are the idealstic image of what every child imagine a castle should look like: Medievalesque, but with all of the interior decorating advantages of the 19th century.
Hohenzollern Castle is located deep in the south of Germany, about forty miles south of Stuttgart and ninrty miles west of Munich. It is not easily accessible without motor transportation, but there is a shuttlebus that runs up the hill to the castle. Hohenzollern is open November through March from 10:00am-4:30pm; and April through October from 9:00am-5:30pm (closed on Christmas Eve, and shorter hours on some holidays). As it is still used as a residence, parts of the castle are subject to unexpected closings. The cost of admission is E10.00. Web: www.burg-hohenzollern.com (official website).
Compared to neighboring Bavaria and the Rhineland, southwest Germany is somewhat light when it comes to surviving castle sites. There are a few worthwhile, probably the best of which is Muhlheim Castle in nearby Tuttlingen.