The city of Salzburg in western Austria has been an important military, commercial and religious center since the early Middle Ages. Salzburg was the closest city to Venice north of the Alps, and was consequently a major hub for spreading trade and the Church from Italy into Central Europe. To guard the area and the traffic passing through, the local Archbishop ordered the construction of the Festung Hohensalzburg, one of the largest and most formidable castles that had been built in Europe to date. It was frequently used as a refuge by the city’s church leaders during the centuries-long tug-of-war between the the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. From a tourism point of view, this towering castle is actually overshadowed by Salzburg’s musical legacy and related sights, but is still an important stop on most visitor agendas.
Salzburg is named for the great salt mines located in the mountains surrounding the city. The Romans established a major outpost and settlement here in the 1st century AD both to protect the valuable salt trade and as an advanced military base against the southern flank of the German tribelands. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Salzburg passed through a succession of German kingdoms until it was finally conquered by the Franks and incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire. Salzburg became one of the most important transit cities between the German lands and Italy, and was the site of one of the first Archbishoprics north of the Alps.
As the Holy Roman Empire devolved into a swarm of tiny city-states, Salzburg’s Archbishop became head of the city’s government, one of the few such ecclesiastical leaders in Central Europe. Later, as an elector, the Archbishop’s title became Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. During the late 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy became embroiled in the Investiture Controversy over the appointment of church leaders. The Prince Archbishops sided squarely with the Pope, and to protect themselves from military intervention by the Emperor commissioned the building of the High Fortress. This was the first of many confrontations between the Popes and the Emperors that would find Salzburg caught squarely in the middle.
During the 15th century, following a series of long wars between the Empire and the Papacy, the fortress was rebuilt in stone on a huge scale. This may have also been influenced by the 1419 defenstration of Prague, when church officials may have begun to sense a large conflict coming. However, as the Wars of Religious borke out in Central Europe, Salzburg remained largely subdued and outside of the conflicts. In fact, from the time of its construction in 1077 until the arrival of Napolean in the early 1800s, the High Fortress remained securely in the possession of the Prince Archbishops for more than seven centuries.
Even during the age of gunpowder warfare, when many other European castles were becoming obsolete, the High Fortress remained useful due largely to its practically unassailable mountaintop position. It continued to be used by the Austrians as a military outpost and later as a military prison right through the end of World War I. It was largely forced out of service by the victorious Entente after the war, but was never destroyed. After World War II it was restored as a tourist site and is now considered one of the best-preserved medieval castles in Central-Eastern Europe.
The Festung Hohensalzburg is huge, one of the largest intact fortifications in Europe. It is a concentric castle, with towering white-brick walls surrounding the central courtyards and buildings, with additional grey-brick walls and fortifications on the lower slopes of the mountainside. The outer walls were built strictly for functionality and are somewhat plain looking despite their enormity. Half a dozen major towers protect the perimeter of the site. The castle is perched on top of a steep hill overlooking the town, with no outer landscaping other than the bare hillside. This allows for an unbelievable unobstructed view in virtually every direction. On a clear day visitors can see not only the city of Salzburg but to more distant locations in both Austria and Germany. The Alps are visible to the south.
Within the walls are several courtyards, the central castle, a number of outbuildings and the Prince Archbishop’s residence which dominates the center of the complex. Much of the castle has been restored, preserved and is accessible by visitors. The highlight of the castle tour is the apartments of the Prince Archbishops located inside the residence. Other popular rooms include the Golden Chamber, the Golden Hall, the Lookout Tower and the Torture Chamber. Part of the fortress has been converted into the Fortress Museum, where arms, weapons, religious items and other artifacts of the Festung Hohensalzburg are preserved. Strangely, the chief decorations of the fortress are carvings of beetroots, which appear more than 50 times throughout the structure.
The Festung Hohensalzburg is located just outside of downtown Salzburg on a steep hilltop overlooking the city. It is accessible on foot, rail or cable car. It is open July through August from 9:00am-7:00pm; in May, June and September from 9:00am-6:00pm; and from October through April from 9:00am-5:00pm. Admission is E10.00 for adults and E5.70 for children. Web: www.saltzburg-burgen.at (official website).
About 100 miles east of Salzburg and 40 miles west of Vienna is Kuenriger Castle in the City of Durnstein. This castle became famous as the prison of King Richard the Lionheart of England where he was held for ransom following the crusades. The border region between Germany and Austria just west of Salzburg is home to the Obersalzburg, site of one of the 20th century’s most notorious fortresses: the Berghof. More of a fortified retreat than a true fortress, this was Hitler’s home away from Berlin. Most of the complex was destroyed after the war, but the Eagle’s Nest remains. Also nearby are Aggstein Castle, Hochosterwitz Castle, Hohenwerfen Castle and Kruezenstein Castle.