Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Ruins of Hohentwiel

I'm really late in posting this trip, but it really doesn't matter because the place was in ruins long before I ever got there, so nothing has really changed since my visit with the Duchess. 

In the photo above, you can see a rendering of the Burg, or fortress, of Hohentwiel when it was at its best in the 17th and 18th centuries. The stone ruins that you will see in the photographs below are all that is left of the once mighty fortress-castle that has stood here in different forms and sizes since the first structure was built way back in the year 914. 

Interestingly, the hill on which Hohentwiel sits is actually an extinct volcano, and the countryside around it gives evidence of this in its rock formations and terrain.

Our trip via train from Stuttgart to Hohentwiel, near the southern German city of Singen, very near the Swiss border, took us through foothills and glens on the eastern side of the Black Forest. The journey was about 2 hours and the scenery along the way is truly lovely, especially in spring when we made our particular trip. Blossoming fruit trees mixed with three different shades of lilac are found in abundance throughout the country; nature's freshly made colors spattered throughout our vista from the rail car could have taken up a lot of space on my camera had I let them.

We passed numerous smaller stations some of which were better cared for than others. A good number of the railway stations of smaller municipalities date back almost to the origins of rail service in the former Kingdom of Württemberg. Often they are inhabited on their upper floors even if the ticket counters are now closed on the ground floor. Some, such as the one pictured above, are in full operation with perhaps a café still an integral part of the complex. 

Looking westward from our windows, some of the lower ridges of the Black Forest range were in sight, as you can see in the photo above and in the one below. A bit further westward and out of view for us, the Black Forest rises even higher offering excellent views of the Alsace regions of France along with some of her smaller mountain ranges found there. 

When we got to Singen's main station, we had to transfer to a regional train which took us only one or two stops to the platform from which we began our ascent on foot up to the castle ruins atop Hohentwiel. It's a great walk! Along the way, the Duch and I had a good laugh, mostly due to her rolling her eyes at the fact that I seemed to have to stop and photograph almost every piece of creation along the way. Below, you can see one of a number of huge mushrooms I found; the sheep in the background could clearly care less. Although we were attempting to make this quasi-hiking excursion as much about being outdoors and getting good exercise, my constant stopping to take a photo just might have thrown a bit of a wrench into any idea of making the climb a vigorous one. Thanks, Duchess, for your patience and good humor about it.

At one point, you come to a collection of houses and dependencies, many of which offer information about the ruins further ahead. The model rendering of the castle at the beginning of the post was found in an information center located here. To add to my photo-excitement and to the greater dismay of the Duchess, an old cemetery (seen below) was also found here along the path just past the info. center, and, well, of course I couldn't pass that up. I think it was here that the Duch began wondering if we would ever make to the top before winter. 

I won't spend a lot of time writing about the cemetery here because the Duchess is eager to get going, so onward and upward, literally, to our Ziel: the castle-fortress of Hohentwiel.

The Duchess awaits, "C'mon Jeeves!"
Entrance to info/visitor's center

Well, as you can see below, we weren't the only living beings on this trek. There were other two-leggers as well as a herd of four-leggers along the path; only, the four-leggers weren't exactly clogging the route to our destination, fortunately. We traversed open as well as leaf-canopied ways up the hill and the distant views expanded even further until at one point, while at the top, we were able to enjoy a marvelous view of the Bodensee, or Lake of Constance, shared by three nations: Germany, Switzerland, and even Austria.

When we finally came round the bend, we were at the entrance to the fortress complex. Of course we could see the place from just about every clear vantage point below as we made our way up, but now we were standing directly at the base of the daunting walls which loomed above us. One thing that did indeed surprise me, or better yet, impress me, was that the buildings had so many floors in them. When I look at the amount of stones required to build these structures, along with the mortar to keep them all from tumbling down, I have to remind myself that taller and more immense edifices had been built hundreds if not thousands of years prior, so it isn't like such feats of construction had never been accomplished prior to this. I guess it's because we there in the flesh and not looking at a photo in a book and thus were able to appreciate the scale of the buildings three dimensionally. Imagine standing directly next to the great pyramids of Giza or the magnificent stone structures that still remain from the Aztecs. All of this makes an impact that photos cannot fully express.

There are several levels of the Burg Hohentwiel that one must make their way through in order to get to the highest point. Scroll back up and have a look at the model in the first photo. There, you can easily see the ramp climbing the center-left of the castle from the lowest gate, which can be seen in the two photos directly below. The photo to the right is the principal entry and leads into what appears to be a tunnel, as seen in the photo on the left.


I could stand and look at these walls all day, wondering what each of the window-like openings actually were. Were they doorways? Windows? Fireplaces? Hidden alcoves? And what if they weren't doors but large windows and the smaller  openings were fireplaces? Then why were the fireplaces higher than the foundation of the doorways? Hundreds of childlike questions, many of which I would prefer to remain unanswered merely because I like my theories better (LOL). 

One of the questions I always have when visiting such places is what all the other buildings were used for. Well, a place like Burg Hohentwiel needed to support itself as well as possible within its own walls in the event of a siege. So one can image there would have been need of everything from an apothecary and blacksmith to food and water storage, stores, as well as anything associated with military preparedness. There are many buildings to be found here and also quite substantial in size. It was like a mini-city of sorts with a well-guarded wall around it. Just imagine a military base today and take it back a couple of hundred years.

The View

I regret that I have no photograph of the Bodensee from atop Burg Hohentwiel. Truth be told, the haze over the lake to the east-southeast together with the glare of the late afternoon sun behind me to the west created some sort of gauze-like image that photo-shopping could do little to minimize. Believe me when I write here, however, that although the camera images were all a mess, the view is wonderful. The lake is immense, so to see so much of it from high above and at the distance that it actually is, it causes one to appreciate its size as well as all the landscape in which it sits. Keep in mind that on a clearer day, we would have been able to see the Alps from there as well. Definitely, we were able to look across into the Canton of Thurgau, Switzerland although the Alps themselves were not on display for us at that time.

In the photo above (right) you can see the second gate that leads to the highest part of the castle complex. It is the last portal entry well within the greater castle complex. If you look again at the diagram at the very top of this page, you can't see it, but the other tow gate houses that precede it can be seen on the sloping ascent in the model. If any invader had gotten into the first section of the fortress at its base, they would have still had a long way to go to get the rest of way to fully conquer it.

I wouldn't be able to tell you exactly what these cavernous cellars were used for. Yeah, I'm sure somebody knows down at the information center below, but I didn't ask since I didn't know we would be seeing them way up above on the hill, but that just makes it all the interesting for you when you go there. Besides, if I gave away all the secrets to be found there, you wouldn't have many surprises to discover on your own. Oh, just one thing: when down in the cellars, you might want to watch out for ghosts - just sayin'.

You know, when you're down in the man-made caverns and think of all that was dug out down there along with all the masonry above and around you as well as the immense number of stones possibly hewn from the volcanic rock on which this immense Burg stands, it makes you think - think about what we are all capable of accomplishing when we get off our seats and do it!

A Burg Hohentwiel spring in Baden-Württemberg

Not visible in the photograph due to haze, the Lake of Constance spans out in the horizon
beyond the large, faint forest that can just be made out in the distant background above.
On a clearer day, the view would be most obvious from atop Burg Hohentwiel.

Note all the stones that make up these walls. The cellar, too, is lined
with the same type of rock (I'm guessing volcanic.) and is quite
deep, hence my staying back a bit to take this photo.

This shot (above), taken from the walls of Burg Hohentwiel looking north, shows another ancient volcano in the near distance. I don't know if there are any ruins or former fortifications of any kind up there. Still, I would think it would have been used for something once upon a time.

Well, I gather that by now many of you might be wondering why in the world this place is in ruins today. After all, it was one of the most solid and strongest of fortresses in this part of Europe once upon a time. From what I recall, the fortress was never overtaken directly from war. At one point in its long history, it was even a ducal residence of the dukes of Württemberg. Even though this area is technically in the Baden part of the present federal state of Baden-Württemberg, it was nonetheless an enclave of sorts which was owned by the former rulers of Württemberg. It served its purpose until the very early 1800s, when Napoleon ordered that the fortress be dismantled. Hence, the ruins we see today came not from neglect or as the result of warfare, but simply the orders of Napoleon. I should like to add here, that only a few years later the dukes of Württemberg, who chose to side with Napoleon in his restructuring of the former Holy Roman Empire, which he also abolished during his reign, were elevated to the status kings of Württemberg and the Badener margraves were elevated to the title of grand dukes of Baden. 

The Kingdom of Württemberg ceased to exist in November of 1918 in the closing days of World War I (see Bebenhausen-where-it-all-ended.html), and the Grand Duchy of Baden became a Freistaat or Free State (Republic) at about the same time within the new Germany. Descendants of both royal families still live in the lands of their ancestors and participate in various ways to local cultural and educational concerns. Of course they have long relinquished the titles of king and grand duke, but have retained the ancient titles their forebears once used and are now known within the modern republic once again as dukes of Württemberg and markgraves of Baden, of course without political power, but as citizens equal to the rest of us. 

Visiting here and reading about and seeing the history of Burg Hohentwiel is something that is also educational for children. The hike of the well-paved hill to get up there provides a good day-trip outing and the views are truly spectacular if you are there on a clear day. 


Getting there by train from Stuttgart main station, there are two options: 

a) the regional (RE) which departs roughly every two hours and takes 2:24 minutes non-stop, and

b) the inter-city (IC) which also departs every two hours, alternating with the RE on the between hour, also non-stop.

Check for prices and times.

In all cases you will need to change trains at Singen (your final destination from Stuttgart or any other place of departure) for the short jaunt around the bend to the foot of the Burg where your hike upward will begin. Of course it is certainly possible to begin your day-jaunt from the Singen train station itself. Just add some time onto your trip and take a map. When we came down the mountain after a visit, we came by foot all the way through the city of Singen to the train station to return to Stuttgart.

Singen is not at all far from Zürich via train or car, and is also close to other beautiful sites such as Mainau, Friedrichshafen and Konstanz.

Have fun!

And don't forget to join this blog (see column to the right) for updates on new postings to come!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Weil der Stadt

City walls surrounding much of Weil der Stadt

Weil der Stadt Coat of Arms

Eagle: Free Imperial City
SPQR: Roman Senate & People
Keys: Catholic Church, as
on Vatican Flag
Forty minutes via the S6 local train from Stuttgart, we arrived at Weil der Stadt, located in the green Wurm Valley on the Württemberg side of the enchanting Black Forest. Also situated in the Greater Stuttgart Region, more specifically Kreis (County) Böblingen, Weil der Stadt with its present name dates back to medieval times. Spared much damage during the Second World War, the town remains original, proudly boasting memorials to her famous sons Johannis Kepler, the renowned early 17th-century astronomer, and Johannis Brenz (They aren't real original on first names are they?), a student of Martin Luther and who was instrumental in bringing the Reformation to Württemberg, although oddly enough after the Reformation, Weil der Stadt remained a Catholic city. Brenz died in 1570, the year before Kepler was born. Evidently, the bombardment of the town by the French military during WWII was called off in respect to the fact that this is the birthplace of that famous astronomer. To think that a person who had been dead some 300 odd years saved his town from destruction says loads.

One a several original towers still remaining in the walls

Upon arrival, the town is indeed immediately impressive in its historical architectural vestments which outnumber anything more modern located there. This of course pleases your writer very much. Fachwerkhäuser are in abundance; so much so, that for one of the rare times in my life, I didn't bother trying to capture every one of them on film. 

Narrenzunft or Fools' Guildhall

I found very interesting the origin of the town's name. Evidently, 'Weil' emerged from the Latin word vila/villa, which not only referred to a town, but also perhaps a manor/estate of sorts which originated any settlement here. (This is how I understood it in any case.) Long after the Romans were gone, 'Weil' was evidently granted the status of Stadt, which means town or city in German. 'der' is the feminine possessive 'of the', so Weil of the Town/City (Weil der Stadt) came about to distinguish this particular 'Weil' from Weil im Dorf (Weil in the Village), for example. 

Holding the emblem of the Free Imperial City of Weil der Stadt

As many of you may already be aware, vast swathes of  Germany were part of the Roman Empire many centuries ago, so its Roman heritage traces are not uncommon at all here. Weil der Stadt once belonged to the powerful Abbey of Hirsau, which I reported on earlier. This was in the first half of the 11th century. Later, Weil der Stadt was to become a Free Imperial City, granting it special trade and military rights amongst other things.

In 1648, Weil der Stadt was utterly destroyed in the Thirty-Years War and was rebuilt into what we see today. It is dominated by its massive St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic church located in the center of town, where a statue in honor of Johannis Kepler can be seen. 

The wall and towers of the city, so much of what still remain today, are what impress me the most. A walk around the outside as well as parts of the inside (where the wall doesn't actually constitute one of the walls of an interior building) give a good idea of how and for what city walls were used, even today.

Tower of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul rises behind the
Marktplatz statue of Weil der Stadt's most renowned son,
the astronomer Johannis Kepler.

Weil der Stadt is also home to some of the ancient guilds which, although perhaps changed in their modern-day functions, proudly continue to operate, for example in the Narrenzunft, or Fools' Guild here in town. As Carnival is very important here and wonderfully celebrated with a colorful and historic parade of ancient carnival costumes, it would be worth the visit during the Carnival season. The parade itself is held at Fastnacht, or as the locals would say in their Swabian dialect, Fastnet. Visit my report on this topic during the Europe-wide celebration of Narrenfest that took place in Bad Cannstatt some years ago. Participants from the guilds of Weil der Stadt were indeed represented during that brilliant event!

I highly recommend a visit to Weil der Stadt. If you can be there during Fastnet, you will have an experience and loads of photos that you will likely never forget; however, plan carefully for any visit because it is only on one day and the crowds are large. Still, it would be absolutely worth it. Any other time of the year to visit would also be rewarding. Its proximity to Stuttgart via train or car is convenient and only about 20 miles (approx. 30 kilometers) away. It is easily a day trip or less.

Click here to see an Aerial video of Weil der Stadt. You will be able to get a better idea of how small the town is and get a nice view from above.

How to get there:

From Stuttgart via train, take the S6 from underground at the  main station in the direction of Weil der Stadt. If all is running on time, it should be just under 40 minutes.

From Stuttgart via car, head out west of the city on the B14 and follow the signs to Weil der Stadt. Altogether, traffic aside (based on traffic patterns in 2016), it should take under 40 minutes.