A Tale of Two Frankensteins

Last October, in the days before Halloween, we decided to visit one of the most popular autumn attractions in our newly adopted country: Frankenstein Castle. The fortress – an ominous ruin shrouded in centuries of mystery and legend – is fortuitously located within easy striking distance of our home, making it the perfect destination for some pre-Halloween shenanigans – er, exploration. With Griffey in tow, we piled into the car and drove off into the fog, excited to see what the castle had in store.

As we arrived at our destination (as indicated by Emma, the sometimes-trusty voice inside our GPS), we looked at each other, confused. The parking area was the size of a postage stamp (only 6-7 small cars could be accommodated), and the red sandstone ruins atop the hill in the distance looked nothing like the images we’d poured over on Google. Surely this wasn’t the Frankenstein Castle.

Intrigued but still confused, we started walking in the direction of the trailhead. Roughly 100 meters from the parking lot, next to the towering spire of the village church, we stumbled across this sign, at the base of a trail. Frankenstein, clear as day. We must be on the right track!

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Well … yes. Sort of. But not really.

It turns out there are two Frankenstein castles in this part of Germany. The well-known, popular tourist attraction – famous for its annual Halloween shindig and possible association with Mary Shelley’s 19th century Gothic novel – is located in the Odenwald, overlooking the city of Darmstadt. A lesser known medieval castle of the same name sits on a rock spur above the small Palatinate village of Frankenstein. Thanks to good old Emma (and some poor research on our part), we were at the latter.

[It was an easy mistake, apparently. Frankenstein is a German name consisting of two words: Franks (a Germanic tribe) and stein (meaning stone). Frankenstein therefore translates to “stone of the Franks”. We were simply at the wrong stein. Scheiße!]

Instead of hopping back into the car, we decided to make the best of our error and let Griffey stretch his legs from the drive. We followed the trail running between the church and neighboring cemetery, clamoring along a muddy path zigzagging up the hill toward the ruins. The first structure erected on this spot – a defensive tower for nearby Limburg Abbey – appeared around 1100 AD. In 1205, the monastery commissioned an expansion of the castle, and in the following centuries it was owned in partnership between the abbey and the Lords of Einselthum, the Counts of Nassau-Saarbrücken, and the Counts of Leiningen-Hardenburg. In the second half of the 15th century, the castle was damaged in struggles between Prince-Elector Frederick I and Count Palatine Ludwig I of Zweibrücken. The castle suffered further damage, presumably in 1512, when the Count of Nassau conquered it on the orders of Emperor Maximilian I. During the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), the castle was destroyed and considered uninhabitable as of 1560. It maintained its strategic military significance, however, and was captured by Spanish General Ambrosio Spinola during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1715), the castle was used to accommodate French troops, and in 1883-1884 became the property of the Kingdom of Bavaria. Today the castle is owned by the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, and is open year-round free of charge. We wandered through the ruins for approximately an hour, and never saw another soul!

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Okay, so it wasn’t the Frankenstein Castle we were looking for. That said, the ruins and views were absolutely gorgeous and well worth the short hike! As we were rapidly running out of daylight hours (and G. was tuckered out from all the walking), we decided not to pursue our original destination, saving that Frankenstein for another time…

That other time came this past January. On a freezing (-10°C) but brilliantly sunny day, we took advantage of the clear skies and relatively empty Autobahn to finally pay a visit the famed fortress in the nearby state of Hesse. Bundled in three layers of clothing and carrying the correct GPS coordinates, we actually made it to the Frankenstein Castle!

The castle was built sometime before 1250 by Lord Conrad II Reiz of Breuberg, the founder of the free imperial barony of Frankenstein (no relation to the village we previously visited). In 1292, the descendants of Lord Conrad – adopting the title von und du Frankenstein – opened the castle to the Counts of Katzenelnbogen, forming an alliance. At the beginning of the 15th century, the alliance dissolved, and the castle was enlarged and modernized. The property was sold to the Landgraves of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1662, thereafter used as a hospital and refuge before falling into ruins in the 18th century.

The folktales and myths surrounding the castle are far more intriguing than its official history, however. The Odenwald, the mountain range in which the castle is located, is a landscape of dark forests and narrow valleys shrouded in mystery and enshrined in legend. In 1673, alchemist Johann Conrad Dippel was born in Frankenstein Castle, where he later engaged in a variety of mysterious and gruesome practices. Dippel created an animal oil – derived from the destructive distillation of bones – that he marketed enthusiastically as the “elixir of life”. At one time, Dippel attempted to purchase the castle in exchange for the elixir’s formula, but the offer was rejected. Rumors suggest Dippel also practiced anatomy during his stay at the castle, performing experiments – including soul-transference, an attempt to transfer the soul of one cadaver to another – on exhumed corpses. While there is no mention of the castle in her journals, and indeed no evidence she ever visited the property on her 1814 travels to the Rhine, many believe Dippel influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

One of the most famous legends associated with the castle involves dragon-slaying. According to the legend, a dangerous dragon lived in the garden near the castle well. The residents of a nearby village, Nieder-Beerbach, lived in great fear of the monster, believing it crept out at night and ate villagers as they slept.  One day, a knight by the name of Lord George rode into the village. The desperate townsfolk relayed their fears and sorrows to the brave knight, who promised to help them. The next day, clad in armor, Lord George rode to the castle, dismounted his horse and approached the sleeping dragon. He attacked the beast, which fought for its life, puffing steam and spewing fire. Hours passed as the knight and dragon waged a battle to the death. Finally, Lord George plunged his sword into the dragon’s underbelly, victorious. But as the beast writhed in agony, it coiled the poisonous spine of its tail around the knight’s belly and stung. Lord George and the dragon fell. The villagers, delighted by the dragon’s demise, carried the knight’s body to the Church of Neider-Beerbach, erecting a magnificent tomb in honor of their hero. This monument, located in the valley on the east side of the castle, can still be visited today.

A fountain of youth is also rumored to be hidden behind the herb garden of the castle. Local legend suggests that, during the first full-moon after Walpurgis Night, old women from nearby villages gathered here to engage in tests of courage.  Those who succeeded reportedly became rejuvenated to their age on the night of their wedding.

In a remote part of the forest behind Frankenstein Castle, on Mount Ilbes, magnetic stone formations of natural origin reportedly interfere with compasses. Local nature enthusiasts and witchcraft practitioners are said to perform rituals here on special occasions (such as summer solstice or Walpurgis Night). In some stories, the entire region is connected to the apparition of legendary creatures, including dragons and water spirits. 

Sadly, we didn’t see or experience any of that on our visit! Instead, we enjoyed a quiet walk through the snow-dusted ruins, careful to avoid any falls on the icy walkways and stairwells. Much like our visit to the other Burg Frankenstein, our exploration here was almost completely solitary. It was lovely!

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Griffey was a great sport, even in the cold!

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Despite being a well-known tourist destination, Frankenstein Castle has never been developed into a commercial tourist attraction on a large scale. The castle is typically open to the public until late at night, on-site parking is possible right at the castle, and a restaurant serves food and refreshments. Admission and parking are free except during special occasions (such as the Halloween festival, which we’ve never attended). There are no further tourist facilities on the site.

Thank you for viewing! – T. & B. June

Next week’s journey: Postojna Cave – Slovenia

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