Auerbach Castle – Germany

Auerbach Castle (German: Schloß Auerbach) is one of several ruined fortresses along the Bergstraße (“Mountain Road”) in Hesse, Germany. Originally built by King Charlemagne, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (800-814), the castle was rebuilt by Count Diether IV von Katzenelnbogen in the early- to mid-13th century. Today, it is a prominent feature of the Hessen landscape, standing proudly atop the Melibokus above the charming town of Bensheim-Auerbach.

Construction of the stronghold is thought to have begun in 1222. The site was selected strategically, both to provide security to the southern Katzenelnbogen dynasty and to protect tolls collected in Zwingenberg from travelers on the  ancient north-south trading route between the Rhine lowlands and western edge of the Odenwald forest. The earliest mention of the castle in a historical record appears in 1247, and the first document of the castle itself dates from 1257. In 1479 County Katzenelnbogen (including Auerbach Castle) passed to the Landgraviate of Hesse.

The castle lost much of its strategic importance under the Landgrave’s control; by the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), it was no longer in military use. In 1674, during the Franco-Dutch War (1672-1679), the castle was conquered and set afire by the French army, tragically killing the local people who sought protection within its walls. The abandoned castle became a ruin over the following years, and remains in ruins (with some much-needed 20th and 21st century preservation work) today.

We visited Schloß Auerbach with our wee dog Griffey on a sunny but windy (and bitterly cold!) day in mid January 2016. While we have it on good authority that the castle is packed with visitors in the spring and summer months, it was virtually empty during our hour-long visit (we only saw about 5 other people – it really pays to be adventurous on those chilly days in Germany!).

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We accessed the interior of the castle through a single entrance in the southwest corner, between the South Tower and inner bailey. Once inside, Schloß Auerbach’s unique triangular design was apparent.

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The walled portion of the keep between the south and (former) east tower – today accessed by a metal grate staircase – once housed a great hall, cellars, and the castle’s chapel. While the wooden floors have long since been destroyed or removed, the chapel’s unique Gothic window frames remain largely intact.

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We next ventured up to the top of the castle’s bastion, the first of its kind in Germany. Built in the  late 14th century to replace the east tower (which collapsed in a powerful 1356 earthquake) and to protect the castle from cannon bombardment from the northeast, the bastion is 4 meters (13 feet) thick. This additional fortification, ordered by the Counts of Katzenelnbogen in 1370, gave rise to the name Feste Urberg (Urberg Fort) and made Auerbach one of the most secure and modern castles in the world at that time.

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One of the most iconic features of the castle (and B.’s favorite!) was a lone Scots pine tree perched on the northern portion of the bastion. Its partially exposed roots made for a dicey walk between the bastion and North Tower, but the slipping and tripping (seriously, be careful) did little to take away from the stunning territorial views!

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The castle’s North Tower – partially rebuilt by the Landgraviate of Hesse after collapsing in 1820 – offers breathtaking, 360-degree views of the Rheinische Tiefebene (Upper Rhine Valley) and Odenwald Mountains. It also provides a nearly bird’s-eye view of the castle courtyard below, including the original well, drilled vertically through 62 meters (203 feet!) of solid bedrock.

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According to historical records, the castle’s inner courtyard once housed kitchens, living quarters, stables and a smithy. Today, in the late spring and summer months, it’s a popular site for medieval games, knights’ tournaments and dinner theatre. While blanketed in snow during our visit, it was easy to see how this spectacular and evocative setting draws thousands upon thousands of visitors each year to these dramatic performances. We can’t wait to go back!

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Like its northern counterpart, spectacular territorial views abound from the South Tower. Once inaccessible due to serious deterioration in its wooden staircase, the tower was repaired and reopened in 2007.

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For our readers interested in a visit to the castle, Schloß Auerbach is located approximately 50 minutes (55 kilometers/34 miles) from Frankfurt am Main, 1 hour and 15 minutes (92 kilometers/57 miles) from the Kaiserslautern Military Community (KMC) and 2 hours (165 kilometers/103 miles) from Stuttgart. It is also only 30 minutes (23 kilometers/14 miles) from the famed Castle Frankenstein, making it a great addition to any day trip in the region. While admission is free, a small fee may be charged for events and activities on the castle grounds.

A popular restaurant  is housed on the castle terrace, and is open to visitors from March through November. The castle itself is not wheelchair accessible or recommended for families with strollers or very small children. There are multiple steps (both stone and metal grate) at all levels, and sturdy, well-soled shoes are highly encouraged.

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We reached the castle’s entrance through a gently sloping, paved path approximately 100 yards from the car park (see below). The car park – unpaved, with spaces for 20 to 25 passenger vehicles – may become muddy in heavy rain. Additional parking is available on the road approaching the castle. There are walking trails in the area, ideal for a quiet stroll or hike.

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Thanks for viewing! – T. & B. June

Next week’s journey: Marché de Noël – Colmar, France

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