Thursday, March 27, 2008

25 November: The Last Castle

Today was a bitter, blustery Sunday afternoon, but it was also the last weekend in November, and, as I stared rather dejectedly at the calendar, I realized that it was likely to be our final opportunity to go exploring in the German countryside (we had reserved next weekend for a last-ditch effort to visit Straßburg). I had wanted to visit Ruine Hohenurach near the small town of Bad Urach ever since Brenda told me about it several months ago, so for the last time we geared up in our hiking boots and rain coats and drove out into the rolling hills of the Schwäbische Alb in search of a ruined fortress.

We headed out of Stuttgart on the A8 and drove through Metzingen (celebrated home of many clothing outlet stores such as Hugo Boss), then followed the signs to the Hohenurach trailhead just outside of Bad Urach, parking in a mostly-deserted lot on the edge of the woods. The trail signs were confusing (as usual) so we just started off in a generally uphill direction, assuming that we would eventually arrive at the ruin at the top. The trail wound steeply at times through a sparse forest of thin gray trunks, punctuated by the occasional splash of defiant yellow leaves. Across the green valley below us, we could make out the thin streak of white that marked the Uracher Wasserfall, set against dramatic chalk cliffs. The waterfall is supposed to be quite photogenic, but alas, we didn’t have time to venture out to see its cascading waters today.

After perhaps a half-hour of walking, the immense form of the fortress came into view above us (photo, above). Hohenurach is a ruin in every sense of the term – just my kind of castle! It was first mentioned in the Book of Records in 1235, but its construction by the Count of Urach dates back to 1025. The fortress was expanded in the 15th century and converted into a prison in the 16th, housing innumerable nameless prisoners (and a few famous ones, including Donato Guiseppe Frisoni, the architect of the palace at Ludwigsburg) behind its dreary walls. Hohenurach was seized by the Emperor’s troops in 1635 during the Thirty Years’ War, and was demolished by the Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg in 1765. It has lain in ruins ever since, and has all of the atmosphere one could wish for in an abandoned fortress, particularly on a dark and dismal day such as this.

A few other people were wandering around the grounds as we approached, but we mostly had the place to ourselves. We descended a curving staircase in the first tower (photo, above) and found ourselves in a pitch-black barrel-vaulted chamber deep within the outer ramparts. Peering out a graffiti-embellished window, we had a good view of the battlements and another enormous defensive tower. Just beyond the first tower, a section of flat ground afforded us good views of the outer defenses. From there we entered a long tunnel that took us into the interior. An unusually ornate stone well is the only structure still standing in the center of the courtyard. Another section of spiral staircase took us atop the crumbling interior walls, from which we were afforded excellent views across the mist-shrouded countryside. The clouds were spitting rain at us, and we could only barely make out the waterfall across the valley (photo, below) and our car parked far below. A nice couple offered to take our picture as we stood on the walls overlooking the ruins. On the other side of the castle, we got views down into Bad Urach, but the rain was starting to pick up so my photos don’t do the view justice.

We found another mysterious staircase to explore, which led down into the so-called “secret vault,” a small stone chamber built into the castle’s foundations. We clambored around a bit in the dim dampness, then came back up and explored the rest of the ruined rooms of the main castle. One large four-story section of wall remains, its empty windows overlooking the town of Bad Urach. I paused for a moment to sit on a stone bench in front of a Gothic-style window that was probably part of the chapel. We discovered yet another staircase leading downwards to still more darkened chambers, and tried to imagine what a bleak and hopeless place this must have been for its unfortunate prisoners.

As we were about to leave, the sun broke through the clouds momentarily and I was able to capture some memorable images of the castle and surrounding countryside (photo, right). Fortunately the rain had lessened to a sporadic drizzle for our hike down, and we weren’t too wet when we finally arrived back at the car. We kicked ourselves for not bringing Cody along – he would have loved it here! From the parking lot we took one last look up at the fortress, distinguishable from the surrounding rock only by its unnaturally smooth faces and curving tower walls, and then headed for home.

More images of Hohenurach:

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