Saturday, June 18, 2005

Haut-Koeningsburg

A continuation of last Saturday’s adventures.

After the horrors of the concentration camp, we trekked up a mountain to visit the chateau Haut-Koenigsburg. It was originally built in the 12th Century, but was sacked and rebuilt in the 15th century, and then sacked again and left to rot up until the early 1900’s where it was declared a national monument and completely restored.

Its purpose was mainly for defense, being one of many castles located in this particular area of So, its layout is not particular pretty, or ornate, but rather plain. That is not to say that it wasn’t interesting, or even beautiful, but that their purpose was not for its residence to live in grandeur. It will be interesting to compare this visit with the castles we visit just south of Paris. Those are supposed to be highly ornamental and gaudy enough to put the Biltmore mansion to shame.

On the road to the castle we saw signs for La Montagne des Singes which is to say the mountain of monkeys. Nearby they have a little zoo in which they keep hundreds of monkeys. Our friend Jill told us about the time they went to Monkey Mountain and brought their own popcorn. Apparently the zoo gives all visitors a little packet of popcorn to feed the monkeys, but it is never enough to last the entire visit. The popcorn they brought was of the microwave variety and had plenty of salt and better. It must have smelled and tasted great to the monkeys because she said all of them began to follow her around and became rather aggressive towards the popcorn. So much so, that the guards had to rush out and protect them from the monkeys!

Alas, we didn’t have time to visit the monkeys.

We gathered our people at the bottom of the castles, where there is a lookout point. The castle rests upon the top of a mountain and the view was splendid. After an hour or so of driving through the mountains we were all ready to use the restroom, and like most public toilets in France we had to pay 50 cents to actually use it. Although a few unsavory folks snuck into the stall without paying, because the guard was apparently off duty.

I was first surprised and happy to see that a scene out of the French classic, La Grande Illusion was filmed at the castle. Having just watched the film a few night before, Amy and I were very excited about this fact. For those curious, it is the scene in which the commander distracts the German soldiers so that the two French soldiers may escape out the window.

The interior of the castle looked very much like what a castle always looks in my mind’s eye. It was all very large. And I’m not talking about the size of the castle in it’s entirety, but each individual room, or hallway. The walls were all made of large stone blocks. The rooms were very open, with high ceilings. There were wiAlsace. Windows throughout, but shadows crept along many corridors. And there was a draft felt throughout.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to actually live there. Pre electricity it would have had to have been lighted using torches and gas lamps. The multiple fireplaces would have raged most of the night and day to keep any semblance of warmth. Even then it would have been very cold in many of the spaces, with cold drafts sweeping through. The fires would have kept everything hazy with smoke. And then there was always the thought of attack. The castle was sacked at least twice in its history, and it must have sustained more attacks than that. Much of the time they were surely at peace, but Alsace has a long history of violence and war.

One side of the castle was a keep, where there were many instruments of war. Cut into the walls were little slivers designed for archers to shoot out of. At our feet were little holes cut into the floor so that boiling oil or whatever could be poured down upon whoever was attacking. I couldn’t help but think of the Battle of Helm’s Deep from the Two Towers. In one room were old weapons of battle: suits of armor, axes and a variety of spears. In an adjacent room were more modern weapons including canons and rifles.

Seeing this castle and many of the medieval cathedrals throughout France always makes me think of life during those times. It is impossible for me to imagine. The harsh realities of daily life are unfathomable. If it wasn’t war, malnourishment or the plague killing you then it was your own king or the church stringing you up to die.

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