In a thoroughly modern way, one of the tourist brochures for Alsace featured a list of ‘Spots Instagrammables’. The Château de Haut Koenigsberg was Number 1.
Needless to say, it is a very popular attraction. We managed to avoid the worst of the crowds by parking on the side of the switchback, mountain road that led up to it. From there, we walked to the castle on one of the many footpaths that zig zag through the shady woodland that blankets the hill.
The forest was enchanting. There is something magical about the light and character of beech woodland. Here, it was interspersed with oak and conifers, and the warm, summer sun released the sweet, resinous scent of pine. We followed a sign to a ruin; Petit Koenigsburg, also known as Château de l’Œdenbourg or ‘Abandoned Castle’.
It dates back to the 12th century and was probably an annexe of the main castle. Records show that by the 15th century, it was already abandoned. In a quiet glade, with sunlight playing on the massive walls, which seemed to have massive boulders embedded in them, I enjoyed its moody and historical atmosphere even more than the main castle!
Haut Koenigsberg, which simply means ‘High Royal Castle’, has had a mixed history. The first record of a fortress on the hilltop is in 1147. It was rebuilt after being destroyed in 1462, but in 1633, it was burnt to the ground during the Thirty Years War.
What you see today is intended to be a historically correct reconstruction of how the castle would have looked at that point, in the fifteenth century, although there are a few innaccuracies and possible flights of fancy. The rebuild was carried out in the early 20th Century under the close control of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who annexed Alsace following the Franco Prussian War in 1871. With Alsace under German control, the Kaiser wanted to mark the boundary of his territory, show off his power and fulfil his dreams of empire. Haut Koenigsberg fitted the bill perfectly.
There was a small, scale model of Haut Koenigsberg in one of the exterior courtyards. I have had a few computer-related mishaps on our travels, so Mark reminds me frequently of the importance of creating back-ups.
Curiously, if you go to Kuala Lumpur, you can visit a full-size back up of Haut Koenigsberg, along with the Alsatian town of Colmar, replicated in the Malaysian jungle by a billionaire!
Even without the castles, the walk would have been worthwhile. The bonus ruin and the view from Haut Koenigsberg were the icing on the cake. With such a breathtaking panorama over the Alsace plain, the Vosges mountains, the Black Forest and the Alps, the location of such a major fortress is no surprise.
Dogs are not allowed inside the castle, which was not unexpected. It wasn’t an issue for us, since we’re more turned on by a buttress than a Baroque interior. Instead, we re-traced our steps back through the woodland and drove on to the pretty town of Kaysersberg.
The attractions of Monkey Mountain, where Barbary macaques roam free in the forest, and The Eagle’s Flight bird of prey centre are both near to Haut Koenigsberg. Understandably, dogs are not permitted in these, either!
When we reached Kaysersberg, it was easy to kid ourselves that it was an Alsatian theme park like the one in the Malaysian jungle. It was Disney perfect, busy and touristy. However, if you look beyond the crowds, it is actually a stunningly beautiful town, with nooks and crannies that make it a real pleasure to explore.
We strolled through the cobbled streets to the centre, then ascended to the imposing ruin of the 13th-Century Schlossberg castle, whose tower stands sentinel above the town. The walking path continued after the castle, but after our wander in the woods at Haut Koenigsberg, we were happy simply to enjoy the vistas of the town.
Kaysersberg is the birthplace of Albert Schweitzer, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. There were several placards on the route up to the castle, which bore inspiring quotes from the great man. One in particular resonated with me, and rang so true in these times of instant gratification,
I am so glad that after many years of getting up for work at 4am to commute into London, Mark and I finally got around to asking ourselves the question, “Is our lifestyle doing us good?”
In order to step off the treadmill and retire early, we had to choose to live very minimally. Nevertheless, we often say how grateful we are that we have ‘enough’. We are not rich, but so long as we are careful and stick to our budget, we have everything that we need. Anything we buy is qualified with, “Is this a ‘want’ or a ‘need’?” Sometimes, we do allow ourselves a ‘want’ as a treat, but we think about it first. Not giving in instantly to every whim makes us appreciate what we have – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Although it would never happen, neither of us would even wish to have the kind of obscene wealth that gives someone the means to replicate an Alsatian town and castle in Malaysia!
(If you are interested in how we fund our lifestyle, check out the How We Did It section of my blog.)
I felt that I would like to return to Kaysersburg when it was quiet, maybe in the early morning. By the time we left, around six in the evening, there were far fewer people and it was easier to appreciate the ambience and the architecture.
By the bridge in the town centre, we met a Romanian couple, Christian and Camille, who had moved to France with their beautiful, young daughter Sara. As born-again Romanians, following our road trip to their wonderful homeland, we chatted for ages. Sara was really bright and loved the pups. She cuddled Lani, and had soon learned all the dogs’ names.
Alsace has a very distinct identity. Right on the border between the two, it has oscillated between being French and German several times in its history. Although it is now part of France, it has its own language, which is Germanic in origin. As we drove around, we saw graffiti demanding Frei Elsàss – ‘Free Alsace’ in the local, Alsatian dialect.
When I asked Camille whether Sara’s saw herself as French or Romanian, she told me,
“Sara considers herself not just French, but Alsatian!”
Christian worked for a Romanian bank, which had been taken over by a French organisation. He explained one of the ways that globalisation quite legally strips poorer countries of their wealth,
“They mark all the Romanian operations as a loss, so they pay tax only in France.”
What a coup that has been for Romania!
In one of the tourist brochures, I had spotted a traditional Alsatian restaurant whose house speciality was one of my favourites; ‘Choucroute – Alsatian Sauerkraut – with four fishes’; even better! It was only once we were back at the campsite that I remembered that Au Lion d’Or was in Kaysersberg.
Unfortunately, in this case, our local Nobel Laureate couldn’t have got it more wrong when he said,
Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.Albert Schweitzer
Join us next time as we cross the Rhine into Germany.
If you are interested to know more about our travels in Romania, they are now immortalised in my book, Dogs ‘n’ Dracula – A Road Trip Through Romania. It has 5* reviews and was runner up in the Romania Insider Awards 2019. It is available worldwide on Amazon as both an ebook or paperback. Click here to find it on your local Amazon store.
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Thank you to Melanie at Haut Koenigsberg for sending me the aerial shot of the castle and giving me permission to use it.