Sunday, 6 March 2016

Castles... on the ground

In the relatively old culture of Europe  the countryside is peppered with castles. Many in various stages of repair, ruin or restoration. Unlike the ones of many fairytales, they are cold and draughty looking edifices, squared off and clunky looking. The walls are thick and windows small. Some have been converted into museums, many in their restoration become the destinations of tourism propping up dying towns. As industry dries up,  folks are migrating to the cities.
 I recall the first one I saw, from the train, on my first foray into the German countryside. High up on a ridge, towers of stone starkly silhouetted against the sky. Decrepit and crumbling, the remains of some kingdom now irrelevant to the day to day down below in the well established village.
 The hillside overgrown and thick with trees almost swallowing the structure.
 Later that day we arrived at the geographic centre of Germany and spent the night in a hotel attached to the castle where Martin Luther had penned his Protestant bible, eventually uniting most of the country in one language and faith. At least temporarily.

 Wartburg castle, restored and filled with artifacts and artwork overlooks a vast expanse of terrain.
Useful when guarding against marauders of all stripes.

  Fascinating to imagine what life was like then, the landscape barely populated among great stands of ancient forests, the remnants of which were still visible.

My flights of fancy around happy ever after did not take into account the endless firewood need to heat those massive high ceilinged structures, the need to have water and the dependance on local food production necessary for feeding everyone employed, plus the royal family.

In Finland we  entered a large inner courtyard of a castle fortess. The walls rose to 3 stories, balconies surrounding. Up many flights of stairs into a large number of rooms on different floors some not connected to others. A real maze of a building. I was impressed to  find a brick toilet high up in one corner. Freshly restored but only for display.

During our extended time in Germany we stayed near a well restored relatively  modern example, Schloss Blankenhain, it’s grounds dedicated to the preservation of early agriculture. A yearly festival celebrates the (almost) lost art of basket weaving along with seasonal agriculture, art and craft based tours. It didn’t look like a castle to me though!

The crenellated towers and spires of the churches in the Catholic world in Spain seemed more like my original fantasy of what a castle should look like.

In the north they are blocky buildings built of whatever stone is at hand, excavated out of the mountain or, if unsuitable, brought up from elsewhere likely on the backs of beasts of burden or sledded by serfs.

When stone wasn't available or too expensive they were built of brick. Layers and layers  4 or 5 deep in order to withstand the force of gravity or occasional cannon balls. Every so often one can see where weather, poor mortar or cannon balls have opened up a wall exposing the inner structure.

Meanwhile the romance of living in one still beckons. In Bavaria we visited a converted castle/hotel, the Schloss Blumental, where folks have established an intentional community.
They have a small restaurant, a theatre and huge gardens outside the castle proper. Inside, walkways, playgrounds and a seasonal beer garden (they make their own). Many buildings still being renovated/restored, but the stables now house offices and workshops.

So much effort was put into creating these massive structures, it seems a shame not to maintain and re-establish the sense or actual community they supported once upon a time. With an egalitarian, survivalist focus, embracing some traditional wisdom along with sustainable principles and practices they could be the life boats and islands of success we may need as the future unfolds.

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