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Next time you’re in Alsace

go to the castle of Haut Koenigsbourg, which looks incredible even on a snowy, misty day when you can’t see anything past the precipitous drop right in front of the curtain wall and you can imagine you’re perched on a cloud. It’s being restored again, and looks if anything even more Disney-like and hyperreal than before,* and it currently has a very strange balance between roofed and unroofed spaces – which I strongly suspect it has never had before in its chequered history.

As my wife said, “this looks like the kind of castle that makes princesses wail, when they realise their upcoming marriage means they’ll be stuck living here.”
As my son said, “oh no. That does not look safe at all.”
The rooms are few and isolated from one another across big courtyards. The drawbridges hang dispiritingly over hard stone flagging, rather than a welcoming river. The whole structure stands atop a bunch of enormous boulders of the same red rock as the walls, so it looks like it  grows right out of the bones of the earth. There are several wells and even a windmill, but there’s no getting away from the fact that any food you expect to find there would have to be hauled up a couple of miles of very steep mountain track, and it’s really not looking onto anything – although on a clear day you might dream of firing your cannons clear across the Rhine, the balls would actually fall on the village full of pitchfork wielders crouched at the base of the mountain. It’s cold and draughty and forbidding and messed about with and awesome. It’s also a standing history lesson in why medieval keeps don’t make good cannon forts, even if you try to cannon them up at one end. (Back in the hometown of my childhood we have another example of the mysteries of gunnery beheld by the ungunpowdered mind: it sucks in comparison. As does medieval heritage in England generally, next to that of France.)

Standing in the gun tower you can easily imagine why the Alsace changed hands so often: a narrow strip locked between the Rhine and the Vosges, it’s the bit you can actually get an army across in short order in either direction. Whoever commands the right bank of the Rhine and the heights of the Vosges respectively can play Pass the Duchy for centuries, until tanks and aeroplanes change the landscape of warfare.

Oh, and it has a Gygaxian collection of polearms, including a bec de corbin, what I’m pretty sure is a Bohemian earspoon, and something that looks like it was inspired by Bulgarian heavy metal art, which I’m going to classify as a spetum – essentially a big boar spear with supporting crescent blades serrated on the inside, so that if you in fact spitted a boar with it, you’d have the devil’s own time getting it off again.

And when you get tired of all that you can drop down to the Louis Sipp winery in Ribeauville to taste their remarkable dry muscats and rieslings, and warm up with a flammekueche next door.

* the wikipedia link above notes that the French have long liked to sneer at Kaiser Bill’s restoration because, well, Kaiser Bill. I admit, it’s no Viollet-le-Duc but y’know, he was busy elsewhere. It’s nice to let someone else have a go.

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