Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Alte Fritz

January 24th marks 300 years since the birth of Frederick the Great, or Friedrich der Große, one of the most notable figures in German history. Though more interested in the arts than the art of war, he nonetheless succeeded in several important military campaigns that united a previously sprawled out Prussian kingdom. He’s also credited with modernizing Prussia with political and economic reforms, as well as the cultivation of the potato.

Of course, “Alte Fritz” is also known for his Sanssouci palace and massive park complex in Potsdam, listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Here the king retreated from the pomp of Berlin and immersed himself in music, philosophy, and French literature.

In addition to a guided tour of the main palace (there are several), be sure to see the Italian Renaissance styled Orangerieschloß, Friedenskirche, and the Chinese Tea House. It’s a beautiful concentration of stunning architecture and history, all sandwiched in one of Germany’s most beautiful parks.

Frederick died at Sanssouci after a 46-year reign and was buried at the Potsdam Garrison church. During World War II his remains were moved a Thuringian salt mine, then on to Marburg by the Allied army, and finally the ancestral home at Hohenzollern Castle in Swabia. After reunification, his remains were finally buried according to his wishes (after only 205 years)– on the terrace at Sanssouci, without any pomp, and at night. Be sure to bring a potato for his grave. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Halle's Stadtgottesacker

There's something eerily beautiful about Halle's Stadtgottesacker. Inspired by the Camposanto in Pisa, Italy, construction on the cemetery began just outside the city walls in 1557. Considered one of the most beautiful Renaissance cemeteries north of the Alps, it was the final resting place for more than 2,000 of Halle’s more prominent families in the 16th and 17th centuries. World War II bombing destroyed a portion of the cemetery in 1945 and the years under the DDR saw only further decay. Since reunification, restoration has continued on the cemetery and the beautifully adorned arcades.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Weitenburg Castle | A Baron's Hideaway

Castle stays are one of my favorite parts of traveling in Europe. But, truth be told, they can be hit and miss, and price alone isn’t always a good indicator of quality or authenticity. Some, however, provide just the right mix of charm, history, and atmosphere.

Schloß Weitenburg is a small castle near the village of Starzach, south of Stuttgart. The castle dates back to the 11th century and has been in the family of current owner, Baron Max von Rassler, since 1720. His family was elevated to noble status by Emperor Leopold I, whose royal “L” can be seen in the family coat of arms. 

Located among rolling hills in the middle of nowhere, yet close enough to great sights for day trips, it’s a charming spot to relax and soak up the medieval surroundings.  Inside the one-meter thick walls are high wood beamed ceilings, hunting trophies and curious ancestral portraits, evoking a spirit of a long gone age – and maybe a few cheesy castle horror movies as well. 

Though there are a few modern rooms and beautifully garish suites, most are decked out with antique furniture, charming tiled stoves and stucco ceilings; simple and somewhat understated. I'm pretty sure the lady in the portrait above my bed was scolding me, though I'm not sure why. 

A portion of the once massive kitchen now serves as a dining area, where regional favorites are not to be missed. A small balcony area offers gorgeous views of a lush green valley. 

Sitting quietly in the castle courtyard under the light of a full moon, it was easy to imagine what life may have once been like here and wonder what stories those portraits could tell.

When a member of the staff offered to show me the private dining hall as I slowly wandered the halls before bed, I jumped at the chance. Passing through a beautiful red salon we arrived at a long table with walls surrounded by generations of the Rassler family. Nearly 300 years in 360 degrees. Pretty impressive.

Entrance to the castle

View of the courtyard from the room

Baron Max von Rassler tells us a bit about the castle

One of many period portraits found in the castle.
She looks pretty sassy, no?