Today’s outing was to the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, near Sélestat in Alsace. It’s a perfect example of the tug-of-war that has gone on over this region for centuries. Its foundations date to the 9th century, but it really got going in the 12th century with the Hohenstaufen (a dynasty of German kings with connections to the Holy Roman Empire). After a band of rogue knights used it as their headquarters, the Hapsburgs (the Austrian branch of the Holy Roman Empire) grabbed it in the 15th century. The Thirty Year’s War saw the arrival of the Swedes on the side of the French and the chateau suffered heavy damage. The chateau passed into the hands of the town of Sélestat, which was completely unable to manage the ruin. Fires and pillaging were making a bad situation worse.
After Alsace fell to the Germans in 1871, the townspeople had a brainwave. Why not give the chateau to William II of Germany? He was chateau mad, after all. William got his pile of rubble in 1899 and the delighted Emperor promptly hired an architect from Berlin, Bodo Ebhardt, to fix the place up. The idea was to turn it into a museum and sort of Disney the place up a bit. For example, the ceiling in the grand hall was raised to twice its original height and decorative frescoes of knights and ladies were added. An immense imperial eagle was painting on the new ceiling, in case anyone was in doubt about the identity of the present owner. Also, the height of the dungeon that now dominates the view for miles around was doubled. Ebhardt even had his workmen attack the stones and roof tiles with chains to put a few centuries of wear on them in a hurry. With William’s coffers open wide and the advances of modern construction methods, the “restored” chateau was open to receive guests, instead of resist an enemy, in 1908. When Alsace was restored to France in 1918, France received the benefit of a newly-minted tourist attraction. Of course, business was interrupted by World War II.
Today, the chateau welcomes about 500,000 visitors a year, mostly during July and August. If today’s crowd is anything to go by, most of the visitors are German. I’d love to know how they feel about the history. The chateau is easy to get to. If you’re not driving, take the train to Sélestat (between Colmar and Strasbourg) and frequent shuttle buses will take you the rest of the way for a few euros.
Today’s expression, À quelque chose malheur est bon (ah kelkuh shows maluhr eh bohn) literally means “unhappiness is good for something .” We’d say “every cloud has a silver lining.” The political strife between France and Germany at least resulted in a chateau from the late Middle Ages that could stand for another 500 years.