Castle Chronicles: Burg Nanstein & Heather Cliffs

A walking/bike path

Remember how I said there are over 20,000 castles and castle ruins just in Deutschland alone? They literally litter the landscape, popping up on hills and mountains seemingly from nowhere. Driving down the autobahn, you can see church steeples and castle towers. Almost every town, city, village has it’s own castle or castle ruin. It’s one of the things that I adore about this beautiful country, and one of the things that keep us from going crazy during this lockdown. Sure, we cannot visit France (an hour away) or Switzerland (3 and a half hours away), but we can try to see each castle within an hour from us, and likely still not see them all.

One such castle ruin is in our own backyard. We escape from the back gate of our yard and land on one of the path entries. Our neighborhood backs up to a vast, well maintained trail system. If you go to the right, one of the paths lead to a small pond; and if you turn to the left, you encounter fantastic views of the stadtmitte below and Burg Nanstein. The paths are wide enough in a majority of places for both cyclists and hikers – and both populate the trails in all aspects of weather.

As a kid, and more recently when I speak with my grandmother about her time living in Germany, I’d heard about the German love of wandern (hiking). I’m sure you can picture it: the walking sticks, loaded backpack, and a mountain. I’d always thought it was a stereotype; an over exaggeration. But it’s true. I see many people in the city with their hiking sticks either headed to an afternoon hike, or on the way down from one. Tristan and I’s hikes along the paths have been far from lonely at times. It’s been quite refreshing.

As mentioned, the paths and trails are exceptionally well maintained. The paths are clear of obstacles, overgrowth, and wide enough to permit rider and walker alike with ease. The trails and paths are clearly labeled notifying difficulty and priority (you know the rules of the road apply to the trail as well, yes?). For instance, on some narrower paths, hikers take priority over bikers. Another delight of these trails are all of the other little surprises you find along the way.

One such surprise was a little semi-circle of branches around a couple of trees that would make an excellent fort, according to Tristan. And random boulders throughout the forest make for lovely moody photo’s (my child has forgotten how to smile for pictures).

One must recall the history of the lands of Europe. From the times before the Roman conquest to modern wars, European land is full of history, myth, and legend. One can see much of this history in the castles and villages of Germany in places like Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Trier. But Landstuhl also holds quite a bit of history.

The area dates back to 500BCE and the time of the Celts. The Romans and Celts left behind much of their way of life in coins, pottery, and carvings in stone. On our hike to find what we thought was a lake (but ended up being a pond fed by a natural spring), we discovered stone carvings left by the Romans.

According to the sign placed at the site, the Pagan stones were left at what was considered a Holy Spring. They date to around the 2nd-4th century AD and likely depict Roman deities. The stones stand at a natural spring that runs down into a pond, both of which sit at the bottom of the Heather Cliffs (Tristan is very eager to climb the cliffs. Anyone interested in belaying the little bugger?). Benches are placed to overlook the pond, and a picnic table sits down near the small body of water. It was a rather peaceful little place. The wind in the trees rustled differently there. It was as if you could feel the old spirits that lingered. One feels the need to whisper and tread carefully; invisible eyes watching your every move. It was a little spooky, quite frankly.

I was drawn to the stones, having an inclination to run my fingers along the engravings – I resisted. I did however allow the water from the spring to run over my fingers. The water was crystal clear and cool. It absolutely fascinated me, this little area. I’m eager to see it in the Spring and summer when the leaves are vivid green and the weather warm. It delights me so that this little piece of history resides so close to our home.

Tristan was more impressed with the Heather Cliffs. He convinced me to find the path up to the rocky face. My poor little fat feet and ankles suffered a bit the next morning, but I was encouraged by his excitement to find lead clips hammered into the side of the cliff and need to send a photo to his climbing coaches currently living in Munich.

I had a sense of experiencing something quite magical – like I’d walked through time by placing my shoes along the paths of those centuries before me. It was an exceptional feeling that was only solidified by the towering trees. It was like walking through a fairy tale forest – wood nymphs and tree spirits hiding among stones. As the light fades from the sky, the ambiance of it only intensifies. It’s absolutely amazing.

While our pup had surgery, Tristan and I decided that a bike ride up to the castle would be a good distraction. It was also another beautiful day outside and to waste it would have been silly. So we packed up my new hiking bag, climbed onto our bikes, escaped through the back gate, and went forth into the wood. Many others had the same idea as the trails were full of runners, hikers, and bikers. All kept their distance as each passed with a smile and “hallo!”. The fresh air, exercise and vitamin D really boosted our demeanors.

The trail to the castle was excellent for novice mountain bikers like myself. There was an great lookout point to see the city below, and more boulders for Tristan to climb.

The rest of the way to the castle wasn’t as far as I had thought. The castle itself was busy with socially distanced families, hikers, and bikers. Unable to explore the inside of the castle, Tristan and I circled the outside walls, took in the views of the city below, and Tris climbed the walls. There was a little beirgarten off to the side that looks absolutely delightful when it’s open. There’s much to look forward to in our little city when the lockdown is released.

So, in the usual fashion, I’ll tell you a little bit about the burg.

Nanstein Castle seems to have been built in the late 1100’s to early 1200’s as part of a group of other castles built to protect the Kaiserslautern area (remember Alt-Wolfstein?). The other castles are Hohenecken and Beilstein. According to the Landstuhl tourismus website, ownership of the castle fell to Franz von Sickingen (a name that is still found all over Landstuhl). Sickingen updated the castle for firearms, and in 1523 the castle came under siege by Elector Ludwig V of the Palatinate, Archbishop Richard of Trier and Landgrave Philip I of Hesse. According to Wikipedia, this siege was known as The Knights Revolt. Sickingen was injured and died not long after.

The castle remained with the Sinkingen family. It was converted to a Renaissance palace, then later captured and partially destroyed by the Elector of Palatinate and later by French troops. In 1869, renovations of the castle began. The castle later falls under Bavarian ownership before Rhineland-Palatinate. A bit of history I found particularly interesting was its excavation and restoration in the late 80’s by three Serbian immigrants: the Galeano’s. By 1998, they had restored most of the castle themselves before it was turned back over to the government. They were given lands in return for their hard work.

In times outside of COVID, much like many other castles, a slew of activities and festivals occur at the castle. But for now, we’ll dream of future escapades.

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