A plethora of castles extends left and right along the Altmühl, Germany’s slowest river. Many of them have surprises in store: vultures, modern art, the world’s smallest dinosaur and heavenly four-poster beds! Text and photos by Dietmar Denger
Castles and vultures
When Mary the griffon vulture is bored or there aren’t enough thermals, she likes to call in at the Biergarten in the small town of Riedenburg. There’s always something to grab there. Or she collects the balls on the nearby tennis court. “They look like sweet little chicks,” laughs Gunter Hafner.
The falconer at Fortress Rosenburg is well aware of the escapades of his feathered charge. And for the people of Riedenburg, giant birds in the sky and around town have become a common sight ever since the former stonemason turned his hobby into a career many years ago and took over the falconry centre high above the town’s rooftops.
Rosenburg: a bird’s eye view
In the pretty inner courtyard of the building which dates back almost 800 years, Hafner is continuing an equally long tradition. Minnesang - lyric and song writing - and hunting with birds of prey were noble pastimes back in the Middle Ages, including for the Counts of Riedenburg. Gunter Hafner is less well versed in love songs, but when it comes to birds the ancient lords of the castle at Rosenburg would turn green with envy if they could see him at work.
The 50 residents at the falconry centre include some of the bigger bird species such as black vultures, Steppe eagles and Spanish Imperial eagles, then the medium-sized section including buzzards and owls, and finally the classic smaller stars such as Lanner falcons, gyrfalcons and peregrine falcons.
The showy birds popular in the age of chivalry are actually relatively small, like the hen falcon “Minnie”, who poses for selfies on the arms of visitors to the Rosenburg. When it comes to the flying displays, however, she shows her true colours.
Eagles have the memory of an elephant
Neatly lined up in the castle courtyard, the birds call, screech and shriek in excitement as they wait their turn. With an international team of falconers and bird trainers, Hafner releases his feathered stars twice a day. They skim so close overhead that visitors feel the downdraught of the wingbeats of the eagles and vultures in their hair.
Eagles can be extremely jealous
With the speed of a Formula 1 car, Minnie and her falcon colleagues streak past the crenellations and through the castle gateway, diving at such pace to pick up the meat snacks swung on a rope by Hafner that it’s hard to keep them in sight.
During the display, Hafner keeps the audience entertained with his anecdotes. For example, he explains that eagles are far from featherbrained creatures, but instead have the memory of an elephant and can also show a whole range of human characteristics.
Including jealousy, which means that Hafner’s wife can no longer show her face in front of some of the perches. He refers to his colourful flock as “my family”, and in their free time they are able to indulge in the joy of being as free as a bird.
Rabenstein, Tachenstein and Burg Prunn
As Mary the vulture and Minnie the falcon soar through the skies above Riedenburg, the “Town of Three Castles”, they look down on a genuine land of castles. Right next to the Rosenburg are the remains of Rabenstein and Tachenstein.
Schloss Eggersberg juts skywards a little distance up the valley, while two kilometres in the other direction Burg Prun sits on a steep limestone crag high above the Altmühl. With its high, fortified walls and its tower, Burg Prunn looks like the archetypal knight’s castle.
It is fitting, therefore, that one of the oldest manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied was found here back in the 16th century. The journey back in time continues inside, with a large Gothic hall, Late Gothic wall paintings and an exhibition featuring hunting and clothing, law and the role of women in the Middle Ages.
The remains of around 100 castles
There are very few places in this region which do not have a fortified wall or tower rising up on the nearest mountain ridge. Not even experts know precisely how many castle complexes are tucked away in the Nature Park Altmühltal.
“It has to be around 100 at any rate,” estimates the Kipfenberg-based archaeologist and district heritage official. Some castles fell victim to malicious neighbours back in medieval times. Ferns, trees and other lush vegetation of the southern Franconian Alps have long since obliterated almost all traces of them.
It may be that there are still some real treasures waiting to be unearthed! It is a beautiful landscape anyway. Between Treuchtlingen in the west and the Danube Gorge near Kelheim, and from Ingolstadt in the south to Greding in the north, the Nature Park offers a great many beauty spots over its almost 3,000 square kilometres.
Captivating small towns surrounded by timeless walls. Baroque opulence in churches and abbeys. Glowing green forests and sun-kissed juniper heathland. Narrow side valleys and steep rock faces. And through it all, the Altmühl River meanders from one beautiful picnic spot to another. Germany’s slowest river is equally popular with canoeists, beavers and romantic day-trippers. Always in the knowledge that there will be yet another castle round the next bend!
According to Karl Hein Rieder, such industrious castle building in the Middle Ages was all down to territorial sabre rattling, five hundred years before the region was assigned to the Kingdom of Bavaria in Napoleonic times. “In the south and the east of the modern-day Nature Park, the House of Wittelsbach called the shots.
The centre was ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Eichstätt, while in the west the House of Hohenzollern held power on the Altmühl.” And in amongst them all were the earldom of Pappenheim and Kaisheim Abbey. “In Weißenburg the City Council was in charge for centuries. And then there were also tribal affiliations!”
Today, the people of the Altmühltal coexist in perfect harmony, but Franconians, Swabians and Altbaiern didn’t always trust each other, opines Rieder. They preferred to hole up in fortresses.
Schloss Eggersberg: Lords and ladies for a night
The castles, which were once a symbol of defence and status, are now one of the main attractions in the Nature Park Altmühltal. Many can be seen on the Altmühltal-Panoramaweg, a walking trail that runs for 200 kilometres in ten day stages and passes all the highlights of the Nature Park.
One of the most attractive accommodation options along the route is “Schloss Eggersberg”. Here you can play at being lords and ladies, and fall into a 4-poster bed in the evening in one of the 14 colourful guest rooms - although with a degree of caution, as all the furniture is original!
Before that, you may wish to stroll through the beautiful garden, lovingly tended by the current tenants, the Schwarz family. And through the small private museum. Eggersberg is a place with a history reaching back millions of years.
A dinosaur the size of a poodle
One of the world’s smallest dinosaurs was found here. Compsognathus longipes was a carnivore, but only as big as a poodle, so the models on display are unlikely to cause nightmares.
During construction work on the Main-Danube canal, which runs below Eggersberg, a Celtic graveyard was also discovered. The longest, entirely preserved bronze Celtic belt from this site is on display in the castle.
Indeed, a number of excursions in the Altmühltal take you back in time. The world famous bird fossil Archaeopteryx was found here, Neanderthals hunted mammoths in this area, and people of the Bronze and Iron Ages laid their dead to rest in burial mounds.
The Celts settled on the shores of the Altmühl and the Romans covered the landscape with walls and forts, the Upper-Germanic Roman Limes, long before knights and counts adorned the mountaintops with castles.
Burg Kipfenberg: Romans and an early Bavarian
Anyone with a penchant for history must be sure to visit Kipfenberg. And the same goes for those in search of the very centre of Bavaria. The geographical midpoint of the state of Bavaria is home to one of the loveliest castles in the whole region, Burg Kipfenberg.
In this fairy tale building with its Romanesque and Gothic parts and a 13th century witches’ tower, you can get married by candlelight and delve deep into history in the “Roman and Bajuwaren Museum” in the outer bailey.
The main focus of the museum is a depiction of the Roman era in the Province of Raetia, the rise and fall of the Upper-Germanic Roman Limes, the Migration Period and the emergence of the Bajuwaren. The museum was established here because of a Germanic war grave from the 5th century, which was discovered near Kipfenberg.
The “Krieger von Kemathen“ was a Germanic soldier serving in the Roman Army. The reconstruction of this early Bavarian with his lavish burial objects is the highlight of the museum. Through its carefully staged rooms, the museum shows how people lived on the northern edge of the empire. Visitors both large and small can also slip into Roman suits of armour.
More about the Nature Park Altmühltal, castles and palaces.