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Stahleck Castle

Stahleck Castle in Bacharach towers over the Rhine Valley like a medieval fortress. It almost seems as if the stone beauty perched on its spur is watching over the picturesque little town at the foot of the castle hill. With its high frontal wall, an imposing castle keep and a neck ditch carved into the rock, it looks like an impregnable guardian from days long past. But appearances can be deceiving: in the course of its history, Stahleck has been damaged many times and even almost destroyed completely. The complex was only built in its present form in the 20th century.

There is no reliable record of exactly when the castle’s history began. Experts suspect that it was built in the 11th century. The archbishops of Cologne most likely wanted to use the complex as an outpost for their territory. The first reliable information comes from a document dating from 1135: in this, Count Goswin von Höchstadt is named as the liege of the castle.

When his son Hermann took over the castle and was later appointed Count Palatine by his brother-in-law Konrad III, Stahleck Castle rose to become the centre of power in the Rhenish Palatinate. After Hermann’s death in 1156, Konrad von Hohenstaufen took over the post. He belonged to the noble House of Staufer, who had been in conflict with the Welf dynasty for several decades. Stahleck Castle was to later play an important role in this historic conflict.

“Stahleck Wedding” leads to reconciliation

Konrad’s daughter and sole heiress Agnes, who according to her family’s will was to marry the French King Philip II, instead secretly married her great love Heinrich von Braunschweig from the House of Welf at Stahleck Castle in 1194. It was not only the bride and groom who celebrated a happy ending: the “Stahleck Wedding” led to a brief reconciliation between the two feuding dynasties.

In the years to follow, the Counts Palatine changed many times. Among them was the Wittelsbach king Ludwig I, who moved his main residence to Heidelberg in 1214. But Stahleck remained the venue for important events. In the second half of the 14th century, the building became part of Bacharach’s town fortifications. Afterwards, however, the castle became less and less important for the Counts Palatine.

Destruction after violent conflicts

Things were to get even worse during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648): the castle was besieged by various troops and severely damaged during violent conflicts. Although Count Palatine Karl Ludwig had the damage repaired in 1666, the castle did not survive the following Nine Years’ War (1688–1697): French troops set fire to the complex’s powder supplies in 1689, causing an explosion that almost completely destroyed Stahleck.

When the war ended, the remaining ruins initially became the property of the Electoral Palatinate. They were promised to France in the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801 and to Prussia at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm IV bought the ruins in 1828 but did not have the castle rebuilt.

Reconstruction in the 20th century

Things only started to move at the beginning of the 20th century: the Rhineland Association for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and the Protection of Cultural Heritage took over the ruins and carried out repair work, but this was interrupted by the First World War. In the 1920s, the decision was made to completely rebuild the complex. This was followed by the restoration of the curtain and frontal walls as well as securing the castle keep and removing debris from the neck ditch. A youth hostel was also built on the site.

Construction work continued during the Nazi era but ended with the start of the Second World War. From 1940 onwards, the National Socialists used the complex as a Wehrmacht hospital. Afterwards they operated a youth re-education camp here and later a youth punishment camp.

"...like an indomitable watchdog of long-past times."

Youth hostel with a view of the Rhine Valley

Two years after the war ended, the youth hostel, which still exists today, was able to reopen. In the 1960s, the complex underwent a further expansion. Although it only took on its current form in the 20th century and only parts of the castle keep, the curtain wall and the great hall remain from the original castle, Stahleck Castle still conveys medieval flair. Visitors to Bacharach should make sure they plan a trip to this historic site. The buildings of the complex are only open to guests of the youth hostel, but the inner courtyard is accessible to visitors and offers an incredible view of the Rhine.

 

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