Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Water Castles in Munsterland, Germany

On my recent post I talked about visiting a landlord’s house in Northwest Westphalia. It made me wonder who did the landlord answer to? He was the collector but was there someone over him. In some cases the landlord of a large farm was the collector for the noble family or church "owner" of the land. They would live in a larger castle or palace or ornate Residence House. So we traveled a little south into Münsterland to see some of these Castles or Wasserschloss (water castles) of the ruling classes.

The actual Münsterland: a settled landscape of woods, scattered farms, windmills, travel-poster villages with neat market squares, church spires, and a profusion of moated castles, fortresses, and manor houses all situated on islands in man-made lakes.

These Wasserburgen and Wasserschloss, as they are called, make the Münsterland one of Germanys most unusual and rewarding travel destinations. Nowhere else will you find as many old chateaus in such a small area.


What makes them all the more unusual is that, unlike other German castles, they do not perch atop craggy cliffs or steep mountains but simply pop out of the level plain.


Most of them have origins in the 9th and 10th centuries, after Münster itself had become a powerful church state ruled by prince-bishops who had ecclesiastical as well as worldly authority. Various knights and barons settled in the region as feudal lords and landed gentry. They never bothered trying to find a hill on which to build their castles because there are none. The land is as flat as a tabletop. But it is laced by innumerable waterways. Thus, the first sites, dating back 1000 and more years, were simply fortified houses on circular plots of land cut out of the fertile soil, surrounded by ramparts and moats, the water for which came from re-routing and damming the many creeks and streams. By the 12th century a more elaborate style evolved; man-made mounds of earth on which the castle stood, guarded by thick walls with towers and turrets, surrounded by artificial lakes. The chateaus, in effect, were on islands.

I had seen a picture of Schloss Nordkirchen in some travel brochure and Matthias agreed to take me to see it. Schloss Nordkirchen is called the "Versailles of Westphalia." The label is not just local bragging. Versailles was what Prince-Bishop Count Friedrich Christian von Plettenberg envisioned as a model when, in 1694, he bought the original moated castle of Nordkirchen from a local nobleman and commissioned architect Gottfried Pictorius to turn that modest property into a grand summer residence, replete with landscaped park and canals for pleasure boats.

Money, he said, should be no obstacle, so Pictorious spent what was then a king’s ransom, 240,000 thalers, to create a vast palace in the style of French chateaus. Neither the bishop nor his builder lived to see completion of the project and it was Plettenbergs nephew Ferdinand who retained Johann Conrad Schlaun to finish the job.


It is one of Germany’s largest, most lavishly appointed palaces: a complex of eight huge wings extending from a central tract in a strikingly harmonious juxtaposition of maroon-colored brick with carved sandstone embellishments. The 430-acre park surrounding the lake and canals is dotted with manicured lawns and flowerbeds, statues of Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, cupids, satyrs and figures of hunting dogs and charging wild boars. Chestnut trees, 200 years old, line the lanes and paths.


Though the building is now owned and used by Northrhine-Westphalia’s finance ministry as a training center for its tax agents, the ornate rooms and chambers, all splashes of intricate stucco work with gold leaf and ceiling frescoes, can be viewed on one-hour guided tours Saturday, Sunday and holiday afternoons. It so happens we were there during the week so no tour of the inside but it was gorgeous day weather wise, had some sun and it wasn’t as cold as it was the day before, so I enjoyed walking through the garden and seeing a Wasserschloss up close and personal. There were lots of people picnicking on the grounds, apparently since it is a public building the public can use the grounds. Nice day and all I can say is "It must have been nice to be the rich and powerful."

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