My favourite schlösser
Updated: Nov 29, 2018
Schloss is the German world for castle or palace and, wherever you are in Germany, you are never very far from one of these. For most of its history, Germany was not a single country but a patchwork of independent royal states held together under the banner of an empire. The dukes and princes who ruled these states were passionate builders and have left behind a marvellous legacy in the thousands of schlösser (the plural of schloss) that dot the German countryside. For anyone who is interested in royal history, Germany is a delight to visit.
I started to write about schlösser when my husband and I began to spend time in Germany. We drive around the countryside, visiting some out-of-the-way places and the local schlösser. We have seen some wonderful buildings in stunningly beautiful locations and also learned much about German history. I have now written four books, together covering eleven of Germany’s federal states. Each book includes twenty-five different schlösser and explores these from two perspectives. The first is my experience as an overseas visitor; the second, the colourful stories of the historical royal characters connected with them. Royalty have always been the celebrities of their day, and these royal stories from history can rival anything you read about in Hello magazine. Visiting German schlösser is a lot of fun!
Every one of the one hundred schlösser in my books is memorable and fascinating in its own distinct way. But here, after much thought, is my personal Top 10 list with the reasons why. I stress they are a personal choice and readers may well have their own favourites. A reason for writing these books is to encourage more overseas visitors to visit German schlösser, so if there are any on my list you have not yet seen, I urge a visit. But beware! What I call Schloss Hunting is an infectious bug and once you get it (as I have) it can be hard to shake off.
The glory of the setting and the beautiful gardens make Pillnitz in Saxony one of my favourite schlösser. Twin buildings, in Chinese baroque style, face each other across a formal pleasure garden, surrounded by a large park. The Water Palace (Wasserpalais) fronts onto the River Elbe, with elegant curving steps down to the water. The best way to arrive at Pillnitz is by paddle steamer from the Brühl Terrace in Dresden, a few miles upstream. Across the formal garden is the matching Mountain Palace (Bergpalais), with avenues of old lime and chestnut trees behind it.
Pillnitz is the creation of the colourful Elector Friedrich August I (1670-1733) of Saxony. He is the most famous member of their royal family and better known to history as Augustus the Strong, by virtue of both his physical strength and political power. Some of the later kings of Saxony were keen botanists who developed the gardens at Pillnitz and built up a famous plant collection. The schloss still has a large collection of plants in pots, which are brought outdoors in the summer. We visited in spring and saw the gardens at their best, with the plants in pots on show and the sun shining. The scented lilac garden at the schloss, in a display of standard lilac trees with intertwined and twisted trunks, was in full bloom.
Oranienstein at Diez in Rhineland-Palatinate is on my list because this schloss provided some surprises! To start with, it was a surprise to arrive and find ourselves outside the locked gates of an army base. Oranienstein was occupied by French troops after World War II and after they left the Federal government stepped in and renovated the schloss. In 1962 it was taken over by the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) and today it houses the Army Regional Medical Care Command, who share the schloss with a museum. At the beginning of the guided tour we were escorted through the base until, around a corner, a view of the schloss came into sight. Oranienstein is beautifully maintained by the German Army.
Another surprise was that most of the visitors on our tour were Dutch. They were following a tourist trail called The Orange Route, which runs from the Netherlands through Germany, connecting sites that are linked to the history of the Dutch royal family. Oranienstein was built between 1671 and 1684 by the nine times great-grandmother of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands. Albertine Agnes of Nassau-Diez was born a princess of Orange and she called her schloss Oranienstein (Orange-stone) in honour of her Dutch heritage. The museum has a huge family tree, and many portraits, covering the fifteen hundreds up to date. I hugely enjoyed finding out the history of the Dutch House of Orange.
I chose Wilhelmsthal at Calden in Hesse because I love the rococo style. This schloss was not on my radar until I got a tip-off from a curator somewhere else. I have learnt from experience that such recommendations are worthwhile, and so we followed the advice. Thank goodness we did as Wilhelmsthal is a masterpiece of rococo art.
Wilhelmsthal was built by the landgraves of Hesse-Kassel between 1747 and 1773. The guided tour starts in the Beauty Gallery (Schönheitengalerie), named after the twenty-eight portraits of beautiful women that line its duck-egg-blue walls. The rococo style is characterised by elaborate but delicate decoration, and the use of curves, light colours, gold, and mirrors to create a feeling of elegance, lightness, and informality. We saw a series of delightful rooms in this playful style at Wilhelmsthal, decorated in pastel colours with elaborate plasterwork and gilding.
What is special is that much of what you see – both the layout of the rooms and the décor – is original from the time the schloss was built. This means that the visitor gets a real glimpse into the life of the landgraves in the eighteenth century and of their servants too. The guided tour includes some of the servants’ quarters. I was impressed with a handy little arrangement where a concealed door by the side of the bed in the landgravine’s bedroom leads first to her private lavatory, then to a kitchenette where her maid could prepare hot drinks, and finally to a small room which doubled as the walk-in wardrobe of the mistress and bedroom of the maid.
The warm welcome at Saalfeld in Thuringia makes this a favourite. The schloss has been government offices since the 1920s but we decided to call in at the bürgerbüro (where the locals pay their motor tax) on the off chance. We got a wonderful reception from the lady behind the desk who called up a colleague to come and talk to us. He turned out to be a fellow royal history enthusiast who provided information about the history of the schloss and took us on a personal tour of the building. The historic interiors have long since been lost as Saalfeld was adapted to meet its new use. But what has survived is the magnificent chapel, inaugurated in 1720 and rightly described as a jewel of the baroque. Saalfeld may be a small schloss but its chapel can rival anything I have seen!
At Saalfeld they proudly told me about the schloss’s connection with Prince George of Cambridge. There were celebrations in Saalfeld when George was born in July 2013; his birth was covered in the newspapers, and the town’s brew master brewed a special Prince George’s beer. Saalfeld is a long way from London where George was born, but to them he is more than just a far-away royal celebrity. This is because Saalfeld played an important part in his ancestry. Prince George is a direct descendant (the ten times great-grandson) of Duke Johann Ernst, the first duke of Saxe-Saalfeld and builder of the schloss. The town feels its place in the ancestry of the British royal family is often overlooked.
Great curating at Celle in Lower Saxony is why this is one of my Top 10. Celle was the first schloss we visited for my first book and it set the standard against which I measured others to come. The curators at Celle had done an excellent job in displaying the contents to hold the visitor’s attention and tell the story of the schloss and its royal inhabitants. And there is a great story to tell because Celle has an important role in how a German duke came to be king of Great Britain. The family drama and machinations that were played out here hundreds of years ago – involving sibling rivalry, a scheming mistress, an unwanted fiancé, and an imprisoned wife – can rival any plot in a modern-day soap opera!
One of the characters in this family drama is Electress Sophia of Hannover. She has an amazing life story. In 1680, when she was fifty years old, Sophia wrote her memoirs to amuse herself while her husband was away. Although written nearly two hundred and forty years ago, her voice still comes down to us through history loud and clear. Born the twelfth child of an impoverished and exiled king and queen, Sophia died aged eighty-three as heiress to the throne of Great Britain. If she had lived eight weeks longer, she would have succeeded her distant kinswoman, Queen Anne. Instead, Sophia’s eldest son succeeded as King George I when Anne died on 1 August 1714.
Augustusburg at Brühl in North Rhine-Westphalia is a dazzling baroque palace built by Clemens August, archbishop-elector of Cologne. He laid the foundation stone in 1725, while he was still a young man. Clemens August was one of the most powerful princes in Germany who held numerous high offices and was the brother of the Holy Roman emperor. His schloss was designed to impress and on the grand pediment of the front are symbols and badges of his high birth and the great positions he held. Augustusburg and its gardens are so important historically and architecturally that they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One reason Augustusburg is on my list is the treppenhaus or ceremonial staircase. This is an astonishingly beautiful space – and also something of a conjuring trick. Standing at the bottom of the staircase, I was overwhelmed by the glowing colours, the gorgeous pillars and statues, and the superb metal railings. But it was not until we climbed the stairs that the whole vista opened up. The staircase rises gloriously through four floors of amazing and elaborate decoration to a ceiling painting twenty metres above, the colours becoming lighter as it goes. The theme of all this magnificent decoration is (of course) Clemens August and his power as an absolute ruler. The staircase was cleverly designed to make the best use of the limited space, and to draw the eye up. The effect is stupendous and uplifting.
Augustusburg has a lively English audio guide, full of interesting information and stories. I learned, for example, about Clemens August’s hygiene regime (he rarely took a bath but sponged himself everyday with Eau de Cologne); and also the mechanics of a flea trap, which was worn in a wig or crinoline to catch the fleas and lice that were a daily fact of eighteenth-century life.
One day in spring 1829, when he was on a walking tour, seventeen-year-old Crown Prince Maximilian of Bavaria (later King Maximilian II) came across an old castle. Maximilian fell in love with the romantic setting and the crumbling buildings and decided to buy the schloss and restore it. It took a long time because the vendor could sense that Maximilian was keen, but eventually the deal was done. Hohenschwangau in Bavaria was transformed into one of the most enchanting places I have ever been. This delightful mock-medieval castle, with ochre-coloured walls, blue and white striped blinds, and a magical interior where the walls are painted with history, is set in a jewel of a garden amid stunning mountain scenery and must have been the perfect holiday home.
In 1842, after a trawl of the available princesses, Maximilian married Princess Marie of Prussia. Like her husband, Marie fell in love with Hohenschwangau at first sight and described it as her favourite place on earth. The couple spent several weeks at Hohenschwangau each year and this schloss had a powerful effect on their eldest son’s imagination; here is the inspiration for King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s dream castles.
King Maximilian II suffered from ill-health and died in 1864 at the age of fifty-two. There has been little written about him in English and he is usually portrayed as a dull intellectual whose poor parenting may have contributed to the personality disorder of his son. You only have to go Hohenschwangau to feel that this is a one-dimensional pen-picture. I really hope there will be a biography of King Maximilian II in English soon.
From the moment we arrived at Mosigkau in Saxony-Anhalt, I knew I would like this schloss. The paint was peeling and the gardens looked neglected but I had a good feeling as we hurried through the grand gates and across the courtyard, although I can’t explain exactly why. The ticket office was shut and we had missed the last tour of the day. All was not lost however – we could see a small group of people, apparently listening to a guide. This charming lady was taken aback when we approached her but kindly agreed we could join her tour. And so I got to see the beautiful interior of this favourite schloss.
Mosigkau was built in the 1750s by Princess Anna Wilhelmine of Anhalt-Dessau. At that time it was usual for princesses to be married very young, to a husband chosen by their parents for reasons of state. So I was intrigued to learn that Anna Wilhelmine did not marry, and no-one seems to know quite why. She was given her own income from state revenues, and when she got a family inheritance Anna Wilhelmine used it to build Mosigkau as her summer residence. The largest and grandest room is the Gartensaal (Garden Hall), where the walls are hung with Dutch masterpieces including Brueghel, Rubens, and Van Dyke. Anna Wilhelmine’s grandmother was the wealthy Dutch princess who brought these treasures with her as a bride. There are several portraits of Anna Wilhelmine at the schloss, painted at different times of her life. In all of them she looks directly out of the picture at the onlooker, with a self-contained and steady gaze. I want to go back to Mosigkau and try to find out more about Anna Wilhelmine’s story.
Mosigkau is part of a whole ensemble of palaces and parks that make up another of Germany’s World Heritage Sites called The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Kingdom. This is a huge landscape park created by Anna Wilhelmine’s nephew, Prince Franz of Anhalt-Dessau, to link up all the family schlösser. When the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe visited he said that the kingdom was like ‘an unfolding fairy-tale’.
Bückeburg in Lower Saxony is in my Top 10 because it is a treasure house of history and art. The schloss was built in phases between the fourteenth and twentieth centuries and has always been in the ownership of the same family. It has survived the centuries intact, without suffering the same fate of destruction or neglect that affected so many other schlösser. As a result of this continuity Bückeburg is a special place.
Bückeburg is the ancestral home of the Schaumburg-Lippe family, who were the rulers of a small principality of the same name. Schaumburg-Lippe may have been the smallest of German states but its ruling family were a talented lot. They included passionate builders who have left a rich architectural legacy, a good businessman who built up the family fortunes to make them one of the richest German royal families, and astute politicians who ensured the survival of this tiny country right up to the end of the German monarchy in 1918. Schaumburg-Lippe avoided the fate of its much bigger neighbours, of being swallowed up by Prussia.
At Bückeburg we enjoyed one of the best guided tours I have ever taken. So many things have stayed in my mind from this. In my experience guided tours are variable, depending on the knowledge and approach of the guide. Too often they are a rehearsed patter with visitors herded from room to room on a timetable. Here our guide was an expert art historian who showed great knowledge of and genuine interest in the history of the schloss, and switched easily from German to English to connect with visitors. Bückeburg even has a good coffee shop in the old kitchens – always a plus!
Number one on my Top 10 list, and my all-time favourite schlösser, is the captivating schloss at Berchtesgaden close to the Austrian border near Salzburg. Most overseas visitors come to this area to see the site of Hitler’s holiday home on the Obersalzberg, and to visit the mountain-top teahouse called the Eagle’s Nest that the Nazi party gave him as a fiftieth birthday present. So I was thrilled to discover a traditional Alpine village and a schloss with a history that goes back nine hundred years. Berchtesgaden was a favourite with the Bavarian royal family long before Hitler came to power and the personality that has stamped itself most on this schloss is that of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria – an opponent of the Nazis.
The schloss is a converted Augustinian monastery, originally founded in 1102. The contents of the monastery were dispersed when it was dissolved in 1803 and everything in the schloss now was brought from other Wittelsbach family schlösser. The family were great collectors and Rupprecht showed exquisite taste in selecting and arranging these treasures. This is what makes Berchtesgaden so very special. The schloss developed over centuries in different architectural styles, starting with romanesque in the twelfth-century cloisters and finishing with the rococo salons from the 1780s. The crown prince followed the approach of matching the contents of each room to its age and style, and the result is stunning!
Rupprecht was popular with Bavarians and during the years he lived at Berchtesgaden there was a widespread belief that he would soon be recalled as king. But instead the Nazis gained ground. The crown prince spent the war years in exile in Italy and was eventually forced into hiding. His wife and five daughters (aged nine to twenty-one) were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After the war Rupprecht still hoped to regain the throne but this was never in the mind of the Allied occupying forces. He devoted his last years to his art collection and died in 1955.
Schloss Berchtesgaden has everything to enchant the visitor – beautiful setting, exquisite contents, an interesting history of its own, and the enthralling story of Crown Prince Rupprecht. We even got the guided tour in English, courtesy of the only other two (German) visitors!
Susan Symons is the author of four books on The Fascinating Royal History of German Castles. Her latest book is ‘Schloss in Bavaria’ ISBN 978-0-9928014-6-5.