Much like Périgord, Alsace is one of the regions of France that has the most medieval castles. More than 500 are counted here, mostly distributed from north to south, at the foothills of the Vosges. Even if they are for the most part in ruin, their silhouettes, perched at the top of the Vosges Mountains, have been a part of the countryside for centuries, thus defying time. As previously, these castles still seem to dominate the Alsace Plain even today, watching over the Vosges valleys, communication channels and sometimes the abbeys.
The châteaux along the foothills of the Vosges
The fortified castles were places of power, residences and sometimes administrative centres. They reinforce the protection of a territory and its inhabitants, thus concreting the power of the local lord.
Built in stone from the 12th century, they were created in large numbers, as witnesses of the strategic important of Alsace in the Middle Ages and of its political and seigniorial division. The construction and maintenance of these castles lasted from the 12th to the 14th century, which was a period characterised by the height of the local nobility.
The eagle nest construction of the castles at the top of the hills overlooking the Wine Route was completed following rivalries and conflicts between several noble families (the Eguisheim-Dabo family, the Hohenstaufens, the Ferrettes, and the Habsburgs) and between bishops (of Strasbourg and Basel) and Holy Roman Emperors.
But life at the top of these hills was rather rough and uncomfortable. From the 14th century, the nobility thought it was preferable to abandon their castles in favour of living in the wealthy cities and villages below. The fortresses either became ruins or the centre of a military garrison, or the hideout for knight thieves – otherwise known as the thugs that robbed nobles and merchants who were passing through the road between Strasbourg and Basel.
Following the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the castles lost their military and strategic importance. King Louis XIV ordered the unification of Alsace into a single province and the border of the Kingdom of France was aligned further east, on the Rhine. The castles, some of which were already in a pitiful state, fell into ruin.
It was not until the 19th century that interest in the heritage of the past surfaced, in the name of medieval romanticism and chivalry. In the 20th century, thanks to the development of the hiking association ‘Club Vosgien’, the castle ruins became a destination for walking and discovery. From 1945, local authorities and associations have been trying to stop erosion of the ruins and are investing in their partial restoration.
Some castles still have a great reputation and are in good condition, with their imposing ruins evoking respect and admiration. This is especially true for the castles of Haut-Kœnigsbourg, Ribeauvillé, Hohlandsbourg, Éguisheim and Haut-Andlau. The three Castles of Eguisheim especially, bear witness to the turbulent history of the region in the Middle Ages.
The Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle is one of the most visited tourist locations in France, with nearly 500,000 visitors each year. Perched at 747 metres high, it dominates the Rhineland Plain, watching over all the roads leading to Lorraine or crossing Alsace. It was greatly restored from 1901 to 1908 under the orders of Kaiser William II, a great admirer of medieval romanticism.
The three castles of Ribeauvillé
Ribeauvillé and its vicinity were the possession of the powerful Lords of Ribeaupierre, a local dynasty who built the three castles which still dominate the town. The ruins are accessible by hiking footpaths from the town.
The Saint-Ulrich castle (left) is by far the most impressive, although the smallest at 528 metres. Saint Ulrich is also the oldest: its construction started in the 11th century. The castle features three architectural styles: Romanesque, Gothic and Early Renaissance.
The Girsberg castle (centre), built in the 13th century by the Ribeaupierre, was given to house the knights of Girsberg in 1304.
The Haut-Ribeaupierre castle (top right) is the highest of the three at 642 metres. Only the circular keep stands today, on top of which there is a commanding view over the Alsace Plain and the Black Forest (Germany) in the distance.
The castles of Éguisheim and the Five Castles Itinerary
The village of Éguisheim is overlooked by a series of five castles which are linked by a small tourist road that winds through the hills of the Vosges close to Éguisheim: the “Route des Cinq Châteaux”.
Continuing along the Alsace Wine Route towards the south, the next village of Husseren-les-Chateaux marks the highest point of the tourist itinerary (387 metres), from where you can admire the harmonious mixture of steep hillsides and gentle rolling fields. This countryside is protected by the three castles of Eguisheim, which stand atop the hill of Schollsberg at almost 600 metres high. These are, from south to north, Weckmund, Wahlenbourg (the oldest of the three, built in the 11th century), and Dagsbourg. The three fortresses have kept their huge square and red sandstone keep.
Their history is representative of that of the entire medieval Alsace, whose territory was divided into small territories belonging to local lords who were at war for political or economic reasons.
The hill of the castles belonged to the powerful Eguisheim-Dabo family. The extinction of the Dabo-Eguisheim dynasty in 1225 initiated the deterioration of the political situation.
The three castles were rightly coveted by the Counts of Ferrette, contrary to the opinion of the Bishop of Strasbourg who declared that he was the sole beneficiary. A war ensued between the bishop on one side, and the Ferrette family and Emperor Henry VII on the other. Once peace had been restored in 1251, the bishop kept the Dagsbourg castle while the Weckmund and the Wahlenbourg castles were returned to the Count of Ferrette.
The castles were burned during the “War of the Six Deniers” (1466), in a disagreement between the bourgeois of Mulhouse and the local gentry, and they were never rebuilt.
The castles of Haut-Eguisheim can be accessed from the Route des Cinq Châteaux from Husseren-les-Châteaux (D14) or after Wintzenheim in the Saint-Gilles locality (D417). From the carpark in the middle of the forest, it takes fifteen minutes to reach the castles on foot, and an hour and a half to visit them.
The Hohlandsbourg Castle
The imposing Hohlandsbourg castle was built in 1279 by Siegfried de Gundolsheim, provost-marshal of the city of Colmar, to become the residence of the seigniory of the Habsburg family. Unlike the surrounding castles, it was not built in sandstone from the Vosges, but rather in granite.
At 620 metres high, it provided a good view for its occupants to watch over the city of Colmar, which the bourgeois residents of Colmar did not appreciate at all. They revolted in 1281 and burned down the castle, with the help of the great bailiff Otton von Ochenstein.
The castle fell under the control of the Austrian city of Ensisheim (Upper Alsace) in 1303, before being given in fief to the Ribeaupierre family by Duke Rudolf IV of Habsburg in 1363, and then to the Counts of Lupfen in 1410 who extended it.
In 1562, Lazare of Schwendi, the advisor to Emperor Charles V, bought back the seigniory along with the castle. The fortress was once again reinforced by bastions and by a new door equipped with a drawbridge. This great General of the Habsburgs would have brought the Tokay from Hungary to Alsace.
The castle was bombed by mercenaries of the Swedish army in 1633 and was eventually demolished by the French in 1637, out of fear of seeing it fall into the hands of the Austrian army.
It was listed as a historic monument in 1840 and major restorations commenced in the 1990s for it to become a historic and cultural centre.
The Pflixbourg Castle
The Pflixbourg castle is not visible from the Alsace Plain, but can be found along the road that crosses through the Munster Valley, which it towers above at 454 metres high.
Dating from the 13th century, it has changed owners many times (notably the Hattstatt and Ribeaupierre families) up until the 15th century, and it does not seem to have been inhabited since.
The fortress was the former residence of the representative of the Holy Roman Emperor in Alsace. From the circular keep located in the middle of the courtyard, you can admire beautiful views of the Munster Valley, which is famous for its cheese!
The Pflixbourg castle underwent serious restorations in 1864, 1983 and 2006.
The castles of the Sundgau
The castles of Ferrette
Guarding the entrance to the green mountains of Jura and located at only 12 km from the Swiss border, the former capital of the Counts of Ferrette is arguably the jewel of the Sundgau. Its site is picturesque: situated in the forest covered foothills of the Alsatian Jura Mountains, the pleasant little town has attracted more and more visitors over the last decades.
The little town of Ferrette itself is a modest place barely evoking the important fortified settlement founded by the Counts of Ferrette. The dynasty – as well as the town – were locally known through their Germanic name: Pfirt, francized by Ferrette.
Thrust up on a rock above the little town, and guarding the Alsatian Jura, the ruins of two feudal castles are still an imposing testimony to the Sundgau’s History. They belonged to the Counts of Ferrette who used to live up there. The formidable fortress was ruined during the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648).
A delightful steep path leads to the upper platform of the keep which, at 612 meters, commands remarkable views of the Sundgau hills, the Vosges and the Black Forest mountain range in Germany. The view over rolling and lush fields of the Sundgau reminds us that this is a land of plenty.
Read more about Ferrette here.
Read more about tourism in Alsace here.