The whole Alsace region (in which Sélestat lies) was neither considered part of France nor Germany until it was gradually annexed by France in the 17th century. In the 16th c., Sélestat was one of 10 cities which managed to keep their independence from the Holy Roman Empire, along with Strasbourg, Basle, etc.–something that people are still proud of today! It is right on Germany’s border, so in the 19th and 20th centuries France and Germany contested ownership and Alsace changed hands four times between France and Germany. Today Alsace belongs to France, and although everyone now speaks French – the official national language – most of the population is bilingual and still also can speak Alsacian (a German dialect).
Before Alsace became part of France (and the reason it took so long for France to annex Alsace) many barons owned the land and fought each other all the time to keep or protect them. And so there are many castles and strongholds through out the countryside. Today we biked about 4 kms to visit the remains of the Ortenbourg and Ramstein castles. Ortenbourg castle was built in the 13h century (with additions made in the 17th century). In the 1290s Ramstein was built just a little way down the mountain as a siege castle in order to take over Ortenbourg—just out of bow shot. Ortenbourg proved to be fairly difficult to take down because it was built so far up a steep mountain. However, it was eventually burned down and all that remains now are the stone walls. About two hills away (looks like a couple km, but actually about 9 away), is a major Alsace tourist attraction. Haut-Koenigsbourg is a huge and supposedly beautiful castle—it was restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II between 1901 and 1908, to demonstrate his connections to the Habsburgs and the Hohenstaufens–the old, inbred blue bloods that ran the old Holy Roman Empire. So far we have only seen it from a distance. We hope to visit Haut-Koenigsbourg on Tuesday (the library is closed Tuesdays) if the weather is good. The castle is about a 9 km bike ride to the base and then it will be quite the hike up!
So, back to the story… With the girls on our backs we biked until we hit the hiking trail to the castle and started our hike up. There were signs along the way leading us along the right trail. Apparently, the trails continue on through the mountains and lead you to other villages and castles! So if you wanted to make a hiking trip out of it, you could continue on for miles. If we had come prepared for hiking –and were actually on vacation and not on a work trip — it would have been so much fun to hike and camp through this area. Anyway, it was a beautiful (and fairly steep) hike which took us about 40 minutes to get to the top (altitude – 455m). About 30 minutes in we found the ruins of the Ramstein castle, but unfortunately it was fenced off. We did notice that there were a couple of guys there doing some repairs on the old castle. That would be a cool hobby! Anyway, you can see where it is in relation to the Ortenbourg castle in one of the posted pictures. Ortenbourg castle at the top and to the left Ramstein. Once we got to Ortenbourg we let the girls out of the backpacks and let them run around and follow the trail into the castle. The view and the castle were awesome. There was a diagram just at the entrance to the castle showing what it used to look like, until you see it, it’s hard to imagine what effect burning have done to this castle. There are still enough remaining walls (mostly just the shell of the castle) to get a sense of where things were and how it looked back in it’s prime. As you look around at the stone walls you can see where the support beams would have been and how cozy it may have felt with the large fireplace, windows and roof above. Unfortunately we were not able to get into the tower as the entrance was about two stories up and nothing remains of the stairwell (likely built out of wood….too bad it was burnt!). We had a great time walking through, especially because we were the only ones there. It felt like we found these old ruins while just hiking along. So much fun. The other castles we’ve seen you have to pay to get in and there are always other tourists with you. Not nearly as fun as exploring this old castle by ourselves. The kids did some exploring themselves, which was great because by the time we had finished Norah had walked around enough to accept being put back into her carrier. Sydney still wanted to walk so she hiked down with us. She did a great job and only got a couple of bumps. It was fairly steep with lots of roots sticking out. She was pretty tired and a little upset because she got some scratches along the way, but she loved it!
The ride back was beautiful…it was downhill most of the way so I was able to enjoy it, lol! But also, it was nearing 5-6pm and so the day was coming to a close, the air smelled clean, the light warm and cozy, and we were still enjoying the beautiful countryside.