To the Castles - Page 2

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I strike out, then, for Burgenland ("Land of Castles"). For centuries, this region southeast of Vienna served as Christendom's eastern front against the onslaughts of Ottoman Muslims. It still bristles with hilltop fortresses. Burg Forchtenstein is the most impressive by far.

Catching sight of Forchtenstein looming out of the mist is like a blow to the solar plexus. It emerges from the side of the Rosalia Mountains in strata, culminating in a huge, teardrop-shaped keep that tapers into a red spire.

I've heard that in spring sunshine, surrounded by flowering fruit trees, Forchtenstein is a vision of fairy-tale beauty. On a winter afternoon, it seems a fortress with an attitude, daring anyone with hopes of conquest, "Just try it."

That attitude is well deserved. Forchtenstein was never captured, even when Turks overran the Countryside in 1683. Like Durnstein, the castle dates from medieval times, but Forchtenstein was rebuilt to withstand cannon fire. The Hungarian count Nikolaus Esterhazy was given the stronghold in 1622, and within three years, his new residence was reconstructed and ready to hold off the Turks. With three sides hanging off the mountain, its single entrance blocked by a moat and a drawbridge, it proved impregnable.

Built for war, Forchtenstein is now a monument to war—home to one of Europe's biggest armories, and shrine to the bellicose Esterhazys. Guns, pikes, saddles, regimental flags captured in battle, helmets, armor, Turkish guns, and equipment—even a gigantic Turkish field tent—fill the rooms, just as they did during the reign of the Esterhazys. It's authentic, but it's sad; Forchtenstein is untouched because it was unloved. The Esterhazys didn't like living there, and in times of peace, they didn't. Their silken hose, frock coats, and huge hoop skirts belonged in an elegant city palace, not a freezing rural fortress.

Practically speaking
Forchtenstein is open from April to October; private tours can be arranged during the winter.

Riegersburg: Debauchery and Witchery
The inscription is faint, feathery, etched by a diamond in the leaded window: 1635. "From 5 April, everyone in this place was drunk until 26 April." In Riegersburg Castle, the Ursenbeck brothers looked out the window of the lofty Knights' Hall toward the encroaching borders of the Ottoman Empire, laughed, scratched graffiti and their fleas, and tapped another keg.

Passed from hand to hand since its founding in 1122, the castle lies only 15 miles from the Hungarian border. That's how close the Turks came sometimes, forcing thousands of peasants and farmers to seek shelter in Riegersburg. But when the Turks were away, the Ursenbeck brothers played. Sometimes they went hunting (hence, the antlers on the walls). The rest of the time they debauched in the Knights' Hall. Ignoring the hall's exquisite inlaid ceiling and entrances, the Ursenbecks preferred the exit to a stone walkway dubbed the Speib brucke, or "barf bridge."

Fifty years later, accusations of witchery replaced debauchery. A portrait features a lovely, brown-eyed woman with a huge vase of white roses. "She's the Flower Witch," our guide explains, "Katharina Pardauff, the wife of the administrator of the castle. She was burned as a witch in 1675 because she made flowers bloom in the snow." As we leave the palace, our guide wants to show us the witch museum, one of Riegersburg's main attractions. I resist, thinking of the Flower Witch, burned for her green thumb.

Practically Speaking
Riegersburg Castle is open April through October.

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