Sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains and the Rhine River — each a potential natural boundary — the Alsace region has bounced back and forth between France and other powers for centuries. The Holy Roman Empire owned the contested region for a time, and the tug of war continued when the empire consolidated into Germany. Between 1871 and 1945, Alsace switched hands no fewer than four times, finally becoming the French possession that it remains today.
Picturesque castles punctuate a storybook landscape of forested hills, tidy vineyards and well-preserved half-timbered towns.
It should come as no surprise then to see the ruins of castles in every strategic location. Now that Alsace is a peaceful and prosperous wine region, the castles look picturesque, not intimidating. They punctuate a storybook landscape of forested hills, tidy vineyards and well-preserved half-timbered towns. Some castles draw lots of tourists, but others are quiet, even in summer.
On our recent visit to Alsace, we explored four contrasting castles in between wine tastings. Each one afforded memorable panoramas of the countryside and merited the effort — sometimes significant — to reach it.
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg was the most easily accessible and most crowded of the Alsatian castles we visited. A fortification has stood on this site since at least the 12th century, but the current structure owes much of its appearance to an early 20th-century restoration. After being burned in the Thirty Years’ War, Haut-Kœnigsbourg stood derelict for some 250 years, until Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to restore it in 1900 (helping to cement his claim to Alsace, which became a German possession in 1871).
It now rises from its mountaintop perch like something out of a fairy tale. The restorers made use of decorative objects found in the rubble of the ruins as much as possible. For example, the ornate ceramic stoves in the living quarters are clad in tiles copied from those discovered on-site. Many of the rooms display lavish decoration, including the grand and colorful Kaiser’s Hall, a many-antlered room for hunting trophies and a wood-paneled hall displaying armory. Avoid visiting on weekends and holidays, when crowds are thickest. Parking is on the road leading up to the castle — there is no lot. Don’t park too soon, if you can help it, or you’ll face a long uphill walk to the entrance (already an uphill walk from the closest space). If you go too far, you can always circle back around.
A narrow, winding road leads to this castle’s parking lot, the Schulwaldplatz, which also provides parking for those hiking and biking in the surrounding forest. A well-maintained dirt road, indicated by a small sign on a tree as well as a larger sign reading “Chemin Forestier du Château,” leads up to the castle, an uphill walk of about 20 minutes. One of the region’s oldest castles, Château du Bernstein stands on a crag of granite, overlooking the village of Dambach-la-Ville far below.
The ruins date substantially from the 12th and 13th centuries, but a wall just north of the castle was built in prehistoric times. We had the castle entirely to ourselves for much of our visit, until a lone hiker came in to take a look. Passing through the arch of the original gate, we entered a large courtyard. Behind us was the keep, which still had a row of Romanesque windows along the top of the wall. We entered the tower at its far end, in which a poorly lit spiral staircase afforded access to the roof. We stood there for a time, transfixed by the views of Dambach and forested hills grazed by clouds. I suspect little of that panorama has changed since the castle’s last occupants abandoned the complex in the late 16th century.
The largest of the three castles above the town of Ribeauvillé, the rambling Château de Saint-Ulrich has sections dating to the 12th century, though the strategic mountainside site was occupied in prehistoric times. To reach the castle, most resources recommend parking near the Lycée Ribeaupierre, which has the closest lot to the trailhead, but I found it easier to park just west of the Aux Trois Châteaux Hôtel Restaurant, along the Route de Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines. The Chemin dit Passage Jeannelle leads uphill from the hotel, following the outside of the city walls. You’ll reach an intersection with signs pointing to “3 Châteaux,” a shorter, steeper path up to Saint-Ulrich, and “Château du Girsberg,” a longer, gentler route to the castles.
We chose the former, which I sometimes regretted. About half the path is unshaded, and with temperatures in the 90s, I almost gave up more than once. But I’m glad we persevered. The castle’s various courtyards and roofless halls were great fun to explore — it was abandoned in the 16th century — and they offered fantastic views over the countryside, as well as of the dramatic Château de Girsberg nearby. It crowns the top of a rocky ridge, and cliffs plunge straight down from the castle’s walls. We managed to climb to the top of the tower of Saint-Ulrich’s keep, the views from which took in the ruined castle, Girsberg and a vast swath of exquisite countryside. Alas, a visit to Girsberg was beyond our stamina, and we descended the way we came.
The castle defending Château de Kaysersberg is much smaller and easier to reach than Saint-Ulrich, though it does require an uphill walk from town. Even the views from the base of this 13th-century fortress are sensational, encompassing pretty Kaysersberg and the grand cru Schlossberg vineyard. If stamina permits, I recommend climbing the round tower of the castle, from which the panoramas are unforgettable.
Kaysersberg nestles in a valley, one side a forest, the other a green patchwork of grapevines. Little Kientzheim stands on the far side of the valley’s mouth. The countryside beyond fades from green into blue, as in a Dutch Renaissance landscape painting. The view is no less magical after a winter’s snow, which turns the vineyards into an elaborately complex grid of black and white, shimmering above the rooftops of Kaysersberg.