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Castle romanticism in the Basel area (1): Wartenberg

The Basel area is one of the richest in Europe when it comes to castles. More than a hundred castles and forts sprang up between the 11th and the 14th century. Visiting the Wartenberg is particularly recommended. In total, three castles invite you to look and linger in the area.

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The Wartenberg castles (from left to right): the towers of the rear and the middle castle – and one of the remaining walls of the front castle.

By Nicole J. Bettlé

The Wartenberg in Muttenz has always been – and still is – an important viewpoint. Archaeological findings prove that it was already in use during the New Stone Age (around 2000 BC). During the Bronze Age (1800-800 BC) a fortified settlement stood here. However, it was not just Celts and Romans who built their camps on top of the Wartenberg (479 metres above sea level), but also the former superpower of Burgundy.

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The view over Basel from the top of the tower at the rear castle.

The ruins of three castles still stand on the Wartenberg ridge, which is an extension of the Gempen plateau. These three castles were all built at different times and as such do not have any proper names. They have always simply be called the front, the middle or the rear castle – or, just simply, the front, middle or rear Wartenberg.

Presumably the Burgundians built a king’s castle on the northernmost spur in the 10th century. Today the front Wartenberg is situated here. It had been built during the early middle ages and is the largest and most important complex. During the late middle ages, the Strassburg diocese handed over the castle to the Homburg line of the Count of Frohburg. In 1301, together with the middle Wartenberg, it became the property of the wealthy Basel family “zer Sunnen.” Later the counts of Habsburg-Laufenburg obtained the feudal rights over the front castle.

The members of the Homberg dynasty are believed to be behind the construction of the of the middle and rear Wartenberg.  The former was built in the late 12th century, the latter probably later in the 13th century.

The middle castle was first mentioned in a document when it came into the hands of the “zer Sunnen” family, together with the front castle. Later, their relatives, the Münch family from Münchenstein, obtained the feudal rights over the castle complex. In 1515, the city of Basel bought for the front and the middle Wartenberg.

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Seen from below: the imposing tower of Wartenberg’s middle castle

The rear castle is first mentioned in a document in 1306 when the Homberg family decided to sell this castle to the members of the house of Habsburg-Laufenburg. In later times, the feudal rights over the castle were in the hands of the house of Eptingen-Madeln, the Sevogel family in Basel, and a few others. Since 1856, the whole castle complex officially belongs to the civil community of Muttenz.

Status symbol castle
Castles are substantial status symbols. Not only because it was possible to use them to survey and control the surrounding area and the people in it, but also because they were a significant sign of power for being a member of the aristocracy or the well-off bourgeoisie.

The group of castles situated on the Wartenberg could also be regarded as objects of prestige. In particular, the middle and the rear castle still attest to the showcasing endeavours of their erstwhile owners. The main building of the middle Wartenberg is a representative rectangular residential tower. Here you could have found the main residence of the lord of the castle plus a great hall to receive invited guests and to transact government affairs.

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T
he entrance to Wartenberg’s middle castle is guarded by a wooden lion – once inside, a few stairs are to climb to get to the top…

The rear Wartenberg on the other hand was comprised of a round tower that could be seen from afar, as well as an additional hall for society and business receptions. In addition, this part of the castle’s complex also included residential buildings for servants. It is be believed that stables, barns, workshops or even maybe or washhouse or a bathhouse were situated here.

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…for quite a view towards the southernmost end of the Black Forest.

Times of crisis
The ruins of the three castles are only a couple of minutes’ walking distance apart. Those who are willing to take the round tour will be shown stirring chapters of Basel’s history.

The front Wartenberg, for example, was massively damaged during the great earthquake in 1356. Today, this earthquake is considered to have been one of Europe’s worst catastrophes. It began on 18 October (St. Luke’s Day), at four o’clock in the afternoon, and not only was almost the whole city of Basel destroyed, but nearly all churches as well plus at least 40 castles within a 50km radius.

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What Wartenberg’s front castle once looked like (left) – the great earthquake of 1356 only left a few walls standing.

The middle castle, on the other hand, was used by the troops of Basel during the Thirty Year War (1618-1648). It was one of the largest wars of importance on European soil, as the conflict bled the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation so much that it never recovered its power that had lasted several centuries. By virtue of the long duration of this war, and the application of the military-political principle that “the war has to feed itself” (the machinery of war), this first major war is considered to be one of the biggest catastrophes in history and also as a predecessor of the World Wars that were to follow.

Eventually, during World War II, the castle buildings served Swiss soldiers as watchtowers. It was the front castle in particular that played immensely important strategic role, as its position on the end of a spur meant it was naturally protected on three sides. In 1939, the Swiss army built an expensive observation post for air defence plus a bunker, both of which can still be visited today.

Castle romanticism
In around 1500, the gallant knights of the aristocracy were about to become a thing of the past. Almost all castles in Switzerland were pillaged, neglected or destroyed. Even the building complexes on the Wartenberg were abandoned during the 15th century. In a letter dating from 1470, both the front and the middle castle were described as “Burgstall” (castle sites), i.e. as abandoned ruins.

During the 16th century castles had ceased to represent symbols of power or status. However, since the 19th century, they have been regarded as important symbols of the Swiss mentality and have been rebuilt or converted all over Switzerland. Even a major part of the middle Wartenberg was comprehensively renovated during the 1930s and the 1950s. The tower of the rear castle, on the other hand, underwent a first renovation in 1901 and received a wooden roof. Anyone willing to climb this tower will be rewarded with a breathtaking view.

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Fancy a fried sausage or a baked potato? There are grills at all three of Wartenberg’s castles – the one pictured here is at the rear castle.

You are best advised to start your journey to the Wartenberg at Muttenz SBB station. Taking bus number 60 you then get off at “Mittenza”. Just opposite the bus stop you will find the picturesque village church St. Arbogast. From there, a steep hiking trail will take you to the northernmost castle within 20 minutes. However, there is a less strenuous, albeit slightly longer, footpath (add 10 minutes) leading to the rear castle. From the church you walk along Burggasse, Hallenweg and Burghaldenstrasse and then through vineyards. Visiting Wartenberg is free of charge.

 

You can find additional stories about castles here:
“When a Country Castle Was all the Rage” (The Basel Journal, 3/2014, pp 6-13)

 

Article translated to English by Martin Pütter, edited by Andi Curran
All pictures  © 2017 copyright TBJ / Martin Pütter

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