x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bonn again: Germany's Dragon Castle in full glory

Schloss Drachenburg, a 19th-century fairytale castle and an architectural wonder, has just been given a very expensive new lease of life.

KÖNIGSWINTER, GERMANY // With its dreamy spires, mock battlements and square clock tower, Schloss Drachenburg, which stands on a wooded hill high above the river Rhine, looks like a cross between a medieval castle, a Gothic cathedral and Big Ben.

According to Norse myth, Siegfried slayed a dragon just a little farther up the mountain. But the story of this spectacular building, a jumble of architectural styles erected in less than three years in the late 19th century by a wealthy stockbroker, is strange enough to become legend in itself.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia has completed a €35 million (Dh176m), 15-year restoration, part of a broad investment drive to attract visitors to the Rhine region, one of Europe's most beautiful areas, by sprucing up its sights. Drachenburg means "Dragon's Castle", and its fairytale appearance would make it a worthy location for a Harry Potter film. It had been close to collapse and locals campaigned fiercely against a plan to demolish it.

Over the years, eccentrics have used the building as a canvas for their grand visions. In 1910, one entrepreneur planned to convert it into a tourist resort complete with a landing area for Zeppelin airships and a concert hall to rival the Bayreuth Wagner opera festival.

In the 1970s, one owner used it for sumptuous parties during which he dressed in an admiral's costume and treated guests to concerts he gave on a fake organ, with music played from a hidden tape recorder. He would impress tourists by filling the palace with historical artefacts of questionable authenticity, including a sculpture he claimed was by Michelangelo and a garish chair he said was the throne of the French king Louis IV.

"Those items were all fake. We have kept some of the more entertaining ones. It's all part of the charm of this place," Joachim Odenthal, the castle's manager, told The National.

Not much about Schloss Drachenburg is genuine. But Mr Odenthal said the government decided to purchase and save it because of mounting appreciation for "historicism", a 19th century trend that replicated various architectural styles to create idealised historical buildings.

Across Europe, castles were refurbished or newly built to satisfy a yearning for a medieval idyll of nature, romance and knights in shining armour to counter the grey reality of a rapidly industrialising world.

"People wanted to return to the good old days and it's no different today," said Mr Odenthal, who expects the Drachenburg will attract 120,000 visitors a year from 2011.

A world-famous example of historicism in Germany is Neuschwanstein Palace in the Bavarian Alps, built in the 1870s by "mad" King Ludwig II. It is said to have inspired Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle, although Mr Odenthal is not so sure.

"Sometimes I think one should ask whether Disney copied from us," he said with a grin. "Besides, our castle is far more interesting than Neuschwanstein. That one just has the one view. Ours changes as you walk around it. From seven different perspectives you've got seven different buildings."

By the time North Rhine-Westphalia bought the palace in 1989, the vagaries of German history had left it in ruins. Completed in 1884, it started out as a private villa but soon became a museum, then a Catholic boarding school, an "Adolf Hitler" college for boys, a US army base, a home for war refugees, a railway college, an illicit squat for homeless people and a tacky museum.

Its facade is still scarred by shrapnel holes from US artillery fire that smashed all the stained glass windows in the final weeks of the war, before the Nazi schoolboys inside wisely decided to stop resisting.

Historians had been wrong to dismiss the palace as devoid of artistic or architectural merit, said Mr Odenthal. "We were really excited by the skill and artistry that went into building it in just three years at a time when all the material had to be hauled up the hill on wagons and donkeys."

Mr Odenthal's team brought in artisans from all over Germany to recreate the original tapestries, wall paintings and windows, often using vintage postcards from 1903 as a guide.

The financier who had the castle built, Stephan Sarter, the son of a pub landlord from Bonn across the river, made his fortune helping to arrange the financing for the Suez Canal. One of the wall paintings features him as a medieval knight on horseback.

Drachenburg owes its survival in part to a local textile merchant named Paul Spinat, the son of a postman, who bought the castle in 1971 after it had stood empty for a decade. Mr Spinat, undeniably a colourful character opened it as museum and venue for glittering pseudo-aristocratic balls. He made some questionable stylistic changes such as fitting the fake organ, adding plastic balustrades painted to look like marble and building a large swimming pool in front of the palace.

"Paul Spinat would drive around in his golden Rolls Royce collecting curiosities for his palace," said Mr Odenthal. "He hired anyone who could hold a brush to help restore the wall paintings, and some of them have a faintly comic book style as a result." The work of one local art student, Peter Tutzauer, who was clearly still at the very start of his training, can still be admired in the Great Hall.

Among the "original" exhibits Mr Spinat procured were masterpieces he insisted were by Velasquez, van Dyck and Titian. A grand wooden bed which probably came from an auction of second-hand theatre props was said by tour guides to be "the bed where Marie-Antoinette is believed to have slept".

Scores of visitors believed the claims and went away satisfied that they had just visited a significant museum. The canny businessman helped to fund the upkeep with schemes such as collecting donations for an organ repair fund. "There is no denying he was a chancer," Mr Odenthal said.

Among Mr Spinat's more bizarre acquisitions was a set of cast iron steps he fitted in the middle of the Great Hall. "It led nowhere but during receptions he would stand at the top of them behind a curtain and make his grand entrance when everyone had arrived. That meant he would sometimes spend half an hour up there waiting," Mr Odenthal said. Andy Warhol, the American artist, came to one of Mr Spinat's parties.

The Drachenburg's restoration is an ode to the skill of its original builders and artisans but also to a romantic fascination with the past, and not least to the fakery of Mr Spinat, who died in 1989.

"We're going to buy his Rolls-Royce and place it in front of the castle," Mr Odenthal said.

"We've already got his death mask. But I'd rather have his toupee."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae