Castle Climbing in Germany

What was “West” Germany like in the 1960s? How did many U.S. military families spend their time?
Visiting small Germany towns and castle climbing, of course!

When my dad was home from “being in the field” and his non-stop training for the impending Soviet invasion of then called West Germany, which would never happen, we traveled back in time by visiting castles around Mannheim and the surrounding towns.

My mother would pack a picnic lunch for all of us and we would load up the 1965 Dodge Dart early on a Saturday morning and hit the road. I’m sure we asked where we were going, but sometimes I think my dad just picked a road or direction at random, knowing that somewhere along the way there would be a castle to explore.

On the road again . . .
The road trips were probably not longer than an hour or two, but just in case, we kids would usually bring along a book or a couple volumes from the World Book Encyclopedia to read or look at the photographs as we wound through the countryside and tiny German towns with impossibly narrow streets, many towns still using the same cobblestones that ox carts passed over 600-800 years earlier.

Dad would finally announce that we had finally found the castle, but when we would climb out of the car and look around, more often than not, we were inside a small town with no castle visible in any direction. My dad was a bit of a prankster, so we assumed were just stopping for some sight seeing, with the castle we were seeking still further down the road.

After parking the car in an impossibly small parking space for your typical American car, my Dad would lead the way. It wasn’t until later that I realized my Dad had mastered the foreign road signs and he was just following the information signs.

Castle climbing 101
Many refer to the process of visiting castles as “castle climbing” because many of the castles were in fact located on mountain sides or at least on top of steep hills and many were built with very limited access as part of the overall defense strategy. On more than one occasion, we zig-zagged, back and forth, steadily going upward, on a narrow, slightly inclined trail with a flimsy hand-railing. It took what seemed like hours to finally make it to the top.

It was quite a chore to reach the top where we saw orange-red/brown streaks running through large rocks, which we instantly recognized as ancient blood (through it was probably just oxide veins in the rock. We could immediately imagine men coming up the same route in heavy armor, carrying iron weapons, battering rams and more, arriving out of breath and being assailed by people behind the walls of the castle. I’m sure many castle invasions were thwarted by the invaders arriving at the castle hungry and exhausted.

Most castles we visited had a tourist information and souvenir stand just inside the main castle entrance, and most of the castles offered guided tours as well. The tours were great, though we kids were often anxious to move on more quickly to the next room or area.  At some castles we would all strike off on our own to explore the lower regions of the castle which we imagined to be dungeons, though few of the castles we visited actually had anything that resembled implements of torture.

Imagination running wild
Given our fertile imaginations, and fueled by the movie Robin Hood and typical Vincent Price horror movies we had seen on base, we imagined rings in the wall to be where chains were attached to hold prisoners upright while being interrogated and we could easily imagine stretching racks and hot iron brands being raised against prisoners.

The towers in most castles were also great to climb. Along the way up there were slits and small windows for observation and for archers to take aim at invaders below. The view at the top of the castle towers were usually spectacular, even if the town was only a small farming community.

After an hour of general exploring, we would find a picnic table or area we could spread a blanket and break out the sandwiches, and if we were lucky, some cans of Coca-Cola. We would munch on our sandwiches, breathing in the dank, earthy smell which accompanied most castles and marvel at what we had seen.

It was easy to imagine the horrific battles that must have been fought in the very courtyard in front of us. But the chirping of birds and the lazy, tourist pace of other tourists milling around the castle gave us a feeling of being in a big outdoor museum.

Before we left the castle we would spend some of our allowance money on a souvenir of some sort. Pocket knives, patches and pins were popular purchases. Throughout my childhood, I kept a small box filled with my treasures collected from many outings in Germany and Austria.

My mother would usually buy postcards and sometimes 35 mm slides, even though we didn’t own a slide projector. These have made great memory joggers as I think about our travels and look through the items.

On one of our castle climbing excursions, we attempted to find one of the “Frankenstein” castles. It didn’t matter to us that the book and movie used Transylvania as the setting for the classic monster movie. For some reason (probably my dad’s trying to get us going) we were sure that we could find the very same castle, after all, how common was the name “Frankenstein”, anyway?

After spending the better part of a morning working our way to the top of the mountain, we emerged into a small area outside the entrance.

We were disappointed by how small the Frankenstein castle actually was and the lack of anything that could have been used as a mad doctor’s laboratory, including a tower where someone could be hoisted up during a lightening storm.

The trip back home
The walk back down from the castle was far easier than the walk up to the castle, as the gently sloping zig-zag paths led us every downwards.

Once we found the car and began our trip back to Mannheim, the car was quiet as we watched the countryside slide by and fought the urge to take a nap.

Over the years as I have moved from place to place, I’ve lost a lot of the souvenir knives and patches I had as a child, but I do have many postcards as great reminders of places I have been to. Once in a while I will get them out and see all the wonderful places we visited during our four years in Mannheim, West Germany.

Looking back, I have no idea how my parents raised four kids on sergeant’s pay. While we may not have had a lot in the way of material possessions growing up, today I have a great storehouse of invaluable memories.

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  1. Brings back soo many memories, Vann..I loved the castles over there!

    • Thanks, Dawn, for the positive feedback on the essay. The castles and churches were a big influence on me. We went to a lot of museums . . . I was an art major in college and being exposed to all the buildings gave me a greater appreciation of architecture and how history, religion and politics influenced art.

  2. Loved the German castles!!!  Seemed like we were always busy sightseeing!  I love to travel and see new things and meet new people!

  3. I Agree, the times we spent on road trips to someplace I can’t pronounce and the conversations about those places,  now live on only in the tales I tell people who have never left the county they were born in. The grainey photos I share with my kids and grandkids, and my laughter when people say “awwww thats malarky,” which when I prove it is when it really hits home. I have done things and been places most people only dream of, the price of being a “brat” is huge.  

    I could be in mall full of people i went to school or scouts with and not know anyone, but I wouldnt change it for anything! Glad there are more like me out there that made this website possible, thanks again—brat from 1964 to 1980, Elliot.

  4. Oh, the castles of Germany and England that my family visited! My dad was in the Air Force stationed @ Wethersfield, England so we saw alot of English ones as well as the German ones. I’m so very glad my parents took my sister and I to wonderful museums and the castles. I got a little teary reading your memories since it brought back vivid ones of my own. I’ve never forgotton the beauty and magnificence of the ones I was able to visit and explore as a child. And I’m happy that I have the color slides my dad took.

  5. This was a great trip down memory lane! Thank you for restoring so many of my own lost memories and visuals of Berchestgarten, Garmisch and Lake Chemsee (sp).  I am so happy to have discovered your website and very grateful to be a part of a culture that “gets me”!  Thanks!

  6. Van I have memories of visiting lots of castles and churches in Germany and Italy.We used to do 2week car trips for vacations when we were in Italy.I n Germany we used to also go to the resort areas like Cortina and St.Moritz to skate and relax.

    Candy Whalen

  7. Oh boy – what memories. I attended Heidelberg High School, 54-56, and had two proms in the Heidelberg Castle.

  8. Living at Landstuhl, many a Sunday afternoon was spent with my mother and a half dozen classmates heading DOWN the hill, then up another to Nanstein Castle. Thanks for the memory nedger. I can see Allan Kennedy, Dennis Markey, Mike Soles and I flying through the courtyard and down to the “dungeon” wondering who was kept there four hundred years ago, and what did they do to deserve it? Such a wonderful time in my young life. Luckily, six of us still get together every two years with B&W pix in hand, usually in VAn Buren, Arkansas at Ronnie and Jayme (Ballard) Densons home.

  9. Thanks for some great memories.  I was born in Munchweiler in 1964 and returned when I was 11.  One of my fondest memories was hiking up to the ruin of Grafenstein castle near Merzalben with my dad.  We then moved to Worms in 1976 and would often go to Manheim as it had a larger PX and commissary.  At the American school in Worms we were often treated to field trips to see Germany’s historic sites.  They were really great times.  As an army brat I envied civilian kids who grew up in America, especially since so many of us brats always talked about how great it would be to be “stateside.” Now that I am an adult, I know I would not trade those experiences overseas for anything as they gave me an appreciation for foreign lands and cultures and at the same time made me love the United states all the more.

  10. I was living in Kassel, Germany 1949-1952 and can remember exploring Hercules Castle.  That is one of the most exciting memories of my childhood.  I was able to travel to Kassel in 2010 and visit Hercules again – unfortunately, the castle was under renovation and we were restricted to exploring from the outside.  What a beautiful view from that castle! 

  11. Reading your post was great.  I was first a Navy brat from 1948 to 1958, and then a USAF brat from 1959 to 1966.  I loved it (but why wouldn’t I, it was all I knew).  Great training though for being able to relocate at a moment’s notice.  We lived in Buch, Germany and Sosberg, Germany before getting to move on base (Hahn AFB).  The Hunsruck mountains were full of castles to explore, and boy did we.  My sisters and I loved it there.  I went to camp at Camp Lackenwald. So many wonderful memories…. the love of travel and explore is so firmly entrenched.  GO HAHN HAWKS….

  12. My dad was USAF stationed at Sembach 61-64. When the family first arrived we lived in RockenHausen w/ the Walter family. They had the ground floor, we had the main floor and another tenant lived on the third floor. There was a lot of construction at this time in the area and I remember “borrowing “bricks to build a small house for my self( at age 8). Three months later we moved to Kaiserlautern and Vogelveh housing. Fourth floor -no elevator. this was a unique in that we had Hohennecken(sp?) castle in our back yard and a giant red sandstone monolithe with a tunnel through it. the Following year we moved on base at Sembach, just in time for the Cuban Missile crisis. One thing about living on a small military base, you did not have two parents, but a thousand well connected with each other. One day I was caught by the APs on the coal chute of our quarters. Not only was I put in the front of a blue Ford pickup , the AP drove around the block several times to show me off. My dad was at the PM office before the AP truck. It was a long night. When returned to the state in April of 64, our family had the opportunity to return by ship. So we took the train from K-Town to Paris to LeHarve and boarded the SS United States for a five day passage home..

  13. I went back to France a few years ago, and with my French pen-pal’s help (not from my brat-hood days), we found a couple of the castles I climbed on as a kid. One over the Seine was just as I remembered it, still a ruin, perfect for kids running amuck.

    We lived in La Celle-Saint-Cloud and Evreux, France 1963-1966. Can’t quite remember the order of the towns or the year we moved from one to the other.

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