A Walk Through the Woods
“Are we there yet” is not normally the sort of complaint you’d hear during a walk in the forest. A long frustrating car journey with fractious kids in the back? Yes. A post-Christmas amble in the countryside in search of historical culture? Not really: but it seemed somehow appropriate on this occasion. We had been trudging along muddy tracks for some time, believing that we would soon be arriving at our destination. Unfortunately, the Burgruine Neuscharfeneck remained stubbornly elusive. We trudged along the muddy paths some more before deciding reluctantly to call it a day. Daylight was fading fast, the weather was threatening to turn from overcast to something wetter, and we didn’t want to be caught on the forest tracks after dark. Annoyingly, the ruins could be sensed almost directly above us, but there seemed to be no way up. We (the “we” being my partner and I, that is) went home.
Twelve months later we had another go. On this occasion, the weather was fine but misty. We had also decided on a different route up the hill. The ruins of Neusharfeneck Castle in the Palatinate Forest (the literal translation is “new sharp edge”) cannot be accessed directly by road, so ensuring we were heading up the right forest track was crucial.
The omens for a good day out were encouraging. The sun was beginning to disperse the early morning fog. The map on the information display board confirmed the route. The car parking area was virtually empty, and we appeared to have the hillside to ourselves. Remnants of an early winter snowfall a few days previously lingered in sheltered pockets amongst the trees.
A steady climb along a logging track brought us to a high viewpoint overlooking the Pfälzerwald, with the misty conditions creating a pleasing haze over the mountains in the winter sunlight. The Burg ruins were visible at the end of the ridge line curving around to our left, so we knew we were on the right track this time round.
Walking in the absolute quiet of a sunlit Palatinate Forest is an extremely pleasant experience. Approximately 70% of the forest consists of roughly equal proportions of Pine and Beech. Oak and Spruce account for another 10% each respectively, with the remaining 10% being taken up by Douglas Fir, Larch, Sweet Chestnut and Silver Fir.
The winter-thinned canopy allowed more sunlight to penetrate down to ground level, creating many pools of Komorebi on the forest floor. Komorebi is of course a Japanese word meaning the sunshine filtering through the leaves of a tree or trees: there is — surprisingly — no direct English equivalent.
The Palatinate Forest is contiguous with the Vosges du Nord mountain region in eastern France: together the combined forests constitute the Palatinate Forest and North Vosges Biosphere Reserve, which is the first transnational entity to have been created under the UNESCO banner. The area is littered with the ruins of medieval castles guarding strategic highways and byways through the mountains. Neuschafeneck is but one of them and was the latest in our expanding collection of castles visited on both sides of the border. Apart from romantic notions of chivalrous knights paying court to golden-haired princesses locked up in lonely turrets, castles can provide many a photogenic aspect in the right light. At this time of year a few days short of the winter solstice, the ruins would be bathed in golden hour light more or less all day.
A narrow path led off to the left up the hill. It was also conveniently signposted, so obviating the risk of another map-reading error. Finally, after a long trek around the curve of the mountain we arrived alongside the eastern shield wall of Neuscharfeneck Castle, perched high on a rocky promontory 500 metres up the western slopes of the Kalkofen Berg. There was no one else to be seen: we had the place to ourselves.
Construction of Neuscharfeneck commenced in the 13th Century. The original shield wall was massively built up in the 15th century to provide protection against canon fire: at 12 metres thick and 60 metres in length it is the largest such defensive construction in the Palatinate. The castle itself is the fourth-largest in the region. Facing the shield wall and carved into the rock face across the logically-named “neck trench” is a memorial or Denkmal dedicated to German soldiers killed in the First World War.
The castle gateway and defensive tower at the western end of the castle are relatively intact, but the structures within — such as the Palas — are largely derelict. Castles such as Neuscharfeneck were often built around natural formations with rooms or internal passageways being tunnelled within and through the rock. In Neuscharfeneck’s case, a rocky ridge runs along the spine of the castle: the “sharp edge” that presumably gave the castle its name.
Clambering around castle ruins such as this requires a degree of caution, especially when it involves badly worn spiral stairs. The steps to the top of the gatehouse were steep and icy in places, with a low retaining wall on either side. Moreover, the exposure of the steps curling up to the topmost platform was challenging to say the least. Having to stow the camera and tripod to avoid them being scraped against the walls on the way down, or risking calamity from slipping on the narrow stone treads, was a necessary if frustrating precaution.
The view from the top of the gatehouse tower though was glorious, with the Dernbachtal below and the mountain tops stretching into the distance being bathed in a hazy winter sunshine. An even more glorious view was on offer from the top of the shield wall. This is the highest point of the castle and afforded a view over the rocky Oberburg (upper castle) as well as the surrounding ruins in the Unterburg (lower castle). If anything, the panoramic view over the Palatinate mountains, with one of the neighbouring castles (Burg Meistersel) visible to the north-west, was even more impressive.
Sadly, it was time to leave with the sun still hanging seductively over the mountains. Throughout our visit, we had not seen another soul. But it was not to last. On the way down though we met a small group of walkers making their way up the hillside, and — astonishingly — the car park when finally we made it back down was filled to bursting. When asked, one of the drivers said he was on the way to a private gathering. Would that be associated with the castle, we wondered, or some other destination? We would never get to know.
A selection of the photographs taken during the walk to Neuscharfeneck on the 18th December 2018 are presented in the Gallery pages:
The Featured Image
The image at the head of this post is of a little “snow-elf” spotted clinging to a tree stump on the way up to the castle ruins. Was it originally a snowman or just the remnant of a snow drift? We will never know.
Wikipedia contributors. “Ramberg, Rhineland-Palatinate.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 Mar. 2018. Web. 3 Jan. 2019
Wikipedia contributors. “Neuscharfeneck Castle.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 17 Dec. 2018. Web. 3 Jan. 2019
Wikipedia contributors. “Palatinate Forest Nature Park.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Mar. 2018. Web. 3 Jan. 2019.
Wikipedia contributors. “Vosges.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Nov. 2018. Web. 5 Jan. 2019.
Burg Neuscharfeneck Europa / Deutschland / Rheinland-Pfalz / Kreis Südliche Weinstraße / Ramberg http://www.burgenwelt.org/deutschland/neuscharfen/gr.htm
Dernbach Historical Site Palatinate: https://www.outdooractive.com/en/historical-site/palatinate/dernbach/3578175/