Castles at Christmas

A trip to a traditional Luxembourgish Christmas market takes us on a journey through legends, castles and the spectacular natural scenery of the “Mullerthal”.

There was almost an argument in the Daisy the bus household. Joëlle wanted to visit a local Chrëschtmaart (Christmas market), whilst the two eldest kids and I wished to go on a long hike. Then Child #2 had a great idea: we would hike to the Christmas market. Problem solved.

A quick plan resulted in a route that would roughly follow a line between two ancient castles: the towering walls of Beaufort – one of Luxembourg’s most-celebrated landmarks – and the lesser-known ruins of Heringerbuerg, looming high over the present-day hamlet of Mullerthal. It was a cloudless, breathless Sunday morning in December, the sort of morning where time itself is threatening to freeze over. We put on thermal socks, hiking boots and our favourite hats (in that order), and set off.

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Strictly speaking, there are two castles in Beaufort, both open to the public and handily adajcent to each other. The “new” castle – an elegant renaissance stately home from the mid-17th century – is a treasure trove of period furnishings and boasts a courtyard and outbuildings which frequently find themselves being used as a movie set. Its more ancient sibling – a medieval fortress with origins in the 11th century –  is the one that makes it onto all the postcards. Over the centuries its fortunes have waxed and waned from being the high seat of medieval lords to eventually falling into disrepair and being used as a convenient quarry for 19th century villagers.

Rather unusally, the castles at Beaufort are located in the clearing of a valley rather than on a hilltop. This unorthodox location produces an eerie spectacle on winter mornings such as this, when they become illuminated by the rising sun whilst the surrounding woodland remains dark, mysterious, asleep.

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From the castles of Beaufort, a path winds its way through the picturesque Haupeschbach valley, passing several curiosities as it descends. Just beyond the deep-frozen lake, two strange grooves on a smooth rock are thought to have been the handiwork of residents of these parts in the neolithic period; this “monument” is therefore almost certainly more ancient than Stonehenge and the great pyramids of Egypt (there are similar marks on rocks upstream of the castles as well). No-one is entirely sure what they represent, but Child #1 is adamant they were for a sort of prehistoric game of marbles.

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Child #1 explains his “marbles” theory

A little further on – and a lot more recent – a strange carving at the foot of mighty sandstone cliffs grabs the attention of passing hikers.

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Child #4 at the “Indigene” head carving, Beaufort in November 2016
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The Haupeschbach valley – our happy place

As it descends, the valley narrows to almost a canyon, the rocks on either side becoming increasingly lofty and imposing. Then, where it joins with the Hallerbach valley, it opens out again into surely one of the loveliest places in all of Luxembourg. In his classic 1921 book “The Land of Haunted Castles“, Robert J. Casey describes this place with a poetic flourish that I could never hope to better:

… the quiet vale of Hallerbach beckons the wanderer. Plush mosses and ferns as countless as the laces of Brittany carpet its shadowy rocks. Splashes of colour, a chiaroscuro of flowery tint, give relief to its green-gray twilight. … In such a place as this the nymphs of woodland and brook live on undisturbed by the political cataclysms of the centuries.

Today’s chosen route didn’t allow us to stay in the Hallerbach for long though – we were soon climbing steeply out of the enchanted vale, up towards the plateau of Haller and onwards toward the Heringerbuerg. And whilst the scenery became less dramatic for the next couple of hours, the subtle pleasures of quiet forest and hoarfrost-covered farmland ensured that the interest levels of the kids remained high. Paw prints petrified in the deep-frozen mud; the brilliant red of frosty rosehips against the bare bushes; frequent cups of invigorating hot chocolate: all these things ensured that the kilometres passed without complaint.

Soon we were on a ridge high above the Black Ernz valley; the final approach towards the dreaded ruins of the Heringerbuerg. There are legends and stories aplenty about this place… with happy endings few and far between. The story that resonates most with my kids is the tragic tale of Griselinde.

They said that Griselinde had a voice gifted to her by the angels themselves. But she also had a terrible power: those who criticised her singing – and there were some – were immediately transformed into stone. The boulders that litter the steep slopes around the Heringerbuerg are testament to those who dared insult the angels’ own voice, and who therefore paid the ultimate penalty.

Griselinde was beautiful and had no shortage of potential suitors, but she had eyes for only one – a young prince from Pettingen. Unfortunately, her father disapproved of the match and forbade the prince from approaching his stronghold. With admirable persistency, he camped in the shadows of the valley whilst Griselinde sung to him from the balconies and battlements of her castle.

But one night his patience expired. To avoid the guards at the gate he decided to scale the precipitous fortress, a feat almost impossible by day never mind in darkness. He had almost reached the top when Griselinde appeared on her balcony and, unaware that her prince was only metres below her, started to sing.

“Stop that caterwauling or you will be the death of me!” he blurted.

Shocked, Griselinde did stop singing, but it was already too late: the prince turned to stone and fell from the great rock, tumbling down the hillside until finally coming to rest in the river bed far below.

From that day onwards, Griselinde’s songs became ever more mournful and beautiful until she died of a broken heart, silencing the voice of the angels forever.

(Adapted from Casey’s “Land of Haunted Castles”, 1921)

Arriving at Heringerbuerg, you could certainly see how such a legend arose. The castle is quite tiny and clefted directly out of the rock itself; indeed, it is now difficult to distinguish where the rock stops and the castle starts. But its location is sinister, with sheer cliffs on almost every side and a narrow, menacing entrance. There is, undoubtedly, a supernatural, eerie feel about the place, a sensation so overwhelmingly powerful that Child #1 – usually our go-to explorer – was strangely subdued throughout our visit, for once needing encouragement to follow his little sister as we climbed to the top.

Leaving the castle, we descended sharply through the mummified remains of Griselinde’s critics boulder fields to the valley floor, taking the time, of course, to look for the stricken prince in the stream. Child #2 thinks that she found him.

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By now we could smell the Gromperekichelcher (potato cakes) and Gluhwäin, and it wasn’t long before we were warming our hands at the open wood fires whilst tucking into a well-deserved (and rather late) lunch.

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A journey to a Chrëschtmaart has surely never been such fun!

All photos and content (c) 2016 Jonathan Orr

PRACTICAL TIPS FOR VISITING THE CASTLES OF BEAUFORT AND HERINGERBUERG

  • The “Mullerthal” is a region of forests, rocks, castles and legends in the east of Luxembourg, near the German border. There are excellent transport links and multiple family-friendly accommodation options. More information here.
  • The medieval castle of Beaufort is open from April to October. Tickets cost €5, children go free. Visits to the renaissance castle are by guided tour only, running from Thursday to Sunday from April to October and on demand at other times of the year.(€10 adults; €5 child / student). More information  here. (2016 prices)
  • The ruins of Heringerbuerg castle can be found just north of the hamlet of Mullerthal itself; it is signposted from the Heringer Millen visitor centre. Entrance is free. The path is steep, rocky and inherently unsuitable for pushchairs or similar. If visiting with children, please exercise extreme caution around and inside the castle.
  • Our hike was 9.5km. The more classic hiking route between Beaufort and Mullerthal is to follow a section of the Mullerthal Trail 3, also around 9-10km (one-way) and walking through the gorgeous Hallerbach. It is very well signposted throughout. More information here.

 

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This is not a sponsored post and I have received no third-party motivation or compensation for writing it. The links above are to external websites over which I exercise no control and therefore accept no responsibility.

Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

22 thoughts on “Castles at Christmas”

  1. What a wonderful trip and really great trail through the area. I also love the passage of writing about Griselinde and her caterwauling! Thank you for joining in our christmas linky special:)

    Mainy

    #mainyloveschristmas

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  2. What a wonderful combination to enjoy gluwein at the end of such a beautiful hike. Is the Beafort Castle the one connected with John of Gaunt and the lands for which he named his illegitimate children? His mother came from near there if I remember correctly… Thanks for linking to #TravelAtHome

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, and sorry for the late response. The truth is… I didn’t know and had to do some research. But the simple answer is: no. The descendants of John the Gaunt were indeed named “Beaufort” but this stemmed from a Beaufort castle in the Auvergne, France, not this one. Pity ;o) Thanks for reading, and for the #travelathome link-up.

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  3. What a beautiful post! And that poor prince….mind you, it was a lesson in minding your manners and never referring to someone’s singing as ‘caterwauling’….you do seem to have some fantastic adventures. I love the idea of hiking to a Christmas market through beautiful valleys and past stunning castles. And you’re making me really, really want to visit Luxembourg! #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. If castles and history are your thing, then you would definitely love Luxembourg! Apart from Beaufort, there are also spectacular castles at Vianden, Bourscheid and Larochette amongst many, many others.

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  4. What a great result, to hike AND go to the Christmas market. Coming from the South of France, it all looks so cold and properly wintery. No wonder you needed thermal socks. I don’t know anything about Luxemburgish (or even if indeed that is what the language is called) but I love how Christmas market and gluwein are recognisable and yet different. #FarawayFiles and #TravelatHome!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the local language is Luxembourgish; a fiendishly difficult Germanic language (with bits of French thrown in) that I am still struggling with (many of my conversations lapse into French or English). In fact, I’m not entirely sure that I spelled “gluhwäin” correctly at all… Glad you recognised it anyway 😉

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  5. The Hallerbach valley caught my eye, it sounds like my kind of place. I remember being pretty impressed by Luxembourg when I visited many years ago. Primarily because, in my naivety, I assumed it was all city, so it was great and unexpected for me to discover some wonderful countryside too. #farawayfiles

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    1. The Luxembourgish countryside is stunningly beautiful, and remarkably diverse for such a small place. I know I’m biased, but the Mullerthal region really is perhaps the most beautiful of them all – a real hidden gem right in the centre of Europe. Thanks for reading!

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  6. What a beautiful wilderness for these castles to coexist with. It does look a bit spooky though. Griselinde’ sad story has the perfect setting . I think it’s great how you are able to balance out some physical activity with a cultural lesson and yummy food. Thanks for joining us again on #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You’ve made it all sound very magical – and quite the best way to get to a Christmas Market. I do love that story of Griselinde. Castles and woods are a wonderful way to make a walk more exciting for kids – and hot chocolate of course! Thanks for sharing this on #FarawayFiles

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We probably wouldn’t have made it without the hot chocolate – it was absolutely freezing!! 😉 But it was a great hike in a truly picturesque and interesting corner of Europe. Thanks for reading.

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  8. How beautiful, I’d never considered going to Luxembourg at Christmas but looks beautiful #farawayfiles

    PS Im doing a collab post on city breaks with babies. If you would be interested in joining (I know yours are a bit older) please drop me an email at wandermustfamily at wandermustfamily.com

    Liked by 1 person

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