Quite unintentionally, “The adventures of Daisy the bus” is beginning to follow a bit of a pattern. We go somewhere, stumble across something rather fascinating, wonder where all the other tourists are, and enthusiastically write about it. What we find is often rather large and almost always strangely beautiful. Most surprising of all, our discovery can be right beside a major tourist attraction, yet blithely ignored by the visiting masses.
The Celtic Fort of Otzenhausen – in Saarland, south-west Germany – ticks all of these boxes and more. It is, quite simply, one of the largest remaining fortifications of the Celtic world. This mammoth historical site is signposted from a neighbouring motorway, is located only a few kilometres away from a huge “CenterParcs” resort, has an epic north wall straight out of a real-life “Game of Thrones”…
… and, predictably, we were the only ones there.
A (very) brief history
Historians believe that the Celtic Fort (often referred to as the “Hillfort of Otzenhausen“, the “Hunnenring” or the “Keltischer Ringwall“) was first built around 2,500 years ago. Over the next three to four hundred years, it was occupied and progressively expanded before being quite hastily abandoned. Occupying an 18.5 hectare site atop an imposing hill, its rapid demise and true purpose have never fully been discovered; perhaps it was a sacred seat of power, perhaps a town-like settlement (the most likely scenario), or perhaps merely a rather over-the-top lookout station.
Since then it has been used sporadically. The Romans built a small temple at the peak of the hill, but didn’t seem to fancy it as a settlement. Various tribes may later have sheltered here, as did the local population during the Thirty Years War, but for the most part of its long, long history, the Celtic Fort of Otzenhausen has stood empty. Alone on its heavily-forested mountain, it has slowly, quietly crumbled away from its past glories and countless untold tales.
Visitors to the Celtic Fort are greeted with an optimistically large car park, hinting that this site has (or has expected) many more tourists during the peak season (we visited in February). I can’t help but wonder how many casual summer tourists never make it up to the hilltop fortress itself. It is, after all, a hilltop fortress, and a long(ish) and steep climb is required to get even to the gateway of the outer wall.
Along the way we found an interesting diversion for the kids (themed, oddly, on the Romans, not the Celts). We thought this may be the start of a series of hands-on kid-friendly exhibits, but never found anything else similar throughout our hike.
Visitors taking a slightly longer but less steep route to the top are treated to a highly enjoyable series of (loosely) celtic-themed sculptures. This particularly striking one – if you’ll excuse the pun – is called “Sword Slash”. I rather liked it, and many of the others too.
We confess that our little ones didn’t make it to the top, but this was more to do with time pressure (we were due to meet some friends near Mannheim) rather than any particular difficulties caused by the terrain. However, Child #1 and I hiked purposefully upwards and were rewarded by a visit to the most spectacular remaining section of this ancient fortress: the north wall.
Like a real-life Westeros, the site of the Celtic Fort profits from natural topographic protection on the south, east and west sides (in this case via steep slopes). The north side, however, backs onto a plateau and so was susceptible to attack from Wildlings, the Others and (admittedly more plausibly) Germanic tribes. The Celts’ Trumpian solution to this problem was to build this stupendously impressive wall.
Photos do not do justice to this site. It may look like a big pile of stones, but don’t judge it too harshly: 2,100 years ago it was a much more structured affair, as illustrated wonderfully in several multilingual information boards and this painting found in a shelter in the inner keep.
Remaining sections today easily top 10 metres high, but it would have risen to almost double that during its defensive heyday. All in all, around 2.5km of wall would have surrounded the fort, using 240,000 cubic metres of stones – that’s around 9,000 railway carriages of rock! Luckily for the wall builders, these stones were mostly the result of local glacial action and erosion over millions of years – they merely had to be “collected” from the surrounding environment, not quarried and transported to the site of the fortress. Still, that’s a LOT of collecting!
The steps, by the way, are clearly not a celtic feature but they are surprisingly old, built to facilitate the visit of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1837. He visited the Celtic Fort after hearing the pleas of a local Count, who recognised the historical importance of the site and was becoming rather annoyed at local inhabitants using the stones as a handy source of building material. Due to this intervention, measures were put in place to prevent further destruction and thus preserve this historical site for future generations.
So… Count Villers von Burgesch – thank you for a fascinating and educational afternoon in the fresh air of Saarland!
Daisy the bus visited the Celtic Fort of Otzenhausen in February 2017 (and was the only vehicle in the car park)
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr
Practical information for visiting the Celtic Fort of Otzenhausen
- It’s just outside the town of Otzenhausen, roughly half-way between Trier and Kaiserslautern and well-signposted from the adjacent motorway (A62).
- Ample parking onsite.
- We were not asked for any admission fee. However, it would appear from the website that a small fee is requested during the summer season (April to October).
- Prepare to hike. The distances may not seem far (a round circuit is 4.2km) but the terrain is steep and rocky: wear appropriate footwear.
- Access with an all-terrain baby buggy may be (just about) possible if you choose a slightly longer hiking route.
- The celtic sculptures line the main hiking routes up to the hillfort. There are apparently 18 sculptures in total, but we couldn’t find some (perhaps removed for the winter?). Highly recommended anyway.
- We stayed at the nearby CenterParcs Bostalsee, but we personally do not recommend it. For a balanced review of the resort, read this post by our fellow Luxembourgish family travel bloggers Letz Fly Away.