Τετάρτη, 27 Δεκεμβρίου 2017

Discovering the dark Christmas Alpine traditions - Fairytale castles in Bavaria and Tyrol...


 
Christmas... Bright lights, colorful ornaments, stalls filled with local products, festive melodies coming from the speakers of historical buildings... A real festival set around the superimposing silhouette of the traditional Christmas tree. The familiar figure of the beloved by the children, Santa Claus (St.Nikolaus) every once in a while making his appearence. And along with him, at least in some regions of Central Europe, that of his dark acolyte, the fearsome Krampus (-from the Old Germanic 'krampen' = Claw), who lately is gaining more and more popularity in the rest of the world through the publication and reproduction in the social media of old postcards and new pictures, or through the horror films (lower budget movies more usually than not), since Film Industry has found a fertile ground at the image of the Alpine boogeyman with the devilish look...

Vintage Krampus postcard
 It's  these traditions that had caught our interest, and this year we had decided to be there ourselves and experience the relevant customs in person. This is what in the early days of December had led us on a train crossing the Alps. Our destination: Austrian Tyrol. This is one of the areas where these pagan in origin customs and traditions remain alive for centuries now as, despite the persistent efforts of the Church to have them banned and bring them to an end, since the 17th century they have managed to survive by becoming a part of the Saint Nikolaus celebrations. 

The five hour trip from the capital of Emilia Romania, Bologna, was particularly joyful, the scenery as we traveled in the Alpine gorges, stunning, as was the view of the several medieval villages of South Tyrol (Alto Adige) -in the past belonging to Austria, but after the end of the World War I, an Italian territory. Most of these villages would certainly deserve a stop and had we more time to spend, we would love to have stayed at Vipiteno or Chiusa for one night - a promise left behind for a future trip, perhaps with a car in the next time... 


From Bolzano we have caught a far glimpse of the white mountain tops of the mighty Dolomites. As our ascension on the Alps went on, the landscape kept gaining more and more patches of white, until our arrival at the Austrian borders and the Brennero Pass, when everything around us was covered under a thick white veil...



Α short time later we were at Innsbruck, the Capital of Tyrol, and the place where we had arranged to spend the first of our two nights in Austria.



Schwarzer Adler. A hotel with a history of 500 years

Our time was indeed very limited and we had planned to take advantage of it to the maximum possible extent. We left our bags at one of the most historical hotels of the city, and under the soft falling snowflakes, we followed the small distance through the medieval Gate and to the Old City center and its historical landmark, the Golden Roof.  


The Golden Roof



We already knew that among the upcoming events planned to take place at the Christmas market a few minutes later there would be an appearance of Saint Nikolaus and his dark colleagues, the Krampus... And even as we had arrived, we heard the familiar sound of the cow-bells hanging from Santa's dark horned acolytes, as they ran and jumped through the crowd, making threatening gestures as if seeking for a 'bad' child (or perhaps, a 'naughty' adult) to punish with the horse or cow-tail whip they had been holding in hand... 

Krampus
In less touristic events, such as the ones taking place a little further out to the nearby villages, 'krampuslauf' can be a very scary and stressful experience, since the young men usually dressed in the frightening costumes (with the assistance perhaps of the alcohol that flows heavily in the veins of both the performers and the spectators) sometimes show extreme devotion to their role and targeting individuals in the crowd and assuming them 'sinners', they turn against them with their whips. They usually go for the butt and legs, but still the feeling can be quite painful especially after the effect of cold is over, sometimes leaving for days marks of the punishment of Saint Nikolaus' dark alter-ego.  
Having said that, most of the times the potential 'victims' of the Krampus are consent to participate in this wild game since their effort to run away from the threatening evil figure chasing them raises adrenaline up the limits (something similar, although usually less dangerous -and probably less stupid- that the custom of bull chase in Spanish Pamplona) 


In this case however, since this version of krampuslauf was tourist-and-family friendly we did not have to run, as the behavior of the demonic Krampus was more controlled, and the souvenirs left in the spectators mostly extended to the selfies that many of the visitors wanted to snap with them...



For the next hour the krampuslauf continued from the Golden Roof to the end of the Christmas Market, with several younger 'devils' with equally scary fake grimaces at some stage joining in, everyone putting their best performance of a chaotic cow-bell-ringing dance, before finally sitting down in a circle. And after an announcement from the speakers about the specific custom and the South Tyrolean Team, members of which had participated, they took off the masks and revealed their human face - in order to ensure that the younger spectators (and perhaps some of the older, too) would be able to get a decent sleep later that night...



As time went by, the crowd started to retreat and the Market stalls one after the other closing up for the night. Except for those selling gluhwein, the traditional hot red wine with spices, that we most certainly honored quite a few times, since it was the best antidote for the freezing cold...

The next morning, gazing out from the window, we enjoyed a nice view of the beautiful city with the roofs still covered in snow, and after a quick breakfast, we met the driver that would take us on the tour we had booked to Bavaria and particularly Schloss Neuschwanstein -the one that had been an inspiration of Disney's Sleeping Beauty castle. On the way we passed by several other nice castles and the whole route between the Austrian and German Alpean ridges was quite impressive. 

The Alpean mountain summit of Zugspitze (2.962 m) , the highest in Germany
And this amazing and almost surreal scenery continued even after we had crossed the tunnel that marked the borders with Germany and reached the first Bavarian villages, such as Fussen, where later we would have the opportunity to wander through the medieval alleys in its historic center...


The castle of Fussen

From here, the infamous Romantic street ("Romantische strasse"), that we followed for a while would soon lead us to the village of  Schwangau, where stand the two neighboring castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. 

Hohenschwangau castle
Hohenschwangau is a much older castle, with historical references to it since the 12th century when it was the seat of the Knights of Schwangau. It had been reconstructed by the father of Ludwig II, Maximilian II of the House of Wittelsbach (and older brother of King Otto of Greece) who had retained its gothic style, expanding it following the aspects of the medieval castle (-that was also used as a prototype for the design of the smaller in scale, Queen Amalia's Tower in Athens...)

Queen Amalia's Tower in Ilion, Athens
There, Ludwig had spend most of his youth, and later, after he had been crowned King of Bavaria at the age of 18, he began the construction of a number of impressing palaces. And among them, of course, Neuschwanstein that attracts most of the visitors coming to Schwangau.

The first view of the castle was truly impressing, with all the snow covered trees on the hill around it adding an even more fairy-tale like appearance...

Schloss Neuschwanstein on the hill above Schwangau

We got on the traditional coach that carries visitors up the hill, and completing the last couple of hundred meters on foot, we arrived at the entrance of the castle a few minutes before our programmed tour.



Unfortunately photography was not permitted in the interior of the castle, so it is rather difficult to properly express the actual extent of the luxury and detail in which all the chambers had been decorated, in accordance to Ludwig's specific instructions, in a way that achieves a unique and matching combination of different styles, such as gothic with byzantine.
 Every single room is devoted to a different legend which is its' main theme. King Ludwig has become familiar with these legends through the works of his personal friend, Richard Wagner, whom he particularly admired. And the eccentric King identified himself with some of the heroic characters of these stories. One of the rooms has even been turned to an artificial grotto, to recreate the legend of Tannhauser... 


After the completion of our (half hour) guided tour, we took a seat at the castle restaurant, where we enjoyed a perfect goulash soup, and panoramic views of the area...

Panoramic view from the tower of the castle Neuschwanstein
View of the gorge from the Castle. Also visible is the cave that, as King Ludvig had once written 
to Richard Wagner, would easily bring to mind Tannhauser...
Sadly, King Ludvig did not make it to live at the castle... On 13 June 1866, he was found dead in the waters of Lake Starnberg by castle Berg. He had been transported there one day earlier, after having been diagnosed to be suffering from paranoia and therefore deemed unfit to rule. Along with him, the body of the head psychiatrist who had evaluated him and pronounced him 'paranoiac' had also been found. And so the Swan (or Mad) King did not have enough time to see his work complete. Nevertheless, he has definitely managed to have an important part of his beliefs and ideas imprinted in just about every single corner of this amazing palace and in this way, to immortalize a part of himself...


Ever since it has opened its gates to the public, just a few weeks after Ludvig's death, the Castle has never ceased to attract millions of visitors - who swarm at any time of the year to admire his vision. I don't know whether the castle may be considered 'haunted' in any other way, but I could easily imagine the shade of the 'Mad King' slipping through the corridors and wandering around the unique Chambers of Neuschwanstein at night... 

Schloss Neuschwanstein
Nobody can tell for sure whether Ludvig has been really 'mad' or only a victim of a political plot. It has been claimed that both him and his younger brother and successor to the throne, King Otto, were suffering from mental issues. But in History there have been more than a few Monarchs that came to be known as eccentrics. And this was something that we had the opportunity to confirm again on our return to Innsbruck, making a last stop at Schloss Ambras...
Castle Ambras in the suburbs of Innsbruck
We had just about half an hour until closing time, but this time was sufficient for us to visit the section that we were really interested in, the "Chamber of Art and Curiosities" of Archduke Ferdinand II, that was housed in a separate wing. Such chambers,  (Cabinets of Curiosities or, Cabinets of Wonder -Kunstkabinett, or Wunderkamer, in German-) were not infrequent during Renaissance times. They housed encyclopedic collections of objects that could not be specifically classified as the boundaries that would distinguish them in separate categories were not yet clearly defined. 

A giant at the service of the Archduke



The construction of the museum in the 16th century for the sole purpose of housing Archduke Ferdinand's collections could possibly tend to Schloss Ambras the title of the earliest museum in the world. As for the exhibits?...
Among them, the earliest known portrait of Vlad III Tepes -with whom we had dealt with in our earlier trips to Romania- 
Vlad Tepes
but also that of Petrus Gonzalvus, a man from Tenerife, who (as with his family) suffered from hypertrihosis, or 'werewolf syndrom' -from 1933, thanks to the specific work also Ambras syndrom. 

the portrait of  Petrus Gonzalvus that gave the name to Ambras syndrom



The chamber includes several other exceptionally unusual (some not just for their age) objects. A statuette of Charon in the figure of a skeleton armed with arrows to shoot his victims from a distance, complex art compositions with corals, taxidermy from the animal world and the sea (crocodiles and even sharks), bronze and marble small statues of strange hybrids, themes of classical mythology, and so on...



We spent some time admiring the rare objects and reading the relevant information, and then we went on to the neighboring medieval town of Hall in Tyrol. There we had planned another quick stop at the old Parish Church of Saint Nikolaus, to see another strange collection... The one that upon his death in 1501, Knight Florian Waldauf has donated to the church: a large number of heads and bones of early Christian martyrs, relics which are now exhibited in a large glass cabinet, decorated with golden halos, thin veils and set upon velvet cushions, in the chapel that has ever since received the name of the donor.

Relics at the old Parish Church of St.Nikolaus in Hall

In fact, Ritter Waldauf himself -well, whatever 's left of him-, may have not needed to be separated from his holy collection at all, since it has been claimed that a skeleton that lay covered in ornaments in another glass cabinet among the relics of Saint Constantius and Saint Agapitus may actually have been that of his own.  

We left the medieval church behind and with the sound of the bells still inviting the believers fading we went on with our course to the northeast, further away from Innsbruck and into the Tyrolean countryside. Passing through a couple of smaller villages, once or twice we saw fires burning next to the snowy road, and around them we did recognize familiar traditional goat-head figures jumping in their own shamanic dance... Dark had already fallen and although the clock indicated just 5.30 in the afternoon, the impression we kept having was that it was much later (perhaps it was the amount of the different images we had gathered through the long day), when our driver, completing the route we had designed, left us in front of the inner gate of Schloss Matzen, just outside the village of Reith (Reith im Alpbachtal), where we would spend the night.


The castle is officially referred since 1167, as possession of the Knight of Fruntzberg. It has remained in the same family until 1468, when after having received expansions in various stages, always retaining the gothic style, it was sold. Eversince its ownership has changed several times, most adding their own part in the developement of the castle. In more recent times, among its famous guests was U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt who was frequently invited by his hunting friend, William A. B. Grohman -owner of Schloss Matzen at that time. Many walls of the castle are decorated with trophies of unlucky animals, some of them perhaps dating back to that era... 


Since 2008, when it has passed to the present owners, Castle Matzen is operating as a boutique hotel.  Our bedroom (named 'Ross' Chamber from the family that owned the castle in 1500) was beautifully decorated with antique furniture that, as with the masonry of the castle, were creating an atmosphere of a different era... 


It was at the first level, and of course the rest of the Castle kept calling us to explore its secrets, but that would have to wait for a little longer... At the center of the village of Reith, only a few miles from the castle, the local festival events of 'Perchtenlauf' had already begun, and we had planned to be there and witness them...
Perchten masks can weight up to 30 kgs

We arrived at the entrance of the village a few minutes before 7. Despite the cold (it must have been -5/-6 degrees) a large crowd of people from all the surrounding villages had already gathered there for the event. The road that a few meters further led to the center of the village was mainly occupied by groups of 'Perchten' waiting for their turn to begin their imposing parade. 


'Perchten' is the name of both the terrible creatures and the masks that they wear... In sight they look similar to that of Krampus, but the customs that  they follow are different and perhaps closer to their pagan origins. 
The name originates from Goddess Perchta (or, Berchta/Bertha),who shows up in various names/variations in Germanic mythology. According to the older stories, she was considered the patron of the dead unbaptized children and as she roamed the snowy country side at night, their souls were attracted by her presence, they joined her procession and followed her, so she was seen as sort of clearing the area from ghosts. But in the course of time, folk belief changed her entourage to a horde of demonic beings with this monstrous look. 

 

But, Frau Perchta's role in time has become rather darker, too. According to later Alpine traditions, during the Twelve Nights of Christmas, she enters the homes in her way and knowing whether a child, or a young person has been 'good' or 'bad' in the year that had passed, she will reward the worthy with a silver coin left in a shoe, but will punish the naughty ones by tearing open their bellies, take out the intestines and fill the hole with peables and straw. (On the Italian side, La Befana, as she's called there, will just leave in their socks candy, or, a lump of coal)

The group of SEIDÄ PASS ready to begin their impressing parade...
There were several groups participating in this festival, each with their Perchten sitting in formation and patiently waiting for their turn to begin the parade and present their own 'Perchtenlauf' in one of the two sides of the crowded square. The group of SEIDÄ PASS, was now ready to begin. I had earlier been in contact with the group to find out some more information on that evening's event (in the days between the 4th and 6th of December, these local groups make several appearances in the area, from one village to the next). The certain group consisted of 25 members: The 'Hex', who is probably playing the role of Frau Perchta, having the appearance that she usually assumes in Tyrol (an old woman with a very wrinkled face, bright eyes, long hooked nose, disheveled hair, garments tattered and torn), several 'Läufers' and even more 'Tamperers', who, dressed up in thick straw or sheep-wool costumes and wearing goat masks with long horns, parade the street in slow steps, rhythmically drumming on the old gas tanks hanging over their shoulders, in an effort to chase away the evil winter spirits... 

This custom seems to go back at least to the 16th century, with men putting on terrifying costumes and going through the villages from door to door to every house, making as much noise as they can to scare evil away. It is actually a re-enactment of the Wild hunt of Northern tradition - perhaps the oldest memory of Perchta who on winter nights wanders through the countryside with a horde of ghosts running on her heels...


The spectacle offered by the various groups was quite impressing, the loud synchronized drumming sounds, the rhythmical dance of the Hex, the fire shows, etc... Somehow it did bring to mind certain customs that we have seen in our country, too, such as the 'Night of the Ghosts' in Amfissa, a Carnival festival that we have witnessed several times in the previous years. There, the participants are dressed up in costumes that represent all types of traditional 'haunts', with cow bells hanging from their waist, some even drumming on tin cans. The central theme of the events there is a certain folk tale or legend, ('The Haunt of Harmena'), but the overall sensation is kind of similar, so the roots of these traditions may possibly be related...


We have enjoyed the 'Hexentanz' performances with a glass or two of gluhwein always at close hand to compensate us for the freezing Alpine breeze. And then, exhausted from the full day wandering in Tyrol and Bavaria, we returned to the Castle. And what a better place to give us shelter from the cold night, after a day so rich in surreal images... 


I was tired and slightly overcome from the cold that I had already grabbed and my voice was struggling to come out through the swollen throat, but before I went to bed, it was impossible for me not to attempt a night patrol of the Castle. And so I went, following the silent corridors and stairs, exploring the Chambers that were accessible at the different levels. A large sitting room with a long table in seasonal decoration... 


The library, where a deer head hanging on the wall was staring at me with a stern gaze that made it look almost alive...


The Gothic Chapel, that looked so atmospheric in the light that came shedding in through the stained window, making the bronze statuettes and the ornamented in gold murals on the walls glow...



I followed the stairs all the way up to the Tower. That section was was not accessible, as it housed the spa center, which remained closed for the night. 


Early in the morning, I got up and looked out of the window... The veil of snow had covered everything. I dressed up heavily, grabbed the camera and went out for a morning stroll.

Going out from the central Gate and walking around the high exterior walls, I discovered a small path that led higher up the hill to the back side of the Castle. Reaching at the top, I found myself in the carefully attended gardens of the Castle, now completely dressed in white. Another path led higher on a seat that lay on top of some formation of rocks. The view of the Romanesque Tower -unique, as I read, in Tyrol- in the snow was amazing... 


On the other side, right beneath the castle, I could see a small lake, the surface of which appeared frozen... 
The surrounding view was equally impressing. The top on the adjacent hill was covered in thick mist... At the foot of the hill, I could see yet another castle, it looked like it was undergoing repairs.


Walking carefully on the snow and leaving only the trace of my footsteps on it, I entered again the castle from the garden Gate, and found myself in its upper yard. From there, I entered the Tower and followed the stairway up to another 4-5 levels until the highest level, a resting lounge on the top. 


As I was descending again, I met Maria who had started her own exploration from inside the Castle. We went back down and after a short break at the warm hall for having our breakfast, we went out again to continue our exploration, this time following the road by the perimeter of the castle leading to the other side. We passed by an old medieval restaurant that sits right beneath the Castle and from there we were able to reach the frozen lake. The view of Castle Matzen from here was both stunning and surreal!...
Schloss Matzen
Some time later, we met again with our driver. He would take us back to the train station at Innsbruck, where two days earlier our tour in Tyrol had begun. An adventure had ended. And another was ready to begin. Our next stop would be Venice, where we would spend four days following the traces of some other legends, and exploring the 'haunted' islands of the Venetian lagoon... 


 
(TO BE CONTINUED...)

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