Schloss Drachenburg. In English, Dragon Castle — basically the name any five-year-old boy would rightly name their own castle.
Germany is littered with impressive castles, so a number are bound to be a tad less significant in terms of history. That’s Schloss Drachenburg. A man named Stephan Sarter earned a fortune and built the property in the late 19th century as a private villa and mansion. Visually, however, Schloss Drachenburg could fit right into the backdrop on any episode of Game Of Thrones. The surrounding scenery provided by forested Siebengebirge (literally “seven mountain range”) helps Schloss Drachenburg fit nicely into the role.
Drachenburg didn’t last long as a private estate. Sarter, who never even lived there, died in 1902 as a bachelor, so a nephew by the name of Jakob Biesenbach bought the castle from his estate. From there Drachenburg became a tourist attraction, went through a failed plan to become an amusement park, transformed into a Christian Boys’ Boarding School (briefly ruining the coolness of the castle’s name), and by the 1940s it became an elite Nazi school.
U.S. soldiers occupied the castle at the end of the war and turned it into a refugee camp. By 1960, it sat empty and faced demolition. Luckily Paul Spinat, known as an “eccentric castle-owner,” threw money at refurbishing the castle, opened it to the public, and lived there on-and-off for the rest of his days, dying in 1989. It was during Spinat’s time that the castle received monument status with full restoration measures initiated by the North Rhine-Westphalia Foundation of Nature, Heritage & Culture in close collaboration with the nearby city of Königswinter. Exhibitions ran during restoration, but work on the building and surrounding landscape was officially completed in 2011.
(Note: I would someday, somehow like to be known as “an eccentric castle-owner.”)
I showed up on a weekend trip from Düsseldorf, dropped my bags at the Jesuiter Hof Hotel in Königswinter, and followed pedestrian signs for the castle. One of the many great things about Germany is the German town. There’s almost always a pedestrianized or pedestrian-friendly center lined with shops, restaurants, bars and bakeries. When a German town is near some nature, there will be signs pointing you in the right direction. Again, this is catered to pedestrians. It’s quite the contrast coming from the States where wayfinding signs almost always cater to motorists.
There is the Drachenfels Bahn (Dragon’s Rock Train!) to take folks up the steep climb and directly to the castle, but I had my hiking shoes on. Plus compared to the €10 roundtrip fee, walking comes at the right price. Plus the considerable incline quickly gets some elevation under your feet. Within the first few minutes of hiking, you can look back and already have a postcard view of Königswinter and the river.
The trail is mostly paved road to the castle, though barriers prevent motorists from driving up out of Königswinter. We arrived before the noon opening of the castle’s Christmas market, so we continued up to Drachenfels. Interestingly, the 321-meter high hill was created by rising magma that was unable to break through the surface. Once it cooled down, the ground became solid and is today the subject of North Rhine-Westphalia romanticism.
I mean, what’s not romantic about rising magma frozen in time?
Atop the hill are the ruins of Burg Drachenfels, constructed in the mid-12th century by Archbishop Arnold I of Cologne. Protestant Swedes destroyed the castle in 1634 during Germany’s bloody Thirty Years’ War. It sat useless until the end of the Napoleonic Wars through the 19th century when Rhine romantics put it into their poetry, like Düsseldorf’s legendary Heinrich Heine.
A number of legends, too, have roots in Drachenfels. One of the more famous varieties tells the tale of Siegfried, a legendary hero of Norse mythology and a certified dragon-slayer. Siegfried, it’s told, killed the dragon Fafnir and cemented his victory by bathing in the dragon’s blood to become invulnerable. (Because, how else does one celebrate felling a dragon?) You can see this battle acted out on local tourism merchandise.
When rail connected it to the region in 1883, tourism became its primary use and it was declared a national park in 1956. (This is the end of the line for the Drachenfels Bahn.) Indeed, the site is a veritable collection of fallen stones enveloped by gorgeous scenery. But before I could enjoy the view, I was asked by a German travel YouTuber if I could help him film a bit on Drachenfels. Surprisingly, given my line of work, that was a first.
It’s after Drachenfels that the trail becomes more remote and like your typical forested German hiking trail. A blanket of gray clouds covered the sky, a staple of life in North Rhine-Westphalia this time of year, but the air was fresh and temperature reasonable. Occasional packs of mountain bikers skated by us during what was ultimately a peaceful 12-mile trek through Siebengebirge with just one refueling stop at Margarethen Kreuz. (Best. Tomato. Soup. Ever.)
By the time we passed Drachenburg Schloss a second time, the Christmas market was well underway. We paid our €6 a pop for entry and immediately fell into the crowds of shoppers, eaters and drinkers. Some marveled at the colorful lights shining over the castle while others skipped over to the balcony where Ebenezer Scrooge himself was busy lamenting his greedy ways in a ghostly soliloquy. The majority were stuffing their faces with everything from baked potatoes to wurst and Spanish chorizo (I opted for the latter), and washed it all down with a hot cup of Glühwein — a spiced red wine staple of Christmastime in Germany.
On the walk back to Königswinter, I was surprised to see Germans continuing to walk up the hill for the market. This is when I decided that Germany must have one of the world’s greatest pedestrian cultures. I already knew that German cities maintained their historic town centers, that motorists do actually stop for pedestrians crossing the street, but I expected most in this comparatively wealthy country would fork the money over for the train rather than schlep up a 20 percent grade incline. To the contrary, men, women and children dressed in their Christmastime best trudged upward along the dimly lit path like it were a mere jaunt to the store. It reminded me of my friend Martin in Eisenach (a Brit, but resident of Germany since the wall came down), who characterized a similar trek as “just a stroll!” If this were the States, we’d have a six-lane highway winding up the mountain. My hat’s off to Germany.
We wound down the evening with dinner back at the Jesuiter Hof Hotel where they serve Weingut Pieper — homegrown Rhineland wine. With those downers working their way through our systems, on top of the day’s hike, we had no problems drifting off to sleep.
Of course it didn’t hurt knowing that we had a Norse hero protecting us from any potential dragon sightings.
Disclaimer: Lodging was provided by Tourismus Siebengebirge. As always, all opinions are my own.