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Revealing secrets of the castle keeps

Oberhofen castle is one of the most popular stops on Lake Thun. swiss-image

The Prussian count, Albert de Pourtalès, may have first spied Oberhofen Castle from the deck of a paddle steamer in 1844. Where ever he was standing, it was love at first sight because he bought the enchanting edifice on Lake Thun for what at that time was the princely sum of SFr50,000.

Like the count, tourists first came to the Bernese Oberland in the first half of the 19th century, drawn by the paddle steamers, which still ply many of Switzerland’s lakes.

Until that time the region was a relative backwater, only of interest to the nobility which controlled the meagre trade between the Oberland and the city of Berne.

But the barons and counts left behind several imposing castles, standing sentry on the northwestern shores. These castles and their mysterious past were discovered by those first holidaymakers who helped transform them into museums.

The organ from the very first steamboat, the Bellevue, is on display in Thun castle. A 50 centime piece, and no longer steam, sets it in motion. Today the castle is open to one and all, but as manager Gerhard Schmid says, the barons and bailiffs who lived at Thun for about 700 years rarely used to put out the welcome mat.

Schmid points to a hole. “In this hole here was a big wooden beam which supported the balcony outside. In case of danger, an enemy’s attack, they could pull the beam inside the castle and the balcony would fall down.”

We’re standing in the Knights’ Hall, one of the largest of its kind from the Gothic period. The original wooden beams, treated with ox blood, support the high ceiling.

Schmid leads me up into a dark, musty room under the rafters, where a temporary exhibition on bats couldn’t be more fitting. A few wooden steps in each corner lead out onto the four narrow turrets. It was in the one above the courtyard that Schmid says human blood was spilled.

“In 1322, Eberhardt von Kyburg murdered his brother Hartmann by throwing him out of this tower here down into the courtyard. The Kyburgers had financial problems and it probably had to do with that. After the murder, they were obliged to sell the castle.”

I take the paddle steamer “Blümlisalp” (the only steamboat still in service on the lake) for the half hour trip to Oberhofen. The view of Oberhofen castle from the boat’s deck today is much the same as that enjoyed by Count de Pourtalès more than 150 years ago.

The scenery is breathtaking. The castle seems to rise out of the lake like a surreal prop in front of the majestic backdrop of snow-clad peaks. Built around the same time as Thun castle, it was originally a moated fortress before undergoing numerous facelifts.

The moat was filled in, the keep raised and a chapel added. It was, however, Count de Pourtalès and his wife Anna who turned it into a home.

Curator Vera Heuberger shows me a small dank room which served as a prison cell, and is on display as such today. “This prison was used during the de Pourtalès time as a wine cellar,”
Heuberger smiles and speaks passionately about the de Pourtalès family.

They rebuilt one of the castle’s most attractive features, a low turret out in the lake connected to the main structure by a covered bridge. Heuberger says they weren’t averse to adding a few exotic if not eccentric touches of their own, including an ornate Turkish smoking room at the top of the keep.

“Albert de Pourtalès lived for several years as a diplomat in Constantinople. He took some of his impressions and lifestyle back with him. He added one storey onto the keep to build the smoking room.”

De Pourtalès commissioned local woodcarvers, working from sketches he brought back with him, to give the room its oriental touches.

The count was typical of most 19th century holidaymakers. They had the money to travel. But, at least in the Bernese Oberland, there were few hotels to stay at once the paddle steamers departed from Thun.

A little further south and across the lake, passengers would have seen Spiez castle on top of a rock spur jutting into the water. They could easily have mistaken three dark windows cut out of the top of the tower for a pair of eyes and nose. Even today, the keep seems to peer down in a sinister way. Most 19th century travellers were probably more than happy not to have to disembark at Spiez. There was no accommodation in the town at the time.

My fears are partly dispelled by an invitation from curator Gerhard Schafrot. I leave the boat and make the steep climb from the landing up to the courtyard. It’s then another long winding climb to the top of the keep, but I have to follow Schafrot; he’s ahead of me despite a plaster cast on his foot.

“This is the original entrance into the main room in the keep. There are two windows, but they didn’t put any glass in them. Glass was known in the 13th century but it was too expensive. It’s a warm day today, but it’s quite cool in here. In the winter, it’s icy, I don’t know how people lived here, but they did.”

The first owners built the fortress as a symbol of their power, and its imposing nature scared off all potential assailants through its long history.

In the 14th century it came into the hands of the von Bubenberg family whose exploits on the battlefield are legendary. The illustrious von Erlachs took over the castle in 1516, and managed to hold onto it for more than 350 years.

Schafrot says they lived a life of luxury. He shows me a tin-plated figure of a dolphin set against a wall. There’s a tap at the base. “It would at first appear that they had running water, but it wasn’t water that came out of the tap, it was wine. Of course the wine didn’t come out of the cellar, but was poured in through the top.”

Spiez castle was still in the possession of the von Erlachs when 19th century tourists first laid eyes on it from the deck of their paddle steamer. Although it was still imposing from the outside, its owner’s financial fortunes were crumbling.

Poor timber and cattle sales prompted the last von Erlach to take drastic measures. He built the town’s first hotel in an attempt to take advantage of the new tourist trade. It represented a new beginning for Spiez, but the costly venture proved his ruin.

He was the last of the barons and counts who, at least, left a rich legacy. And it’s a legacy which continues to draw travellers and tourists from around the world to one of Switzerland’s most spectacular regions.

by Dale Bechtel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR