Burg Meersburg

Julia Naeßl-Doms' life cause is to look after Germany's oldest inhabited castle on Lake Constance.
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Julia Naeßl-Doms, the owner of Burg Meersburg on Lake Constance
@Castles_and_Palaces' Artiom Ganin talks with Ms. Julia Naeßl-Doms, the owner of Burg Meersburg on Lake Constance in Germany. The first - presumably wooden - tower on the site of the castle is believed to have been built in the 7th century by Dagobert, the Merovingian king, but nothing has survived since then. The oldest parts of the complex, which is considered Germany's oldest inhabited castle, date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. We've talked about what it takes to be the Lady of such an ancient building, how to keep warm on cold and damp winter days when the flow of tourists dies down and why remodelling the centuries old castle into an exclusive hotel has never been an option for Ms. Julia Naeßl-Doms. The Lady of Burg Meersburg says the never-ending restoration works have become part of her life and she also shared a bit of her personal memories of meeting her late husband - Vinzenz Naeßl-Doms at a concert of ancient music in... a castle! Interestingly, he inherited Burg Meersburg from his adoptive mother in 1977 at the age of 21!


Castles_and_Palces (CnP): What is it like to be the lady of the oldest inhabited castle in Germany?
Julia Naeßl-Doms (JND): It is a very special feeling and I am proud of it, but doing my daily work I am not thinking of it very much. During special occasions it is an honour to be the lady of the castle and of course to represent it to the outside.

CnP: Julia, your late husband Vinzenz Naeßl-Doms inherited the castle at the age of 21 – he was quite a young man. Has he ever shared with you what he was feeling when it happened?
JND: Well, it was a great task he inherited in 1977 and I am sure he would have been happier if his adoptive mother, Ottilie Naeßl, had lived longer. He could have finished his studies and the two of them would have worked in and for the castle together. So, he felt great responsibility right from the beginning. He has always been a very diligent man, full of energy and very creative. Right from the beginning he didn't shy away from any challenge and the castle very quickly became the purpose of his life.
CnP: How did you manage to adapt to your new life in the castle. You stem from the Netherlands and had never led a castle life before you moved in, hadn't you?

JND: I studied history of art and building history of the Middle Ages. In my childhood my father showed us, children, many churches and castles in France and Spain and so my interest was born. Since that time, I have always been fascinated by ancient monuments and architecture. I love to visit churches or castles and this is actually how my husband and I met – I attended a concert of the medieval and Renaissance music in a castle and we coincidently ran into each other. So, on that part it was fascinating to move to Meersburg castle and I soon fell in love with it.
JND: I still feel impressed when I walk through the castle, through the many rooms and corridors, I can still feel this very special atmosphere. Needless to say, that because of my study, it all was perfect to me. I am very grateful to have the opportunity to give the best of me to the castle and so it has become the purpose of my life as well.
CnP: The oldest structure of the castle dates back to the 7th century if I am not mistaken. I am sure there's always something in the castle which needs to be mended, repaired or restored non- stop. Which part of the castle requires most of your attention now?

JND: Actually, the oldest structure of the castle does not date back to the 7th century, of this period nothing is left. The oldest parts date back to the 11th and 12th centuries and yes, we are always busy to restore and preserve the castle - especially during wintertime, the calm and quiet period at Lake Constance. The last two projects focused on the walls and roofs. It is very important to have on such projects architects who specialize in monument protection and skilful craftsmen because the work has to be carried out with great sensitivity.
CnP: How many times did your family have to carry out restoration works in the castle since 1977?

JND: This is very hard to answer since there is always something to do in the castle. In most cases reparations are necessary after a storm or heavy rain. It is a never-ending task, because once a project has been completed, the next construction measure may have already arisen from it. Nevertheless, for us it is a very fulfilling task, as the results of our work are visible for everyone who comes to visit Meersburg.
CnP: A couple who bought a historic house in Meersburg old town and transformed it into a tavern have made interesting discoveries under the floorboards of the old drawing room. They found 17th century spy messages about war, siege and plague. Have you found any interesting artifacts during restoration works in the castle?

JND: There is always something to be found: little stories about former residents of the castle who have left their mark on the house. However, the castle has been inherited several times in the last two centuries and sold twice. In this course there were also auctions in which objects, as well as letters or the like were auctioned off. Some secrets are probably still buried under stones or floorboards. No one knows if the castle will reveal them or keep them as a secret forever.
CnP: I bet the castle is among the things the state of Germany should hold so dear and be proud of. Do the authorities – either local or federal – help you with restoration works?

JND: Yes, they do and we are very grateful for this. Since 2018 the restorations of the castle have been financially supported by the „Denkmalamt" of Baden-Württemberg, by the State of Germany and by the „DSD", a foundation which supports the protected buildings. They all attach great importance to supporting listed monuments and they do a lot to preserve them. As I've already told you, we are working with a very engaged and capable architect and the handymen she recommends. Together with the institutions mentioned they all commit themselves to maintaining the castle in a good condition.
CnP: With due account taken of the history of Burg Meersburg it should be a great mix of architectural styles – all the way from the early Middle Ages to Gothic revival. Can you trace the architectural history of the castle - like this part is from the Middle Ages and this one dates back to the Renaissance period?

JND: We know pretty well about most of the parts - which period this has been built or which prince bishop has been responsible for that part of the castle. So, we are able to say, which part was built in the Middle Ages, in the Gothic, Renaissance or Baroque period. This is a very exciting aspect for me because I studied the medieval building history.
CnP: Do you live in the castle all year round?

JND: Yes, we do! Our premises are located on the first floor of the building. Most of the rooms, more than 35, can be visited. This is very exciting at any time of the year, as the building changes with the seasons: If you come in summer, it is pleasantly cool behind our thick walls, but in winter the castle museum can get really cold and you feel like you have been transported back to a time when there were no heaters in every room – thus a very authentic experience.


CnP: Old castles were normally heated by fireplaces in bedrooms or by means of a Hypocaust system which let warm air circulate from below the floor – your castle stands of the shore of Lake Constance, it should be pretty damp and cold in winter, shouldn't it? The castle is huge, so modern central heating is not an option – it would cost a fortune! How do you cope in the winter time?

JND: The museum is not heated, but the Café and those rooms in which events take place, as well as our private rooms are heated. Of course, heating these big rooms is expensive so we do not heat too much. However, here in the castle we put on thick pullovers and with thick blankets it becomes really cozy during winter.
CnP: When winter comes the flow of tourists die down – what do you normally do in winter apart from restoring the castle – enjoy being finally alone?

JND: Well, the castle is open all year round. One can never be alone in Burg Meersburg. During the cold winter days locals come and warm up in the castle café with a mulled wine or hot chocolate. We also do some clean-up works, which cannot be done during summer. We plan for the next season and summer. So, it is never boring here and there is always something to do – fortunately! And I am very happy to never be alone.
CnP: Which part of the castle do you love most of all and why?

JND: That is very difficult to say. There are so many parts of the castle that I really love. For example the „Dürnitz" - the old guard room and one of the oldest parts of the castle, but also the palace, the big hall where people used to socialize in the middle Ages, or the „Hohenstaufengang" - a part of the lower museum, which is directly built in the molasse rocks. And of course, the long corridor built along the former defensive wall on the north side of the castle. When I walk through one of these places, I feel the Middle Ages are so close.
CnP: You have a steady flow of tourists which let you earn money you can later spend on the maintenance of the castle. Is the money enough to run the castle?

JND: The revenue from entrance tickets together with the financial supports of the institutions mentioned above goes to the maintenance of the castle. We do this step by step, it is not possible to do too much work at a time, but with the financial support of the different institutions we are able to restore parts of the castle every year, an eternal cycle.
CnP: The castle is not only your home but is also an important museum – what's on display and what is in your opinion the most interesting item?

JND: Burg Meersburg is a medieval castle and so we try to give the visitors the impression that they walk back into the Middle Ages, it is a voyage back in time. The furniture in the museum rooms tell the visitor, which period they just walked back: the early medieval, the gothic, the renaissance, or even the baroque style can be seen and they all show life during those times.
JND: The museum has more than 35 rooms and our visitors can walk independently through all of them: from the guards' room, one of the oldest rooms in the castle, into the palace, the room where people socialized during the Middle Ages, into the kitchen, into the room of the well. The hall of arms is very interesting. A little walk through the romantic garden with a beautiful view of Lake Constance and the Swiss mountains is a very nice interruption during the visit of so many rooms.
CnP: The castle has more than 100 furnished rooms. Why not design and open a hotel in the castle? There so many people who would love to spend a night in the centuries old burg with a view of Lake Constance!

JND: The castle is a monument of national importance and we have a certain responsibility to maintain the castle being a medieval castle and to convey its history, also to the next generations. We have the duty and the task to keep medieval history alive and show it to everybody who is interested so they can learn about it. Being a museum, it is open to all visitors and with their money for the entrance ticket we are able to maintain the building in a good condition. For us it is no option at all to make a hotel out of the castle, the more as we love this unique building! Throughout centuries Meersburg castle was under a siege again and again, but it was never taken and more importantly, it was never destroyed. The building shows all various architectural epochs and our duty is to save these beautiful and unique structures.
CnP: There are lots of legends about medieval castles – back in the days builders did not mind immuring maidens in castle towers while the owners used to hide their treasures in secret passageways. What secrets does your castle hold? Or has it revealed any secrets to you?

JND: There's a legend, which I think is very interesting! The story took place when the castle was in possession of the prince-bishops of Constance, who fully moved into the castle during the Reformation Period. These bishops dispensed justice also in the city of Meersburg, which was not accepted by the citizens in the beginning of the 16th century.
JND: They rebelled and elected their own mayor. Because the prince-bishop was not happy with this rebellion al all, he lured the newly elected mayor in a trap and put him in the dungeon of the castle. Without any justice the mayor, Simon Weinzürn, was drowned in Lake Constance. Can he still haunt the castle's corridors in search for justice?
JND: A few centuries later the very famous poetess, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, lived in the castle. She died here too. Her sister, Jenny, married the first private owner of the castle, Baron von Laßberg. During her several stays here, Annette was very happy, because she could for once live a free life and let her creativity flow. Thus, she wrote many poems in the castle. One could say that she found her muse in the castle and enjoyed her time very much. So could our white lady who comes out by night be actually her? To be honest, we have never met a ghost in the castle. But who knows what's going on when we are asleep? Maybe Dagobert, the Merovingian king who built the first Meersburg tower, and Annette meet each other at night?
CnP: Speaking of Anette von Droste-Hulshoff - she has made Meersburg a literary castle so to speak. What's the concept of your Literature Days?

JND: Every year around the anniversary of her death, literary events take place throughout the city as part of the "Droste Literaturtage". Every three years the city of Meersburg awards a literature prize to German speaking authors. This prize is only awarded to women, who are always very impressive and interesting personalities. Literature events and readings also take place in the castle these days. The "Droste Poetry Slam" in particular is a great event as it appeals to a slightly younger audience. We hope that it will also inspire younger people to get more enthusiastic about Annette von Droste-Hülshoff and her work.
CnP: Meersburg is a perfect venue for medieval festivals. When did you hold medieval reenactment for the last time?

JND: For years Reenactment festivals have taken place in the castle. From April to October, a group of very enthusiastic people shows life as it used to be in the Middle Ages, the so-called „Belebte Burg". In the old kitchen a lady shows, which spices and herbs were used for cooking in the Middle Ages, knights in armor ‚walk' through the museum rooms and some of them show how male shirts were made. Even a blacksmith is working in the wrought. They all have an intense knowledge of their craft and they answer to visitors' questions. The „Belebte Burg" is an adventure for small and big knights and ladies of the castle!
CnP: Do you personally find it hard to look after Burg Meersburg?

JND: No, to live and work here is a great honor and it is what my life is about. I am very grateful to be here and to have the possibility, together with my children, to work for the castle and to maintain this very old and beautiful monument for the next generations, to be able to show this unique building and its history to the visitors who can learn a lot about the Middle Ages. When both of my children will start working full time here, maybe then the moment will come for me to once again devote my life to the work I've always wanted – to dig in the archive and to research the history of the castle!
CnP: What was the most memorable event you have experienced in your castle?

JND: Our wedding is still the most memorable event for me. It was a big celebration with all the family, friends and many locals from Meersburg. To this day I think back to it with great pleasure, I will always have very fond memories of that day.
CnP: My traditional question – lots of people dream about owning a castle or restoring one.

JND: Could you give a piece of advice to such people, what should they be ready for? Every building is totally unique thus there is not "the one" piece of advice to share that will fit all. But they should realize that owning a castle needs much love, patience, good management and of course money. If one has the possibility to buy a monument and is able to maintain it, this person will start loving it more and more with every day. The monument will keep them under its spell for sure!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Julia Naeßl-Doms the owner of Burg Meersburg on Lake Constance in Germany!
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Photo credits: Burg Meersburg, Julia Naeßl-Doms.

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