Burg Rheinstein

The Hecher family have owned Rheinstein castle since 1975. To buy it Hermann Hecher - the father of today's owner Markus - had to compete with the Indian Hare Krishna sect which offered the Hohenzollerns more money.

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Hecher Family, Burg Rheinstein
The Hecher family: Cora, Marco, Cornelia, Markus and Clara
@Castles_and_Palaces' Artiom Ganin had an opportunity to talk with the owners of Rheinstein castle in Germany. It is located at the southern gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage "Upper Middle Rhine Valley", opposite the town of Assmannshausen. The Hecher family inherited the castle from Hermann Hecher who bought it from the Duchess of Mecklenburg in 1975 beating the Indian Hare Krishna sect. The man was the first Hecher to carry out large-scale restoration works in the 20th century. His son Markus and his wife assisted by the younger generation continue the works which as Markus says never stop. Back in the 19th century the castle's picturesque ruins were spotted by Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia and the burg became the first Romantic castle on the Rhine to be restored. Today it is a gem of the Rhine Valley offering a majestic view of the river and the surrounding hills grown with vine.

THE BATTLE FOR THE RHINE VALLEY CASTLE

Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Markus, could you please introduce your family!
Markus Hecher (MH): We, that is Markus, Cornelia, Marco and Cora Hecher - have been living and working at Rheinstein castle since 1975. After my father Hermann Hecher bought the castle, the family restored it from a ruinous state to today's romantic castle Rheinstein

CnP: Did your father Hermann tell you why out of many castles along the Rhine river he chose this one?
MH: At that time, I lived with my parents at the neighboring Reichenstein castle. They were the tenants of a restaurant and a hotel there back then. My father had heard that Rheinstein castle was about to be sold to the Hare Krishna sect. This was an unbearable situation for my father and he started showing interest in Rheinstein, which ultimately led to the purchase.
CnP: It is interesting that Rheinstein became the first one (out of the ruined Rhine castles) to be restored in the 19th century by the House of Hohenzollern. Why do you think it was the case?
MH: This was due to the passion for castles and the Middle Ages, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia had. He had been looking for a suitable castle ruin in the Middle Rhine Valley since 1816 in order to have it rebuilt according to his transfigured ideas of Romanticism.
MH: Encouraged by his cousin, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, he was the first member of the House of Prussia to acquire a ruined castle on the Rhine in 1823. His cousins soon followed suit and the castle romance of the 19th century was in full swing.
CnP: Romance – that's the word! But the castle was in such a dire state when Hermann Hecher acquired it in 1975 - even the state refused to buy then, didn't it?
MH: True, Rheinstein was in a catastrophic state. Everything was left without due care and maintenance for many years. There were destroyed ceilings, walls and windows, poor electricity and water supply, no heating, a dilapidated, barely accessible footpath to the castle, hardly any parking spaces, etc. But my father was in love with the castle and we are still busy with the repair he started back in the 70s.
CnP: I've read that part of the interior and furnishing was stolen by a potential buyer who never bought the castle, do you know what was stolen and was it possible to trace and return?
MH: Not quite, an Englishman bought the castle in 1973 but never paid for it. He wanted to earn money with the castle's antiques, but that didn't work and so he disappeared. The entire furnishing of the castle was then sold by the old castle owner at an auction in Cologne. The press wrote at the time that the Englishman had cleared the castle. This was never refuted by Herzog zu Mecklenburg - the old owner - and thus this false impression has remained in public. Over the years we have been able to buy back some of the old stock, or equip it with comparable specimens.
CnP: I see, those journalists are never checking anything! Tell me, were the negotiations with the Duchess of Mecklenburg difficult? How did Hermann Hecher managed to beat the Hare Krishna sect which also wanted to buy the castle?
MH: You know, the talks were very difficult as the sect had offered more money. But thanks to the support of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate and the local municipality, my parents managed to secure the purchase.

CnP: I can imagine that your father spent a fortune on restoration works which lasted for some two decades. What kind of works were needed to make the castle suitable for living?
MH: First, investments had to be made in a basic renovation for water, electricity, gas, residential buildings, path and parking lot. Then the renovation of the historical castle complex with roofs, quarry stone walls, old plaster remnants (from the 14th century), wall and ceiling paintings, fringed glass windows, wood and iron works, etc. My father spent around 3mn DM in the period from 1975 to 1999. We - my son's catering business and my museum business - have invested around 5.5mn euros from 1999 to the present day (around 4mn of which are subsidies). In 2010 a new castle restaurant was built, which is run by the son and my daughter-in-law.

RENOVATIONS, CLEAN WATER AND WHY NOT GO GREEN

CnP: I see, this is a big sum. But the castle is a gem and an important historical landmark. It is an old building and I assume it requires interventions non-stop to mend this or that – just like every country house does. How do you do it? Do you need a YES from the authorities every time you want to do something with the building?
MH: That's right, we need a monument law permit for every measure, regardless of whether it is new parasols or a large renovation program.

CnP: Going green is what most business focus on right now – what about your castle?
MH: No, a sustainable concept is difficult to implement on the old castle and from a monument conservation point of view. We heat with gas and the water comes from our own source. Renewable energy is not feasible due to the geological location i.e. rocks, little solar radiation.
CnP: And water supply can also be a problem in a spur castle – do you have a proper water supply system?
MH: Believe it or not but we still get our water from an old spring - just like in 1825. The water quality is very good and we have it checked twice a year by a responsible institute.

CnP: The castle rose from ruins in the 19th century. If you look at it can you distinguish the parts which have survived since the Middle Ages?
MH: Yes, very well, because the prince attached great importance to the preservation of the old building fabric during the reconstruction and you can very well distinguish the medieval parts from the Romantic building phase. On the one hand we have the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles with quarry stone surfaces and plaster residues from the 14th century. On the other hand, we have this neo-Gothic portion with filigree sandstone from the 19th century. The residential tower (Palace) is completely from the Middle Ages.

THE FIRST ROMANTIC CASTLE IN THE RHINE VALLEY

CnP: An you know how did the castle looked in the medieval times, don't you?
MH: We have a very good idea of the medieval layout of the castle complex. It was bigger and more half-timbered. The missing parts of the building are now gardens and terraces.

CnP: The castle was built in the 14th century as a customs outpost and to make sure the passage along the river is safe and robber barons never rebuild their destroyed castle of Reichenstein – please share a bit of the castle history with me.
MH: The most interesting part of the castle's history is the 19th century, while the Middle Ages were more or less dull. Rheinstein has become a symbol of the Romantic castle reconstruction in the 19th century not only because of its imposing location on a steep rock. So the history of the castle goes back to the beginning of the 14th century. As you've rightly said it was built as a customs castle under the Archbishopric of Mainz and also served to secure the Mainz territory in the fight against the robber barons' castles. After Rheinstein's heyday - between the 14th and 16th centuries - the castle fell into ruin in the 17th century. In 1823, Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia acquired the well-preserved ruins and had the castle rebuilt by Friedrich Schinkel, J. C. von Lassauxl and Wilhelm Kuhn, in keeping with the 19th century Rhine Romanticism. By the way one can take a guided tour around the castle. Almost all rooms can be visited, there are only a few exceptions, such as the archive and the attic. By the way Prince Friedrich of Prussia, his wife Princess Luise and her son Prince Georg were all buried in the crypt of the chapel and can now be seen through a window, the original sarcophagi can still be seen there.

CnP: And what's the most mysterious room of the castle?
MH: Well, the most mysterious part of the castle is its wine cellar. There's a round shaft 2m in diameter and 6m deep, it was used in the 19th century as an "ice shaft". Ice from the Rhine was stored in this shaft in winter till early summer. The ice was used to cool drinks.

CnP: A 19th century version of a fridge it is! What are the family members' strongest memories linked with the castle?
MH: Oh, they are linked with a massive landslide on Burgweg in 2001. After that, part of the path leading to the castle could no longer be walked and also no longer driven with the tractor. I thought then, it was all over, we'd never be able to get everything in order again. But with a lot of patience and a lot of perseverance you can achieve almost anything. Today the path looks better than ever, but almost 1mn euros was raised and invested in its reconstruction.
CnP: I just thought that it must be cool when your parents buy a real castle (it may be crumbling but still)?
MH: When my parents bought the castle in 1975, I was very disappointed and sad, I couldn't imagine living in such an old and desolate building, let alone making money from it. My attitude has changed fundamentally, today I can't do without the castle!

CnP: Do you live in the castle all year round?
MH: Yes, we live in the castle all year round. We all live in a 19th century outbuilding. This area was best to adapt to today's living concepts.
CnP: What are the family members' responsibilities in the castle?
MH: Me and Cornelia run the museum and take care of the preservation of monuments. The youth - Marco and Cora Hecher run the restaurant with the events and weddings.

CnP: It is possible to spend a night at the castle, what kind of rooms do you offer and which room has the best view of the Rhine Valley?
MH: There is only one room to rent at the castle, it is the commanders tower. In fact, it is a small tower in the castle grounds with a wonderful view of the Middle Rhine Valley, where you stay on two floors, connected by a small spiral staircase. In front of the bedroom there is a small balcony from where you have a very romantic view of the Rhine Valley.
CnP: Is it one of your favorite places?
MH: I love the Prinzenetage, because of the view and the beautiful rooms. Marco Hecher loves our private apartment because it is also our retreat from everyday life in the castle. Cora Hecher loves her herb garden, as she has the most beautiful view of the castle from there. Cornelia is fond of the beautiful Burgundy garden with many flowers and plants.

CnP: Yes, I know about your garden. It is an outstanding example of medieval garden art, which is now part of the World Heritage Gardens route. Does Cornelia take care of the plants?
MH: Exactly. Cornelia takes care of the maintenance and design of the gardens. The Burgundy Garden was the first romantic castle garden in the 19th century created on the Middle Rhine. It not only shows medieval plants, such as the grapevine and the whistle wind, but also a Mediterranean planting, which should give it a southern flair.
CnP: Who else is involved in running the castle?
MH: The family consists of four active members. The museum has 6 employees and 12 castle ghosts work in the restaurant.

CnP: You call them little castle ghosts – why?
MH: We call our employees the "good castle ghosts". A proverb says, "the good spirits will fix it" - the work is always diligently and sometimes invisibly done for the benefit of the guest.

CnP: And what about you? You tell your visitors that "you've been in the castle since 1763 and haven't seen anything supernatural!))) Are you a ghost too?
MH: I'm always asked if there are ghosts in the castle! We don't believe in this supernatural phenomenon, so I've invented this funny remark.

THE WOOING LEGEND

CnP: The Rhine, the valley, the castles, robber barons, the medieval times, the royals and wars - these are great ingredients for all kind of legends – tell me a legend about the castle which you love most of all!
MH: Here's the Rheinstein Wooing legend for you but get ready – it is quite long! Once upon a time there lived a knight called Diethelm in Rheinstein. He served robber barons. From one of his expeditions he brought back a charming maiden called Jutta. As the delicate ivy twines itself round the rough oak and clothes its knotty stem with shimmering velvet so in time the gentle conduct of Jutta changed the cruel baron to a noble knight who made her his honored wife.

The first fruit of their love cost the tender mother her life. Gerda however, who much resembled her mother, grew to such a noble beauty that soon wooers from far and near came to sue for her hand. One young man was regarded favorably by Gerda, and not unkindly looked upon by her father. He was the oldest son of the owner of the Sternburg. This young man had contrived to win the maiden's heart, and one day, while Gerda presided as queen of love and beauty at a tournament held in the courtyard of Castle Rheinstein, Helmbrecht made an avowal of his love.
MH: Some days thereafter the young lord according to courtly fashion appointed his uncle Gunzelin of Reichenstein to woo his chosen bride for him. But Gunzelin - instead of wooing for his nephew - ingratiated himself with Gerda's father. Diethelm promised him the hand of the fair Gerda who wept out her heart's grief. Her burning tears did not thaw the ice-cold heart of the father.
MH: Soon the day approached on which Gunzelin, with the smiling self-satisfaction was to lead the fairest maiden in the Rhineland to his stately castle. On a bright summer morning the bridal procession started from the courtyard of Castle Rheinstein, and moved towards the Clement's Chapel situated in the neighborhood. Horns blew and trumpets sounded. Then all at once a swarm of buzzing gadflies came out of the bush and fastened fiercely on the palfrey which bore the fair Gerda. The animal reared and broke from the bridal procession. The bridegroom's steed dashed forward to check the frightened animal, but his war-horse missing its footing on the narrow bridle path fell over a precipice carrying its master with it. The dying knight was carried by the wedding-guests back to Castle Rheinstein. The aged Diethelm was also unfortunate in his attempt to stop the runaway steed.
MH: When the runaway horse had disappeared round a bend of the path a man threw himself upon it, and bringing the trembling animal to a standstill clasped the unconscious bride in his arms. Helmbrecht, concealed in the brushwood, had been watching the bridal procession, and now came to the rescue of his true love. When the old lord heard of this he came to his senses and gave the lovers his blessing. Some weeks later a bridal procession advanced from the Clement's Chapel up to the festively decorated Castle Rheinstein. Trumpets were blown and horns resounded.


God granted to the noble pair a long and happy life. They rest together in front of the altar in the Clement's Chapel which is situated across the Rhine from Assmannshausen. Castle Rheinstein stands in renewed youthful beauty on the edge of its precipitous cliff overlooking our noble stream.

CnP: A proper legend as such stately castle should have! Speaking about the weddings - the younger Hechers take care of various events and run the castle restaurant – what's the most extraordinary dish?
MH: Right! These are our wedding menus, which we serve as a buffet on the table with our own herb flowers from the castle garden and as a highlight the dessert, which is served with table fireworks and which delights the guests.

CnP: Do you keep vineyards and make your own wine?
MH: Since the 14th century there are vineyards around the castle complex, we have replanted a small historic vineyard with Riesling. The yield from the 120 vines is sold in favor of the castle renovation.
CnP: Is it that difficult to run a castle? Actually, is it worth it (with all this money you need to spend on renovations and repairs)?
MH: We run it as a family and we do enjoy this work a lot. To earn pure money, you should choose another job ;-).

CnP: Would you buy a castle to live in if you hadn't have Rheinstein?
MH: NO!

CnP: What would you recommend those who are dreaming about buying a ruined castle to restore?
MH: You should think twice. Having a castle means you never get finished, there is always something to do, even if money shouldn't be an issue. It takes passion, heart and soul to own or even just to manage a castle. Just wanting a castle out of prestige makes you desperate in the end!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Markus Hecher, the owner of Burg Rheinstein in Germany's Rhine!
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Photo credits: @michaelleukelphotography, The Hecher Family.

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