Sunday, August 23, 2009

Germany spends stimulus money on its medieval castles

Dozens of medieval castles in Germany will soon be receiving more than 320 million euros to help with restoration work, with the money coming from the countries economic stimulus package.

The latest cash injection was announced earlier this week when the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg pledged €155 million for the Foundation of Prussian Palaces and Gardens for the period through 2017. The government has already made 150 million euros available for the preservation of the country's 33 UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the historic town center of Quedlinburg and the castles of the Rhine. Another 20 million euros had already been earmarked in January for the restoration of other historical buildings.

"We're happy. This is a positive development," said Gerhard Wagner, Secretary-General of the German Castles association. "Repair work we might only have got round to in 20 years can now be done in the next five."

He added, "We had thought the stimulus money would go into autobahns and things like that, so we were surprised and overjoyed that people thought about our historic monuments. It means we're now able to tackle projects that we otherwise wouldn't have gotten to for another 20 years."

The owners of castles along the 65-kilometer stretch of the Rhine Valley designated as a World Heritage site have applied for a total of €14 million in government funds.

Marksburg Castle, the only hill-top castle on the Rhine never to have been destroyed in its more than 800-year history has been awarded €700,000 for roof repairs and improvements to an access road.

Nearby castles, the medieval Burg Eltz and the 18th century Schloss Malberg, were each granted money to make repairs. Burg Eltz is receiving more than €2 million to retile roofs and to fit iron anchors to secure a 40-meter tower which is at risk of collapse. Malberg will have €1 million to restore its vast roofs and walls.

Burg Eltz can only be visited in a guided tour and despite the recession, guest numbers have increased in 2009, although it's not just Germans accounting for the increase. Large numbers of Belgians, Dutch and even British tourists are defying the recession and flocking to the castle to marvel at its original medieval halls, suits of armor and tapestries.

Tourism is up at many historic monuments across Germany -- Marksburg castle expects 145,000 visitors in 2009, up from 142,000 last year, and Rheinstein, another privately owned castle that guards the Rhine near the town of Bingen, is confident it will crack 30,000 this year, up from 2008.

With all the building contracts being awarded, it's getting increasingly hard to recruit local contractors skilled in restoring medieval buildings, castle owners say. Medieval mortar requires a special type of plaster to make it weather proof, for example.

Rheinstein looks set to be one of the few Rhine castles unspoiled by scaffolding in the years to come because it has already undergone €2 million worth of refurbishment over the last decade, with government help.

"One has to keep begging and applying for public funds because there are so many historical buildings in this region," Rheinstein's owner Markus Hecher, whose father, an opera singer, bought the castle in the 1970s.

Owning a castle may sound like a dream come true but it's also a constant challenge, said Hecher. "A few years ago our cesspits collapsed and we had to fix them right away because we're not attached to the public sewage system. That came out of the blue and cost €24,000. And because we get all our water from wells in the forest, we have to keep maintaining the four kilometers of pipes leading there. Blocked filters sometimes shut off our supply."

Germany has an estimated 15,000 preserved fortresses, palaces and ruins.