When I originally packed up the small remainder of my belongings in Vermont and jumped on the Amtrak heading south where I was to hang out with a friend in New York City for a few days before flying out to Europe, I had the intention of taking the most advantage possible of a virtually non-existent commodity in the United States: castles.
I wanted to climb me some castles. While I hadn't been actively doing parkour for almost a year, the thought of climbing on century-old (and possibly crumbling) bricks, jumping and scrambling (and falling) between hidden passageways and what others would consider impossible-to-reach alcoves had been working itself as a fantasy through my head at a steadily intensifying pace. I had been to Europe twice already in my life, once at the age of 11 and another the next year when I was 12, and even though at the time I wasn't in any sort of physical condition (or lacking the proper parental restraint) to do this, I had plenty of fun poking my head around and discovering anything there was to discover in the castles and ruins I was able to make it to. A childhood consisting mostly of video games and fantasy novels will do that to you.
However, something odd seemed to happen. Upon arriving in Europe, I have never gotten around to doing the one thing I had wanted to do so badly. Either the castle was privately owned, too far away, or I was unmotivated, in Vienna, or busy for some reason or another. Other than a trip to Italy in April 2011 where I was able to climb on ancient Roman ruins (although I was suitably cockblocked at the Colosseum), I managed to let my prime wish fall to the wayside. It appeared that I was becoming all grown up and it was time to let such childish things pass on from my life.
NOT! Last weekend Sabrina and I took a walk up the road and found the coolest damn ruins of a castle I have ever seen. You want to see something that looks like the spawn of a fairy tale and a D&D player's wet dream? Then keep reading.
Up the road from the quaint little village of Sommerein, Austria (where I'm currently staying) there is another quaint little village by the name of Mannersdorf. Up the road from Mannersdorf is an area that the locals call Die Wüste. This translates literally to “The Desert” and, having some experience with Nevada and eastern Washington, I was a bit skeptical of anyone using that name for anywhere in Austria. The locals ensured me that they didn't get why it was called that, either, and continued to extol to me the absolute necessity of visiting a place so beautiful at least once. While the surroundings, as I mentioned, are quaint, “absolutely beautiful” isn't a description I would be throwing around here.
Whatever the case, winter fucking finally bowed its ass out for the year and we've been getting radiated with the infinite glories of the sun for about a week now, even if spring hasn't realized its ugly and abusive sister has left the room. Sabrina and I thus shirked our responsibilities of translating and headed out to Die Wüste. Sabrina's mom dropped us off at the head of the trail a bit past Mannersdorf and we started our walk. It was the first warm Saturday of the year and the place was totally packed with cars and people. Sabrina complained about it but I let her know that I was well practiced in this specific situation and that there was nothing to worry about.
We were immediately met by vague remains of ancient stone buildings and crumbling walls along the path. All the natives appeared content to walk their happy asses down the path, but I took to scrambling over everything as soon as the first brick was in sight. I continued doing this down the road until a building came into sight. I walked passed the “KEEP OUT” sign (“BETRETEN VERBOTEN”) and started climbing on and jumping through the windows, then found a way to climb on a big arch on the side of the building.
Getting down was a bit tricky, especially as one of the bricks I was holding onto ripped out of the wall. I may be rusty at it, but this situation isn't anything I haven't experienced in the past.
After climbing down, I decided I was bored with seeing people walk down the road and I made my way through the wild garlic covering the forest floor down to a stream.
I quickly found myself balancing on wet logs and slipping and jumping down hills. By the time Sabrina had caught up with me I had already found something heavy up high that I had determined needed to be thrown down low.
A broken chunk of tree was leaning on another fallen tree and it looked to me like the whole situation might explode into rotting and dusty bits of bark if I were to simply apply the right amount of pressure in the proper location.
However, I went forward cautiously – a memory of a similar situation was still rather fresh in my mind. Roughly six years ago I was helping out at a work party at Pragtri Farm back in Arlington. The orchard was about 20 years overgrown and in dire need of pruning. One plum in particular tree had grown at such a sharp angle that the weight of the tree had brought it back down, where the tree had continued to grow crawling on the ground. The effect it created was an arch with the high point about six feet into the air. With a trusty pruning saw in hand, I walked up the tree until I was at the high point (the tree was about 10 inches in diameter), knelt down, and began sawing away. The result, unsurprisingly, must have looked like something out of Looney Tunes gag.
Upon making my way with the saw through the last part of the tree, the “top half” (i.e. the part which had grown back down toward the ground) fell off, relieving the bottom half from the weight which was holding it down in the first place and turning the tree into a Vyst-flinging catapult. Luckily I was fast enough to roll to the side and fall to the ground in an unceremonious heap instead of getting launched into the neighbor's yard, but the experience was enough to keep me wary in the future. Now I was trying my best to stand in a spot that felt like it wouldn't get thrown or break and, in the event that it did, would keep the injury potential at a minimum.
Despite my apprehensions, in the end the log underneath me broke and I once again found myself unceremoniously brought to ground level. Here's a dumb video of what happened:
Note: If you're using Firefox, the quality of the videos is going to be really low. Blame the people who make these things.
After my disappointing swath of destruction, we continued our way through the woods, deciding to play a game of hot lava in order to get back to the road. The rules to this game are simple: walk, balance, jump, climb, or swing however you need to and move, adjust, break, and throw whatever object necessary in order to make it to the predetermined destination without touching the ground. Each time you touch it's one point, the person with the lowest score at the end being the winner. This is just as much a game of creativity as it is a game of balance. Plus you get to act like a monkey. I made it back to the road with one point (slipped up right at the beginning. Doh) and Sabrina was about to make it back with one point as well, but she lost the tie by losing her balance at the final jump to the road.
We continued down the road until the forest opened up into a wild-garlic-covered clearing complete with a medieval statue and a modern one. The wild garlic field eventually turned into the standard grass variety, and we found ourselves approaching an old monastery. However, this time I could tell immediately from the roofs and the condition of the buildings that the place was still in use. Plus the whole thing was surrounded by different animals!
Goats, chickens, pigs, buffalo, ducks, and horses. I was able to get the goats' attention by baah-ing out “zzzzzzziege!” (the German word for goat) and offering them handfuls of fresh grass and wild garlic. The buffalo completely ignored me despite my various intonations on the word “moo” (I even tried Diablo 2 style ) and one of the horses snorted snot all over my hand. But the pigs were awesome! There were a whole bunch of baby pigs running around, specifically trying to feed from their mother who apparently had already decided they were old enough to find their own stuff to eat.
After getting bored with the animals we walked around a bit into the woods near the monastery. We found some old crumbling ruins of what looked like used to be towers. It reminded me of playing The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and I was waiting for skeletons armed with swords and axes to attack me from around the corner. We were about to decide to just start heading home when we met a woman who once again extolled to us the awesomeness of the ruins of the castle and that we should go check them out. She told us a “short cut” that sent us in a big circle, allowing us to approach the castle from the back side.
We were scratching our heads and wondering whether or not she had sent us completely in a wrong direction when the ruins emerged from the hill like a swamp monster. The castle was so crumbled and overgrown with trees and ivy that from a distance it was impossible to discern it from the natural part of the hill. We walked around the side to find a large hole in the side of the castle with a big pile of old rocks and bricks allowing us to walk through the empty moat and enter the castle through the hole.
What I found was awe-inspiring. The forest growing in, on, and around the ruins gave it an organic flavor that I had never seen applied to human construction. The dilapidated stones, though held together with crumbly mortar, were still enough to project the magnificence of the castle. The construction was everything you could want and more from ruins – relatively advanced architectural principles slapped together haphazardly with lousy construction techniques created eerie rooms where you could still sense a faint glimmer of the mercenaries and castle workers going about their businesses, as well as get an idea of the hell the 3,000 people who had been stuffed behind these walls during one of the Turkish invasions went through while they were under siege. Centuries of dirt, grass, trees, and over-grown ivy had the effect to create hidden paths to hidden areas and rooms.
The castle was still in some sort of use. We found several recently-used firepits throughout the castle, specifically in the arched room in the middle of what I can also assumed was the courtyard.
While it doesn't do the room justice, Sabrina took a video to show just what I'm talking about here:
I laugh every time someone around here refers to the softly rolling hills which surround the landscape as “mountains”, but the view from the top of the castle was gorgeous.
Having been an avid RPG player in the past, I knew not to let any window, door, path, or passageway go unchecked, regardless of how insignificant it looked from far away. The thought later of having missed cool shit simply because you were too lazy to check a crack is enough to drive a man insane, so I busied myself with checking every window and dark hole I could find.
I was rewarded with finding a staircase. I was without my trusty torch, so I had to feel my way over what remained of the stairs with my feet. I quickly ascended to find a top view of the cool room I had been sitting in before.
The steps had obviously been designed in the past to lead to a second floor built from wood, but now it's just a chill alcove that I could have hung out in all day in. But no time for that, there was more exploring to do! I found another “secret” pathway from the top of the wall that simply looked like something you would fall through from above if you weren't careful. It led to a window and another outlook of the room I was in before. The alcove was so covered in ivy that a woman who walked into the room down below couldn't find me even after I called and waved to her.
We explored around a bit more and found ourselves at the drawbridge. I jumped down and started giving Sabrina a pep-talk to do the same, as she was looking doubtful about the situation.
However, she very quickly got a case of vertigo and I had to climb back up the wall to pull her into the entrance.
I tried telling her it wasn't that big of a jump, but she repeatedly told me it was too far and ended up going around to get to me (I just jumped down again after getting her back up). I did manage to get some pictures off before to give an idea of the size of the castle entrance (and how close to the ground she actually was).
We decided then that it was getting time to head back (and that we most definitely had to come back), so we stomped our way through the wild garlic down the hill and found ourselves at the ruins of the tower we had been at originally where I thought walking skeletons would be on guard. The castle was RIGHT THERE and the woman who had given us directions had sent us in a 20 minute loop around the hill. Feh.
We made our way past the monastery again, this time finding pigs on the outside of the fence. I got one to get close enough to me to nudge me with his nose before realizing I didn't have any food to give him.
I went and got some wild garlic to try again, but they didn't believe me this time.
Whatever. They munched it down after I threw it at them and walked away. I'll try again when I'm there next time!
-VystBack to Vyst's stories.