In Germany, a Baron’s Castle Is Your B&B

THE NEW YORK TIMES—August 16, 2009

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WHEN Thilo von und zu Gilsa, a scion of one of Germany’s noble families, arrived in the formal dining room of his ancestral castle in central Germany, he wore a green Bavarian hunting jacket. On the wall behind him hung a portrait of a great-great-great-grandfather, the hunting master for a local duke. His four children were on perfect behavior, including Genoveva, 2, who was buttering her own bread with a silver knife.

It was easy to forget that this was also a hotel, until Mr. von Gilsa’s wife, Tanja, walked in wearing black riding boots and carrying a large white china platter of roasted chicken, which her two paying guests eagerly carved up. After dinner, Ms. von Gilsa became the tour guide, holding forth on the provenance of the heavy antique furniture and ornate decorations throughout the home. “I think that one’s mine,” Ms. von Gilsa said, pointing to the skin of a wild boar she had recently killed.

The von Gilsa castle is one of about 50 across Germany that have opened up to paying guests in recent years. About half are still owned and operated by the nobles. They vary in architecture and amenities. Some are rustic and bare bones, with shared bathrooms, drafty rooms and coal-burning furnaces. Others are palatial and grandiose, like Schloss Ossenberg, an 800-year-old manor along the Rhine near Düsseldorf with a Rococo living room covered in frescoes and dripping with chandeliers.

While the German nobility was officially abolished in 1919, aristocrats were allowed to keep their castles — as well as their elaborate names, usually punctuated with freiherr (baron) and the prepositions von and zu. Today, there are an estimated 70,000 Germans with noble titles. They tend to stick together, marry one another and socialize at the same places. There are even summer bike trips for teenagers called Adel auf dem Radel, or Nobles on Cycles.

Despite their dwindling riches, there remains something of a fascination with German aristocrats — several gossip magazines like Bunte and Gala chronicle their loves, fortunes and scandals. And being able to rub elbows with nobles and perhaps have your bed made by a baroness is undoubtedly part of the appeal.

In truth, though, contact with the nobles varies widely. Some dukes and barons invite guests for a drink and chat; others barely utter hello before scurrying back to their part of the manor.

One of the friendliest may be Schloss Ludwigseck, the von Gilsas’ castle nestled in 4,000 acres of woodland near Bad Hersfeld, about 90 minutes by car from Frankfurt. There are about 30 rooms in the former fortress, mostly furnished by Ms. von Gilsa, an interior decorator, and crammed with family heirlooms.

Their schloss (German for castle) is on a craggy bluff near the woods where Little Red Riding Hood once roamed. It’s now a sight of faded beauty, a hulking stone hunting lodge, though it’s easy to imagine flusher days when the air was filled with the sounds of trumpets and the barking of hunting dogs.

Inside, the long hallways are packed with generations’ worth of deer antlers and stuffed wild turkeys, with names and dates meticulously cataloged. It makes trips to the shared bathroom at night feel like a stroll through the American Museum of Natural History.

Von Gilsas have owned the castle since it was built in the 15th century. The current occupants inherited it five years ago from Mr. von Gilsa’s mother and moved in with their four young children — Apollonia, Anastasia, Genoveva and Wilhelm.

Like most nobles-turned-innkeepers, the von Gilsas decided to convert a four-bedroom wing of their castle into guest quarters mostly because of economics. “My father would be too proud to have paying guests,” Mr. von Gilsa said. Heating bills and other maintenance costs, he added, left him with little choice three years ago. Now, for 110 euros a night, or about $162 at $1.47 to the euro, a couple can sleep in a canopied bed next to portraits of 18th-century von Gilsas and be served breakfast by an aristocrat.

The castle offers daytime hikes, though the most aristocratic-sounding activity is deer and boar hunting on the forested grounds. Mr. von Gilsa provides the guns and ammunition. With advance notice, the von Gilsas will even turn that day’s kill into dinner — perhaps grilled venison with sautéed potatoes and cabbage salad.

Though the von Gilsas are still acclimating to being innkeepers, other nobles have been lowering their drawbridges for years. Among the first to start taking in guests was Dr. Manfred Freiherr von Crailsheim. His Schloss Sommersdorf in the tiny Bavarian town of Sommersdorf is a chalky-colored limestone giant, with looming towers and a dark moat that should fulfill anyone’s Dungeons & Dragons fantasy.

Guests enter the 26-room castle over a stone bridge before ascending a spiral staircase with thick walls and small windows to reach the guest quarters — Gothic-style rooms with dark furniture, wall tapestries and the occasional suit of armor in the hallway.

The castle has been in the family for 450 years. Two decades ago, to help finance renovations, Baron von Crailsheim started renting out eight apartments, including two floors off the 14th-century turret. Guests are free to roam around the property, which includes a garage full of classic cars and a collection of Tanzanian spears. But they might think twice about wandering down to the dusty, dark crypt, where six ancestors, including Julius Wilhelm Freiherr von Crailsheim, who was killed in an 18th-century hunting accident, are buried.

Baron von Crailsheim, a retired nephrologist, takes macabre pleasure in showing off his forebears. Guests, however, might prefer a dip in the small swimming pool just on the other side of the moat.

If Sommersdorf feels a bit musty, with its old-fashioned décor and dark colors, other castles present a more modern style. Just north of Nuremberg, Albrecht Freiherr von und zu Egloffstein has painstakingly restored his family’s 1,000-year-old manor. It’s a fortified castle perched on a 300-foot cliff overlooking the village of Egloffstein and the Trubach Valley.

“The town is named for my family, not the other way around,” Baron von Egloffstein, a retired military officer, said with an imperious air.

The baron’s castle is actually a complex of 10 houses (the newest is 250 years old; the oldest, 800) that includes a church with a maroon-colored onion dome. The guest rooms, which have furnishings from different eras, have the feel of a New England bed-and-breakfast.

The von Egloffsteins are more than happy to give guests a tour of the castle. There are many family artifacts, including 18th-century hunting gear and an unusual set of old smoking pipes.

The baron is particularly fond of a painting of one of his ancestors, Julie Gräfin von Egloffstein, who appears in her portrait as a cheerful young woman in a flowing gown. Baron von Egloffstein boasts that she was a talented painter and poet, and also, most significantly, an intimate of Goethe, though he emphasized with a wink that they were not romantically involved.

As for how he feels about guests traipsing through the house where he grew up, Mr. Egloffstein said with a sigh, “You cannot maintain an old castle with pride alone.”

VISITOR INFORMATION

Many castles in Germany are listed at www.culture-castles.de, including Schloss Ludwigseck (Ludwigsau; 49-6670-205), with rooms starting at 110 euros, about $162 at $1.47 to the euro.

At Schloss Sommersdorf (Sommersdorf; 49-9805-91920; www.schloss-sommersdorf.de), apartments are 85 to 140 euros, with a three-night minimum.

Schloss Egloffstein (Egloffstein; 49-9197-8780; www.egloffstein-castle.com) has apartments from 62 euros, plus a 30-euro housecleaning fee.

Double rooms at Schloss Ossenberg (Schlossstrasse 81, Rheinberg; 49-2843-160395; www.schloss-ossenberg.de) start at 140 euros.

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