My final day in Austria had arrived but it was going to be an exciting one! My brother Tobias and my sister-in-law Anna planned a trip to two castles. The first was one of Styria’s true medieval treasures: the Riegersburg castle, a majestic fortress that was built in the 11th century in the strategically important border region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This formidable fortification has withstood numerous assaults from the east and has never been defeated!
Some useful information about Styria
Styria is one of the less known provinces of Austria, most travelers being more familiar with the regions around the capital city Vienna, the Salzburg from The Sound of Music, or the lovely Innsbruck surrounded by the high mountains of Tyrol. Although Styria is the second largest province in Austria and has the country’s second-largest city as its capital, this region is still off the radar for most travelers.
Styria is made up of eight major travel regions:
- The Dachstein-Tauern region, marked by high mountains, excellent skiing, and other outdoor activities
- The picturesque lake region of the Ausseerland Salzkammergut
- The Murau-Murtal holiday region, a densely forested area with lots of outdoor activities
- Upper Styria, yet another mountainous region with Styrian Water Road, Styrian Iron Road, and the Hochschwab Mountain Region
- Graz, the capital of the country, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the 2003 European Capital of Culture
- Eastern Styria, an enchanting country marked by medium-sized mountains, Austria’s biggest mountain pastures, orchards, lush farmland, monasteries, and castles
- Thermenland Styria, a region full of gently rolling hills, vineyards, and ancient volcanic activity that has created six world-class spa resorts
- The Southwestern Styria Wine Region, where the gently sloping hills full of vineyards and the famous Lipizzaners horses bound for the Vienna Riding School, welcome you to a place sometimes referred to as the Austrian Tuscany.
As far as I’m concerned, Styria is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Austria, but I am biased because I was born and raised there.
Driving to castle Riegersburg through South Eastern Styria
Today’s destination, Riegersburg medieval castle, is located on the southern border of Eastern Styria, right next to the volcanic region of Thermenland. As a matter of fact, the fortress itself is built on the ancient volcanic cone of a long-extinct volcano. We started our journey from Weiz through the Raab Valley and the rural town of Gleisdorf. There, we turned off the main road to some smaller country roads which took us through beautiful hills covered in orchards and vineyards.
Many of these small side roads are popular cycling paths and on that lovely warm summer day, a lot of bikers were out and about to get a good workout and enjoy the scenery. This is why several local wine-growers opened small rural restaurants in the area to welcome hikers, bikers, and other visitors to sit down and enjoy Styrian culinary delights and wine.
After a 45-minute drive, we reached our destination: the basaltic rock capped by the magnificent Riegersburg castle was right in front of us. We parked the car in the village at the foot of the cliff and began our climb to the fortress.
Getting to Riegersburg castle
The narrow road to the Riegersburg castle lacks a proper pavement. It is essentially composed of dark volcanic rock, which features many narrow grooves and ruts from hundreds of years of use by horse carriages.
We walked through the first gate, which was one of many. Altogether the Riegersburg castle has seven main gates and eleven strongholds and the defensive wall around the fortress is three kilometers long. The combination of these features made the Riegersburg castle the most powerful fortification on the Styrian frontier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The strategic importance of this border region is obvious in the background of the Ottoman Wars of the 16th and 17th centuries between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the region of Eastern Styria was often under threat of invasion by the East. A decisive last battle was fought in the nearby town of Mogersdorf in 1664, which concluded the two-year war against the Turks. The Riegersburg castle itself has never been conquered, and as a result, it was called the strongest fortification of Christianity.
We walked slowly up to the castle on the rugged road that was surrounded by the crenelated wall that once allowed sharpshooters to target potential invaders approaching the fortress. On a plateau a bit lower than the level of the castle, we passed by several plaques mounted on a wall. This is actually a memorial to hundreds of soldiers from the surrounding villages who fell during the Second World War. Every village had its own plaque.
Another picturesque gate led us to the last section of the path that would take us straight up to the fortress.
Visiting the Riegersburg castle museums
When we entered the fortress itself, we passed over two moats, each of them with its own drawbridge. We were now finally inside the complex of the fortress and, through a vast inner courtyard, we approached the central building.
The name of the Riegersburg castle was originally mentioned in 1138 as Ruotkerspurch, which actually means the castle of Rüdigers. (Thus, the fortress was originally named after the aristocrat.) It underwent major reconstruction works at the end of the 16th century, including the late Renaissance architectural features. The large ceremonial rooms and the arcade in the inner courtyard date back to that era.
Two permanent exhibitions are part of the Riegersburg castle setting:
- The Witch Museum
- The Castle Museum
- The Force Museum
The Witch Museum
The Witch Museum in the cellar focuses on the prosecution of witches who had invaded Central European countries between 1450 to 1750. About 300 alleged witches and sorcerers were persecuted in the case of witch trials in Styria and half of them were executed. The height of the witch-hunting frenzy took place during the 30 Years War from 1618 to 1648, when the war and the so-called minor ice age devastated crops and decimated the population, much of which was, of course, blamed for the malice of the so-called witches.
The Castle Museum
The Castle Museum exhibition is named Legendary Riegersburg – Legendary Women. Two very vivid female characters are synonymous with the history of this castle.
The first was Baroness Katharina Elisabeth von Galler (1607-1672), who was the lady of the castle from 1648 to 1672. In a time of very typical male-female gender standards, this lady had a very unusual character and dared to stray from the norms. Women, including aristocratic women, were not allowed to own property at the time, but Elisabeth, as the sole heiress of the Riegersburg castle, declined to forfeit this wealth to her husband. Even in her pre-nuptial contract, she ensured herself the right to decide over her property.
Baroness Katharina Elisabeth von Galler undertook the full rebuilding of the Riegersburg castle, which included the magnificent Baroque White Hall, as well as the building of several bastions, gates, and large walls to surround the fortress. Several inscriptions above some of the gates indicate that she spent a lot of money on this construction work. And, as her husband was heavily indebted, in 1649 she gave him a large sum of money to get rid of him. Altogether, Baroness von Galler was married three times and engaged in a long series of legal battles with her husbands and local clergy.
The other interesting female character featured in the Legendary Women’s exhibition is Katharina Paldauf, who worked for Baroness von Galler since she was 20. From 1673 to 1675 she was involved in the Feldbach Witch Trial and was accused of influencing the weather and engaging in the witch Sabbaths. Legend has it that she was able to grow roses in the middle of winter, an ability that gained her the nickname of the flower witch. For her supernatural powers to grow flowers in the off-season she was convicted of being a witch and was presumably executed in September 1675.
Some displays of the Riegersburg castle museums also shed light on the historical background of the 16th and 17th centuries. Servitude and feudalism characterized the power structures of the Middle Ages, and the peasants suffered difficult lives, while the aristocrats formed a hereditary elite entitled to hold land while exercising far-reaching powers over the common people.
The mostly agrarian economy of the time compelled the peasants to give a substantial part of their income to the local lords and nobles who, in exchange, guaranteed them protection during the war. This was a period of widespread oppression, and the lords had the freedom to use the property of the peasants as they wished. Often a peasant would need the consent of the lord when he wanted to marry, and the peasant class would be taxed on onerous charges. In reality, these harsh conditions led to many peasant rebellions in Central Europe in the 16th century.
The nobles, on the other hand, enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle. The inscription at the door of the historic Riegersburg castle suggests that an unhealthy feast in the 1600s ended after 21 days of binge eating and drinking. The opulently decorated Knights Hall was the site of many such parties, and the wooden bridge connecting it to another hall was used to relieve oneself after all this carousing and is commonly referred to as the vomiting bridge. To this day, the figure of a man bending over the bridge still reminds us of its original purpose.
We were struck by the lavish detailing of the former living quarters of Riegersburg castle, in particular by the Knights Hall and the baroque White Hall, both opulently decorated. When we walked through the premises, the White Hall still featured table decorations and remnants of a wedding that had been held at the fortress a few days earlier.
Today, the Riegersburg castle is owned by the Von Liechtenstein family, an aristocratic dynasty that has been residing in the castle since 1972. One of the princely family members had just recently been married. The remaining beautiful flower arrangements and wedding menus gave us a glimpse of what some of these historic feasts had to be like, way before the luxurious event of the princely family of Liechtenstein.
We had loved our first-hand history lesson and were ready to continue exploring, so we walked down the long path to the town of Riegersburg, which lies at the foot of the fortress. A baroque church and several restaurants are located in its picturesque main square. And, on the outskirts of the village, there is a large pond with beach volleyball facilities, a water slide, a tennis court, and terraces on its shores.
Spending the night near the castle? I recommend staying at Genusshotel Riegersburg.
Sarah Grossman was born in Austria but moved to Canada after college. She is an avid and savvy planner and organizer of worldwide travel and enjoys sharing her personal stories to encourage, inspire, and help other travelers.
You too can become a guest blogger on The Travel Bunny. Just submit a free guest post.
Other articles you should read on The Travel Bunny travel blog
Beautiful late winter weekend in Vienna: 48 hours in Austria’s capital
An interesting visit to Katerloch cave