American kids grow up with a vague knowledge of castles. There aren’t many around to see first-hand, so a castle is a cool old building where queens and kings live in luxury with knights to defend them. Arcitecturaly speaking, there are towers for princesses to let down their golden hair, moats with alligators, and crenellations (you know those up and down bits that top every castle wall). It’s a place for royal balls with princes looking for princesses to marry, but it’s also the best of all forts with dramatic battles and sieges.
So you get to Europe and there is a castle around practically every corner! But in German, none are called “castles.” Instead, a castle is called “Schloss” or “Schloß,” but at other times it’s a “Burg.” What’s the difference? Is there a difference? Yes! well, maybe.
First, let’s take a quick look at the Eszett. That’s the last letter in “Schloß” and it’s pronounced as a sharp “S” sound. There are some unique and particular rules governing it’s use, but generally a “ß” and “ss” are interchangeable. It’s a letter unique to German (although it used to be used in other languages too. It might look like a capital “B” but don’t pronounce it that way!
Back to the castles!
First we’ll talk about the word “Burg.” It’s pronounced BOORgh and the plural is “Burgen.” It’s feminine: die Burg.
If a castle was built in the middle ages (generally before the 16th century) it is called a Burg. A Burg was used as a stronghold and built to defend those who lived or took refuge there. The best English equivalent might be “Fortress.”
Most Burgen started as tower that was often called a “Bergfriede.” The tower was a watchtower and, in a pinch, a place of refuge during a siege. Over time the towers grew taller and additions were made. As walls, other buildings, and defense were added the tower often remained as a focal point. If you look at a map of a Burg you might see the tower marked as “Turm” or “Großer Turn” (tower and large tower).
Durring a siege the area peasants, and everyone above them in rank, would take shelter in the Burg. Even outside of the times of battle the military would live at the Burg. Sometimes the nobility would also live at the Burg in special quarters.
Here are things to look for at a Burg:
- Strong, stone walls
- Few windows facing outside, any holes in the outside walls were used for firing on the enemy
- Layers of fortifications (walls inside of walls)
- A well so that if the Burg is under siege the people can live inside without leaving its protective walls
- Areas set aside for knights and soldiers. “Rittersaal” is a knight’s hall.
Schoss or Schloß
Now let’s take a look at a “Schloss” or “Schloß.” It’s pronounced as shlȯs and the plural is “Schlösser.” It’s neutral: das Schloss.
Gradually the war-filled middle ages gave way to the more peaceful renaissance and the nobility had less of a need for fortified places to live. When battles were fought they were out on the battlefields and the nobles were generally safely kept away. So after the 16th century less Burgen were built and the nobility spent their money building comfortable estates or Schlösser. The best English equivalent might be “Palace.”
A few guards were kept to protect the nobles, but the fighting forces lived elsewhere. The nobility had the time and money to pursue the arts so a Schloß may have a large garden, a theater for performances, and elaborate artwork. Entertaining and showing off was expected so the there may also be large ballrooms, grand entrance halls, and elaborate dining areas.
Things to look for at a Schloss:
- Built for beauty rather than strengh
- Elaborate garden areas
- Maybe built in a city rather than in a strategic area
- Pursuit of the arts: paintings, performance areas, intricate details
- Ready for entertaining: entrance areas, dining rooms and gathering spaces for many guests
Not Always One or the Other
So there is a difference between a Burg and a Schloss, but can one place be both? YES!
Over the course of time, it was pretty common for a Burg to become a Schloss. It makes sense. As the Burg became less useful as a military fortress, the ruling family kept making improvements. Their quarters could be made more comfortable. A larger, more impressive dining area could be added. Who needs a moat anymore? It could be filled in and gardens planted. Slowly the Burg became a Schloss.
A great example of that is at Bad Homburg. The castle started out as Hohenburg with a large watchtower. Overtime the Burg was no longer needed as a fortress and most the medieval Burg was torn down to it’s foundations and rebuilt into a more modern Schloss. However, the tower from the original Burg was still a focal point and a symbol of the area, so the White Tower (Weißer Trum) was kept in the middle of the main square of the Schloss. It is now referred to as the Landgrafenschloss and the surrounding gardens are the Schlosspark.
One of the most popular castles for tourists visiting Germany is Neuschwanstein. So is it a Schloss or a Burg? It has towers and thick, stone walls. There is a Ritterhaus and Ritterbad for the knights to live and bathe. All of those details point to a Burg. But it was built in the late 1800’s by Ludwig II, a king who never saw battle and inside Neuschwanstein you’ll find very elaborate, fancy rooms with fine details. So is it a Schloss?
Technically Neuschwanstein is a Schloss and you’ll see it labeled as such. It was built for King Ludwig who wanted his fantasy castle to feel more historic than it is. He wanted it to be the perfect setting for a Wager opera set in the middle ages. So its a Schloss built to look like a Burg.
What about “Berg?”
Do you get stuck on spellings of German towns? Is it Heidelberg or Heidelburg? Well, we know that town has a pretty awesome castle, so you might think it should end with “b-U-r-g,” but no, it ends with “b-E-r-g.” Why?!?
“Berg” (pronounced BEARgh) is a mountain or large hill. So Heidelberg is named after the large hill on which the castle stands instead of the castle itself, and there are plenty of Burgs on top of Bergs because of it’s natural defense. So it’s Bad HombUrg and BUrg SchnellenbErg. Oh dear.
Visiting a Burg or Schloss
Want to learn more about Burgen and Schlösser? The best place to do that is at a Burg or Schloss, of course. They are in various states of repair and disrepair: Some might be in ruins. These are referred to as a Burgruine. Others may be very well kept up and ready for you to tour or even stay the night!
Here are some of the castles in Germany:
Limburg and Burgruine Hardenburg
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe with Schloss Wilhelmshöhe and Löwenburg
The Hermitage and New & Old Palaces in Bayreuth
Castles outside of Germany:
Valkenburg – in the Netherlands
Predjamat Castle – in Slovenia
Prague Castle – in the Czech Republic
Hermitage & Peterhof – in St. Petersburg, Russia
Dunguaire Castle – in Ireland
Vajdahunyad Castle – in Budapest, Hugary
Hohensalzburg – in Salzburg, Austria
Pena Palace – in Sintra, Portugal
Place Stanislas and le Palais Ducal – in Nancy, France
Schonbrunn Palace – in Vienna, Austria
Not quite castles, but close: