The Drachenfels in Königswinter –
more than just tourist kitsch
I grew up in Königswinter, a town of approx. 40,000 inhabitants next to Bonn. It stretches from the Rhine in the west across the Siebengebirge to the east. The Siebengebirge (“Seven Mountains”) consists of more than 40 hills of volcanic origin. Of the seven hills, which gave the region its name, the highest is the Ölberg with 460m, the smallest is the Drachenfels with 321m. How it got its name is disputed with various suggestions floating around.
While it might be lacking in height, the Drachenfels (“Dragon’s Rock”) is probably the best known to tourists. Due to the many Dutch tourists which used to flock here, it got the local nickname “the highest mountain of the Netherlands”. I have to admit, when I lived in the area, I felt rather superior and didn’t want to be seen near the Drachenfels. However, 25 years and several continents later, I decided to overcome my prejudice and visit the Drachenfels again. Especially after reading up on it, I discovered there is actually more to it than just touristy kitsch.
The Drachenfels as a quarry
The Siebengebirge was formed by volcanic activity approx. 23 million years ago, resulting in trachyte. The Romans were the first to quarry the stone at the Drachenfels. From the first to the fourth century AD, they used the rock to build their settlement at Bonn. As the steep western side of the hill is close to the Rhine, it was fairly easy to transport the material with slides to the river, where it was loaded on to barges.
In the 11th century the old Roman quarries were opened again, as the trachyte was found to be particularly well suited for church building. Some of the stone was used to build the castle on the top of the Drachenfels, but most of it was shipped further afield. The Bonn Minster and the cathedrals of Cologne, Xanten and Limburg have all been built using trachyte from the Drachenfels. The quarrying continued until the mid-16th century, when the building of Cologne Cathedral came to a standstill. It was only in 1823 that it was decided to repair the existing parts of the cathedral and then to complete the building.[i]
The Drachenfels as an attraction for 19th-century tourists
The Drachenfels had been for a long time a popular with artists, such as the copperplate engraver Matthäus Merian (1593-1650) and the Dutch painter Lambert Doomer (1624-1700), who drew and painted the view several times.
In the early 19th century, the landscape was discovered by early tourists. One of the first, and most influential, was Lord Byron, who saw the Drachenfels on 11 May 1816 and felt inspired to write about it in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine
However, there is no evidence that he met any of the “peasant-girls, with deep-blue eyes, And hands which offer early flowers” he mentions later on. He only travelled – at speed – past on the opposite side of the Rhine. [ii]
A year later, the English artist William Turner came to the Rhine. He walked from Cologne to Mainz, drawing many sketches along the way, in which he often referred to Byron’s poetry. Afterwards, he created watercolour paintings based on the sketches, of which three show the Drachenfels (for example here). Byron and Turner are seen as the founders of the Rhine Romanticism, which gave rise to a tourism boom, especially among wealthy English travellers, which lasted till the end of the 19th century.[iii]
Another Englishman, Edward Bulwer Lytton, referred to Byron, when he travelled past the Seven Mountains. He writes about this in chapter IX of The Pilgrims of the Rhine, which was first published in 1834.
My personal favourite is Heinrich Heine’s poem about a night he spent on the Drachenfels in May 1820, while being a student at Bonn uni. The poem starts full of patriotic and romantic sentiments, but then comes the anti-climax and he finishes with telling us that all he got out of it was a runny nose and a cough! [iv]
There is no doubt that the burgeoning reputation of the Drachenfels as a tourist attraction was further helped by articles, with illustrations, in the The Illustrated London News, when reporting about a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to the Rhine in August 1845.[v] The prince would have known the Drachenfels, as he had spent a year at Bonn uni (1837-38) studying English language and history.[vi]
By 1834, an inn had been established on the Drachefels. After quite a few changes, the restaurant still exists and is very popular with visitors.[vii]
The Drachenfels as a quarry again
But let’s return to the quarry. When building activity resumed at Cologne Cathedral, the Königswinter quarries were opened again. However, by this time the idea that the Drachenfels was worth preserving seems to have found supporters, no doubt because of its popularity with wealthy tourists. On 4 May 1828, the royal government in Cologne issued a decree to stop quarrying on the Drachenfels. Their aim was to protect the castle ruins on the top (more on them see below) as well as workers in the vineyards on the slope of the hill, and anyone passing at the bottom.
The quarry workers were not happy, and the matter ended in court. After quite a bit of toing and froing, in May 1832, King Friedrich Wilhelm III prohibited all further quarrying at the Drachenfels. Eventually, on 26 April 1836, the Prussian state bought the top of the hill with the castle ruins. This is considered to be the first state intervention to protect nature against further human disruption. However, when considering the romantic enthusiasm for the landscape, it seems that the Prussian king was more interested in preserving a national attraction of artistic beauty than nature.[viii] In other areas of the Siebengebirge, quarrying carried on without anyone being too concerned. Sometimes with lucky side-effects, as for instance in the case of Bonn-Oberkassel, just 4 km further north, where the remains of a couple and their dog from the ice age were discovered by quarry workers in 1914.
Nevertheless, the intervention by the king was in the long term a positive step towards the preservation of nature and is commemorated by the opening of the German Museum of the History of Nature Reserves half-way up the hill in 2002. It is accommodated in the Schloss Drachenburg (dragon’s castle palace), originally built in the late 19th century by a rich businessman.[ix]
The castle on top of the Drachenfels
On top of the hill are the ruins of a castle. Today, nothing much is left and it is difficult to visualise what would have been there originally.
The castle on the Drachenfels[x], as well as the one on the Rolandseck opposite, was begun by Archbishop Arnold I of Cologne (1138-1151). It was first mentioned in 1147, when Arnold stated in a document that the tower and some of the other buildings were finished. However, due to illness, Arnold would not be able to continue.[xi] He transferred the castle to Gerhard von Are[xii], the master of the collegiate Minster chapter in Bonn (in office 1124-1169). By 1166, von Are had finished the construction. He is above all known for his activity in building the Bonn Minster.
Parts of Archbishop Arnold’s tower are still standing. It is one of the earliest extant keeps which can be dated exactly. The keep was approx. 25 m high, with three storeys, and built out of large blocks of trachyte – after all that was the type of stone available nearby. On the inside, the walls were probably plastered. The main entrance was on the eastern side. The ground floor was 4.28 m high, the first floor 4 m and the second floor 4.20 m. On the first floor, there are still traces of a fire place.
To the north of the keep, there was a courtyard, enclosed with various buildings. The ongoing quarrying on the slopes of the Drachenfels took its toll on the remaining parts of the castle. In 1788, some walls of a residential building and a part of the chapel crashed down the hill towards the Rhine.
In the 13th century, Bonn was fortified with a town wall and the Drachenfels was less important for the protection of Bonn. Nevertheless, the castle was besieged in several wars, even twice during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). This led the archbishop of Cologne, who was the feudal lord by then, to order the demolition of the castle in 1634. In documents of 1642, it is referred to as a ruin.
Once the Prussians bought the hill, they made efforts to preserve what was left and this has continued ever since.
The Drachenfels today
You can reach the top quite easily. You can either walk, or you can take the train up. Due to the steep incline, it is a cogwheel train. Opened on 17 July 1883, it is the oldest still operating train of its kind in Germany. Originally it was a steam train, one of the old engines from 1927 can still be admired next to the terminal in Königswinter, but in 1957 it was converted to electric operation.
Children can also ride on a donkey. I always dismissed the donkeys as a tourist attraction, but there is a historical connection. Originally, donkeys were used for transport in the quarries (yes, I know, the poor animals). They are part of my earliest memories of Königswinter. When I was six, my mum and I visited my dad, who had just started his job at the wheel manufacturer Lemmerz. We stayed at a B&B in town. Down the street were the stables, where the donkeys went to sleep. So every morning and evening we would hear and see them walking past.
Probably the latest addition to the sights of the Drachenfels are the two brightly orange figures sitting on a step at the restaurant. The “Two Forms” are polyester sculptures by the artist Bettina Meyer from Düsseldorf, unveiled on 20 March 2015. Initially, the design was submitted under the title “Nebelfrauen” (fog women), which refers to a line in the above mentioned poem by Heinrich Heine. Their purpose is not only artistic though. They sit at the edge of a approx. 80 step, which had been overlooked sometimes leading to accidents.[xiii]
I am glad that I overcame my prejudices and made the trip up to the Drachenfels again. I found it interesting to find out more about the history of the castle. However, as so little of the original castle is left, it would be helpful if there was more information explaining the ruins in their context onsite.
[i] Kottrup, K., ‚Die Geschichte des Naturschutzes am Beispiel des Drachenfelsens bei Bonn‘, in: Schauplätze der Umweltgeschichte in Nordrhein-Westfalen, ed. by Peter Reinkemeier & Ansgar Schanbacher. Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2016, pp.9-25
[ii] Byron ‘The castled crag’, URL: http://www.poetryatlas.com/poetry/poem/2034/drachenfels.html . About his travel arrangements: Quarg, G., ‘Ballade über den Drachenfels – Eine ganz besondere Liebeserklärung’, General-Anzeiger (11 May 2015). URL: http://www.general-anzeiger-bonn.de/region/siebengebirge/koenigswinter/Eine-ganz-besondere-Liebeserkl%C3%A4rung-article3251713.html [last accessed 25 June 2017]
[iii] Niesen, J., ‘Byron, Lord George’, and ‘Turner, Joseph Mallord William’, in: Bonner Personen Lexikon. Bouvier-Verlag, Bonn, 3rd edition 2011, pp.523-524 and pp.551-552 respectively
[iv] Bulwer-Lytton, The Pilgrims of the Rhine, URL: https://archive.org/details/pilgrimsofrhine00lyttuoft; Heine, URL: https://www.staff.uni-mainz.de/pommeren/Gedichte/HeineNachlese/drfels.htm .
[v] Baur, U., ‘Queen Victorias Rheinreise anno 1845 im Spiegel der internationalen Presse‘, Portal Rheinische Geschichte (2 Jan. 2015). URL: http://www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/themen/Das%20Rheinland%20im%2019.%20Jahrhundert/Seiten/QueenVictoriasRheinreiseanno1845imSpiegelderinternationalenPresse.aspx [last accessed 4 July 2017]
[vi] Weintraub, S., ‘Albert [Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha] (1819–1861)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012 [last accessed online 14 May 2017]
[vii] Tümmers, H.J., Der Rhein: ein europäischer Fluß und seine Geschichte. C.H.Beck, München, 1999, pp.281-282
[ix] ‘Schloss Drachenburg – Das Schloss der 1001 Geschichten’, NRW Stiftung (2010). URL: https://www.nrw-stiftung.de/projekte/bericht.php?bid=30 [last accessed 1 Aug. 2017]
[x] Friedhoff, J. & Friedrich, R., ‘Drachenfels im Siebengebirge’, EBIDAT – Burgendatenbank des europäischen Burgeninstituts. URL: http://www.ms-visucom.de/cgi-bin/ebidat.pl?id=1371 [last accessed 23 July 2017]; Thon, A., ‘Burgen am Mittelrhein‘, Portal Rheinische Geschichte (9 Oct. 2012). URL: http://www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/themen/Das%20Rheinland%20im%20fr%C3%BChen%20und%20hohen%20Mittelalter/Seiten/BurgenamMittelrhein.aspx [last accessed 27 July 2017]
[xi] The illness might be a polite excuse for the fact that he was suspended from office by the pope in 1148. He tried to reverse the pope’s decision, but his efforts were in vain and he died in 1151 in Cologne. Striewski, J., ‘Arnold I. (vor 1100-1151), Erzbischof von Köln (1138-1151)‘, Portal Rheinische Geschichte (15 Feb. 2011). URL: http://www.rheinische-geschichte.lvr.de/persoenlichkeiten/A/Seiten/ArnoldI.vonKoeln.aspx [last accessed 23 July 2017]
[xii] Niesen, J., ‘Gerhard von Are’, in: Bonner Personen Lexikon. Bouvier-Verlag, Bonn, 3rd edition 2011, pp.163-164
[xiii] Schultz, C., ‘Bettina Meyer Kunstwerk „Two Forms“ auf dem Drachenfelsplateau‘, Bonner Rundschau (20 March 2015). URL: http://www.rundschau-online.de/region/bonn/bettina-meyer-kunstwerk–two-forms—auf-dem-drachenfelsplateau-1029090 [last accessed 6 Aug. 2017]