On the road – discovering treasures around Basel: To the southeast VI (castles)

Castles – telling fairy tales from a long time ago – and there are so many of them around Basel

This is the map of the Gempen plateau. Three castles I always saw from the Bruderholz, when I grew up: Dorneck, Birseck and Reichenstein – and they seemed full of fairy tales. On the Gempen plateau, there are more castles such as Münchenstein, Schauenburg and Wartenberg. The region around Basel is full of castles.


Source: Bundesamt für Landestopographie 213T – Basel


Why are there so many castles around Basel?

So many castles around Basel – I started to wonder why. So did our Burgenmeyer in 1981, when he edited Burgen der Schweiz – Band 7 (we call Werner Meyer just “Burgenmeyer” and we like his fresh style of teaching – I was fortunate to do my first steps in Latin with him). Also the “historischer Atlas der Region Basel” (edited by the Christoph Merian Stiftung in 2010) takes note of the large number of castles (p. 86). “Burgenmeyer” and the “Atlas” have been my primary sources, and sometimes I went back to wikipedia. Here is the summary of my conclusions. It may not satisfy scientific requirements, but may open our eyes, when walking in the area.


Until the tenth century – the area around Basel is not densely populated

About 400 A.D. the Roman empire breaks down. After the breakdown, the population is concentrated in the former Roman towns. The mountains with their valleys become empty woodlands. There is some prosperity in the Carolingian times (700-900), when Basel is part of High Burgundy (Hochburgund) and the center of the Basel Diocese. However, in the tenth century, Hungarians, Saracens (from Tunisia) and Vikings are invading the area and decimating the population again.


After the end of the tenth century – noble families colonize the empty spaces, build castles, develop the agriculture and favor the emergence of towns. At about 1500 the towns have deprived them of their power

In 962 Otto I creates the so-called Roman Empire of the German Nation that brings some stability. Noble families establish local lordships in the empty areas, cut the trees and build fortifications to protect their possessions. In the 11th to 13th century they continue with their colonization efforts. They now build stone castle, first in the valleys, then above the valleys on rocks. The families are changing – some are dying out, others are marrying and enlarging their possessions. Important names are Frohburg, Pfirt, Ramstein, Zähringer or Kyburg. In the 13th century it is the Habsburg family that gains most.

The cultivation techniques improve which allows the population to grow, to move to cities and to become craftsmen and merchants. Also the nobility founds towns (e.g. the Zähringer are well-known founders of towns). The craftsmen and merchants are getting wealthier and wealthier.

In the 14th century many towns become stronger and autonomous. They found town leagues and start to buy possessions from the nobility. In the great earthquake of 1356, 60 castles around Basel collapse, and not all are rebuilt. Many lords are already weakened.

In the 15th century Basel buys Liestal, Waldenburg and Homberg, then Thierstein-Falkenstein, then Münchenstein and Muttenz and last they acquire Farnsburg and the valley of Diegten. In the 16th century Basel adds Pratteln and Ramstein to their possessions and agrees to leave Dornach and the village of Gempen with Solothurn. Basel installs bailiffs in the former possessions of the lords and some of them reside in the renovated castles. Politically the rural part of Basel split off in the revolution of 1833 to become the canton of Baselland. People in Rural Basel still complain about the bailiffs – and they absolutely refuse a political reunification with Basel town; they voted clearly “no” end of this September.

Now, let us have a look at the castles of Dorneck, Birseck, Reichenstein and Münchenstein.


The castle of Dorneck

The construction of Dorneck above Dornach goes back to the 11th century. When acquiring Dornach in the 16th century, Solothurn delegated their bailiffs to Dorneck. The castle has been in use until 1792. The French destroyed it (source: wikipedia).

This is entrance to Dorneck.


Above the yard there is the platform with the Swiss flag and the three huge oak trees ..


… and from the platform, there is a superb view of the valley and the Jura.



The castle of Reichenstein

For almost 600 years, the Reichenstein castle belonged to the family Reich von Reichenstein (1245 to 1813). The castle was a feud handed over by the bishop of Basel. In the 15th century the Reich family neglected the castle and it decayed. 1813 it was acquired by wealthy Basel citizens. After 1930, the citizens rebuilt part of the castle based on romantic ideas and used it as a summer residence. Today the castle can be rented for events of up to 50 people (source: wikipedia). About 15 years ago I attended the birthday party of a good friend of mine in the great hall – this was a very noble setting for the party and the view from the tower is gorgeous.

This is the castle of Reichensteinn with the Schartenfluh in the background…


… and seen from the entrance below it is dizzily high.



The castle of Birseck – on the romantic rock of the Ermitage

Just 500m away from Reichenstein is the fortification of Birseck with the integrated farm. The origins go back to the 12th century. Mid 13th century the bishop of Basel rebuilt the castle, used it as a residence and once even invited the pope. Until the 17th century the bailiff of the bishop lived here. In the 18th century the castle decayed and finally was burnt during the French revolution. It was renovated in new gothic (and not authentic) style around 1800. A recent renovation took place in 2005 (source: wikipedia).

The castle is integrated in the romantic English style garden “Ermitage” of Arlesheim.



The castle of Münchenstein

In the middle of the suburb Münchenstein, there are the ruins of the castle of Münchenstein.


The castle is a private property in Schlossgasse. Only between 7 am and 22 pm, access to the area behind the castle is allowed. I dare walk through a small passage that looks very private and find this romantic garden behind the ruins.


The bricks of the ruins have been used to build this quiet residential area, not far from the main street. By car I have often driven through Münchenstein on the main street and never noticed the ruins. It had never ocurred to me to look for such a paradise so close to the busy traffic.


More castles…

I have already visited the three castles of the Wartenberg and I have done some scouting around the new Old-Schauenburg and the old New-Schauenburg. Interesting is also the Burgengratweg on the Blauen and, wherever we walk in the area of Basel, there is a castle that tells about the history between the 10th and the 15th century.

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