The Asse – today it stands first and foremost for the scandal surrounding the storage of radioactive waste in the old salt mine. But there are many more stories to discover here, such as the ruins of Asseburg Castle, once one of the most powerful castles in northern Germany, perched on the mountain range.
A time travel into the Middle Ages
I have another appointment with Marco Failla, local curator of the district of Wolfenbuttel, to discover the ruins of the Asseburg castle. We meet at the parking lot at the Assewirtschaft in Wittmar. From here it is still a short walk into the Asse and up to the Asseburg castle. Time enough to check and complete historical background knowledge.
We write the 12. In the 13th century, the noble family that calls itself "von Wolfenbuttel" after its castle lived in the moated castle in Wolfenbuttel. Faithfully they stood at the side of Henry the Lion. During one of the Duke's pilgrimages, Eckbert of Wolfenbuttel was even entrusted with the administration of the Saxon heartland; in addition, Mathilde Plantagenet, Henry's wife, was under his personal care. But after the fall of the lion, his faithful switched to the Hohenstaufen camp. When Henry besieged Wolfenbuttel Castle in 1193, it was defended by Eckbert's son Gunzelin of all people. I should remember this one, recommends Marco Failla, when I start to lose track of all the names. A year later, the Guelphs were reconciled with the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and Gunzelin and Henry were once again on the same side. Around 1200 Gunzelin finally inherited not only the land of the von Peine family, but also their title of count. And under Otto IV., the son of Henry the Lion and the only Guelph on the imperial throne, Gunzelin rose to the position of Truchsess, one of the highest imperial offices at court – he was a made man. After the death of Otto IV. In 1218 Gunzelin lost his position at the court, but the quarrel between the Guelphs and the Staufers continued and the count looked for a place where he could defend himself during the battles. He found it on the Asse, where he had a castle built.
In the distance you can see the hills of the Harz Mountains.
Marriage market at the Bismarck Tower
But with all the historical facts we should not forget to lift our eyes and look at the surroundings through which we are just walking. To the right and left, old, gnarled trees line the path, so-called "Schneitel hornbeams," as a plaque explains. In the past, they were pruned when the leaves were full – always at the same height of the tree heads – and thus got their characteristic appearance. The farmers fed the branches and foliage to pigs, sheep, goats, cattle and horses in times of scarce vegetation. The fact that the path is poetically called "Liebesallee" (Avenue of Love) probably comes from the marriage fairs that took place around the Asse farm. These arranged "lovers" then walked through the aces.
After a few hundred meters the forest opens on the left side to a large meadow, on the opposite side of which rises the Bismarck Tower. After Otto von Bismarck's death, a veritable cult of the Reich Chancellor developed, especially in German nationalist and conservative circles; almost 200 Bismarck columns and towers were erected in his honor throughout the Reich. In Braunschweig, the initiative came from the student body of the Technical University, which decided in favor of the award-winning design by architect Wilhelm Kreis and a building site on the Asse mountain. So now it towers far above the trees. Those who dare the sweaty climb up the spiral staircase are offered an exciting view over the surrounding countryside.
We do not climb the stairs, however, but continue along the ridge of the mountain range. On the left at our feet lies Wittmar, behind it a wide plain, on the horizon rise the heights of the Harz Mountains. A breathtaking view, no wonder Gunzelin chose this place to build his castle. Although he was not allowed to do so. For the land belonged to the imperial monastery of Gandersheim and the abbess complained directly to Pope Honorius III. About the unauthorized construction. He ordered: "Tear it down immediately" – but the count was not very interested in that.
An impregnable castle built according to the most modern knowledge
We reach the first ruins. Marco Failla takes out a plan and explains to me: "The castle lay elongated on the crest of the hill."With a length of 185 meters, a width of up to 50 meters and an enclosed area of 7200 square meters, it was one of the largest castle complexes in northern Germany in its time. Also because several noble families joined together in building the castle and later inhabited it together. "Ganerbeburg", I learn, quasi a medieval aristocratic commune or community of owners. It was so important to Gunzelin's family that his son no longer called himself "von Wolfenbuttel" like his ancestors, but "von der Asseburg" (of the Asseburg).
The castle was surrounded by fortification walls and ditches, in front of which was an outer castle. And Gunzelin had chosen the site for his defensive fortification wisely: the slopes on the right and left drop steeply – no wonder the castle was considered impregnable. Marco Failla adds, "Moreover, it consisted of several sections separated by walls. If attackers had taken one gate, they would have faced the next and possibly without cover."In fact the castle was never conquered. In 1255, during a dispute with the Dukes of Brunswick, enemy troops besieged the castle, which was tenaciously defended by Gunzelin's son Busso – for an unimaginable three years! In the winter of 1258, both parties finally agreed to surrender the castle to the duke in exchange for 400 gold marks and free departure for its inhabitants.
I remember a big, deep hole we passed earlier, a cistern. Especially during sieges, it was very important to have enough water to supply the people and animals trapped inside the castle.
The Asseburg lay elongated on the ridge of the Asse river.
A fire and the end
"But if it was so impregnable, how did it come to be destroyed?", I ask Marco Failla. Again he has to elaborate a bit to explain the background and again it is about a dispute, this time between the city of Braunschweig and the dukes. When they were in financial difficulties again in 1331, they mortgaged the Asseburg to the city. In 1492, however, the Guelphs reclaimed all sovereign rights and possessions after a division of inheritance. But the council of the city of Braunschweig refused. Duke August then marched against the city with a large army. The crew of the Asseburg was also brought to Braunschweig to help with the defense. Only some men stayed behind and lit on the 12. August 1492 itself annexed their castle, so as not to let it fall into the hands of the Duke. The mighty fortress burned for three days, then sank into rubble and ashes.
The dispute between the duchy and the city of Braunschweig ended with a settlement; among other things, the city of Braunschweig undertook to rebuild the Asseburg within six years – which it never did. Thus the remains continued to decay and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages used the stones to build their houses.
And today nature has won the battle, we trudge through waist-high undergrowth and nettles that have conquered the castle. The trees push their roots through the remains of the masonry, weeds sprout in the embrasures, and the tops of the walls are covered with moss. It is not easy to imagine this impassable terrain as a castle courtyard, with a colorful hustle and bustle of knights, musicians, noble ladies and magnificent horses. Back there at the big pine tree stood the tower, here at the roots of the beech a wall began.
A popular destination for walking and biking
Again and again people come to meet us on the narrow paths, the ruins are today, along with the Bismarck Tower, a popular destination for excursions. This was already the case in the summer of 1733. There was a wedding party meeting up here for a picnic, it was the marriage of Princess Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia.
About 150 years later, the Asse Society carried out the first archaeological excavations on the site, but the results are not documented. In the spirit of the 19. At the end of the nineteenth century, when people became enthusiastic about ruins, they also built new walls on some of the foundations, which today, on cursory inspection, can be mistaken for the medieval remains.
At the Bismarck Tower we do not turn left again to Liebesallee, but continue to follow the ridge of heights. To the left of us the terrain becomes steeper and deeper. "It is very likely that the builders of the castle cut at least parts of the stones here to construct the buildings," Marco Failla reflects. After all, the limestone here is a good building material and thus did not have to be transported far. Finally the path leads us to the bottom of the valley, a small piece still on a forest path and we are again at the parking lot.
It's a pity that the ace economy is closed right now – there is mighty construction going on there. Otherwise we could have discussed what we have seen and experienced over a refreshing drink. In the end, there were a lot of historical facts and it was not easy to keep track of who was in dispute with whom and who was fighting on whose side for a castle that had not been inhabited for 300 years. So we say goodbye until the next trip together in the district of Wolfenbuttel.
The Asseburg is one of over 100 time ORTEns in the region
Best starting point for a walk is the parking lot above Wittmar. From there it is about 900 meters to the ruins of the Asseburg. It is freely accessible, but visitors should wear sturdy shoes.
The parking lot is also a good starting point for walks and bike rides through the Asse region.