They say an Englishman’s home is his castle. They have obviously never been to Germany.

It is often said that the Scots have thirty words for “rain” and the Inuit have thirty words for “snow”, statistics which emphasise a point which can equally be applied the German concept of “home”.

“Home” in English covers a multitude of concepts which Germans prefer to express specifically. Just recently, the shops over here which sell cheap ornaments, of which there are many, have started selling cheap fibreboard cutouts of the English word “home”. They wasting their time. Germans know far better what home is than anybody in the English-speaking world and do not need to be reminded of it every time they do the dusting.

The sports field is as good a place as any to start. Where “home” is used to describe which team has the dubious advantage of its own baying fans on its back, it’s England 1 Germany 2. “Home” here is translated as “zu Hause” in the press (Dortmund gewinnt zu Hause = “Dortmund win at home”) and “Heim” on the scoreboard (Heim 3 Gast 0).

Zu Hause can be written either with two words as a prepositional phrase — in which case it translates to the English “at home” (Ich bin jetzt gerade zu Hause = “I’m at home right now”), or as one word, Zuhause, in which case it takes the function of a noun (ein eigenes Zuhause = my own home). Zuhause describes the concept of “home” in a physical sense and can be expressed with the colloquial phrase: “meine eigene vier Wände” or “my own four walls”.

“I feel at home” is translated as “ich fühle mich wohl”. There is no translation for wohl  in English. It requires at least two adjectives separated by a comma to even get close. “Relaxed”, “comfortable”, “at ease”, “happy” is about the best I can offer. That’s four and I have only skirted round the edges. Wohl is an adjective but like all great concepts it transcends its linguistic function. Wohl strays into the territory of a noun to encompass warmth and familiarity engendered by one’s surroundings. “At home” is superficial by comparison.

Wohl plunges deep into the psyche of each and every one of us, but nowhere near as deep as Heimat. Heimat is a noun, used with great care and deliberation to describe “home” in an emotional context. It must be used sparingly: Heimat is no ordinary noun; as an emotion, a feeling it is almost — but not quite — an adjective. To build it into sentences too often would convey an air of insincerity.

Yes, ein zweiter Heimat means “a second home” but not in the sense of a holiday cottage in the Lake District. Heimat implies roots, connections and ties that bind. British people living abroad returning to the UK on holiday often say they are “going home”. A German will never use Heimat to tell you that he is going back to Germany. Germany is far too broad and ubiquitous to qualify as Heimat.

Heimat is a village, a town, a province perhaps. There is no translation for the concept of Heimatsvereine, local voluntary organisations that care for the historical and aesthetic preservation of their own small villages.

Heimat also represents an emotional presence which persists long after the physical self has moved on. Occasionally you hear phrases such as Heimat Schlesien. Schlesien translates as “Silesia”, a former German province which now belongs to Poland. Heimat can also denote longing, yearning and regret. It is the purest  and most honest translation of the word “home” you will ever find.

“Home” in physical sense, the place where one is safely ensconced within one’s own four walls, entails a degree of permanency seldom seen in Britain or America. There is no equivalent of the housing ladder. Most people will only buy property once in their lives and, despite rising prices, it is not seen as an investment. Where people choose to live in houses, these houses are usually built rather than purchased and tailor-made for their owners.

In rural areas houseowners often contribute to the building process with their own bare hands, partly to cut costs and partly to immerse themselves in the process. Like the Americans, the Germans have a dream but it is a simple one: build a house, plant a tree and raise a child. The building process is laced with ritual — from the barbecue to celebrate the first cut of the spade into the earth to the laying of floral wreaths on the apex of the roof beams.

So forget about Englishmen, when it comes to homes and castles, it’s the Germans you need to talk to.

In a literal sense, there are also quite a lot of castles. Over four thousand of them to be precise, when spread across all of the German-speaking countries. That’s about one for every twenty-five thousand people. If you were to extrapolate that to the United Kingdom, which also has a lot of castles, then you would have a castle in every small-to-medium sized town.

I lived in a lot of places in the UK. I lived in one town in Scotland which has a castle, one in Lancashire which had a hill where once a wooden castle stood, one in Yorkshire which had a place where once there was a hill upon which a castle stood and one, Sheffield, where the site of the castle is now a market selling cheap duvets, second-hand CDs and outsized nylon underwear.

Herne has a castle. Dortmund has half a dozen or so depending on how you define them. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve seen on my travels this year. Four thousand? It feels like we have millions of the things.

This is not always good. Once built, they are ruinously expensive to maintain. The most famous of the lot, the fairytale Neuschwanstein castle at the foot of the Bavarian Alps, requires so much investment in repairs and structural consolidation that it has to sell out its dozen or so daily tours just to cover the cost of the work. Even then the Bavarian government has to chip in fifteen million euros a year to keep it standing. Begun in 1869, it has still never been finished.

Ironically, the 1.3 million tourists who finance the castle also unwittingly contribute to its deterioration. That is a lot of feet on carpets and wear and tear on fittings. It is a vicious circle from which there is no end.

Decor and furnishings have to be restored by experts and such experts do not come cheap. I was told this year during a tour of a much less grand affair that to replace the wallpaper in one modest room costs a hundred thousand euros. Neuschwanstein has over two hundred rooms, only fourteen of which were ever completed.

Across Germany there are insufficient funds to fill the gap. Grants are available from UNESCO and from state and federal governments but there is simply not enough to go round. Faced with an endless cycle of deterioration, the best that can be achieved is damage limitation.

One solution is to put them to practical use. Often they are gutted and used as public buildings. Here in North-Rhine Westphalia, the tax department very graciously stepped in and took over the château at Nordkirchen, known locally as the Westphalian Versailles, as a school for tax inspectors. Surprisingly, nobody complains when their tax invoices arrive.

They can be used as museums or galleries, as restaurants or as conference centres. You can even live in them if you want. When I moved to Herne I saw flats for sale in the castle of nearby Castrop-Rauxel. They were not more expensive than the one I bought here.

If you don’t feel like living in a castle, it is still cheap and easy to spend the night in one. Castle hotels exist up and down the country but if you’re prepared to book early then the fatherland of youth hostels also offers plenty of budget options.

The oldest youth hostel in the world, located near here in the town of Altena, is still within the castle grounds. Perhaps the second most famous castle in Germany, Colditz, is also now a youth hostel. They have heard every joke you can possible think of relating to the standard of comfort they provide and its former role as a prisoner-of-war camp.

Why are there so many? Well, we’ve looked at the issue of princely particularism quite a few times now. There was a time when what is now Germany and Austria consisted of well over a thousand separate entities, each with its own prince and each with its own castle. Family feuds mean that often there are two castles right next to each other. There are also quite a lot of fakes.

Neuschwanstein is perhaps the most famous bogus castle after Disneyland, whose ambiance is not dissimilar. When Ludwig II of Bavaria ordered construction of it in 1869 he did it all for show.

It was not built with practicalities in mind. It looks like the sort of place that would feature in a Wagnerian opera with good reason: Wagner had a hand in the castle’s design. As composers do not necessarily make the best architects there are some details which still haven’t quite been ironed out but in the end it was all academic: In total Ludwig spent eleven nights in his new home before his death.

Looking at it from today’s perspective, with our no-frills constitutional monarchies (and I include the UK in this) it all looks horribly wasteful, but in an epoque whose zeitgeist was one of romantic revival it was a must-have.

Romantic revival sounds like a pleasant enough term most commonly associated with fairytales and tempestuous poets but further north it was beginning to take on a more sinister meaning. In 1871 the remaining German states were unified to create a German Empire, a second Reich.

The wave of castle building was a way of harking back to the Saxon Empire which followed Charlemagne, establishing the second Reich’s legitimacy by paying homage to the first. From a distance, with the Alps in the background, Neuschwanstein looks swan-white. Up close, you realise it is grey.

The same is true further north. The German Empire was essentially a Prussian creation after all. Last week I went out walking the town of Solingen. Solingen has a castle, of course it does. Neuschwanstein it is not but it catches the zeitgeist just as well. Be warned: Romanticism and romance are, as the Germans say, two different pairs of shoes.

From the outside it looks like a perfectly preserved piece of late medieval architecture and there was in fact a castle here in medieval times. It looked nothing like the building standing there now.

Later it was the childhood home of Anne of Cleves before she was shipped off to England to marry Henry VIII before it fell into decay. The present structure was built on the ruins and was completed in 1902. They would have been finished earlier but the walls of the keep fell down shortly before they slapped a roof on. The architect was fired as a result.

Kaiser Wilhelm came to visit it and was doubtless impressed. The walls of the great hall are decorated not with frescoes of knights and damsels in distress but with scenes of Prussian soldiers in action during the Napoleonic wars. The money to actually build the castle came from the nineteenth century equivalent of Heimatsvereine, who raised donations and sold lottery tickets to finance its construction.

These days, it is home to the German Archetypal Museum. It isn’t really called that, it’s actually the regional museum, but it is filled with exactly the same tat as you find in most castle museums. Models, battle dioramas, old weapons and farm tools — anything in fact that takes up space and fills up a Sunday.

It’s a fine old building, well worth the five euro entrance fee, but not quite as old as it first appears. The gatehouse is magnificent and yet look closely and you’ll see that the stones are just a little too symmetrical and the stone in the arches is just a little too smooth.

Much of the building is in the process of reconstruction and is under nets and poles but this is no ruin. Like Neuschwanstein it will be nice when it’s finished. The keep is closed for restoration and is hidden under scaffolding. A “closed” sign and a locked door bar the way to the pharmacy museum it used to house.

Down in the village the Heimatsverein are having a tough time of it keeping their attractive municipality of slade-clad cottages looking beautiful while the state constructs new flood defences along the river front. Heritage is an expensive business and a messy one. In the mean time, the shops are closed due to lack of visitors and there is nowhere open where I can get something to eat.

Looking back at the castle on the top of the hill you get a picture-perfect view of what many people imagine Germany to look like — but it is a mirage. A house yes, but it was never a home.

A German’s home is his castle but modern Germans would never live anywhere without decent central heating and bedrooms and bathrooms on the same floor. The pizza man probably doesn’t even deliver and I don’t even want to know about the heating bill.

I am hungry and so get the bus back into town. Not for the first time I am reminded that the past is a nice place to visit, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.


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