Burghausen’s Burgfest, Medieval Festival in the Longest Castle of the World

We just returned from an extended weekend trip to my home town. I travelled by train from Essen, where I’m currently on an assignment for work, my wife, two couples we’re friends with, and a single friend joined us, one couple were flying in from Luxembourg, the rest from London (to Munich or Salzburg).

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I was born and grew up in Burghausen an der Salzach (‘…-on-Salt-River’), “Burghausen, Altötting [referring to the district whose largest town it is]”, “Burghausen, Oberbayern [Upper Bavaria, in the southeasternmost part of Germany]”, “Burghausen, Obb. [Obb. being the slightly doggerel local abbreviation for Upper Bavaria in German]”, or Burghausen, for short. ‘Burg’ means castle in German, ‘…hausen’ means village.

My home town lies next to the beautiful Salzach river, on the other side of which the country of Austria stretches all the way to Italy (Venice is only 3.5 hours’ drive away, if you manage to always drive at the speed limit; mainly because of its great weather and the buildings that had largely been designed by Italian architects, Burghausen has often been called Italy’s northernmost city). It boasts the longest castle in the world at 1,051m, some say the second longest, if you take into account the efforts of our Chinese friends with their wall, then again, a fortified garden fence is not really a castle, so yes, it is the longest castle. Fact.

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We booked our trip for last weekend, because the famous Burgfest was taking place. Burgfest means “Castle Festival”, and they only recently changed the name from “Rentamtsfest” or “Salt Customs Authority Festival”, after all it was the extortionate tolls traders were forced to pay when transporting white gold downriver on the Salt River (or offloading it here for transport on land) that made Burghausen one of the largest and richest towns of medieval Bavaria, and, in fact, all of the medieval principalities, kingdoms, and city states that were located on the landmass that first became a unified German nation state in 1871.

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The town has only 18,000 residents, about 6,000 less than tiny Camden Town in London’s north, but due to Wacker Chemie, the gigantic chemical factory located on its outskirts, it sees many thousands of people from the surrounding towns in Bavaria and Austria commute to work here, and it is the taxes from that company, that continued to secure a bright future for it (by some accounts Burghausen ranks in the top five richest cities in Germany per capita, at some stage the mayor, who happens to be my former social sciences teacher, seriously considered building a Disneyland-inspired, enormous monorail that would link old town with the castle and new town (the plan was dumped, not because of the enormous costs, but because locals don’t think highly of Disneyland).

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The whole riverbank between the Salzach river and the castle (on whose other side the quaint Woehr Lake is situated) consists exclusively of beautifully renovated medieval buildings, the so-called old town. New town stretches from the castle’s entrance on the surrounding plateau. New town was a bit of a typical small-town eyesore when I grew up, with nothing much to show for, but they’ve successfully turned it into a pleasant, modern town during the past decade, with all the usual amenities, including a multiplex cinema, one of the largest public swimming pools (long-standing, but now with some thermal outdoor pools that use the heat from the chemical factory), and decent cafes and restaurants that serve tasty local and foreign cuisine (for a bashing of German stereotypes, for example, German cuisine, check out our post about German stereotypes here).

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It is for good reasons, though, that tourists usually never leave old town during their stay, except to explore the castle, of course, can’t match the endless attractions of old town.

Nearly one quarter of local residents get personally involved with the organisation of the Burgfest in one way or another. My mom, for example, is always giving several concerts as part of the renaissance music group she belongs to. Other people I know are performing dance sessions, assisting with security, or selling food or drink to the crowd.

Many of the locals (including my mom) and some visitors (including two of our group) dress up in medieval or traditional Bavarian costume, and when you walk the crowded streets of old town or through the courts of the castle, you get a feel for what the fun part of the medieval ages would have looked like (when they didn’t chop people’s heads off, burn witches at the stakes, die of the plague, or fight against pillaging invaders).

Whenever we visit Burghausen (and often we do so four or more times a year), we either stay at my parents’ place, where I grew up, or at one of the Altstadthotels of the local hospitality business dynasty Mitterer (they catered for our wedding at one of the 14th century dining halls next to the town hall, when we lodged at their Hotel Burgblick on the Austrian side of the river, with marvellous views of old town and the castle), this time it was Hotel Post on the town square in old town. We do not think that it is ideal for any town, if their hospitality industry is dominated by one family, but they do know how to cook, do buffet breakfast (!), and how to run hotels and provide great service. We never stayed at any of the other hotels, that are not owned by the Mitterer family, but our wedding guests and visiting friends do tell us that many of them are very pleasant, too.

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Our friends, family, and us, we ate our way through the many food stalls scattered all over old town and the castle, and which serve delicious meals and snacks for a price that is reasonable, certainly by London standards (unsurprisingly at a premium, during the Burgfest, but that’s ok), and had breakfast and one lunch at the Hotel Post.

Our favourite restaurant in the area by a far margin has always been Gasthaus Tiefenau, even though we haven’t been there in more than a year, and they seem to have dropped to #13 of 34 local restaurants, with a few reviewers talking about cold food, undercooked dishes, and bad preparation and presentation. Can’t really believe any of this, but thought we’d mention. We’ll update this section of our post after our next visit there.

Klostergasthof Raitenhaslach, owned by the Mitterers, is another gem, and we have many of our family get-togethers there (when we do not do them at Gasthaus Tiefenau). I used to work there as a kitchen help to earn some extra pocket money when I was 15.

Should you not be able to visit Burghausen for the Burgfest, then rest assured it is a fabulous travel destination for a day-trip (or even half-day-trip, if you’re short on time) from Munich or Salzburg any time of the year. The train from Munich involves an interchange in Mühldorf am Inn, which unfortunately increases the overall travel time to just under two hours. Salzburg is 30 minutes by car, but train travel can be laborious, due to the bad connections that can involve up to two interchanges and long waiting times.

Burghausen also features the world-renowned international jazz festival Jazzwoche (“Jazz Week”) that regularly sees many of the all-time greats playing gigs, including BB King and dozens of others (I once watched Ten Years After of Woodstock fame in the town hall; the Jazzwoche’s definition of jazz covers blues, rock’n’roll and rock). In summer, the well-organised Plättenfahrten (river trips on large wooden rafts, often accompanied with on-board local brass bands and food, mimicking the medieval rafts that were used to transport goods on the river) rank among the most popular activities.

There are also many other great places to visit very close-by. Apparently Pope Benedict’s birthplace in Marktl am Inn (“Small-Market-on-Inn-River”) has turned into a small Disneyland, quite to the dismay of locals, who like their peace and quiet (but probably for all the right reasons), Hitler’s hometown Braunau am Inn is a quaint 13th century market town and has attracted a lot of visitors (mostly) for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. The district capital of Altötting, which was settled by Bavarian tribes shortly after the Romans called it a day, was first mentioned in deeds from the 8th century, and since the 15th century became one of the major places of Catholic pilgrimage.

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The Chapel of Grace from the 8th century with its world famous Black Madonna is a must-see if you’re in the area. The Black Madonna is said to have miraculous healing powers and those who were healed traditionally produce a painting illustrating their story (often gory car accidents or horrible diseases and ailments), and hang it in the tiny covered hallway that surrounds the chapel. Raitenhaslach, mentioned further above, has a gorgeous medieval monastery that was remodelled in baroque style, to name just a few.

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One of our London-based friends was so impressed by Burghausen, that he started to ask us questions about how it would be for him and his wife to relocate to nearby Munich. He runs a small medical technology firm and Munich happens to be Germany’s high tech centre, with a vibrant start-up and venture capital scene, as well as the two top-ranking German universities (bit as if Oxford and Cambridge were one city); he seems real serious about his plans, which, as a former local, fills me with pride.

In short, if you haven’t been to Burghausen, you haven’t lived. Come for the experience of a lifetime!

More medieval posts? Check out our post about the Medieval England Festival or the famous Landshut Wedding (Landshuter Hochzeit).

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