General There has been a castle here since 1133, when the Counts of Andechs fortified this beautiful wooded hill, which commands the Inn Valley. The castle that stands here today in its magnificent park is the creation of Erzherzog Ferdinand (1529-1595), Archduke Ferdinand, who built himself a castle when he was made Statthalter (Governor) of the Tyrol in the 1540's.
There are really three aspects to the story of Ambras Castle: pleasure, art, and legend — all of which are living traditions.
The Archduke Marries a Commoner The pleasure began when Archduke Ferdinand married Philippine Welser, a beautiful commoner from Augsburg. This caused tremendous scandals at the court of Vienna, where you needed 32 noble ancestors to gain admittance, let alone to marry someone. She became a legend in her lifetime among the local people for her kindness to them and her knowledge of herbal remedies and cooking. (You can see her books in the castle: one of the recipes demands two oxen!) She had a bath built for herself which you can also see: it looks more like a swimming pool, and it caused a scandal almost equal to that of her marriage.
The Drinking Books Ferdinand and Philippine were constantly besieged by visitors, who were taken to a grotto in one of the rocks by the castle (still there). In the grotto was a Fangstuhl (trick chair), with arms that closed around the visitor and held him captive. He or she was released only after drinking a huge bumper of wine in one big gulp, and then signing his or her name in the drinking book — or starting again, if the first attempt wasn't successful. Girls in the group will be pleased to see that the women's signatures are a lot steadier than the men's! Definitely, have the group look at the books in the castle.
The Gardens Music, dancing, and entertainment were constant features of life at the castle. As a setting for his parties, Archduke Ferdinand designed the gardens himself: he had a stream diverted to provide for waterfalls and pools. He stocked the woods with deer, waterfowl, and squirrels (the latter are still very much in evidence). Ambras Castle has been a sanctuary for 400 years, and birds and squirrels will eat out of your hand.
Artworks Art came to the fore after the death of Philippine Welser, supposedly caused by liver failure! Ferdinand consoled himself by amassing one of the most splendid collections of suits of armor, art, and curiosities in the world. He sent emissaries all over the known world to find exquisite artifacts of coral, mother of pearl, alabaster, stuffed sharks, and porcupine fish. Look for a perfect carving in pearwood of Death as a Huntsman: it's only seven inches high. Musical instruments. The antlers of a deer, around which a tree had grown. Coins and manuscripts. Giants and dwarfs (there is a wooden statue of one of the giants among the suits of armor; he was called Giovanni Borna, and was from South Tyrol, measuring 8 feet 4 inches; the statue was carved during his lifetime, and he's wearing one of his uniforms; he and his colleagues probably had a disorder of the pituitary glands). There are even portraits of the original Count Dracula (Vlad of Rumania, a hero of the Turkish wars, who had original ideas about the treatment of prisoners ambassadors). When the French ambassador, feeling superior, refused to take off his hat to Vlad, Vlad had it nailed to his head. You'll also see the Hairy Man of Tenerife, who was covered in fur and taken to the French court, where he married a beautiful young girl, became rich and famous, and had several hairy children!
Suits of Armor The large collection of armor was assembled by means of friendship. Ferdinand wrote to all the eminent men of Europe, asking them to send him a suit of armor. Ferdinand displayed the suits in specially-made cabinets with the donor's coat of arms on them. In this way, he acquired some unique specimens, including a Riffelharnisch, a ribbed suit armor such as was made only for a few years during the 15th century. Look out too for the wonderful inlaid firearms, the horsemen in jousting formation, and the tiny suits of armor for children.
Legend We've dealt with pleasure and art. Now legend. There are several sorts of ghosts at Ambras Castle, which choose to appear only to certain people. There's a Napoleonic soldier who was particularly active during WW II, and whose ghost appears only to night-watchmen, who themselves are mostly veterans, and to their dogs. We cannot keep a dog at night at Ambras Castle!
The second category is the musical ghosts, who play Renaissance music in the Spanischer Saal (the Great Hall) at night, and who are heard only by musicians.
The third type of ghost is seen by everyone who loves the castle and has been closely associated with it, and has had parties in the gardens at night. These people see candles burning in the window on the third floor, which is always locked at night; they also see the shadows of people, and generally have the sensation that the festivities of the castle continue.
The fourth type of ghost is the most extraordinary, because it suggests that those who love Ambras Castle do not necessarily leave it. There was a lady custodian at the castle within the last decade who was particularly attached to it, who was generally loved, and who even wrote good poetry, but died while still in her twenties. Amazingly enough, she has been seen by those who knew her: sometimes walking in the garden, or as part of the celebrations on the third floor, and she actually spoke to one of the castle guides who knew her!
(These stories circulate privately among castle custodians and guides, and are not generally given out to the public. Please don't mention these ghost legends to the castle guides, or tell them within earshot of the guides, as they would probably be upset if they thought the stories were becoming widely known.)
FOOTNOTE Art historians and architects will be interested in the ornamental chimneys, the inner courtyard, which makes extensive use of Renaissance trompe d'oeuil (optical illusion) architectural devices; also the Spanischer Sall, which was the first Renaissance hall north of the Alps, and has a magnificent coffered ceiling, inlaid with over 50 different parts of wood.
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