I’ve started doing more research into local history and landscapes — the regions within roughly a 3-mile radius of where I live. I’ve concentrated on the districts or villages that I know the best — Unter- and Obermenzing, Allach, Pasing. My German is decent enough now that I can read up on stuff in the local library without having to rely on Google Translate for every little thing, and I take pictures of a lot of text so I can bring it home and spend more time on it. Hopefully I’ll have interesting stuff to show you soon! But not yet…
For now I’ll tell you about my trip to the “Birg,” a hill/former fortification just east of the town of Hohenschäftlarn. The German words “Berg” (hill) and “Burg” (fort/castle) were originally the same (a fortified area being usually built on a hill), and “Birg” is a later corruption of one or the other or both. Whatever fortification use to be built on the Birg has long since disappeared, but the remains of a large, very impressive system of earthwork trenches are still there, dating from the 9th or 10th century at the latest.
So two weekends ago I rode the S-Bahn to a little town about 20 km/12 miles up the Isar River from central Munich. (That is, south!) It’s associated with Kloster Schäftlarn, one of the historic abbeys between Munich and the Alps. The abbey is a Benedictine foundation from the Carolingian era, and the town Hohenschäftlarn was first mentioned in 778.
Here is someone else’s picture of the monastery perched above the Isar:
This picture is from the north, and I’m not sure if you can see the Birg hill. But you get the general idea.
I briefly visited the monastery church with Peter-Language-Exchange-Friend a while back — it is severely rococo’d:
But not quite as much as the church at Kloster Andechs, which I visited back in March:
I provide these for variety, because soon you are just going to see traces of things in the woods! Also to show how much 18th century Bavarians went kookoo for rococo puffs.
I have been waiting months to make that joke.
Anyway, back to the Birg. First questions: When is it from, and why is it even there?
The hill was probably fortified (to some degree) from prehistoric times. The plateau between this hill and the town was the site of a Bronze Age settlement, though it hasn’t been investigated much. South and west of the embankment systems are apparently two grave mounds (I didn’t find them), dating from the Hallstatt culture (early Iron Age, about 750-450 BC). Much later, these embankments were superseded by larger ones during the 8th-10th centuries after Christ. These were built as part of the defenses of what German so compactly and precisely names as an Ungarnschutzburg, that is: a defensive castle against the Hungarian invaders. See how many words that took? The Hungarian invasions, as of course you remember from your excellent medieval history courses in high school, caused a lot of trouble in 9th and 10th century Europe, and this region of Germany felt them very keenly. Either during or after these invasions, the monks at Kloster Schäftlarn and the local farmers built this large defensive fortification. If you’d like to read more about the site and other Hungarian defensive works in the area, and you can read German or are up for decoding it, the Wiki page is here.
It’s about a ten minute stroll from the S-Bahn station, and then you enter the woods, which are covered in nicely maintained bike and footpaths, like most of Germany (that I’ve seen of it, anyway). There’s this map of the area, which I thought was singularly unhelpful. What do the shapes mean? What are the spiky lines for? Are they supposed to indicate elevation? No idea.
I got turned around during my attempts to find it, doing that thing where I look twice at every slightest bump in the forest floor, wondering if it could be the remains.
But I knew I was getting close when I found a fort. A more recent one, that is. From poking around at enough of these types of sites, and reading some relevant websites, I’ve gathered that people will come out to these prehistoric or medieval remains and spend the night. Some of the websites are all about “places of power,” and furthering folk legend about ancient Celtic temples or sacrificial sites. Some people misinterpret this site as some kind of large Celtic fortress or cultic site, and though there may have been a Celtic settlement here, the earthworks are clearly early medieval… Deep down, I’m a scaredy cat about pagans and old things and the woods. I could never sleep here. Even just the thought that there might be other unknown thrill-seekers in the woods would freak me out.
But when I finally found the earthwork embankments, there was absolutely no mistaking them. They were huge and straight and clearly manmade, although I think the trees around were cleared when the system was discovered and excavated in 1893 (as best I can gather), so they were probably easier to spot than they would have been a hundred years ago, and it’s not like I found them with 1000 years of forest growth on top. And the forests around Munich are used by hunters (who, in Germany, are more like wildlife protectionists) and well maintained.
Here’s my attempt at outlining where the things were:
See how there are three different lines, and the two longest curve around to the east? The lines are the ridges… or the trenches… whatever. It’s clear in my head. Okay, the most southern line we’ll call embankment ridge #1, the middle one #2, and the top one #3.
Here is #1. It is the shortest and lowest– I would say about 3 or 4 feet from forest floor to the ridge. It is likely the oldest, and it wasn’t a part of the 9th-10th century fortifications, except that between it and #2 there are a whole bunch of smaller (but still fairly deep) holes or pitfalls. They think they were built to make it difficult to ride horses through — the Hungarians were famously talented and deadly mounted archers. They would also have been equipped with sharpened stakes or thorn hedges.
Not sure if you can really see them… the lighting was rough. But the ground looks pretty lumpy, yeah? Even walking through them was difficult, they were still so large and deep. I couldn’t have run through very quickly. In the background of this picture you can #2 rising up…
Here’s the trench on the other side of #2. My pictures do not at all do justice to how high and steep these trench/ridge slopes were.
Down in the trench behind #2. But if the slope on the left is #2, what should I call the one on the right? Because it’s not #3 — you have to go over the hill and down into a deeper trench and then climb up #3 which is the steepest.
Here is that middle ridge, with #2 on the left and #3 rising on the right.
Still trying to give a sense of how high these ridges are. #2 measures, from the bottom of the trench, 4-5 meters high (13-16ft). And remember, they were built in the 10th century at the latest, by local farmers and possibly monks — not sure about the organization of labor. But it was likely planned by someone experienced in making these defenses, possibly someone with the diocese of Augsburg. There was a concerted effort around the region to build such defenses to resist the destructive invasions. But this wasn’t a residential castle; it was (another great German term) a Fliehburg, a fort to “flee” to and use as a refuge, and if it had buildings they were probably smaller and made of wood or dry-stone walls. There hasn’t been a proper excavation to find out what was here.
This is the slope up the western edge of #3. From the bottom of the trench it measures 8-10 meters high (26-33ft). I walked on top of it all the way around to…
The southeastern edge.
I almost didn’t see him.
Following a trench back toward where I started.
It was getting later in the day, because I’d stopped and read for a little while on the top of #3. I read “The Once and Future King,” and as I sat, the bugs ate me alive. I was wearing capri-length pants and I came back with 41 bugbites just on my ankles, not counting all up my calves and on my arms.
There is no record of a battle here, and probably the Hungarians never even attacked. They suffered a decisive defeat at Augsburg in the mid 10th century, and this fort was probably too far south to see any action.
The path actually goes directly to the embankments — on my way there I just overthought it and went the wrong way.
Well, I was hot and thirsty, but not very tired, and I wanted to look around Hohenschäftlarn, the town.
It’s perched on a hill, and all the old houses are on the slope. But on the roads east to the woods, there is lots of new development. Still, you can see that the new houses have tried to imitate these older ones, moreso than most of the new development where I live. And you could tell they were expensive houses. With the real estate explosion in Munich, I have heard, the old farming families in the outskirts have gotten rich selling their farmland for houses. It is the somewhat moneyed, quaint countryside towns that seem to stick to the traditional styles as a status symbol!
One of the residents advertising their Bavarianness. “We speak Bairisch – we are multilingual in Bavaria and say Griaß God! and Pfia God!” Griaß God is, I think, like the more common Bavarian greeting Grüß Gott, which literally means “God’s greeting”, and Pfia God is for when you say goodbye, and means “God’s blessing/God preserve you.”
St Georg, first mentioned in 778, is on the top of the hill.
Inside, it’s your basic Bavarian village church, but it did have a very nice sacrament canopy.
And here is some local flavor… a few years ago the local bishop rode through on a real horse with lots of festivities. It’s called the Georgiritt, and it is done in honor of St George.
Some pretty great views from the graveyard around the church.
I would live here pretty happily.
Proof that it is really a farm town!
That’s all for this installment… next up… grave mounds!