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Marty Weybret German castle holds valuable lesson: Choose your enemies with great care

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Marty Weybret

Posted: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 2:30 pm, Mon Nov 15, 2010.

July 7, 2010, Hotel Alte Thorschanke, Cochem am Mosel — Today we parted company with Mike and his friend Will Darsie. We were headed to the Mosel Valley. The boys were off to Hamburg to meet their German friend Kai Heinius. The trio plans to see Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona and Denmark — the time-honored "summer backpacking around Europe."

We waved goodbye at the train station, repeating Syd Darsie's admonishment to her son: "Don't screw up."

The train ride to Cocham on the Mosel River took about an hour and a half. We checked into Hotel Alte Thorshanke, built in 1332. It's a half-timbered building likes ones we saw in Bacharach. The hotel is in the center of Cochem, a district of narrow, cobbled streets.

Small shops cater to throngs of tourists, nearly all Germans. There are bistros, restaurants, pizzerias and shops selling ice cream, souvenirs, books, camping gear, toys, traditional German home decorations, yarn and wine — lots of wine shops.

July 8, 2010, Cochem — We took the train to Moselkern, then hiked for about an hour and a half. We passed through the old village and a beautiful, shaded forest until we came to Burg Eltz. ("Burg" means castle).

This is one of those sources of everyone's German fantasy. It has soaring stone towers topped by half-timbered chapels, council rooms, a treasury and small bedrooms with walls lined by history that stretches from the 1100s to today.

Burg Eltz was built not to tax boatmen, but to tax teamsters traveling overland, bringing goods between the Mosel River and the farmers of the rich Mayfeld plain. The castle commands the road's small pass through a low mountain range.

Naturally, this created a lucrative deal and therefore jealousy and greed. In the 1330s, the Archbishop of Luxembourg laid siege to the castle for three years. The attackers built a stone tower on a nearby mountain and from there threw stones down on the defenders of the castle. So the Eltz family signed a treaty. They agreed, I presume, to pay tribute to the archbishop in return for keeping the castle. It was the only time the castle was ever attacked.

The museum displays some of the stones which the Eltz family kept to remind themselves to be careful about which enemies to pick fights with. When Napoleon came through some 500 years later, the Eltz family joined his side. Thirty-three generations later, the castle still belongs to Count Karl of Eltz. Through all that time, the family kept its wealth. its political power and its castle as kings and popes and republics came and went.

As we walked back through the forest I thought about all the effort it takes to build a castle and all the people who had to be subjugated to create this center of economic and political power that benefited one family.

What a revolution we Americans created. Instead of exercising power for the benefit of nobles, we figured the power of the state — the law, the police, the military, the power to tax — should be controlled by vote of the people.

History doesn't often touch me like it has on this trip.

A note about German trains — they go everywhere and we never missed not having a car. Log on to www.bahn.de and click the American flag to translate the website into American English. Type in your departing point and destination and up pops your schedule. Easy.

Tomorrow: Another castle, more cycling and a misbehaving falcon.

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