It’s been over a decade since I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road and the first time I’ve done so in Europe. Today we collected our rental car from Zurich and went for a day trip to some of the Canton of Aargau’s Castles. Why Aargau you might ask? The day was inspired by some swell castle pictures on instagram and it is really close to Zurich, so I thought, why not. We had booked a Voltswagon Golf from Europcar to pick up from Zurich Main Hauptbahnhof so searched the station for the office before realising it is several blocks north of the station. On arrival the formalities of licences, passports and payment were complete and the agent informed us that it wasn’t a golf but another car, an Arona (whatever that might be). It seems to be similar, but has a big screen that has apple car which has been a great help for navigation. I nervously drove out of Zurich towards Baden to start our road trip, only clipping a curb or two on the excessively narrow streets as we left.
I’d planned our route to do an anti-clockwise loop starting at Baden and then circling back to end the day in Zurich. The distances between places are really short which allowed for a first day of driving practice between castles before some longer journeys later in the trip. Before we get into the trip, a little background on Canton of Aargau that we will be spending the day in. Located about 15mins drive west of Zurich, Aargau is one of the most densely populated regions of Switzerland with about 670,000 people calling it home. The northern portion of the Canton borders Germany on the Rhine and it is also the least mountainous part of Switzerland, which is perfect for this novice driver coming to terms with the narrow winding roads. Our first port of call is the town (or is it City?) of Baden in the north east of the Canton.
Baden has been calling travellers to its source of healing mineral springs since the time of the Romans. According to a very useful QR code on our walk, during the middle ages visitors made what was called the “Baden journey” to the region for spa treatments. These treatments took between 6 and 8 weeks in which up to 20 spa treatments of up to eight hours each, were conducted. While we were not visiting for what is now a very pricey spa treatment, the history in the city, its river and castle ruins were compelling enough to make a brief visit. I’d researched that the castles were not open on Mondays, but were on Sunday. As we soon discovered, while the castles may be open, not much else is on a Sunday in Switzerland.
After finding a ‘free’ parking garage we grabbed a quick bite to eat, thinking it might be cheaper to eat out of Zurich (it wasn’t) before wandering throughout the deserted old town. The first point of interest was the Baden Tower. An archway that forms an entry point to the old town, the tower has a town clock and was the district prison until 1985. Talk about a central jail location. Today it hovers over a square where presumably shoppers gather when shops are open. I wanted to see the wooden bridge so we continued to make our way down through the small town centre to the lush riverbanks. On our journey we passed a church which sounded like mass was in progress within (it was Sunday morning after all) and some beautiful old buildings, each adorned in its own distinct, yet similar style to its neighbour. Like most attractions, from within the bridge it is rather anti-climatic as there is not much to see. Yes it’s cool that its made of timber, although given it has had at least five predecessors, perhaps wood isn’t the best building material? The real beauty of the bridge is how it looks from the outside.
Climbing the opposite bank to the new bridge provides a beautiful view of the wooden bridge and the old city behind it. Unfortunately the sun was not cooperating this morning so the photo was a bit washed out, but alas the beauty speaks for itself. The quality of the water in the rivers here is also quite striking compared to the upside down nature of the Yarra River at home. Crystal clear water flows rapidly under the bridge with the bottom of the river clearly visible. After a short walk around the river we headed back towards the old town in search of the track to the castle ruins that lay above the city. After a few false starts, we found the track and began the 50ish metre vertical ascent to the Stein Ruins.
While the uphill climb demonstrated my complete lack of personal fitness, it did get my Apple Watch exercise ring closed before reaching the top. Passing several houses with stunning views across the city and a small vineyard we arrived at the top in about 15minutes. All that remains of the castle that was destroyed in 1415 is the castle tower from which a flag is flown. The views across the valley and old town of Baden are quite impressive and worth the short hike to the top.
It turns out that ‘free’ isn’t really free in Baden. On returning to the car parking lot and inserting our ticket into the machine we were prompted to pay up half a Franc before we could leave. Despite it not being free, it’s still the cheapest thing we’re likely to purchase in Switzerland. After a pleasant hour or so in Baden it was time to continue our journey to some more intact castles. The next destination was Habsburg Castle, or Schloss Habsburg as it’s called here.
One of my main apprehensions of driving in Europe wasn’t the wrong side of the road or the foreign languages, it was the ability to park. I was pretty happy to find the parking plentiful (and free) at the ancestral seat of the Habsburgs. While my knowledge of history is pretty poor, the name Habsburg rings a bell even with me, and yes, this castle is where those Habsburgs started out. Built an astounding 999 years ago, the castle on this site was home to the infancy of the Habsburg dynasty until they grew too large to be contained in this smaller castle. Nestled in beautiful countryside of rolling green hills and flanked on one side by a small vineyard the castle is beautiful in all its aged glory. We climbed to the top via a series of wooden stares and wonder how something almost a thousand years old has been preserved and maintained. This in comparison to the recent events in Sydney were 10 year old apartments are evacuated due to structural issues. They certainly don’t make them like they used to. Throughout the complex there are audio guides which explain the history of the castle and the occupants of the times. Entry is free and there is a small restaurant where a few private parties were happening as we arrived.
Leaving the castle behind us I couldn’t resist pulling over to take a picture of the castle from a distance. Surrounded by farmlands and a small village it really is a beautiful place to put a castle. Our next stop was a slightly newer castle in Wildegg. Yes, that’s right. Wild-Egg…. While only 200 years younger, this castle looks a lot newer than its age. That’s because it was pretty much burnt to a crisp after a lightening strike in the 1500’s and was rebuilt as a Baroque residential castle in the 1700’s. With castles traditionally located on the hilltops, the drive approaching the castles provide some of the best views. On arrival we joined a line of cars parked on the curb and walked up though a small farm home to young calves and a large chicken run before entering the castle for a pricey 14 Francs a piece.
Unlike many castles I’ve visited previously this was a residential castle so the layout reflected more a family home rather than the seat of an empire. Videos played in several of the rooms explaining the history of the building and its owners. Turns out the castle and all its title was sold to a rich guy named Kaspar Effinger back in 1483, from which eleven generations of Effinger’s remained owners of the castle until 1912 when it was bequeathed to the state. I practiced some of my German reading the signs to the rooms (noting I’m not very good at German, and this is Swiss-German) as we went up the never ending spiral staircase from which hallways and rooms branched off on each floor. After exploring the castle we had some lunch in the cafe before exploring the gardens. Effinger apparently wanted gardens like Versailles which inspired the small gardens that surrounded castle. Having recently visited Versailles, the gardens of Wildegg are no match.. but nice try Effinger.
There is a small zoo like thing with some birds near one of the gardens which family groups seemed to like. As we left we noticed another animal attraction that caught our dog loving eyes. Near the entrance to the castle is a dog parking area where visitors can attach their dog to small kennels while they explore the castle. There was a cute dog waiting for its master in it’s own little house as we left. I can’t imagine our two boys waiting quietly or patiently for us in these, but they were cute none the less.
With two castles and a ruins down and the afternoon running away we had time for two more castles before heading back to Zurich. These were to be Schloss Lenzburg and Schloss Hallwyl. Unfortunately my parking issue cropped up at Lenzburg with the carpark being full and no on street parking around. We sneakily parked in a nearby McDonalds and did a quick walk around the castle to avoid the somewhat threatening google translation of the carpark sign from coming into fruition. I’ve included a screenshot of the sign below, I’m sure it’s a google translate error, but still…harsh man! The castle looked pretty from the outside, which I guess was the idea of castles. Not only to be defensive positions to protect the power but also to be seen from a far to show off power and wealth.
The way the castle at Lenzburg seems to be built into a cliff is pretty amazing. How they managed to build this 800ish years ago is amazing. How anyone would be able to climb the cliff, then the walls on the cliff to invade is something else. The surrounding hills were green and lush with several walking trails available for those not scared of being ‘made a mess off and f**ked’ if not returning to our car on time. Thom picked out a quite a stunning house on the hillside, with plenty of space for the boys to run in the grass and even a pool to swim in. I’ll hold him to that for retirement maybe.
The first four castles we visited today were positioned strategically at the top of hills. While this is obviously a great defensive position to build a castle, after climbing up four hills our legs were looking for something a little downhill. The final castle we visited was Schloss Hallwyl. A pretty little castle in rolling countryside by a river with not an uphill walk in sight. This picturesque castle is surrounded by a moat and a nature reserve. We arrived with 50minutes until closing time and the ticket counter staff thought that wouldn’t be enough time to visit the castle, so suggested we do the gardens and cathedral instead. This seemed reasonable, so for the discounted price of 3 Francs each we entered the castle gardens. While they were pretty, everything that you could see from the front gate was all the gardens had to offer, and the cathedral, well that as the cafeteria and toilets. Effectively this was a $6 photo and toilet stop.
After a disappointing entry to the castle we wandered around the outside of the moat to look at the nature reserve and views back onto the castle. Here we got our first real encounter with some Swiss wildlife when I nearly stepped on a snake. That’s right, I said snake. Granted it was small (about 30cm long) and I originally thought it was a worm until it moved its head and stuck out its tongue. It would have been funny if I travelled across the world from the home of the worlds most deadly snakes only to be bitten by one in Switzerland, the home of Alps, Chocolate and Swiss Bank Accounts. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and we pointed it out to a family walking by who seemed to be equally intrigued by its presence.
Our castle day complete we made the short 40min drive back to Zurich through many small villages and towns. There aren’t that many straight sections of roads on today’s journey and the roads are really narrow but of excellent quality. If only they could make them about 30cm wider I’d feel more at home. We parked for the night and got a pretzel sandwich and Movenpick ice cream for dinner. to wrap up our first day driving around the Canton of Aargau in Switzerland.