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Falconry Flights and Medieval Fights: Hohenwerfen Is Not Your Average Castle!

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I spent more than a half an hour searching for the perfect spot to watch the falconry show…and I still chose the WRONG seat! Facing the opposite direction of the speaker, I looked behind me and saw she was on a hill surrounded by a large crowd. So, I scrambled up the hill on my hands and knees for a better view. At the top, I rolled between two people to spot where I could catch the action. Instead, the action almost caught me.

After getting off the ground, I turned and saw an Eagle flying straight towards me. Perhaps he noticed me crawling on the ground and thought I was easy prey? I dropped down just in time and watched everyone else ducked as he flew over them too. He wasn’t trying to eat me. He was just playing a game of chicken and winning.

For over 900 years, Hohenwerfen Castle has rested on a 155 meter rock pillar in the Salzachtal Valley of Werfen, Austria. Surrounded by the Berchtesgaden Alps, the castle is just 25 miles south of Salzburg. In its outer courtyard, two falconers dressed like Robin Hood’s merry men demonstrate their skills several times a day. Watching the falcons, eagles, red kites, and other birds of prey soar above the ramparts was the highlight of my visit to Hohenwerfen.

Although the presentation was mostly in German, I still could understand the training methods by watching the demonstrations. My favorite technique was the use of a lure on a cord. A lure is a feathered decoy with small pieces of meat attached. The falcons dove at it while the falconer whirled the cord around his body in a continuous motion. At the very last minute, he would swing the lure out of the way and then whip it around again and again until the bird successfully grabbed the lure. Rather than using the cord for the eagles and hawks, the other trainer threw lures up in the air for them to retrieve.

When the American Bald Eagle came out, I felt very patriotic cheering for him. He was inspiring to watch, soaring majestically above the crowd with the castle and Alps in the background. As he puffed out his chest and spread out his wings, I chanted, “U-S-A, U-S-A” in my head. However, he was not my favorite bird in the show. I fell in love with the vulture instead.

Vultures are ugly and are associated with death since they are scavengers. Yet, Hohenwerfen’s vulture (I’ll call him Buzz) was the darling of the crowd. Buzz was amusing because he acted completely confused, forgetting he was a bird. While another eagle continued to circle high above us, Buzz wobbled behind the trainer begging for a treat like a lazy, disobedient dog. Buzz was comfortable with the audience too. He bobbed up and down the sidewalks on a quest for more food, approaching people with a quizzical stare that asked, “Hey, where’s my treat?”

Austrian Falconry Museum

Although the show was primarily in German, Hohenwerfen’s Falconry Museum offers information on falconry history in English, starting with a presentation on the origin of the sport in Eurasia over 4,000 years ago. I learned that falconry did not reach the peak of its popularity in Europe until The Middle Ages. The sport was exclusively for nobles. I was happy to find out women were allowed to participate too and had their own fashionable falconry outfits. The birds even had their own accessories. The most common were the very ornate and expensive hoods that covered their eyes. They were used to calm the birds down before the hunt and prevent any distractions.

A Journey Back to the Middle Ages
Hohenwerfen Castle also holds festivals on the weekends, and entering the inner courtyard was like stepping back in time. The food from the crowded medieval tavern filled the air with the scent of delicious roasted meats and hearty ales. Outside the tavern, a snack bar offered soups, bratwursts, pizza, beer, and other refreshments, and it had large picnic tables to accommodate more people. It was the perfect spot to watch the various activities of the courtyard.

During my visit, a group of performers from Bratislava demonstrated another medieval pastime…sword play. Dressed in period costumes, they also provided musical performances, dances, and other entertainment. Before the tournament, my husband and I had fun playing with their swords and firearms.

The performers were not the only ones dressed in medieval garb, children visiting the castle came dressed up too. They hammered with the blacksmith to craft various metal objects and practiced jousting on foot. I watched them run and scream towards a small ring with a wooden rod. Although I was very tempted to try it, I went to observe the potter instead. He was very skillful in sculpting the clay into the various bowls and vases. Many other games were laid out too, and I found out that I sucked at walking on sticks. I could even take one step.

Castle Tour
A German speaker also dressed in a medieval robe guided the castle tour. I followed the group with an English audio guide and visited the chapel, weapons room, and various living quarters. The torture chamber displayed gruesome devices that twisted thumbs off and others that choked necks with pointy spikes. In the center of the room was Hohenwerfen’s dungeon, a circular opening leading to a deep drop. If prisoners managed to survive the fall, they stayed there in complete darkness until a rope was lowered to fetch them out. According to the guide, one unfortunate man went blind and mad after surviving seven years in the dungeon.

A more pleasant part of the tour was the bell tower. Our group climbed inside the tower and observed its inner workings. At the top, I had the perfect view of the valley below and the surrounding mountains, rising above the clouds.

The entrance fee also included the Armory Exhibition where visitors can explore 700 years of melee weapons and firearms.

After a long day at Hohenwerfen, my husband and I walked back down to the parking lot. Looking up, I saw eagles and hawks circling the castle. Another falconry show had started. I didn’t look for Buzz though because I knew he would not be in the sky. He would be trailing behind the trainer, begging for more treats. Who knew that birds could be so doglike? Since it was the end of October, I knew the castle would soon close for the winter. I would have to wait until the castle reopened on Easter to see him again.

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