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Destination Germany:

Pray Thee, Play!

Revisiting the Middle Ages in Bavaria, thanks to a chivalrous prince

March 15, 1998|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Walsh is The Times' Berlin bureau chief

KALTENBERG, Germany — From Paris to Phnom Penh, the world's 40-odd dispossessed royal families remain intriguing, sometimes potent vestiges of a bygone age. Some monarchs hold court in exile, others play at intrigue or deign to dabble in modern electoral politics.

Here in peaceful Bavaria, the man who would be king--if this southern German state were still a kingdom--uniquely fulfills his regal identity by reenacting, for three weekends each summer, some of the most startling sights and sensations of the late Middle Ages, at the family Schloss, or castle.

On July 3 to 5, 10 to 12 and 17 to 19 of this year, this tiny farming village, 30 miles west of Munich, will fling itself back 500 years in time, and bustle again with jesters and jugglers, falconers and fencers, blaring trumpets, fluttering pennants and brawny blacksmiths in leather jerkins hammering out complete suits of armor. For nine days, the Middle Ages will not wane but wax in Kaltenberg.

Lords and ladies will promenade in outlandish silken finery, while giggling wenches tar and feather the bare nates of yoked criminals who can't get enough of their punishment.

There will be much period music, food and beer, but the best part, each afternoon, will be a jousting tournament, with armored riders sending each other flying from the saddle at lance-point. There will be flaming arrows and catapults, and maybe, just maybe, someone will seemingly be run through while scaling the ramparts.

True, you can catch a gimcrack "Renaissance Faire" at your local shopping mall--but where else but Kaltenberg can you indulge your medieval fantasies in the shadow of a castle dating back to 1290?

Where else can you look on as skilled ruffians--their timing necessarily every bit as good as Tara Lipinski's--have at each other with real axes and maces (clubs with spikes)?

Where else can you sit high above an arena crowded with knights and damsels, Bierstein and salted radish slices in hand, and be welcomed by His Royal Highness, Prince Luitpold of Bavaria--and know that his majesty is a real, paid-up throneless royal, who has ponied up $2 million for your amusement and instruction?

"I think we're all living in an over-technologized world, a virtual world," says Prince Luitpold, the history-loving creator of the Kaltenberg Ritterturnier or Kaltenberg Knights' Tournament.

The 46-year-old prince himself goes in for horsemanship--he participates in national equestrian events--and is a moderate royalist, who dares to say, "It's debatable whether democratic principles are more protected in a monarchy or a republic." He is a bitter enemy of such present-day entertainments as the video game, which he detests because an electronic victory means total annihilation of the enemy.

How much better, he thinks, how much more noble and civilized, were the ritual combats of medieval times, before the arrival in Europe of gunpowder.

"In any research on behavior, you'll find that the human being has a psychological barrier against killing," he says. "But as soon as you have a gun, that barrier doesn't work any more. You are too far away from your opponent, and you don't have any sense of his pain. This is very different from fighting man-to-man."

Prince Luitpold, alas, is all too familiar with the wantonness and inhumanity of the gun-packing 20th century. He is of the House of Wittelsbach, which ruled Bavaria from 1180 to 1918, when the monarchy was abolished. (The Wittelsbachs never abdicated, however.) The family was ravaged by the Nazis during the Third Reich; one crown prince died as a result of medical experimentation in a concentration camp.

Today, the Wittelsbachs must work for a living, and Prince Luitpold has gone into beer. His Royal Highness receives visitors, dressed in a cardigan, , in the conference room of his small brewery in the nearby small town of Geltendorf, where the walls are decorated with ornate beer steins and a baleful portrait of his most famous ancestor, King Ludwig II, Bavaria's eccentric builder of fairy-tale castles. Prince Luitpold operates a second microbrewery, and restaurant, in the family castle in Kaltenberg.

*

More than two decades ago, Prince Luitpold recalls, he happened upon a tournament being staged by British medievalists near the Tower of London. The prince knew something of the promotional value of festivals--Munich's renowned, monstrously crowded Oktoberfest started as a wedding party for his great-great-great grandfather, Ludwig I.

Prince Luitpold, ironically, isn't allowed to sell his beer at Oktoberfest because he brews it outside the Munich city limits. It occurred to him that an elaborate medieval festival here in Kaltenberg might be a good gimmick for his own label.

"The idea was to get Kaltenberg on the map," he says.

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