Ever since I discovered a few years ago I — well, the Quesinberry family — had a castle, the first item on my bucket list has been a trip to Germany to visit the land of my ancestors.
I made it happen last month with my younger sister, Jeni McNeill.
Genealogy can take you to some fun places in the family tree, and we discovered the origins of our last name was a village nestled in the southern Harz mountains. Better yet, above the village stands the remains of a castle which was built around 1250 — and it’s ours!
Getting to the village of Questenberg, Germany, wasn’t as simple as we thought. First, it’s in the middle of Germany — in the middle of nowhere. No airports or train stops anywhere near there. So, we rented a car after getting off a train in Düsseldorf and drove four hours to the village of our people.
It’s an understatement to say I was excited to see the name Questenberg on a street sign. We had arrived! After years of anticipation, we were there!
The village was as quaint as I imagined, but eerily without people. Where was the parade to celebrate the arrival of two actual Quesinberrys?
Since there was no one to inquire about the hike up to our castle, we wandered up and down the main street — the only street — in the village until we happened upon an obscure sign that pointed us in the direction of the small, unpaved trail. It was tucked, nearly out of sight, behind a church, Mariä-Geburt-Kirche (St. Mariae’s Nativity), that has been there since the 14th century. A sign out front described its history, but it was written in an illegible script and in German.
So we trudged onward and upward. Someone had placed wooden planks in various places along the path to help hikers, but we still wheezed our way up the 230-foot-high steep slope.
Not knowing what to expect at the top, the anticipation had me almost sprinting. Almost.
We first came to a clearing, which had part of the southern castle wall and a yellow flag declaring the Förderverein Questenburg association’s work. This lower castle slope gave us a nice view of the village below, but we knew a grander view awaited us, so we continued the trek.
As we rounded a corner, there it was — the stone archway I previously had seen only in photographs. It was glorious, and it was everything I expected. As we walked through the arch, which served as the castle gate, we turned right to take in the spectacular view of the village of Questenberg. Red and brown roofs of the half-timbered houses dotted the landscape below, and across the way, on another mountain, we located the queste — an ancient pagan sun wheel, birch wreath and peeled oak trunk — which is part of a traditional spring festival that takes place on Pentecost weekend. A banner announcing this year’s Questenfest was hung at the village entrance, so the tradition continues even today.
Jeni and I traipsed around the palace grounds, discovering a few cellar vaults — which we did not enter — and the remains of the keep.
At the north end of the castle ruins was the stump of the keep that stands about 26 feet high and was open at the top. There was an opening at the base, and I did crawl inside the tower to take a look.
There were several images at the base of the stone wall that researchers suspect were carved by prisoners. We kept prisoners!
Various flowering plants dotted the land, and I imagined what glorious gardens once were planted there.
In my online research, I learned the castle was protected by a separate gate building, like those found in medieval town gates, and a rampart and moat. With all these security measures and the mighty fine construction, it probably would have been difficult for potential enemies to penetrate the main castle and hurt my people. According to tradition, it was never possible to conquer the Questenberg!
The fortifications were probably built in the early 13th century, and several different counts, or lords, occupied the castle, including the Counts of Beichlingen, who are believed to be the builders of the castle.
I read where it was last used as a military facility during the Thirty Years’ War. After it fell into disrepair, many of the stones were used as building material for houses in Questenberg. I took a pocketful of rocks myself.
Over time, the remains were all but swallowed by brush and overgrowth.
Luckily, a small support association, Förderverein Questenburg (-burg, although the village is -berg), was formed a decade ago to preserve the castle ruins and clear the land.
Some regional funding was approved to secure the “Romanesque gate building visible from afar as the most valuable and rare monument substance of a medieval castle complex of the 13th century.”
Yeah, we had some pretty cool ancestors.
I took dozens of photos and could have stood there for hours looking over the village, taking in the scenery and soaking up the Questenberg vibe, but we made our way down the path and back into the village. At the base of the hike, near the church, stands a wooden oak statue of a knight with a drawn sword. This was to signify the medieval city was its own jurisdiction.
We took some more photos to document our visit, looked around for people to talk to and, finding none, walked back to our car and said goodbye to our castle and village.
I will never forget that experience, and I encourage anyone who discovers something this exciting in their heritage to add the trip to their bucket list and make it happen.