Nordkirchen Castle rear view, © Ilona Marx

No­bil­ity by Bike

Dis­cov­er­ies in the Mün­ster­land

The Münsterland, the historical site of the Peace of Westphalia, has also become a home to art and modern sustainability. A journey of exploration leads along the 100-Castles Route from Münster’s Prinzipalmarkt to moated castles, a forester’s estate and remote rural areas, unearthing stories that are anything but dusty.

What a welcome! There she is, waiting for me already in room no. 1 of the Hotel Schloss Wilkinghege: The portrait of the poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff by Johann Joseph Sprick, showing her with a double parted hairdo, hair crown, and dressed in a festive brocade dress, has a place of honour between the two ceiling-high mullioned windows that afford a view of the old trees of the castle park. I wonder if this high-born lady had ever spent the night in this room, too. It’s not unlikely at all, actually. After all, the moated castle at the gates of Münster belonged to her brother, Werner-Constantin Freiherr Droste zu Hülshoff, for a time.

I am going to spend the next few days walking, or rather cycling, in the tracks of Westphalian nobility. The Münsterland is famous for its cycle paths after all, and its 1200-year-old feudal history with castles and fortresses and manor houses has allowed it to link the sights in the 960-kilometre-long 100-Castles Route.

View to the old town of Münster, © @een_wasbeer XD X3

Before I set out on a journey to the historical buildings in the area, I want to have a look at the heart of Münsterland, the city not only known for its rich religious and political past, its treasures of art and culture, but also for its sustainable lifestyle: Münster.

I get on the bus at the Abzweig Wilkinghege stop. It drops me off again right in the city centre, where traffic is dominated by the busses, including many with electric drives, and the self-confident Münster cyclists. That’s nice! Of course, one has to be careful when crossing the main traffic arteries, such as the promenade that encircles the city. Three students approach speedily on their Dutch bikes, and I rescue myself by lunging to the side of the road. I learn my lesson quickly, and soon feel as if I have stepped into a model experiment. This is a world that has brought a future to life that is still only a vague dream elsewhere.

In addition to the LWL Museum of Art and Culture on Domplatz that regularly attracts attention with its collection and high-class exhibitions, Münster also houses Germany’s only Picasso Museum, which owns 800 works of the world-famous painter. Poster art is on display there right now, created both by the master himself and by other famous artists. One was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most important representatives of poster art around 1900 with his garishly coloured prints for the Moulin Rouge. Others include his namesake Henri Matisse, the couple Sonia and Robert Delaunay, and Joan Miró, as well as pop artists such as Keith Haring and Robert Rauschenberg.

I am particularly touched by two Picasso posters: An exhibition announcement from 1973 showing one of his last works with a self-portrait of himself as a small boy, set on the canvas in a brisk style and few, broad brushstrokes. Like many of his late paintings, it bears witness to his race against time. Picasso did not live to see the opening in Avignon, as he died a few weeks after he had put the poster into print. Across from it is Picasso’s iconic Dove of Peace, a brush lithograph. This was the official poster of the World Congress of Partisans of Peace held in 1949. Later, Picasso’s Dove became a political symbol worldwide. This was the work that brought the French painter to the attention of millions.

Ilona Marx in the Friedensaal Münster, © Martin Steinigen

The dove of peace was hard at work in Münster long before Picasso appeared, too. The Peace of Westphalia was concluded in the cathedral city in 1648, ending the Thirty Years’ War. On the way to the Peace Hall in Münster’s Historic Town Hall, the memorial to this event so fundamental to Europe, I end up startling a few of their grey-feathered relatives into flight from where they were strutting across the cobblestones of the Prinzipalmarkt, cooing in important conversation and craning their necks, while a group of pupils is holding a demonstration for climate protection outside the gothic facade of the town hall, just like every Friday.

It is quiet and cool inside. The present is busy outside. Here, behind the Peace Hall doors, history is brought to life. The audio guide starts playing as I enter a room decorated with wood panelling and rich carvings. The voice-over tells me about years of negotiations preceding the Peace of Westphalia. I walk down the gallery of European envoys, diplomats, and lawyers to my left until I spot a youthful portrait of Louis XIV in the middle of the top row. He stands out among the ranks of dark-clad dignitaries and sovereigns with his red cheeks. Negotiator Fabio Chigi has a place of honour on the far right of the row of pictures. He regularly visited the Catholic envoys housed in the immediate vicinity, conveying messages and consulting with them. The audio tour tells me that the envoys never met in one place together for consultation. It’s hardly surprising that the peace negotiations were dragging on for over three years then! I deeply admire Chigi’s diplomatic skills. He later became the Pope, by the way.

The historic year of 1648 continues to be very present elsewhere in Münster as well. Café 1648 on the 11th and 12th floors of a new building in the pedestrian zone is almost a secret tip. You won’t find the inconspicuous side entrance on Heinrich-Brüning-Straße on your own easily if you don’t know where to look for it. One thing is certain: Nowhere could the panoramic view of the city be enjoyed better than from the designer armchairs waiting in cosy alcoves in front of the full-height windows. A cappuccino or aperitif with a view of the cathedral, St. Lamberti, and the Liebfrauenkirche towering between the roofs is a special treat.

I end my evening in the shadow of the Clemenskirche church. Like the Münster Castle, it was designed by the master of the Westphalian Baroque, Johann Conrad Schlaun. I wonder if my vegan celery schnitzel with regional walnut pesto at Restaurant Feldmann would be approved by the Fridays for Future protesters. It is delicious in any case. Owner Christian Feldmann, whose great-grandmother founded the restaurant in 1929, and his kitchen team have perfectly mastered the balancing act between tradition and modernity. The three friends at the next table over with their well-groomed greying hairstyles who have dropped by after shopping for books are discussing literature and religion over Wiener schnitzel. They also seem to be enjoying the fresh regional ingredients and Münsterland ambience at Feldmann’s, and they’re clearly not doing so for the first time.

  • View of the terrace of Hotel Schloss Wilkinghege, © Ilona Marx
    City views of Münster, © Martin Steinigen
    Picasso poster in the Picasso Museum, © Ilona Marx
  • Colorful church window St. Lamberti Münster, © Ilona Marx
    Exterior view of the LWL Museum for Art and Culture, © Ilona Marx
    View over Munster, © Ilona Marx
Vischering Castle in Lüdinghausen, © Martin Steinigen

“Until the early 19th century, the Münsterland was a fragmented collection of small dominions,” Swenja Janning, the cultural officer of the district of Coesfeld, tells me on a tour of Vischering Castle the next morning. That’s why there are quite so many castles and palaces in the area, then! I want to explore a few of them today on a bike tour, in spite of low-hanging clouds in the sky. Vischering with its moat, moats, ramparts, and drawbridge is one of the most impressive examples of medieval fortified castles - a picture-book castle straight out of a child’s imagination. The castle truly is highly popular among children. Interactive media stations vividly explain medieval life to visitors of all age groups, and the entire noble residence is full of stories and anecdotes about feudal life.

The 15th-century legend of a bloody feud is particularly creepy. It casts an old nobleman and an iron collar in the main roles: Swenja Janning takes me into a room where the corpus delicti is displayed. “The legend tells of an inheritance dispute between two families. One of the families vying for the property attacked Knight Lambert of Oer and put an iron neck collar on him, studded with curved thorns. If he surrendered the disputed land, he would get the key to the lock of that instrument of torture. But as a genuine, unbending Westphalian, Knight Lambert did not plan to give in that easily. He took to his horse and rode the thirty kilometres to Münster to have a smith relieve him of the cruel burden.” The sight of the sharp spikes on the collar that weighs several kilograms is enough to send a cold shiver down my back.

As a special treat, I get to climb the tower of Vischering with Swenja Janning. Not usually accessible for visitors at all, it affords an amazing view of the wide countryside. I can hardly wait to explore the other castles and palaces. A little later I am back on my bike again. Windsurfing flocks of swallows accompany me as they try to outperform each other with daredevil flight manoeuvres. Cornfields and oak avenues form dead straight corridors. I find myself twice lucky: The wind is kindly pushing me towards eastwards while blowing the clouds aside. Bit by bit, the sky is clearing up.

Westerwinkel Ascheberg Castle, © Münsterland e.V. / Philipp Fölting

About half an hour’s ride takes me to Westerwinkel Castle, one of the earliest baroque moated castles in Westphalia. Far from any larger town and surrounded by hedged meadows, it looks like something taken right out of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. The closed four-wing complex is resting on two islands in the picturesque Gräften. The pavilion towers sport imperial roofs, each topped by a weathervane. The park around the castle has a golf course where some players are pursuing their passion. This is not an uncommon sight, in particular around privately owned castles. A building like this one is quite expensive to maintain after all!

More than a hundred castles can be discovered in the Münsterland. Nordkirchen Castle, the “Versailles of Westphalia”, is one of them and located about 26 kilometres from Westerwinkel. Keep on pedalling! An Opel Kapitän with brightly polished chrome pieces and tulle bows on the side mirrors is overtaking me on the avenue leading to the castle grounds, announcing a wedding party up ahead. It doesn’t remain the only one, as a veritable parade of brides and grooms are driving up to the Schlossplatz to have their pictures taken in front of the expansive baroque façade that dates to the early 18th century. The fluttering veils are the icing on the cake in this already romantic setting. I circle the sprawling building, cycling through the stately park to admire the garden view. The steps of the large water basin adjoining the ornamental beds invite visitors to linger here.

About fifty kilometres of cycling do make me a bit hungry. Luckily, I am scheduled to visit the Böcker family’s Forstmannshof before dinner. Young Benedikt Böcker welcomes me warmly on the manor house’s terrace. He readily divulges some information about his ancestor Anton Josef Böcker, who distilled the first grain here on the farm in 1848. Today, the family’s raspberry brandy is particularly popular, and I quickly discover the reason for this as the scent wafting into my nose once Benedikt Böcker opens a bottle for tasting spirits me away to a raspberry plantation. Eight kilos of fruit make up one litre of raspberry brandy. It is also sold in the farm shop, along with other schnapps and liqueurs. Fresh raspberries, strawberries, and asparagus are on offer here as well as jams and various kinds of honey, smoked and air-dried sausages, and many other products.

Burg Hülshoff in Havixbeck, © Ralph Sondermann, Tourismus NRW e.V.

The sun wakes me the next morning, and I am looking forward to visiting the von Droste-Hülshoff family. After her father’s death, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff lived at the country estate Haus Rüschhaus, a blend of Westphalian farm and baroque manor house just a few minutes’ by bike from Hotel Wilkinghege, together with her mother and sister. Many of her most important works were created in that self-imposed solitude. The first thirty years of her life, in contrast, were spent in a different, more sophisticated world, at Hülshoff Castle. That is a moated castle only ten kilometres from Haus Rüschhaus. Family property since the late 15th century, the brick Renaissance complex has been converted into a museum that offers a look at the lifestyles of Münster’s nobility in the age of classicism. I meet the exceptional poet who was considered radically emancipated for her time, focusing her work on social issues, once again here, as another oil portrait depicting her is hanging in the family’s elegantly furnished dining room. It looks confusingly similar to the one that guarded my sleep at Wilkinghege Castle. Johann Joseph Sprick appears to have produced several versions of it, in fact. I rejoice at the familiar sight. It almost feels to me as if Annette von Droste-Hülshoff was trying to say goodbye to me in person and in perfect form after my three-day journey through her homeland.

The very last message I receive, however, comes from artist Robert Montgomery, who installed a neon sign in the castle park: “When we are gone, the trees will riot”, it reads. Today, Hülshoff Castle also serves as a Center for Literature, a place for the mediation of literature, and an interdisciplinary meeting place for the arts and sciences. The enormous grounds offer the best conditions for performances, readings, festivals, lectures, and workshops alike. I open my picnic basket packed with all sorts of vegan delicacies from the castle restaurant. History, enjoyment, sustainability, and zeitgeist are the true assets of the Münsterland.

Author: Ilona Marx - Ilona Marx has travelled to numerous metropolises in NRW and all over the world. The author, copywriter, and trend consultant has loved culture, fashion, and design since her youth.

  • Bike tour at Westerwinkel Castle, © Martin Steinigen
    Westerwinkel Castle, © Ilona Marx
    Yellow Craspedia by the wayside, © Ilona Marx
  • Front view of Hülshoff Castle, © Ilona Marx
    Droste Museum Burg Hülshoff, © Ilona Marx
    Installation at Burg Hülshoff, © Ilona Marx