August 24, 2009 -- The economic crisis is like a fairytale come true for Germany's romantic castles, baroque palaces and historic town squares because the government is spending millions of euros on sprucing them up, not just to protect the country's heritage but also to boost the construction sector.
Three separate programs totalling more than €320 million ($452 million) have been announced this year -- a tiny fraction of what it costs to bail out an ailing bank these days -- in the biggest program of investment in historic monuments in decades.
The latest cash injection was announced on Tuesday when the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg pledged €155 million for the Foundation of Prussian Palaces and Gardens for the period through 2017. The money will go towards projects in and around the capital such as refurbishing the roof and facades of Berlin's Schloss Charlottenburg palace as well as repairs to the Neues Palais-- the 18th century baroque palace in Potsdam's world-famous Sanssouci royal park.
"This money was exceptionally necessary, this is not just about cosmetic restoration but about essential repairs to the structure of these buildings," Ulrich Henze, the spokesman for the foundation, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We're delighted that the funding is being made available."
It's a joy being shared by castle lords and town mayors across Germany who have been scrambling to claim funds from two other government programs. Some €150 million is being made available for the country's 33 UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the historic town center of Quedlinburg and the castles of the Rhine, and a further €20 million is coming from the government's second economic stimulus package launched this year.
While only the €20 million program is directly linked to the economic crisis, it is striking that the government is stumping up hundreds of millions of euros at a time when the country is suffering its biggest downturn since the 1930s.
Cash Not Just For Autobahns
"We had thought the stimulus money would go into autobahns and things like that, so we were surprised and overjoyed that people thought about our historic monuments," Gerhard Wagner, secretary general of the German Castles Association, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It means we're now able to tackle projects that we otherwise wouldn't have gotten to for another 20 years."
"The basic problem with protecting old monuments is that you never know when something's going to fall down, it's a matter of faith. And because our financial resources are always meager, we can only ever do the bare minimum," said Wagner.
The owners of castles along the 65-kilometer stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley designated as a World Heritage site have applied for a total of €14 million in government funds.
Marksburg Castle, the only hill-top castle on the Rhine never to have been destroyed in its more than 800-year history has been awarded €700,000 for roof repairs and improvements to an access road.
Scaffolding will now be going up on castle walls all the way from Koblenz to Bingen, an area made famous by the legendary rock of the Lorelei -- news that is likely to disappoint tourists and shutterbugs.
A little further west, tucked in a glorious wooded valley close to the Moselle River, stands Burg Eltz, one of Germany's most iconic castles, which has been owned by the Eltz dynasty for the last 800 years and attracts some 250,000 visitors a year. It is receiving more than €2 million to retile roofs and to fit iron anchors to secure a 40-meter tower which is at risk of collapse.
Karl Graf von und zu Eltz, the 33rd Count of Eltz, said this year it was the biggest refurbishment since the beginning of the last century.
Visitor Numbers Up
Burg Eltz can only be visited in a guided tour and despite the recession, guest numbers have increased in 2009, although it's not just Germans accounting for the increase. Large numbers of Belgians, Dutch and even British tourists are defying the recession and flocking to the castle to marvel at its original medieval halls, suits of armor and tapestries.
Tourism is up at many historic monuments across Germany -- Marksburg castle expects 145,000 visitors in 2009, up from 142,000 last year, and Rheinstein, another privately owned castle that guards the Rhine near the town of Bingen, is confident it will crack 30,000 this year, up from 2008.
With all the building contracts being awarded, it's getting increasingly hard to recruit local contractors skilled in restoring medieval buildings, castle owners say. Medieval mortar requires a special type of plaster to make it weather proof, for example.
Rheinstein looks set to be one of the few Rhine castles unspoiled by scaffolding in the years to come because it has already undergone €2 million worth of refurbishment over the last decade, with government help.
"One has to keep begging and applying for public funds because there are so many historical buildings in this region," Rheinstein's owner Markus Hecher, whose father, an opera singer, bought the castle in the 1970s, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Owning a castle may sound like a dream come true but it's also a constant challenge, said Hecher. "A few years ago our cesspits collapsed and we had to fix them right away because we're not attached to the public sewage system. That came out of the blue and cost €24,000. And because we get all our water from wells in the forest, we have to keep maintaining the four kilometers of pipes leading there. Blocked filters sometimes shut off our supply."
The economic crisis isn't all good news though -- even though visitor numbers were up, guests are spending less on food in the castle café and aren't buying as many expensive souvenirs such as €70 swords, Hecher said.