Tower Keeper of Bad Wimpfen: Blanca Knodel Keeps a Medieval Profession Alive

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel is standing on her “balcony” and the wind whips her hair. The wind isn’t surprising. Her balcony is a walkway around a set of turrets 105 feet above the ground. Blanca Knodel is a tower keeper in the German city of Bad Wimpfen, and wind, stairs, and stunning views are part of her job.

Bad Wimpfen claims to have the longest continuing tradition of a live-in tower keeper in all of Germany, in part for tourism, and in part to keep a medieval profession alive. The tower keeper lives in a 570-square foot apartment right below the balcony. Although Blanca Knodel is the city’s first female tower keeper, she isn’t the only one in Germany. Münster also has a female tower keeper.

Bad Wimpfen's Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower, where Blanca Knodel lives. You can see two windows to her apartment below the level of the turrets. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

According to Bad Wimpfen’s homepage, the tower is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The cost is 1.50€ per person, and you pay 134 steps above the street, at the door to the tower keeper’s apartment.

Blanca Knodel talks of her life above the city, Mark Twain’s visit to Bad Wimpfen, and how to get a free beer.

Interview with the Tower Keeper

Ann Marie: How long have you been at the job, Frau Knodel?

Blanca Knodel: Nineteen years.

How did you get it?

I belong to one of the oldest families in Baden-Württemberg. I love the Blue Tower, and my grandmother’s sister even used to live here in the tower keeper’s apartment. When my predecessor became ill, I covered for him. Eventually I took over with my three children.

Frau Knodel hands me a pamphlet. It says Bad Wimpfen has complete personnel records for its tower keepers going back to 1626. The records before that time were destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but sporadic documentation surviving from the 14th century indicates the city had a tower keeper who lived continually in the tower.

My job might even go back to the 13th century.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

What were the tower keeper’s duties in the Middle Ages?

To watch out for enemies and fires and to raise the alarm. Also to toll the hours.

Did the tower keeper have any crime-prevention functions? If someone raised the hue and cry, for instance, would the tower keeper look for the fleeing criminal from above and let the town know where to look?

Probably not; that was more the job of the night watchman. If a crime happened at night, it would be really hard to spot a fleeing criminal in the darkness from way up here.

They didn’t have street lamps back then….

No, they didn’t!

The tower keeper's view over the Neckar River.

The view from the kitchen over the Neckar River.

What are the tower keeper’s job duties today?

I have primarily public relations duties – selling tickets and giving information to tourists visiting the tower.

Are there any advantages to being the tower keeper?

Yes! I’m so high above everything else; it is so quiet and peaceful. I have a tremendous view. And all my visitors are friendly. People climb the 134 steps to my apartment only if they really want to see me. I get absolutely no solicitors!

The view from the living room over the church.

The view from the living room over the church.

And the disadvantages?

Carrying my groceries. The tower does have a small elevator just for groceries, but it starts at the third floor and ends one floor below my apartment. So that means I have to haul my groceries up several floors. The worst part is carrying up cases of beer. On the days I go shopping, I offer a free beer to anyone who helps carry a case up the stairs.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

Even to American tourists?

Yes, of course! I usually go shopping on Wednesdays, so come by and see if you can help me with my beer….

Check for cases of beer when you enter the tower. Frau Knodel usually puts a note on them and you are welcome to carry one up.

How often do you get American tourists?

Regularly. The Blue Tower isn’t a secret tip. It appears in the guide books and I get guests of all nationalities.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

Mark Twain visited Bad Wimpfen in 1878 and sketched one of the towers. Would you say this picture is of the Blue Tower or the Red Tower?

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain

Bad Wimpfen’s tower. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain.

That looks like the Red Tower. By 1878, the Blue Tower already had its present form – with the turrets. But I don’t know why Mark Twain made the Red Tower leaning. Was he thinking of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

It may have just been one of Mark Twain’s jokes. He wrote that this picture was just a copy. He says he gave the original to the mayor of Bad Wimpfen.

(Laughing) If Mark Twain gave a picture to our mayor, believe me, I would know about it. If Bad Wimpfen had a Mark Twain picture in its archives, I would know.

You can’t always believe what Mark Twain says! But on the other hand, Twain wasn’t famous yet in Germany. If you were the mayor, and if a tourist who was a nobody gave you this picture of your town, would you keep it?

Okay, I get your point. No!

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

You also have a pet cat. How has it adjusted to living in the tower? Does it ever go out?

My cat’s outdoor territory is the tower itself. In the mornings, before all the tourists come, it patrols the stairs and hunts silverfish and spiders.

There aren’t any mice in the tower?

Not that I know of.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower also has a music tradition.

Yes! Every Sunday at noon, from April to October, musicians play a hymn from the four sides of the tower. Bad Wimpfen has been doing that for at least a century.

The long way down.

The long way down.

What are your most interesting memories of living in the tower?

I have an upright piano in my apartment. It took four men seven minutes to carry it all the way up the tower. Once they got it into my apartment, I told them they brought the wrong piano.

What?! It wasn’t the piano you ordered?

Well yes, actually it was, but I was just trying to joke with them. They didn’t think I was funny at all.

The oldest guest who ever visited me was 95 years old. I shared a glass of wine with him at the top, and afterwards he used to call me every half year to tell me he would never forget the experience.

I won’t forget the experience either, Fr. Knodel. Thanks so much for the interview.

What would you enjoy about the job if you were a tower keeper?

Coming soon: more about Mark Twain in Bad Wimpfen and all the funny things he had to say about it.

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The Owl and the Wildcat: Mark Twain in the Naturalist Tavern

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Mark Twain wrote about these eyes in A Tramp Abroad. This is the original owl from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Langbein Museum.

They are Germany’s most famous stuffed animals, at least for Americans. A snowy owl and a wildcat lurk in the taxidermy display cases of the Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany. They’re renowned because Mark Twain wrote about them in A Tramp Abroad. And every year, dozens of tourists enter the museum, book in hand, with just one goal. They want to see the owl and the wildcat.

The animals from the Naturalist Tavern are now housed in the Langbein Museum.

The Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany.

Mark Twain in Hirschhorn

Twain visited Germany in 1878 while he was writing Huckleberry Finn. While living in Heidelberg, he took a trip along the Neckar River and  stopped at Hirschhorn to spend the night of August 9, 1878. It was a night to remember.

Site of the Naturalist Tavern

Hischhorn’s city hall (Rathaus) now stands where the Naturalist Tavern once stood. Mark Twain spent a memorable night here in 1878.

“We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three miles, and reached ‘the Naturalist Tavern’ in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror. I can never forget that night.”

The Naturalist Tavern: An Inn Full of Animals

Carl Langbein, a hobby biologist, ran the Naturalist Tavern. It contained a menagerie of taxidermically prepared animals. After the inn closed down in the 20th century, the animals found a new home next door in the Langbein Museum, where you can still see them today.

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Another angle of the same owl.

“ ‘The Naturalist Tavern’ was not a meaningless name; for all the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural and eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

A Crouching Cat

The wild cat in the bedroom.  Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

But at least Twain could sleep. His travelling companion had it worse:

“But young Z. did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aims straight at him. It made Z. uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes, but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at him, — which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won, that time.”

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Museum.

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Longbein Museum.

This was Europe’s wildcat, felis silvestris, somewhat larger than a housecat. That busy tail with three bold black stripes is one of the field marks for this species.

The Warbler Nobody Noticed

I wouldn’t describe Longbein’s cat as crouching (okay, Twain was known to exaggerate at times), but maybe it gave that impression in the moonlight. But there would have been no reason for Z. to fear: the cat had already found its prey. The taxidermist had prepared it with a male blackcap warbler in its mouth. Poor Z. probably never noticed the small, gray bird in the darkness of his room, and if he had, he might have been able to sleep more easily, knowing the cat had already found its meal for the night.

Close up of the warbler in the wildcat's mouth.

Alas, the warbler was the only one who had anything to fear that night.

Have you ever had an animal keep you up at night?

Male blackcap warbler

Male blackcap warbler. “Sylvia atricapilla -Lullington Heath, East Sussex, England -male-8” by Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – BlackcapUploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Literature on point:

All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)

Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)

Der deutsche Mississippi, Welt am Sonntag

Reichtum der Region, Echo online


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Mark Twain and the Secret of Dilsberg, Germany

Dilsberg on the Neckar River

Dilsberg, a German town crowning a hill on the Neckar River. (c) Kai Petrik, 240571

Every medieval town had its mysteries.

Dilsberg, a walled town atop a hill that towers above Germany’s Neckar River, was no exception. Its mystery was its defense. Dilsberg had never been conquered in a siege, and the besiegers could never figure out how the Dilsbergers remained fat and well-armed even after their access to the outside world was cut off.

Who would have thought that a traveling American would hit upon a secret that had eluded generals and armies?

Mark Twain in Germany

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

When Mark Twain traveled to Germany in 1878, he never planned to solve a military mystery. He was in the middle of writing Huckleberry Finn and had ideas for a new book on European travel, A Tramp Abroad. In the summer of 1878 he took a trip down the Neckar and Dilsberg caught his eye.

Twain's sketch of Dilsberg

Twain’s own sketch of Dilsberg. From “A Tramp Abroad,” public domain.

“For Dilsberg is a quaint place. It is most quaintly and picturesquely situated, too. Imagine the beautiful river before you; then a few rods of brilliant green sward on its opposite shore; then a sudden hill, – no preparatory gently-rising slopes, but a sort of instantaneous hill, – a hill two hundred and fifty or three hundred feet high, as round as a bowl…, and with just exactly room on the top of its head for its steepled and turreted and roof-clustered cap of architecture, which same is tightly jammed and compacted within the perfectly round hoop of the ancient village wall…. [F]rom a distance Dilsberg has rather more the look of a king’s crown than a cap.”

Dilsberg castle.

Tower and battlements of the Dilsberg castle.

Twain hiked up the hill to visit the town. Once inside the city wall, he explored the castle ruins. “It proved to be an extensive pile of crumbling walls, arches, and towers, massive, properly grouped for picturesque effect…” Children accompanied him and acted as his tour guides. They climbed the castle tower and walked on its lofty battlements.

Dilsberg and the legend of the secret passage

It was the children who let him in on the secret. “But the principal show, the chief pride of the children, was the ancient and empty well in the grass-grown court of the castle. Its massive stone curb stands up three or four feet above the ground, and is whole and uninjured…. There were some who believed it had never been a well at all, and was never deeper than it is now, – eighty feet; that at that depth a subterranean passage branched from it and descended gradually to a remote place in the valley, where it opened into somebody’s cellar or other hidden recess, and that the secret of this locality is now lost.”

The Old Well. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

This, Twain said, was the secret to Dilsberg’s defense. Dilsbergers were bringing in supplies through the secret passage. The children tried to prove the existence of the passage to him by dropped burning straw down the well. It struck bottom and burnt out without any smoke coming up.

“You see!” said the children. “Nothing makes so much smoke as burning straw – now where did the smoke go to, if there is no subterranean outlet?”

But was the story true or not? Sometimes with Twain’s travel tales it’s hard to tell.

The well in the Dilsberg castle today.

The well in the castle courtyard.

A Twain fan solves the mystery

Entrance to the Dilsberg tunnel

Tunnel entrance on the hillside.

In 1900, one Twain fan decided to find out. Frank von Briesen, a German American, was fascinated by the well story. He traveled to Dilsberg, let himself down the well on a rope, and found a passageway blocked by rubble. In 1926 he paid to have the outlet cleared. It terminated in the wooded hillside. The tunnel is now open to the public and the city of Dilsberg offers tours in the summer. Historians believe it was probably built to provide air circulation. But who knows? Maybe the Dilsbergers also used it during sieges to get supplies.

And maybe Mark Twain really did solve one of Germany’s mysteries for the outside world. If it hadn’t been for Twain and one of his fans, knowledge of the secret passage might have been lost.

Literature on point

All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)

Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)

Der Burgstollen

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Mark Twain: Why Germany is the Answer to Writer’s Block

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It can happen to anybody. Mark Twain had started several new books when it struck in 1878. His solution to writer’s block might surprise you. And the results probably surprised him.

Mark Twain had a similar view

Heidelberg from above. Papkoom Kamchuai, Shutterstock

Mark Twain in Heidelberg

Twain decided a change of scenery would help and booked a 16-month trip to Europe with his family. He had already become famous for Innocents Abroad and his goal was to get away to a quiet place, where people didn’t know him. “I had a couple of light minor purposes, also: to acquire the German language, and to perfect myself in Art,” he wrote.

Mark Twain's sketch

Twain’s sketch of a raft on the Neckar in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Heidelberg offered the perfect refuge. On the Königstuhl Mountain, perched high over the city, Twain found an inn where he rented a room as an office. Further downhill, he booked a $250 per month suite for his family in the Schloss Hotel. He lived there for several months. The view from his hotel distracted him from his writing, but later inspired him. In a May 26, 1878 letter to his friends, he wrote:

… divinely located. From this airy porch among the shining groves we look down upon Heidelberg Castle, and upon the swift Neckar, and the town, and out over the wide green level of the Rhine valley—a marvelous prospect. We are in a Cul-de-sac formed of hill-ranges and river; we are on the side of a steep mountain; the river at our feet is walled, on its other side, (yes, on both sides,) by a steep and wooded mountain-range which rises abruptly aloft from the water’s edge; portions of these mountains are densely wooded; the plain of the Rhine, seen through the mouth of this pocket, has many and peculiar charms for the eye.

Another Mark Twain sketch

Another one of Mark Twain’s raft sketches in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Neckar River as Distraction and Inspiration

Our bedroom has two great glass bird-cages (enclosed balconies) one looking toward the Rhine valley and sunset, the other looking up the Neckar cul-de-sac, and naturally we spend nearly all our time in these—when one is sunny the other is shady. We have tables and chairs in them; we do our reading, writing, studying, smoking and suppering in them.

The view from these bird-cages is my despair. The pictures change from one enchanting aspect to another in ceaseless procession, never keeping one form half an hour, and never taking on an unlovely one.

Rafts like these sparked Mark Twain's phantasy.  LOT 12687, no. 8 (H)

19th century log raft. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

At some point Twain looked beyond the beauty of the Neckar River to its commercial activity. Log rafts floated down regularly from the Black Forest. Twain sketched them and described them in A Tramp Abroad. In August, 1978, he took a trip upstream to Heilbronn and returned, in part, by boat, but his fantasy was working the entire trip. Twain concocted a story about a return trip in a raft.

Raft Trip on the Neckar River

While I was looking down upon the rafts that morning in Heilbronn, the dare-devil spirit of adventure came suddenly upon me, and I said to my comrades:

“I am going to Heidelberg on a raft. Will you venture with me?”

Twain claims to have chartered a raft for his return trip and describes a myriad of adventures on the return trip: boys swimming out to them, a naked beauty bathing under a willow tree, a storm, and a shipwreck.

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Inspiration for Huckleberry Finn

Back in Heidelberg, Twain got fresh inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. He had already been toying with the raft trip idea, but now his ideas crystallized. He wrote chapter 16, in which Jim and Huck take off on the raft but missed Cairo in the fog, in Heidelberg.

Twain’s biographer Justin Kaplan views the fictional raft trip on the Neckar as a crucial remedy to the writer’s block that stalled Huckleberry Finn. A German river might have inspired one of the greatest works of American fiction. It would be no surprise to the Germans, who consider the Neckar the most “literary” of all its rivers. Friedrich Schiller, author of the Ode to Joy and William Tell, was born on its banks. Goetz of Berlichingen, who inspired Goethe, had a castle on the Neckar.

Can’t write? Then come to Germany!

What places inspire your creativity?

Literature on point:

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

Werner Pieper (ed.), Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through German in 1878 (Lörbach: Medien Xperminente)

Jan Bürger, Der Neckar: Eine literarische Reise (Munich: C.H. Beck 2013)

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