My Travel and History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times

  Hiking in the Harz - Ilse Valley and Ilse's Rock

The Ilsestein - Ilse's Rock - is more than a granite promontory in the Harz mountains; it is the home of a fairy queen, a secret crystal cave full of wonders. But it is a long time since she last has been seen and invited a visitor to her hidden realm. Too many tourists around on a sunny day for her to bathe in the river, I suspect.

The Ilsestein (Ilse's Rock) hidden in the foliage

Beautiful Princess Ilse was the daughter of the Harz King and very much in love with the young knight of Westenburg, who lived in a castle on the other end of what then was still a single large plateau. But her father looked ill upon their love and smote a cleft into the plateau, forever separating both castles by a deep crevice. Princess Ilse was encased in the rock which she only can leave on certain nights to bathe in the river which bears her name.

The Ilse river

If you see her then, in the silver moonlight, and approach her carefully, she may take you into her cave to admire the sparkling gems and gleaming gold and many hued fairy lights. She will take your rucksack and bring it back full, ordering you not to open it until you're back in your home.

Usually those who did encounter her once upon a time were poor young men, shepherds, coal makers, hirelings and such. But the rucksack became heavier and heavier on their way home and they always succombed to the temptation to have a look. They would find only pine cones and acorns which they cast away in anger. Yet a few acorns remained and turned into gold at home - still enough for those poor men to buy a small farm and a cow or two.

Path at the Ilsestein

Those who came to her cave out of greed she would punish. A blacksmith's apprentice who found the magic root that opens all doors, entered her realm and filled his pockets with gems, but forgot to take the root back with him when he left, so the heavy granite doors smothered him to death.

Another version of the legend has a jealous witch with an ugly daughter as the one who banished beautiful Ilse inside the rock, because all the princes wanted her hand, and none that of the ugly daughter who, I suspect, had not the sweetest temper, either. The tale doesn't say whether one of Ilse's suitors eventually married the ugly daughter - likely she remained a spinster in good fairly tale manner.

Ilse river

In some stories Ilse houses a retinue of knights and squires and horses of the hunt in her cave, which connects her with the Wild Hunt that haunts the Harz mountains, but there are no legends about her actually hunting, except one.

In that version Ilse is a princess out hunting with her betrothed in the nearby mountains where she meets with the fairy queen who invites her to visit her magic cave. Ilse spends a year there, listening to the fairy queen telling her all stories and legends of the Harz King, the bitter feud between dwarves and giants, the unhappy love of the king's daughter and a mere knight, and more. But eventually Ilse longed for the sun more bright than any diamond, the verdant forests more green than emeralds and the sky more blue than the finest sapphires in the fairy queen's cave. So the queen let her go, ordering her never to tell anyone where she went.

Another shot of the Ilse river

Yeah, that worked out all right. ;-) Ilse met with her faithful betrothed who, of course, wondered where she had been all that time. At first she remained silent but when he accused her of infidelity, she sat down in his lap and began to speak in her soft, beautiful voice, of the fairy queen and the wonders of her cave, of the tales she heard about the Harz King and his unhappy daughter, of the dwarves and giants and whatever came into her mind, and she talked on and on even when her betrothed fell asleep to her soft murmur.

When the young man awoke the next morning, Ilse was no longer there, but a bright brook ran in the vale, murmurnig merrily over the mossy stones. It was called after the gossipy princess. If ones takes the history of names into account, that legend may be older than the one which connects Ilse's name with the rock formation. Her betrothed became a hermit and built a chapel in the vale.

Cool shades in the valley

I found neither the magic root nor fair Ilse's hidden cave, but a lot of nice motive for photos. Which may have been safer, after all. I'd rather not have spent a few hours in Ilse's magic mountain only to reappear years later. Try to explain that to people nowadays.

My father said he'd seen a witch - the Harz is witch country, after all - but I love him nevertheless. *grin*

The way to the Ilstestein

The most famous of those enchanted visitors to Ilse's cave was the emperor Heinrich IV who - according to the legends - came to her realm on his flight from the Harzburg which was besieged by the rebel Saxon nobles. He stayed there for three years. Well, it would have been a good hiding place, and Ilse in this version is something of a Wagnerian Venus, but in reality, Heinrich continued south to Eschwege where he gathered his forces to bring down the rebels and retake his Saxon castles.

And more boulders to climb over

We had a break halfway up the promontory. The peak of the cliff rises about 150 metres above the valley - Ilse's hall got a really high vault - and the way up the mountain is a fine example of a more difficult Harz path, crossed by tree roots and littered with mossy stones and boulders. The handholds you can see in some places are necessary because a misstep would send you down a 150 metres shortcut to the valley.

The cross on the cliff

But that terrain didn't prevent the emperor Otto III from building a castle on top of the promontory. The Ottonian and Salian emperors (you can sort them out in this list) had their ancestral homelands in and around the Harz, and loved the hunt in its verdant forests rich in game. They originally had a castle in the valley, dating to the late 10th century. Otto III gave it to Bishop Arnulf of Halberstadt in 998, who established a Benedictine monastery there (the monastery was consecrated in 1007). But Otto wanted to continue his hunts in the area and therefore built a small castle on the Ilsestein. Since the castle overlooked the valley all the way to the present town of Ilsenburg, it also served to protect the monastery and was the seat of the monastery's reeve.

The way down wasn't any better

The castle remained forgotten for centuries until some ruins were found during excavations in 1957. Nothing but a few half-buried foundations are left today; most of those still visible can be found on the cliff proper where we didn't go because the way is even more difficult than the one to the main plateau. You can see the cliff with the cross on the peak on the photo above. The castle was about 10x50 metres in ground plan; not a large one compared to other Ottonian sites, but offering a pretty view.

If there is a connection between Heinrich IV and the Ilsestein, it is the possibility that he may have stayed briefly at the castle during his flight; it seems the unnamed lord who held it was loyal to him.

Ilsenburg Monastery

Not much is known about the history of the castle, but there was some tension between the monastery and the lord who held the castle during the time of Heinrich IV, which implies that said lord was no longer also reeve of the monastery as in Ottonian times. A burnt layer in the few excavated remains proves that violent action took place in the castle some time around 1080 - the time of Heinrich's wars with the Saxon nobles. It would fit the historical context: Heinrich not only had problems with rebellious barons and lords, but also with the pope, a fact that brought most ecclesiastic dignitaries to the side of his opponents. The lord of the castle sided with Heinrich who ignored all complaints about harrassments of the castle garrison against the monastery.

View of the forests around the Ilsestein

The castle was rebuilt after the damage of 1080, but it would not last much longer. The 'castrum Ilsinestein' is last mentioned in 1105, when it was destroyed by the bishop of Magdeburg and the landgrave Ludwig the Leaper of Thuringia during the power vacuum after Heinrich IV was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, another Heinrich. Landgrave Ludwig's involvement implies that the castle garrison was rather unpopular in the entire area, and not only with the monastery.

The Paternoster Cliff near Ilse's Rock

We decided to continue the way on the plateau to the right of the Ilsestein for another mile through that lovely forest, to visit another rock formation, the Paternoster Cliff. That one, too, offers some splendid views over the Ilse Valley and the surrounding mountains, and of course, there is a legend connected with it as well.

The Romanesque abbey in Drübeck which we visited on the same tour

It is a rather sad one. A bunch of evil, non specified robber barons had attacked the nearby abbey in Drübeck. Some of the nuns managed to escape and fled to the Ilsestein where a monk lived - probably in the ruins of the castle, good hermit style. The group continued their flight together, but the robber barons came ever closer. In the end, they saw only one way out: the nuns and the monk knelt down at a cliff and said a last prayer, then they jumped into the valley and to their death, to escape the evil lusts of the robbers. Since Medieaval nuns and monks prayed in Latin, the cliff was called for the first words of the Lord's Prayer, 'Pater noster qui es in coelis ...'.

View from the Paternoster Cliff

The Paternoster Cliff is another granite formation. The bedrock parts are connected by a criss-cross system of joints, and that is the point where erosion strikes first. A layer of decayed rock, different in chemical components from the bedrock, develops. That layer is called saprolite and eventually peels off the bedrock like the peel of an onion. Over time, this process gives the bedrock that typical look of a bunch of cushions, or wool sacks. The process is therefore called woolsack weathering or spheroidal weathering. A fine example is shown in the photo below, also taken on the Ilsestein plateau.

A granite boulder with spheroidal weathering

The German emperors of Mediaeval times had long since gone, their hunting horns no longer sounding in the valleys of the Harz, but the legends remained, and in the 18th century, a new interest in those old tales passed on by charcoal makers and miners developed, together with an interest in picturesque and beautiful nature.

The man to start the Harz tourism was the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). He visited the Harz several times, the first time in winter 1777, and then again in 1783 and 1784. Goethe was not only a poet and chief representant of the Weimar Classicism, but also a natural philosopher and statesman. He visited the Harz in those functions, as mineralogist and as minister for mining at the court of Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar (the Harz being rich in ore). But was deeply impressed by the splendid nature of the Harz mountains; they found their way into some of his poems (Harzreise im Winter) and the famous Walpurgis-Night scenes in his tragic play Faust.

Another view from the cliff

Hiking in the Harz became a fashion. The cross on the summit of the Ilsestein mentioned above was erected by Count Anton of Stolberg-Wernigerode in 1814, to commemorate his friends who died during the German Campaign of 1813 (the so-called Befreiungskriege or Freedom Wars) against Napoleon. He would scarcely have put it there if there had been no tourists around to see it.

The Ilse river near the town of Ilseburg

Another German poet and essayist who visited the Harz was Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Several of his works were banned by the German authorities due to their liberal political content, though his description of his Harz visit (Die Harzreise, published 1824) was only mildly censored despite some satirical undertones. His Jewish descent also caused him problems which didn't improve even after he accepted baptism. Heine finally went to live in France in 1831.

Heine must have been pretty impressed by the Ilse Valley and the legends about the princess Ilse. He writes in some detail about the lovely Ilse, arrayed in her white gown and sparkling diamonds, dancing over the stones as merry brook; adds a poem about her and Emperor Heinrich IV, and finally describes how he himself climbed up to the cross on the summit, where he seemed to hear faint music from Ilse's cave, and the trees began to dance around him. Heine grasped the cross until the vertigo passed and he could safely descend. I think I'll be excused that I didn't follow him out there, but remained on the main plateau.
Fein, mal wieder etwas aus dem Harz zu sehen und zu lesen. Eine Zeitlang waren wir dort oft wandernd unterwegs. Auch in Ilsenburg haben wir einmal unseren Urlaub verbracht. Schöne Gegend rundum :-) und wieder einmal ein toller Beitrag.
Liebe Grüße von der Silberdistel
Vielen Dank, liebe Silberdistel. In den Harz zieht es uns auch immer mal wieder. Ich habe von unseren Reisen eine ganze Menge Fotos, die es noch nicht auf den Blog geschafft haben; es wird also weitere Harz-Posts geben.
I love it when folks come together and share views.

Great site, keep it up!
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The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and central / eastern Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, geologically themed hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, all illustrated with my own photos.

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Location: Goettingen, Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Highland Mountains - Inverness to John o'Groats
Some Photos from the East Coast

Scottish Sea Shores
Crossing to Mull
Mull - Craignure to Fionnphort
Pentland Firth
Castles Seen from Afar (Dunollie and Kilchurn)
Summer Days in Oban
Summer Nights in Oban

Wild Wales - With Castles
Views of Snowdownia
Views from Castle Battlements

Sea Gulls

Land of Light and Darkness - Scandinavia


The Hurtigruten-Tour
A Voyage into Winter
Along the Coast of Norway - Light and Darkness
Along the Coast of Norway - North of the Polar Circle

Norway by Train
From Oslo to Bergen
From Trondheim to Oslo

Bearded Seals
Dog Sledding With Huskies
Eagles and Gulls in the Trollfjord

Shores of History - The Baltic Sea

Baltic Sea Cruise


Nida and the Curonian Spit
Beaches at the Curonian Spit

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