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Affordable castles up for sale
Updated: 2004-09-07 09:18

Want to buy a castle? Head for the former East Germany.

The financial woes of the region mean that people of relatively modest means can aspire to become castle-owners, with many edifices now costing little more than the land they stand on.

In the village of Ribbeck, 30 kilometers from Berlin, one castle has been put on the market for just 104,000 euros (US$126,500). Dozens of other chateaux are on offer for similar prices.

Ribbeck (population 400) is known throughout most of Germany thanks to the poet Theodor Fontane, whose 1889 story about the kindly Squire von Ribbeck who gives pears to children is taught in schools.

The pear tree still stands there, though it was moved closer to the church recently. Von Ribbecks are still around too. The family fled to the West after World War II, but the descendants of the last chateau owner — who died in 1945 — returned six years ago, said great-grandson Janko.

The castle became a retirement home in 1959 and retained that role until recently. Despite its enormous potential, it is hardly the stuff of dreams.

The facade is falling off in chunks and the north side is marred by a bare concrete block, hastily thrown up in the 1970s with no thought for aesthetics, so that a lift could be installed.

Inside, electric cables run along ceilings marked by water stains. The few notes of color include a large fresco, inspired by Fontane's poem, on the wall above the main stairwell.

The pensioners moved out this summer and the group of villages that owns the castle wants to sell.

"We have so little financial room to maneuver that it's just not possible" to keep it, said Silvia Hein, who manages the properties for the villages. "We inherited it by accident and we don't have any use for it."

This is not an isolated case. The collapse of Nazi Germany left much of former Prussia and Saxony, with their hundreds of castles, in former East Germany.

Political reforms turned them into schools, clinics and administrative centers, but with high unemployment and a virtually stagnant economy, the villages and towns that inherited them have no funds for maintenance.

On her Internet site, Helga von Horn lists no fewer than 25 castles for sale in former East Germany.

A U.S. national, Horn bought one such building near the city of Leipzig and her company Poshjourney now acts as an intermediary for other Americans looking to do the same.

She said she "came across these castles quite by accident. In 1999, we went to Germany to try and find a castle and a manor house which once was in the family of my great uncle. All that was left were a few ruins."

But during her search Horn met another owner. "He told us all about these castles that stood empty and run down, and whose owners had not been found or had not wanted the castles back because of the cost of renovation."

Ribbeck has seen a few of her compatriots interested in doing business, but most of the 45 potential buyers have been Germans. "There are people down in Bavaria who want to buy the castle because of Fontane and his pear tree."

Offers can be made until September 30, but the villages want a buyer with big plans, possibly with a view to creating jobs or allowing the building to be opened to the public. Modest subsidies are available.

Janko von Ribbeck, however, has given up all hope of having the castle back in the family. "It would be wonderful. But you need money," he said.

Costs include heating, renovation of bathrooms, repair of windows... the list goes on and the bill goes up to around the 3.5-million euro mark.

So Janko has settled for a smaller building on the property: the distillery, which he hopes to renovate in order to produce liqueurs and vinegar ... made from pears, of course.

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