The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on the 65 km (40mi) stretch of river between Bingen and Koblenz, Germany, boasts more than 40 castles. If you, like me, are fascinated by these romantic fortresses, be sure to book one of the day river cruises because the best views are from the river. We, fortunately, cruised through the region on our Viking River Cruise of the Rhine River while we enjoyed an outstanding narration by our cruise director, Ria.
The morning of November 2 was quite chilly but luckily, the sky was cloudless. We’d brought plenty of warm clothing so we bundled up and claimed a spot on the upper deck where the cruise line provided chairs with blankets and hot drinks (alcohol included) to ensure our comfort. Many passengers preferred to stay inside where it was warm but I was intent on getting the best photos possible without window glare.
The Rhine has been a major waterway used to transport goods between southern and northern Europe since Roman times. As such, opportunities to make money abounded whether by transporting goods, robbing those who transported goods or protecting those who transported goods. As a result, numerous castles sprang up along the river. Some were home to robber knights who preyed on merchant ships and others provided protection for and exacted tolls from those using the waterway.
I purchased a booklet entitled, The Castles of the Rhine, from which I garnered some of the details below in addition to the information Ria shared. I tried to show how the castles looked from the river rather than close up with a telephoto lens and the photos below are in the order we saw the castles.
Originally called Vogtsberg, Rheinstein Castle was built in the early 1300’s but an earlier fortress likely preceded its presence on this site. Its purpose was to provide protection from robber knights attacking from nearby Reichenstein Castle. Today it is restored and open to the public.
Constructed in the early 11th century, Reichenstein Castle was home to generations of robber knights. Rudolf von Habsburg, who was elected king in 1273, besieged the castle in 1282, finally forcing its surrender through starvation. The castle was burned down and later rebuilt in spite of Rudolf’s orders to the contrary. Today, guests can explore this history and more with a visit to the castle and its museum and even book a stay at the hotel and dine at the onsite restaurant.
Nearby Sooneck Castle, constructed in the 11th century and named for Soon Forest, was also a robber knight castle which Rudolf besieged along with Reichenstein in 1282 and, although rebuilding was likewise forbidden, it was rebuilt in 1349. Today, it is also open to the public.
Some of the castles like Furstenberg are ruins but the surrounding vineyard is still under cultivation.
Stahleck Castle was built around 1100. In 1194, it was the location of the secret Stahleck Marriage of Agnes and Henry the Elder of Brunswick whose families were feuding. Legend has it when the couple produced a grandchild, the family reconciled. The castle was destroyed by the French in 1689 and restored in the early 20th century. Today it houses a youth hostel.
Built on the river specifically to collect shipping tolls in the early 14th century, Pfalzgrafenstein Castle has never been destroyed which is quite a distinction. The water level in the river was abnormally low when we visited but the castle normally appears to float on the water. The appearance led the French poet, Victor Hugo, to memorialize the castle when he described it as, “A ship of stone, eternally afloat upon the Rhine…” The castle is open for tours.
Gutenfels Castle was constructed beginning in 1200. I thought this castle was especially picturesque with the vineyard on the hillside and the town of Sankt Goar on the bank of the Rhine below. Today the castle is private property.
Documentation of Schonburg Castle goes back to the 12th century but its roots may go back as far as the Roman occupation in the 3rd century. According to the castle’s website, this was one of the few castles where all sons inherited rather than following the system of primogeniture. Consequently, in the 14th century 24 families and up to 250 people lived there at the same time but, interestingly, by 1719, the line of succession completely died out. Today, this castle also features a hotel and restaurant.
As we passed the Loreley, a 433 ft (132 m) high slate rock, our cruise director, Ria, explained this section of the Upper Middle Rhine is particularly treacherous because it’s deep, narrow, and curvy with strong currents which have resulted in numerous accidents and shipwrecks through the years.
The currents combined with an echo produced by the rock create a murmur which inspired a German folk-tale about a siren named Lorelei. When jilted by her lover, Lorelei threw herself into the Rhine and her spirit has since lured fishermen to destruction when they heard her singing as she sat above them on the rock combing her long blond locks. A poem about Lorelei by Heinrich Heine in 1824 has been set to music by over 25 composers. You can read a translation of the poem below.
By Heinrich Heine
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.
The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray.
The fairest of maidens is sitting
So marvelous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She’s combing her golden hair.
She combs with a comb also golden,
And sings a song as well
Whose melody binds a wondrous
And overpowering spell.
In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized with a savage woe,
He’d rather look up at the mountain
Than down at the rocks below.
I think that the waves will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song’s sheer power
Fair Lorelei has done.
Built by Count Wilhelm II around 1371, Napolean ordered Katz Castle blown up in 1806. It was restored in 1896 and today is privately owned and not open to visitors.
Once the largest castle on the Rhine, Rheinfels Castle was constructed in 1245. The French blew up the castle in 1797 and, although it has been a ruin ever since, it is open to the public with a hotel, restaurant, and museum on site.
Maus Castle (Mouse Castle), built in 1356, is located north of Katz Castle (Cat Castle).
We were fortunate to view Marksburg Castle from the river and then later tour the castle. This is how I know, without a doubt, the best views are from the river which you’ll understand when you read my next post. I’ll save details for later.
Stolzenfels Castle, built in 1248, was taken by the Swedish in 1632, occupied by the French in 1634-36, and burned by the French in 1688. The City of Koblenz gifted the ruin to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1823, who had it restored and used it as a summer residence. It’s open and offers tours to the public.
Honestly, by the time we arrived in Koblenz, our early enthusiasm was beginning to wane due to a surfeit of castles on the Rhine. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to recharge while we enjoyed another delicious lunch on the Viking Kara before our afternoon tour of Marksburg Castle. Join me next time on our tour.
Based on events from November 2017.
The Castles of the Rhine, Gunter Seifert, 2017.