Or is it Castles in the Air? After that homebound year of 2020, I’m wishing for a trip to somewhere scenic and abroad. But even though my husband and I are both vaccinated, traveling is still a problematic proposition. So today I’m revisiting a Viking River Cruise we did in 2014. We’ve taken three, but this, our first, is still my favorite. You’ll see why. And yes, there’s a bit of a mystery. Why are there so many castles along the Rhine?
After leaving Amsterdam, our ship took us up the Rhine toward Basel, Switzerland. After the ship left Cologne/Köln, we sailed the Middle Rhine, the location of castle after castle on the heights above small villages and vineyards. Our first stop then was an eye opener. Marksburg Castle is the only Medieval castle on the Rhine to have survived intact.
The oldest section, the inner keep, dates from about 1200. The great hall and the kitchen contain some of the original furnishings.
The entry for knights on horseback featured rough cobblestones and a low overhead passage to make sure their arrival wasn’t for attack.
Knights’ entranceAfterward, we cruised on upriver. Seen from a cruise ship’s deck, the Middle Rhine seems like a journey through history. In rapid succession, we gawped at a pageant of vineyards, walled towns, and hills topped with castles. The ship’s program director announced their names, along with tidbits of history. Even though I still have the map and my photos, I cannot say for sure which castle is which.
Ones I remember were the Sterrenberg and Liebenstein castles, owned by brothers who hated each other, so the pair were called the Hostile Brothers. Thurnburg, or Burg Maus (Mouse Castle), gets its nickname for its diminutive size compared to Neu-Katzenelnbogen, or Burg Katz (Cat Castle).
I can’t guarantee my photos match any of those names. Most of the many castles we saw were ruins, some only a tower and others a few walls. Centuries of European wars and wars between rival nobles burned the wood and tumbled the stone. My binoculars picked out potted geraniums and patio umbrellas on a few, where enterprising contemporary owners had turned semi-ruins into B&Bs or restaurants.The Lorelei is not a castle, but a fabled cliff which towers over a bend in the river, narrow at this point to 350 feet. Tricky currents and rocks spelled disaster to many ships and inspired German poets to invent the “Legend of the Lorelei,” which told of a beautiful girl whose seductive song lured mariners to their doom. A statue of her commemorates the legend.
So why all these castles, which by my count number at least 20 in about 40 miles? Kings had their royal palaces, but many other nobles built castles and fortresses along the Rhine in order to defend their lands and enrich themselves. Along this narrow stretch of river, with steep hillsides blocking the wind, ships often couldn’t sail without help from land—animals pulling them along on tow paths. Knights and barons could fire cannons down on ships and demand taxes or cargo for safe passage. The origin of the term “robber baron.”
As I said, this was my favorite cruise. I’d do it again in a flash. But for now, I’m enjoying sharing the photos and memories with you.