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Ruined castles of the RHINE

One bright day many years ago, a young German prince cruised down the fabled Rhine River gorge, stopping occasionally at one of the ruined castles perched on the steep banks. "Out of the yacht then," he wrote in his diary, "raced like mad through the castle, then back onto the yacht . . . and on past all those thousand divine castles and cliffs and currents; I was weary with bliss." And with climbing, no doubt.

The year was 1815 and the prince was the future King Frederick William the IV of Prussia. It would be more than 40 years before Wagner's opera, "The Rhinegold" appeared, but Frederick was already familiar with the mythic stories of Prince Siegfried, the Lorelei, and the gold of the Niebelung.

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Over a century and a half after Prince Frederick's cruise, millions of visitors come every year to the Rhine, lured by its beauty, history, legends, and, above all, by the castles that still line its shores. I went to Germany in the spring to visit some of those castles and to experience, if possible, some of the Rhine's mysterious blend of myth and reality.I began at Cologne with its glorious cathedral, the greatest city on the German Rhine. There I boarded a sleek white passenger vessel heading south on the gray, choppy river.

What with the heavy ship and shore traffic, a relatively flat landscape and large industrial towns along the banks, the stretch of the Rhine between Cologne and Bonn is not especially interesting. It is, however, a lot closer to the actual history of the river than the legends; the real "Rhinegold" was always the river trade, not the treasure of the Niebelung. Between conversations with a US Navy pilot ("People think flying is glamorous. To me it's just routine. I suppose it's the same for writers") and a young American couple happily vacationing from an assignment in Romania, I kept a lookout for castles.

Soon Bonn slid by, a long, low blend of some Baroque and much bureaucratic architecture, and then, delightfully, the landscape suddenly swooped up into high hills and the first of the castled summits came into view: the round tower of Bad Godesberg. Next came Siegfried's Drachenfels, Roland's Arch, and a dozen or more attractive ruins. When the ship docked at Koblenz, I disembarked. It was time to get a closer look at the castles.

If you are traveling southward, or upstream, as I was, Koblenz, a charming city at the confluence of the Moselle, is where the most impressive part of the Rhine begins. For the next 60 miles or so the great river narrows and churns through a spectacular gorge sloped with almost vertical vineyards and crowned with about 35 castles; far less than the "thousands" of Prince Frederick's diary , but still more than are to be found in any other river valley of similar length.

Why are there so many? From the fall of the Roman Empire to the 19th century there were practically no good roads in Europe; the rivers were the highways and the Rhine was a superhighway. Here, traffic could be spotted for miles from the great heights and could easily be stopped and taxed. For almost a millennium the Rhine gorge was where German emperors, kings, nobles, and bishops quarreled, litigated, and fought over the right to collect tolls from the hapless merchants who toiled up and down the river. The great game finally ended in the late 19th century when a unified Germany abolished the river toll system.Today the Rhine traffic is still taxed, but less obviously and more efficiently.

At Koblenz I changed from cruise ship to Volkswagen Rabbit in the shadow of the huge fortress of Ehrenbreitstein and headed south along the highways that border the river on each side. Many of the castles that line this historic route have been restored and function today as museums, youth hostels, rest homes, hotels, and even as private residences.

No figure was more prominent in bringing about the restoration of the castles than our young prince, Frederick William. At Stolzenfels, at Rheinstein, and at Sooneck, he and his brothers re-created ruined "toll booths" into Victorian images of romantic medieval castles. But the Prussian princes were not alone in their efforts; other wealthy romantics, including at least two Americans, restored ruins, too. Thanks to the efforts of these practical visionaries, the stretch of the Rhine between Koblenz and Bingen has at least 15 fully or partly restored castles, in addition to an almost equal number of sites that remain in ruins.

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As I headed south I hoped to see both the "medieval" recreations of the Victorians and the more elusive original creations of the builders of the Middle Ages. Appropriately, the first castle I stopped at was the only one that was never destroyed at some point in the last thousand years, the superb Marksburg.

At the village of Braubach on the right, or east, bank of the Rhine I turned off the riverside highway and began a winding ascent that would become a familiar routine in the next few days as my VW climbed the steep roads to other castles. In this case the approach led past a huge and ugly quarry defacing a hill just to the east of the Marksburg, a reminder that the business of the Rhineland is still mainly business. Hundreds of feet beneath me, the valleys and hills for miles around were gradually revealed in minuscule detail, all greens, browns, yellows, and grays under a wide sky.

Few people were visiting the Marksburg that day, so I had a guide to myself. Flourishing one enormous key that seemed to open every door, he led me volubly through the mazelike castle, up and down stone staircases, across stone ramparts , through stone rooms. In the castles the presence of stone -- hard, cold, seemingly impregnable stone -- is pervasive. Yet the invention of the exploding metal cannonball spelled the effective end of these places; they could hold their own against catapulted stones and battering rams, but not gunpowder. By Prince Frederick's time, most of the Rhine castles had been blown up, usually by invading French armies.

My next stop was Stolzenfels, just south of Koblenz. At Stolzenfels on Sept. 14, 1842, Frederick William, then King of Prussia, celebrated the restoration of the old castle. Twenty- seven years before he had gazed enraptured at the ruins on the hill overlooking the Rhine. Now, dressed in Victorian versions of medieval costumes, he and his queen and courtiers entered Stolzenfels in a torchlight procession. The castle had been turned into a 19th-century version of a medieval royal dwelling: bright ochre paint with black trim, crenelations and Gothic windows, vaulted ceilings and paneled walls, all rising airily and relatively unfortified above the great river. In other words, an edifice whose delicacy and luxury would have amazed the tough tax collectors who had raised the original Stolzenfels some eight centuries earlier. I liked it and studied with interest the portrait of King Frederick William that hangs there. It's an elegantly uniformed, corpulent figure with a curiously soft, yet determined face , an Iron Cross around his collar. Once he had been weary with bliss; now the eyes were wary. The romantic king had become the figurehead behind which Frederick Bismarck unified greater Germany for prosperity and for war. I wished him and his favorite restoration farewell and headed south along the west bank, past "all those thousand castles," to the town of Oberwesel. There I would spend a night in the castle-hotel "Auf Schonburg" at Oberwesel-Rhine.

One of the delightful things about Oberwesel and most of the other towns along the Rhine gorge is that they are still very small, still pretty much the size they were in the Middle Ages, simply because there is no place to expand; the steep Rhine cliffs, covered with foliage and those precipitous vineyards, plunge directly into their backyards.

I arrived in Oberwesel at 6 in the evening, when the shops were simultaneously closing. As if they were all connected to a central timing device, the butcher, the baker, the grocer, the hairdresser, and other tradespeople on the main street suddenly locked their doors on the hour.

My car rumbled across a narrow wooden bridge at the top of the hill and the castle suddenly rose before me, brown- stoned and slate-roofed. I parked on a narrow strip of ground between a towering wall and a precipitous cliff; far below to the west, vineyards and townships lay silent in the evening dimness. After walking through a high gate and two flagstoned courtyards, I reached the inconspicuous entrance of the hotel. There is no lobby within, just a door to the dining room on the right and a flight of stairs to the rooms above. I soon found a member of the friendly Huttl family, which manages the hotel, and within minutes I was in a luxuriously cozy room in one of the castle's towers.There I slipped into a hot bath before dinner and a sound sleep in the canopied bed.

The next day the morning silence was shattered by the roar of jet fighters buzzing the Rhine Valley. After a good breakfast I was on up and down the river once more, along the huge headland of the Lorelei, past the gigantic hilltop fortress of Rheinfels and the tiny island fort of Pfalz, the old robber-baron castles of Rheinstein and Rheichstein, the little Mausturm toll tower, to Bingen where the romantic Rhine of the castles ends.

It was all fascinating and impressive, and yet, as I neared the end of the trip, I felt that something -- I didn't quite know what -- had eluded me, an experience, perhaps, of history and legend come truly alive in the midst of the restored castles and tamed landscapes. And then, almost as a gift from the past , it happened, unexpectedly and brilliantly.

On my last day on the Rhine I got lost. Approaching Sooneck Castle, I took a wrong turn and inadvertently drove deep into the surrounding forest. The narrow , unpaved road rose higher and higher and the woods lining it grew thicker and thicker. What I didn't know then, as I fretted about losing my way and worried about my low gas tank, was that I had entered a huge and ancient preserve; men have been hunting and warring in the Sooneck for 10,000 years. The tall trees there look much the same as they did in the time of the Romans, of Siegfried and Roland, bright green leaves restlessly filtering daylight as it falls past lofty , dark trunks onto the fern-covered floor of the forest.

At last, after what seemed like miles, I had to admit that the road was leading nowhere; the trusty VW had to be turned around and driven back down through the lonely woods. I had just made the turn and was driving slowly over the rutted surface when, abruptly and close, a wild boar lunged across my path with amazing deftness. He was huge, black, tusked, and swift. The sight was electrifying, a sudden glimpse of the ancient, fabled Rhine.

The "Wildschwein" was quickly lost in the underbrush, but my memory of it has remained intact through the traffic of the Autobahn and the thunder of the plane home from Frankfurt. Go to the Rhine. It will certainly please you and it may surprise you.

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