Between Mainz and Cologne is a stretch of the Middle Rhine River known as the Romantic Rhine (although it must not have seemed very romantic to travelers on the river during one particular period of history). The river narrows as it runs between mountains on either bank, providing certain medieval lords whose lands abutted the river with a golden opportunity: they built fortresses on strategic overlooks and forced travelers sailing up or down the Rhine to pay tolls. If a traveler refused to pay, the consequences could be dire, including confinement in the castle’s dungeon or even death. Paying the toll to one of these robber barons (hence the origin of that name) did not exempt the poor traveler from being hauled ashore at the next castle along the river and being forced to pay up again.
There were approximately 40 of these fortress toll booths along the Romantic Rhine, but the 38 miles between Rüdesheim and Koblenz were particularly perilous for the river traveler. Twenty-four castles, situated on both sides of the river, loom over this short stretch of water, commanding views both upstream and downstream. And if that weren’t bad enough, right in the middle of this obstacle course is the Lorelei, a rock on the eastern bank of the river that rises 40 feet above the water and marks the narrowest part of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea. Legend has it that the Lorelei was a beautiful enchantress who sat on the top of the rock, combing her golden hair and singing so enthrallingly that sailors would forget to watch for the rapids and the jagged rocks and would founder and drown.
A statue of this legendary creature sits rather incongruously between the river and the modern highway along its bank, with flags on top of the rock to mark the place where she actually wove her spell. The legend was immortalized in the early 19th century by the poet Heinrich Heine, around the time that the Rhine acquired its reputation as a river of romantic charm. Every student of German has had seared into his or her memory, like it or not, the opening lines of that poem: “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten/ Das ich so traurig bin . . .” Mark Twain even translated it, for pete’s sake. (For you non-German students, it’s more or less, “I don’t know what it can mean, that I’m so sad.”)
The castles were built during the Middle Ages, when the feudal system was at its height. The serfs were tied to the land of their noble lord, who in turn owed fealty to a higher noble, and much of the labor used to construct these large stone structures on seemingly inaccessible hillsides was performed by serfs. However, life was anything but luxurious therein. The castles were not palaces, but fortresses built to withstand attack, and were cold, damp, and dark. The beautiful tapestries you see in museums or in the great houses of Europe never hung on the walls of these very uncomfortable places. The sons of the Rhine nobles were generally trained as knights, and the daughters were allied in marriage with other noble families, all as part of the code of honor and war and the acquisition of power that prevailed during that period.
The most interesting – and unusual – castle is actually in the Rhine, on the tiny island of Falkenau. Pfaltzgrafenstein Castle may be only one of the toll castles along the Rhine, but its romantic history makes it unique. Eight hundred years ago, only a single tower stood on the island, which belonged to Konrad, Count Palatine. Having no sons, he sought a high-born husband for his daughter, Agnes, whose children would inherit his title and lands. But Agnes had other ideas: she was in love with Henry, the son of a duke who was a sworn enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, Friedrich Barbarossa. Since Konrad was allied with the Emperor, the match was out of the question. To make matters worse, Konrad’s wife supported her stepdaughter’s choice of husband. Unable to win the argument, Konrad locked his wife and daughter in the tower on the island to keep them out of Henry’s reach. Unfortunately, Konrad forgot about boats.
Young Henry hired a ferryman to take him – and a complicit priest – out to the island, where he and Agnes were married. Nine months later, Konrad’s wife sent a message asking her husband to come to the island. Assuming that this meant the women had finally come to their senses, he arrived at the tower to find that he had acquired not only a son-in-law, but a grandchild as well. Fortunately, the Emperor forgave everyone and even insisted on being the child’s godfather. So one of the Rhine castle stories had a happy ending.
Besides castles and their attendant villages, this part of the Rhine is home to some of Germany’s best and best-known vineyards. Indeed, most of Germany’s vineyards are located in the Rhine valley. The primary grape grown here is the Riesling, but Rhine wines are typically richer and fuller than Mosel wines from the same grape.
To see the rows of grapevines clinging to the steep hillsides in perfect regimentation, blanketing the landscape all the way to the mountains on the horizon, is awe inspiring.
The names of the castles are like German songs – Mauseturm, Ehrenfels, Rheinstein, Bromserburg, Reichenstein, Sooneck, Heimburg, Furstenburg, Stahleck, Gutenfels, Schonburg, Rheinfels, Katz, Maus (love those two!), Liebenstein, Sterrenberg, Marksburg, Martinsburg, Lahneck, Stoltzenfels, and Fortress Ehrenbreitstein.
Most of them are in ruins, destroyed by the French during the Thirty Years War, although a few are in use today as hotels or homes or government buildings in villages. But their majestic remnants speak eloquently of a period in history when robber barons ruled the Rhine and, at least once, love (and a sympathetic stepmother) conquered all.
To visit more castles on the Rhine, click here.