Did you know that Germany at one stage consisted of nearly 300 states large and small in the middle ages (5th-15th centuries)? These range from “free” cities to Dukedoms of considerable size. There were also numerous principalities ruled by religious leaders, the so called ecclesiastical bishop princes. Yeah, men of religion right?
The end of the “western” Roman empire (476 AD) heralded in a period called the ‘dark ages’ in which it is alleged that law and order broke down. It did not help that the tendency of the “barbarian” kingdoms that emerged in the aftermath of Rome’s fall was to divide dominions for each son. Hence any form of centralized statehood started to disappear by the 10th century.
The middle ages was thus known for its instability, with a lack of adequate protection of the common person. As we said the dominions of each King was divided between the sons. Did you think these sons would simply accept their lot? Of course conflicts arose leading to a breakdown of peaceful co-existence. This in turn led to the rise of feudalism in which “commoners” came to the servitude of “lords”, in return for a protected existence. It is interesting to note that not all voluntarily submitted, but were forced by circumstances of indebtedness.
For protection, the “lords” which eventually emerge as the nobility class, constructed fortresses and strong buildings. Springing up there were castles all over Germany and indeed across the continent. And along the Rhine is one of the most concentrated number of castles fortresses built. But have you wondered,
Why were so many castles built here?
In those days, roads built in the Roman era was not maintained and they fell into disrepair over the centuries. Rivers thus gained in status as important arteries of transportation networks facilitating the movement of people and merchandise. And where such commerce and movement occurs, there are opportunities… Princes thus fought each other to ensure dominance over strategic parts of major rivers such as the Rhine to tax and/or trade the commerce and people that were “flowing” through.
The Rhine in particular was both long (~1230km) and meandering, making its way from the north sea estuaries of the Netherlands to Lake Constance in land-locked Switzerland. You can imagine how important this was to commerce given that the overland trade routes often meant traversing through bandit infested lands on poorly maintained roads if they can be called as such.
Due to the fragmentation of the state as we elaborated earlier, different sections of this mighty river fell into the control of certain families. Their aim was to profit from the traffic that flowed through and from which it augmented their ability to built ever more stronger and sophisticated constructions along the river and finance their wars to increase dominion beyond.
Today however there are no princely tax bandits and the Rhine forms the border between Germany and Switzerland and also between France and Germany. The best way to experience castles is to actually stay in one. And all over the Rhine you can find castle rooms on offer as accommodation for one of the thing to do while here is to,
Experience staying in a castle
We booked a night at the “Schloss Gutenfels” (Schloss means stately building in German) with a great view of the Rhine. Restored by a German Architect to its original state, a night at the castle is a great way to experience what it is like to live as a Knight or lord presiding over his realm.
The only thing of note is that you might consider is the drive (or walk) uphill to the castles – after all they were built to oversee the area controlled by the prince who constructed the castle. It was a very steep uphill drive we had to make to get to our ‘hotel’ through a dirt track. And remember, same way up, same way down.
When one is here, do take time to wonder the castle where possible. See the large hall? Yeah that’s the knights’ hall where one can imagine the din of armor and men as they dined. And from the room we stayed?
Well, if one imagine how Rapunzal was holed up then this was it. And bear in mind that since it was made of stone, the floor was icy cold even in spring! And that is just as well, since heating such a large piece of real estate without modern double glazed windows could be expensive. Fortunately the bath had hot water which helped so much before we slipped into thick sleep wear. What an experience sleeping a night like a pair of nobles. It was not all it glamorous as an afterthought… sigh.
Yet another way to savor the sights of the Rhine is from the comfort of a river boat if you’d like to
Cruise it instead if you like!
Throughout the year, one can join the many cruise tours that start at various points along this long river. These cruises have many landing points where excursions can be made to the hinterland attractions – and of course they have to be visits to the castles. For example, we took a cruise tour from Cologne to Rotterdam. This was a 3-day cruise came with stops at Dusseldorf and in time for Christmas market… The advantage was clearly the lack of changing hotels each night and fully catered meals.
During the cruise, there are many interesting points along the river journey. Such as the following. Imagine two castles facing off each other! One is the Katz (Cat) and the other the Maus (mouse) castles. While we shall not dive deep into the history, this was one obvious situation of two opposing political forces each constructing a castle to secure their territory. You see, both were constructed at a bend in the river (St Goarshausen) by opposing Princes (one was an arch-bishop of the city of Trier and the other was a Count).
They both wanted to ensure they were in a position to collect toll from all that shipping that has to pass through the area. Can you envision what the merchants of those days had to manage with taxes and tolls? It seems that it is really true about death and taxes (tolls included). And now imagine why nations want to negotiate for free trade agreements today. Both castles are now privately owned and not opened to the public. However, all along the Rhine are castles that are opened for public viewing.
Today fortunately we are well past the period of robber princes and tyrannical rulers (replaced with governments) and for a small fee (hah!) one can access these vestiges of Europe’s feudal past. So who said it was only organized crime that ran “protection” rackets? All along the Rhine are towns that grew on the back of the trade that flowed through this great river and they are usually around a major castle (for “protection”).
Practical points to exploring the most of the Rhine castle
Our exploration of the river had been by car, which affords us the flexibility to reach many vantage points for that photographic opportunity. Indeed if you are planning to focus on castle spotting, driving is a preferred option as it affords you the flexibility of stopping as you wish. Cruises on the other hand may not offer such options and are generally too short both in total duration and stops.
To best savor the castles and the Rhine, it is recommended to stay no less than 4 days in order to take in the full flavor of the meandering river. No, it does not mean you need to stay in castles like we did every night. For the many towns you see on the map offer good accommodations too. Perhaps there are good AirBnB these days also.
A myriad of options are available on how one enjoys the castles of the Rhine and the best in our opinion would be combination would be a cruise tour followed by a castle stay. Perhaps one can dine like a prince in one of these castles!
These were a series of drives between 2003-2005