Exploring Rhine Castles

Story and photo by Wendy McCool Lewis
Contributing writer

As the morning haze lifts from the hills, legends and history awaken along a 90 km stretch in Wiesbaden’s backyard, nicknamed the Romantic Rhine. Between Ruedesheim and Koblenz, 21 castles pepper the hillsides giving guests something new to explore each time they return.

***image1***All of these castles share a common history, but discovering their individual stories and legends is best enjoyed by visiting their interiors. Eight castles in this Rhine Gorge area are open to the public with some holding regular tours throughout the day and others allowing guests to browse at their own pace.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, the competing Archbishoprics of Trier and Mainz, as well as the Counts of the Palatinate, built most of the castles in this region originally as fortresses to excise tolls on cargo ships passing down the Rhine River. These “tolls” quickly developed into robbing of the ships’ cargos.

As conflicts ensued through the centuries, all but one of these fortified structures were destroyed and rebuilt three or sometimes four times. As they were reconstructed, many were redesigned to become homes or castles for the local ruling nobility.

The lone fortification to survive these destructive periods is the Marksburg. This strategically positioned structure was impossible to seize from the river to its front and from the valley behind. It once acted as a state prison, and today is known for the museum of torture and weapons that reside in its cellar. Guided tours begin every 15 to 20 minutes.

Individuals or groups can visit the open castles along the Rhine. Places with guided tours usually speak in German, but English handouts are available.  
Another interesting castle to visit is the Pfalzgrafenstein, or the Pfalz. It sits in the middle of the river next to the town of Kaub and Burg Gutenfels.  The Pfalz’s exterior resembles a ship and photographs are best taken up the river (direction south) looking down at the castle.  A boat departing every half hour from Kaub carries passengers to the Pfalz where they can explore the interior’s open air garden.

A boat cruise is the best way to relax, enjoy and photograph the majority of the castles.  These cruises are not only reserved for groups, but they are also open to individuals.  The boat can often times be exited to explore an area and re-boarded later. Roessler, one Rhine River cruise company, runs a couple of tours a day between the towns of Assmannshausen and St. Goar.
Klaus Roessler, the ship’s captain, recommends his favorite castle, Rheinstein. “I like the mummies,” he said while referring to the three Prussian corpses held in the castle’s crypt. His ship stops at the dock just below Rheinstein to give guests easy access.

Another cruise company, KD agency, departs from Ruedesheim and makes numerous stops down to St. Goar. This company recommends Rheinfels castle above St. Goar. Rheinfels is the largest ruin along the Rhein and guests can easily spend one or more hours browsing its grounds.

Katrina Parks, a military spouse from Langley AFB visiting Germany in June, recently took a cruise along the Rhine. “What’s amazing is that you take a picture, turn around and then it has a completely different view,” she said.

Castles along the Rhine that are open to the public:

Rheinstein:  Self guided tour with highlight being the Prussian crypt.
Reichenstein:  Self guided tour with English handout.
Sooneck:  Guided tours in German with an English handout.  Old furniture and weapons adorn the castle.
The Pfalzgrafenstein:  Self guided tour with English handout.  A boat from Kaub departs every half hour ferrying guests to the castle.
Rheinfels:  Self guided tour.  The largest castle along the Rhein, but in ruins.  Touring can take 1 ½ hours.
Marksburg:  Guided German tours every 15 – 20 minutes with English handout.  The weapons and torture museum are highlighted, and the tour lasts 50 minutes.
Lahneck:  Guided German tour begins every hour.
Stolzenfels:  German tour with English handout.  The Prussian king lived here briefly with his wife, and their chambers are viewed in the tour.