People often ask me which of our trips made the most lasting impression on me. Fleeting memories cross my mind: the color of Costa Rica, the unbelievable engineering of Machu Pichu, the arrogant-get-out-of-my-way-penguins of the Antarctic, the glaciers of Scandinavia. Yet my thoughts inevitably return to our 2007 cruise on the Rhine River.
The Rhine is an international waterway that runs through six countries and forms an international border in several places. Along its hillsides are more medieval castles than in any river valley in the world. The castles, the breathtaking landscape of terraced vineyards, and small towns create a setting that became synonymous with the Romantic Movement in the 1800s, which resulted in many, not all, being rebuilt or partially rebuilt and in use today. Others are ruins dating back a thousand years or more. Artists, musicians, writers, and poets throughout Europe immortalized the Rhine’s natural beauty in their artistic endeavors.
The “Middle Rhine” is one of four sections (High Rhine, Upper Rhine, Middle Rhine, and Lower Rhine) of the river. My particular interest is the upper section of the Middle Rhine (also known as the Rhine Gorge). It is approximately 40 miles long, between Koblenz and Rüdesheim, and is on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, so designated in 2002. The Gorge is a formation created by erosion with a depth of about 430 feet from the top of the rocks to the average waterline.
The area under my review has been a major tourist attraction for close to two centuries, but it also has a population of 450,000 people. The valley owes its special appearance to both its natural shape and its human alterations. We also visited some large cities in the broad area including beautiful cathedrals and the magic of Christmas markets, but castles clinging to the high hillsides are the basis of this series of Natters of a Nomad.
During several cruises, we saw many castle ruins throughout both Eastern and Western Europe; however, those along the Rhine River have a mystical aura all their own. Every turn of the river brings a new vista, whether it be natural configurations, vineyards apparently crawling up hillsides (or sliding down), or towns.
I’m a history buff. Perhaps the mixture of nature and history is why the Rhine Gorge fascinates me and, for this purpose, the many medieval castle ruins, which enabled feudal lords to protect their lands and control trade routes along the rivers. The illegal activities of these lords with their tax collection methods later resulted in the name ‘robber barons’. The ruins give silent witness to the region’s violent history. Medieval marauders, not the ravages of time, caused much of the damage.
Most castles in the Middle Rhine Valley originated between the 12th and the early 14th centuries. Those built in earlier centuries were of wood and none has survived. From a distance, those standing in ruins, even partial ruins, today appear carved from a single huge rock. Visits to them indicate otherwise.
Over the next few months, with the help of my scrapbook and internet research for corroboration (or not – we know the internet contains conflicting “facts” on every subject imaginable), I will share my memories of the onboard historian’s anecdotes as we cruised slowly by several castles. I often got a crick in my neck from gazing upward and imagining myself a fly on the wall while I watched history unfold. The discomfort faded into insignificance as I learned of robber barons, feuding families, medieval legends, and so much more.
I will begin with the renovated Old Castle in Koblenz that is in partial use, and will end with the Ehrenfels Castle in Rüdesheim, a complete ruin. I will include interesting anecdotes of a few castle ruins and two rock statues of interest on the Rhine. I will end this series with European Christmas markets.
So, come join me on the Viking Sun. We begin our journey at Koblenz where the Moselle River flows into the Rhine.