The Rhine River has historically been one of Europe’s most important waterways both for trade and agriculture, as well as serving as a rough boundary between western and central Europe. For these reasons the Rhine has been one of the most heavily fortified frontiers in the world from ancient times right through the end of World War II. Most of the surviving castles are located within the Rhine Gorge where the river runs close to France. Over forty medieval castles are packed into this region nicknamed the Romantic Rhine. Among the most impressive are the Marksburg Castle in Spay, the twin Katz and Maus Castles in St. Goarshausen, and the enormous ruins of Rheinfels Castle in Goar, at one time the largest fortress in Europe.
The Rhine River has served a frontier since earliest recorded history, when it separated the Celtic tribes of Gaul from the German tribes of Central Europe. Later, when the Romans had conquered Gaul, the Rhine became Romano-Germanic frontier following the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. It was under the Romans that the Rhine River first became heavily developed with towns and fortresses, and a number of legions were garrisoned along the river throughout much of later Roman history. Eventually, the Germanic and Hun invasions of the Western Empire put an end to Rome’s presence along the river. Their fortresses abandoned and destroyed, the Rhine fell into the German sphere of influence.
This state of affairs continued until the 9th century. After the division of Charlemagne’s Empire, the Rhineland once again served as a border, this time between the Eastern and Western Franks. In general the Rhine was recognized as the natural frontier by both sides, but in practice it was usually held by the easterners, who historically sought to push the border westward. By 9th century, the inhabitants along the Rhine had begun a vigorous building program of castles with threefold purpose: first, to protect the Holy Roman Empire from the French; second, to discourage the Vikings from using the river to raid the European heartlands; and third, to control trade. While river trade was supposedly under the jurisdiction by the Emperor, in reality the local barons exacted heavy tolls in order to enrich themselves. The power of these robber barons lasted well into the 18th century.
The Golden Age of the Rhine Gorge Castles began in the 13th century with the construction of Rheinfels Castle. Throughout the Middle Ages Rheinfels was the greatest of the region’s fortifications, and over time it was expanded to immense proportions. At its height before the arrival of Napolean it is believed to have been the world’s largest castle, but was subsequently reduced. Marksburg Castle was constructed around the same time, although portions dated from an earlier period. The majority of the region’s castles were built in the 14th century, including the Cat and Mouse castles across the river from Rheinfels. Burg Katz was built by to support Rheinfels from across the river, while Burg Maus was built nearby to undermine it.
Following the Hundred Year’s War, the Rhine and its fortifications were constantly under threat from the French, who sought to make the river its permanent eastern border. Their efforts failed for the most part, even when gunpowder made the castles obsolete. In the 1800s the French under Napolean Bonapart finally succeeded in annexing the region. It was Napolean who dismantled the Holy Roman Empire, unified the West Germans into the Confederation of the Rhine, destroyed many of the area’s castles and put an end to the power of the region’s robber barons. After the French defeat in 1815, some of the castles were restored, and some left as romantic ruins. Most of these survived through World War II, and are now Germany’s second most popular concentration of castles after those in nearby Bavaria.
Burg Rheinfels was the first major Rhine Castle. Built by a local count from Katzenelnbogan, it completely dominated the region. It was Rheinfels that established the tradition of using the Rhine River for the enrichment of local lords. Before being decimated by French armies in the early 19th century, Rheinfels was the largest military fortification in European history. Even after Napolean dismantled most of it, Rheinfels remained immense. Large portions are still intact, including much of the keep. A considerable portion of what survives is now used as a museum. Rheinfels is open only during the summer, from mid-March to November (hours unavailable). Admission is E5.00 for adults and E2.50 for children. Web: www.st-goar.de (official website).
Marksburg Castle is arguably the best-preserved castle along the Romantic Rhine. This is attributed, in part, to the fact that it was virtually never exposed to combat. Constructed in the 12th century, Marksburg bears a medieval resemblance to Neuschwannstein and may have been a prototype of Ludwig’s famous castle. Although it was enlarged and improved over the years, the interior has been exceptionally well preserved. Marksburg’s rooms may be among the finest examples in Europe of original medieval architecture and furnishings. The castle also houses a museum of interesting pieces including arms and armor. Marksburg is open year-round except for December 24 & 25. From April to October it is open from 10:00am-5:00pm; and from November to March from 11:00am-4:00pm. Admission is E4.50 for adults and E3.50 for children (discounts for students). Web: www.marksburg.de (official website).
Burg Katz, or Cat Castle, was also built by the Katzenelnbogan family. This dark castle broods on a hill overlooking the town of St. Goarshausen, with a famous view of the Rhine River and the fabled Lorelei Rock. Burg Katz was restored in the 19th century, and now houses a school and is closed to the public. Burg Maus, or Mouse Castle, was completed in the 1380s by the Archbishopric of Trier. It was built to compete with Burg Katz as a rival toll-collecting station. Burg Maus has weathered the centuries better than its rival and restorations at the beginning of the 20th century were relatively minor. It now houses a falconry roost and training center. Opening days and hours for Burg Maus are unavailable as of this writing. Admission is E6.50 for adults and E4.50 for children. Burg Katz is closed to the public. Web: www.burg-maus.de (official website).
There are literally scores of castles along this 100 mile stretch of the Romantic Rhine. Most can only be enjoyed from the outside. Among the highlights are Lahneck Castle and the Liebenstein & Sterrenberg Castles. The latter two are famous for being the homes of two feuding brothers who regularly battled each other. Nearby on the Mosel River is the extremely beautiful Eltz Castle. Also worthwhile are Rheinstein Castle, Pfalzgrafenstein and the Reichburg of Cochem. Further south where the Rhine meets Bavaria is the spectacular Heidelberg Castle.