Castles on the Rhine

Burg Stahleck, on a hill above Bacharach, is one of two or three dozen castles (depending on what you count as what) in the Middle Rhine Valley between Rüdesheim and Koblenz.

There has been a castle on this hill since the eleventh century, if not earlier. Stahleck (which literally translates as ‘iron corner’) was involved in several battles and sieges in the Middle Ages and in the Thirty Years War. French troops destroyed the castle in 1689 and it remained a ruin for over two centuries until the Prussian Crown Prince bought it in 1828.

Since 1926, Stahleck Castle has been used as a youth hostel.

The town of Bacharach is at Rhine-Kilometer 543, which means it is slightly more than halfway between Lake Konstanz, where the numbering starts, and the North Sea, where the Rhine ends at Hoek van Holland.

Kaub with Pfalz and Gutenfels Castle

The town of Kaub is across the river from Bacharach and three kilometers further downstream. In other words, Kaub is on the right bank of the Rhine at km 546.30.

River bank at Kaub with water level tower

The number on this little tower by the river in Kaub shows the water level in centimeters, which is important information for barge operators, because if the level gets too low they have to reduce the amount of freight they can carry, and if it gets extremely high or extremely low they might have to stop moving altogether.

On the day I took this photo the water level was 289 centimeters, which seems to be a more or less average level.

In previous decades, West German radio stations used to broadcast long lists of numbers every morning giving the water levels at different places on different rivers and canals all over the country. Now this is no longer necessary because there are websites that provide this information daily or even in real time, so the barge operators no longer have to sit by the radio and note down the numbers. (I used to listen to these numbers sometimes, and imagine the barge operators straining not to miss the numbers that were important for them on that particular day.)

Gutenfels Castle

Gutenfels Castle (literally ‘good rock’ or ‘good cliff’) is on a hill above Kaub and was built around 1220. Like many others, it was badly damaged during the Thirty Years War (1618 –1648) and was rebuilt during the nineteenth century.

For many years Gutenfels Castle was used as a hotel, but at least in later years the hotel did not have a very good reputation and was even reported to have bedbugs in the beds. At the end of 2006 the hotel ceased operations (permanently) and the castle was sold to a private person.

The vineyards next to and below the castle were neglected for many years, but in 2008 they were cleared and replanted with grape vines. When I took these photos in 2010 the vineyards made an orderly and well-cared-for impression.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle

On an island in the river at Kaub there is a small castle called Pfalzgrafenstein, or Pfalz for short, which was built as a toll station in 1327 by a king (later emperor) called Ludwig the Bavarian (1282-1347).

Unlike most castles on the Rhine, Pfalzgrafenstein was never destroyed or even seriously damaged. It served as a toll station for over five centuries, until 1866.

It was here in the winter 1813/14 that the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher succeeded in crossing the Rhine with his army, on their way to join forces with a coalition army under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Together, these two armies defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The dock at Oberwesel

The historic town of Oberwesel is on the left bank of the Rhine at km 550, seven kilometers downstream from Bacharach.

In recent years the medieval Town Wall of Oberwesel has been restored and made accessible to the public by the “Oberwesel Historic Buildings Association”. They say that if you want to go all the way around the wall you will have to walk 2575 meters. The town was once protected by 22 towers. 16 of these still exist, and the foundations of three more are still visible.

Schönburg

The Schönburg (literally ‘beautiful castle’) is on a hill above Oberwesel. It was first mentioned in a document from the year 1137.

In the castle there is now a lovely hotel and restaurant where we once had a large family celebration. We were very satisfied with the food and the venue at the time, but since this was over thirty years ago I can’t say how it is today.

Assmannshausen

Generations of American G.I.s stationed in Germany have snickered at the name Assmannshausen, but in German there is nothing salacious about it.

Assmannshausen is a town on the right bank of the Rhine at km 532, eleven kilometers upstream from Bacharach. It sometimes known as the “island of red wine” in the Rhine Valley, since most other towns specialize in white wines.

Actually Assmannshausen is no longer a separate town, since for administrative purposes it was incorporated into the nearby city of Rüdesheim in 1977.

From Assmannshausen there is a chairlift going up the hill to an incredibly ugly monument called the Niederwalddenkmal , which was built there from 1871 to 1883 to celebrate the founding of the German Empire after the end of Franco-Prussian War.

I must admit that I haven’t been up there for over half a century, and I might be making it sound even more disgusting than it really is, but at the time my impression of this monument was that it glorified the worst sort of German militarism — well, the second worst. We (or at least I) tend to forget how dreadful the “Second” German Empire was, because the “Third” was even more so.

Burg Ehrenfels

Built in the 13th century, destroyed in 1689, Ehrenfels Castle is now a picturesque ruin on a hill above the right bank of the Rhine at km 530, thirteen kilometers upstream from Bacharach.

Ehrenfels (literally ‘honor rock’ or ‘honor cliff’) was originally built to protect the territory of the Archbishops of Mainz. (Archbishops in those days were often the temporal and spiritual rulers of their fiefdoms, since the separation of church and state had not yet been invented.)

Like most of the other castles on the Rhine, Ehrenfels was also used as a toll station, which made it an important source of income for the bishops and the church. In times of war, Ehrenfels Castle was used as a hiding place for the cathedral treasury of Aachen.

Ships on the Rhine

In June 2002, the romantic Middle Rhine between Koblenz and Rüdesheim was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and thus theoretically placed under special protection.

What this means in practice is that if the local authorities were to build something ugly that would deface the site, UNESCO could threaten to take it off the list — as they did in 2009 with the Elbe Valley in Dresden due to the building of a four-lane bridge in the heart of the “cultural landscape” which meant that the Elbe Valley failed to keep its “outstanding universal value as inscribed.”

So far this has not happened in the Middle Rhine Valley, despite the repeated efforts of the automotive lobbies to destroy the valley by intersecting it with ugly motorway bridges.

My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2020.

See more posts on Bacharach and the Middle Rhine, Germany.

9 thoughts on “Castles on the Rhine”

  1. Great blog Don! There are so many castles here! I recognized your first photo right away, I was here over 30 years ago (how time flies!), and it was one of my first road trips in Europe:-)

    1. I’ve never heard of Burt Bacharach, so that makes us even. (I should explain that I haven’t lived in the US since 1970, and haven’t even been there since 1989. so I haven’t heard of lots of people who are household names over there.) But I just now looked him up, and I recognize some of his song titles.
      The town of Bacharach is popular among American tourists because it is featured in a guidebook by Rick Steves. No Americans this year, of couse, but otherwise lots.

  2. Good memories of a day cruise I took on the Rhine with some VTers after the Aachen meet, and of my longer cruise with my mother-in-law a few years before that. She was thrilled to see the castles 🙂

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