If you’ve seen an ad for Viking European river cruises, it’s a good bet you’ve seen those spectacular shots of river ships cruising through the dramatic landscapes of the Rhine Valley, with medieval castles looking down from every hillside. It’s one of the most iconic images of European travel, and a highlight of many river cruises.
The Middle Rhine came right in the middle of my European river cruise with Viking Cruises, and I was ready, having had a taste of the Middle Ages from our amazing visit to Trier, Germany and Reichsburg Castle. But our day on the Rhine started with an up-close look at life in the days of knights and chivalry: a visit to Marksburg Castle, towering over the town of Braubach, Germany (photo at top).
Marksburg was the only castle in the region never to have been significantly damaged by hostile invaders or the ravages of time. Originally built in the 12th century, it was renovated and fortified several times during the centuries by different owners, and stands today much as it did in the Middle Ages.
After doing the steep walk up to the entrance, I wasn’t surprised the castle was never taken by force. I was a bit surprised to see a patio restaurant and gift shop, however — but then, tourism can often conquer what guns and swords can’t.
Once inside the castle gate, things got authentic pretty quickly. The stone entrance way was hung with the coats of arms of those who had owned the castle in its long history, including the Lords of Eppstein and the Duchy of Nassau.
Nearby was some of the heavy artillery that once defended the fortress, including this wicked-looking, long-barrelled gun. It was a weapon that could do a lot of damage – but mostly to the men who operated it, according to our guide.
Inside, we got a look at one of the bedrooms, with its canopied bed: not only were ancient castles cold, but they were infested with rats and other pests, so you needed some protection against things falling from the ceiling.
The same was true of the kitchen, which sported a fireplace big enough for two people to walk into — you could roast an entire ox. Food was hung from the ceiling or from poles so it wouldn’t be eaten by vermin before the humans got to it.
Along the way, we got a glimpse of what life was like for the families that lived in medieval castles. Each member of the family had a role: the first-born son became a lawyer, the second, a knight, and the third, a priest. Later sons become agriculturists or got other jobs.
As for the daughters, they were married off young, if an advantageous match could be found. If not, they might go to the convent. If they refused their chosen fate, they could be locked up in the sewing room and made to spin thread – the original spinsters.
From Marksburg, it was back to the ship for our cruise through the famous Middle Rhine. Its natural beauty and the profusion of ancient castles has made it a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it delivers on both counts. The castles began to appear even before we cast off, and loomed up regularly as we sailed down the river.
Every small town seemed to have at least a medieval tower, and some had two or three large, historic buildings. The castles themselves were perched high on the hillsides, many of them in ruins, although some had vineyards attached, and others had been turned into expensive hotels or tourist sites.
Despite what you see on television, however, many of the castles are fairly distant, so a pair of binoculars is a good idea if you want to get a good look.
As for the fabled Lorelei, the mythical lady who haunted sailors on this treacherous stretch of water — her statue is small, and situated on a little point of land that seems to attract sunbathers and picnickers. Not quite the romantic image in my mind.
The cruise down the Middle Rhine seemed to be over too soon, even though our ship sailed slowly due to technical troubles. And with the river running low due to a historically hot and dry summer, we had to choose an alternative mooring spot to disembark for our last stop of the day, a wine-tasting trip to one of the most famous names of the Rheingau.
But that is cruising: always at the mercy of the weather and the currents. And in a problematic year for European weather, the Viking crew was well prepared to handle any changes of plan. As for the passengers – well, time for a glass of wine on the Aquavit terrace …
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.
Photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR and Fuji XQ2 cameras.