The classic image of a European river cruise is of majestic castles rising above the Rhine, and my Viking river cruise certainly didn’t disappoint. However, the first majestic castle we encountered wasn’t on the Rhine but on the Moselle: Reichsburg Castle, in the town of Cochem.
Well, “in the town” isn’t quite accurate. The castle towers over Cochem, sitting high on an outcrop of slate and in some cases seeming to grow right out of the living rock. It’s the classic picture: the castle above, looking over the medieval city below and offering protection behind its almost impenetrable defences. Of course, appearances aren’t always quite the truth, as we’ll see.
Our visit to Cochem began with a tour of the medieval town itself. And while the castle looked classic, the collection of ancient houses, shops and churches that huddles at its base really was. Passing through city gates from the 1300s, we made our way through a maze of cobblestone streets lined with pretty shops, restaurants and stands selling German sausages, to arrive in the central market square.
As in most medieval towns, the square is dominated by the rathaus, or town hall (it’s pronounced “rat house”, which tells you what the Germans think of their politicians). It also features a statue of Saint Martin, the town’s patron saint, and a fountain that once a year, during the wine festival, spouts wine for one and all. Which helps make Cochem a very popular tourist town. But they don’t need free wine for that – the town is always filled with tourists, especially during summer vacation time.
The most interesting part of Cochem, however, may be a white wall on a streetcorner near the river, where a series of “high water marks” show just how far the river rose on a number of dates ranging back to 1920. The highest occurred in 1993, when it engulfed the whole first floor of most buildings – and some people stayed in their houses through it all.
But the castle: special vans took us up the tortuous road, navigating tight turns, until it appeared soaring above us, massive and impressive and adorned with a huge painting of St. Martin (you can see it on the central turret). A gathering of tourists on an upstairs patio killed the effect somewhat — but then, nothing’s perfect.
We entered through an open courtyard, where Grete, our guide, appeared in a medieval gown, to explain the history of the castle. And as it turns out, the castle is something of a recreation. Built around 1100 A.D., Reichsburg was taken over by numerous powers through the years until the French destroyed it in 1689. It lay in ruins until it was rescued in 1866 by businessman Louis Jacques Ravené, who rebuilt it in a Gothic Revival style, incorporating just a few of the original Romanesque and Gothic elements.
So the castle we were looking at was far from the original building that stood watch over the river in the 12th century. But it was a captivating introduction to the land of castles and chivalry, and dressed to fit the part. Now owned by the town, it presented a picture of life in the middle ages, from the vintage furniture to the pictures and stags’ heads on the walls.
We wandered through room after lavish room, expecting to see lords and ladies appear at every turn. Among the first stops was a formal dining room, with period chandeliers, a richly painted ceiling, Delft china and an impressive drinking horn. Just the thing for an intimate gathering of 20 or so, kept warm by a huge, ornate fireplace.
Next a ladies’ room, small and cozy with a good view of the countryside — a good place for a game of cards under the arched ceilings.
Of course, no castle would be complete without a secret door, and the small room next door had not one but two. The one below opened to a small staircase that led, said Grete, to a blank wall. What’s behind it no one knows, and they’re reluctant to dig in and find out. Some surmise it’s a secret escape route, in case the castle was overrun, but we may never know for sure.
We gathered in a small guards’ room over the bridge leading into the castle, to join hands while Grete rubbed a fanciful lamp suspended from the ceiling. Local custom says touching it while making a wish will cause it to be granted, and the spell can be passed from one person to another. I made my wish – still waiting for my stock portfolio to take off …
Then, a drawing room filled with a sumptuous collection of period furniture, vases, paintings and sculptures. Some of these are reproductions of the originals that once graced the room – they’re in museums. Ironically, after furnishing and renovating the castle in such fine fashion, Ravené didn’t live to see his creation completed. However, his son stepped in to finish the job.
Throughout, the castle was adorned by classic medieval tapestries like the one at top — the kind that tell a story of people we know only from myths and fairy tales. I never tire of seeing them, and imagining the true stories and the lives that lie behind them.
And perhaps that’s the purpose of a visit to Cochem and Reichsburg castle — a place to get the feeling of life in a medieval town, and in a medieval castle. It whetted the appetite for the days to come as my ship entered the Middle Rhine, the fabled land of knights and castles.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip. However, the views expressed are my own.
All photos taken with the Nikon D5500 SLR camera.