Since I just got off of my river cruise last week, my thoughts are about planning another one, as river cruising is one of my favorite travel styles. Looking at other river options inspires this week’s article, with one of the unique highlights of a Rhine River cruise…
Cruising the Rhine River: The Castles of the Rhine
The Rhine is one of Europe’s major rivers, flowing from the Alps of eastern Switzerland through to the North Sea. On this 750-mile journey it winds through Liechtenstein, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. As one of the continent’s major waterways, the Rhine is prime for river cruising. Highlights of the route include the legendary Black Forest, the UNESCO-protected windmills of Kinderdijk, and the wine-growing region of Rudesheim.
However, for many travelers, it is the UNESCO-listed Rhine Gorge, a 40-mile length of the river in Germany that is the real drawcard. And one of the main reasons for this is the presence of the Rhine Castles. The steep sides of the Rhine Valley and Gorge have needed protection for more than 1,000 years and more than 40 castles dot the region. While some have long since been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, many are well-preserved highlights of the Rhine cruising route.
The Rhine Gorge
Often referred to as the ‘Rhine Valley’, the UNESCO-listed Rhine Gorge is the focal point of a Rhine River cruise. The breathtaking beauty of the region is the main reason for its popularity, a picture of rolling vineyards and, most notably, a constellation of historic castles that adorn the landscape. The Gorge’s precise location is within the Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse regions of Germany, spanning 40-miles between the cities of Bingen and Koblenz. It is the Rhine Gorge that is home to the majority of Rhine Castles.
Popular Rhine River Cruises
There are a variety of river cruise itineraries that include the Rhine River. It’s possible to cruise just the Rhine, for example from Amsterdam to Basel, which is typically a 7-day cruise. Or there are opportunities for cruising the Rhine alongside other European waterways, such as the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine. The Moselle is known for many wine-producing regions of Germany, and the charming small towns along the way. For those looking to explore the European rivers even more, a longer cruise combining the Rhine River and the Danube River offers the opportunity to add European capitals such as Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest to a Rhine adventure.
As one of the largest of the Rhine Castles, Rheinfels is certainly one to see on a Rhine River cruise. Built strategically on the eastern bank of the Rhine, it is located in the German town of Sankt Goar. The castle was the scene of much conflict during the Nine Year’s War from 1688 – 1697 but survives today to impress travelers from the world over.
From their Rhine cruise, visitors can admire the castle’s well-preserved fortifications, including watchtowers, walls, and the imposing entrance gate. Rheinfels offers a different sort of charm – it exudes history from its crumbling walls!
Argued by many to be the best of all the Rhine Castles, Marksburg Castle is situated near Koblenz, towering over the town of Braubach in the Rhineland-Palatinate area of Germany. Easily visible from the Rhine, it’s sure to be a highlight of any Rhine cruise itinerary. Marksburg Castle stands as an exceptional example of a medieval fortress that has weathered the centuries.
Marksburg Castle has never been destroyed in its 600-year history. This is despite coming under intense fire from US troops during the Second World War, when Nazi forces took refuge in the castle during their hasty retreat. Despite the bombardment, the oldest sections of the castle, which date back to the 12th Century, survived.
Unlike the other castles, Heidelberg Palace isn’t habitable anymore. Nor is it technically on the Rhine – it is located on the banks of the River Neckar and in the town of Heidelberg itself. But the castle is so architecturally astounding and popular with visitors that it is often included on Rhine River cruise itineraries.
Built around the year 1300, Heidelberg Palace was in its time one of the grandest of the Renaissance palaces. Much damage was done during a war with the French in the late 17th Century before an unfortunate lightning storm in 1764 triggered a fire which rendered the palace permanently uninhabitable.
Visitors today can still marvel at the now eerie ruins, but the highlight is the Heidelberg Gardens, which boast waterfalls, mazes, large fishponds, orange trees and more.
The medieval Stahleck Castle is perched majestically on a hillside overlooking the Rhine River valley. The view of Stahleck Castle as you cruise toward it is like a scene out of a fairy tale. Its weathered stone walls, adorned with ivy, appear to rise organically from the very rock upon which it’s built. The castle’s towers reach skyward like the spires of a Gothic cathedral.
The castle’s vantage point offers an unparalleled view of the Rhine River winding through the lush, rolling landscape below.
For those on a cruise combining the Rhine and Moselle, Cochem Castle can be found in the Moselle River Valley, perched elegantly on a hilltop overlooking the town of Cochem and the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. This part of Europe is famous for its wine, and travelers are likely to enjoy some of the region’s award-winning wine during their cruise. Sipping a glass of regional wine from your cruiser as you approach Cochem Castle is a much-recommended experience!
First constructed to protect the trade routes along the Moselle, Cochem Castle has experienced several rebuilds during its 800-year history, and the neo-Gothic architecture of today is just one in a long line of architectural styles the castle has witnessed.
Set against the backdrop of Germany’s picturesque Moselle River Valley, Cochem Castle is most certainly one of the best Castles to see on a river cruise in the area.
Burg Eltz Castle
Located in the heart of the German Rhineland, the medieval Burg Eltz Castle is near the city of Trier and is one of the most popular castles along the Moselle. Dating back to the early 12th Century, what sets this castle apart is that in its entire 800-year history, it has never been conquered or destroyed. To this day, the castle is owned by the 34th generation of the Eltz family!
Architecturally, Burg Eltz blends Romanesque, Baroque, and Renaissance styles, but what makes the castle stand out is the surrounding greenery and the numerous turrets that seem to have come straight from a fairytale. Perched romantically on a 230-foot-high rock face, the castle rises dramatically skyward from the ground. The approach to Burg Eltz Castle from the river is an exciting and captivating experience, as the imposing castle comes into view.
Other Rhine River Castles
There are plenty more enchanting castles you could see during a Rhine River cruise. Reichenstein Castle has been destroyed, burned down and rebuilt more times than can be counted. Stolzenfels Castle will transport you from Germany to Italy with its flat roofs, pergolas and terraces. And Pfalzgrafenstein Castle is located on a tiny speck of an island in the middle of the Rhine itself!
Embarking on a Rhine River cruise is an incredibly enriching travel experience. Not only can you explore several European countries and cities in one journey, but you can take in some of the continent’s most picturesque scenery in the Rhine Gorge and beyond. Rolling hills and vineyards, dotted with pretty medieval towns and larger cities, and fairy-tale castles dominating the landscape, the Rhine Castles are just one element of what makes a Rhine River cruise so special. But the sheer number of castles and palaces to admire is staggering, each with its own varied history and fascinating story to tell.