Castles on the Rhine 

The fortresses of medieval robber barons have been taken over by tourists


I had just poured myself a drink in the forward lounge and joined Bud, a fellow traveler from Australia, when the ship's PA system crackled to life. "Ladies and gentlemen Maus Castle, one of the most beautiful on the Rhine, is coming into view on the left side of the ship." Bud downed his drink and gave me a wry smile. "ABC," he said as he headed for the top deck with his camera.

The acronym for "Another Bloody Castle" is understood by anyone who has been a tourist in Europe and nowhere is it more appropriate than in the Rhine Valley. A castle (or the remains of a castle) hovers over almost every town and dominates many strategic promontories in between. For castle-weary tourists they are just another photo op. But for mariners in the middle ages each castle was an obstacle as dangerous and as unpredictable as the uncharted rocks in the Rhine Gorge.

Before Germany became unified in 1871 the Rhine Valley was a patchwork of small principalities, independent towns, and an assortment of guilds and corporations, each laying claim to its stretch of the river. They bore no allegiance to anyone but themselves - levied their own taxes, fought their own wars and charged whatever they could get for the right of passage through their self-proclaimed territory. In the 14 th century there were 62 customs stations on the Rhine where captains had to stop and ante up a tariff before moving on. Even worse, eight of the cities practised what was called "staple rights" which allowed them to force a ship to unload and sell its cargo locally.

Not surprisingly the Robber Barons who levied the tolls and taxes were not that popular with everyone. A well-fortified castle backed up by a troop of loyal men-at-arms was a necessary requisite for survival, not only as protection from lawless bands of pirates and outlaws, but also from malicious neighbours and disgruntled subjects.

Most of the castles along the Rhine were built during the Middle Ages, before gunpowder came into general use. The outer curtain walls and an inner shield wall with crenulated battlements and arrow slits were designed to protect the defenders from an assault by men armed with swords and spears, not firearms. If an enemy managed to break through the outer walls the beleaguered defenders could seek final refuge in the keep or central watchtower. This was the tallest and strongest building within the walls and access to it was limited to a removable ladder on a narrow, easily defended spiral stairway designed to give an advantage to the defenders. By spiraling up to the right the stairwells provided sword-swinging space for a right-handed defender while attackers facing up the stairwell would have to hack at the defending knight with their left hands.


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