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Land Rheinland-Pfalz Things to Do: 227 reviews and 564 photos
La Boheme moored in Koblenz
Koblenz was the northernmost point on our cruise, and we moored here for an afternoon and overnight, so we had a chance to explore the town a little. The weather was very hot, so we took our time and simply strolled through the older part of town for a while, spent some time at Deutsches Eck, the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle, and then followed the banks of the Moselle the short distance to where our ship was moored.
One of the highlights for me was the Liebfrauernkirche, the Church of Our Lady. It has some lovely stained glass (see photos 2 & 3) and an unusual “Tree of Life” above the altar in place of the more common crucifix. The church was originally built in the 12th century on the site of an earlier 5th century one. It was destroyed by French troops during World War II, and subsequently rebuilt in its original Gothic style. It is the parish church of Koblenz, and has been so in fact since the days of that earlier 5th century edifice.
We also glanced into the Stadtkirche (also known as the Jesuitenkirche) on Jesuitenplatz, near the Town Hall, which has been completely rebuilt on the site of the former 17th century Jesuit College, bombed during World War Two. It was constructed in the late 1950s behind the surviving west gable facade of 1617 with the large rose window. It is very stark and modern but with some striking stained glass by Jacob Schwarzkopf (see photo 4).
The name “Koblenz” means confluence, and the town grew up from its strategic location at the confluence of two great rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle. Indeed, although we were on a Rhine cruise, our ship actually moored in the Moselle, so we could consider that we had sailed on both rivers, albeit briefly. The point where the two meet is known as Deutsches Eck (“German Corner”) and is marked with a huge statue of the Emperor Wilhelm I (photo 5). This statue is a recent (1993) replica of the original late 19th century one, which was badly damaged in 1945 by US artillery. The site is today considered as a memorial to German unity – flags of all the 16 Länder fly here, and three pieces of the Berlin Wall are installed next to the monument.
Perhaps appropriately, the area immediately behind the monument was being used on the day of our visit as a football fans zone, screening Germany’s World Cup quarterfinal against Argentina. Germany won, and the atmosphere in Koblenz that evening was fantastic, with jubilant fans touring the streets, car horns blaring, and everyone walking around with a smile on their face – yes, even we foreign visitors whose own teams had already exited the competition!
This was as I say the northernmost point of our cruise. After our night here we turned south and retraced our passage through the Romantic Rhine to Rüdesheim and Strasbourg.
Marksburg and the Rhine
Of all the castles we saw on the Rhine, this was my mother in law’s favourite and the one which most lived up to her expectations of seeing “castles in the air”. Its Disney-like turrets and pale walls contrast dramatically with the surrounding trees, and it is very easy to imagine Rapunzel letting down her hair to allow the prince to climb up to her.
Perhaps it owes some of its charm to the fact that it is the only hill castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed. Indeed, it has been lived in continuously for over 700 years and has gradually evolved over the centuries as subsequent generations extended the fortifications or added extra buildings.
Today the castle is open for visitors every day except 24th and 25th December. You can only visit on a guided tour, offered in German and (twice a day) in English. We would have loved to have been able to do this, but, as with all the other castles, our ship sailed past and slowly Marksburg was lost to sight.
Sterrenberg and Liebenstein
The neighbouring castles of Sterrenberg and Liebenstein are often referred to as the “hostile brothers”. A legend tells that they were built by two brothers who were bitter rivals, hence the thick fortified wall which divides them (just visible among the trees in my photo). In fact the two were built at different times, with Liebenstein Castle being built in the 13th Century as a forecastle for 12th century Sterrenberg. The fortified wall was added to improve the latter’s defences, not to guard against attack from Liebenstein, and there is no record of any armed conflict between the castles.
Sterrenberg (on the left in my photo) was restored during the 1970s to bring it closer to its medieval condition, and is open to the public, as is the more ruined Liebenstein.
Zur Klosterschenke, Wellmich-Ehrenthal
So what sort of building is this in my photo? An inn? A church? In fact it is both – or, you might say, the inn and the church are semi-detached buildings, and they are joined to each other. They are to be found in the tiny village of Wellmich-Ehrenthal near St Goarshausen. Until very recently the only way to get into the church is through the inn, and we were told that the inn-keeper was also the priest. I’m not sure if that’s true but it sounds an interesting combination of duties.
This unusual arrangement has its origins in the monastery to which the chapel once belonged. When it was dissolved, the chapel became the parish church and an adjoining part of the monastery was turned into an inn.
Apparently Mozart visited the inn in September 1763, but I don’t think it is recorded whether he went to the church too.
Burg Rheinfels sits opposite Burg Katz and Burg Maus, above St Goarshausen’s twin village of St. Goar. Unlike many of the Rhine castles it lies largely in ruins, just as when it was destroyed by French Revolutionary Army troops over 200 years ago. It is the largest castle overlooking the Rhine, and once covered five times its current area.
The castle was built by Count Diether V von Katzenelnbogen in 1245 to protect the St. Goar tax collectors and soon became one of the strongest fortresses in the Middle Rhine region. It grew even more powerful after the construction of Burg Katz on the opposite bank, as the counts were now able to block the river valley.
In 1479 ownership of the castle passed to the House of Hesse, who turned it into one of the strongest fortresses in Germany. Consequently it was the only fortress on the left bank of the Rhine that was able to defend itself against the attacks by the French troops sent by Louis XIV in 1692. However its turbulent history came to an end in 1794, when it was handed over, without a struggle, to the French revolutionary army. Just two years later the exterior walls and the castle were blown up. Today the still-intact parts house a hotel and restaurant, and there is a small museum in the former chapel. Visitors can tour the ruins and a labyrinth of trenches and tunnels (bring a torch!) It is open daily from March to October and weekends only during the winter.
Burg Katz and St Goarshausen
Burg Katz (“Cat Castle” – what a lovely name!) sits perched on a rocky crag above the village of St Goarshausen. It was first built around 1371 by was built by Count Wilhelm II of Katzenelbogem. With nearby Burg Rheinfels (see next tip) it formed a fortified barrier to enforce the levying of the Rhine toll. It also commanded a long view of the river, allowing the local feudal lords to control salmon fishing o this stretch.
It was reinforced, damaged and rebuilt several times over the centuries, and was finally blown up by Napoleon in 1806. It was acquired by the local district and re-built between 1896-98, following the original plans. From 1946 till 1951 the castle served as a Boarding School. In 1989 it was bought by a Japanese company and is now a hotel.
The “twin” villages of St Goarshausen and St Goar face each other across the Rhine just north of the rock of the Lorelei, and associate themselves very closely with it. Indeed the former calls itself die Loreleystadt – the Lorelei town. It lies just beneath Burg Katz and the nearby Burg Maus (“Mouse Castle”), and still retains two towers from its ancient city walls, one square (which you can see in my main photo) and one round. Both villages take their name from the 6th century hermit, Saint Goar, who settled here and devoted his life to saving mariners shipwrecked on the rocks by the Lorelei.
Rock of the Lorelei
Probably the most famous sight on the River Rhine is not one of its many castles, striking those these are, but a simple rock – the Rock of the Lorelei. It lies on the eastern bank of the Rhine near St. Goarshausen, and rises about 120 metres above the waterline. Here the river is at its narrowest at any point between Switzerland and the North Sea, just 113 metres. The current is consequently very strong and rocks below the surface add to the dangers to shipping. The village of St. Goar, directly opposite the rock, is named for Saint Goar who settled here and devoted his life to saving shipwrecked mariners and nursing them back to health.
The many accidents here over the years have led to the creation of a legend – that of the Lorelei. Many cultures seem to tell a similar tale; that of a beautiful maiden who lures sailors to their deaths by drawing them on to the rocks. In England we have our mermaids, the Ancient Greeks had their Sirens, and in Germany the Lorelei fills the same role. In this case it is a legend of quite recent origin, created at the start of the 19th century by the German author Clemens Brentano in his poem Zu Bacharach am Rheine. But it was another poet who made the legend what it is today – known around the world, and drawing visitors to this somewhat unprepossessing rock in their thousands. Heinrich Heine wrote his poem, Die Lorelei a few years later in 1822, and it became one of the most popular in the German language. In fact it had to be labelled as "written by unknown writer" during the Third Reich because it was too popular to ban it completely for its Jewish authorship. My own first encounter with the poem was at school, when everyone in my German class was required to learn it by heart as a punishment for misbehaviour! I was amazed on this trip to find that the first verse at least had stuck in my memory, in the original German!
Die Lorelei, by Heinrich Heine
Ich weiss nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Dass ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.
Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Und ruhig fliesst der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Lied dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh'.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer und Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.
I know not if there is a reason
Why I am so sad at heart.
A legend of bygone ages
Haunts me and will not depart.
The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening's final ray.
The fairest of maidens is sitting
Unwittingly wondrous up there,
Her golden jewels are shining,
She's combing her golden hair.
The comb she holds is golden,
She sings a song as well
Whose melody binds an enthralling
And overpowering spell.
In his little boat, the boatman
Is seized with a savage woe,
He'd rather look up at the mountain
Than down at the rocks below.
I know the waves will devour
The boatman and boat as one;
And this by her song's sheer power
Fair Lorelei has done.
The poem has since been set to music. As we passed the rock on our cruise the song was played over the ship’s PA – a very atmospheric moment.
North of the rock is a small statue of Die Lorelei - see second photo.
Burg Schoenberg is yet another of those that nowadays functions as a hotel, and like many others had a fairly turbulent history. The Dukes of Schoenburg ruled over the nearby town of Oberwesel and had also the right to levy customs on the Rhine. Unusually, the family had a tradition whereby all the sons inherited the castle equally on a duke’s death (rather than just the oldest inheriting the lot), so at the height of its power in the 14th century the castle accommodated up to 250 people from 24 different families at the same time. The family dies out in the late 17th century.
Meanwhile the castle was burned down in 1689 by French soldiers during the War of the Palatine Succession. It remained in ruins for two centuries until an American of German ancestry, a Mr. Rhinelander (appropriate name!), bought the castle from the town of Oberwesel in the late 19th century and invested two million Gold Marks in its restoration. The town council of Oberwesel acquired the castle back from Rhinelander’s son in 1950, and in 1957 leased it for the establishment of a hotel and restaurant, which it remains to this day. It looks like a wonderful place to stay, or eat, if you are looking for something a bit special in this area (see website below).
At the foot of the hill lies Oberwesel, which you can see in my second photo. The church is the Frauernkirche or Church of Our Lady, considered to be one of the most important high Gothic churches in Germany. It was started in 1308, consecrated in 1331 and completed up to the base of the polygonal tower in 1351. Many elements of its interior are apparently intact: high altar, the choir screen, the tabernacle, the choir stalls, some stained glass windows and its bells. It sounds well worth a visit if, unlike us, you should be on dry land around here.
Pfalzgrafenstein and Burg Gutenfels
Below Gutenfels, on Falkenau island, sits one of the most unusual buildings on this stretch of the Rhine, indeed possibly the whole river. This is Pfalzgrafenstein, a former toll castle where passing boats and ships would have paid to travel along this stretch of the river. It was originally built in 1327 by Ludwig the Bavarian, and served as a toll station until 1866. The current building still retains at its core that 14th century original, but was fortified and expanded over the years, most notably during the Baroque period of the 18th century.
As a toll station it was very effective, as an arrangement with the town of Kaub enabled a chain to be strung across the river, preventing any ship form passing without paying the toll. If the captain refused he would be imprisoned in the castle’s dungeon until payment was made.
This is a significant spot in terms of European history. Here in the winter of 1813-14 the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher succeeded in crossing the Rhine with his army, a manoeuvre which eventually led to the fall of Napoleon.
Today the toll station is owned by the State of Rheinland–Palatinate and operates as a museum. You can visit by ferry from Kaub – it is open daily apart from Mondays during March to October, and at weekends only for the rest of the year (closed completely in December).
Burg Gutenfels is another of those transformed into a hotel. It lies on the east bank of the Rhine, that is in Land Hessen rather than Rhineland-Palatinate. It was originally known as Burg Falkenstein, after the family who owned it, but took its new name after an unsuccessful siege in 1504 by landgrave Wilhelm from Hessen. Gutenfels means “solid rock”, a name which could easily be applied to any of these fortifications, but which was chosen to describe its apparently impregnable nature.
While doing my research I came across this legend about the castle, which offers another reason for the name:
”In the 13th century, there was a stately castle near Kaub which was inhabited by Count Philip of Falkenstein. Then he lived happily with his beautiful sister Guta, who was as good as she was fair. Numerous knights it sought to win her love, but none had achieved this conquest. At this time a magnificent tournament was held at Cologne, to which knights from all countries far and near were invited. Among the nobles present was a knight from England, whose graceful figure and splendid armour were particularly striking. He wore a veiled visor and the stewards of the tournament announced him under the name of "The Lion Knight".
Guta watched this strange knight with ever increasing interest during the tournament, regretting that she could not see his face. But an opportunity soon presented itself when the knight was declared victor. She was selected to present the prize, a golden laurel wreath, to the winner.... This same evening in the banqueting hall he was Guta's inseparable companion, and eloquent words flowed from his lips. The proud stranger begged Guta for her love and swore to be hers; he told her he must at once return to his country where urgent duty called him, but that he would come back to claim her in three months time. Then he would publicly sue for her hand and declare his name, which circumstances compelled him to keep secret for the time being. Guta accepted her lover's pledge willingly, and they parted under the assurance that they would soon meet again.
Five months passed. ... That terrible time ensued when Germany became the battlefield of the struggles over the election of the Emperor. Conrad IV (Konrad IV), the last of the House of Hohenstaufen, had died in Italy. In the northern countries there was a great rising against William of Holland who was struggling for the imperial throne. Alphonso (Alfonso) of Castile was chosen king in one part of the country, while Richard of Cornwall, son of John, King of England, was elected in another. But Richard, having received most influential votes, was crowned at Aachen, and from thence he started on a journey through the Rhine provinces, to the favour of which he had been chiefly indebted for his election.
Spring was casting her bright beams over waves and mountains in the valley of the Rhine, but in Falkenstein Castle no ray of sunshine penetrated the gloom. Guta, pale and unhappy, sat within its walls, weaving dreams which seemed destined never to be fulfilled. Sometimes she saw her love dying on a terrible battlefield with her name on her lips, then again laughing and bright with a maiden from that far-off island in his arms, talking derisively of his sweetheart on the Rhine. She became more and more conscious that she had given him her first love, and that he had cruelly deceived her. Sorrow and grief had taken possession of her, and all of her brother's efforts to amuse her and to distract attention were in vain.
A great sound of trumpets was heard one day on the highway, and a troop of knights stopped at the castle. The count with chivalrous hospitality received them, and let them into the banqueting hall. His astonishment was great, when he recognized the bold Briton, the victor at the tournament in Cologne, as leader of his brilliant retinue, he who had broken his secret pledge to his beloved sister. A dark glance took the place of the friendly expression on his face. The Briton seemed to notice it and pressing Philip's hand said cordially, "I am Richard of Cornwall, elected Emperor of Germany, and I have come here to solicit the hand of your sister Guta, who promised herself to me five months ago in Cologne. I come late to redeem my promise, but my love is unchanged. I beg you to announce my arrival to her without betraying my name."
Philip bowed deeply before the illustrious guest, and the retainers respectfully retired to a distance. The great guest strode up and down the room impatiently. Then the doors were suddenly thrown open, and a beautiful figure appeared on the threshold, her face glowing with emotion. With a low cry Guta threw herself into her love's arms, and the first moments of their reunion were passed in silent happiness.
... Shortly afterwards Richard celebrated his marriage with Imperial magnificence at the castle on the Rhine, which Philip thenceforth called Gutenfels (Guta's Cliffs) in honour of his sister.”
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