“The air is cool under nightfall.
The calm Rhine courses its way.
The peak of the mountain is sparkling
With evening’s final ray”.
German Poet, Heinrich Heine, “The Lorelei”
Once again, we sailed through the night. The trip down the Rhine from Cologne to our next stop, Koblenz, is about 12 hours by ship. The travel from one place to the next is one of the main reasons we chose to do this river cruise. Past trips involved daily driving or train travel, which takes up valuable sight-seeing time. On this cruise, we usually travel by night, so when we wake up, we are either at our next destination, or very close by.
Speaking of sailing, I suppose I have not mentioned that you do not feel the ship moving at all. Viking’s ships are called “long ships” and they move quite slowly…they are basically built like a barge. So the ship glides along the river very smoothly. In fact, the ship is very quiet as a whole, as are the staterooms….with two major exceptions.
1- Noise from the Sun Deck. To be fair, the noise issue may be particular to our floor or possibly our suite, which is located on the Upper Deck of the ship, towards the back (Veranda Suite 328). However, I have to assume that it affects everyone in this area of the ship. Directly above us is the Sun Deck and the walking track (see diagram below). Every morning, around 6AM, you can hear very loud thumps as an over-ambitious walker(s) pass over our room. You would think that as New Yorker’s, living in an older apartment building, that we might be used to hearing upstairs neighbors walking around. And, in fact, we are used to such noises, but we are on vacation…and we had hoped to get away from annoying neighbor noise for a few weeks! And I think that there are actually rules about when the Sun Deck can be used…but apparently, the walker(s) doesn’t know or doesn’t care. And again, inViking’s defense, the Sun Deck is lined with what seems like super thick rubber, so I’m actually surprised that the sounds of walking are so loud in our room.
2- Toilets Flushing. Much like the 6AM Annoying Walker, there is something else that occurs every morning like clockwork….the symphony of toilets flushing. Like the toilets on airplanes, trains and buses, the toilets on our ship operate with a vacuum system. When you finish doing your business, you push the wall mounted button and “SSSSHH–WUMP”…the toilet loudly sucks the contents down and a small bit of fresh water flows in. Every morning, as we toss and turn after being woken up by Annoying Walker, there’s a back-up alarm clock, of sorts. As our fellow passengers wake up, we begin to hear the suction of the toilets from everyone beside and below us. The “SSSSHH–WUMP” happens at least 7 or 8 times as folks take their morning trip to the throne (it also happens again after dinner and at the bed-time hours).
Visiting Marksburg Castle
We were docked at the quaint town of Koblenz, but unfortunately, we would not have the opportunity to explore it. We were given a few options to choose from: visiting the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, taking a walking tour of Koblenz, or taking a short bus ride to tour Marksburg Castle. We chose the castle, as it is considered by many tour guides as a “must see”. It’s nearly 800 years old, and THE only castle in the area that was never destroyed/bombed-out/abandoned. However, the castle tour meant that while we were touring, the ship would leave Koblenz and pick us up in Brauhaus, down river…so we no time in Koblenz for us. That was a bummer, and I wish we were already docked when we woke up so that we could have had time to walk around before leaving for our castle tour.
Nevertheless, after getting our group number, we got on our bus and headed up to the castle. We did get a bit of a sneak peek at Koblenz on the bus ride…it looks like a nice little German town with some very pretty architecture.
The 15 minute bus ride from Koblenz to Braubach was short, and mostly vertical, as we had to climb up very narrow, twisting roads to get to the base of the castle. And from the parking lot, there was a long ramp-like walk way up to the castle, or you could take a short-cut in the form of a steep set of stairs for the more ambitious (we took the stairs). At this point, I will say that if you are not a good walker, have any disabilities, are injured and using crutches or a cane…or just not as stable as you used to be….I would cross off Marksburg Castle as a place to see. The tour is all uphill…often on very old, slippery rocks or stairs (which you will see in the photos below).
Marksburg Castle’s origins go back to the year 1100 when the wealthy Eppstein family constructed a stone “keep” on the hilltop. A “keep” is a basically a fortified structure used as a refuge of last resort…somewhere to go when you are under attack…but not a full-time residence. And in 1117, the keep was expanded and the tower was built as a look-out point, and thus with this vertical expansion, the origins of the Castle began.
The tower’s vantage point allowed protection to the citizens of Braubach down below–they could see intruders coming by land or river for miles. But the tower was also a money-maker for the Eppsteins as they could monitor passing ships along the Rhine and force them to pay a toll to continue their way up or down river. So originally, Marksburg was not a residence for a noble family….it was essentially a defensive structure. That changed when it was sold to another family in the latter part of the 13th century, and over the next 200 years, the Castle changed hands several times to wealthy Counts who continually added on to the castle, and eventually it finally became a fortified, defensive full-time residence.
One of the first things you encounter when you arrive at Marksburg are the gates. From the start, before you even begin the official tour, you arrive at the Drawbridge Gatehouse (refer to the diagram above and photos below). You walk through a long, dark tunnel and arrive at what is now the gift shop and cafeteria.
We had to wait a bit before the tour started…and as I looked down at my fellow tourists donning bright white shorts, straw sun hats, fanny packs and armed with their quietvoxes and ultra dark sunglasses, I imagined the same scene 700 years ago. Knights in full armor on horseback, swords in hand and clamoring towards the castle to seek refuge or attempting an invasion with 50 other men…they would have found themselves stopped here between the Drawbridge Gate and the Fox Gate…the next point of fortification.
Side Note: If you are planning to visit Marksburg Castle, and you are not part of a tour group or on a river cruise….know before you go that you can only tour the castle with a guide. You should check the hours because there are only two English language tours per day (which may change with the seasons). Also, wear shoes that are not slippery!
It was time to meet our tour guide, so we walked over to the Fox Gate where we met Julia, our tour guide. She was very soft spoken…but articulate….maybe a not so former German Literature or History Phd. student. You could tell she would have that sense of humor that the Germans are known for. She was holding a very old-looking skeleton key that she said was the only way in and out of the castle…and then dramatically threw open the door with a nervous chuckle.
You might notice in several of the pictures that the Castle Gate openings look like they were once larger. Originally, the Gates were built to allow access to men atop horses, thus they needed to be much taller.
A walk up another steep, cobble stone incline and we arrived at another gate, the Notches Gate. As with any tour, anywhere in the world, the guide often has to spice up the history to make it more interesting, so there are often legends and tall tales that may, or may not be true. In this case, Julia told us that the Notches Gate (see photo below) was one of the last points of defense for the access into the Castle. So the defenders of the Castle would throw boulders and pour hot tar out of the windows above the door to ward off the intruders. But as a modern-day tourist in 2018, there would be no need for boulders or hot tar to keep me out….I wore the wrong slip on shoes for this tour and I was slipping and tripping all the way up to the Gate.
Once inside the Notches Gate, we got a little history of all of the different families that occupied Marksburg Castle. I am going to be honest and say that I don’t really remember the details or the very long German family names. They each had their own coat of arms on display (seen in the photo below). I do recall that when Napoleon Bonaparte seized the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, as a gift of gratitude, Napoleon gave the Castle to the Duke of Nassau, who actually used the place as a prison and an invalid home for soldiers. It changed hands a few more times, and in 1900 was sold to the German Castle Association who have maintained the Castle ever since. Though not destroyed like much of everything else in Germany, the Castle was damaged by the Allies in March of 1945.
The uneven, slippery path continued up….passing under a covered structure, called the Small Battery, (see photo below) that could once again, be used in an attack to throw more boulders or hot liquids down on intruders. This path was known as the “Knights Stair” and was constructed to be purposefully rough….allowing the horses to get a grip on the stones in poor weather. However, as helpful as the stones might be for a horse’s hooves, they required a definite exercise in good balance to walk up.
If you made it up this far, as an intruder, you could say you had successfully stormed several gates and were very close to the “Keep” and overtaking the owner of the Castle. As a tourist, if you made it this far, you are probably out of breath and happy that the ground is level again. Here you see the first residential structure built….the old Romanesque Hall from about 1239, which is now used as offices by the Castle Association.
Just outside of the Romanesque Hall is the Great Battery, housing various cannons dating from different time periods and aimed at strategic positions.
From here, the tour took a turn from the defensive purpose of the Castle to the more domestic side of life…the rooms depicting what it would have been like to live in the Castle from the 13th through 17th centuries.
Once we passed by the Great Battery and the cannons posed to fire, we entered through another door and into a tranquil garden and ramparts with gorgeous views to the Rhine River Valley below. From this vantage point, you can really see how Marksburg Castle was in possession of a superb strategic location allowing its occupants to see threats both near and far.
We passed through the wine cellar, where barrels of wine would have provided the occupants both old and young with their daily beverage. Clean sources of water were hard to come by–water-borne pathogens were not understood, but people understood that drinking water would often lead to illness. So they drank wine or ale instead. It should be noted that the wine was much less alcoholic than the wine we drink today…the wine 700 years ago would have been only about 4% or 5% per volume as opposed to the 12% that is typical for modern-day wine. Each family member would get a vat of wine per day–or maybe two or three depending on who we are talking about (see photo below).
We also passed through the kitchen and dining areas, which were presented in a very sterile, museum-like rendition of what would have actually been very smokey, smelly, hot and unpleasant rooms.
Further into the castle, and up a flight of very steep and narrow stairs, and we ended up in the living and sleeping areas of the Castle. Places to sit, to entertain, to play games, to play music, to sleep and to eat.
One of the most popular rooms on the tour is the privy…ye olde toilet. I love seeing a historic toilet…I’ve seen George Washington’s bed pan, Thomas Jefferson’s private bedroom poop closet, Marie Antoinette’s porcelain throne and here at Marksburg, a unique privy that juts out from the castle walls so that the contents of the act would fall below to a waste heap. While convenient for the user, this hole in the floor was also a liability to the defense of the castle…as unappealing as it might seem, intruders could theoretically enter the castle via the privy hole. So the room was fitted with a very heavy wood door with several locks.
In times of sustained stays in the fortified Castle, the inhabitants would require all aspects of daily life be present, which of course included a proper chapel where they could say daily prayers and hold services. The Chapel at Marksburg is quite small, but an elegant little room, dedicated to St. Mark. The ceiling and walls are decorated with what remains of colorfully painted religious frescoes. Built in the Gothic style, with pointed arches in a regular rhythm around the room, and there is a niche in the wall containing a statue of Mary and Jesus.
Taking a complete 180 degree turn in tone, the remainder of our tour focused on armour (which can be spelled armor or amour–and I like armour), weaponry, torture and punishment. One of the various Counts that owned the Castle was a collector or armour and on display were various suits of armour from all different time periods. All quite impressive, intimidating and you can imagine how dreadfully uncomfortable and heavy they must have been to wear. We also got one of those tour guide “did you know” nuggets. Julia explained that in medieval times, when a knight approached an unknown person….or showed up to the Castle to request entry, their face and body was covered, hiding their identity. So, they would raise their helmet with their right hand to show their face and say, “Hey, it’s me, Freidrich”. And to this day, the military salute is the raising of the right hand to the soldier’s cap. Once again, I don’t know if this is really true, but it makes for a good anecdote to share with you.
And to end the tour, we visited the dungeon (or torture chamber room). Obviously, since the castle needed to be equipped with every type of space/room that you would need to create a sustainable community within the walls…you would need a place to put those that broke the law. Also, as I mentioned, the Duke of Nassau owned the Castle in the early 1800’s and used it as a prison and a home for invalid soldiers….so the dungeon may have been occupied at that time, as well. For modern tourists, they have the room outfitted with creepy medieval torture devices used on thieves, liars, gossips, adulterers, murderers, treasonous persons, etc….there was something for everyone!
At the conclusion of the tour, we got back on our numbered tour bus and we were driven down to a dock in Braubach where the ship was waiting for us. This is the part of river cruising that I have actually come to appreciate…the door to door service. I don’t mind this type of service when the situation is suitable. In this case, we were spending the afternoon on the ship cruising down the Rhine…it was our only option (in other words, we weren’t missing out by coming back directly to the ship from the castle tour).
We had a little time before the narrated cruise on the Upper Deck, so we grabbed a bite to eat on the Aquavit Terrace. Not to be redundant about meal options, but for every meal, you have the choice to go to the more formal Dining Room, where you will inevitably be sitting with someone you may or may not have met (at non-assigned tables). When you walk into the Dining Room you can find a familiar face to sit with, or sit at an empty table where you will be joined by other passengers and may have to meet someone new. As you know by now, sometimes I don’t always feel social, so we sometimes we take our breakfast or lunch on the Aquavit Terrace where you can actually sit at tables for two…or even eat all alone! Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, but the waiters will serve you water/coffee/tea/wine/beer.
Thus far, we have seen the quaint canals of Amsterdam, we’ve ridden bicycles in idyllic landscapes filled with Dutch windmills, we’ve climbed to the heights of Cologne’s cathedral, visited a undefeated 700 year old castle, and this afternoon we are finally going to enjoy one of the great advantages of taking a river cruise…the unique perspective of cruising down the Rhine River and enjoying one of the most picturesque landscapes in Europe. This is the Middle Rhine Valley, the land of castles perched on cliffs, quaint little German towns with half-timbered buildings and church steeples and the unique, steep, green hillsides dotted with centuries old vineyards.
It was optional, of course, but we went to the Sun Deck for a 2PM real-time tour by our Viking Tour Director, Gary, who was to point out some of what we were seeing along the river (over the loud-speaker). I knew I was going to be snapping photos the whole time, so I sat in a spot that allowed me to go back and forth to both sides of the Sun Deck.
In New York, we have the pleasure of taking a NY Metro commuter train to visit upstate relatives that heads north on a track just feet away from the banks of the mighty Hudson River. So, we often find ourselves riding amongst some pretty gorgeous natural beauty in the Hudson River Valley…which is lovely in all seasons. The backdrop of the mountains against the deep blue water is stunning. But America has a more rustic beauty…we are still “young” compared to Europe. What makes this area in Germany so beautiful are all of the layers of time on display. The valley and the River itself, formed by some glacier millions of years ago. The terraced vineyards, introduced by the Romans. The castles, which started to dot the hilltops in the Medieval time, and then the towns and churches along the riverbank that followed in the Middle Ages. And to this day, the Rhine remains one of the busiest waterways in Europe with barges and tourist ships sailing up and down with great regularity.
This particular stretch of the Rhine that we are visiting, the “Middle Rhine Valley” is a 40 mile stretch considered so unique that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. Many Americans may not be familiar with UNESCO ( which stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), but to give you some idea of what they decree special, some of the UNESCO designations in the US are: Yosemite National Park, The Grand Canyon, The Great Smoky Mountains, and Everglades National Park (just four of the US’s 23 total sites).
I was honestly running back and forth snapping photo after photo….it was a never-ending stream of photo opportunities. Besides all of the beautiful little churches, there are some 40 castles (or remains, thereof) along the Middle Rhine. Of course, I could point out all of the names of the castles and churches in the photos and even go into the specific history of the region from pre-historic thru the Middle Ages, but I think this day is definitely more appreciated visually, with my photos.
There are definitely other parts of Europe that can conjure up fairy tale images of knights in shining armor…Kings, Queens and Princesses living in grand castles, or even little green hamlets with dwarves or fairies, but to me, this particular part of Germany takes the cake in that department. This portion of the river cruise was spectacular and has been a highlight of our trip so far.
The evening routine is already becoming familiar on the ship. And we have, I fear, fallen too easily into the Viking pattern this early on in the cruise. We get dressed at 6:15, head to the Lounge at 6:30 for a pre-dinner drink, and at 6:45 is Gary’s recap of the day and preview of the next day and then promptly at 7PM, there is the mad rush to dinner. We have learned to relax and stay back and let our elders get first pick of the tables in the dining room. And to be honest, it lets us stroll in like the cool young ones on board and pick and choose who we want want to sit with…or….actually, in reality, by the time we get down there, we get stuck sitting with wherever there are two open seats!
I am going to admit that I typically did not bring my phone with me to dinner, nor my camera. There is really no need for it, other than to snap photos of the food at dinner, and I felt a little awkward when I did that the first few meals. Let’s be honest, this is NOT a millenial crowd, no one is instagraming every dish or snapping selfies while eating dinner. And in truth, we didn’t miss having our devices. We can all actually survive an entire 60-90 minute meal without checking our texts, emails, Twitters, Snapchats, or Instagrams, and I have to say that it is quite enjoyable. It’s a bit of a throwback to a time when your cell phone wasn’t like an extra appendage! That being said, admittedly, the first thing Josette and I did when we got back to our room was check our phones.
This particular evening, the ship slowed down to a crawl, and the sunset was absolutely stunning. The pinks, purples and yellows of the July sky reflected several shades more intense on the river with the horizontal silhouette of the tree line dividing the tie-die pools of color. These pictures were taken from our balcony, where we sat with a glass of wine and enjoyed what has inspired so many famous painters, writers and composers over the centuries.
And as the night grew darker and we sailed further on, the reflections on the river grew more bright with neon colors as we passed by a festival on the river.
And we also went through another lock….oh the locks….this trip would include passing through some 65 locks from Amsterdam to Budapest! But I will save that for a separate post.
And as we were about to check in for the night, we passed a sister Viking ship on the river…sort of a reflection of ourselves on the Rhine.
There is some talk of the river being too low to pass and the possibility of having to switch ships. It’s too soon to say, but we will details in the morning as we approach Miltenberg.