Video - Rhine Castles

This episode from the 1990s TLC series titled Great Castles of Europe spotlights some of the famous castles along the Rhine, and recounts the greatest legends associated with the river.

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Great Castles of Europe

Rhine Castles

The Rhine river, its shimmering waters, nearly striving vineyards, bottomed shores, majestic castles. Lord over every twist and bend.

Join us on a journey into Germany’s rich medieval past. A voyage to legends on the world’s most romantic river, the Rhine. Next on Great Castles of Europe.

Formed by melting snowfields high in the Swiss Alps the mighty Rhine carves an 800 mile channel through the heart of Europe. In the low countries it rushes to the sea. Its name comes from the Celtic word for stream. A vast understatement of the romance and power of this mighty river. Writers from Goethe to Mark Twain have tried to capture the Rhine’s epic spirit. In 1838 the French novelist Victor Hugo wrote that the Rhine combines everything - winding as the Seine, historic as the Tiber, royal as the Danube, covered with phantoms and fables like a river of Asia. But unlike rivers of any other region the Rhine is studded with dozens of medieval castles making it a show place of antiquity unequalled in the world.

In the 50 miles stretch between Mainz and Koblenz (Germany) some thirty castles and ruins tower by the river’s edge. Every bend and coil the snaking waterway seems to reveal another. Rhine travellers not only get a journey to Europe’s heart but backwards to time itself. These spectacular vistas have survived virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages.

By the 13th century the Rhine had developed into a vital commercial waterway. Its shores were domineered by noblemen and Catholic clergy. Bitter rivals fought over every inch of land, especially river fund property. Their huge profits could be made by erecting toll stations and charging hefty fees for the safe passage of ships. The right to operate a toll castle could be awarded only by the regional lord or the German king, usually in exchange for money or political favours. Merchants had no choice but to pay the charge. Moving their cargo overland was a more dangerous and often deadly ordeal.

Here at the city of Kaub the Rhine narrows like an hour-glass making it an ideal spot for a toll castle. This ship-like fortress was erected by king Ludwig the Bavarian in 1326. He named it Pfalzgrafenstein. More lyrically Victor Hugo will call it a stone ship eternally anchored at the face of the city. But in the 14th century the powerful Catholic church regularly shipped goods along the Rhine. They took a dimmer view. Pope John the 22nd condemned king Ludwig for new and severe impositions for those passing with goods. In 1327 the Bavarian king suffered the ultimate revenge: the pope excommunicated him.

Despite its jaunty nautical appearance the castle Pfalzgrafenstein was built for extorsion. No royal personage ever took residence here. Instead a regiment of some thirty soldiers kept around the clock vigil. Watchmen announced approaching ships by ringing a bell. The castle’s tollman would board each vessel, examine its cargo and assess the toll.

To keep boats from slipping by unchecked a canal on the Rhine’s east side forced them to pass next to the castle. For merchants trying to run the backward a watery grave awaited. Huge stones thrown from catapults rained down on them. Cannons aimed to gunpits covered every inch of the river.

Here on the castle’s west side the Rhine is rocky. In addition a heavy chain stretched across the river‘s width. Wayward ships stranded here with sitting ducks. The troops stationed at Pfalzgrafenstein did all their fighting from a distance. Their ranks were made of cripples and retirees. Accommodations in the castle were also second rate. All walkways connecting the castle’s rooms are exposed to the elements. There are some quarters inside, not sparkling but functional. Built into a watchtower suspended over the Rhine this wooden elementary toilet empties straight into the water.

The ship-like Pfalzgrafenstein heads ceaselessly into the current, but its sea faring and design was only partly for show. Six watchtowers add strength to its river backed ramparts. Its bow continues to protect the toll castle from rising currents and ice flows even today.

The Rhine’s history is inextricably linked with the fruit for which it became famous. Succulent wine grapes probably grew wild in this valley long before mankind learned of their giddy magic. As early as the time of Christ Rhine wine was shipped to discriminating consumers as far off as England and Scandinavia. In time the nectar of the wine made this valley rich, or rather it enriched those who own the toll castles and vineyards. To further line their coffers these rulers taxed the peasants who worked their fields, commoners handed over the lion's share of everything they produced. A tare of usually paid in wine.

As for the peasants, the wine they manufactured gave them cause to celebrate, socialize and forget.

But even peasant life often consisted of grue and poverty broken only by bloody wars. Relief came in the form of religion and a frequently raised goblets in the company of friends. The commoners average wine consumption topped four litres a day. The popular intoxicant became the accepted payment for all river tolls. One barrel of wine was worth 16 pounds of garlic or grapes or 6 baskets of fish. Its use as a standard of exchange accounts in part for Rhine wine’s development into a driving industry. As wine became the favourite currency of kings castle wine sellers filled to overflowing. But with the frequent festivities and celebrations that characterized Rhine court life these vast supplies quickly ran out again.

Source: YouTube

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