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 - Katz - Maus - Rheinfels - Marksburg

Rhine Castles

In addition to fine wines the Rhine gave birth to epics of heroism and valour. At a place called dragon’s rock, the legendary prince Siegfried used an enchanted sword to slay a fire breathing beast. By bathing in the monster’s blood, the prince became invincible. Wagner’s famous opera "The ring of the Nibelung" immortalizes the hero, killed finally through the cunning of the jealous queen Brunhilde, who perished with him. To this day the lower Rhine’s red wine bears the name "dragon’s blood".

This region of the Rhine got its name from another tale of feminine guile and the supernatural. Here the scenic Rhine curves sharply and the swift current grows treacherous period. Steep rocks jut skyward from the river’s edge.

Upon these rocks according to legend a woman of otherworldly beauty materialized each evening. Her name was Loreley and her sweet plaintive song deafened boatmen to the river’s thundering roar.

When the men regained their senses it was too late. They could no longer steer clear of the rocks nor keep the jealous waves from swamping their boats. And the beautiful Loreley, over the cries of drowning sailors, she continued her silent chanting until the morning sun chased off the night.

Travel down the Rhine river today is a floating lesson in medieval rivalry. At every curve, another castle appears high atop the river banks. Each represents a landlord’s claim to all the territory below. Two castles, in particular, illustrate the shifting balance of power that once characterized the mighty river region. The castle Thorenburg on the Rhine’s east bank was built by the archbishop of Trier around 1356. Not to be outdone by a churchman his neighbours, the wealthy counts "von Katzenelnbogen", erected their own castle on the opposite hill. These powerful merchants were already the proud owners of 138 villages. Although they named their new prize the Burg Neu-Katzenelnbogen, it came to be known as the Burg Katz or cat’s castle. Predictably the first castle, the Thorenburg, was then nicknamed Burg Maus, mouse castle. Thus, the antagonism between merchants of great wealth and the all powerful catholic church resembled a game, a cat and mouse rivalry that continued through the ages.

When they weren’t baiting one another or pressing their vassals into service, the lords of the Rhine passed leisurely days with pleasant diversions. Favored urite at the Burg Maus was hunting, using falcons and eagles, a blood sport that originated in the Orient. Survivors of the crusades and well travelled merchants, like the Katzenelnbogen counts, brought falcons and falconers to Europe and the British Isles. There the sport thrived among the privileged classes. The quarry these eagles are after are pigeons and other small birds. On the winds of the twisting Rhine valley they will soar indefinitely before diving after prey or returning to their master’s glove.

Opposite the cat and mouse castles, near the village of St. Goar, lie the ruins of the once glorious and powerful Rheinfels castle. The Rheinfels was also constructed by the powerful counts "von Katzenelnbogen" who for years used it as their main residence. During the invasion by the French in the late 18th century, peasants with a centuries old riot against its owners, burned it.

A few miles downriver, on the east bank of the Rhine, a high cone shaped hill rises above the quiet hamlet of Braubach. The castle crowning the hill has an unusually slender keep towering above its attendant courts and ramparts. While it is a massive and presumably easy target this castle alone along the Rhine landmarks has remained unscathed by enemy attacks. This is the Marksburg.

For stability, the Marksburg’s walls are triangular and built so close to the hill’s edge that in places it's hard to see where the rocks end and the walls begin. Old foundations reveal that the citadel began as a fortified tower, probably built by the 10th century Franks. The Roman style central tower was built about 200 years later. Subsequent owners of the Marksburg erected an additional defensive wall. Unlike other castles the Marksburg has survived into the 20th century as more than a ruin or a romantic restoration. Despite of additions in the 17th and 18th centuries its medieval character has been magnificently preserved.

The landlord who erected the main buildings in the 13th century was called "Eberhard von Katzenelnbogen", another count from the family whose vast influence shaped the history of the middle Rhine. A canny businessman and trader, he shared his prosperity with the city of Braubach. The castle gave the town much needed employment and most of all protection. This vital function of all medieval castles was acknowledged throughout the continent by friend and foe alike. In a statement of détente between church and state, the archbishop of Köln wrote: "Our city shows that their life and belongings are linked with a decline of the castle". Though Eberhard’s generosity at Marksburg was purely one-sided, he could order Braubach workers to the castle whenever their services were needed.

For Eberhard’s court, access to the castle on horseback was a strict necessity. Because of their heavy armor knights of the era could not dismount without help. Without armor they went so in comfort. Marksburg’s main entrance was carved out of the slate rock of the mountain itself. Rough-hewn steps prevented horses from slipping during rains.

At the end of this stairway lies the Roman palace, the castle’s oldest building. Marksburg’s central courtyard is remarkably narrow, crowded by the massive Roman tower at its centre. Surrounding the courtyard is the gothic palace, built at the end of the 15th century.

The palace’s sharp roof is protected with slates excavated for the castle’s foundation.

Under the castle’s second tower lies the spacious "Rittersaal", the knights hall and main living room where official receptions took place. Here, Count Eberhard entertained and fratered with the region’s noblemen. The hall’s massive wall in 10 feet thick, sturdy enough for even the most determined onslaught by catapult or cannon.

Adjoining the knights hall inside the second tower is the striking polygonal chapel, spanned by grind vaulting in ten sections. Colourful biblical scenes compete overhead with flattering portraits of knights. The chapel originally was constructed on the east side of the castle. Later it was moved to the castle’s south side, its most vulnerable face. God, it's builders reasoned, would protect his sanctuary. To help transfer the holy spirit to the new chapel site these ceremonial heads were also moved. They represent the seven deadly sins expiated only to prayer.

This portrait depicts St. Mark. He played a vital role in the legend that gave the fortress its name.

Source: YouTube

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