Castles in the mist
Sailing in the Upper Middle Rhine’s most scenic stretch
We are huddled aboard the top deck of MS Inspire on a chilly autumn day, a bedraggled group of sightseers buffeted by blustering rain as grey skies hammer down on the Rhine Gorge, and castles loom eerily from the mist like Middle-earth fortresses.
A faint disembodied voice emanates from a sound system hidden somewhere behind the damp deck chairs or empty hot tub of Tauck’s newest and very smart river vessel. It is our German guide, snug below decks, his name lost on the wind, providing a running commentary as we cruise the Upper Middle Rhine playing what he calls “castle ping pong” — ancient edifices and imposing battlements are so numerous on either side of this stretch of the river it was listed a World Heritage site by UNESCO 13 years ago.
“Most castles tell the same old story,” our invisible guide deadpans, “someone falls in love, someone dies, the French sack it, then it becomes a youth hostel.”
The ruined Rheinfels Castle is a case in point. Dating from 1245 and once the mightiest fortress on the river, it was thoroughly sacked by the French in the late 18th century and today is home to the Romantik Hotel Schloss. The 65km stretch of river known as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley or Rhine Gorge is a highlight of any cruise along this busy waterway, a major trading route since Roman times. More than 40 castles, some intact (Marksburg is a good example), some restored, are concentrated on a narrow stretch between Bingen/ Rudesheim and Koblenz that also includes the famous Lorelei.
Our late-season cruise crowd has been looking forward to this day since we boarded Inspire in Basel but only a few are prepared to brave the weather on top aided by kindly stewards hurrying out blankets and cups of tea. Even before breakfast we have crossed into a fairytale realm where whitewashed towers rise above mossy ruins and tiny villages snuggle against the water’s edge. There are pastel-painted houses and pretty churches and castles perched on precipitous forested ridges or above steeply terraced vineyards stitched onto the hillside in a tapestry of shimmering gold. (Vines have been cultivated here for a millennium.)
The low cloud adds oodles of atmosphere as castles materialise through the gloom and swirling fog muffles all sound; it feels as though an army on horseback might appear on the ridge at any moment. That is, until a highspeed train darts like an arrow let fly from a bow above the riverbank. More passengers come up on deck as we approach Lorelei, a rocky headland on the eastern bank soaring 120m.
Here the river is at its deepest and narrowest and during the Middle Ages these swirling waters claimed many boats giving rise to legendry tales of a goldenhaired siren. In 1824, Heinrich Heine penned Die Lorelie, adapting an earlier work by Clemens Brentano, about a fair maiden “preening” on the cliff top, her echoing song luring countless bargemen to their deaths.
Even modern riverboats, lengthier than any medieval barge, must be careful and between Oberwesel and St Goarshausen the captain relies on signals to guide our vessel.
Safely through, our day is chiming nicely with the poem as we power towards Koblenz and the confluence of this fair river with the Moselle: “The air is cool in the gloaming … and gently flows the Rhine.”
Damp clothes and a slight sniffle are a small price to pay for a remarkable day on the Middle Rhine, although the identity of our laconic guide remains a mystery and just who died and who fell in love we will never know.
Christine McCabe was a guest of Tauck, Travel the World and Etihad Airways.
MS Inspire river cruise ship, top; Marksburg at Braubach, above