I threw open the drapes of my stateroom and gasped. Gone were the gray skies of Amsterdam and Cologne. Brilliant sunshine promised a perfect day of sailing through the Middle Rhine Valley, a fairy tale landscape of glittering green hillsides, where near-vertical vineyards tumbled down toward the emerald river.

Near vertical vineyards cover the hillsides of the Middle Rhine, as they have done since the 11th century

Near vertical vineyards cover the hillsides of the Middle Rhine, as they have done since the 11th century. Due to their steepness, the grapes are still picked by hand.

Since prehistoric times, the Rhine has been one of the world’s most important trade routes, and the 40 castles and forts found in the UNESCO World Heritage area between Koblenz and Bingen are testament to how much these lands have always been coveted. The castles, mostly constructed between the 12th century and the first half of the 14th century, were built by the princes of the empire to protect their land holdings and mineral rights from political rivals. Toward the end of the 13th century, however, they seized upon an even more important source of revenue: collecting tolls from ships using the Rhine to transport goods. Chains were strung across the river and lowered only when the toll had been paid.

Marksburg Castle, on a hilltop above the town of Braubach, was never conquered, thus it looks much the same as when it was built

Marksburg Castle, on a hilltop above the town of Braubach, was never conquered, thus it looks much the same as when it was built

The importance of the castles of the Middle Rhine began to decline in the 14th century, but their final death knell sounded during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) and the subsequent War of the Palatine Succession (1688 to 1697), when most were destroyed. Only three were spared – Ehrenbreitstein, Marksburg and Burg Rheinfels – and my day would start at Marksburg, the only one that was never conquered.

Today Marksburg remains much the same as when it was originally built. The roads leading into the bowels of the castle consist of jagged stones laid inexpertly on a steep grade that had me wondering how horses could have made the climb, especially when carrying knights in full armor. Thick stone walls and few windows kept the interior shrouded in darkness and chilly enough to make me shiver, even in the middle of summer. Any warmth would have come from enormous fireplaces that required an endless supply of firewood, all of which had to be carted from the slopes below. Even cooking a meal, which required the use of unwieldy iron kettles, would have been torture.

Rheinfels Castle and Fortress in St. Goar

Rheinfels Castle and Fortress in St. Goar

Rheinstein Castle, located between Trehtingshausen and Bingen, which marks the end of the area known as the Middle Rhine

Rheinstein Castle, located between Trehtingshausen and Bingen, which marks the end of the area known as the Middle Rhine

Back on the ship I climbed to the sunshine-drenched upper deck, where, for the next 40 miles, I had a birds-eye view of the castles and fortifications along the Middle Rhine. Some were monolithic, featuring crenelated ramparts and Disney-esque turrets, while others were a simple square keep. Many were just shells, their interiors disintegrated and roofs caved-in. One pair especially caught my fancy. Constructed by warring factions within sight of one another, they were dubbed Burg Maus (Mouse Castle) and Burg Katz (Cat Castle), for the cat and mouse power game their princely owners waged.

Maus Castle in Deuernburg, Germany in the Middle Rhine River Valley

Maus Castle in Deuernburg, Germany in the Middle Rhine River Valley

Katz Castle in St. Soarshausen, sister to Maus Castle, named for the "Cat and Mouse" game played by its owners

Katz Castle in St. Soarshausen, sister to Maus Castle, named for the “Cat and Mouse” game played by its owners

Unique among the fortifications was Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, built on an island in the middle of the river. Though more susceptible to attack, the island location gave its owner a distinct advantage in the collection of shipping tolls.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle is one of two in the Middle Rhine Valley that was built on an island rather than a hilltop. At the top left, Gutenfels castle takes the high ground

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle is one of two in the Middle Rhine Valley that was built on an island rather than a hilltop.

After Ehrenfels Castle, the landscape flattened out and the river widened. When Klopp Castle came into view in Bingen, the Middle Rhine became the Upper Rhine, and the castles disappeared. My romantic notions having been crushed by a close-up encounter with Marksburg, I decided that viewing castles was best done from afar – from the top deck of a cruise ship, to be precise. Even so, that night I dreamed of knights and ladies-in-waiting and castles decked in rich tapestries.

Note: I was a guest of Viking River Cruises during my Grand European Tour, however, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Viking offers itineraries on the great rivers of the world, including destinations in Europe, Egypt, China, Southeast Asia, Russia, and soon, in the U.S.