Marksburg Castle

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to take a Viking River Cruise on the Rhine River through the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland. One of the stops on this adventure was to Marksburg Castle in Braubach, Germany.

Our ship, the Viking Herja, docked at the quaint town of Koblenz, which we unfortunately did not have the opportunity to explore. Viking gave us a few tour options from which to choose:

We chose the castle, one of the best preserved castles along the Rhine, because is considered by many as a “must see”. The castle is nearly 800 years old, and the only castle in the area that was never destroyed/bombed-out/abandoned.

History

This photo gives you an idea of the setting of the castle on the hilltop over the Rhine. At the bottom left under the table and chairs is where visitors enter; the remainder of the path is a twisting walk uphill. (Photo: Marksburg Castle website)

Marksburg Castle’s origins actually go back to the year 1100 when the Eppstein family constructed a stone “keep” on the hilltop. As a “keep”, the original structure was not a full-time residence. In 1117, the keep was expanded and the tower was built as a look-out point. It was with this vertical expansion that the origins of the Castle began.

Perched high atop a steep hill overlooking the town of Braubach, the tower’s vantage point allowed protection to the citizens below — from the tower, intruders could be seen coming by land or river for miles. The Eppsteins also used the tower to generate income by monitor passing ships along the Rhine and forcing them to pay a toll to continue their way up or down river. 

As noted, Marksburg did not begin as a residence for a noble family and was essentially a defensive structure. The Castle’s purpose 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.

A sketch of the various parts of the Castle. Tours begin at the Gift Shop.

As the only hilltop castle on the Middle Rhine River which was never destroyed* and is the best surviving example of a medieval castle in the area. While Marksburg was never destroyed, it did suffer damage from US artillery fire in March 1945, and the castle was painstakingly repaired by the German Castles Association following WWII. Today, it’s the most visited of the Middle Rhine castles, albeit by guided tour only. We were grateful our Viking River Cruise included an excursion to this remarkable fortress.

* Note: Nearby Pfaltzgrafenstein Castle was never destroyed either but that castle sits in the river rather than on a hilltop.

Touring Markburg

The bus ride from Braubach base of the castle was short and all up hill over very narrow, twisting roads. From the parking lot to the castle proper visitors can either take a long uphill ramp-walkway or a short-cut in the form of a steep set of stairs. As we were feeling ambitious, we took the stairs.

Note: 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 suggest not visiting Marksburg Castle. The tour is all uphill and often over very old, slippery rocks or stairs.

The Gates

One of the first things you encounter when you arrive at Marksburg are the gates designed to prevent intruders from breaching the castle.

From the start, before you even begin the official tour, you arrive at the Drawbridge Gate (refer to the diagram above and photos at right). Past the Drawbridge Gate, you walk through a long, dark tunnel and arrive at the gatekeeper’s room which has been converted to a gift shop and cafeteria.

Once inside, we walked over to the Fox Gate where we met our tour guide. Our guide was very knowledgeable but not without that sense of humor that the Germans are known for. He was holding a very old-looking skeleton key that he claimed was the only way in and out of the castle which brought a nervous chuckle from all members of the tour.

You will notice in several pictures that the Castle gate openings look like they were once larger. Originally, the gates needed to be much taller and were built to allow access to men on horseback.

A walk up another steep, cobble stone incline and we arrived at the Notches Gate in Castellan’s Tower. The Notches Gate (see photo at right), one of the last points of defense for access into the Castle, features a machicolation, a projection from which defenders would throw rocks and pour hot tar on the intruders below.

After passing through the Notches Gate, we got a little history of all of the different families that occupied Marksburg Castle. I can honestly say that I don’t remember the details or the German family names. Each family had their own coat of arms on display. 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. The Castle changed hands several 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 Castle’s uneven and slippery path continued up the Knights’ Stairway and passed under a covered structure, called the Small Battery that could, once again, be used in an attack to throw more boulders or hot liquids down on intruders. The Knights Stairway was constructed to be purposefully rough which allowed 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 and good balance for people to walk up.

In the past, intruders who had made it this far would had successfully stormed several gates and were very close to the “Keep” and overtaking the owner of the Castle. On our visit, after a steady uphill walk, many of the tourists in our party were out of breath and all were happy to be walking on level ground again.

Here you see the first residential structure built, the old Romanesque Hall dating 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.

The fourth gateway, the Iron Gate in Stewards Tower was altered sometime in the past. To my knowledge, we didn’t see it or, maybe I simply missed it.
Drawbridge gate; to the left is the emblem for the protection of cultural property according to the Hague Convention
The Fox Gate
The Notches Gate
Knights’ Stairway

Castle Life

From the Great Battery, the tour turned from the defensive purpose of the Castle to the domestic side of life — the rooms depicting what it would have been like to live in the Castle from the 13th through 17th centuries.

Through a door past by the Great Battery and the cannons, we entered into a tranquil garden and ramparts with fantastic views of the Rhine River Valley below. In the garden, our guide explained, were growing around 150 plants; herbs, vegetables, and some fruits which, in the medieval times, would have had important medicinal properties.

From this vantage point, one can really see how Marksburg Castle had a superb strategic location allowing its occupants to see threats both near and far.

We toured 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 in the Middle Ages as water-borne pathogens were not understood, but people understood that drinking water would often lead to illness. So they drank wine or ale instead.

Today’s tourist need to realize that the wine in that era was much less alcoholic than the wine we drink today; wine in those days 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 link below).

Kitchen facilities in Marksburg Castle

We also toured the kitchen and dining areas, which were presented in a pleasant museum-like rendition of what, in the time of castles, would have actually been very smokey, smelly, hot and unpleasant rooms. The kitchen, we were told, is where the servants would have worked to prepare meals to serve to the noble family in the hall upstairs.

Continuing on, we proceeded 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.

The Great Hall, a combination of living and dining room is where most of the noble family’s activities took place. Musical instruments and a chess set in this area indicated some of the available entertainment options.

The privy in Marksburg castle

One of the most popular rooms on the tour was the privy or “ye olde toilet.” Marksburg’s toilet a unique in 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.

Next to the Great Hall was a paneled bedchamber that contained a canopied bed and cradle and a sitting area. The canopy afforded privacy and stopped cold drafts from chilling the lord and his lady.

Inhabitants of a fortified Castle would require all aspects of daily life be present, especially during times of sustained stays in. One of those necessities of course included a proper chapel where they could say daily prayers and hold services. The Chapel at Marksburg, although very small, is an elegant room dedicated to St. Mark (Mark the Evangelist). The ceiling and walls are decorated with what remains of colorfully painted religious frescoes. Built in the Gothic style, with pointed arches and a niche in the wall containing a statue of Mary and Jesus.

Leaving the chapel, we took another narrow stairway to the next floor where we saw the “Gimbel Collection”, a display of twelve life-sized figurines from 1880 which demonstrates the changes made to armor and weaponry from ancient to early modern times.

The armor on display consists of extremely detailed replicas as well as original pieces. Artfacts from excavation work carried out in and around the castle grounds – coins, glass, arrow heads, dice – are on display in a glass cabinet.

The armor was quite impressive and one can only imagine how very uncomfortable and heavy such armor must have been to wear.

To end the tour we visited the former stable which today houses a gruesome exhibit on torture and punishment in the Middle Ages; a replica of a 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 so apparently a place would be needed to deal with those that broke the law.

Since the Duke of Nassau owned the Castle in the early 1800’s and used it as a prison and a home for invalid soldiers, a dungeon may have been occupied at that time, don’t know for sure. For modern tourists, they have the room outfitted with medieval torture devices used on thieves, liars, gossips, adulterers, murderers, treasonous persons, etc.

Tour’s End

At the conclusion of the tour, we returned to our 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 really come to appreciate – the door to door service. We were greeted at the ship with by the chef who welcomed us onboard with a nice snack and there was all kinds of beverages for us. We would spend the rest of the day on our ship, the Viking Herja, cruising on the Rhine.

Note: The tour of Marksburg Castle is very interesting. However the walk through many areas on this tour is very dangerous as the rocks were not cobble stones but rather rough rocks sticking out everywhere and proper hand railings were often not to be found.

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