Braubach, a little-known town near Koblenz, Germany, has a surprise in store for its visitors. High on the hill overlooking the town sits the imposing Marksburg Castle, dating from 1117. It is arguably the best-preserved castle of the entire Middle Rhine Valley UNESCO site, and one of the best of the German castle tours.
Don't let the “castle” part of its name fool you. Marksburg has nothing in common with Disney fairy tales and it was never meant to be a palace for royalty. Like most countryside castles, Marksburg Castle was a fortress, built by the landowners to protect their harvest, hired hands, and local residents, who paid annual taxes for such protection. The countryside was the domain of outlaw bands, who raided farms and villages to fill their pockets and stomachs.
Some castles also “protected” key roads and rivers, extorting tolls from ships plying the river waters.
Why visit Marksburg Castle
For the most part, those dramatic castles lining the Rhine are Romantic Era reconstructions. Marksburg, however, was never destroyed, surviving conquests, Napoleonic rule, and World Wars, and so its construction is nearly all original. Actually, it is the only Rhine river castle never to have been destroyed, and so it has been continuously inhabited for more than 700 years.
Over the centuries Marksburg Castle has grown bit-by-bit from its original keep (still in the center of the complex). Most of the additions were for defense, which is obvious as you walk through the complex.
The Marksburg Castle experience
Our tour guide met our group outside the first castle gate, then escorted us up the path to the inner gate.
The entry gate was originally tall enough for knights on horseback to gallop through. Realizing that this would also make it easy for enemy hordes to enter en masse, they decided to reduce the entryway.
Once through the gate, you come to a very well-worn staircase. Called the “Knights' Stairway,” it's made from slate. These steps were carved with a rough surface to keep horses from slipping on rainy days. The stones are worn and uneven due to all those horses riding over it for 800 years. Watch your step; it's easy to trip if you're not careful.
The staircase passes under a bridge that was quite handy for a useful form of defense — pouring boiling pitch on invaders.
Castle defense: the “Great Battery”
Most of the castle's defense construction was built for the purpose of housing the cannons that are aimed toward the lower Rhine, to protect the castle and the town of Braubach.
Marksburg Castle wine cellar
Wine, not beer, has traditionally been the preferred drink in these parts of Germany. Because castle water was unclean, everyone drank wine. Don't get too excited about that though, because the wine was actually less alcoholic than today's beer.
The pitchers on the wall held each person's daily allotment. The bellows was part of the winemaking process.
This hall is actually a kitchen, including an oven big enough to roast an ox whole. The arms holding the pots have notches to control the heat.
The servants were able to stoke the fire without being seen by the noble family simply by opening the little metal door in this photo. The triangular chair was used to make the job more comfortable; that's not a backrest, it's what the servant would lean on.
The residential apartments
The bedroom was the only heated room in the castle.
If the bed looks short to you, it is. The occupants slept with their backs elevated, because they had chronic breathing problems due to the constant exposure to smoke. At night the canopy helped to retain heat and it blocked some of the smoke from the fireplace as well.
Our guide also said it also kept out critters, but I don't quite see how that would work. What kind of critters?
The “apartment” also had a deep window seat, which was designed for maximum light for handwork and reading. Women would sit here and gossip (or “spin a yarn”) while doing needlework or working on the spinning wheel.
The privy/toilet was the most vulnerable and yet the most necessary room of all. It was also one of the most memorable things in the entire tour.
I had mistakenly assumed that the occupants used chamber pots for their waste, but no … they had an actual room for such important functions! It was little more than an upstairs outhouse, a small outhouse-type seat in a tiny room that stuck out from the side of the building. The privy was positioned over a pigsty that, I assume, took care of any – er – droppings.
This is probably the only bathroom I've ever seen that locks from the outside. A clever idea, actually, because was such a weak point in the castle's defenses. Every potential invader knew that this toilet room would provide easy access to the building. All they had to do was use a ladder and climb through the opening on the bottom. The lock solved that problem.
Marksburg Castle was actually a community, with a lot of people living within its walls. Just as in every similar building of the era, it had a chapel for the residents. Marksburg, in fact, was named after St. Mark and its chapel was therefore dedicated to him.
This Gothic style chapel has beautiful frescoes of the apostle and the lion that symbolizes him, plus many other Biblical scenes. I was surprised at how brilliantly colored and well preserved they still are.
From thinking of heavenly things to thinking of war.
We ended up in a museum that displayed all sorts of armor dating from Celtic times. I didn't know until this tour that the present-day military salute comes from how knights and soldiers used to greet each other. They would tip up their visor with their right hand in order to reveal their identity and show that they were friendly.
And of course there's another form of armor.
Yes, folks, that's a chastity belt, a medieval lady's “armor,” haha. Despite its reputation, its real purpose wasn't to keep a woman chaste while her husband was away. Women actually used it to protect themselves from assault when traveling.
Our last stop on our tour was the stable. Since the castle had been used as a prison in times gone by it stands to reason that they would show off some torture devices. Everything from pillories to face masks.
Not sure why they put it in the stable, though.
After you finish the castle tour…
After you tour Marksburg Castle, like almost every other attraction in the world, you'll be able to visit a gift shop. Unlike some places that sell a bunch of kitsch, Marksburg's gift shop actually has some pretty nice souvenirs.
Okay, you'll find some kitsch at the Marksburg shop – but they also have tons of good stuff: postcards, posters, books, local art, fun toys (shields and swords, princess and knight outfits, etc.) and my favorite: a paper scale model that you can cut out and glue together to make your own Marksburg Castle.
Tip: Because the castle is a river cruise attraction, the gift shop is able to ship your purchases if you don’t have room in your suitcase. That's a nice option if you've found something special but don't want to carry it throughout your trip.
If you need a bite to eat, there's a cafeteria restaurant (Marksburgschänke) right next to the gift shop. It features a panorama terrace with a spectacular, unspoiled view of the meandering Rhine and its valley. You can see the surrounding landscape for miles and miles, so be prepared. It can be mesmerizing to watch the cruise ships, barges, and boats as they sail the river.
You will also find a picnic terrace right next to the castle – perfect for self-catered snacks and lunches.
Marksburg Castle tour details
Even though it's not a long walk, the climb to the castle is steep. If you are able to find a shuttle, take it – better to preserve your energy for the tour.
Adults: 7 € – Discounts for students, families and groups
Summer season (late March through October):
- Guided tours usually start every 15 to 20 minutes
- English guided tours at 13:00 and 16:00
Winter season (November to late March):
- Guided tours every hour on the hour, German language only.
There's no self-guided option here. This best-preserved castle on the Rhine can be toured only by taking the 50-minute tour with a guide.
Tours are in German. Individual international visitors are able to join the regular guided tour with a leaflet in their own language.
There are two English guided tours daily during the summer. With prior notice, English-language tours can be arranged for groups of 20 or more.
Remember: This is an original, medieval-era castle.
- You will need to navigate stairs.
- The castle is not accessible by wheelchair.
- People with other physical disabilities may struggle with the uphill climb during the tour.