Approximately 40 castles and fortresses, stretched along a mere 65 kilometres of the River Rhine between the cities of Bingen and Coblence, constitute one of the most outstanding features of World Heritage Site. Such a concentration of castles within such a small area is to be found nowhere else in the world!
The castles stand today as silent witnesses to the turbulent past of the region. Their strategic positions and lucrative toll duties meant that the Middle Rhine valley was long a disputed area. The archbishoprics of Cologne, Mainz, and Treves as well as Counts Palatine and Landgraves, the so-called reichsfreie Städte (towns which attained a degree of autonomy through direct subjugation to the emperor), and the lower aristocracy were all contenders for influence in the region.
The castles were often used for the collection of tolls, but they were also useful in offering some security against aggressive, marauding neighbours. Their striking hilltop positions were not chosen only for strategic reasons however; along with their light-coloured plasterwork and high towers, their power was a clearly visible symbol of their owner’s status.
The castles occupy hilltop and valley sites as well as the slopes in between, and the region even has moated castles to offer. Those occupying the tops of long narrow ridges needed only to strengthen their fortifications along the relatively small areas vulnerable to attack. The more easily accessible castles situated on slopes were protected by a curtain wall, sometimes with towers. The invention of new, long-range cannons during the baroque period made additional fortifications necessary. Castles without adequately strengthened defences were liable to fall victim to the ravages of war, during the Thirty Years’ War (1614-48), for example, or the Palatinate War of Succession.
The French revolutionary army brought another wave of destruction in its wake after 1793. The dawn of the 19th century saw the castles of the Rhine largely in ruin.
During that time, salvation came with the birth of Rhine Romanticism, inspiring the partial or complete reconstruction of many of these castles of the Upper Rhine Valley.