LIVING in a country with very few historic buildings is going to give you an appreciation for a castle. Especially one that was built more than 800 years ago and is still in pretty good nick.
Germany has a lot of castles. You see them in proliferation among the hills rising from the river banks where they sit smugly, silently boasting their grandeur, looking down on you as you sit on the decks of your river cruise ship (Avalon Imagery II in our case) sipping your German wine.
Your cruise director will give a running commentary as you pass the castles, most of which you won't take in, but it is enough to say these stately castles were built many centuries ago by rich barons to collect taxes from passing merchant vessels. On one stretch of the Rhine, we passed no less than 42 castles.
At Lahnstein we were taken ashore to tour the centuries-old Marksburg Castle, a romantic vision from afar with its turrets and towers. Up close, the romance was outdone by the obvious lack of comfort that the people who lived in castles eight centuries ago had to endure.
The cold and gloomy rooms shrieked of discomfort in every dark corner. Fortunately servants were a dime a dozen back then and they did all the dirty work, including cleaning up the gardens beneath the "toilets'', just holes in the ground underneath wooden seats in narrow stony rooms.
The kitchen where the servants worked, lived and slept would have been the only room in the castle that was constantly warm, with fires permanently burning to smoke pheasants and turkeys and chickens. Even in the height of summer it would have been difficult to warm the massive rooms.
Stairwells were built impossibly narrow so invaders in heavy armour could be heard coming before they even got through the castle door.
In the gloomy Gothic hall where important matters of business were discussed, our guide told us it was good manners to get up from the table, visit the loo in full sight of the table, and do what you had to do while leaving the door open so you could continue to be part of the discussion.
The bedrooms were depressing cold places with towering ceilings and tiny beds where the people slept sitting upright for fear of dying in their sleep if they lay down. See? Comfort. None of it. The armour room displayed a creative mix of protective coverings that again all added up to extraordinary discomfort.
The obligatory castle dungeon scared the pants off everyone in our tour group. The pictures of prisoners being tortured in a variety of lively ways involving ropes, racks and irons made us shiver. Gossiping was considered a crime in the castle, and gossips were sent out on the town wearing a nasty heavy mask with an iron ball in it to prevent them speaking. (And don't we all know a gossip we would like to cure in this manner?)
The stocks were used to publicly shame people because they didn't have social media to do the job back then. Instead the poor wretch in the stocks had to sit in the village square while people emptied the contents of their chamber pots over him. More discomfort. But enough scatological talk.
Marksburg Castle is magnificent. The Rhine Valley's most romantic and ancient castle, it is protected by the German National Trust and you simple must visit it. The easiest way is by a shore excursion from your river cruise ship. Many vessels sail Europe's great rivers and you will want to rush back to the modern comforts of your ship after a castle visit.
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