Sailing through Germany's stunning Middle Rhine region, Winston Aldworth explores a classic medieval castle.

Think your home is a bit damp and draughty? Well, spare a thought for those poor souls who struggled on the property ladder of the Rhine region in Germany, during the Middle Ages.

As any first-home buyer in Auckland will tell you, there's so much to worry about with real estate: the gaps between the bottom of the door and the floor; the lack of insulation in those long winter months, the invading hordes in the summer months and the occasional outbreak of bubonic plague.

Guide Desiree Kruger shows instruments of torture. Photo / Winston Aldworth
Guide Desiree Kruger shows instruments of torture. Photo / Winston Aldworth

But hey, enough about Sandringham. Let's talk about Castle Marksburg, at Braubach, in Germany's very castle-y Middle Rhine region.

Sailing along the Rhine on a river cruise is, at times, like sailing through a postcard. Passengers aboard the Avalon Imagery II sat back and soaked up the show. This is true castle country, with 42 of them looking down on the river. As the ship rolled along, new castles came into view drifting past us, then fading back into the fairy tale landscape.


Towering 162m above the Rhine, castles don't come much more postcard-ready than the glorious Marksburg. This is such an archetypal castle that a local rumour has it a Japanese consortium tried to buy it in the 1990s so they could ship it - brick by brick - to Japan and rebuild it there.

Rebuilding and renovating have been common themes over the centuries and Marksburg, where building started in 1117, is the only one never to have been destroyed. Although an American artillery crew gave it a nudge in 1945.

They built things differently 900 years ago. Whereas today's proud homeowner likes the loo to be out of sight, Marksburg has a privy that opens directly on to the main dining hall - all the better to chat to dinner guests while passing a motion.

Marksburg was built for little people. Unlike the modern variety, your average medieval German was pretty small. Today's Germans come in at seventh on the list of tallest nations (they look up to a few Scandinavian and European neighbours - take a bow, Holland, you're at No 1).

But these Germans were teeny-tiny. From the main living area - where the beds could have fitted into a child's playhouse - we head into a stairwell leading to some upstairs rooms. It's a claustrophobic experience; even by the standards of Marksburg's snug corridors, this is an especially tight fit.

Like so much of the architecture around here, the stairwell is designed with violent death in mind. To walk down from the upper level to the main living area - where the castle's prime inhabitants would be ensconced in case of attack - you're descending the stairwell in a corkscrew motion, with your left arm leading the way. The stairwell was designed to be extra tight so that attackers would have a hard time moving through it in their heavy armour.

"Most people are right-handed," says our guide, Desiree Kruger. "So an attacker coming down the stairs has their weapon in the right hand. When they come through the door at the bottom, they come through with their left side first. It's harder for them to attack with their sword in their right hand.

"So you can attack them first," she notes cheerily.

Medieval living was a tough business.

The torture equipment is stored in a room on the lower levels (naturally, you don't want your torture room to have good views, right?). "These aren't pleasant things," says Desiree, as she shows us torture devices conjured from some pretty dark minds. There are weird helmet things that encase a victim's head in a wire cage, various means of sticking blades into prisoners, a stretching rack and - most horrific of all - a seat into which a victim is strapped and forced to watch highlights of the Warriors 2016 NRL campaign. Oh, the inhumanity.

Some of the home-design principles that we see elsewhere in the castle are still at play in our homes today. The herb garden is near the kitchen; the blacksmith's workshop is by the driveway.

There are grisly wonders to be seen inside these ancient castles, but from the outside all is chocolate-box divine.

We leave Castle Marksburg, the Avalon Imagery II slipping away into the twilight. Pink hues of sunset play across the high cliffs on the eastern banks of the Rhine as more ridiculously gorgeous castles look down upon us.


Avalon Waterways offers river cruises across Europe including the eight-day Romantic Rhine itinerary between Zurich and Amsterdam. Sailings in 2017 now on sale, from $3404pp twin-share.