Have Castle, Will Travel

Something I used to do when I first launched the Blue Parrot was to reblog a different piece every Saturday. So, it’s a tradition. This one first appeared on Jim Hill Media on August 1st, 2003.


Let’s set the WABAC machine back to the days of knights, dragons and damsels in distress, right?

No, I am not talking about the high school antics of Dungeons and Dragons, nor will I engage in a descriptive bout of the B&D scene, although it is a bit amusing how they cross over with interests. We will not be talking about accommodations in the style of your average Renaissance Pleasure Faire. No aging hippies selling local arts, crafts and potions; no straw bundles; no bulging bodices with breasts broiling in the sun… This will be civilized. But then again, a healthy dose of fantasy has never hurt anyone.

It is all about castles today and there is no better place to start than along the Romantic section of the Rhine River in Germany. This is generally accepted as the area north of Mainz/Wiesbaden (cities on opposite sides of the river and capitols of their respective states of Rhineland-Palatinate and Hesse) and south of Cologne. It is also home to the area known as the Rheingau, that you may recall from an earlier Ruminations on wine.

So, I can hear you asking, why a castle? Fair question. Why would anyone build a castle? It’s all about defense! That’s why. Think of a time when you and yours might have needed the safety of a place to retreat to. Okay, so a cave might work as well, but wouldn’t you know there usually isn’t one around when you really need it.

As a landowner, you probably would face a time when someone would come and try to take that land from you. If you owned enough land, you probably had people working for you to make their living from the land as well. The castle provided a place to keep you and your people safe when an enemy came.

It didn’t hurt you if your castle also showed how much you could afford to your neighbors as well. Combine defense with style, and you get the castle of your dreams. (One can hear the marketing types warming up now…)

But any defense is only as good as the weapons used against it. Back in the days of siege warfare, your castle would keep you safe while the enemies camped outside. Once gunpowder and cannons came into play that was pretty much the end of the castle, as holes in walls tended to negate the effect of that particular defense.

So, today for every castle you see restored, there are as many or more in a state of ruin. But those that do remain are worth a visit.

When we were looking at where to visit while planning our return visit to Germany, there were lots of good German castles to choose from. If we had really been interested, why we could even have purchased one of our own! We opted to spend a few nights in one instead.

Now when most folks think of a castle, there is one that usually comes to mind. Neuschwanstein is as close to the fairy tale castle as you will ever find. Built as the passion of Bavaria’s “Mad King” Ludwig II, it is one of the major tourist destinations in southern Germany. Compare it to the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, and you’ll note the obvious influence. There are tours of the grounds and the surrounding area.

Back to the Rhine, there are many great towns with great castles to choose from. During the year, there are some wonderful activities. A perennial favorite is The Rhine in Flames fireworks spectacular — this year on Saturday, August 11th. From many of the small towns and from boats along the river, there are great places to watch this show unfold. Imagine Fantasmic on a scale of miles, and you’re there! In 2003, there was even a railway excursion with a steam locomotive hauled passenger train along the Rhine complete with a stop to view it all.

One of the towns in the area where this event is held is Linz. With a live webcam mounted on one of the ferries the crosses the river, you’ll get a great view without having to make the trip.

When we went on our return to Germany in September of 2001, we visited several of the towns along the way. (I’ll mention a bit about them later.) A combination of driving our rented Mercedes station wagon (in which I am fairly sure we crossed the Rhine using the ferry at Linz) and using the KD (Koln-Dusseldorfer) cruise boat offered one good way to take it all in. Their steam paddle-wheeler, the S.S. Goethe is a classic way to travel here. The DB offers rail service on both sides of the Rhine that makes stops at all of the small towns between Mainz and or Wiesbaden and Cologne.

So which castle did we stay at? Schloss Schoenburg on the hill high above Oberwesel. My mother waded through her Karen Brown guidebook and came up with this as her choice. That and she thought she wanted to spend a night in one of the tower rooms in the castle. (FYI, the Karen Brown web pages do have a good deal of information on other castles in the area.)

Now my brother Larry and I shared Room 13. I’ve always though of that as a lucky number, and boy did it pay off! We had a big room with a large bathroom and a great balcony that overlooked the Rhine. Seeing our room, my mom immediately became jealous and found she didn’t care all that much for her tower room after all. I don’t blame her. But I wasn’t about to offer to trade places with her and my dad.

You see… Room 13 offered me the place from which to watch not only the barge and boat traffic on the Rhine, but also the trains going by on both side of the river as well. Like fish in the proverbial barrel it was.

The hotel part is to the left in the view above. Room 13? The balcony is just to the right of the 4 windows on the bottom level of the red brick section. Check out more views of the hotel here.

We enjoyed two nights here — a Monday and a Tuesday. The hotel restaurant was closed on Mondays, and at that time, they offered a chance to enjoy dinner at several places in Oberwesel with a different course served at each of the three stops. Now, according to their web pages, the hotel offers a four-course meal service to guests nightly included in the room rate. We had some wonderful breakfasts (complete with great knitted covers for the soft-boiled eggs) here as well as dinner on Tuesday evening — with a great bottle of a Chilean Merlot to top it all off!

Schoenburg has some amusing elements to the tale as well. Vistors park in a lot across a bridge from the castle, and their luggage is carried up the hill the rest of the way in a trailer hauled by a tractor. It’s a good walk past some of the unrestored areas of the castle with some fantastic views of local vineyards. A Catholic retreat house uses part of the structure and the chapel still functions as intended.

All in all, a fine time sitting and enjoying a complimentary glass of sherry while watching the passing panorama. Oh, the pain…

Oberwesel was one of several great towns we visited along this part of the Rhine. Others included St. Goar (where we boarded the KD boat for our river cruise), Bacharach (where I picked up a Steiff bear similar to one we acquired some 40 years before. Named the new one Burt and he collected pins for the rest of the trip! Stop me before I get more pins…) with some great shops including a wonderful outlet store with anything you could ever want in way of a beer stein, and Rudeshiem. This was our destination when we rode the boat from St. Goar (getting a parking ticket in the rush to board). It’s a real tourist town with all the trappings, including a big Christmas shop.

There were some great things to see along the way, and I’ll mention a few of the more notable ones. Ever hear the tale of the Lorelei? “According to German legend, there was once a beautiful young maiden, named Lorelei, who threw herself headlong into the river in despair over a faithless lover. Upon her death she was transformed into a siren and could from that time on be heard singing on a rock along the Rhine River, near St. Goar. Her hypnotic music lured sailors to their death. The legend is based on an echoing rock with that name near St. Goar, Germany.” As the KD boat departs St. Goar heading south, it passes the large slate rock formation known as the Lorelie.

Departing Oberwesel, another legend comes to life along the river. Immediately beyond the town, the smooth flow of the Rhine is disturbed by seven underwater rocks–The Seven Sisters. Legend has it that seven girls were turned to stone for their prudish behavior. Local men are known to tell this tale when their affection meets with resistance. (A print on the wall of our Room 13 was a great telling of this tale — all in German, of course!)

There’s a lot more to see and hear along the way and the KD folks entertain but don’t annoy with their commentary. That and the food and drink aboard in first rate. Beer was good as was the hot chocolate.


“Now, enough of Germany!”, I hear you saying at this point. Gotcha. So how about something in a castle on this side of the pond? Coming right up!

If there was ever someone in this country who fancied themselves close to European nobility of the type who built castles along the Rhine, it had to be the family headed by William Randolph Hearst. Among the better parts of his legacy is the palace know as San Simeon or Hearst Castle. This property was 250,000-acres of ranchland that included the Mexican Ranchos of Piedras Blancas, San Simeon and Santa Rosa in the area northwest of San Luis Obispo.

San Simeon is actually a series of structures making up what could easily be called the most ornate complex in all of California. The web pages linked above tell the history better than I can, so I recommend exploring them. There’s a lot of history with the entertainment world involved here as movie folks were frequent guests of the Hearst’s hospitality. Today it is a state historical monument and well worth an extended exploration when you have the chance. (There’s even some history of my family in the area, but I’ll save that for another time…)

Now when it comes to building incredible structures, I’ve mentioned a few in other Ruminations or columns. Recall Billy Ralston and his Palace Hotel in San Francisco, or Yosemite’s Awahnee. But for eccentricity, it would be hard to beat Sarah Winchester and her house in San Jose. Known today as the Winchester Mystery House, this classic Victorian mansion was a project begun in 1884. Legend has it that a spiritualist convinced her that as long as she was continuing the process of building the structure, she would be safe from the spirits of those killed by Winchester rifles. In the end, “this 160-room Victorian mansion had modern heating and sewer systems, gas lights that operated by pressing a button, three working elevators, and 47 fireplaces. From rambling roofs and exquisite hand inlaid parquet floors to the gold and silver chandeliers and Tiffany art glass windows, you will be impressed by the staggering amount of creativity, energy, and expense poured into each and every detail.”

Today it is open for tours, and those on Halloween are especially popular — considering the spirits are out and about…


Now back to spending the night in a castle. Remember the column on hotel rooms? Here is a link to a sampling of places where you can spend a night in a castle here in the States. Of those listed, there is one I might want to try if I had the chance. Ravenwood Castle is located in Ohio’s Hocking Valley. A variety of events and specials abound, even a discount if you arrive and stay in proper medieval garb!

Asking Jeeves for similar accommodations gets another set of results. Out of those, Denver’s Castle Marne also gets a vote for a taste of the Victorian era. I’m not sure, but I may have stayed here on a trip to Denver back in the early 80’s.

But of the web choices I found, this one may be the best of the bunch. Thornewood Castle “a magnificent three-story manor home dating from the turn of the century, offers over 27,000 square feet of living space, graciously arranged under one tile roof. Boasting 54 rooms, including 28 bedrooms and 22 baths, this English Tudor/Gothic mansion is one of the few genuine private castles in the United States. Thornewood Castle was built to the specifications of Mr. Chester Thorne, one of the founders of the Port of Tacoma, in beautiful Washington State. His fascination with the grandeur of the old English estate led him to design his dream house. Kertland Kelsey Cutter, one of America’s most gifted architects of that era, converted this dream into the once-in-a-lifetime estate.”

So there you have it… A look at the chance to enjoy a night in a castle or even just an afternoon visit!

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