Each castle is a pearl in the double strand that spangles the banks of the Rhein. As we sail down the river, my parents and I crisscross the deck to catch every fortress before the current rolls us round the next bend. Some of the palaces are pale as plaster moons rising from the ridge. Others seem to grow from the cliffs themselves, grey as gunmetal.
Wreathed in April greenery, the ruins are gravestones in a cemetery overgrown by lonely centuries. However, a few castles are sprigged with new pennants: hotel barons and restaurateurs rule here now. One castle is neither a ruin nor a retreat. The windows of Burg Katz are boarded up from the inside. They stare out across the Rhein, white and blind. Katz belongs to a millionaire who keeps the castle locked up, with all its ghosts inside.
Just one village downriver from Katz, the Lorelei distracts the current. Named for the Nixie who once ensnared the river’s sailors with her songs, the emerald headland crowns the Rhein’s most perilous waters. She looks innocent enough this morning. Perhaps she has already breakfasted on rivermens’ bones.
Beneath each castle, a little village is strung out along the shore, small shops and homes painted bright as river stones. A Franciscan monastery cut like a block of ice stands at the edge of the village of Kamp-Bornhofen. Above it, two castles, the Hostile Brothers, glare at one another from opposing peaks. Anyone who has ever had a brother can fancy the legend that gave the castles their name.
For a thousand years, the Rhein has carried precious cargo from Switzerland to the North Sea. Yet the treasure that was precious beyond ransom was the poetry that sailed these currents with the 19th century’s Romantics. From the Rhein and her vines, they sipped effervescent inspiration. They painted the Rhein’s poetry across their canvases in ribbons of ultramarine, they plaited it into ballads, stitched it through sonnets, and embroidered it into the pages of their letters home. As I climb the roofless walls of Burg Rheinfels, I suspect the ruin misses her poets.