Viking Kara Cruise: Siren song of Lorelei, other legends inhabit castles on the Rhine

A landmark building looks as though it is a ship sailing on the Rhine.
A landmark building looks as though it is a ship sailing on the Rhine.

ABOARD THE VIKING KARA – Once upon a time there were two brothers who quarreled so violently that they set up separate castles and built a wall between them.

Years passed and, as the two brothers aged, they mended their ways and decided it was better to be friends than enemies. To celebrate their newfound peace, the siblings agreed to go hunting together. For this particular adventure, the brothers decided that the one who awakened first would give a wake-up call to the other by shooting an arrow at the other castle’s window shutters.

Old and the new. A castle towers over a German town on the Rhine.
Old and the new. A castle towers over a German town on the Rhine.

You might have already guessed how this story ends. Yep, one brother dispatched his arrow just as the other was opening his window. The shooter was horrified to see the arrow pierce his brother’s heart.

The surviving brother was so distraught that he sought solace in the Holy Land where he died. The two castles still stand.

Legends abound on ‘Old Father Rhine’

That’s just one of the tales along this magical stretch of the Rhine River where castles dot the hills and each crumbling ruin seems to have a magnificent history behind it. Today we are cruising the Middle Rhine aboard the Viking Kara as program director René Van Loon points out the sights and shares the legends swirling around them.

We are quite lucky, Rene notes, that the weather is so glorious. It’s cold but sunny and the early morning fog has lifted. Many of us have headed to the Kara’s top deck where we can better see the castles and move from side to side to take photos.

Many of the castles on the Rhine were destroyed by past conquerors.
Many of the castles on the Rhine were destroyed by past conquerors.

“Old Father Rhine,” as the Germans affectionately call their cherished river, begins as a trickle in the Swiss Alps. It then flows 820 miles through several countries to the North Sea.

Although the harvest season is over, we can see vineyards on the steepest riverbanks where grapes are still harvested by hand. That tradition dates back 2,000 years when the Romans introduced viticulture here.

Our three-hour cruise of the Middle Rhine this morning will go from Rudesheim to Koblenz. In 2002, UNESCO declared the Upper Middle Rhine Valley a World Heritage Site because of its “outstanding universal value.”

The soaring castles we are seeing were built by medieval noblemen to oversee trade, collect tolls and defend kingdoms, Rene said.  Some of the stories my have changed over the years with the retelling.

                     Tragedy of seven beautiful sisters

Castles were built on the highest hills for protection.
Castles were built on the highest hills for protection.

One of my favorite stories involves a castle erected in the 12th century. The castle was home to seven beautiful sisters. Many knights attempted to win the hearts of the sisters but none succeeded.

Finally, a group of knights decided to storm the castle and take what they wanted. Knowing what was coming, the sisters plotted a diversion. They arranged a big feast and said a random drawing would decide who would become their husbands.

When the winners arrived to celebrate and take their brides, the seven sisters were gone. In their places were seven dolls made of straw.

But the story does not have a happy ending for the sisters. In trying to escape the amorous knights, the fleeing women climbed aboard a boat that capsized in the Rhine. The sisters drowned.

In their place, the sorrowing river paid tribute by having seven rocks emerge. To this day, they are known as The Seven Sisters.

                        Mariners doomed by siren song

One of the most popular tales has similar legends in other parts of the world, perhaps as a way for man to explain some of the mysterious forces of nature or maybe to justify manly mistakes.

Harvested vineyards can be seen on the hillsides below historic castles on the Rhine.
Harvested vineyards can be seen on the hillsides below historic castles on the Rhine.

This one involves the dangerous enchantress Lorelei. “She was a beautiful maiden who sat on a cliff, combing her long blond hair while she sang enchanting songs,” Rene said.

Lorelei would so distract mariners that they would steer their ships straight into the dangerous rocks, reefs and crevices along the river.

This particular stretch of the Rhine is very treacherous and the site of many shipwrecks, Rene said. It is the narrowest gorge on the Rhine where the river is up to 80 feet deep with deadly reefs just under the surface of shallows. The reefs were removed in recent years but Lorelei is still said to haunt the the river and sing her siren song to those who don’t heed warnings.

It is said that when the moon is full and casts its light on the shimmery waters, those who believe can sometimes glimpse a mysterious figure near the swirling waters and hear an enchanting voice echoing over the rocky landscape.

Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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