Cruising down the river Rhine in Germany, one is struck by the number of ruined castles visible on its banks. Most of them were built during the Middle Ages as defensive structures on mountain tops. Even today, those castles are characteristic of Rhine country. Romance and legend have been woven into the Rhine sagas, and each castle has its own breath taking story to tell. No wonder that poets and writers have been attracted to this region. Victor Hugo the French romanticist portrayed the world of ruined Rhine castles in his book Le Rhin published in 1841.
Between Bonn and Linz, Drachenfels (Dragon Cliffs) towers above the Rhine at 351 metres. From a distance one can see the ruins of the Drachenburg Castle looming into the skies. This craggy mountain is one of seven in this region (Siebengebirge.) The guide on the boat was an excellent story teller, who conjured up for us a prehistoric period when giants and dragons roamed this area, and primitive forces erupted from the belly of the earth as fountains of volcanic molten lava. These quickly solidified into rock and blocked the course of the Rhine. Towns in that area were inundated, and in desperation, people offered gold and silver to anyone who would pave a permanent course for the Rhine. Seven giants who lived close by dug a deep channel for the river, along which it courses even today. Seven hills sprang up where the giants had honed their implements. Of these, Drachenfels is the highest.
It derives its name from the dragon which lived in a cave on its slopes, and claimed the life of a human being, whenever people wanted to cross the river. It had a preference for virgins. One year, the pagans from the right bank abducted a virgin from the Christian community on the left bank. As she was forced up the mountain, her nerve wracking screams drew the attention of a young man named Siegfried. He fought with the dragon, and as it breathed fire on him, he threw a bundle of hay on its snout which burst into flames and engulfed the dragon. Siegfried then plunged his sword into its throat and got soaked in its blood, which made him invulnerable.
After hearing such an incredible tale, we just had to take a trip to Drachenfels. Getting off the boat at Linz, we drove to Koinigswinter along the river. From there, we took the electric cogwheel railway up to the top. The railway has been in existence since 1883. The panoramic view from the top is enchanting. Many years ago Edward Renard described it as “the proudest and most popular peak of the entire Rhine valley.”
As it was a clear day, we could see the volcanic Eiffel in the distance, and from Koblenz in the south to the spires of Cologne Cathedral in the north. Lord Byron described this view of the majestic Rhine, ‘Germany’s pulsating artery’ in his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.”
“The castle’d crag of Drachenfels frowns on the wide and winding Rhine.”
Directly below is the Nonnenwerth Island which was once a well known nunnery. The island was once up for sale for the price of one Euro. But there were no takers as its maintenance would have run into millions of Euros.
From the viewing point we could see the ruins of Drachenburg Castle towering over us. The train made a stop mid-station for those who wanted to visit the castle. It was a steep and difficult climb. In the 19th century, an innkeeper named Stefan Starter bought himself the title of ‘Baron.’ He built this castle on the ruins of another 12th century structure. It was built on a terrace in several layers, to give the impression that it was constructed in different ages. It was heavily damaged in World War II
It changed ownership and was open to the public in 1973. Today it is under the protection of the North Rhine-Westfalia Society. A guided tour through the castle shows statues and personalities of different epochs, wall paintings, and glass paintings. The paintings are scenes from the history of Rhineland. The Counts of Drachenburg had a winged fire-spitting dragon on their coat of arms.
Lower down the mountain is the Dragon’s Cave which is now a snake museum. The Niebelunghalle is closer to the base of the mountain and was built in 1913. It has a gallery of paintings by Herman Hendrich, depicting scenes from Richard Wagner’s operas.
“Nature refines itself to its highest beauty” in Drachenfels, once the abode of a fire spitting dragon.