Travel Tips & Tricks: How not to explore a medieval castle

Being an American, I, like so many of my countrymen, tend to get a little excited about castles. Maybe it’s because we just don’t really have them here – and any that are here are less than 150 years old which, to me, means they’re more tacky than enchanting. Like how the Palace of Versailles is beautiful and stately but the house of the same name in Florida is ghastly, gaudy and represents all that is wrong with this country.

Palace of Versailles Vs. Versailles Mansion

One is in France and one is in Florida. Can you tell which is which?

Castles always have their own unique flair. There are the obvious differences like their state of disrepair (or over-repair like the Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon) and then there’s the other stuff:  history, surroundings and the fact that some are just really cool, the bee’s knees if you will (the coolest will be this week’s Friday’s Favorite Things), and others might bring you to your knees, literally, as in, you find yourself crawling, on your hands and knees, through a flooding, underground tunnel in the pitch black with no clue how get out. This is that story.

It takes place on the day my sister and I set out to explore Burg Rheinfels, a castle dating back to 1245 that overlooks the Rhine River and the wonderful town of Sankt Goar, Germany. We love that town. We loved it so much that after we lost our travel spirit in Italy, we haggardly decided to flee back to this lovely little storybook village for a second time.

Burg Rheinfels in St. Goar, Germany

Burg Rheinfels. CC Image courtesy of TimDan2 on Flickr.

However, what wasn’t so storybook fantastic was the day we spent exploring the castle.

Here are a few things that led to the downfall of the day:

  1. Intermittent sheets and sheets of rain were cascading from the sky.

    Burg Rheinfels in St. Goar, Germany in the rain.

    At least we had an umbrella to share .

  2. We didn’t bring a proper flashlight for exploring the tunnels. Instead, we had only a small lighter.
  3. Rick Steves lied to us. (See highlighted portion below.) Lies I tell you, all lies!

    Rick Steves Rheinfels Castle Guide

    There was no line on that ceiling. And do you see the part about the other parts perhaps having remnants of explosives?

And here are a few things that made the day great:

  1. Our sense of adventure was rivaled only by our sense of humor!

So as you can see, more things were stacked against us than for us – still, one can never underestimate good spirits in the face of extreme circumstances.

First it was all fine, very wet, but fine. We laughed at how drenched our clothes were getting, struggled to keep our footing on the increasingly muddy terrain and tried in vain to snap a few good pictures.

Our trusty guidebook promised us a well-planned walking tour and since Leslie likes to be bossy follow the guide, for the most part we stuck to that. There was one brief instance when I ventured off in a different direction which resulted in both an argument and a set of duplicate photos.

Arch doorway at Burg Rheinfels in St. Goar, Germany

We don’t know which one was the first one, so technically, the end result is that Leslie made the better call by getting two – as you can see one is washed out and my eyes are closed.

At the time, Leslie insisted that we didn’t have a photo of this arched doorway. I, on the other hand, adamantly argued to the contrary, sighting my earlier stray from the guidebook’s course as the culprit. Of course, being before the age of digital cameras, the dispute couldn’t be settled until months later when we developed the pictures, but, just as I had suspected, two photos did surface. Score one for younger siblings everywhere!

But back to the sightseeing. We saw lots of stuff. There was a dungeon that we entered through a new(ish) doorway (we had to look up to see the original entrance, a hole in the ceiling through which prisoners were lowered). We squeezed through overgrown passageways in the walls that echoed of children’s screams. It’s not as creepy as it sounds… there were just some kids who were racing through them and screaming. And lastly, we explored the tunnels – a seemingly great activity for a rainy day. That’s where the story gets a little hairy.

Stairs at Burg Rheinfels in St. Goar Germany

I’d love to show you a picture of the tunnel entrance… but I don’t have one. Instead, here are some stairs from elsewhere on the castle grounds.

As you can see from the guidebook excerpt above, we were warned of low clearances and a tricky tunnel system. However, it also promised that the caves would boast a white line on the ceiling leading toward the exit – which was so not the case. It also failed to mention on rainy days, the tunnels begin to flood.

So there we were, alone, on our hands and knees in a few inches of muddy water in the pitch black, trying to find the exit or our way back to the entrance in the labyrinth of tunnels. It wasn’t going well.

Here’s a video I found of a delightful German family having a delightful time exploring some of the more spacious parts of the tunnels.

By comparison, here’s what Leslie and I experienced. (Disclaimer: we don’t have any actual video of our experience so I found one online that seems to be a fair representation.)

After about 15 minutes or so, we were saved – or so we thought. Down one of the narrow tunnels we came across two British men with their two middle-school age daughters. We latched on to them and formed a team: they had a flashlight, we had some semi-coherent directions courtesy of Rick Steves. As it turns out, while we may have felt safer in a few more numbers, we still were no closer to getting out.

Eventually, we found the exit – but it was blocked by a massive pool of water with even more rushing in.

British Girl #1: WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE DOWN HERE!!!

Instead of making a swim for it, we decided it wouldn’t be too hard, now that we’d found one end of the tunnel, to backtrack our way through Rick Steves’ shoddy directions to the other end.

British Girl #2: I THINK I’M GETTING HYPOTHERMIA!!

After countless dead-ends, we again decided to turn around. A flooded exit was better than no exit.

British Girl #1: ARE WE GOING TO RUN OUT OF AIR? DAD! ARE WE??!!

But after facing so many dead-ends and making so many wrong turns, we were just as lost as we’d been before.

British Girl #2: AHHHHH!! I THINK SOMETHING TOUCHED ME! ARE THESE TUNNELS HAUNTED??!!

Finally, we found our way back to the flooded exit.

British Girl #1: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HOW I’M GOING TO DIE!!

We braved the cold, muddy water and everyone was thrilled to be free at last. Also, aren’t 13-year-old girls delightful?

And that is the story of our day at Burg Rheinfels and my tips on how not to explore a medieval castle. However, if you aren’t claustrophobic, traveling with dramatic teenagers or afraid of getting your hands (and the rest of you) dirty, then maybe it’s not such a bad way to go. After all, after we braved the rain and beat the tunnels, we got to tuck one more fun story under our belts.

Here are a few more pictures from that day…

Burg Rheinfels, St. Goar, Germany

Exploring more of the castle.

Rheinfels Castle Cellar in St. Goar, Germany

The cavernous castle cellar.

An arched doorway at Bug Rheinfels Castle in Sankt Goar, Germany

Leslie, under a different arched doorway.

Burg Rheinfels Castle in Sankt Goar, Germany

An old castle wall at Burg Rheinfels.

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4 responses to “Travel Tips & Tricks: How not to explore a medieval castle

  1. Pingback: Five Favorite Things: Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) edition | See Jules Travel·

  2. Pingback: See Jules Review: The Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland | See Jules Travel·

  3. Pingback: I assign new meaning to an annual girl’s trip | Worldwide Shambles·

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