Cochem Castle (Germany)
Rhineland-Palatinate See list of castles in Germania
The castle we see today towering above the scenic town of Cochem on the Moselle River is not the castle that originally stood there in the 12th century. That castle had a long and colorful history until French King Louis XIV had his troops obliterate it in 1689.
The castle remained a colorful stone ruin for 180 years until wealthy Berlin businessman Louis Ravené decided to buy the ruins and rebuild the castle in 1868. But he was not interested in restoring it to its original Romanesque style and condition. He had his architects create a neo-Gothic castle that could serve as a summer residence for his family. (Interestingly, Ravené did this in the same year that Bavarian King Ludwig II began construction on his Romanesque revival Neuschwanstein Castle, also built upon the ruins of an old castle.)
However, some original Romanesque and Gothic elements, including the four-story Octagonal Tower and the Hexenturm (“witches tower”), were incorporated into Ravené’s new castle. The Witches Tower gets its name from the time when legend claims it was used to try women for witchcraft – by throwing them out of an upper window! (See photo below.)
Cochem Castle History
The original Cochem Castle, perched prominently on a hill 300 feet above the Moselle River, served to collect tolls from passing ships. Modern research dates its origins to around 1100. (An alleged 1051 document mentioning the castle turned out to be a 13th century forgery.)
Before its destruction by the French in 1689 (a fate shared by many other castles and towns in the Palatinate), the castle had a long and fascinating history. It changed hands numerous times and, like most castles, also changed its form over the centuries. It was even in hock twice to pay off royal debts!
In 1151 King Konrad III ended a dispute over who should inherit Cochem Castle by laying siege to it and taking possession of it himself. That same year it became an official Imperial Castle (Reichsburg) subject to imperial authority.
In 1282 it was Habsburg King Rudolf’s turn, when he conquered the Reichsburg Cochem and took it over. But just 12 years later, in 1294, the newest owner, King Adolf of Nassau pawned the castle, the town of Cochem and the surrounding region in order to finance his coronation. Adolf’s successor, Albrecht I, was unable to redeem the pledge and was forced to grant the castle to the archbishop in nearby Trier and the Electorate of Trier, which then administered the Reichsburg continuously, except for a brief interruption when Trier’s Archbishop Balduin of Luxembourg had to pawn the castle to a countess. But he got it back a year later.
The Electorate of Trier and its nobility became wealthy and powerful in large part due to the income from Cochem Castle and the rights to shipping tolls on the Moselle. Not until 1419 did the castle and its tolls come under the administration of civil bailiffs (Amtsmänner). While under the control of the bishops and electors in Trier from the 14th to the 16th century, the castle was expanded several times.
In 1688 the French invaded the Rhine and Moselle regions of the Palatinate, which included Cochem and its castle. French troops conquered the Reichsburg and then laid waste not only to the castle but also to Cochem and most of the other surrounding towns in a scorched-earth campaign. Between that time and the Congress of Vienna, the Palatinate and Cochem went back and forth between France and Prussia. In 1815 the western Palatinate and Cochem finally became part of Prussia once and for all.
The Ravené Years
Louis Jacques Ravené (1823-1879) did not live to see the completion of his renovated castle, but it was completed by his son Louis Auguste Ravené (1866-1944). Louis Auguste was only two years old when construction work at the old ruins above Cochem began in 1868, but most of the new castle took shape from 1874 to 1877, based on designs by Berlin architects. After the death of his father in 1879, Louis Auguste supervised the final stages of construction, mostly involving work on the castle’s interior. The castle was finally completed in 1890. Louis Auguste, like his father, a lover of art, filled the castle with an extensive art collection, most of which was lost during the Second World War.
In 1942, during the Nazi years, Ravené was forced to sell the family castle to the Prussian Ministry of Justice, which turned it into a law school run by the Nazi government. Following the end of the war, the castle became the property of the new state of Rheinland-Pfalz (Rhineland-Palatinate). In 1978 the city of Cochem bought the castle for 664,000 marks and now has it administered by a private company known as Reichsburg GmbH.
Cochem Castle Today
Some travel guides dismiss Cochem Castle as inauthentic and claim that it is, in Rick Steves’ words, “…better admired from afar.” Steves adds: “This 19th-century reconstruction is more fanciful than authentic.” Frankly, I find that attitude a bit stuffy and unfair. If you’ve read this far, you know that the castle is quite “authentic” in its own way. It not only contains original elements, it also has a very interesting story, and its long history is an integral part of Cochem’s history.
Those who choose to admire the Reichsburg only “from afar” will miss a stunning view of Cochem and the Moselle Valley. Even if you decide to skip the 40-minute guided tour (5.00 € per adult), the walk up to the castle, while steep, is an enjoyable experience that takes about 20 minutes from the center of town on a narrow paved road. You can also take a shuttle bus or drive up the winding Schlossstraße by car, but parking near the castle is limited. There is also a falconry show near the castle.
The castle’s Sonnenterrasse (sun terrace) restaurant is a good place to end your tour or to just enjoy some food and drink. See below for more about castle tours.