Summary: The small surviving old town of Koblenz offers an incomplete glimpse into the wealth and power of Trier and the nascent Prussian Empire.
At the Mosel and Rhine confluence, Koblenz is perhaps the most strategically located city in Germany. The fortress above the river controls the trade flowing from the center of both Germany and France to the North Sea. Its strategic importance was understood even by the Romans, who established the fortified town of Confluentes to control the traffic on both rivers. Today, the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein dominates the confluence of the Rivers, with the small old town of Koblenz offering a charming afternoon adventure.
Its strategic importance meant that the city was almost entirely destroyed in WWII. Despite its small size, Koblenz was proportionally among Europe’s most devastated urban centers. However, the fortress survived without significant damage, and parts of the old town were reconstructed.
How to See Koblenz
The first thing to consider when visiting is that the central train station is very far from the old town and fortress. If you are not driving, I recommend taking a train to Stadtmitte station or using the city bus system. There will be nothing worth mentioning in the otherwise 20-30 minute walk across the city.
Should You Visit Koblenz?
From there, there are a number of things to see and do, below I have broken them down into their historical context.
Nothing survives today of the Roman settlement, which was likely abandoned for several centuries before it was rebuilt as a residence for local Frankish nobility. The visible history of Koblenz starts first in the 10th century when it became part of the Holy Roman Empire under the Archbishop Elector of Trier.
From this period, the most important monument is the church of St. Castor. Built outside the old Roman walls as early as the 8th century, it was used as a neutral meeting place for regional nobility until the 11th century. The building dates from around 1170 and reflects the typical styles of the Middle-Rhine Romanesque during the Staufen period. Indeed, it was in this church that the first Hohenstaufen was elected Emperor. The only remnants of the Carolingian church can be seen in the façade as the white marble capitals. (The spectacular vaulting is from the 15th century.) Noteworthy about St. Castor are the trends that the church set for the region, notably the triforia upper galleries that can be seen on churches up and down the Mosel and Lahn rivers.
Of the other churches, St. Florin reflects the older traditions of the Salian Romanesque of the 12th century. This reflects what St. Castor likely would have looked like before its reconstruction in the 13th century, though with a flat wooden roof. The Church of Our Lady, in contrast, shows the last gasp of the Romanesque on the Rhine. Though still built according to Romanesque paradigms, the open galleries, pointed arches, and realistic foliage ornamentation point to the end of an age.
The remnants of medieval Koblenz tell a story of increasing political relevance for the city. Initially just a toll station and riverine caravansary, the late Middle Ages brought a rebound in trade and wealth in the Rhineland. In Koblenz, this was reflected in the abundance of late Gothic and Renaissance architecture, though little survived the War.
The old castle of the Electors sits unobtrusively on the Mosel and is easily overlooked. Though it survived WWII, the building did not survive post-war development and was gutted of its Baroque interior during the 1960s. Just down the street is the Bürresheimer Hof palace on St. Florin’s plaza. This building did not survive WWII but was reconstructed along with some nearby buildings to preserve one of Koblenz’s oldest cityscapes. Both are buildings from the Renaissance, later expanded, and reflect the changing role of Koblenz from a fortified toll booth to a center of power.
Capital of Trier
In 1629, the Thirty Years War forced Elector Philipp Christoph von Sötern, Prince-Archbishop of Trier, to recognize the practically indefensible location in which the city of Trier found itself. He retreated to the fortress of Koblenz and began work on a proper residence worthy of his status. Though the capital would officially reside in Trier until the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1804, Koblenz would serve as the primary seat of the administrative authority for the Bishopric.
As a result, most of Koblenz’s current cityscape reflects the period of absolutist rule that would establish the Baroque Style as the language of power. The best example of this is seen in the buildings of the Jesuit plaza. The church was destroyed in the War but retained its late Renaissance façade. The other buildings are all Baroque or historicist. Of particular note is the current town hall, which has the original Baroque entrance hall and staircase of the monastery. This should be accessible during weekday working hours.
As a Catholic theocracy, the symbols of the Counter-Reformation were quite important. To this end, the Jesuits introduced and supported the arts in general, and Koblenz became a minor center of artistic production. The only major Baroque church of Koblenz was destroyed in WWII and not rebuilt, and most of the Baroque cityscape has also vanished.
The exceptions start with the old mint, constructed in 1667 when Koblenz became the primary mint for Trier. Most of the complex was dismantled after the French Revolution, but the surviving house is among the few to have survived WWII unscathed.
On the other side of the river, you can find the few remaining buildings of the Phillipsburg Palace, which once stretched along the river where the highway and railway now run. They were destroyed by accident when Napoleon blew up the castle, triggering a landslide that pushed the buildings into the river.
The surviving Electoral Palace is a rare example of pre-revolutionary neoclassicism in Germany. It was the last major construction of the absolutist rule, built by Elector Clemens Wenceslaus of the Wettin dynasty in 1777. Whereas the late Baroque of the Philipsburg Palace combined symbols of Catholicism with absolutist philosophy, the French classicism of Wenceslaus was focused on the connection to the landscape. The palace vestibule is open and allows for direct access from the gardens to the riverfront, with the palace acting as part of the landscape and enhancing it simultaneously.
Finally, the town of Ehrenbreitstein below the fortress has the largest intact old-town in Koblenz and is worth a quick visit. The museum in the house of Beethoven’s mother has some nice exhibits on life during that period.
With the end of the Holy Roman Empire, Koblenz came into the possession of Prussia. That the strategic location had been unable to resist Napoleon’s advance was taken to heart, and the city became the center of a massive fortification system. Koblenz became the center of Prussia’s defensive strategy for its Rhenish possessions. With the unification of Germany, the fortress was slowly left to decay as its importance faded and was dismantled after WW1. Of the once massive fortification system, only four minor redoubts survive, in addition to Ehrenbreitstein. Only Fort Großfürst Konstantin and Ehrenbreitstein are consistently open to the public.
The most well-known is the Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, but this was only a tiny part of the defensive network. The most significant feature was a massive star fort, Feste Kaiser Alexander, on the hill west of Koblenz. The French dismantled this fortress after WWI, but the outline is still visible on Google maps. A tiny redoubt belonging to the start fort, Fort Großfürst Konstantin Alexander, has been entirely preserved and sits above the central station.
Several other bits of the fortress system have been preserved in varying states of decay and public access. The most interesting of which is Fort Alsterstein, a round bastion undergoing on-and-off restoration efforts. The exterior is usually accessible. The small advanced battery of Hübeling is small but fully preserved and open to the public. The fortress of Kaiser Franz is in an advanced state of decay and is generally closed to the public but is sometimes accessible through special tours. The best preserved of the outer bastions, Bubenheim, is to the north of Kaiser Franz.
The fortress was built following the defeat of Napoleon, which saw the ruined castle come under Prussian control. The late classical fortifications were the most extensive undertaken by Prussia anywhere in Germany. Together with the urban fortifications in Ingolstadt and Ulm, they represent the advances and limitations of military technology in the early-mid 19th century. Unlike Ingolstadt and Ulm, the fortress complex is well-preserved and accessible.
The last thing to see in Koblenz is the “German Corner”, or the Deutsches Eck. The great statue of Emperor Wilhelm I sits on an old bastion of the city’s defenses. Parts of the wall and associated foundations are still visible in the general vicinity.
Koblenz Opening Hours
To make life easier, I have attached a list of the main opening hours for Koblenz. Compared to other destinations, Koblenz is a pretty easy city to visit, and in general, you do not need to be concerned with when things are open or closed.
|Fortress Ehrenbreitstein||Every day 10.00 – 18.00 (Summer) & 10.00 – 16.30 (Winter)|
|Fort Großfürst Konstantin||Saturdays 10:00 – 13:00 (Summer)|
|Townhall Staircase||Weekdays (9:00 – 17:00)|
|St. Castor||Every day 9:00 – 18:00 (Except during church service)|
|Liebfrauenkirche (Church of our Lady)||Every day 8:30 – 17:00 (Except during church service)|
|St. Florin||Every day 10.30 – 17.30 (Except during church service)|
Koblenz is a cute, charming town with a lovely old square and a great fortress above the Rhine. The city itself, however, is not especially worth going far out of your way to see. For those living in the area, it makes an excellent afternoon day trip or for the many festivals hosted in the city or fortress.
- Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
- Kern, Susanne. 2015. Wandmalerei Des 13. Bis 16. Jahrhunderts Am Mittelrhein. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
- Gunter Seifert. Die Rheinburgen Zwischen Koblenz Und Bingen ; Lage, Geschichte, Baubeschaffenheit, Kurzinformation ; Weltlulturerbe. Overath Seifert, 2010.
- Magnus Backes. Burg Pfalzgrafenstein. Regensburg: Schnell Und Steiner, 2003.
- Biller, Thomas, and Achim Wendt. 2013. Die Burgen Im Welterbegebiet Oberes Mittelrheintal Ein Führer Zu Architektur Und Geschichte. Regensburg Schnell + Steiner.
- All Maps made with Datawrapper
One thought on “Exploring Koblenz: Fortress Germany”
Really thoughtful article, very well written.