The Way of Emperors

For centuries after Charlemagne built his capital in Aachen, Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire would pilgrimage to the city to be crowed under the legitimacy of the Carolingian Emperor. For Salian and Staufen monarchs, this mean travelling from the South, up through the Middle-Rhine valley to Sinzig (or Cologne), where the road turned inland. The Emperors would see to the construction of symbols of imperial authority while local governments would build castles to enforce the toll and assert their autonomy. This guide shows you the most significant remnants of the German High Middle Ages.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Due to the difficulty of travelling around this region, I decided against prescribing an particular order. Instead I’ll start in the south and head north, just as the Emperors did in the ages of old.

The Journey Begins

The trip begins in Mainz, where the Emperors would have stopped after their coronation in Frankfurt. Travelling up the Rhine takes first through the most fertile vineyards of the valley. Wine remains region’s most important trade good and the endless sea of vines and terraces have dominated the landscape for centuries. Once into the mountains, the landscape shrinks below the castles on every hilltop, before culminating in the great fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. The towns along the river were fiercely independent. Paradoxically, the extravagant symbols of imperial authority reflect the weakness of imperial authority, rather than its strength.


The station is called Oestrich-Winkel but is actually three villages merged together, so sometimes its referred to as Mittelheim. In any case, in Winkel you will find the oldest church in the Middle-Rhine, St. Ägidius, a Salian-Romanesque basilica from 1118. Its one of the best representatives of this period in Germany due in large part to the fact that the monastery it was attached due was abandoned early on and the building has not undergone any significant altercations since its construction. Unlike the other Salian buildings in the area, for example the one attached to the Palace of Johannisberg, this is only one not destroyed in WWII.


St. Peter in Bacharach is one of the most ornamented churches in the valley, its also the best example of an “Imperial Image Program” to project a collection of shared symbols across the Empire. Construction on the church started in 1240, already a decade after the first Gothic churches started construction in Germany and a century after the first Gothic church in France. It represents adherence, either for cultural or political reasons to a paradigm that reflected imperial interests (Its a liberal interpretation of the cathedral in Limburg). Note the use of round and pointed arches, and the four-storied nave walls. Also noteworthy is that it is a gallery church, with a second story overlooking the central aisle. A feature found on some late Romanesque French cathedrals but is otherwise uncommon outside of the Middle- and Lower Rhine.


In Kaub we see a rehabilitated ruin of a late Romanesque castle, constructed in a pseudo-historical fashion. The castle was likely built around 1220 on the orders of Emperor Friedrich II via the Imperial counts of Falkenstein, who managed other imperial holdings in the Wetterau. This would have been an clear symbol of imperial authority. It is a travesty that this castle was only blown up as recently as Napoleon, but the reconstruction that followed almost immediately after its destruction retains the iconic arcades that define Imperial castles of the Staufen dynasty.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Travel Note: Kaub offers some of the most iconic views of the Rhine Valley. Skip the visit to the castle, but instead walk past it to the opposite ridge. In the afternoon and evenings, the view looking down on the both of the castles will be spectacular.

St. Goar

In St. Goar the church of St. Goar is emblematic of the end of the imperial image program. Construction started in 1250, after construction on the Cologne Cathedral had started, and the last year of the Staufen dynasty. The building is definitively Gothic, but adheres to the local preference for the gallery churches, something also seen in the Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg. After this point in time, the Rhenish Gothic would assume forms more typical of the Gothic, such as St. Martin in Lorch and the Church of our Lady in Oberwesel. Also worth noting is the intact cycle of high Gothic frescos on the side vaults. These are the some of the most well preserved frescoes in the Rhine valley.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel


St. Severus in Boppard was one of the more influential constructions of its period, which started around 1200. It would introduce the Spider-vaulting to the region, likely from Cologne and additionally introduces the four-storied nave. Built on the foundations of a Roman basilica, you can see a number of early Christian grave stones in the church. It was once covered in elaborate Romanesque frescoes, some of which can still be seen.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel


In Braubach we have the Marksburg. In my opinion, this is the most impressive looking castle on the Rhine and one of the best looking ones in Germany. It has a core structure dating to the Romanesque period, but has seen substantial development since then. Construction likely began around 1220, but little is known about the castle from this period. The core feature to note is the triangular shape of the castle, an obvious pattern from the Staufen era, which favored geometric patterns as the basis for walls.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Travel Note: While the castle has the only preserved interior rooms in the Valley, don’t miss the opportunity to walk around the castle to get those spectacular views.


St. Johannis in Lahnstein is the earliest gallery church in this region, and reflects the Salian origins of this design feature. Construction started around 1130 and it retains most of the design features from this period. Note that the church was destroyed by the French and fell into ruin for over a century. Only the core of the building is original, but it is a building emblematic of the stylistic preferences of the region.

Note that there isn’t much else in Lahnstein, so I would only visit if this is something you absolutely must see.


Koblenz has three Romanesque churches of note: St. Castor, St. Florin and Church of our Lady. All three have undergone substantial renovation over the centuries and subsequently not reflect their original appearance. St. Florin is a spectacular Romanesque gallery church with both spider and late Gothic network vaulting. Its also purple, which is kind of cool. St. Florin and St. Castor are both traditional basilicas with later Gothic additions. Most of the baroque ornamentation for these churches was lost in WWII. In terms of architectural history, St. Castor, along with St. Johannis in Lahnstein are responsible for introducing the gallery and blind arcade to the Middle-Rhine.

Travel Note: Something to keep in mind about Koblenz is the ridiculous distance between the main train station and the old town. Make sure to take advantage of public transport when visiting.


The old capital of the County Sayn has a number of medieval artifacts of minor interest. The first is an castle ruin, largely reconstructed in the 19th century. This was the seat of the Sayn family, one of the more prominent dynasties in the Middle-Rhine. The second is a slightly more interesting monastery ruin and single-aisle church in the typical late-Staufen Romanesque. It’s extremely difficult to reach, so probably best seen as an optional visit.


Andernach was a major seat of Cologne’s authority in the Middle-Rhine. The Archbishops built a large castle and a massive gallery basilica on the ruins of a Roman fortification to project their authority in the region. St. Maria was started in 1198, at the middle of the Staufen period, and contains most of the features one has come to expect, galleries, three-storied nave, limited use of the pointed arch, groin vaulting, and alternating piers and arcade to support the vaulting.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel


St. Peter in Sinzig was built as one of the last gasps of the Staufen dynasty. Construction was started on a palace complex that had been built by Emperor Barbarossa himself during his travels to Aachen. The church was meant to mark imperial authority on the route to Aachen. The entire palace complex was built on a small hill in a lowland area of the valley prone to flooding. The Romans had used it to mine the clay deposited by the floods to produce lamps. The Holy Romans used it as a castle. Though the castle complex did not survive, the church is a simplified version of the one in Andernach and was started 30 years later. It has a great deal more north-Rhenish influence than many of its counterparts to the south.


The church in Linz is the last major Gallery church on the Rhine until Cologne. (The Münster in Bonn doesn’t have a gallery in the same sense, its more of an evolution towards the Gothic triforium.) In addition to a large collection of well preserved frescos, the galleries are notable for having been widened in the Gothic period. Much of the ornamentation shows strong North-Rhenish influence, indicative of the transition into the cultural domain of Cologne.

Remagen and Erpel

Both Remagen and Erpel have small but noteworthy examples of the Staufen Romanesque, with heavy north-Rhenish influence. Don’t be fooled by that big church in Remagen, its a product of the 19th century Historicism. The renovators were kind enough however, to preserve the considerably smaller church as the atrium, where it can be still be seen.

Selected Bibliography

  • Rings, Anton, Helene Sahler, and Förderverein St.-Martin-Kirche Linz, Rhein. 2006. Die St. Martinskirche in Linz Am Rhein. Linz Am Rhein Förderverein St. Martinskirche.
  • Hans Erich Kubach. 1984. Deutsche Dome Des Mittelalters. Königstein Im Taunus Langewiesche.
  • Hotz, Walter. 1985. Die Wormser Bauschule 1000-1250 : Werke, Nachbarn, Verwandte : Studien Über Landschaftsbezogene Deutsche Baukunst. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
  • Plus the small guide books for each church

Image Credits

  • All Maps made with Datawrapper

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Middle-Rhine Valley

The Romantic Rhine

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