Wine, castles and a murderous blonde... an insider's guide to the Rhine, Germany’s most spectacular river valley
The Rhine Gorge. The name itself created images in my imagination of some powerful and overwhelming natural spectacle, and had me adding it to my ‘must see’ list. That was in my early days of travelling, and in the 30 years since then I’ve visited the Rhine more than a dozen times. I’ve cycled along its banks, gazed at its magnificence from the comfort of a speeding train, sailed serenely on the Rhine cruise ships, and even raced through (at the legal speed limit, of course!) in a home built kit car. And without exception, I’ve relished it every time.
The Rhine Gorge is around 50 miles long, stretching from the sprawling city of Koblenz south to Bingen. Here, it ends as quickly as it began, with a sharp left turn, and the dark austere cliffs turning to flat open countryside.
Koblenz itself boasts probably the most impressive castle on the Rhine, and one of the largest in Europe. The fortress of Ehrenbreitstein dominates the high ground overlooking the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel. I head for the very point where the two awesome rivers meet, at what the Germans call the ‘Deutsches Eck’. With a huge monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I behind you, the castle controlling the skyline, and the roar of the rivers thundering past endlessly, you get an amazing sense that you are surrounded by power.
On a lazy summer evening, though, it's wonderful to walk along the tree-lined river promenade, calling in at some of the pleasant wine gardens to sample the local fare. My favourite is the quaint ‘Weindorf’, built around a small courtyard, and with a choice of four wine bars from which to choose. It comes alive to music and revelry after dark, and although aimed at the tourists has the kind of atmosphere you would naturally associate with the Rhineland.
As you head south out of the city, the small towns along the gorge, such as Bacharach, Kaub, and Oberwesel, all have more than their fair share of charm. There are no bridges along the length of the Rhine Gorge, although there are a number of small car ferries that shuttle to and fro at regular intervals.
If I’m staying in the area, I generally base myself at the pretty medieval village of Braubach, where the beautiful Hotel Landgasthof Zum Weissen Schwanen is hard to beat. It’s a 17th-century Weinhaus, combined with a 14th-century water mill, nestled up against the ancient town walls. Inside the half-timbered construction, the water wheel is still in place next to the restaurant, and the mountain stream passes through the actual building.
Marksburg Castle, overlooking the village, is one of only two medieval castles to have survived intact along this part of the river, and is one I recommend you explore. Climbing up from the town takes around 45 minutes, and you’ll be glad you made the effort when you see the panoramic views from the towers.
A little further south is the legendary Lorelei Rock, where, according to folklore, a blonde siren sat brushing her hair, and luring sailors to their doom with her song. I’ve walked to the top on a few occasions, seen the visitor centre and pleasant landscaped parkland… but the good-looking blonde has always eluded me! If you time it right, however, as well as the stunning views, you can enjoy one of the regular (Lorelei) rock concerts (little publicised to tourists) that take place on the open-air stage.
A good tip, though, for the best views of the Lorelei: you need to cross to the west bank and take the chairlift to the ‘Vierseenblick’. This gives you pleasant sights of four sections of the river, but a short walk along the path will take you to my favourite view of the entire gorge. The ‘Rheinschleife’ panorama is the one you will see on many guidebooks for the area, but be sure to check the weather will be clear before you go.
Rudesheim, at the southernmost end of the Rhine Gorge, is the most visited of all the riverside towns. The network of narrow streets in the old town area, and especially the much-hyped Drosselgasse, is certainly extremely picturesque. The Drosselhof, at the top, is a lovely place to eat, and I was surprised at the very reasonable prices for such a tourist trap. But if, like me, you’re deterred by crowds, Rudesheim is best avoided in peak season, when you struggle to move for the coach and cruise brigades.
Instead, head to the town I most urge you not to miss – Boppard. It has all the usual trappings of quaint streets, wine gardens, a medieval castle, and plenty of fine tourist accommodation and restaurants. It also has some interesting Roman remains hidden away just behind the main street, which are well worth seeking out. But it has one thing that, surprisingly, almost no other town has in this area; a peaceful walk along the river. That’s because Boppard had the good sense not to let the railway thunder along clinging to the bank, as it does in most of the gorge. Instead the trains run way back behind the town, and the beautiful long river promenade is quiet and relaxing, interrupted only by the lapping of waves from the passing ships. A good book, a glass of the local wine, and I can sit here all day!