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In this issue and the next, we'll look at the Romantic Rhine, a river of myths, legends, and castles. This month we suggest how best to see the river, as well as information on Koblenz, our tour's starting point.

By Jim Johnson

Koblenz
Koblenz

Last June, UNESCO designated the Middle Rhine Valley a World Heritage Site. The announcement read, "The 65 km-stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley, with its castles, historic towns, and vineyards, graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape. It is intimately associated with history and legend and for centuries has exercised a powerful influence on writers, artists and composers." The designation was timed to coincide with the 2002 bicentennial celebration of "The Romantic Rhine."

Don't worry if you miss the celebration, the Rhine will be there forever. The question is: What's the best way to see it?

Well, if you're in a hurry, an express train can make it from Koblenz to Bingen in 34 minutes. With 20 castles, that's an average of one every 102 seconds, although the location of the track will keep you from seeing most of them.

If you have a car, you can see the Rhine at your own pace, but there are disadvantages: first, parking and traffic are often difficult and, second, you'll need to make frequent use of car ferries to visit sights on both sides. And besides, it's much more relaxing to see the Rhine by water. So park your car for a few days, and enjoy the river's scenery and history by boat.

By steamship, perhaps the most traditional way to see the Rhine, it's six hours upstream (Koblenz to Bingen) and four hours downstream. And you'll see every village and every castle - at least from a distance.

But viewing the Rhine, even from a ship, is linear. You see the front door of the towns and some rooftops, but you don't see inside. And, if you don't stay overnight, you miss some of the charm and character of these marvelous villages - and the ability to experience them in relative peace after the day-trippers have left.

A Suggested Rhine Tour

For those who have at least three days, taking the steamship in stages provides one of the best ways to explore the region. For example, on day one leave Koblenz at 9am for Oberlahnstein, where you'll arrive at 9:55am. Stroll the narrow streets lined with half-timber homes, climb to Lahneck Fortress, enjoy a leisurely lunch in town, and then board the 2:50pm ship for the one-hour trip to Boppard, where you spend the night and part of the next day.

Next morning, board the 11am ship to St. Goarshausen, arriving at 12:10pm. Take time to explore that town and then take the ferry across to St. Goar, guarded through the centuries by the massive Rheinfels Fortress, then depart at 5:15pm for the 70-minute trip (passing the Loreley) to Bacharach, your next port of call. After what will assuredly be a delightful evening and overnight stay there, take the next morning or day to explore the town, and then leave at your choice of 15 minutes past the hours of 11, 1, 3, 5, or 6 for the final 90-minute stretch to Rüdesheim, with Bingen a quick ferry ride across the river.

These are just examples, of course, and your routes will depend on timing, interests and preferences.

(If you prefer to sleep in the same bed for more than one night, you can choose one or more towns as home base and head up- and downstream from there. You'll do some backtracking, but the views stand up to multiple trips, and there's nothing like starting the day without having to pack.)

During peak months, KD Rhine has as many as five ships cruising this section of the Rhine daily, and numerous smaller companies offer additional options. And you can certainly blend in train transport, either to fill in gaps or accelerate travel. For example, if you've finished with Lahnstein and want to explore neighboring Braubach (with the Marksburg, the Romantic Rhine's only hilltop fortress that was never destroyed), don't wait for the next boat; more frequent trains will get you there in six minutes. And then continue on to Boppard from Braubach. Local trains run at least hourly on both sides of the river. Just remember, there are no bridges across the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz; so you'll have to depend on ships or ferries to get from one side to the other.

But what to do with luggage during the day, when you're exploring ashore? Even those who travel light will have to find a place to store their gear ashore. A €2 locker at a train station will hold two large suitcases for as long as 36 hours. If you've selected a restaurant for lunch, it may be amenable to storing your luggage for a few hours before or after. Finally, tourist offices are eager to help in any way they can. These are not large towns, and you'll usually find steamship stops, train stations and tourist offices all within close proximity.

Which kind of tickets should you buy? Remember, the total distance is less than 40 miles. By ship, the route from Koblenz to Bingen costs only €23.20 for an adult. Break it into two segments, say Koblenz-Boppard and Boppard-Bingen, and the cost is still just €24.60. For the train, second class from Koblenz to Bingen costs just €9. In two parts the price is €11.20. So the best bet is to go a la carte. Even rate hikes scheduled later this year for short distance trips aren't likely to increase fares much more than 10 percent.

Buy ship tickets each time before you board, and buy train tickets at the multilingual automats located at each station. (If you present the train ticket you just used when you buy a ship ticket at the KD counter, you'll get 20% off.) Bottom line: Though both German Rail and Eurail passes are valid for free passage on trains and ships of the Köln-Düsseldorfer line, you might not want to spend one of your pass's travel days on a short $20 boat ride.

There's another reason to travel by ship. Being on the river gives a strong sense of history and purpose. For example, you can see the castles in context. During the turbulent middle ages, they served as protection for bishops, nobles, prince-electors, robber knights and dukes. Many were also toll stations, each controlling their part of the river and collecting a percentage of the goods transported. At one time, a ship starting full in Bingen might arrive in Koblenz with only 10 % of its goods remaining.

These great fortresses came under frequent attack in disputes over territory, property and inheritance. During the Crusades, when the good knights headed east, robber knights seized many of them. Still, most survived the Middle Ages fairly well. It wasn't until the Thirty Years War and French occupations at the end of the 17th and 18th centuries that most damage and destruction occurred. What we see today is mainly due to a vast reconstruction effort after the Prussians chased Napoleon across the Rhine on New Years Eve 1813.

Life on the Rhine

Try to imagine steering a barge downstream, or even worse, being towed slowly upstream by horses or oxen. As you pass the island fortress of the Pfalz, with its turrets and gun slits, you almost feel the intimidation. You'd pay the toll.

The Rhine has its share of natural dangers as well. At the Bingen Reef, you can still see the standing waves and riffles as the Rhine pours over a series of ledges. Even today, ships must navigate a narrow channel blasted through the rock.

According to legend, the most dangerous point on the Rhine is below the Loreley cliffs at St. Goarshausen. (Actually, the Loreley - the longtime name for the cliffs - first referred to a woman in an 1801 poem, and it was she, not the sailors, who died.) Although a seductive blonde makes for better poetry and song, it's the narrow channel, sharp turns and steep cliffs that have plagued sailors for centuries. Radar installations along the river help control a sophisticated lighting and warning system for ship traffic.

That traffic is considerable. During a day on the river, you'll likely see ships carrying the flags of eight nations. Barges (including the incongruously named Love Boat) plow through the current with containers or loads of coal, and cabin cruisers bounce in the waves. Flat, long excursion ships pass by on their luxury cruises between Basel and Düsseldorf or Rotterdam. Small ferries, some for passengers only, maneuver among the larger ships. Occasionally, an eel boat will pass, its nets at the ready. Local sightseeing boats carry tourists to view the nearest castles. And other ships in the KD fleet pass by, their passengers waving a kindred hello. If you plan to start your Rhine journey in Koblenz, don't immediately head from the train station to the Köln-Düsseldorfer dock. The city itself is worth a visit. If you've just landed in Frankfurt from the United States, consider taking an hour's train ride from the airport up the Rhine (just a teaser) to Koblenz. Stash your bags at your hotel, walk around town, grab an early dinner and regain strength for the coming days' explorations.

(Most passenger trains travel on the left - or western side - of the Rhine. If you've already been on this stretch of track, consider traveling the right side. When you buy your ticket, specify that you want to travel via Rüdesheim. You'll miss most of the castles that you usually see from the other side, and you'll actually pass through the Loreley. But you'll have a stunning view of the villages and castles of the left bank - a view that few foreign train travelers know about. All trains are local, so expect an hour's trip from Rüdesheim to Koblenz.)