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
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.)
Exploring Old Koblenz
Much of Koblenz was destroyed during World War II, and most buildings were rebuilt to support service industries and shopping both for its 109,000 residents and for the Rhine region. Thus, the city is alive and active, with enough pockets of discovery to satisfy history buffs. Pick up a map at the tourist office on the plaza immediately outside the train station (open 10am-8pm daily from May 1 through September 30). The main shopping street, the Löhrstrasse, is just a few blocks away and will lead you to the Old City. From the Löhrstrasse you can also catch a view of the stunning 19th-century, Neoclassical Palace of the Prince Electors (closed to the public).
The city's churches give snapshots in time: the Romanesque St. Castor's Church consecrated in 836, St. Florin's Church with its Romanesque triple nave and Gothic chancel, and the Church of our Lady with its mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque features.
A relaxing walk is along the city's 8-kilometer (5-mile) promenade. Traveling clockwise from the Mosel to the Rhine, you'll pass the Old Castle and a collection of medieval buildings around the Old Mosel Bridge. In a few moments, you'll reach the Deutsches Eck - or German Corner - the park where the Rhine and Mosel meet. Standing at the tip of the park, you can watch the tea-colored waters of the Mosel swirl into the coffee-colored Rhine. A monument of Kaiser Wilhelm I dominates the park. Originally erected in 1897, it was destroyed at the end of World War II. In 1953, a flag and flagpole were mounted on the base as a memorial to German unity. It was rebuilt in 1993 based on original plans. Today, flags fly from every state of the reunited Germany.
Across the Rhine, the Ehrenbreitstein continues its watch over the city and rivers, an imposing fortress built in stages from the 11th through the 17th and 18th centuries. The Prussians rebuilt it to its current neo-classical form in the 19th century.
The fortress is reached easily by ferry from the Rhine boat docks. From the ferry landing, a 30-minute hike or scenic chairlift ride will get you to the top. The view, especially over coffee and pastries at the terrace restaurants, is stunning: down both the Rhine and Mosel and across to Koblenz. (Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, D-56077 Koblenz, tel +49 0261 9742445, fax 9742450; adults €2.50, children €1)
Hotel Mercure Koblenz
There's no sense of history but plenty of comfort at this 167-room high-rise on the Rhine promenade. The KD docks are almost adjacent, and it's about a five-minute walk to the Deutsches Eck.
Guestrooms are spacious and modern with a small sitting area and work desk. Windows are double-glazed to keep out the minimal street noise and there's that rare summer comfort: air conditioning. Riverside rooms have a superb view of the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress.
Daily Rates: Singles €115, doubles €141 - 15% weekend discount; lower rates off-season. Parking €12.
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 14/20
Fährhaus am Stausee
The Fährhaus am Stausee is an old ferry house converted to a family-run hotel and restaurant. Because it's across the Mosel, it doesn't get many mainstream tourists. However, local residents advising guests put it at the top of their list, in part due to its excellent kitchen.
The setting is peaceful - seemingly far from the city. Several small piers jut into the river and at night you can hear the creaking of the docks in the wake of passing boats. The 20 guestrooms are spacious, bright and cheery with all the amenities, some with bath, others with shower. Ask for a Mosel view, preferably with balcony; it's only €5 more per night.
Contact: Fährhaus am Stausee, An der Fähre 3, D-56072 Koblenz, tel +49 0261 927290, fax 9272990
Daily Rates: Single € 95-115, double €140-150, studio €180 for two, suite €200
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
First impressions can be wrong. The Hotel Brenner is at best nondescript on the outside. Thus its interior elegance comes as a complete and pleasant surprise. Every detail seems attended to, including the hand-painted flower ornaments on ceilings and walls.
Guestrooms are spacious and stylish, with separate living and sleeping areas. Located downtown, the Brenner is convenient to the Old City, ship landings and train station.
Daily Rates: Singles €70-79, doubles €87-118.
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20
If you don't mind traveling about 10 miles upstream, you can sleep surrounded by history. The medieval walls and tower in Rhens were constructed between 1336 and 1414. In 1557, the house Zum Königstuhl was built against the fortifications as the official home of Cologne's prince electors. It's been a hotel since 1706 and, though the adjacent tower also served as prison and torture chamber, you'll be very comfortable.
The hotel offers 10 doubles, all with toilet and shower or bath, four of which are exquisite, including a corner room with its own garden. Number 3 has a Chippendale bed and a view straight to the Rhine.
Contact: Zum Königstuhl, 5401 Rhens, tel +49 02628 2244
Daily Rates: All rooms €65. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
If, as you walk along the Rhine promenade, you're tempted to stop at the Weindorf, an ersatz wine village built in 1925, by all means do. It's four houses built in varying traditional styles surround a flower bedecked central courtyard where you'll dine in good weather. Smaller appetites will be more than satisfied with a plate of cheese, sausage or ham with dark bread. Bigger eaters might enjoy a platter of warm sausages served with dumplings and sauerkraut. More formal dining choices include grilled salmon, grilled pork or beef braised in wine sauce. Prices range from €6-15 with an average of €9. Service is casual but attentive.
Contact: Weindorf, Julius-Wegeler-Strasse 2, D-56072 Koblenz, tel. +49 0261 1337190, fax +49 0261 13371919.
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 14/20
Wacht am Rhein
Wacht am Rhein serves superb German and Rheinland cuisine in a choice of three settings overlooking the Rhine and Ehrenbreitstein: the casual Winzerstube (Vintners Room), the terrace, and the more intimate restaurant. If you're in the mood for a fancy dinner, choose the restaurant. Both the food and service are excellent, whether you select a fish dish - like the mixed grill of fish filets and river crabs - or traditional German dishes like Sauerbraten and Tafelspitz (boiled beef with horseradish). Entrées range from €13-25. Cost-conscious travelers will enjoy the traditional dishes of the Winzerstube for less than €12 such as herring with an apple cream sauce (€7); wild game ragout (€1); or marinated beef in raisin sauce with dumplings and red cabbage (€11). Also offered is a more familiar selection of steaks and Schnitzels.
Contact: Wacht am Rhein Rheinzollstrasse 8, D-56068 Koblenz, tel. +49 0261 15313, fax +49 0261 9731026
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20
An evening in Löffels Keller, in the heart of Koblenz's Old City, will send you back seven centuries as you sit in a 13th century cellar, bathed in candlelight that flickers against the stone walls and vaulted ceilings. The cuisine is as imaginative as it is tasty, and the presentations are works of art. The menu changes monthly, but you can expect items like sweet and sour pumpkin soup with smoked chicken breast, followed by pork cutlet with melted goat cheese in an herbed cream sauce, followed by a creamy pear parfait with marzipan sauce. Although you can order a la carte, the three-course dinners are often a better deal - generally around €25. Add another €10 for wine with each course.
Contact: Löffels Keller, Mehlgasse 14-16, D-56068 Koblenz, tel. +49 0261 1004715, fax +49 0261 1004716
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 17/20