In this, the third and final segment of our tour along the Romantic Rhine, we travel the river from Boppard to Rüdesheim.
By Jim Johnson
As primary launching pad for tours to the nearby Loreley, St. Goar throbs with tourists. Many of them clog shops lined with cuckoo clocks and Mozartkugel and talk excitedly about the store with the "World's Biggest Beer Stein." Unfortunately, compared with other towns, relatively few buildings of historic interest remain in St. Goar.
Still, the town is a must-see, if only for Burg Rheinfels, perhaps the best castle experience on the Rhine. It is the region's most massive ruin, with nearly 100 rooms, defensive walls, ramparts, drawbridge, moat, parade grounds and tunnels. Ruin is a relative term, since the Rheinfels still presents a full and powerful picture of a medieval Rhine fortress. And, unlike most castles, visitors are allowed to walk freely—after paying about €4 for adults, €2 for children—through almost all of it, including a labyrinth of underground passageways and rows of massive rooms. Since there's little signage, a guided tour (available in English) is a good idea before wandering around. Also recommended is a visit to the castle museum. By learning the history of the fortress, visitors also gain a historical context for other Rhine castles and villages.
During the last two weekends in August, a cast of 60 townspeople and professionals presents the Rheinfels SAGA, a stunning multi-media performance that highlights major events in the 13th-century history of the town and castle. At times, the audience is led by torchlight to various areas of the fortress, the walk being punctuated by convincing explosions and fireworks. Though it's in German, the experience is still worthwhile for those who don't speak the language. It's helpful, however, to take the previously mentioned tour or pick up Burg Rheinfels: A Historical Guide, available at the tourist office.
Across the Rhine, St. Goarshausen is the starting point for trips to the Loreley. While the top of the Loreley cliffs has attracted visitors for years, the Loreley Visitor's Center opened just over two years ago, an offshoot of Expo 2000.
Vivid displays (most with signs in English) present information about the history of shipping on the Rhine, the advent of tourism in the early 19th century (spread by Romantic painters and poets), the 1000-year-old heritage of winemaking, and the flora, fauna and geology of the region. The center also contains the Mythosraum, a brief multimedia show about the myths and emotions connected with the Loreley. English narration is available through headsets. A pleasant 10-minute walk leads from the Visitors Center to the actual cliffs with views to the river below.
The Visitors Center is about a 15-minute car ride from the ferry landing at St. Goarshausen, or about 45 minutes by foot from the landing (the path also passes Burg Katz, privately owned). In addition, a shuttle-bus runs almost hourly from the Köln-Düsseldorfer pier in St. Goarshausen. (Loreley Express, Forstbachstrasse 17, D-56346 St. Goarshausen, tel. +49 06771 2643, fax +49 06771 2349; round-trip for adults about €4, children €2.
Travel the 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) between St. Goar and Bacharach by ship, whether on a K-D vessel or on any of several lines that run ongoing tours past the Loreley and to points up and down the river. Especially on smaller boats, the currents passing through this narrow S-curve of the Loreley give a hint of what boatmen endured in earlier times, when the river was less tamed and the boats powered by sail or horses. Even today, there's an extensive system of radar stations, traffic lights and a small "control tower" to ensure safe navigation.
After surviving the natural dangers of the Loreley, boats during the Middle Ages also had to face human dangers. Three castles follow in fast succession, each one built to collect tolls. Today, the Schönburg Castle still looks stern, towering over the delightful town of Oberwesel, with the most intact medieval city wall along the Romantic Rhine. Just beneath the lofty Gutenfels Castle, the island fortress of the Pfalz narrows the passage. It's easy to imagine the intimidation of passing the Pfalz, with the Gutenfels and its mighty cannons and where shooters could target ships. Better to pay the toll than to make a run for it.
If given the task of choosing just one town along the Romantic Rhine for a multiple-day stay, pick Bacharach. This enchanting city is rich with history and legends, a delightful amalgam of medieval architecture, and ripe for hikes along its ancient wall and into the hillside vineyards. Art lovers quickly see why many visual artists have chosen Bacharach for their studios and galleries. And despite its popularity, the town doesn't feel overrun by tourists, especially in the evening after less fortunate day-trippers leave.
Stop first at the tourism office in the Posthof (45 Oberstrasse). There's more than the tourist office hidden away behind the wooden gateway of its medieval courtyard, including a choice of several restaurants with regional food, a wine cellar for tastings, and art galleries. Across the way, get a couple of scoops of Riesling ice cream at Tarcaloro (Oberstrasse 4).
The 11th-century Stahleck Fortress, now a youth hostel (see "Accommodations"), still stands watch over the town. Just below the castle, the Wernerkapelle, once a pilgrimage church, is now a striking Gothic ruin of red sandstone. The legend behind its construction is a tale of loss, faith and prejudice.
Beyond exploring the town itself, follow the medieval walls surrounding the city. Along the Rhine, the wall is capped by a series of towers connected by a covered walkway. From the river, the fortifications reach up to the Stahleck Fortress, become part of the battlements, stretch from the fortress across into the vineyards, and then follow the hilly terrain back down to the river wall. The forward walkway runs along - and almost through—the walls of several houses built along the fortifications. Behind them, the view is to the Stahleck, Wernerkapelle and medieval Peterskirche.
But perhaps the best view is from the Postenturm, where the vineyard has filled in behind the wall. Some minor scrambling pays off with a stunning view of the medieval town and the river behind it.
A stop not on tourist maps is Antique-Borniger, a warren of rooms over several floors in the Haus Utsch, a 16th-century patrician home. It rivals many museums. Several rooms overflow with furniture from old castles as well as the throne of a Russian czar and a 15th-century gold box used for tolls along the river. Another is filled with altars, statues and carvings from secularized churches. There are also old prints and photographs that show Bacharach through the centuries. Many stories lie behind these pieces, and Herr Borniger, the town's unofficial and passionate historian, is pleased to share them. (Koblenzerstrasse 7, D-55422 Bacharach, +49 061743 1369)
At the upstream end of the Romantic Rhine, Bingen's somewhat commercial setting deters many travelers from its rich history. If for no other reason, visit the town to learn more about its most famous daughter. Hildegard von Bingen wrote and spoke out extensively on religious philosophy, women's rights, natural history and the medicinal uses of plants. Her music influenced many so-called "new age" compositions. She founded two convents. And, until her death in 1179 at the age of 81, she counseled popes and kings.
Her life, works and accomplishments are captured magnificently at the Bingen Historical Museum, opened in 1998. The museum also has an intriguing collection of 67 instruments from a 2nd-century Roman surgeon's kit found during archaeological excavation nearby. Bingen Historisches Museum am Strom-Hildegard von Bingen Museumstrasse 3, D-55411 Bingen, tel. +49 06721 990654, fax +49 06721 990653.
Across the Rhine, Rüdesheim pleases both those who crave touristy settings and those who abhor them. For many visitors, the highlight of Rüdesheim is the Drosselgasse, a noisy, kitschy street packed with people, and filled with restaurants and wine bars featuring various combinations of accordion, Sinatra and/or oom-pah music. But that's part of the attraction.
Leave the street, and the town takes on a different personality, with half-timber homes, the 10th-century Boosenburg and 11th-century Brömserburg fortresses, and a row of 16th-century mansions along the Oberstrasse. One mansion contains Siegfried's Mechanical Music Museum, a charming and intriguing collection of historic "self-playing" musical instruments. Entry is about €5 for adults, €2.70 for children. (Oberstrasse 27-29, D-65385 Rüdesheim, tel. +49 06722 49217, fax +49 06722 4587).
Rüdesheim has a superb color-coded and numbered signage system that makes exploration—and finding hotels and attractions—easy.
A basic but nonetheless charming and quite comfortable hotel with friendly staff and onsite owners. Its 30 rooms are plain but pleasant and clean. Number 12 is on a corner with balcony overlooking the Rhine. Leave the shades open when you go to sleep, and the sun will wake you as it rises over Burg Katz. Open the window and the only early-morning sounds you'll hear are ships chugging upstream. The room's only downside is a slightly cramped bathroom with pod shower.
The hotel is immediately across from the ship landing and a two-minute walk to the pedestrian ferry to St. Goarshausen. The ground floor features a small café and restaurant.
Contact: Hotel Hauser, Heerstrasse 77, D-56329 St. Goar, tel. +49 06741 333, fax +49 06741 1464
Rates: Singles €26-38, doubles €52-76
Rating: Quality 11/20 Value 14/20
Schloss Hotel and Villa Rheinfels
The Schloss Hotel and Villa Rheinfels is built atop the outer walls of the mighty fortress over the Rhine. Though not cheap, it's a good value and you'll be generously pampered by a staff that is formal but not stiff. The 57 rooms are regal and palatial with lavish décor. Most have some combination of four-poster beds, chandeliers, live plants, plush draperies and modern, tiled bathrooms with tubs big enough for two. Larger rooms have both sitting and writing areas.
The views to the Katz and Maus fortresses, St. Goarshausen and the start of the Loreley are among the most stunning along the Rhine and worth the extra price for a riverside room, preferably with balcony. Since the hotel is a 20-minute walk uphill, factor in taxi fare (about €4) - at least for trips with luggage.
Daily Rates: Singles €95-140, doubles €145-185
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
Hotel zur Post
The Hotel zur Post's half-timber architecture, overhanging balcony and abundant window-box flowers capture the atmosphere of what is arguably the most scenic town on the Rhine. Inside, the hotel's personable staff immediately makes guests feel at home. The rooms are quite simple, but clean, spacious and comfortable, though without phones. The restaurant offers a variety of tasty Italian dishes at good prices.
Contact: Hotel zur Post Oberstrasse 38, D-55422 Bacharach, tel +49 06743 1277, fax +49 06743 947600
Daily Rates: Singles €25-35, doubles €50-70. Non-smoking rooms available.
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 13/20
The Altkölnscher Hof, with its delightful half-timber framework, small turrets, towers and balconies, is a slight step up from the Hotel zur Post. The 21 rooms are generally larger, with new carpeting and wooden or wood-trimmed country-style furniture (and also with phones). The location is central and just two minutes by foot from the ship landing and five minutes from the train station. Room 32 offers a large covered balcony with a view to the marketplace. (Check out the public restrooms for photographs of floods over the past decades.)
Daily Rates: Singles €48-70, doubles €70-105
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 13/20
Though we seldom review youth hostels, most aren't located in an 11th century castle. And Stahleck Fortress makes for one of the most beautiful hostels in Germany. Lucky residents can walk within the courtyard, surrounded by half-timber buildings built on mighty ramparts. A round castle keep, capped by a tower, rises from the center. Of the 166 beds, many are located in single, double or family rooms, most with private showers and WC. While membership in a national youth hostel organization is required (American Youth Hostels 202-783-6161, hiusa.org/), the hostel welcomes guests of all ages.
Contact: Jugendburg Stahleck, Burg Stahleck, D-55422 Bacharach, tel. +49 06743 1266, fax +49 06743 2684
Daily Rates: Singles from about €17.50, doubles €29-35.
Rating: Quality 8/20 Value 11/20
Just footsteps away from the craziness of Rüdesheim's Drosselgasse, the Hotel Lindenwirt is a collection of half-timber buildings joined around a large courtyard.
While most guests prefer the traditional rooms—spacious, modern and well-appointed—overlooking the courtyard, some choose to spend the night in a wine cask. Each giant cask opens to the courtyard, and you enter through a door cut in its side. With twin beds and a shower, the rooms are cramped but inexpensive and give guests one more story to tell when they get home. The hotel is one of the largest (90 rooms), most central and most popular in Rüdesheim, which may be a plus or minus depending on personal taste.
There's free parking in the courtyard, a convenience for car travelers that somewhat diminishes the historic environment and courtyard view for others.
Contact: Hotel Lindenwirt Drosselgasse 15, D-65376 Rüdesheim, tel. +49 06722 1031, fax +49 06722 47585.
Daily Rates: Singles €49-78, double €52-104 ($86-$156), twin in a wine barrel €52-62.
Rating: Quality 11/20 Value 11/20
Schloss Hotel and Villa Rheinfels
The restaurant at the Schloss Hotel and Villa Rheinfels is one of the best on the Middle Rhine. Service is impeccable, the food heavenly, and the view across to Burg Katz and Burg Maus a living postcard.
The restaurant buys most of its meat and produce from local farmers and hunters, and fish from local fishermen (but not from the Rhine), and the freshness comes through. While the jumbo shrimp in the parsley soup assuredly aren't from nearby, the fresh parsley tastes just-picked and fragrant. And the pears poached in red wine and served with cinnamon ice cream are from local trees, the wine from local vineyards and the ice cream homemade.
My dinner began with a salad scattered with wild berries, wild mushrooms and goose liver strips in a blueberry dressing. Although tempted by melon soup, I moved straight to tender duck served with kohlrabi in red pepper sauce. Dessert was apple beignets with vanilla sauce.
With an appetizer, main course, glass of wine and dessert, expect to pay €40 or more per person. You can also choose a four-course meal for €35 or six-course for €48, excluding beverages.
Be sure to make reservations, and request seating on the terrace.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 16/20
Weinhaus Altes Haus
Compare a modern sketch of the Altes Haus with a print from the 17th century, and there won't be much difference - perhaps just a Mercedes or VW in place of a trader's cart. It has the same half-timber construction, same slightly off-kilter gables and turrets, and same leaded-glass windows as centuries ago—an architectural jewel. Inside, it's a step into history, with original wood floors, thick-beamed ceilings and plaster walls with original prints.
For the past century, the building and restaurant have been in the family of current owner Reni Weber, who calls it her "great passion." It shows. The cozy, historic setting (the cellars date from the 14th century) complements a superb restaurant with attentive, cordial service and reasonable prices. The menu features both regional specialties and broader fare, all with creativity and elegance: salmon poached in wine; pork cutlet with herbs and cheese; grilled sheep's cheese over fresh greens; and Camembert baked in orange sauce. Most entrées fall in the €8-13 range.
Call in advance to get the Klavierzimmer—the Piano Room. Its a small and especially comfortable side-room with upright piano, tile oven and views to the marketplace.
Contact: Weinhaus Altes Haus, Oberstrasse 61, D-55422 Bacharach, tel. +49 06743 1209, fax +49 06743 919067
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
Weingut Fritz Bastian
Bacharach is filled with small wineries that offer inexpensive wine tastings or serve light meals with their own wines. The Weingut Fritz Bastian is typical, where guests can choose to sit inside the old tavern or outside under a shaded grape arbor. Tables are old wine presses fitted with slate tops.
Menus change with the seasons, but summer choices included a cheese platter with bread and butter, bread with three types of sausage; Spundekäs (a kind of cream cheese mixed with spices and wine) served with bread, pretzel or tomato; and sauerkraut soup. Most items fall in the €4-6 range
Contact: Weingut Fritz Bastian, Oberstrasse 63, D-55422 Bacharach, tel. +49 06743 1208, fax +49 06743 2837
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 16/20
Restaurant Café Seilbahn
In a town loaded with "touristy" restaurants, the Restaurant Café Seilbahn, named for the adjacent cable-car base station, is a surprising delight. And you have to love a restaurant where the chef's motto is "Quality is when the guest comes back but not the meal." The menu refers to the outdoor dining area as a "little green oasis," and the description is apt: a terrace garden filled with plants, flowers, grape vines and a small aviary. A partial roof protects against the elements, and ceiling fans keep the space cool in summer.
The restaurant offers a variety of well-prepared meat and fish dishes, most in the €8-12 range. The menu, also available in English, includes tortellini with cheese sauce, goulash in a wine-cream stock with Spätzle, pork loin simmered in pepper-cream sauce and served with croquettes, beef cooked in burgundy sauce with dumplings, and Sauerbraten in wine with Spätzle and apple sauce. A typical (and tasty) dessert is simmered cherries served with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Service is relaxed, friendly and extremely attentive.
Contact: Restaurant Café Seilbahn Oberstrasse 43, D-65385 Rüdesheim, tel. +49 06722 2927, fax +49 06722 48187.
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 15/20
Gutsausschank Peter Prasser
This peaceful patio is a pleasant retreat from the hustle of the Drosselgasse, just a block away. The setting could easily be distant countryside, not Rhine-side town. On a quiet side street under an arbor bulging with plump grapes, travelers can relax, enjoy a glass of wine and nibble on a snack. The setting is laid-back and conversations flow easily across the handful of tables, thanks in part to Frau Prasser, the vintner's amiable mother. Most glasses of wine (from the Prasser winery, of course) cost about €2 and small plates of sausage, ham or cheese with bread about the same. Inside, a variety of the vineyard's excellent wines is available for sale.
Mondays are "Euro Days" with all wines only €1 per glass.
Rating: Quality 12/20 Value 15/20
Prices current 2006