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.