Mention the Rhine River to most Americans and they will not think of broad flat plains lined with farms and industrial plants like those found to the north of Germany. They imagine instead vineyard covered hills dotted with the ruins of ancient castles.
That romantic Rhine River valley is indeed what we found south of Koblenz in the “middle valley.” During the night, we had passed castles south of Bonn. But now for once the sun was peeking out of the clouds and we had a beautiful day on the “sun deck” which we later came to refer to as the “rain deck.”
The valley has long been a favored transportation route for boats and barges. But both sides also have roads and railroads. Both passenger and freight trains pass by frequently. They are not as long as those in the U.S., but they are quieter and faster.
I have compared a cruise to a buffet where one gets the opportunity to sample a variety of items. Unfortunately, for this part of the buffet, we had to just pass by and look at the offerings. It would be much more satisfactory to at least have a short stop in most of the towns. But I am greedy. Even by car or train, seeing them all would be a little difficult. This portion of the Rhine was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002; there were no bridges, so now no bridges are allowed. To see the towns on both sides of the river, one has to use the ferries.
One of the first castles that looked the part was Burg Lahneck above Lahnstein. Then we came to the easily distinguished town of Boppard. There were Celts at this location before Romans founded a town. I don’t know what it has to offer, but it looked interesting.
The Kloster Schenke is interesting because in order to get into the church, you have to go through the “lokal,” the bar that is attached to the church.
Reinfels, above the town of St. Goar (Sankt Goar), is the largest castle along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz. Started in 1245, the castle was expanded until it could hold 4500 people during a siege. It withstood many battles and sieges before finally falling to the French in 1797. Today it houses a museum and a restaurant with a patio that has great views of the valley. One can also walk through the ruins.
The Lorelei is a rock towering 440 feet above the valley. It is at a sharp narrow bend in the river that can be dangerous even now that the river is “tamed” through the construction of locks. Ancient Germanic legend says that a beautiful siren, Lorelei, sat here singing and enticing sailors to their destruction. As we passed by, the German song Lorelei by Heinrich Heine played over the loud speakers and we were visited by our own (not too much of a siren) Lorelei.
Sixteen of the original twenty-one towers of the city walls dating back to 1220 still exist in Oberwesel. It has a bloody history of pogroms against the Jews, but today the wall, the towers, the half-timbered houses and historic buildings make it a place I’d like to stop to see.
A statue of Blücher, the Prussian general who drove Napoleon’s army back across the frozen ice, stands on the waterfront of the town of Kaub. Surely our captain has passed this way many times. But it was fun to hear him get excited when he realized we were witnessing a reenactment of that battle against the French.
I have focused on the towns and castles, but we did pass many vineyards. Some were on hills so steep, that I wondered how the soil remained between the vines. Using binoculars, I discovered there wasn’t much soil above the limestone rock and what existed was protected by heavy layers of straw. Almost all the labor on these steep hills is down by hand, often by family members. We did see one strange machine like a wagon with a huge winch at the top of a hill. It was using a cable to lower and raise a tractor like machine with a tank of some type of spray.
In the evening, we reached the classic town of Rüdesheim. The town is full of little inns, restaurants and charming streets, but somehow all the tourists end up on the Drosselgasse, a narrow street lined with garden restaurants. Here, forty-six years earlier, my friend Erhard and I watched a beautiful young woman dancing in a garden — but even some beer or a bottle of wine was beyond our hitchhiking budget at the time. Now all our passengers crowded into a restaurant for a meal, music, dancing and drinking games.