It is impossible for me to think of that name without imagining it spoken with a sinister German accent rolling from the tongue of some squinty-eyed bespectacled villain from a 1930’s film noir movie.
The name appeared to me almost out of nowhere. In Braubach, Germany. I had already had an amazing holiday weekend in the Romantic Rhine region when the sign indicating Bier Festival caught my eye while I was walking up a road towards Marksburg Castle. Having been used to elaborate beer festivals in Belgium and knowing Germany’s Oktoberfest reputation, for sure I was completely intrigued and was already doing the math in my head of all the new German beers I could add to Untappd. There was only one small detail. Where on God’s earth was…
Niederwallmenach. Sinister laugh.
Finding it by car was not an option since I arrived to the area by train. This was before the unification of the European Union data plan services so I had no data connection to simply search it on Google Maps. I made a mental note of the name of the town and spent the next couple hours touring the castle.
Up until that moment when the beer festival landed on my radar, the holiday was already a blog-worthy Dionysian experience. This is German wine country. It is a place to hike, bike, and drink. The section of the Rhine between the cities of Koblenz and Rüdesheim is for me the prime stretch of what is known as the Romantic Rhine. It is rich with medieval castles, small wine villages, and dramatic scenery. The formula is very simple. Explore the villages and scenery during the day and taste different wines in one of the many Weinguts at night. A beer festival was never part of the plan. But it is those serendipitous experiences that always make traveling so special. However, before I set off in search of Neiderwallmenach, I look back at my Romantic Rhine experiences and explain how I have found it a place which continues to beckon me to return.
Getting around: Ditch the car
Although I have been to this area several times by car, it was that holiday weekend when I came by train that was the most fun. There is no better way to get absorbed into the Romantic Rhine experience than to leave your car at the Weingut (or all the way back at your home) and rely on foot, bike, train, ferry, and boat. The main thing to be aware of for planning is that there are villages and sites on both sides of the river and the only way to cross is by ferry or boat. Trains do not cross over to the other side. There is a reason that the Bridge at Remagen was so important to capture and secure by the Allies in World War II as they drove toward Berlin. Bridges are rare in this part of the Rhine. Check schedules carefully!
By Boat: Using the boat system is very easy. However, plan carefully because the boat is not really a hop-on, hop-off experience. There are a limited number of boats going up and down the river. Every town along the river has a dock for the riverboat which is always easy to find. One riverboat is operated by KD (Köln-Düsseldorfer) which operates the most time slots. The other is the Bingen-Rüdesheimer line. Simply walk down to the dock and buy a ticket. You can download timetables at the above websites. Here I give an example from the 2018 High Season for the KD line. The region I focus on in this post is between Braubach and Rüdesheim. The left side is the timetable for direction Rüdesheim and the right side is for direction Braubach. You will note that there is a significant gap between boats in one direction. So if you miss a boat, you have to wait 1-2 hours for the next one. Therefore if planning a boat tour of the river, it is recommended to catch the earliest one, especially if you are planning to come back by boat and also do a city visit or two.
By Train: Going by train is a faster way of getting between villages than the boat. But the trains stay on one side of the river. The best website to check train schedules is the DB Travel Query page. Be sure to always know in advance the last train running in the evening.
By Ferry: This is the main way that you are going to get across the river. The are no bridges in this section of the river. I found this website which provides links to the different ferries. One that is very common to use is the St. Goar to St. Goarshausen ferry. During May thru September, the last ferry is at 10:30pm. If you miss the last ferry, you’ll need to find a taxi to take you all the way to Koblenz to cross the river.
Sleeping: Sleep with the wine producers
There are so many nice villages along the Romantic Rhine that I doubt any of them would be a mistake. The two times I spent the night, I stayed in Oberwesel, so I have a fond place for it in my heart. Bacharach and St. Goar get most of the attention, especially to the Rick Steves fans. So Oberwesel to me feels like a hidden gem.
While the town probably doesn’t matter too much, making the right choice about where to stay is an important part of the overall immersion into the wine experience. I would recommend to always stay at a Weingut which is a hotel run by a winery. They will have their own restaurant normally with an outdoor terrace where you can taste all the different wines produced by the winery. It is also possible to buy bottles of the wine for taking home. While I am a sucker for buying wine to take with me, I can tell you that the wine may taste delicious at home, but it always tastes ten times better when drunk at the Weingut. One place I can recommend is Gasthaus Weingut Stahl.
If you can’t find a Weingut, then a traditional looking restaurant/hotel with a biergarten makes a fine substitute. I can recommend Goldener Pfropfenzieher.
Top Sites: Castles, castles, and more castles
The Rhine river has been a major thoroughfare for trade from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe for centuries. In the late middle ages when Germany was still fragmented into several smaller principalities, competing rulers started building castles along this river, stretching chains across the river, and imposing tariffs. The landscape is littered with them and if you take the boat ride, you will soon become familiar with all of their names. Many of them cannot be visited or are hotels which look great from the river but are not so interesting up close. The two which should be visited are Rheinfels Castle in St. Goar and Marksburg Castle in Braubach.
Rheinfels Castle was destroyed by the French during the French Revolution and today remains in ruins. I enjoy these kinds of sites which allow a lot of freedom to explore. There are also great views of the river and town of St. Goar below.
Marksburg Castle is the only castle in this area that I am describing which was never destroyed. If you are staying on the west bank of the Rhine, the easiest way to get there is to take a ferry from St. Goar to St. Goarshausen and then take the train to Braubach. From there I just hiked up to the castle.
On any visit to this region, this is the castle that will be photographed and fill one with wonder the most due to its location on a small island in the river. It can be visited by ferry but I have not yet had the pleasure. For information on tickets, go to the Burg Pfalzgrafenstein website. It served as a toll-collecting station and coincided with one of the famous river chains.
Must See Town: Bacharach
Besides Oberwesel, Bacharach is the most interesting and picturesque town to visit in this region. The best time to visit is in May during the Vierthälermarkt, which is a medieval festival which is held along the river. Besides this, the town is a joy to walk around looking at the half timber houses. It is also nice to hike up thru one of the vineyards to get a great view of the city and up to the town’s most famous landmark, the ruins of the Werner Chapel. Very good chance when you visit this town, you will bump into an American carrying a Rick Steves guidebook as this town is featured in both his television program and in his guidebooks.
Recommended Day Trip: Rüdesheim to Assmannshausen hike
This day trip utilized the system I prefer of taking the train to my starting point quickly and then making my way back using the more scenic methods of hiking and taking the boat. The day started with a train ride from Oberwesel to Bingen, where I crossed over to Rüdesheim by ferry.
Rüdesheim itself is a very picturesque (and touristy) village with lots of quaint shops and restaurants. While this is nice in small doses and for a few cool pictures, I decided to take the cable car up to the top of the hill (A on map), taking me above the many layered vineyards situated above Rüdesheim.
At the top it was a relaxing relatively flat 3,5km hike to a ski-lift (B on map) which took me down to the village of (don’t laugh) Assmannshausen.
From there I caught the boat up the river and stopped off at Kaub just across from Burg Pfalzgrafenstein and had my lunch. This part has to be planned carefully because as you can see in the boat time table, there is a 3-hour gap from 11:45 to 14:45 for boats going from Assmannshausen in the Koblenz direction. I had planned for the 11:45. After my lunch in Kaub, I caught the train to Braubach (0:30 minutes) and had plenty of time to visit the Marksburg Castle.
Which brings this post full circle. For after the visit to Marksburg Castle, it was time to experience the one unplanned event of the day…. the beer festival of Niederwallmenach.
The Most Surreal Beer Festival…Ever.
In this part of the country, taxis aren’t exactly a common method of transportation. The fact that I found one seems quite remarkable as I look back on it. When I told the driver I wanted to go to the Niederwallmenach beer festival, I wasn’t expecting to have to provide further details. The driver shrugged her shoulders and said something like, It’s a pretty small town, should be obvious when we get there. I took her word for it, sat back, and watched us leave the beauty of the Rhine Gorge and head into the rolling plateaus of farmland east of the Rhine. As the kilometers increased inversely to the level of civilization, I began to wonder what I was getting myself into.
Had I had an internet connection and looked up Niederwallmenach, I would have found a lot of white space and one single sentence beginning with Niederwallmenach is a village… Even this phrase seemed to overstate its qualifications. As the taxi pulled into town, the first impression was the complete lack of life. Empty streets. No obvious congregating of cars which might indicate a beer festival. No signs pointing the way. We stopped after passing thru the main street and turned around looking for any clues. The only sign that I recall pointed to the local school so we turned up the alley leading to it. There were one or two cars outside. The taxi paused and after a minute, a man came out holding a glass of beer. Bingo.
I checked my phone. 7:30pm. I made arrangements for the taxi to pick me up at 10:00pm and went enthusiastically into the school auditorium. How many new beers would I try? 4? 5? What kind of special beer glass would I get to bring home? 80’s music was blasting over the speakers. Disco lights flashed a spectrum of colors around the gym like a school dance. As I stepped inside though, I got the urge to turn and quickly look for the taxi. It was gone. Damn.
The room consisted of a table selling Paulaner Helles and one selling Gaffel Kölsch. Meanwhile the approximately twenty people in the room all looked at me at the same time. And I had a little more than 2 hours before the taxi would be back.
You can imagine the surprise of the residents in a small German farming village which has a population of about 400 people when an American tourist shows up at their little beer festival. I was instantly a celebrity. At least for a group of teenagers drinking beer at one of the tables. All of them would have been dragged out by the police and taken to the police station for their parents to pick up if we had been in the United States. But this was Germany and this was my first experience with the more lenient drinking age restrictions in Europe. So there I was drinking beer with some kids who barely looked sixteen. Unfortunately the language barrier combined with the loud music made it very difficult to do much more than drink and smile. By the time the taxi arrived I had easily consumed the two different beers on tap and greeted everybody in the room. It wasn’t what I had expected but it was so surreal to me that it will always be something I will remember fondly. This was back in 2013 and the annual Niederwallmenach beer festival still occurs every May. Check it out.
One Final Remark: See the Mosel Wine Region
A visit to the Romantic Rhine can easily include a visit to the Mosel side of this wine region. In fact, it deserves a few days of its own. One could argue that it has a better wine culture, cuter villages, and more impressive castles. All of this however will be the subject of a future post. Until then… Cheers!