The Romantic Rhine.
If you believe the legends of the place, you’d say to yourself Romantic, my ass.
UNESCO refers to this area as the Upper Middle Rhine Valley and was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 2002 and is described as follows:
The 65km-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 strategic location of the dramatic 65km stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley between Bingen, Rüdesheim und Koblenz as a transport artery and the prosperity that this engendered is reflected in its sixty small towns, the extensive terraced vineyards and the ruins of castles that once defended its trade.
link to the full UNESCO page
Defended its trade. A polite way of saying that this region was made what it is today by several ruthless and greedy barons cashing in on the importance of the Rhine in transporting goods up and down Europe. When you look at the landscape, it seems every hundred meters, poor ships had to bribe (i.e. pay “tolls”) the next castle owner in order to move on or they would “defend their trade“. I can only imagine how long it would take a single ship to navigate this 65km in the 1300’s.
Not only was this region Hellish for boat owners and merchants, but the legends which have sprung up as many of the castles fell into decay over hundreds of years are littered with stories of heartbroken maidens and tragic knights. Not a single fricking romantic story among them.
I previously wrote about my experiences in the Romantic Rhine in which I recounted my experiences getting around the region by boat, ferry, and train. I left out biking in that post because at the time it was still on my to-do list. As I prepare to share the process of crossing it off my list, I should express that I don’t see biking as a way of “getting around” the Romantic Rhine. Biking there is to be experienced not as a way of getting to and from what you want to visit but as the highlight in and of itself. It has long been a dream to skip the typical touristic agenda and simply get out on a bike and live and breathe the beauty of this region to the sound of the wheels on the path and the hum of the chain and derailleur. Earlier this Spring, I finally had the opportunity and it was everything that I had imagined and more.
All joking aside, if you also read my previous post on the subject, you will see why this region appeals to me so much. Thank you Robber barons. There is a time warp element there. The towns have remained small and charming and never distract or pollute the beautiful natural wonder of the place. Trust me I worded this before reading the UNESCO website. Many castles still lay in ruins and most of the restored ones still retain their stark medieval character.
We can be forgiven for thinking of places like the Romantic Rhine as being discovered or polished for modern tourism or that there lacks a certain authenticity. But this really is not one of those places. One of the earliest examples of travel writing in my book collection is by a guy named Bayard Taylor who set out in 1844 (that’s pre-American Civil War, folks) as a 19- or 20-year old and backpacked thru Europe. He was able to make the trip thanks to a Fund Me-like campaign that Taylor pursued with several newspapers, finally landing two which would agree to help. They would give him a little money in exchange for a series of letters written about his travels. This along with earning some money along the way allowed Taylor to backpack two years through Europe. The entire cost of the trip? $500. That would hardly buy a plane ticket to Europe these days. Backpacking Europe as an American in 1844 would have been thought of as a pipe dream. Imagine how difficult it would have been to plan such a trip. The prevalent travel guide of the day was Murray’s Handbook (described by Taylor as being read by other tourists) which was first published in 1836 (almost 150 years before Rick Steves incidently). Fortunately for fans of travel writing, Taylor succeeded and left behind a great book titled Views A-Foot.
One of the places that Taylor writes about is the Romantic Rhine (this nickname did not exist in Taylor’s time, so it is not called that in the book). He visited the region 175 years ago and was taking the same method as exists today… a boat.
His reaction to his journey feels like it could have been written yesterday:
Above Coblentz (sic) almost every mountain has a ruin or legend. One feels everywhere the spirit of the past, and its stirring recollections come back upon the mind with irresistible force. I sat upon the deck the whole afternoon, as mountains, towns and castles passed by on either side, watching them with a feeling of the most enthusiastic enjoyment.
Coming from a tourist in 1844 when sitting on that deck would have been a one-in-a-million experience impossible for most people of the day to achieve, those words carry a lot of depth. One of my favorite travel concepts is the idea of Appreciation. And there is something special knowing that appreciation is a feeling that is universal for travelers from any era.
The Bike Ride
Personally I don’t know which direction is better, but I preferred staying in Bingen as opposed to Koblenz, so I did the ride from south to north on the west bank of the Rhine river. The entire route consists of a well marked bike path and it is very easy to follow. Only once arriving in Koblenz do you have to navigate a bit to get to the Deutsches Eck. It looks to me from the elevation profile that south to north also has a very slight decline in altitude if that helps make up anyone’s mind.
- Starting Point: Bingen am Rhein
- Ending Point: Koblenz (Deutsches Eck)
- Time: 3 hours 9 minutes
- Distance: 67.4 km
- Eating Point: Many
The Mouse Tower
Before breaking a sweat, the first interesting site along the route is the Mouse Tower which is on an island in the Rhine next to Bingen. Looming in the background are the ruins of Burg Ehrenfelds. The Mouse Tower was a customs house and used for collecting tolls from passing ships. It was established in 968 by Archbishop Hatto II of Mainz. Both Hatto I and II were both rather despised by the locals for their greed and treachery. A legend arose that during a famine, Hatto II locked some begging peasants in his grain barn and burned them alive. Some mice with a certain set of skills hunted Hatto down and ate the bishop alive.
This 14th century castle looms over the bike path and is a tempting diversion. This is actually one that can be visited but as with all accessible castles on this ride, I will leave that up to the reader. I didn’t visit any that day. But already you realize that some illustrious and infamous history will witness your humble ride.
A little further along is this even more impressive 13th century castle. One of the many in the region that now functions as a hotel.
There are many jetties along the route where it is possible to walk out into the middle of the river for scenic photos. This one is taken on the approach to Bacharach, a village featured in my previous post as a Must See.
If there was one village to stop for a short peek, this is the one. The following pictures of Bacharach were not taken during the ride, but the evening before.
If you have a chance, one place I would recommend stopping for a flammkuchen, local wine, or a regional beer is Münze. It has a classic cozy, dark wood, medieval tavern feel to it.
Some Views of the Other Side
After Bacharach is a string of great views from the other side of the river.
Of all the sites along the Romantic Rhine, probably the most famous and least authentic of the bunch is the Lorelei. If it weren’t for the myth behind it and the sign proudly indicating the 432 foot slate rock edifice as the “Loreley“, we’d sail or ride right by it without much thought other than admiration for the scenery. This is one case where you could be forgiven for thinking that admiring the Lorelei is akin to connecting with ancient German folklore. The truth, however, is Lore Ley was a character created in a German ballad in 1801 and she didn’t become the siren who crashed sailors into the rocks until probably 1810. Then her story was expanded and put to music in 1824 when the legend took off. In 1844, Taylor does mention the “Lurlei Berg” as the “haunt of the water nymph” so it was already well established. The other travel book I referenced in this post, called My Friend the Captain by W. L. Terhune and dated 1897, describes a trip down the Romantic Rhine with great detail about several of the Rhine myth stories. Not once is the Lorelei mentioned. It makes me wonder if the author was aware of the “modern” origin of the Lorelei myth and gave it no priority.
A rather funny anecdote from Views A-Foot regarding the Lorelei. It is well known for its echo and apparently in 1844, it was common for school kids to yell out “Who is the mayor of Oberwesel?” so that the echo would return as “…Esel” which means ass in German. Kids spend too much time looking at their smartphones or taking selfies these days.
St. Goar is probably the busiest of the towns on the route. It is tempting to stop, but satisfy yourself by diverting from the river route to ride thru the center of town and meeting the bike path at the other end of town. Come back another time to see the recommended Burg Rheinfels. If you are getting hungry, I would wait until Boppard.
More Views of the Other Side
One of the lovely things about the bike ride is it allows you to observe the numerous castles at your own pace.
The myth of the Two Brothers is the one I highlight here because I find the disparity between what is told in 1897 compared to today to be fascinating. If you visit the websites of these two castles, you will read the saga of the two hostile brothers who duped their blind sister out of her share of their father’s inheritance, squandered their fortune, and holed up in their own castles despising the other until a fateful agreement to go on a hunting trip together, where one of the brothers accidentally kills the other.
But in My Friend the Captain from 1897, the author tells a completely different story which would have come before either of these ruined castles were restored and eventually turned into hotels. In the 1897 story, the two brothers were both in love with the same servant girl. The younger brother, Conrad, had won the girl’s heart but his father made them wait to get married until the 2nd of the two castles could be built. Meanwhile Heinrich, the older brother, became a knight and went off to fight heroically in the Crusades. Hearing of his brother’s glory and reacting to their father’s recent death, Conrad also went to fight in the Crusades delaying the marriage even longer. On his way home, he passed thru Greece, married a Greek woman, and brought her home to the castles. Heinrich hearing of his brother’s unfaithfulness, returned to challenge Conrad to a duel, restore the servant girl’s honor, and win her heart. The servant girl, however, decided to go live in a convent making the duel rather pointless, so the brothers made up. Conrad would find out shortly thereafter that his Greek wife had shacked up with another knight and ran off with him. Both brothers moved into the Burg Liebenstein together and left Sterrenberg abandoned.
So which one is it? I suppose the earlier version seems more interesting and tragic.
I mentioned before, if you are looking for a place to stop for lunch, I’d recommend Boppard, mainly because you have a promenade with riverside seating. I stopped at Karmeliterhof where the summer salad was good if it hadn’t been completely soaked in salad dressing, which seems to be a German thing. Make sure to ask for your dressing on the side. But here I made a fundamental mistake which I have been trying to avoid in recent rides. No high alcohol drinks in the middle of your bike ride. I admit I could not resist the temptation of trying a local wine from Boppard. I love the crispiness of the white wines in this region and this one did not disappoint. But my legs never quite recovered.
Two More Castles of Note
After Boppard, my legs may have started to give up, but the run of castles did not. Previously, Marksburg Castle had been the furthest north I had ventured on the Romantic Rhine. It is a recommended visit in my aforementioned post, but you’ll need to get across the river.
Schloss Stolzenfels is a former castle and later a palace which today can be visited. The angle from the bike path does not adequately show the size and beauty of this place.
Finally a Brewery
Koblenzer Brauerei is situated in a series of buildings overshadowed by an ugly grey tower about 6km south of the city of Koblenz. Having passed it a few times in the past by car only to be frustrated by its being closed, I was very excited to find out that there was a restaurant situated in the brewery open on the weekends. At this point with only a few kilometers to go, I did not hesitate to ‘untap’ more than one beer.
Germans either scoff or chuckle at this nickname meaning German Corner. Koblenz marks the confluence of both the Mosel and Rhine rivers. An enormous statue of Emperor William I, who is credited with uniting the various German regions, dramatically overlooks this marriage of iconic rivers as if every corner of Germany links to them.
The original statue was erected in 1897 but was destroyed in WWII. After East and West Germany were re-united, a replica was installed to some controversy (easily ignored once private donors agreed to foot the bill). Given the impact that “unified” Germany had on 20th century history, you can understand the complex reaction that the Deutsches Eck might incur among the modern German people.
Koblenz is a city that is worth a longer visit. An imposing fortress is accessible from the Eck via cable cars. However, I was content to grab a bite to eat and head back to cozier Bingen by train.
This was one of the most enjoyable (and easy) bike rides I have done since moving to Europe. The views are astonishing and to be able to enjoy them without feeling locked into a touristic agenda makes it even better. This was not about visiting castles or sharing a boat ride with chatty tour groups, it was about getting some exercise and feeling at home among the history and myths of a region which has been drawing people for hundreds of years. Even in 1844, this place felt old and historic and seems to have looked and felt very much the same as it does today. I couldn’t be more appreciative to finally be able to accomplish those magical 65km and I hope somewhere a couple of long gone travel writers who came before me are nodding their skulls in agreement.
And with regards to the romantic part. Perhaps a stay in one of the former robber baron castle hotels and spending a couple summer evenings sipping Reisling with the love of your life might just make it worthy of the name.