It’s been said that long ago, a beautiful maiden sat atop the Loreley cliffs overlooking the Rhine River. Her blue eyes gazed down at the fishermen and mariners sailing by, and her long blond hair blew in the wind as she called to the men below. They looked up, transfixed. But in so doing, they took their eyes off the treacherous river, and their boats were dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
So goes the legend of the Loreley. Today, no maiden sits up there; instead, the Rhine itself calls out, beckoning wanderers. Father Rhine, as the river is sometimes called, starts in the Swiss Alps and flows 1,233 kilometers (766 miles) north to the North Sea, passing cliff and castle, farm and factory. Some 68,000 ships a year pass the Loreley cliffs, making this one of the most heavily traveled rivers in the world.
The Rhine has flowed through European history for more than 2,000 years. At first it marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. Then, during the 12th and 13th centuries, powerful lords built fortresses and castles to crown the cliffs. Some of these lords found they could get rich by illegally taxing the river traffic, and they became known as “robber barons.”
In the 1800s, the Romantic artists discovered the wild beauty of the Middle Rhine gorge, and before long, a million people a year were visiting.
So strong is the call of the Rhine that in 2002, UNESCO designated the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (67 kilometers long) a World Heritage Site. Running from Rüdisheim to Koblenz and twisting around the 125-meter-high Loreley cliff, this part of the Rhine is the loveliest and most romantic part of the river.
One good way to explore the Middle Rhine Valley is via boat. You can board a boat in Rüdisheim — less than an hour by car from Frankfurt — and journey downriver, stopping at fairy-tale hamlets and feasting on local fare.
Several boat companies offer cruises, and an inexpensive ticket allows you to get on and off whenever the mood strikes.
And the mood can strike often. The Middle Rhine has one of the densest concentrations of castles in Germany — some 40 in all, with one every 1.5 kilometers or so. Most are picturesque ruins, destroyed when gunpowder and cannon put an end to the castle age. But not all. The Marksburg in Boppard retains its original splendor, and others have been restored. The mighty Burg Stahleck has been converted into a hostel.
Graceful churches also adorn every village — the foundations of the earliest go back to the fifth century.
Popular tourist destinations along the Middle Rhine include the towns of Bacharach, known for wine since the days of the Romans, and St. Goar, with its mighty fortress/castle dominating the skyline. It’s even possible to do both in a short trip, as I did recently with my wife — spending a night in Bacharach and exploring the castle the next day.
In tune with the river
The Rhine shapes the lives of those who live and work along its banks, calling them in ways the visitor seldom sees. “The river is moody,” says Captain Peter Gräf, skipper of the MS Asbach of the KD fleet. Captain Gräf has been sailing the river for more than 40 years. Even during school holidays as a boy, he would try to catch rides on freighters passing by.
“Every river has its ways,” he says. “It can be foggy or windy, high water or low water. When the water is high, the curves feel different.”
Captain Gräf especially likes the quietness of the early morning, when the rising sun dances off the water. But on this particular day the river feels flighty. Clouds scud by, threatening rain, and then melt into a blue sky. A small ruined castle perches on a hill amid the patchwork quilt of vineyards — now in shadow, now in sun.
A bit farther downriver, Burg Reichenstein stands guard high atop the western cliff, as it has done since the 11th century. Today, guests can tour the castle and even spend a night inside, as the former robber-baron stronghold has been turned into an elegant hotel.
Exploring the river’s banks
The Asbach soon pulls up at the docks of medieval Bacharach. Half-timbered houses crowding narrow streets take you back in time, such that you almost expect a minstrel to come strolling around the corner.
Bacharach was once much larger than its current population of about 2,000. Back in the 1300s, the town served as a thriving commercial hub. Wine and grain came downriver in small boats able to navigate the rocky rapids above town and then were transferred onto bigger boats at Bacharach.
But with the invention of gunpowder and dynamite, the rapids were cleared and river commerce was no longer focused on the town. Now, Bacharach enjoys a peaceful existence amid vineyards and visitors.
Up the hill and through the gate in the ancient town wall stands the Gasthaus zur Traube, an inn owned by Hans-Jürgen Jost, 62, and his family. A gasthaus is a central feature of every German village or town: Simpler than a hotel, nicer than a hostel, it features a hearty breakfast and a homey atmosphere.
As Herr Jost puts it, “You come to a gasthaus as a guest, and you leave as a friend.”
In addition to the gasthaus, Herr Jost and his family have owned vineyards in Bacharach for 350 years. The area is particularly well-suited for wine production, he explains. South-facing slopes soak up the sun while slate in the ground holds warmth long into the night. Steep hillsides give every grape maximum sun. The grapes must be harvested by hand and, in Herr Jost’s vineyard, tourists are welcome to help with the harvest.
Down closer to the river, Andreas Stüber, 46, is a sixth- generation chef whose family opened the Rhein Hotel in 1874. “The river has a rhythm,” he explains. “People come for two or three weeks and just sit and watch it go by.”
A hot summer day will find Chef Stüber himself jumping in the water during the afternoon break, swimming downstream awhile, and then heading back to work refreshed and ready for the evening crowd.
The Rhine hasn’t always been so clean. In the 1970s pollution increased so much that the salmon, trout and eels disappeared, and the commercial fisherman disappeared as well. But the ’90s brought much-needed environmental controls.
As Chef Stüber lays out an artistic sauerbraten (meat marinated in vinegar and spices, then roasted) of wild boar with pretzel-dough dumplings, a cool breeze ruffles the flowers on the slate tabletop. A freight train rumbles by, reminding you that the Rhine Valley is not just about romance and beauty but is also a working valley and a major European artery of commerce.
Downriver to St. Goar
The next morning, sunlight streams in the gasthaus window at 5:30 a.m. Birds chirp in the firs outside and a brook chuckles below — an idyllic retreat.
Today’s goal is to explore the castle ruins in St. Goar, but along the way a little island castle calls us over. It’s Pfalzgrafenstein, a boat-shaped building built in medieval times to collect tolls from passing ships. So we disembark at the village of Kaub to take a small ferry to Pfalz Island. Stepping off the boat, we smell bratwurst in the breeze and hear a brass band tuning up.
Today, it turns out, is an annual festival, where the road on both sides of the Rhine is closed from Rüdisheim to Koblenz and is devoted to bicyclers and in-line skaters. A fountain bubbles in the sun while the street fills with cycles and skates, balloons and bratwurst stands. It’s enticing, to say the least, but we have a ferry to catch.
The ferry skipper, Heinz Erlenbach, 73, comes from a family of boatmen going back eight or nine generations. For Captain Erlenbach, the river’s call is more pragmatic than lyrical. When he looks out at the Rhine, he sees the heavy flow of cargo, producing jobs and bringing coal and oil to heat the continent. “Without the river,” he points out, “I would live very poorly.”
After the island, we catch the next cruise ship to St. Goar. This ship turns out to be the Boppard, filled with tourists like Mika Takahashi, who works for the Japanese Air Force near Tokyo. This is her third time in the Rhine Valley.
Tourists come from all over the world — about 20 million people visit the Middle Rhine Valley each year, according to the Romantic Rhine Tourist Board. Some 900,000 of those spend a night or more. They range from singles like Takahashi to families on holiday to flight crews with a day off in Frankfurt.
Soon we arrive in St. Goar, with its broad cobblestone main street and shops selling everything from cuckoo clocks to beer steins to Birkenstock sandals. Our destination, Burg Rheinfels, perches high atop a cliff. The climb is steep but rewarding: Upon reaching the top we find a dining terrace with a stunning view of the river.
Burg Rheinfels was once the greatest fortress on the river; it never fell to siege. Instead, it was handed over to French Revolutionary forces in 1794, who subsequently blew it up. Today it has extensive and fascinating ruins, with mysterious underground tunnels.
Later, as the boat steams back upriver to Rüdisheim, a curtain of rain and mist obscures the water and the land. The mood has changed again. Passing cargo ships fade into the mist, giving the call of Father Rhine a more haunting quality, making the legend of the Loreley almost believable.
Ethiopian Airlines flies from Addis Ababa directly to Frankfurt; start your Rhine River tour from Rüdisheim, only an hour by car from Frankfurt.
Bill Sundstrom has traveled the globe in pursuit of stories, visiting some 70 countries along the way. Whether talking to a villager high in the Andes or a banker in London, he gets at the heart of the story and brings distant places and people to life.