Germany Holidays: The Rhine at its best
The Rhine gorge has been deservedly recognised by UNESCO both for its history and its exceptional landscape.
For much of its length the river Rhine is a big and nondescript waterway, responsible for draining much of Switzerland, Austria and Germany and carrying one helluva lot of freight en route. But for a comparatively short piece of its 1,233km journey from source to sea, it achieves true celebrity status as it cuts through the 260 metre deep Rhine gorge, creating some of the finest scenery in western Europe, to which mankind has added handsome towns, quirky watchtowers and towering castles. These features, together with the slings and arrows of history that went into creating them, has led to the whole gorge being listed as a site of world heritage by UNESCO. And that’s without even mentioning the wine; the gorge’s south-facing shores are slathered in some of the most productive vineyards in Europe.
The gorge has been inspirational for poets, painters and composers (Brahms, Wagner, Goethe) for several centuries – and buttock-clenching for ship’s captains for even longer. The artistically-inclined appreciate the contrast between the beautifully manicured layers of vines and the indomitable wildness of the water, which surges white-flecked through the gorge with a force that all but defeats the most resolute of marine diesels; a skipper needs special certification to tackle these waters.
The most spectacular stretch starts at Rudesheim (Bingen) in the south (frequent trains run from Frankfurt airport via Wiesbaden and take 75 minutes) and runs almost due north for around 65kms to Koblenz. For all of this distance – in fact all the way from Wiesbaden to Koblenz – a distance of 108kms, there are no bridges. Accordingly river transport is key, both in terms of cross-river ferries, and in long distance cruisers, some of them hotel boats savouring the scenery with leisurely stops and others of them day cruisers providing a regular scheduled service.
Three different approaches
For visitors there are three main choices of activity. For walkers, the Rheinsteig is one of Europe’s greatest long distance footpaths, and it follows the river on the east bank (the vineyard side) mostly in the state of Hesse. It sometimes dips down into towns, but much of the time it stays high, staying in shaded woodland of oak and birch, offering terrific views of the river below.
For cyclists, the west bank has the dedicated cycle path, down at river level, sometimes along the side of the road, sometimes doing its own thing at the water’s edge. It is impossible to get lost, and the river’s regular boats – or the trains, which serve both sides – are always at hand to return you to base if you don’t want to retrace your steps.
And then there are all the boat passengers, on day trips or on sleek, glittering hotel boats, sunning themselves in the gorge’s microclimate between stops at the key towns. These are Rudesheim, Bingen, Bacharach, Oberwesel, St Goar, Bad Salzig and Boppard, and they are usually linear in layout, with a castle above, with tower-encrusted walls, and collections of gabled and half timbered medieval houses, boasting plenty of places to sample the Riesling or the coffee and cake.
Elsewhere, the Rhine gorge remains pretty thinly populated, despite sitting at the heart of Europe’s most populous nation. Only wine-makers’ mansions break the patterns of vineyards, their tractors combing the slopes, and holding back rampant forest.
All in all it is a lovely place to pass a handful of days.
There’s no over-arching official website that covers the whole thing, but Romantic Germany is the best general site, and the Rheingau covers the wine-rich destinations at the southern and eastern end.
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