World Heritage – In 2002, UNESCO designated the Middle Rhine Valley (also known as Romantic Rhine) a World Heritage Site. In its announcement, UNESCO stated, “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.”
Of all the places in Germany, the Upper Middle Rhine (which encompasses Romantic Rhine, Rhine Valley, Rhine Gorge) is most fascinating for its association with legend. There is hardly a town, castle or rock along this 65km (40 miles) stretch which hasn’t got some mythological connection. This area was the setting for the renowned Nibelungenlied, an epic tale of heroism and dynastic rivalry. It’s also famed for being home to medieval robber barons, shipwrecks, sirens and mermaids, including the alluring Lorelei. Yet it is not just mythology which makes this area; it is also one of the country’s most romantically scenic regions, with the Rhine here at its majestic best and spectacular views awaiting those hardy walkers who tackle the undulating trails.
Enjoy the good life! Vineyards and wine terraces are a key characteristic of the Romantic Rhine and Mosel valleys and the area is renowned for the quality of its vintages. After a hard day of hiking (or maybe as a pit-stop), be sure to enjoy some local fine food and a glass of Riesling at a local tavern. Alternatively, you can test the wine directly at one of the many vineyards, either at the winemaker’s table or surrounded by the vines on a tasting tour.
Not only do are the vineyards and wineries make for very pleasant walking territory, they also provide a genuine insight into German culture and an opportunity to meet with locals.
The Rhine Valley and Mosel Valley together form the biggest and most important wine-producing region in Germany, accounting for around 70% of all the country’s wine. Visitors can sample world-famous varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir in stunning surroundings. You’re also likely to encounter at least one annual wine festival during your visit, particularly if you’re in the area in August or September, just before grape harvest time. For details of all the festivals, you can pick up the Rhineland-Palatinate Events Calendar, which is available from local tourist offices.
Castles and Fortresses – History buffs will fall in love with the rich heritage of the Rhine and Mosel valleys, which have a higher concentration of castles than any other place on earth. Following is just a small selection of some of the finest castles you can visit:
Marksburg Castle in Braubach: This is the only clifftop castle which has remained completely intact and is quite simply awe-inspiring. It is open all year round, but visitors must take a guided tour.
Pfalzgrafenstein Castle: Dramatically sited on an island in the middle of the Rhine, this Medieval castle, whose fortified walls, towers and courtyard have remained intact, is characterised by its ornately shaped roof and oriels which give it the appearance of a ship. The charming and picturesque island on which this medieval toll castle stands can be reached easily by taking a ferry from Kaub.
Rheinfels Castle in St. Goar: The largest and possibly the most splendid castle ruins on the Rhine river. The castle itself dates back to the 14th century and the adjacent palace and fortress were built a couple of centuries later. The castle hosts a number of events throughout the year including a medieval festival, wine forums and various other special occasions.
Stolzenfels Castle near Koblenz: This castle boasts a number of original furnishings including centuries-old portraits, furniture and weapons, as well as neo-Gothic furnishings from the mid-19th century. If you love music, then try to visit in summer, when a number of outdoor concerts are held in the romantic setting of the castle’s courtyard.
Burg Eltz: There is something really magical about this place and if you can only visit one castle, then you should strongly consider this one. Set deep in Mosel Valley woodland and surrounded by steep hills, lies one of Germany’s loveliest hidden treasures. The first sighting of tall, magestic, multi-towered Burg Eitz is sure to take your breath away. Multilingual tours are available and are well worth doing to learn the innermost secrets of this fairytale castle.
Rhine in Flames (Rhein in Flammen) – This is the region’s most famous and spectacular Festival which takes place every summer. On festival nights, the Rhine Valley becomes a kaleidoscope of colour and light, enticing visitors from near and far to experience the stunning interplay of fire, water and light, in a majestic setting.
Castles, palaces, ruins and the river banks become enveloped in a red glow and thrilling firework displays bring a sense of real occasion to the beautiful Rhine Valley.
All along the Rhine during the festival, the various towns and villages host a range of events, giving visitors plenty of opportunity to immerse themselves in the spectacle. Pretty much any place along the banks of the Rhine provides a fine vantage point to view the proceedings, or, to get even closer to the action, you might want to join one of the many ships which glide along the river. For more information, visit www.rhine-river-lights.com
The Lorelei – Lorelei (which is sometimes spelled Loreley), is a giant rock which soars some 120 metres above the waterline, located on the eastern bank of the Rhine near the town of St. Goarshausen. It marks the narrowest part of the river between Switzerland and the North Sea. Lorelei is named after the legendary mermaid, a blond siren who once sat on this rock, luring sailors on the Rhine to their death with her hypnotic singing and beguiling beauty. The legend has been passed down through the ages, and has been made more famous still by the Heinrich Heine poem, which was set to the melancholy melody of Friedrich Silcher.
Rüdesheim on the Rhine – This lively and most attractive town has been drawing artists and poets from far and wide since the early nineteenth century and it is now one of the most visited towns in all of Germany; quite an achievement when you consider its modest size. What makes it so special is the collection of enticing historic landmarks, including the ruins of Ehrenfels Castle, Adler Tower and the Klunkhardshof.
It’s also a very naturally beautiful place, with the Rhein-Taunus nature park, vineyards and exceptional viewpoints from which to enjoy the charms of this region. Wine lovers can also enjoy a glass of the superb Ruedesheimer Riesling, while enjoying some excellent local cuisine and listening to traditional music, either in the famous Drosselgasse or any one of the many inns, bars and taverns which this town boasts.
Koblenz – This is a lively town with a strong Roman ancestary, which marks the northern gateway to the Romantic Rhine and easy access to the attractions of the Mosel Valley. Koblenz derives from the Latin word ‘Confluentes’, as this is where the Mosel meets the Rhine. This meeting point is marked out by what is known as ‘Deutsches Eck’, or German Corner. It’s a triangular, pedestrianised area, dominated by the imposing statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. Small cobbled streets and alleyways characterise this pretty town, along with some interesting historic monuments and two fine castles.
Bernkastel-Kues – Situated on a wide horseshoe bend mid-way along the Mosel Valley, this is one of those atmospheric towns that will captivate you from the moment you arrive. A medieval market square is surrounded on all sides by fairytale-like, half-timbered buildings. In the centre of the square lies an eye-catching fountain, where it is said that wine replaces water on festival days. The size of the car park on the river promenade is an indication of the popularity of this attractive town, and of its ruined castle – Burg Landshut – which offers some amazing views from its clifftops. There are a number of short walking tours to be enjoyed and you can pick up leaflets and maps from the tourist office.
Cochem – This is a quieter, but no less picturesque town than Bernkastel-Kues. As with so many of these Mosel settlements, an impressive castle dominates the hill above. However, in this case, appearances are deceptive, as Reichsburg is in fact a replica of the original castle that perished in a fire in the 17th Century, and which was rebuilt during Germany’s Romantic era. It still houses a number of historic artefacts and is very much worth a visit. Those who tackle the climb up will be rewarded with some lovely views across the valley.
Trier – Located just a few miles from the border with Luxembourg, Trier is Germany’s oldest city, first established in 16BC. What now appears a most tranquil spot has a rather grand and colourful history, having been once the capital of Rome’s Western Empire, and occasional home to Emperor Constantine. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town still houses one of Europe’s best collections of Roman monuments. Just some of the highlights include the awesome Porta Nigra, ornate Trier Cathedral and the ruins of the Thermal Baths.
Rheinsteig – This is probably one of Germany’s best-known long-distrance walking trail, which runs along the eastern bank of the Rhine for 320km (199 miles), affording spectacular views across the varied Rhine scenery. The majority of the route takes you along natural, unspoiled paths, across forests, past impressive boulders and up to vantage points from where you can simply marvel at your enchanting surroundings.
Mosel High Route (Moselhöhenweg) – The Mosel Valley makes for perfect walking territory and one of the many recommended long-distance trails is the Moselhöhenweg, which runs on both sides of the Mosel for 390km (242 miles). While the Mosel Valley is undoubtedly popular with visitors, once you start making tracks away from the river, you will find yourself feeling a thousand miles away, surrounded by peaceful vineyards. Climb a little higher, and you can enjoy some spectacular landscapes and a sense of complete tranquility.
Circular walks and themed rambles – If you prefer a gentle stroll to a strenuous hike, then this region is not short of options, either. There are a variety of short and medium-length walks to be explored, which will give you a genuine taste of what this region has to offer, from wooded valleys to secret castles and endless forests of native oak and beech. If you have a particular interest, perhaps in flora or fauna or history, then there are several ‘themed’ rambles which will be of interest. Simply head to any of the local tourist offices to find an array of maps and walking guides.
Cycling – Seeing the Rhine and Mosel valleys by bicycle is a popular choice and is actively encouraged, with numerous bike hire facilities and very well-maintained cycle paths. With a good network of public transport available by way of boat, train and bus, your day trips can be as flexible as you like. The cycling is a mixture of surfaced, flat cycle paths and country lanes, and there are virtually no hills.
History & Culture
Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz in German) is Germany’s heartland, with a long and eventful history – including various epic battles for possession – which has left its mark in so many ways to make this region one of the most enchanting in Europe.
The oldest archaeological remains in the region are tools from the Stone Age. No-one quite knows precisely how old they are but they could date as far back as 300,000 years.
Between 3000 and 1800 BC, during the Neolithic Period, Celtic and Germanic settlements formed at various points along the Rhine. Rhineland then became incorporated into the Roman Empire in the 1st century BC, forming the northeastern border region of the Gallic provinces.
Together, the Rhine and the Danube became the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire and the Rhine has been an important and navigable waterway for trade goods, ever since.
The area has always been heavily fortified, in part due to a continually prosperous economy. From ancient Roman forts to the great towers and castles of the Middle Ages, there is evidence of past battles and grandeur at every turn. For example, the stretch of Rhine from Bingen to Koblenz boasts 18 castles alone, in varying states of repair.
The ‘Limes’ was an ancient Roman border defense system, which, together a strategically designed network of roads in the hinterland, served to protect the Roman provinces from ‘Free Germany’ (‘Germania libera’), circa 1-3 BC. Stretching from north of Koblenz southwards towards Bavaria lie the ‘Upper-Germanic Limes’, the remains of these ancient structures can still be seen today, and at, Oberbieber, Rheinbrohl and Bendorf, three Limes towers have been sympathetically restored and are open to visitors.
The Limes can also be fully explored on foot or on bike. There are the specially marked ‘Limes Hiking Path’ and the ‘Limes Cycling Path’, both starting from Rheinbrohl. For further information and a look at some impressive finds from the Roman era, it is worth visiting the Koblenz State Museum (‘Landesmuseum’).
Geography, Flora & Fauna
Having flowed for millions of years, the Rhine has created an intriguingly narrow river landscape. Steep slopes have become decorated with vines and bushes, patches of land along the riverbanks give way to picturesque towns and villages and so many splendid castles loom high above the river. Areas of woodland and misty forests alternate with craggy open areas of exposed rock. Dry-stone walls which have been artfully constructed support small terraces on slopes where locals have traditionally grown grapevines and other crops, and today they are more commonly used to separate fields and provide protection against the winds.
The valley of the Mosel River (the Moseltal) between Trier and Koblenz is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful areas in the country. The pathways meander curiously until things straighten out near its confluence with the Rhine River in Koblenz. To see such indentations is quite unusual, when the surrounding hills are so steep. However, as the Mosel River is carved into its valley’s dense rock, it suggests that water has been cutting downward into the riverbed, rather than laterally into the surrounding hills. The result is a dramatic landscape of winding, steep hills, which envelop the banks of the Mosel.
The region is remarkably rich in terms of its plant and animal life. This is due in part to the natural diversity of the landscape, but centuries of agriculture have also played their part. The resulting open spaces and the near-Mediterranean climate have made it possible for a wide variety of species to adapt to and flourish in the warm and dry climate. Some of the most unusual creatures that inhabit the area include emerald and wall lizards, praying mantises and kite swallowtails, and some of the quirkier plant life includes dittany and feather grass.
The hilltop path which leads from the town of Kaub to the village of Dörscheid offers some stunning views of the area and takes you through vineyards to the Dörscheider Heath nature reserve, which is best known for its wonderful butterfly habitat. Over 600 species can be observed here in less than five square kilometres, something rarely seen in Central Europe.
In spite of their northerly situation, Germany’s Rhine Valley and Mosel Valley are blessed with a unique microclimate which helps them to produce some of the country’s finest vintages. The steepness of the vineyards keeps the vines sheltered from fierce winds, while the slate-rich soil soaks up the sun’s energy. These conditions are particularly favourable for the noble Riesling grape, which produces dry and sophisticated white wines with a full bouquet, crisp, earthy flavour and balanced acidity.
It is worth noting that German Riesling today has little in common with some Riesling wines from other countries, which have generally quite different, often sweeter, characteristics. Riesling is clearly the most popular variety in the area, as it takes up no less than three quarters of the entire wine-growing space.
In spite of the quality of the wine, it’s a comparatively small producing region, so some of the best bottles never leave the area. Therefore, you should definitely look to sample a few different varieties, directly at the vineyards.
Very traditional methods are used for tending the vines in this region. It’s impossible to use machines since the terraces are simply too steep to pass them through. Instead, the soil is worked manually, either with a hoe, or with a Wingertsknecht, a time-honoured tool with a two-stroke engine and winches, which help to smooth and break up the soil.
The Rhine and Mosel valley are blessed with more sunshine than anywhere else in Germany. So grapes are not the only fruit that ripen easily: lemons, figs and even kiwis also thrive here, and in spring the area becomes resplendent with delicate pink almond blossoms.