Upstream from Rüdesheim, the banks of the Rhine gradually rear up to form a deep, winding 65km-long gorge popularly known as the Romantic Rhine, thanks to a series of quaint towns and a bewildering number of castles. Of course much of this romance is pure fabrication, first by the German Romantics, who rebuilt many of the castles in the nineteenth century, and subsequently by the tourist and wine industries, but nevertheless the gorge’s unique geological, historical and cultural features have put it on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
The gorge itself is composed of a type of slate sedimentary rock, folds in which produced the Hunsrück mountains to the west and the Taunus mountains to the east, while the Rhine carved a passage between the two, creating steep, two-hundred-metre-high walls, and its own sheltered, sun-trap microclimate. Many of the riverbank’s slopes were terraced for agriculture from an early age, the south-facing ones in particular providing near-perfect conditions for viticulture. This, together with booming trade along the river, brought wealth to the string of small riverside settlements whose rulers built a series of castles to protect their interests and levy tolls. This racket was lucrative enough to make this area an important region in the Holy Roman Empire and a focus for much of the Thirty Years’ War. The latter left many castles in ruins, as did French campaigns that briefly claimed this region as part of France until Prussia turned the tables in the early nineteenth century.
The Prussians then spearheaded the reinvention of the place as a sort of quintessential Germany, rebuilding legendary castles and featuring it in much of the art of the time. Wagner, for example, uses this stretch of the Rhine as the setting for his powerful Götterdämmerung. Since then, the tourist industry has lapped all this up, making coach parties an integral part of the scenery. However, don’t be put off: many castles are certainly worth a look as are many Weinstuben, where you can taste excellent local vintages. The annual Rhine in Flames festival – which also takes place in Koblenz – is another draw, with spectacular fireworks filling the September skies above St Goar.
This stretch of the Rhine offers the full range of transport options: drive, follow cycle paths or take trains up either side of the river, while car ferries cross the river in several places. But probably the most relaxing way to travel and appreciate the scenery is by boat – and several companies offer hop-on, hop-off services – many conveniently beginning in Mainz, Rüdesheim or Koblenz. If you’re pressed for time a day-trip is all you’ll need to get a feel for the place, but if you’re keen to explore some of the castles, you’ll need an extra day or two.