The Rhine and its tributaries have almost single-handedly shaped both the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz) and the Saarland. While large portions of both states are rural and remote, their three main waterways – the Rhine, Mosel and Saar – have bustled with traffic and commerce for generations. Vital as trade routes, the Rhine and Mosel have been studded by strategically placed fortifications and towns since Roman times. Many have been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt in competition for the land, particularly with the French, who have at one time or another held most of the region and left their mark on its culture and food. Viticulture along all three rivers is hugely important and the region’s wines are of international quality.
Travelling along the Rhine as it snakes its way across the plain around the eastern border of the region, the first places of any significance are a trio of imperial cathedral cities: Speyer, Worms and Mainz, which grow in magnitude and importance as you move downstream.
West beyond them the Rhine passes the foothills of the Taunus mountains which harbour the attractive Rheingau wine region around the touristy town of Rüdesheim. Then, some 40km west of Mainz, the Rhine is squeezed through the famed Rhine Gorge, nicknamed the Romantic Rhine for its array of dramatic fairy-tale castles, hugely evocative of earlier times even if most were built by eighteenth-century aristocrats. This 65km leg of the Rhine ends at the sprawling and semi-industrial city of Koblenz, where it meets the Mosel on the tail-end of its own journey from the southwest. The most scenic portion of the Mosel valley has been dubbed the Mosel Weinstrasse, a Romantic Rhine-in-miniature with yet more atmospheric castles, fine wines, meandering river scenery and absorbing, half-timbered old towns. Here, however, the scale is more intimate, the towns slower-paced and the setting less industrial.
South along the Mosel the steep sides of the valley fade away around the Luxembourg border and the venerable city of Trier, with its glut of Roman remains. Due south of here, the Mosel meets the Saar, leaving the landscape of castles and wines to travel through what in the early twentieth century was one of Europe’s leading industrial regions. These days most of that lies closed, decaying and rusting, but at least the Völklinger Hütte ironworks has been recognized for what it is – a fascinating snapshot of a bygone era – and preserved as such. The big city on its doorstep, Saarbrücken, has some good museums and a little international flair thanks to the nearby French border.
In general roads and trains follow the main rivers around the region, so getting between the main cities and points of interest is straightforward. There’s plenty off the beaten track too, and all three rivers have marked cycle routes. If that seems too much like hard work, you can always hop on and off the many boats that cruise up and down the Rhine and Mosel, with or without a bike in tow.