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.
Founded as the Roman settlement Confluentes at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel in 10 BC, KOBLENZ, some 90km downstream of Mainz, marks the transition from the Rhine Gorge to the gentler landscapes of the Middle Rhine, which continue down to Bonn 70km away. Its strategic location has meant it has been fought over and conquered several times, most notably by the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War, the French in 1794, and the Russians in 1814, and turned over to Prussia in 1822 only to be comprehensively destroyed by British Lancaster bombers towards the end of World War II. In its rebuilt form – a mix of old-looking and modern – it’s a relaxed if unexciting town with few sights. But, as the northern gateway to the Romantic Rhine – several cruises down both the Rhine and Mosel start here – and with a good collection of bars and restaurants in a likeable pedestrian centre, it makes a good base. The best time to be in town is during the annual Rhein in Flammen (Rhine in Flames; rhein-in-flammen.de) festival in August, a firework bonanza, best appreciated from Festung Ehrenbreitstein fortress above town or on one of a convoy of boats on the river.
As the largest town and capital of Rhineland-Palatinate and with rapid transport links to Frankfurt 42km to the northeast, MAINZ has a very different, more urban feel, to the rest of the state. The city has also made a heavyweight contribution to German history: starting as a strategically important settlement at the confluence of the Main and Rhine, by the eighth century it had developed into the main ecclesiastical centre north of the Alps, and its archbishop was one of the most powerful Holy Roman electors. The city also entered the history books when Mainz resident Johannes Gutenberg made their mass production possible with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.
Like much of the Rhineland, Mainz had a spell in French hands as the city of Mayence (1792–93 and 1798–1814), which it survived quite well. It was less fortunate during World War II when bombers pounded a good portion of the city into submission. Nevertheless enough of the half-timbered Altstadt and the Dom, around which the main sights are centred, survived or was rebuilt to make its compact centre attractive to explore. The bustling adjacent Marktplatz is home to the Gutenberg Museum, while the only attractions outside the immediate centre are relatively minor draws, appealing most to those interested in Roman history: the Landesmuseum and the Museum für Antike Schiffarht.
Mainz’s many Weinstuben offer a good place to refresh your palate and rest your legs at the end of the day, while the liveliest time to be in town is during the Carnival – on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – which Mainz celebrates with gusto; and during the late-June Mainzer Johannisnacht when half a million revellers come to a giant Volksfest.
The modern town of SAARBRÜCKEN is not a place to go out of your way for, but is nevertheless a lively university town whose closeness to the French border comes across in attitudes and food. The background to this is the subject of the town’s local history museum, Historisches Museum Saar, the most rewarding of the city’s museums, though it’s a close-run thing with the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte with its hoard of Celtic treasures. The city centres on St Johanner Markt, the most obviously historic part and hub for a series of lively restaurants and cafés. From here Bahnhofstrasse, the main shopping street, heads north to the Hauptbahnhof, paralleling a promenade along the River Saar over which lies an area known as Alt-Saarbrücken. Most of Saarbrücken’s few real sights are clustered here, including the remains of an eighteenth-century Schloss, built during the city’s heyday under Prince Wilhelm Heinrich (1718–68) and designed by court architect Friedrich Joachim Stengel, who was also behind several Baroque townhouses and churches in the surrounding area.
The pleasant market-town of SPEYER, 25km southwest of Heidelberg, is a fairly quiet place these days, but things were very different in the Middle Ages when it regularly hosted imperial parliaments and was a key player in the Holy Roman Empire – as the presence of a giant Romanesque Dom suggests. From the cathedral the pedestrianized Maximilianstrasse cuts through the small Baroque Altstadt and is lined by most of its cafés and shops, while on its other sides the Dom is surrounded by gardens which separate it from the Rhine and also the Technik Museum, a first-class transport museum.
The Deutsche Weinstrasse
Established in 1935 as a way to boost local wine sales, the 85km-long Deutsche Weinstrasse (German Wine Route; deutsche-weinstrasse.de) meanders almost due north from the French border at Schweigen-Rechtenbach, connecting picturesque wine-growing villages that dot wooded hills of the Pfälzer Wald and the broad, flat Rhine valley. Not surprisingly, wine is the main attraction; much of it dry, white and made with Riesling grapes, though reds made with Pinot Noir are increasingly attracting praise. Alongside the lively and attractive “capital”, Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, the neat spa town of Bad Dürkheim is the main urban focus, though the region’s real charm is in its villages: alongside viticulture, a refined culinary scene has emerged in places like Deidesheim and the little walled town of Freinsheim. Hugely popular with Germans and also attracting many French and Dutch, the Route gets going in March, when the almond trees blossom. Travelling by car is easy; additionally, a cycle route, the Radweg Deutsche Weinstrasse, parallels the road and there’s a choice of hiking trails – the 153km Pfälzer Weinsteg, which sometimes follows the wooded heights, or the more direct, 96km Wanderweg Deutsche Weinstrasse.
The Mosel Weinstrasse
Along its final 195km-long stretch between Koblenz and Trier the Mosel cuts a sinuous and attractive deep gorge, home to some of Germany’s steepest vineyards and best full-bodied wines. The route that follows the banks of the river is known as the Mosel Weinstrasse, or Mosel Wine Road. This links a solid selection of traditional attractions, which include the faultless medieval castle Burg Eltz, Traben-Trarbach with its attractive Jugendstil villas and Bernkastel-Kues, the Weinstrasse’s most colourful town.
The twin town of BERNKASTEL-KUES nestles by a serpentine bend in the Mosel, some 8km on foot through woods and steep vineyards from Traben-Trarbach, but the terrain is such that the road takes 17km to link the two and the river an even twistier 24km. Against this scenic backdrop, Bernkastel-Kues is a half-timbered gem. Predictably, it’s touristy, but with some of the wonkiest houses you’ll ever see and wall-to-wall with wine taverns to help distort their dimensions even more, it’s a place that shouldn’t be passed up. There’s always a cheerful buzz about town, but things are liveliest on the first September weekend when gallons of the local Bernkastelr Doctor wine are downed with spirited results – even the Marktplatz fountain flows with wine.
The Eifel, the tranquil region immediately northwest of the Mosel valley, is known for sleepy villages, gentle hills and bare heathland, but famous for the incongruous Nürburgring (02691 30 26 30, nuerburgring.de), a racetrack that’s one of motorsport’s most hallowed pieces of tarmac.
Among aficionados, its Nordschleife (north loop), completed in 1927, is widely considered the world’s toughest, most dangerous and most demanding purpose-built racetrack. With 73 curves along its 22.8km length it proved so difficult that over the years it’s claimed dozens of lives, including those of four Formula One drivers. Jackie Stewart dubbed it “The Green Hell”, though he chalked up three wins here, including one of his finest ever in the rain and fog of 1968. Some eight years later Niki Lauda’s near-fatal crash caused race organizers to move things to Mannheim’s Hockenheimring in 1977, though the building of the Südschleife in 1984 brought Formula One back and it now alternates with the Hockenheimring as the venue for the annual German Grand Prix. Other motorsports and novelty events, such as old-timer races, also regularly use the track, but when these aren’t on it’s possible to drive the Nordschleife (generally daily 9am–dusk, but check online first; €22). Despite common misconceptions to the contrary, German road law applies: speed limits exist, though not everywhere, and passing on the right is prohibited. For an inside view of the real deal and speeds of up to 320kmph, book a seat in the BMW Ring-Taxi (March–Nov Mon–Fri 10am–noon; 02691 93 20 20, bmw-motorsport.com/ms_en), who charge €195 for up to three people (including those over 150cm). It’s popular and often booked up months in advance, though last-minute cancellations are not unheard of.
Otherwise visit the excellent visitor centre ringwerk (Mon–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat & Sun 10am–6pm; €19.50) with its many white-knuckle high-tech racing simulators, films and exhibits, which will keep kids busy for hours.
The Nürburgring lies 46km west of Koblenz and is tricky to get to using public transport: look online under bahn.de for train and bus connections from your nearest town to “Nürburgring welcome center”. The nearest train station is Mayen; buses also arrive from Adenau.
West of Mainz, on the gently sloping north bank of the Rhine, lies the Rheingau, one of Germany’s most prestigious wine-growing regions, known for its Riesling and Spätburgunder or Pinot Noir. The English term Hock for German wines derives from Hochheim near Wiesbaden, whose wines found favour with Queen Victoria. It’s a region of photogenic, vine-clad hillsides and pretty villages, and one unmissable attraction: the hauntingly beautiful Gothic monastery of Kloster Eberbach. At the western end of the region, the day-tripper magnet of Rüdesheim balances brash commercialism with a range of fine- and wet-weather attractions.
The Rheingau has a busy programme of wine-related festivals all year round, from a gourmet festival in early March to Kiedrich’s Rieslingfest in June and the Riesling Gala at Kloster Eberbach in November. Tourist offices have details.
After the beauty and tranquillity of the Rheingau landscape, first impressions of Rüdesheim can come as a shock, above all the noisy, crowded Drosselgasse, a narrow lane leading up from the river into which tour groups are funnelled for an over-amplified facsimile of German joviality. Having suffered wartime bombardment, Rüdesheim’s not even consistently pretty. Yet beneath the veneer of plastic oompah lurks a genuine wine-growing village with quaint and peaceful corners worth exploring, including at the uphill end of Drosselgasse on Oberstrasse where the half-timbered Brömserhof at no. 29 dates from 1542 and now houses Siegfried’s Mechanisches Musikkabinett (March–Dec daily 10am–6pm; €6), a quirky collection of musical automata. Another saggy half-timbered beauty worth seeking out is the early sixteenth-century Klunkhardshof, in a narrow lane off Markt two blocks east of Drosselgasse. Meanwhile, at the eastern edge of town – a twenty-minute walk from the centre – you can watch a short presentation and buy a variety of local brandies from the Asbach distillery at the Asbach Besucher Center, Ingelheimer Str. 4 (March–Dec Tues–Sat 9am–5pm; free; asbach.de).
The Rheingau wine routes
Separate but broadly parallel – the Rheingauer-Riesling Route for cars, the Riesling Radwanderweg for cyclists and the Rieslingpfad for hikers – meander west from Wiesbaden past vineyards, villages and historic landmarks, with plenty of spots to stop and sample local wines along the way, including seasonal wine-maker-run Strausswirtschaften.
The cyclists’ route stays closest to the river while the hikers’ route hugs the higher and more scenic ground on the fringe of the Taunus, but all three thread their way through wine-growing villages – Eltville, Kiedrich, Oestrich-Winkel among them – and pass Kloster Eberbach.
The Romantic Rhine
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.
Strung along the outside of a horseshoe bend in the Rhine, 21km south of Koblenz and 14km upstream of St Goar, BOPPARD is a sizeable and attractive place, which is reasonably touristy, despite having few real sights. Its great assets are its riverfront promenade and a chairlift that takes visitors to the Vierseenblick, an attractive viewpoint above town.
The place centres on its right-angled Marktplatz, home to a Friday-morning market and the late Romanesque Severuskirche, in which tender medieval frescoes venerate its patron saint. The square south of the church is the busiest and adjoins main shopping-street Oberstrasse. Crossing it is Kirchgasse, which leads to the Römer-Kastell, a preserved part of Boppard’s fourth-century Roman walls. Of the 28 watchtowers that once graced the military camp, four have been preserved and illustrations on information boards here help conjure up the past.
Gedeonseck and the Vierseenblick
The 1950s chairlift at Boppard’s northern end, Sesselbahn Boppard, makes its unhurried journey to two premier views, each with attendant restaurant and attractive terrace. Gedeonseck, near the summit of the chairlift, affords perfect views of the Rhine’s hairpin curve; while a five-minute walk further on, the famous Vierseenblick, or Four Lakes View, is so-called because the four visible sections of the Rhine look disconnected. The pleasant wooded terrain around here is home to a few good hikes, the most rewarding and adventurous of which is the Klettersteig: a clamber up precipitous rock faces with the aid of chains and ladders set into the rock. It’s best climbed rather than descended – a perfect three-hour -loop for the reasonably fit, starting from the base of the chairlift, which you can use to get back down if your legs give out.
It’s also possible to drive or cycle up to the Vierseenblick, and locals have built a pretty hairy mountain-bike trail from the summit – day-passes for taking a bike on the chairlift cost €12.
South of Bernkastel-Kues the landscape around the Mosel gradually opens up, so that TRIER, 50km downstream, sits among gentle hills. But most visitors pay little attention to the landscape, for the city has northern Europe’s greatest assemblage of Roman remains. But Trier is not a city that lives entirely on its past, and the vineyards around town, along with a large student population, help liven things up, while the proximity to Luxembourg and France provides a cosmopolitan feel that makes it an immediately likeable and easy-going place. It’s also a good base for day-trips, not just along the Mosel valley but also to Völklinger Hütte and Saarbrücken. And if you’re driving don’t forget to nip over to Luxembourg for the cheap fuel – price differences have spawned a minor industry just over the border.
Founded as Augusta Treverorum in 15 BC, Trier grew to become capital of the western Roman Empire by the third century AD. As Rome declined, Trier fell into the hands of various tribes, including the Huns under Attila, until the Franks eventually asserted themselves at the end of the fifth century, ushering in a period of relative stability which saw the city gain independence from Ostfrankenreich in 1212 and become an archbishopric in 1364. This sparked a second golden age when its archbishops became prince-electors and vital imperial power-brokers.
The town of VÖLKLINGEN, 71km from Trier but just 10km downstream along the Saar from Saarbrücken, is one of those one-time industrial powerhouses – and now a picture of industrial malaise and decline – that most people would usually make a wide berth around when they can. However, its huge and rusty old ironworks, Völklinger Hütte, a couple of minutes’ walk from the Hauptbahnhof, have become so celebrated that UNESCO have even made it a World Heritage Site. It’s preserved as one of the last of a generation; a quiet reminder of a grimy and fast-disappearing period of European history. Opened in 1873, the ironworks’ huge size and complexity are what immediately impress most. By its mid-1960s heyday the workforce peaked at around 17,000, before slowly decreasing until production finally ceased in 1986.
It’s now hard to imagine the place at full throttle with all the noise, dust and dirt involved, but the excellent multilingual audio-guide and useful signs (in English too) do their best to bring all this alive, while a candid exhibition on the lives and health problems of former workers sets the tone for an honest appraisal of the site’s history. Numerous spaces in the ironworks serve as temporary exhibition galleries for photography and art, with the raw backdrop often adding an unexpected poignancy to pieces. Concerts also take place here, with jazz a regular feature of Friday nights.
Midway between Speyer and Mainz – both 50km away – WORMS is one of Germany’s oldest cities, famous as the fifth-century home of the Burgundian kingdom, as celebrated in the Nibelungenlied, on the subject of which Worms has an excellent multimedia museum. But the city has also flourished in several eras since, first under Charlemagne, who made it his winter residence, and particularly during the Salian dynasty (1024–1125) when the city’s grand Romanesque Dom was built. Worms also occasionally served as a seat for the imperial parliament, most famously when it sat in judgement on Martin Luther in 1521.
For many centuries Worms was also home to a powerful Jewish community, which began to grow prodigiously in the eleventh century to became – along with Mainz and Speyer – one of the foremost in Germany. It survived the fifteenth century when many other cities expelled their Jews, only to be virtually eradicated by the Third Reich. Nevertheless important reminders remain, above all in its Jewish graveyard and rebuilt synagogue. All this is fairly quickly explored leaving you to wander Worms’ pedestrianised Altstadt, which was attractively rebuilt following almost total destruction in World War II. The old town always has a reasonable bustle about it, but is best during the mid-August Nibelungen Festspiele, a two-week theatre festival based on the epic, and the Backfischfest, a wine festival that follows, when fried fish is the accompaniment of choice.
Written at the end of the twelfth century, the Nibelungenlied is the German epic tale, based on legends surrounding the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom: Roman allies who ran Worms for about twenty years in the fifth century AD before being driven out by the Huns. It’s a captivating tale with a glut of mythic beings like dragons and giants, and much drama in the form of love, hate, riches, treachery, revenge and lots of death.
Nibelung himself was the mythical king of Nibelungenland (Norway), who, with twelve giants, guarded a hoard of treasure. Siegfried, prince of the Netherlands and hero of the first part of the poem, kills Nibelung and his giants and pinches the hoard as a dowry for his new wife Kriemhild of Burgundy. Siegfried then helps Kriemhild’s brother, Gunther, King of Burgundy, to gain the hand of Brunhild of Iceland. This is no mean feat since the immensely powerful Brunhild will only marry a man who can beat her at the javelin, shot put and long jump. Siegfried helps Gunther to cheat – using his rather handy cloak of invisibility – and win Brunhild over. After the marriage, Kriemhild indiscreetly lets Brunhild know how she’d been tricked, which infuriates her so much that she arranges for Gunther’s aide, Hagan (the poem’s chief villain), to murder Siegfried, grab the treasure, and toss it in the Rhine. The plan is to recover it later, but by the end of the poem everyone’s dead, so the treasure’s lost.
The second part of the poem tells of Kriemhild’s subsequent marriage to Attila the Hun (called Etzel in the poem). Kriemhild invites the Burgundians to the Hunnish court, where Hagan lets rip once again and ends up killing Etzel’s son. Aghast, Kriemhild decapitates Gunther and Hagan with her own hands, only to be killed herself.
Top image: Panoramic aerial view of Trier in a beautiful summer day, Germany © S-F/Shutterstock