The first thing to say about the Rhine Gorge area is that few visitors could ever be disappointed. Just about all your expectations will duly be delivered. What you thought it would be like, it is like – which might be a bit of a glib thing to say – but I make the point because, as a seasoned traveller, I know this is not always the case.
The times I’ve travelled somewhere and said out loud: “Crikey, this is exactly what I thought it would be like!” I could count on one hand.
Think long heavily laden barges battling against the current underneath high crags crowned by fairytale castles… Think impossibly steep vineyards topped by forests, sloping down to riverside villages where Hansel and Gretel would have felt at home.
The holiday in question flies you in to Frankfurt and from there you are whisked westwards aboard one of those efficient local trains. We were met at Rudesheim station by Ralph Nagler, owner of the excellent 3 star Hotel Zumgrünen Kranz in the heart of the bustling little town.
The old establishment has been in Ralph’s family for generations, and he and his cousins are also involved in the all important local wine trade – a subject upon which he is an expert.
If you thought German wine was all about overly saccharine products that get sold cheaply over here, think again. The white wines of the Upper Central Rhine Valley area are truly delicious. Crisp, for most part with plenty of fruit, and altogether much more grown up than anything which might have a holy woman dressed in a certain colour on the label.
I took to tasting them with aplomb, which is an easy thing to do because just about every village in the wine area has a booth in one of its central squares where local winemakers take it in turns to show off their wares.
On the first full day we took the train on our side of the river (the east bank) downstream to the next village.
It’s called Assmannshausen and is tucked on the far side of a big corner which the Rhine veers around in its steep gorge. The bend creates a massive shoulder of hill which is crowned by a large forest – a day’s outing, basically, consisted of a walk back over this south side of the ridge, which you might think would mean a big climb up to reach the crest of the ridge, but it didn’t. Instead, a chair-lift of the most scenic kind (by which I mean one that wends its way over crags and through forests) took us slowly and thrillingly to the top.
For some reason I cycled alone in the late afternoon sunlight back through the vineyard lined hills from the abbey to Rudesheim – and it was a delightful 12-mile journey that I shall remember for a long time.
Other great days out included a boat ride downstream to Sankt Goar, which is the central town in the Rhine Gorge area. High above stand the ruins of the massive Burg Rheinfels castle, which is one of the best known in the region and well worth the entry fee to visit.
The next day we took a ferry over to Bingen, which is Rudesheim’s larger more workaday neighbour and from there we pedalled (on bikes which belong to the hotel) on a superb dedicated cycle trail which hugs the riverside to Bacharach.
This is, arguably, the best known and prettiest of all the villages in the UNESCO heritage site. It’s got more history in one of its timbered houses than many old villages have got in all their cobbled acres. Apart from anything else, Bacharach was – for centuries – an important transfer point for the wine trade, as barrels were offloaded here from the smaller ships that were needed to get by the Binger Loch (a reef in the Rhine upstream near Bingen) and loaded onto bigger ones.
For us, it was a long riverside cycle ride back past the famous Lorelei – a vast chunk of rock on the north side of the river. Because of the cliff, the river is squeezed into a narrower confine than usual and the currently around the bend which the rock causes are fierce to say the least. Many a ship has gone down under the Lorelei and there are many legends about the female spirits, or river mermaids, that haunt the place.
On the final day of our holiday we walked high above the river from Rudesheim to Kaub, following 12 miles of ancient forest trails in the hills. At midday we stopped for a special lunch put on for us by a local forester (various sausages, pickles and cheeses washed down by beer) – and every now and again we found ourselves at spurs of rock some 500 feet above the river where we were treated to classic views of the Rhine. Classic views of the river, In fact, even that lunch was just as I expected it would be – a classic forester’s meal in archetypal mid-German woodlands. If you like that sort of thing, this holiday could be a perfect choice!