Living in Germany is like living inside of a history book at times. From strolling down the cobblestone narrow streets of a village lined on either side with half-timber buildings that are over 500 years old to visiting historic battlefields or ancient Roman ruins that dot the countryside.
However, there is one place in Germany that once you travel, you feel as if you are being whisked away direct to the Middle Ages. This place is the Middle Rhein River Valley…This past June, we had family visitors from the States stay with us, and they along with one of our dearest German friends took a day trip cruising the Rhein River through the famed Loreley Valley. I had personally taken the same cruise before, but it was with a large group of expats from my company. And, when you plan this on your own, it is a totally different experience….like finding out something as simple as where to park our car? Follow this link to read about the past Rhein River experience.
When cruising any of the famous rivers in Europe, there are many cruise companies to choose from as well as length of cruise. There are luxury, overnight cruise lines, like Viking Cruises, that offer many options for traveling the entire length of a river. But, for us, we wanted just a day long trip without any overnight. Since I had an enjoyable experience last time, we used the same cruise line as in the past.
The company is named Bingen-Ruedesheimer, and they offer different cruise and tour packages to fit your schedule. Information about the company and their cruises is found here at their webpage. The cost is very reasonable at no more than 20 euros per person for a round trip.
From where we live near Mannheim, it is an hour’s drive to the northwest to start the cruise. The cruise we chose starts in the town of Ruedesheim and ends in the town of St. Goar. There are 9 stops along the way in various small riverside villages where passengers can get off or on, and it takes just over 2 hours to travel the entire distance for this trip. You can get off at certain stops, tour the village, and then catch the next boat either continuing down river to St. Goar or back up the river.
Like all things German, there is a published schedule for departure times for each stop. Of course, being a river, the times are a very close estimate. And, if you miss your scheduled departure, there will be another about 2 hours later, unless it is the last one for the day, which at this point you can enjoy an overnight stay in one of the village hotels.
This cruise company sails various different ships, all roughly the same size and can accommodate easily a couple of hundred people. Ours offered various light meals and a bar service to enjoy while watching the scenery pass by. Our ship had 2 levels, the 1st level was the main dining area with enclosed glass windows, while the upper level is an open level with side railings and the sky above. For prime sightseeing viewing, the upper level or the front or rear, outside 1st levels are the places to be.
The scenery and castles are the true reasons to experience a cruise along this section of the Rhein River known as the “Middle Rhein”. The Rhein (or Rhine in English) River has 4 sections. The “High” Rhein starts with the river’s origins in Switzerland in the Alps, and flows northward into Germany through the “Upper” Rhein to the “Middle” Rhein section and then eventually to the “Lower” Rhein River section that empties into the North Sea. Our apartment is located on a small island in the Rhein River near the city of Mannheim. And, this area where we live is significant to my family, as I have recently learned that this is where my German ancestors left Germany in 1749 to travel to America, more on that story in a later post. So, I feel a connection to this River.
But, the truly spectacular section of the River is the “Middle Rhein” as on both sides various castles dot the landscape. So many castles in fact, that you do reach a certain point where you say to yourself, “Oh look, there’s another castle.”
We had to chose where we were going to start our cruise. Do we start at the beginning in Ruedeshiem or somewhere else? From looking at a map, we realized to start in Ruedshiem, we would have to drive at least 2 hours, which included a car ferry crossing of the river, since Ruedsheim is on the right bank of the river, and we were on the left bank. We saw that the first stop was in the village of Bingen, and it was on the left bank, meaning only an hour drive to start our trip.
The tour company was very helpful, as I contacted them to “reserve” 5 tickets. They ask that you complete an online form to reserve tickets, you do not have to pay when reserving, and this gives them an idea on how many people will be traveling with them at certain days and times. I had asked where could I park, and they said there was plenty of parking at the gate in Bingen. Sure enough, there was and the parking I think was about 5 euros for the day.
We found the ticket office along the boardwalk in Bingen, and purchased our tickets and then waited for our boat at the boarding dock. And, right on time, our boat arrived and we took off down the Rhein River to the famed Loreley Valley with this region being designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
By my count, we past by at least 15 different castles at various heights along the river. With some castles being down at river level or even on very small islands in the river to some perched on top of the rolling hills lining the river on both sides. The average height of the hills is about 450 feet from the top of the rocks down to the river. However, in this section of the River, if we would have traveled further down to the town of Koblenz, we would have seen more than 40 castles along the way.
Between the different castles, small wine producing villages are found along the way with their vineyards easily seen from the river up the hillsides. In these villages are original half-timbered buildings that have been standing for hundreds of years.
As far as the castles themselves, most have been turned into hotels, some have been restored for tours inside, while only a few lay in ruin. On either side of the river are small scenic highways and train tracks, where you see cars and trains traveling as you cruise the river. Other than the various cruise ships in the River, if it were not for the modern cars and trains, you really could feel like you were taken back into time into the Middle Ages.
Why so many castles? Good question! The Rhein River is very wide and deep, and has been used for thousands of years as basically a highway. But, not only was the River a means of travel, but it made for a natural border between waring tribes.
Around 400 BC, Rome began to invade northward into western Europe, basically having the Rhein River as their eastern border. On the right bank of the River, various Germanic tribes of people lived throughout the countryside. Rome attempted numerous times to conquer this part of Europe, but failed for numerous reasons (i.e., the Roman army not being able to fight in the thick, marshy forests and the harsh winter weather are often cited as reasons why). But, along the River, Rome established many settlements that eventually became the villages of today.
The fortified Roman settlements were eventually taken over by the Franconian Kings as possessions as they took over the lands in the Middle Ages. Most of the land along this section of the Rhein were considered as royal ownership, mainly due to the valuable transportation route for goods and people.
It was during the Late Middle Ages (12th Century) that most of the castles that we see today were built…that’s like almost 900 years ago!! Most of the castles were constructed between the 12th Century to the first half of the 14th Century.
Some of the castles were homes to the various nobles in the Region. Some castles were used as basic “lookout” points with their high vantage points from invading armies. While still others were simply used in what we would think of today as modern “toll booths”. For instance, in some places, chains would be strung across the river between the castle towers down at the river to prevent passage. In order to pass, you had to pay a fee, the chains were lifted, and then the boat would pass until the next “toll” had to be paid to the next noble. (So, basically — just like today’s toll road)
But, eventually, this glorious period passed and additional wars would break out. The primary war that caused the most damage to the castles was during the Thirty Years War, which started in 1618 in a struggle between the Catholics and the Protestants. And, we are not talking about a lively debate held within a cathedral…no, we are talking about a bloody, combative war, which killed an estimated half of the German population.
The next chain of events leading to the castles’ demise were the constant battles between Germany and France in laying claim to the land that borders both countries. Add on top of this, the fighting that occurred during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s armies, then the eventual take back of the region by the Germans in the early 19th Century. Finally, just for fun, let’s throw into the mix two…count ’em two World Wars during the 20th Century.
So, as a testament to the sound construction of the time 900 years ago, with all of the fighting and changing of hands this region has seen, it is absolutely amazing that 1 let alone 40 castles still remain!! There was a time period known as the “Rhein Romanticism” movement after 1815 that led to the reconstruction of many of the castles we see today.
Near the end of our cruise down the River, we past the area known as “The Loreley” which is a rock cliff that is 400 feet high from the waterline on the right bank of the River. This section marks the narrowest part of the River between Switzerland and the North Sea. Because of this narrow section, very strong river currents are found here and there are numerous rocks below the waterline which have caused many boat accidents throughout history.
Because of this natural phenomena, in early history before the Romans when the area was settled by Celtic people, they provided the name for this area. The name “Loreley” comes from a Celtic term, meaning “murmur rock” because the sound of the strong currents and a nearby waterfall provides a constant “murmuring” sound, which is echoed by the rock face.
There is also a modern myth from the early 1800s that a female siren would sit atop of the cliff, combing her golden hair while naked and singing. This would obviously distract passing sailors who would wreck their ship on the rocks, as a result. Today, there is a statue of the Loreley siren at the top of the cliff in a park area that can be hiked to see.
For our trip, we ventured from the village of Bingen, 2 hours northwestern to the village of St. Goar, where we got off and walked through the village. From inside the village, we took a small motorized train car up the hillside to the Rheinfels Castle, where we had lunch at the restaurant inside the castle on top of one of its towers overlooking the Rhein River below. After lunch, we made our way back down to the River to board our return boat back to Bingen.
This trip makes for a very relaxing way to see the history and experience the nature out on the open river. Even though the Rhein is considered the busiest river in Europe, cruising this way is very enjoyable and relaxing. To me, I thoroughly enjoy cruising this section of the Rhein River, imagining the history that this section of Europe has seen over the millennia.
So, if you are visiting Germany and trying to plan excursions to take, I highly, highly recommend taking a Middle Rhein River cruise!!