The magic and majesty of the Mittelrhein

Travelling Well | Jeremy Bourke | Posted on 30 July 2019

Go castle hopping on a road trip along the breathtaking Rhine River gorge.

A narrow slice of Europe’s Rhine River with legends of war, family treachery, carnivorous mice and sailors lured to their demise by a mesmerising maiden surely isn’t the place for a relaxing drive. But the World Heritage-listed Rhine Gorge outside Koblenz in western Germany is also spectacular. 

You can see it by boat or train but that may leave you feeling trapped when something enticing – a medieval castle, a Baroque-era village, a vine-covered hillside – demands closer attention. And what a joy to be driving in Germany away from the nervous excitement of the autobahn.

The gorge, part of what’s known locally as Mittelrhein (Middle Rhine), is 65 kilometres long, but I’m doing double that as you only get the full experience by touring both banks. And with no bridge in the gorge, that means heading south, taking the car ferry at Rudesheim and returning via the west bank. The road hugs the river all the way, but a friend of a friend in Koblenz programs a few worthwhile detours into the sat-nav and advises an early start, promising: “It will be a full day.”

Stolzenfels Palace, Germany

Stolzenfels Palace, Germany.

Of the Mittelrhein’s 60 castles and towers, 40 are found in the gorge, built over 1000 years. The first is sighted a few minutes out of Koblenz and, not for the last time today, I’m being teased because it’s on the opposite side of the gorge; the best view of these monuments often is. Schloss Stolzenfels was built in the 1800s from the ruins of a 13th-century castle and sits starkly against the hillside with its pale stone tower and turrets.

The German Castles Association picked a good headquarters. Unlike most other Mittelrhein castles, which are reconstructions, the unassailable Marksburg at Braubach has remained intact for almost 800 years.

The first vines are sighted near Osterspai. Riesling reigns in this part of Germany, and the wines mostly start at ‘off-dry’ – a hint of sweetness. 

In Kamp-Bornhofen is a pair of castles with a sad story. Liebenstein and Sterrenberg are called the Hostile Brothers, as each was owned by brothers who cheated their blind sister out of her inheritance. But these men also feuded, and eventually built a wall between their castles. The sister meanwhile established a cloister in the village where pilgrims pray to her to this day. The story is regarded as a fairytale, but plaques around the church have been donated by those who believe their prayers were answered. 

A few kilometres on, Sankt Goarshausen plays host to the legend of the Lorelei: atop a prominent rock sat a beautiful woman whose haunting song drew boatmen too close to the perilous rocky shore. In the local dialect, ‘lorelei’ means ‘murmuring rock’, and this bend did once feature heavy currents and a small waterfall that, as well as proving hazardous to shipping, produced a murmuring sound that would echo along the river. A lookout on top of the rock has a wonderful panorama. 

The gorge’s most visible castle, in Kaub, nevertheless has access issues. Pfalzgrafenstein sits on a rock in the middle of the river, and was built in 1327, not as a fortress, but as a customs post.

Rhine Gorge, Germany

Rhine Gorge.

Old Altes Haus half-timbered historic landmark building in Bacharach in Rhineland on River Rhine Germany

Old Altes Haus half-timbered historic landmark building in Bacharach in Rhineland on River Rhine.

On the other shore, the landscape is dominated by perhaps Mittelrhein’s most striking building. Burg Stahleck, above Bacharach, is one of a pair of 12th-century castles. Both were destroyed during bloody times, and while the nearby Stahlberg remains a ruin, Stahleck was rebuilt and is now Germany’s grandest youth hostel.

The might of the castles hasn’t blinded me to the charm of the villages that host them. Rudesheim has a long frontage of hotels, restaurants and cafes, but it pays to investigate a tiny passage called Drosselgasse. This leads to Rudesheimer Schloss, an excellent restaurant with a beer garden and a sign promising live music this evening. But I’m barely 20 castles down so can’t linger.

The gorge runs out here, but there’s no bridge until Wiesbaden, 24 kilometres away, so the quickest way to cross is the car ferry to Bingen.

The first bend out of Bingen reveals an island sporting a small tower with a gruesome legend. In the Middle Ages a cruel bishop called Hatto locked hungry townsfolk in a grain store and set fire to it, likening their screams to the squeal of mice. Next morning Hatto awoke to find his home over-run with mice, and he fled to this tower, only for the rodents to swim after him and eat him alive.

In reality, the Mauseturm (Mouse Tower) is just another of the Rhine’s toll stations. A must-stop on this side is Bacharach, its streets full of half-timbered houses, stone towers and narrow alleyways.

The left bank also presents opportunities to gain height for a better view. From Oberwesel I climb towards Urbar, coming first to Gunderodehaus, a restaurant above a vine-covered slope with a stunning view to Pfalzgrafstein, six kilometres upriver. A bit further along is Loreleyblick (Lorelei view) to gaze across to this stirring outcrop visited many hours earlier. 

The next detour is at Boppard, a town established by the Romans. Navigate up to Gedeonseck and Vierseenblick. The former sits above a striking horseshoe bend in the Rhine. A few minutes along, Vierseenblick (Four Lake View) is a topographic trick, with intervening hills presenting the river as four disparate bodies of water.

Now it’s just a gentle drive back to Koblenz, where the Mosel River meets the Rhine. Compact and urbane, Koblenz is renowned as the most pedestrian-friendly city in Germany, so I stroll around the river junction before heading into the old town and Altes Brauhaus, the original (1689) town brewery, now a restaurant, where the meal proves as grand and impressive as the Mittelrhein itself.

While you’re there

  • A good leg stretch is the 750-metre walk from below the Lorelei Rock along the spit to a Lorelei statue.
  • Erdbeeren (strawberries) in season, are big, sweet and juicy.
  • Spargel (seasonal white asparagus) is a German obsession. Perfect followed by river trout at Rudesheimer Schloss in Rudesheim.
  • Poppyseed cake at Cafe Zeitgeist, in Boppard.
  • Koblenz’s own Konigsbacher pils, in the beer garden at the Rhine/Mosel confluence.

Don't miss

The view from Gedeonseck above Boppard, right on the horseshoe bend. And take a chairlift over the Rhine at Koblenz to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress.

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