Rhine Valley

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

Rhine Valley

The Rhine is the great river of Western Europe, 820 miles long from its source in the Swiss Alps to its mouth at Rotterdam in Holland where it empties into the North Sea. As a commercial highway it is vital, the most important river highway in Europe. This is especially so now with the recent completion of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal connecting the North Sea to the Black Sea. It handles an annual traffic of 265,000,000 tons. Rotterdam is the world's largest port. Duisburg in the Ruhr is the world's largest river port. The Rhine's importance is not just commercial but also cultural and historical. For Germany it is Vater Rhein, a sort of spiritual focus for the nation. It is the home of Germany's best known sweet wines (now enjoying a renaissance after a decade or so in the Doldrums). It is the setting of much of the great Germanic legendary cycle, the Song of the Nibelungen. Here live the Rhinemaidens underwater, guarding the treasure of the Nibelungen (Wagner, "Das Rheingold"). This is where one of the greatest Wagnerian motifs, Siegfried's Journey, takes place (Wagner, "Götterdämmerung"). It is of course also the home of the Lorelei.

The castles dominating the cliffs, some restored, some still in ruins, are among the most romantic and resonant images of the country. For the group the hour-long trip will be a much anticipated highlight. It is very lovely scenically but a lot still depends on you. Much of the Rhine's fame rests on its legends and history. It always helps if you can point to one castle or other and tell a story about it to anyone who's interested. The song of the Lorelei is a must; a brief excursion into the Nibelungen cycle if you know it adds to the atmosphere; mention should be made of Sterrenberg and Liebenstein, Burg Katz and Burg Maus, Die Pfalz and the Mouse Tower at Bingen. If nobody else is on the boat you may be able to borrow the microphone and do any commentary from there.

The stretch covered here is between Boppard and Bingen, all in the Land of Rheinland-Pfalz. The boat trip runs from Boppard to Oberwesel (13 miles). From Oberwesel to Bingen (13 miles) you continue by bus along the riverside road. (LB) stands for left bank, (RB) for right bank.

The Rhine Cruise  Boppard (LB): This is a very pretty, touristic little town of 9,000 inhabitants which is worth strolling round if you have time before or after the boat. The Rheinallee and the Marktplatz are both very attractive with surviving medieval Fachwerkhäuser, churches and the C14 castle of the electors of Trier. This is the beginning of the "romantic" Rhine where the cliffs become steeper, the river runs faster and more winding, and the castles come in droves. This is the main wine-making region of the middle Rhine. Here in the Bopparder Hamm alone there are 1,000,000 vines.

Sterrenberg und Liebenstein (RB): Above the little pilgrim village of Bornhofen. These are two C12 ruined castles now restored. They stand very close to each other, connected by a thick wall. They used to belong to two enemy brothers, hence the castles' nickname die feindliche Brüder. It is said that after years of mutual hatred the brothers came to a reconciliation, went out hunting together, had an accident and promptly died.

Burg Rheinfels (LB): Sitting 400 feet above the river, this was once the strongest fortress on the Rhine until Napoleon took it in 1797. A hundred years earlier Louis XIV had tried and failed to take it. It was built in 1250 by Graf von Katzenellenbogen to enforce the imposition of river tolls.

Burg Maus (RB): Now in ruins. It was given this cute but derogatory nickname by the lord or Graf of Burg Katz.

Burg Katz (RB): Above the medieval village of St. Goarshausen. The castle was restored in 1898 according to the original plans and is now a children's holiday camp. Its full name was originally Burg Neukatzenellenbogen.

St Goar (LB): This is the centre of the spectacular bonfire and fireworks festival held every year in September called the "Rhine in Flames."

Lorelei (RB): The great and famous cliff with a seven-fold echo, 425 feet high. The Rhine reaches its narrowest point here at just 400 feet across. Wherever you approach it from you notice the waters of the river flowing faster. Lorelei herself was a legendary siren who lured men to their death by the beauty of her singing. The great Jewish poet from Düsseldorf Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) immortalised the story with one of the greatest and the best known poems (later a song) in the German language. The chances are it will be played on the boat. If not, some wistful German tourist will burst into song. At any rate you need to know it so as to be able to teach it to the group. It goes like this:

Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, I don't know what haunts me,
Dass ich so traurig bin. What saddened my mind all day;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten An age-old tale confounds me,
das kommmt mir nicht aus dem Sinn. A spell I cannot allay.
Die Luft is kühl und es dunkelt, The air is cool and in twilight
und ruhig fliesst der Rhein. The Rhine's dark waters flow;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt The peak of the mountain in highlight
im Abendsonnenschein. Reflects the evening glow.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet, There sits a lovely maiden,
dort oben wunderbar; Above so wondrous fair,
ihr goldnes Geschmeide blitzet, With shining jewels laden,
sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar. She combs her golden hair.
Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme It falls through her comb in a shower.
und singt ein Lied dabei, And over the valley rings
das hat eine wundersame, A song of mysterious power
gewaltige Melodei. That lovely maiden sings.

Den Schiffer in kleiner Schiffe The boatman in his small skiff is
ergreift es mit wildem Weh, Seized by turbulent love.
er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe No longer he marks where the cliff is,
er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh. He looks to the mountain above.
Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen I think the waves must fling him
am Ende Schiffer und Kahn. Against the reefs nearby,
und das hat mit ihrem Singen And that did with her singing
die Lorelei getan. The lovely Lorelei.

It is said that one day Lorelei lured the son of a local count on to the rocks where he died. His friends saw what happened and resolved to hunt down and kill the siren. As they approached her with swords drawn she shrieked with laughter. The Rhine rose up to envelop her. When the waters subsided she was gone and was never heard of again.

Oberwesel (LB): This is a pretty little town that stretches out along the riverbank. Much of the old town wall still survives, notably the huge Ochsenturm. On the other side of town is the red-brick Gothic Liebfrauenkirche and above it the Schonburg. This castle, originally C12, was largely destroyed in 1689 by Louis XIV's forces. It was bought and restored in the C19 by a wealthy American of local extraction called T. I. Oakley Rhinelander. Nowadays it belongs again to the town of Oberwesel. Part of it is a hotel and restaurant, the other half is a "Kolpinghaus," i.e. a summer camp for underprivileged children.

At Oberwesel you pick up the bus again and continue along the Rhine as far as Bingen (13 miles). There you will head away from the river to rejoin the motorway. Between Oberwesel and Bingen it is still very scenic and impressive, with charming villages, castles, cliffs, vineyards and islands in the middle of the Rhine. The following page indicates some of the most important sights.

Oberwesel to Bingen  Again it is absolutely unnecessary to point out or comment on every castle or village but it helps if you can identify anything you are asked about and tell one or two stories about what you are seeing.

Kaub (RB): This is a pretty little village dominated by the restored Burg Gutenfels. Here on New Year's Eve 1813 the Prussian General Blucher after his victory over Napoleon at Leipzig crossed the Rhine on his triumphant march towards Paris.

Die Pfalz or Pfalzgrafenstein, on an island in the middle of the river. One of the most famous sights of the romantic Rhine. Founded in 1326 for enforcing river tolls.

Bacharach (LB): The name is probably a bastardization of "Bacchi Ara," altar of Bacchus. This gives an obvious clue to the local economy, based entirely on wine. The town is dominated by Burg Stahleck. This was destroyed by Louis XIV's forces in 1689. Today it is a Youth Hostel. A couple of miles beyond Bacharach three more famous castles appear in quick succession:

Burg Sooneck (LB): Built in 1010, a brigands' castle. Attacked in 1282 by Rudolf von Habsburg. Several times destroyed and rebuilt. Last restored by Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Burg Reichenstein (LB): Over 1,000 years old. It now houses a very expensive restaurant.

Burg Rheinstein (LB): Restored in 1825. Contains a collection of armour and antiquities.

Der Mauseturm or more correctly Mautturm or Customs Tower. This tall, very slim tower stands on an island in the middle of the Rhine. Originally it served as a customs point collecting revenue for Bishop Hatto of Mainz from passing shipping. A pun on the name has given rise to this building's story. It is said that the bishop levied such backbreaking taxes on his people that they were almost starved to death. The people begged for mercy but the bishop ignored their cries for food. But God saw and chose to exact punishment on the recalcitrant cleric. He sent a plague of mice to the tower in the river which Hatto kept stocked with corn. The mice swam across the river which Hatto believed impossible, ate up every grain and finished by devouring the bishop alive.

Ruine Ehrenfels (RB): Used by the bishops of Mainz for the enforcing of river tolls.

You should look out for the Niederwalddenkmal standing high above the ruins at 750 feet. This huge statue is the German National Monument built in 1877 to commemorate the rebirth of the German Empire 6 years earlier under Kaiser Wilhelm I. The 38 foot high figure is of Germania.

Bingen (LB): Originally a Roman town at the confluence of the Rhine and the Nahe. Here you leave the riverside road for the motorway.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy