The Mittelrhein is magical. Whether you visit the Rhine River valley by car, boat or on foot, you’ll fall in love with the steep, vine-covered hillsides peppered with castles. This wine region, which stretches from just south of Bonn to Bingen, is one of my favorites. Here I feel transported to a time of legend, and for good reason. The Mittelrhein’s crags are part of German folklore.
The Loreley, for example, was a beautiful young maiden with an irresistible singing voice. She sat on a cliff above a sharp curve in the Rhine, combing her blonde hair. Sailors who heard her felt compelled to move ever closer to the rock on which the Loreley sat, and died tragically as their boats were dashed to bits. Today, you can take a boat trip down the Rhine and see this famous cliff for yourself.
UNESCO recognized the Mittelrhein’s scenic splendor and rich cultural heritage in 1992, when it named the Upper Middle Rhine Valley a World Heritage Site.
A Rich Winemaking Heritage
On my autumn trip to Germany, I spent a day driving along the river. Autumn is a splendid time to visit the Mittelrhein because the terraced vineyards glow with the grape leaves’ fall colors. You’ll see shades of yellow, pale green, gold and russet. The vineyards seem to rush down the hillsides toward you, ending abruptly at the train tracks just above the road.
The valley’s steep sides are both a blessing and a curse for local winemakers – blessing, because they protect the grapes from harsh weather conditions and strong winds, and curse, because it’s very difficult to tend anything growing on such precipitous slopes. If you follow one of the many hiking trails up the hillsides, you can see that cultivating the grapes requires both specialized equipment and good balance. Wine growers use conveyor belts, winches and carts attached to cables to carry grapes downhill during the harvest.
Although nearly 70% of the vineyards are planted in riesling, you will see other grape varieties here. According to the German Wine Institute, nearly nine percent of Mittelrhein vineyards are planted in spätburgunder (pinot noir), while six percent are planted in Müller-Thurgau.
We drove from Koblenz south toward Bingen, along the western side of the river. We stopped often, because the views are spectacular and we wanted to enjoy them without risking a collision. Our first stop was Boppard, where we visited the ruins of a Roman fort, said to be the best example of a Roman fortress north of the Alps. The large, fourth-century stone fort was partially covered in scaffolding for some kind of excavation or reinforcement of the thick, stone walls, but we were able to walk into the fort and see the strength and durability of Roman construction for ourselves.
Of course, Boppard is also famous for its wines. The Bopparder Hamm vineyard sites, named for the Rhine’s biggest bend, are planted with riesling grapes, as are 70% of all the Mittelrhein’s vineyards. You can visit some of the wineries near Boppard and Spay, including Weingut Matthias Müller, Weingut August und Thomas Perll and Weingut Walter Perll. It’s best to call in advance unless you’re just dropping by to buy some wine. The wineries’ websites are in German only, but you can find telephone numbers (“Telefonnummer” in German) on the “Kontakt” pages.
If you’re planning a September visit, consider making Boppard’s wine festival one of your stops. It’s usually held the last two weekends of September.
St. Goar and Burg Rheinfels
My all-time favorite castle – and I’ve visited dozens – is the Mittelrhein’s Burg Rheinfels, in St. Goar. Like most of the Rhine castles, it sits high above the river on a mountain. You can hike to it, drive to the pay parking lot, or, in spring, summer and fall, take the “Burgexpress” tram from St. Goar’s Marktplatz (Market Square) or Rathaus (City Hall). For a modest fee, you can explore the ruins of the largest castle on the Rhine. Bring a flashlight for the subterranean tunnels, where the counts who owned Burg Rheinfels stored supplies and ammunition. Kids love this castle, too, because they are free to hike the castle pathways and explore ruins to their hearts’ content. The view of the river is amazing; you can watch barges and ferries move slowly up and down the Rhine and look across to the vineyards on the opposite bank.
We stopped in Bacharach for lunch. This riverside town is extremely popular with tourists, for good reason. The town is jammed between the river and a steep hillside, so it spreads along the river. You can park outside the town’s old walls, next to a riverside park. (Bring change; it’s a pay lot.) We entered Bacharach through a tunnel in the town wall. Inside, narrow streets, half-timbered buildings and restaurant signboards were everywhere. We wandered through the town, peering into shop windows and seeing evidence – wine shops, and lots of them – of Bacharach’s long history as a wine trading headquarters.
When we climbed the steps to the loft inside the Posthof restaurant, across the courtyard from Bacharach’s tourist office, our server asked for our drink order. I asked for white wine, and she responded, “Riesling,” in a confident tone. I knew then that in Bacharach there is only one kind of wine, and it’s the local riesling. Our simple meal of bratwurst, potatoes and sauerkraut was as good as any I’ve had in Germany.
After lunch we hiked up above the town to the Wernerkapelle (Werner Chapel), a gothic-style, ruined chapel perched on the hillside. It has new, red glass windows, which are a monument to a renewed understanding and brotherhood between religions. It seems that the chapel was the supposed setting for Jewish rituals that never really happened, rumors of which led to medieval riots against the local Jewish population. As a sign of remembrance, a stone plaque with a prayer composed by Pope John XXIII was installed. The red windows, inscribed with words from “The Rabbi of Bacharach” by Heinrich Heine, were added to the chapel ruins in 2007 and will remain until 2009.
We had heard that you can walk along the town walls, so we strolled back to the edge of town and climbed the steps to the top of the wall. All along the walls, you pass residential front doors. I tried to imagine how it would feel to live on the wall and have tourist families trek past your doorstep each day. We walked more quietly after I mentioned this thought. We quickly discovered that the walkway starts and stops; in certain places you must descend to street level because there’s nowhere else to go.
Still, Bacharach is a hiker’s paradise. The youth hostel, which is in Burg Stahleck (Castle Stahleck), sits high above the town, higher even than the Wernerkapelle. You can also walk up to the Postenturm, a tower that sits amid the vineyards and offers stunning views of the river and the town.
Bacharach’s town website lists 19 wineries in its “All About Wine” section. Some well-known wineries, like Weingut Fritz Bastian and Weingut Helmut Mades, don’t have websites, so you might want to jot down a list of winery telephone numbers and addresses. Other wineries, such as Weingut Toni Jost – Hahnenhof and Weingut Ratzenberger, do have websites in both German and English. You can also take the random approach and stop by wine shops in Bacharach to ask about the local vineyards and purchase wine. You can even rent a guest apartment at Weingut Ratzenberger, should you find you just can’t bear to leave.
Beyond the Mittelrhein: Rüdesheim
There’s plenty more to see along the Rhine, including the popular historic town of Rüdesheim at the southern end of the valley. There’s a bit of everything here, because Rüdesheim is not only a picturesque town but is also a gateway to both the Mittelrhein and Rheingau wine regions. If you’re hungry, head to the Drosselgasse, in the historic part of Rüdesheim. The Drosselgasse is no longer just an old alley; it’s been transformed into a street of restaurants, wine bars and music venues. After your meal, you can walk, bicycle or even skate along the many paths that crisscross the Rüdesheim area.
Rüdesheim is also a good place to begin a day cruise along the Rhine. KD Line, Bingen-Rüdesheimer Fahrgastschiffart and Rössler Lines offer round-trip day cruises, one-way tickets and wine tasting trips. You can get on and off the boats to sightsee if you wish.
The Mittelrhein presents the best of Germany – history, scenery, culture and wine – in the most romantic of settings. Whether you plan to spend an afternoon, day or long weekend in the Rhine valley, you’ll leave wishing you had more time to linger.