June 6 – 8, 2011
To honour Rhine Valley’s reputation as a prime destination for retirees, we traveled slowly along the river in part because we were still suffering from jetlag after the long flight. We hardly bumped into others, perhaps because many travelers were concerned about Germany’s ongoing E.coli outbreak. Another welcomed development was the forecasted thunderstorm didn’t materialize and the weather was mostly sunny.
A chronicle of our two days in the area, including the Rhine and Mosel Valleys and a brief stop in Cologne:
We took a short break and had breakfast in Bingen, the beginning of Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the stretch of the river that is considered to be the most scenic. We soon moved on from this rather indifferent town and onward to Bacharach, the first stop on our itinerary.
From afar, we spotted a hilltop castle overlooking Bacharach. We drove by the barely-two-lane main road of the town and headed up hill, finally stopping at an overlook. The castle just below us has been turned into a hostel and a few elementary age kids were playing at its yard.
Vineyards occupied much of the steep slopes along the Rhine, a tradition that dates back to the Romans. Agriculture, as evidenced by the surrounding farmland and grazing field, remains an important industry of the region.
One of the best things about traveling in compacted region like the Rhine Valley is the short driving distance between each village. Not long after leaving Bacharach we reached Oberwesel, a town dominated by its red cathedral. We followed a tour bus out of curiosity and reached another hilltop castle, this one being turned to a hotel and restaurant. While the tour group dragged their luggage to check-in, I sneaked my way to the castle’s terrace and enjoyed a fine view of the town.
We drove back to the town and parked the car in front of the train station. It was clear Oberwesel, like the town we had previously visited, was extensively rebuilt after sustaining heavy damage during WWII. The streets were quiet; only a few eateries and souvenir shops were opened, while almost all of the businesses that catered to locals, such as hair salon and home appliance shops, were closed. The town appeared quite authentic and was not overrun by tourists.
Perhaps the most famous town in the Rhine Valley, St Goar is located opposite to Loreley, a piece of rock that inspires a popular German folklore of a siren who caused many accidents to the ships sailing on the Rhine.
Compared to the towns we visited earlier, St Goar definitely caters even more to the tourist. A few small cruise boats had docked, loading off a few dozen retirees to the town. Most of them hopped onto a shuttle that circled around town.
Rheinfels, the castle that overlooks St Goar, is in a state of ruin. Because of the region’s strategic importance, most of the castles along the Rhine have seen their shares of warfare and fall into disuse over the years.
I chose Boppard as our base for our two nights in the region mainly because of three factors; its location close to the Mosel Valley, its moderate size and an availability of reasonably priced accommodation. The fact that the town is also a major wine producer was just gravy.
Hotel Ohm Patt, the B&B we stayed at, is run by a cordial British man named John. A tip about staying at the Rhine Valley – freight trains pass through all the major towns throughout the night, so a pair of earplugs are essential, even with the room’s windows closed.
Slightly baffling I was, walking along the riverside in the early morning waiting for the sun to rise, when I wondered why did I fly half-way around the globe to stay in a rather inconspicuous town.
While the wait continued, I noticed my senses to be unusually focused. I could hear the sound of the flowing river, the layers of glowing hue at the opposite shore and the movement of the gale. I could feel these sensations, though trivial they might be, in an intense form that’s only possible without distraction.
The long stretch of hotels along the Rhine River suggest Boppard must be a popular destination in the summer, though most had not yet arrived. The few early risers who occupied the narrow roads were noticeably from the area; the man who jogged with his dog at dawn, the little girl who played catch by herself, and the workers at the construction site opposite to the train station.
Crossing the Rhine on a ferry, I took a look again at the town behind. The construction crane stuck out like a sore thumb, and the overcast sky robbed Boppard of its colours.
The question I had earlier popped up in my head again: Just why am I here? As our brief river-crossing came to an end, I recalled the modest sensual encounters I just experienced by the Rhine. These tiny fragments together painted an image that’s more memorable than many other castles and cathedrals of past travels.
Often we travel because of famous places and attractions, but I travel simply because I want to step on a piece of foreign land on my own feet and have a feel about the place with my own senses.
After crossing to the east side of the Rhine River, we headed to Marksburg, the only medieval castle in the region that has managed to escape destruction. Ascending the not-quite-two-lane road up to the hilltop castle felt like a long time as we approached every turn tentatively in anticipation of imagined descending traffic.
We got to the ticketing office at 8:40, earlier than even the staff. The castle had to be visited by guided tour, and the first available one would be at 10:30. Time slowed to a crawl when all your eyes could focus on was a television tower further downstream. Confounding it was that the local authorities disallowed the construction of bridges along most of the Rhine Valley in the name of conservation, yet a television tower, an absolute eye sore that dominated the surrounding landscape, was deemed as acceptable.
No matter how slowly, the two hours did pass, and we were assigned into a tour populated by a large group of British high school kids on school trips who liked to communicate by letting out unprovoked screams and cracking excruciatingly lame jokes to each other.
Unlike many of its counterpart, Marksburg was served as a military stronghold rather than a regal residence. Evidence of the fortress’ defensive mechanism, including but not limited to:
- The lack of stairs at the entrance to assist the movement of horseback soldiers.
- The dining room’s washroom is locked from the outside to prevent enemy from getting into the fortress from the vertical chutes.
- Many of the stairs inside the fortress are very narrow, so each time only a single person can pass through, and the swinging of a sword is impossible.
A tip on photographing Marksburg, and the Rhine Valley in general – the best composition is often on the other side of the Rhine. On the way back to Boppard, I made a stop at a town called Spay on the west bank and got some good shots of the castle.
After passing through numerous small towns, Koblenz, situated at the Rhine’s confluence with the Mosel, seemed like a metropolis. To make our day manageable, we decided to first take the autobahn to Cochem, and then we would head east along the Mosel.
Of all the towns in the area we had been to, Cochem was by far the most picturesque and touristy. The town centre was full of people, which was a total contrast to the deserted streets in Boppard.
Aside from the crowd, another surprise greeted us at the river bank – there was a bridge spanning across the river. Mosel, unlike the middle section of the Rhine, allows the construction of bridges. I immediately crossed the bridge to the other side and took some photos of Cochem. The photos didn’t turn out too well because of the harsh light, but it had been a first since I landed in Germany to be able to cross a river with such ease.
We gave Cochem’s castle a pass because we would be visiting Burg Eltz and didn’t want to have a castle overdose.
Unlike the riverside castle that is the Marksburg, Burg Eltz is located is in a seclusive valley surrounded by a thick forest, literally in the middle of nowhere. After parking our car, along with other visitors, we had to walk downhill for ten minutes to reach the castle. On location alone, Burg Eltz is the quintessential fairytale castle, straight out of Sleeping Beauty or other classic stories.
As for the castle itself – it is hard to make judgement on the exterior since half of the structure was under scaffold. According to my personal experience, on any given trip to Europe, it is a certainty that some sites will be undergoing restoration.
Burg Eltz’s interior is fascinatingly gaudy. Since the castle is continuously owned by three different families, including the Eltzs, visitors can see traces of subsequent renovations being done over the generations. The result became a mix and match of styles that doesn’t necessarily go well together.
Let’s take the children’s room as example. Numerous painted portraits of creepily smiling children are hanged on the room’s otherwise bare walls, each supposedly painted as older than they were because children were expected to become grown-ups as soon as possible. Regardless, all of them had been dead for centuries. Most of the portrait subjects’ gazes are placed upon a wooden bed in the middle of the room. Combined with the faint hint of incoming light, whoever in charge of the castle had successfully turned the room into the setting of a B-movie.
We followed the road south to the Mosel, where then we would head east in the direction of the Rhine. Even though Burg Eltz turned out to be a mild disappointment, it was soon forgotten when a rainbow stopped us in our tracks. It has been more than two years since I last saw one on the Big Island.
Speaking of faraway islands, the immediate landscape reminded me of Biei on Hokkaido Island, Japan, only more beautiful and less artificial. There is a tendency in Japan (side note: China is the worst offender) to heavily promote anything, so some random trees received the contrived monikers like the “Parent and Child Trees” or “Ken and Mary Tree”. A similar looking tree in Germany is, matter-of-factly, nameless, and rises above a piece of unidentified land next to a solitary country road.
In comparison with the industrious Rhine, Mosel exuded a leisurely vibe like a stream at a local park. If I had just one more day on my itinerary I can’t think of anything better to do than cycling along the Mosel.
Due to a critical planning error, we were on the road for half of the day we planned for Cologne, which left us with only enough time to visit the town’s namesake cathedral and one museum.
Renowned around the world for its twin spires, this cathedral took 632 years to complete. For four centuries a huge crane at the unfinished site dominated Cologne’s skyline, and when it was finally completed in 1880 the entire nation celebrated, even though Prussia had long turned to Protestantism by then. With the 19th century romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, the finished product was a faithful adaption to the original plan. For four years the cathedral was the world’s tallest structure. Having survived the heavy bombing that had flattened much of the city in World War II, Cologne Cathedral has retained the title of having the largest façade of any church in the world to this day.
Located next to the train station, the first thing that struck me about the Cologne Cathedral was its massive size. The composition is a little off; the bloated twin spires dominate over the rest of the structure like a linebacker with a huge upper body but toothpick-like legs. The dark and Gothic façade, darkened by severe air pollution during the city’s industrial era, gives the colossal structure an imposing and uninviting appearance. The cathedral’s oversized scale is even more apparent inside. The interior radiated a brooding and hollow feeling.
We made quick work of the cathedral and proceeded to the Museum Ludwig, a modern art museum that houses works by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. It is very rare to visit a museum that’s somewhat enlightening but without a huge crowd. Wandering around the museum’s spacious exhibition rooms, a forgotten feeling had reoccurred to me – the feeling of being unhurried and relaxed while being enlightened by a long list of artists who would leave me with a desire to google on them when I get home.
Setting aside the cathedral and a handful of museums, Cologne is a little short on attraction. The city was almost entirely destroyed during WWII, and the rebuilt town core was not very aesthetically pleasing. I ended my short time in Cologne by crossing the Hohenzollern Bridge, bypassing hundreds of love padlocks attached to the bridge’s metal fences, and took a few photos of the Cologne Cathedral on the other side of the Rhine River.