The Rhine begins its 1200 kilometer (900 mile) journey high in the Swiss Alps, flowing through six countries before emptying into the North Sea at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Discharging an average of 2300 cubic meters of water per second (or 90 million gallons per day) the Rhine has served for thousands of years as a major transportation route, moving people and goods across the continent. Strategic control of the river dominated the history of the Rhine valley. Today the medieval castles erected to extract tolls and control the flow of goods still adorn the landscape. This is particularly true in the Rhine Gorge, a 360 kilometer stretch of the Upper Rhine region that winds through Germany. Formed by the river as it carved its way through ancient sedimentary rock during a geologic uplift, the gorge contains the river between high walls averaging 120 meters (390 feet) high. Terraced vineyards grace the steep slopes and are a testament to viticulture that has been going on in this since Roman times.
Mid way along the Gorge, about 160 Kilometers south of Cologne, is the Lorelei Rock, a 130-meter-tall mass of granite that extends out into the Rhine forming a sharp bend in the river’s course. Eddies and reefs at this narrow stretch have long made this a treacherous area which, in the days before modern navigation, saw frequent shipwrecks. The legend of the Lorelei, the beautiful siren luring men to their deaths, grew up around the rock and gave it the name it carries today. Our own journey sailing past the rock was calm and peaceful and the only siren call we heard was that of the friends and music that had drawn us here in the first place.
Our travels had started late Wednesday morning at the Cologne train station, with a final destination of Sankt Goar, just downstream from Lorelei. Although Sankt Goar is just an hour south from Cologne by train, our plan was to pass through the village and continue another 54 Kilometers to Bingen where we could catch a boat and travel back to Sankt Goar by river. Anxious to be on our way, we arrived at Cologne central station earlier than necessary, and waited on the platform, watching travelers as they boarded trains headed in all directions across Europe. Eventually our train pulled in and we settled in for the hour and half ride south to Bingen.
The train followed the general path of the Rhine, passing through cities, towns and villages with names we knew and names we didn’t. Bonn, Koblenz, Oeberwesel, Bacharach…… We sped through Sankt Goar and arrived at Bingen by early afternoon. The station was located just outside of town. After a few minutes of figuring out which way to go, we pulled our roller bags along the streets and sidewalks until we found the embarkment point for the local river boats. The Köln-Dusseldorfer company runs a small cruise boat along the Upper Middle Rhine allowing passengers to get on and off at towns along the way. We bought our tickets at a kiosk by the landing dock just as one of the boats was preparing to leave. The boatmen frantically hurried us on and we settled in for our hour-long journey down the river. The boat was filled with tourists from all over the world, including a large tour group from China. Everyone was relaxed and enjoying themselves. A bar provided drinks and snacks for the trip. We found a table with an excellent view, ordered a bottle of beer and small carafe of local wine, and sat back to enjoy the ride. The overcast skies began to clear and we sat entranced while vineyards, castles and story-book towns passed us by like one big scene from a fairy tale.
We rounded the Lorelei rock, catching a glimpse of the music amphitheater situated on top, and then arrived just around the next bend into the village of Sankt Goar. A quaint, picture-perfect village, St. Goar is nestled between the river and the high cliffs on the left bank of the Rhine. With a population of just under 3,000 the main industry today is wine and tourism. Three castles, all originally constructed as a means of local control over river traffic, can be viewed from the town – two on the opposite bank, Burg Katz and Burg Maus (aka the “Cat and the Mouse”) and Burg Rheinfels on the Sankt Goar side just north of the village. The village is named for St. Goar of Aquitaine, a monk and hermit of noble birth who came to the Rhine valley in the 6th century and lived as a missionary in the settlement where Sankt Goar now stands.
Having arrived a day ahead of the group gathering for the music festival, we immediately set to exploring the town and environs. (One task was to find a meeting place for dinner as everyone convened on Thursday). The village consists of two main streets with cafés, restaurants, bars and shops. Our hotel, the delightful Hotel an der Fahre, was situated conveniently next to the river, right by the ferry landing (an important consideration as the music venue was on the other side of the river.) We had a lovely room looking right out onto the Rhine and across to Sankt Goarshausen, St. Goar’s sister village on the other side. After a short stroll from our hotel we found the Bistro-Café Goar, a pleasant sidewalk café where we had a tasty lunch and which we quickly determined was the best bet for a large group gathering. Our server was a slightly edgy but charming young German woman named Susan who would come to take very good care of us and our crowd over the next 4 to 5 days.
After lunch we explored the town and found the touristy but fun Stefan’s Wine and Christmas shop. We stepped inside and found ourselves surrounded by wine on one side of the shop and traditional German cuckoo clocks on the other. Stefan himself appeared after a few minutes and offered us a sample of his peach brandy. A full wine tasting followed, with some very good dry Rieslings and several of his flavored brandies. We did buy some wine, but passed on getting a cuckoo clock.
Thursday morning (after dropping off a weeks’ worth of laundry) we hiked up the hill on the north side of town to Burg (Castle) Rheinfels. Built in 1245 originally to control river traffic and ensure payment of tolls, it was expanded over the centuries until it became the largest fortress along the middle Rhine. It was eventually destroyed by the French Revolutionary Army in 1797. Now in private hands, part of the structure has been restored and converted into a high end hotel. The rest of the castle ruins are open to the public to explore, which, of course, we did. The views were spectacular and the ruins themselves impressive. High towering walls and winding tunnels surviving today reflect only about half of what was once there. They’ve done an excellent job of maintaining the ruins with good signage and interpretation. They have even restored the interior of the chapel to show how it would have looked in its day, and it now houses the castle museum.
After taking in the stunning views from the castle tower, Mike was pleased to locate the medieval brewery, although, of course, no beer has been brewed there in centuries. To compensate, we found the hotel restaurant and enjoyed some more of the local wine on the terrace overlooking the magnificent Rhine.
As we sat, we reflected on the wonderful travels we had experienced already on our trip, and on how the best was yet to come. In a few hours, friends from all over the world — Canada, England, Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Holland — would begin to converge in this little valley to attend the Night of the Prog music festival at the Lorelei Amphitheatre. For most of us the highlight would be seeing Big Big Train make their mainland Europe debut in front of thousands of new fans. We looked forward to seeing some of our friends that we’d met in London last year, and those we’d only connected with on Facebook as well as others we had yet to know of at all! And we lamented friends we knew couldn’t make it, but whom we knew would be there in spirit.
On that note, we finished our drinks, took a last look at the river and the town, and started back down the hill.