In this second of our three-part series on the Romantic Rhine, we begin to wind our way up river from Koblenz to Rudesheim. This month we get as far as Boppard.
By Jim Johnson
The route from Koblenz to Boppard—whether by ship, car, train or bike—quickly leaves signs of city life behind. In less than five miles, Stolzenfels Castle appears and the Romantic Rhine begins.
Painted yellow ochre, with turrets and towers, the castle stands out boldly halfway up the wooded hillside. Built in the 13th century as a toll station, it was destroyed by the French in 1689. When Prussian royalty ultimately rebuilt it in the mid-19th century, Rhine romanticism was at its peak, and Stolzenfels is considered the best example of Romantic construction along the Rhine.
A 20-minute walk along a dirt road leads from the river to the castle. A series of switchbacks past stone walls thick with ivy runs deep into the forest. A stone viaduct passes overhead. Soon, what's left of the ruined foundation and outer battlements come into view, then the moat and ramparts, then the walls of the "new" castle.
Drivers will find ample parking, but viewing the castle from below during a hike up the hill gives the fortress a different perspective. With a little imagination, those rustling leaves can become French soldiers climbing through the underbrush to lay siege.
A drawbridge leads into the castle through a towered gateway, its doors studded with metal and held by giant, rusting hinges. The stone sides still show the scrape marks of carriages.
While access to the former ornate residential areas is by guided tour (in Germana - adults €3.50, children €1.50, there's plenty to see in the courtyard, like the castle keep, the towers and the formal gardens. Platforms yield stunning views across the river to medieval Lahneck with its twin castles.
Most rail and car travelers follow the left side of the Rhine, and most ship passengers have either just boarded or are at the end of a day's journey. As a result, two right-bank treasures—Lahnstein and Braubach—are sometimes overlooked.
From Stolzenfels, take the ferry to Lahnstein (trips run continuously), where the Lahn River joins the Rhine. There you get two castles with one stop. The Martinsburg, directly on the Rhine, was built as a toll house in the 14th century and expanded through the centuries. The more imposing Burg Lahneck was built in 1244. Badly damaged by the French in 1689, it lay in ruins until 1852, when a private owner rebuilt it, partly restoring its medieval fortifications and partly in English Neo-gothic, making for an interesting blend of architectures. The view from the castle keep is worth the climb. Tours are available between 10am and 5pm from May through September.
On the waterfront is a unique statue. In bronze glory, a man squats over a trough, his pants pulled down as he prepares - well, you get the idea. Called the Baareschesser the statue honors those citizens who kept the groundwater clean by not using pit toilets, although no one seems to know where the troughs were emptied. Not an important monument, but a unique photo op.
Each hour, you can choose a 15-minute bus ride or a six-minute train trip upstream to Braubach where you'll find half-timber houses, twisting alleys, a medieval town wall, and mighty Marksburg Castle. Built in stages since the 12th century, it's the only Middle Rhine castle that wasn't destroyed. A look at its foreboding position on a craggy peak reveals why it survived while others fell. Access to the fortress presented other obstacles, including four gates, two drawbridges and a tunnel.
To get there, it's a 30-minute walk or five-minute drive from the Old Town. There's also a shuttle-bus for €5 roundtrip (Taxi-Schneider Braubach, tel. 02627 508).
Tours in English include visits to the massive inner rooms and to displays of armor, weapons and torture equipment. Entry €4.50, children €3.50; tel. +49 02627 206.
Rhens, Spay, Brey
To return to the left bank, take the passenger ferry to Spay or a Köln-Düsseldorfer ship to Rhens. Despite their richly carved, multicolored-painted half-timber houses and their town walls, the villages of Rhens, Spay and Brey seem to have been entirely bypassed by tourists -all the more reason to explore them.
Spay in particular is packed with half-timber homes and alleys leading through the town wall to the river. The Fährgasse is especially scenic. At the end of the Burggasse, there's a small obelisk marking the midway point between Basel and Rotterdam. The Petruskappelle—a small 13th century chapel—is just slightly upstream across from Mainzerstrasse 2. For access to the chapel and its frescoes dating to 1237, call Frank Josef Karbach at +49/02628/2034.
Just past Spay, the northernmost Rhine vineyards begin to fill the terraced hillside, a sign that the wine town of Boppard is just around the bend.
Boppard is not a town to be visited for its half-timber homes and castle. Yes, it has beautiful old houses, but they're mixed in with more modern buildings. And the castle, despite its historic role as a 14th-century customs house, is almost indistinguishable from other buildings.
Where Boppard stands out from many of its neighbors is in opportunities for leisure activities. Built more than 100 years ago, Boppard's Promenade is the longest along the Rhine. Thanks to the decision to move the highway behind the town, guests can walk from the town and its grand hotels overlooking the river directly to the promenade and the Rhine beyond without the distraction or danger of cars. The 3-kilometer (1.9-mile) walkway is a natural extension of the town itself, and the old trees lend a sense of strength and permanence, as well as a wooded canopy for pleasant, relaxed walks along the river. Along this promenade, Boppard may remind you of a small Italian village on the Mediterranean. Flowers bloom, trees provide thick cover, and couples hold hands as the sun sets over the Rhine. Even after the day-trippers leave and peace and quiet reign, the town is still alive.
Boppard also offers one of the best views along the Middle Rhine. Either by foot or by chairlift, visitors can climb 232 meters (762 feet) above the river to see it. The one-kilometer chairlift ride skims over vineyards; some vines are young with scraggly shoots, other decades old with thick, gnarled stalks. The landscape looks like crumpled paper colored with shades of green. A train charges through a cleft in a side valley.
(The train turns out to be the Hunsrückbahn. A 15-minute ride takes passengers up the steepest rail grade in Germany, through five tunnels and over two viaducts, climbing more than 350 meters (1070 feet) to the village of Buchholz. The hiking and views are sublime. Trains leave hourly in both directions and cost E2.40 ($2.35) roundtrip.)
Five minutes on foot from the top of the lift, the view is of "the bendiest bend" in the Rhine, as signs describe it, a dramatic horseshoe curve where dense forests cloak rolling hills. Walk another 10 minutes, and the view changes to give the perception of four distinct lakes (the bendiest bend is more dramatic). As the chairlift descends, one sees the vast vineyards of the Bopparder Hamm (a favorite hiking area for locals) and, across the river, Kamp-Bornhofen and the ruins of two castles, Sterrenberg and Lieberstein, commonly (if not accurately) known as the "Hostile Brothers." The best time for pictures of the Rhine's bendiest bend is in the afternoon. Haze is common, so bring appropriate filters.
The chairlift is €6.20 RT. Get to the lift base station by foot or by the Rhine-Express mini-train, which also makes a 30-minute tour around town. Pick it up at the Market Square (€3.50).
In 1994, Boppard tore down several houses to excavate a 2nd-century Roman fort and parts of the medieval wall. Several walls and much of the fort's foundation are intact, as is a fairly sophisticated fresh water and septic system. During the excavation, archaeologists also found 30 7th-century Celtic graves (the contents long since removed), and visitors can peer through glass into three of them.
Just beyond the ruins, several homes remain, with Roman and medieval stonework assimilated into their structures. The town wall, a 14th-century expansion of the original Roman walls, forms a rectangle, of which nearly one-third still stands. The wall was topped with 28 semicircular towers, more than half of which still exist in part or whole.
Although Boppard is the larger town, many choose to stay in Kamp-Bornhofen. Some prefer the relative quiet of the village or to have a "base camp" for visits to Sterrenberg and Lieberstein castles. From any angle, their towers and battlements seem to threaten each other. While the two ruins are worth a visit, many visitors miss out on the ornate Bornhofen Monastery, which has welcomed pilgrims for nearly 700 years.
Zum Weissen Schwanen
If Braubach itself doesn't transport you to medieval times, a few minutes in Landgasthof Zum Weissen Schwanen should do the trick. Here time has stood still and the pace is slow. Centuries ago, the hotel served as a way station for nobles and knights traveling the Rhine.
Today's hostelry is more a destination than a way-station. Prints from the 17th century show it in a country setting just outside the town walls, with the Marksburg Fortress looming over it. While the town has filled in around Zum Weissen Schwanen, the hotel has changed little with the centuries. In fact, one of the hotel's buildings, a mill, dates to the 13th century and, with its millstream and wheel, was recently restored to operation. The hotel's half-timber walls are draped with ivy, and gables rim the roof. Inside, the timber floor boards, plaster walls and wood-beam ceilings have also changed little.
All its 17 guestrooms have centuries-old character with modern amenities and each is individually decorated with typical farmhouse furniture such as pine beds, rocking chairs and the occasional antique spinning wheel. The hotel's restaurant has an excellent reputation for regional cuisine and attracts customers from as far as Cologne and Frankfurt.
Daily Rates: Singles €55-60, doubles €75-90, suites €120-160. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20
At the Bellevue, a surviving grand hotels from the days when wealthy Americans made extended European tours in regal style, guests are pampered and names quickly remembered. Old World charm is everywhere, with ornately carved wood paneling, original oil paintings and etched glass. Rooms are spacious and plush. The hotel also has a swimming pool, sauna and fitness area. In the evening, live piano music flows from the Le Chopin lounge out to the veranda with its wrought-iron railing and decorative ceiling.
Arrivals by boat can't miss it. The five-story, 175-room hotel stands just across the Promenade from the Köln-Düsseldorfer landing with large block letters B-E-L-L-E-V-U-E across the third floor.
Ask for a Rhine view. If none is available, insist on a high floor so you can at least look out over the town to the hillside and enjoy the sunny southern exposure. Balconies are available for a premium.
Daily Rates: Singles €76-117, doubles €110-151, off-season discount 25%-40%.
Rating: Quality 16/20 Value 16/20
Hotel Garni Günther
The Günther is next to the Bellevue, and some of the charm and ambiance seem to rub off. Though it doesn't have the upscale style, architecture and pampered service of its neighbor, it does offer the same views, more and larger balconies, a delightful sun terrace, private ownership and a cordial, intimate feeling.
The 38 modern guestrooms all have shower, WC, and the usual amenities. The best bargain may be the €57 standard doubles. You'll pay €10 extra for a room with a Rhine view and balcony. If you like to spread out, an upgrade from standard to large also runs about €10.
Contact: Hotel Garni Günther Rheinallee 40, D-56154 Boppard, +49 06742 89090, fax +49 06742 890950.
Daily Rates: Singles use double rooms, prices based on availability, doubles €57-82. Multiple night and off-season discounts.
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 15/20
Hotel Castle Liebenstein
Built into the ruins of the castle, Liebenstein feels more like a bed and breakfast than a hotel, even though most B&Bs aren't in 11th-century castles. Thank the Nickenig family for making a fortress feel like home, but don't believe a word they say about the place being haunted. Each of the nine rooms has a Rhine view, as well as WC and shower. Number 6 is a spacious tower room with an elevated view to the river and an authentic feel. Walls are whitewashed plaster over old stones and mortar, and ceilings are supported by large wooden beams. The only downside is train noise. Freight trains generally travel the right side of the Rhine, often and through the night, and seem to clatter much more than the left side's passenger trains.
Daily Rates: Singles €50-90, doubles €70-110, suites €110-180. Ghosts extra.
Rating: Quality 13/30, Value 14/20
Passing through an arched gateway of a medieval manor, I entered a deserted courtyard with a row of tables and chairs overlooking the Rhine. Thinking it closed, I turned to leave. On the wall, however, was sign: "Ring for service." An elderly man lifted a window overhead. "Hello, do you want something to eat? How about pork medallions with boiled potatoes in a nice sauce," he called down.
From a table under the shade of a spreading tree, Burg Lahneck was framed perfectly in the hills above the town of Lahnstein. Geraniums poured from weathered urns. Two rubber ducks sat incongruously but sweetly on the stone wall. The informality, charm and historic setting set the stage for a solitary but excellent lunch, cooked to order and to perfection. The pork was tender, the peas, carrots and mushrooms fresh. As it turns out, the man in the window is the chef and co-owner, with his sister who runs the hotel.
After paying, I asked my host (Willy Gerstung) for a tour of the house, once owned by the prince-elector of the region, passed along to a series of vintners, and then to his parents. The inside dining area is elegant, a scene from the past. Place settings seemed ready for royalty. A portrait of his mother as a young woman is probably the newest piece in the house. There's a butter closet from 1771 and a bread closet from 1734.
Contact: Zum Königstuhl, 5401 Rhens, tel +49 02628 2244.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20
Zum Alten Schmiede
The restaurant Zum Alten Schmiede offers seating along the marketplace in a sea of umbrellas surrounded by half-timber houses. Water rushes from a nearby fountain and the cheerful setting encourages conversation between the tables—and nationalities—as guests offer advice on menu choices and favorite villages.
When a grilled pork hock arrived, however, conversation came to an abrupt halt. Children hid behind their mothers and pointed. Perhaps they thought it was a monster, or maybe they were simply concerned for the recipient's arteries. In any case, it was huge. As conversations started up again, I went on to enjoy the extremely flavorful, tender Schweinshaxe with sauerkraut and potatoes, all for €8.50. That's about the average price on the menu, which includes primarily traditional dishes like Sauerbraten with dumplings and red cabbage, Bratwurst with liver dumplings and sauerkraut, and beef simmered in white wine. Service is cordial, attentive and relaxed.
Contact: Zum Alten Schmiede, Kronengasse 24, D-56154 Boppard, tel. +49 06742 81142
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 16/20
The Anker has been in business for 450 years and in the same family for 19 generations, so somebody's doing something right.
The food is imaginative and exciting, the service friendly, and the setting relaxed (the table linens are starched, but not the servers). And the location couldn't be more convenient, immediately across the promenade from the K-D ships. The creative menu comes as a surprise in such a small town. Start with an appetizer like mixed greens and lox served with cranberry-cream horseradish dressing. Continue with kangaroo steak flambéed in a honey-whiskey sauce. Or lamb with ratatouille and gnocchi stuffed with basil and ricotta cheese. Or twists on regional specialties like venison crusted with walnuts, simmered in local wine, and served with herbed Spätzle. They even get creative with a wok, like stir-fried turkey-breast with shallots, peppers and pineapple in a sharp curry sauce.
Prices range widely: €8 for some wok dishes, €14 for catfish or salmon steak, and €18 for the venison. With a shared appetizer, entrée and glass of wine, two people can dine happily for €40 - but add another €5 to split the Grand Marnier parfait with orange-mint ragout.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 14/20
Boppard makes for enjoyable meanderings and restful stops. For a relaxing escape in a soothing setting, visit the Bopparder Teehäusje, a charming tea room in a restored 1519 late Gothic half-timber house. It's one of the oldest buildings in Boppard and has survived wars, occupations and centuries of use relatively intact. Climb a narrow staircase to a cozy and intimate upper room, where an extensive variety of teas (green, herbal, fruit, flower petals, etc.) and pastries await. If it's warm try the refreshing iced chai—green tea extract mixed with milk, sugar, cinnamon and other spices. In good weather, sit outside on a quiet alley lined with half-timber houses. The Teehäusje also features a retail shop with more than 100 teas, as well as tea paraphernalia and gift items.
Contact: Bopparder Teehäusje, Untere Marktstrasse 10, D-56154-Boppard, tel. +49/06742/5798
Prices current, February 2003