Germany's Romantic Rhine and Rothenburg
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time, we're going medieval — cruising river gorges steeped in legend and climbing castles in the most romantic corners of Germany.
This time, we're enjoying the charms of Germany's villages and evocative ruins. While much of this country is an urban and industrial powerhouse, this episode is all about storybook Germany.
After cruising through a fairy-tale world of Rhine legends, we'll climb through my favorite castle in all of Europe and check out a sleepy and laid-back alternative to the Rhine. We sample fine Rhine wine, learn the history of Christmas ornaments, and explore the best-preserved medieval town in Germany — with some help from the night watchman.
Germany, about the size of Montana with over twice the population of California, is the heart of Europe. This time, we focus on Germany's romantic Rhine region. We'll cruise the most castle-studded stretch of the Rhine, visiting St. Goar, Bacharach, and Koblenz before exploring the Mosel River and the Eltz Castle. Then we venture east to Rothenburg.
While the Rhine is over 800 miles long, the 36-mile stretch from Mainz to Koblenz is by far the most interesting. And that's what we're exploring. It's no coincidence that the great medieval sights of Europe lay along important trading routes like the Rhine. It took big money to build the structures we travelers would marvel at centuries later.
Since ancient times, the Rhine has been one of the world's busiest rivers and this region's major trading route. Today there's a steady flow of barges with thousand-ton loads, while busy train tracks and highways line both banks — all under the watchful eye of once-mighty castles.
Many of the castles were "robber-baron" castles, extortion stops — built by petty princes and two-bit rulers — back when there were 350 independent little states in what is today Germany.
The shipshape Pfalz Castle — actually built midstream — effectively taxed river traffic. Its town grew rich as the castle raised its heavy chains across the river when boats came — and lowered them only when the merchants had paid their duty.
Along this stretch, there were customs stops like this about every six miles. No wonder merchants were early supporters of the creation of larger nation-states.
In the Middle Ages, emperors, popes, and princes all jockeyed for power in Europe. In Germany, the emperor ruled the princes. But in the 11th century, the pope asserted his power over the emperor. After that, the little German princes ran wild and built all these castles. That's why most Rhine castles date from this era. A couple hundred years later, when the emperor began reasserting his control, these castles saw action.
While the castles survived these battles, most were destroyed later by the French because they feared a strong Germany and they felt the Rhine was the logical border between the two countries. In the Romantic Age — the late 1800s — medieval things were in vogue, and many of the ruins were rebuilt. Today the Rhine castles are enjoyed as restaurants, hotels, hostels, and museums.
And travelers cruise the river... just to castle-watch. Tour boats come and go about hourly. Various lines each have their own docks and advertise their own schedules. Buying tickets from a kiosk before boarding, tourists can put together their own hop-on and hop-off tours of this most romantic stretch of the Rhine.
Along with transporting camera-totting tourists, the Rhine moves a steady flow of cargo to the world's biggest port — Rotterdam — which waits at the mouth of the river. Barge workers are almost a subculture. Many own their own ships. The captain and his family live in the stern — car parked on the rooftop. The crew lives in the bow.
Logically, imports — like oil — go upstream, and exports — like German manufactured goods — go downstream.
The powerful Rhine has long been treacherous to navigate. Boats generally pass on the right. Since downstream ships can't stop or maneuver as freely, upstream boats are expected to do the tricky do-si-do work. Large triangular signals, posted before troublesome blind bends in the river, warn of oncoming ships.
Each triangle covers a segment of the bend — the lowest triangle being nearest. They warn of approaching ships. If the bottom side of a triangle is lit, that sector is empty. But if the left side is lit, there's an oncoming ship in that sector.
The most dangerous bend in the river swings around a rocky bluff called the Loreley. Because of reefs just upstream, many ships never made it safely past the Loreley — and the rocky cliff remains steeped in myth.
Sailors blamed their misfortune on a Fräulein — so wundarbar — whose long blonde hair almost covered her body. This legendary siren flirted and sang her distracting song from this rock.
Just downriver from the Loreley is the pleasant town of St. Goar, founded in the 6th century by a monk famous for his hospitality. According to legend, early sailors would stop here for a rest and a prayer of thanks after surviving the seductive and treacherous Loreley.
Today St. Goar is a tourist town. Its only hazard: streets of shopping opportunities. This shop brags it has the world's largest free-hanging cuckoo clock. This one specializes in steins.
Rheinfels castle sits like a dead pit bull above St. Goar. Once the biggest and mightiest castle on the Rhine, Rheinfels rumbles with ghosts from its hard-fought past. While it withstood a siege of 28,000 French troops in 1692, the French finally destroyed it a century later.
Today this hollow but fascinating shell offers your best hands-on ruined castle experience on the river.
During the pre-gunpowder glory days of castles, defenses were better than offenses. The best way to beat a castle like this was a long, boring, starve-'em-out siege. Therefore, a castle needed to be well stocked and self-sufficient.
Imagine this courtyard 500 years ago — it had a bakery, pharmacy, herb garden, livestock, a well — even a brewery. During peacetime, a few hundred people lived here. But during a siege, over 4,000 packed within these walls, hoping to have enough provisions to outwait their attackers.
In its heyday, these walls — whitewashed and gleaming in the sun, flags flying high — must have exasperated attackers camped outside for so long.
If you miss your boat, hourly trains connect riverside towns quickly and cheaply. The historic town of Bacharach makes a fine home base for exploring this region.
Herr Jung, Bacharach's retired schoolmaster, is a good friend of mine. Over the years, he's enjoyed showing my tour groups around town.
Rick: Not many people in this town.
Herr Jung: No, we are a small town, but in medieval times we were a big town. With 3,000 inhabitants, it was a big and a famous town. This was the capital once of Germany, and for two years, this was the residence of the Holy Roman Emperor.
In its heyday, Bacharach was fortified by a great wall, which you can still hike on above the town today. At one time, there were 16 towers along the wall. Six of them survive. The wall extended all the way to the castle.
Rick: So this was a very important city?
Herr Jung: But we had big problems back then, because we had fires and the plague. Half of the population died by the plague, and we had the Thirty Years' War, and Bacharach was occupied eight times — by the Swedish, by the Spanish, by the French. Eight times! Then we became a sleeping beauty from 1650 to 1850. For two hundred years, nothing changed.
Then, in the mid-19th century, things changed. Romantic artists and writers were charmed by the Rhineland's mix of past glory, rustic poverty, and rich legend. They discovered this area — putting it on the grand-tour map as the "Romantic Rhine." Victor Hugo stood here and wrote of Bacharach's ivy-covered ruined chapel — "a magnificent skeleton puts its silhouette against the sky."
And the Romantics reported on the region's wonderful wine — which had been popular since ancient Roman times.
Like other towns along the river, Bacharach has a long tradition of vintners making wine and offering their label to the thirsty public.
The Heidrich family has made wine here for generations. Markus and Suzanne share the fruits of their labor in the family cellar.
Rick: Tell me about the grape. What grape works the best on the hill?
Suzanne: Riesling is the best white wine grape. It's the queen of the white wine grapes. So what is typical of this wine? It smells very good. You can taste the earth in it, the sun. It's something special.
Suzanne: Do you like it? Are you sure?
Rick: Yes, I like it.
Suzanne: Are you sure?
Rick: Well, let me try some more.
Today, the Rhine's castles earn their keep not by locking people out, but by welcoming them in. Bacharach's castle has become one of Germany's top hostels, with plenty of beds and a warm welcome. The simple dorm rooms — whether for individuals or families — are a godsend for budget travel. Many come with the original medieval view. And here, the kids take the castle ambiance to heart.
Hostellers cap their sightseeing day on the terrace. Watching over the river traffic with new friends from around the world while enjoying the cheapest accommodations on the Rhine...that's good travel.
The mighty Rhine is joined by the Mosel River at Koblenz. The city's name comes from the Latin word for confluence — a reminder of the region's Roman past. This point, where the two rivers meet — the Deutsches Eck, or German corner — is the tourists' jumping-off point for exploring the dreamy Mosel. But for Germans, it has a special significance.
Rick: Every time I come here to the Deutsches Eck, I feel it's very close to the heart of the German people.
Man: You should, you should.
Rick: What is the deal?
Man: Deutsches Eck to a German is a feeling of belonging, of unity, of being German. Not being better, but having a sense of history, where we came from, who we are. This spot here, this corner, this monument, the Mosel, the Rhine River — this is the heart and soul of Germany, of being a German.
Rick: What would it be like to an American? A rallying cry? The Alamo?
Man: Exactly, you couldn't have put it better. This is the German Alamo.
Rick: Now this guy here? Kaiser Wilhelm?
Man: Ja, Kaiser Wilhelm built Germany. He built the foundation.
Rick: So this man symbolizes the modern unification of Germany?
Man: He did it. He held it.
Rick: The German Thomas Jefferson.
The Mosel moseys 300 miles from its source in France — where it's called the Moselle. This stretch, just before it meets the Rhine, is most interesting.
The Mosel is the Rhine's peaceful little sister — with romantic villages slipped between the steep vineyards and the river; lots of friendly B&Bs, and a sprinkling of castles. Boat, train, and car traffic here is a trickle compared to the roaring Rhine.
The town of Cochem is the main tourist center — easily accessible by train, with a cobbled old center and a delightful waterfront promenade. It has a storybook castle — but Cochem Castle is actually a 19th-century reconstruction, more fanciful than authentic.
For a more real castle experience, we're visiting Burg Eltz. Hiding out for 800 years in a mysterious forest, it's been left amazingly intact. This is my favorite castle in all of Europe.
Visitors assemble in the central courtyard — the common ground of a tiny fortified community. From here, groups are guided through the castle.
The place is truly authentic — furnished throughout basically as it was 500 years ago. That's rare in castles. Thanks to smart diplomacy and clever marriages, Burg Eltz avoided wars and was never destroyed. It's been in the Eltz family for eight centuries. The present countess loves flowers and adorns each room with fresh bouquets weekly.
The nobles — from three branches of the Eltz family — who shared this fortification met and worked out their problems here, in the Grand Gallery. The decor had meaning. Since the jester could say anything to the king, this relief reminded people they should talk freely. But the Rose of Silence reminded them that what's said in here should stay private.
The master bedroom was finely decorated and as comfortable as possible back then. It came with a toilet — one of twenty in the castle, each flushed — occasionally — by rainwater.
This bed is nearly 500 years old. It's high up because hot air rises. The canopy is romantic these days, but back then, it was practical — it kept the heat in and the bugs out.
The castle's 500-year-old wall paintings help you imagine who lived here. In the bedroom, the theme — a festival of phallic and fertility symbols — hints at a playful and lusty world.
Burg Eltz has a lacy little Gothic chapel. The paintings and stained glass are also 500 years old. The chapel was on a lower floor. Because it was disrespectful to live above the house of God, the chapel juts out, cleverly filling a bay window.
All these castles are remnants of Europe's feudal system. Feudalism was the social structure that came out of the chaos and fragmentation that followed the fall of Rome.
The feudal system was based on a series of agreements between a hierarchy of landowners. Basically, a big landlord granted land to a less powerful guy in return for service and loyalty. In feudal terms: A lord granted a fief to a vassal in return for fealty. From the king on down, one man's vassal was another man's lord. The feudal hierarchy — all these layers of lords — rested upon the backs of the landless peasant or serf. And the serfs who surrounded these castles had no real options in life but to work the land in return for protection and enough food to survive.
As on the Rhine, towns on the Mosel — like Beilstein — grew up below their castles. Today, with narrow lanes and an easygoing ambiance, they make ideal overnight stops. Inviting little ferries shuttle farmers, hikers, and bikers back and forth.
I'm staying at Haus Lipmann — a family-run restaurant that rents out a few rooms upstairs. The traditional guests here are Germans — who come year after year to enjoy the casual lifestyle, good cooking, and Mosel wine.
The creaky wooden staircase leads to seven inexpensive yet comfy rooms — and I reserved mine with a river view.
While slow trains lace together Rhine and Mosel villages, express trains make the longer connections to other regions.
In three hours, we're in Rothenburg, Germany's ultimate walled city. In the Middle Ages, when Frankfurt and Munich were just wide spots on the road, Rothenburg was one of Germany's largest cities, with a whopping population of 6,000. Today, even with its crowds and overpriced souvenirs, I love the place.
During Rothenburg's heyday, from about 1200 to 1400, it was the intersection of two major trade routes: from Prague to Paris and from Hamburg to Venice. But today the great trade is tourism.
Rothenburg is a huge hit with shoppers. True, this is a great place to buy cuckoo clocks, steins, and dirndls — but see the town first.
Most of the buildings were built by 1400. Like many medieval towns, the finest and biggest houses were built along Herrengasse — named for the Herren, or the wealthy class. The commoners built higgledy-piggledy farther from the center near the walls. Hanging shop signs advertise what they sold: knives, armor, bread...whatever.
Rothenburg's wall — with its beefy fortifications and intimidating gates — is about a mile around and provides great views and a good orientation.
Rodertor is the only tower you can climb. It's worth the hike for the commanding city view and the fascinating display on the bombing of Rothenburg in the last weeks of World War II, when much of the city was destroyed.
But Rothenburg's most devastating days were 400 years ago, during the Thirty Years' War.
In the 1600s, Catholic and Protestant armies were fighting all across Europe. The Catholic army took Protestant Rothenburg, and — as was customary — they planned to kill the town's leaders and pillage and plunder the place. Then the Catholic general had an idea. He said, "Hey, if someone in the town can drink this three-liter tankard filled with wine in one gulp, we'll spare the town." According to legend, Rothenburg's retired mayor Nusch said, "I can do that."
Mayor Nusch drank the whole thing, the town was saved, and the mayor slept for three days. And today tourists gather on the town square several times daily for a less-than-thrilling re-enactment of that legendary chug.
Nice story. But in actuality, the town was occupied and ransacked several times during those 30 years of war. When peace finally came, Rothenburg was never again a major player.
It slumbered peacefully until rediscovered in the 19th century by those same Romantics who put the Rhine on the grand-tour map. They came here to paint and write about the best-preserved medieval town in Germany.
Shops are filled with etchings and prints inspired by this 19th-century Romantic take on the town.
And Rothenburg is lined with other shopping opportunities.
Tourists flock to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village — a phenomenon requiring a special electrical hook-up and offering a Christmas shopping fantasy 365 days a year. Upstairs, its Museum of Christmas Ornaments gives a kind of historic legitimacy to its merchandise.
While celebrating a winter festival with trees predates the birth of Christ, about 500 years ago Germany was the first place where decorated trees became a part of Christmas celebrations. These first trees were strewn with cookies, apples, nuts, and sugar sticks — which children eagerly raided.
In the 1800s, when candles became affordable, the tree of lights arrived. And the tradition of the family gathering around the tree for gift-giving was also established.
In the early 1900s — during the Art Nouveau age — trees were draped in tinsel and ornamented with lovingly painted glass bulbs.
In Germany — the land of O Tannenbaum — Christmas trees were so popular that during World War I, thousands of them were actually mailed to soldiers on the Western Front. These tiny trees — assembled right out of the postage box — were made of feathers and paper.
Okay, you gotta do your shopping. But there are two sights in town that you absolutely must see: the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum and the great art in this church.
St. Jakob's Church, built in the 14th century, has been Lutheran since 1544. Its 12 Apostles altarpiece grabs your attention. With several large panels that swing on hinges, it's permanently left in its open, festival-day position.
But hiding upstairs in the back of the church is the artistic highlight of Rothenburg — and perhaps Germany's most wonderful woodcarving: the glorious, 500-year-old Altar of the Holy Blood.
Tilman Riemenschneider — this is supposedly his self-portrait — was the Michelangelo of German wood-carvers. He whittled this incredible ensemble to hold a precious rock crystal capsule — believed to contain a drop of Jesus' blood. Below, in the scene of the Last Supper, Jesus gives Judas — clutching his bag of coins — a piece of bread, marking him as the traitor. Art like this gave Rothenbergers spiritual guidance.
But some of the townsfolk needed a more physical form of guidance, as displayed in Rothenburg's Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum. This museum — the best of its kind — shows graphically how people were punished in the Middle Ages. Each feudal state thoughtfully described its cruel and unusual punishments in carefully written laws.
Torture — like stretching someone on the rack — was only used to get confessions. Generally, just a quick look at these tools got the accused talking.
Death penalties were common and came in degrees. A minor offense — such as stealing — earned you a quick death by beheading. More serious capital offenses — like murder with theft — earned you a slow death, such as having all your bones broken under a wheel before your execution.
Bad social behavior was dealt with by public embarrassment via shame masks. Men acting like pigs wore this mask. Gossips — people who heard too much and said too much — would be locked into a this contraption with a bell ringing on top. Quarrelsome people would be locked into a "double neck violin" until they worked things out.
Glorious woodcarvings and cruel and unusual punishments shine a light on medieval life, but my favorite trip into medieval Rothenburg is with the night watchman. Nightly he lights up his lantern and leads a gang of tourists into the past.
Night watchman: This town was conquered the first time in 1631. It took a while, hundreds of years — no enemy made it into this city. But they all did one thing: If they couldn't get in after they tried everything they could, they had to go back to where they came from. Well, then they plundered our villages, they killed our peasants, they took parts of our outside territory and burned our villages down. There was always a price to pay...
The tour finishes with a scene from the Rothenburg of centuries ago.
As the night watchman blows his horn signaling all is well, we know that medieval Germany survives. From evocative castles to its romantic rivers, from fine Rhine wine to fanciful cobbled lanes, with a little imagination you can rekindle the Europe of old.
Thanks for joining us on our visit to Germany's romantic Rhine, Mosel, and Rothenburg. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time... keep on travelin'. Auf Weidersehn!
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.