The Middle Rhine, or Rhine gorge was formed by downwards erosion of the river. With its dense mysterious forested banks and cliff top castles it is the stuff of Wagnerian legend, and easy to imagine the Rhinemaidens playing in the water, and singing as they guard their gold. We cruised down the Rhine with Riviera Travel and visited some of the main towns en route.
The Rhine Gorge
The rivers of Europe are great trading thoroughfares, with a steady procession of barges motoring up and down stream. The Rhine is no longer a wild river; it’s now restrained by embankments and with distance markers every 100 metres you’re always reminded that it’s controlled and tamed. But trade on the river hasn’t always been so easy, and the Rhine gorge is where it’s easy to see the evidence of a more colourful past.
The scenery on this part of the river is spectacular; at the bottom of a steep sided valley, thick with forest or precarious vineyards, there’s a real feeling of being hemmed in. And every few miles, there’s a picturesque castle perched high up on the side of the river, or on a small island in the middle.
Luckily, nowadays, we aren’t required to pay tolls at each castle, but it’s easy to see how in the past, controlling the river was a real position of power and source of wealth, wealth that’s reflected in the small but prosperous looking towns dotted along the river.
Boppard lies on the upper middle Rhine, by the famous Bopparder Hamm bend in the river. A charming town to stop and wander.
Towards the northern end of the gorge lies the small town of Boppard. The river takes a giant meander here, turning through 180 degrees. The best place to appreciate this is to take the chairlift to the top of the hill on the outside of the bend where there’s the Vierseenblick – “Four lake view”; so called because you can see four separate bodies of water between the hills. These are not actual lakes, though; they’re all parts of the river itself.
The chairlift is the easier way up, but for those feeling fit it’s a steep and fairly challenging walk. I love the way that the view slowly reveals itself as you get higher; we were convinced that we heard wild boar in the woods; it all felt very close to nature.
Boppard itself has some wonderful timber framed buildings, small squares, and is dominated by the spires of Saint Severus’s Church.
Heidelberg is an attractive town, sitting on the Neckar river, most famous for its university established in the 14th century. For the best views take the funicular up to the castle.
Heidelberg isn’t on the Rhine itself, but sits on the Neckar, a tributary. The Jane Austen didn’t sail there; we were taken by a short coach ride from Mannheim. Heidelberg itself is small, and hemmed in by the surrounding hills, but has much of interest; the ancient university, two impressive churches, the baroque old town and glowering above the town, Heidelberg Castle. It’s the perfect size for walking around, with the occasional stop for Kaffee und Kuchen: coffee and cake.
Koblenz is situated where the Rhine meets the Moselle; the town has a 2,000 year history and is a delightful place to explore
Koblenz is centred on Deutsches Eck (German Corner), where the Rhine and Moselle meet; a giant statue of Emperor William I on horseback dominates the headland. On the high ground on the opposite side of the river is Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, sitting on a spot that has been fortified for centuries; a reminder of frequent disputes over this part of Europe. The fortress can be accessed from Koblenz itself by cable car.
The Schängelbrunnen fountain, pictured above, represents the Rhineish characteristics of good humour and quick-wittedness. He spits at irregular intervals, so beware!
During advent, the dormer windows in the roof of the town hall facing Jesuitenplatz, so on the opposite side of the building to the fountain, are used for an advent calendar, one being opened daily until Christmas eve.
Koblenz was heavily bombed during the second world war, but has been sensitively rebuilt since, and retains much of it’s charm and human scale; the only tall buildings are the church towers.
Mainz was the largest city we visited during our trip. It’s just south of the Rhine Gorge, and is a major trading city, sitting where the Rhine and Main (which runs through Frankfurt) meet. Mainz’s most famous son is Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of movable-type printing, and there’s an interesting museum dedicated to him and the history of printing near the cathedral; it has a copy of his eponymously named bible.
Mainz is a city of fountains, with over one hundred dotted around. The oldest is the market fountain, in the market square near St. Martin’s Cathedral. This renaissance fountain, with its three pillars celebrates the end of the Peasant’s War in the early sixteenth century, carved to glorify the rulers of the city.
What I particularly noticed about Mainz, but it holds for much of the rest of the trip, is how different the architecture is to what I’m used to. Spending time surrounded by the baroque meant new delights to see in every town we visited.
Fuss Free Flavours was the guest of Riveria Travel. Read about our time on river cruiser MS Jane Austen. All opinions our own.
Riviera Travel offer 12 river cruises throughout Europe (8 to 14 days), with prices starting from £1099 for an 8 day cruise with transfers and full board (£140 – £200 a day). Read more here.