My trip to the Middle-Rhine Valley was an afterthought, I must admit, but also a journey of many firsts – my first time in this renowned part of Germany – the heart of the German wine region, the first time on an overnight trip with my children and without my husband, and the first time traveling with absolutely no advance plan and no place to lay down at the end of the day. The idea was actually my friend’s idea. They were on their way out of The Netherlands heading toward Bacharach, Germany after a short visit with us but we were all unwilling to say goodbye. Since I had some free time available and in the interest of keeping my three children gainfully occupied until the beginning of school, I decided I liked the idea too. What better way to end the summer than with a whimsical trip to the Rhine Valley?
The adventure, or rather the impact of the unknown, really began once we exited the smooth, expansive 6-lane E31/61 south of Koblenz onto the spiraling, tree-lined 2-lane access road at Oberwesel. This beautiful country road runs east down through the valley to the B9, which services the small towns along the Rhine River – Boppard, St. Goar, Bacharach, Rudesheim, and Bingen, to name a few. The sun
filters, sparkling and golden, through the cloak of trees that surrounds us, at times glinting so that it is difficult to see the road. My gas tank is running low as we forge farther and farther and closer and closer in the direction of the Rhine River. I begin to feel anxiety over a few not so trivial issues like not knowing exactly where we are going, not being able to refuel and possibly running out of gas, not having a hotel room. After about twenty minutes, we make it to St. Goar and the B9. My trepidation dissipates at the vision of quaint shop fronts, outdoor cafes with their umbrellas sheltering beer-tasting patrons, the Rhine River coursing steadily by, and, of course, the first gas station in who knows or remembers how many kilometers.
The trip south on the B9 toward Bacharach is an uninspiring sight – dull grey and brown buildings combined with the barges motoring down the Rhine are decidedly commercial and uninteresting – and I wonder if it will all be worth it. Eventually my friend’s car ducks right, behind the well-preserved fortified wall of Bacharach, past the train station on the left and over the train tracks. We make another right onto the main street of Mainzer Strasse. We inch along the narrow red cobblestone lane amidst a conflux of passing pedestrians meandering on both sides and flanked by four and five story half-timbered Bavarian homes with nary a space in between, as if leaning against each other. Each edifice, adorned with blooming floral displays on every level, represents shops of varying types and wares – cafes, gasthausen
(guesthouses), antiques, ice cream parlors, local arts and crafts. This combination of images gives me a taste of what it might feel like if it were possible to travel in a tunnel back through time. I try to imagine everyone in period dress, hustling on a Saturday morning to get their shopping done or visit with the other townsfolk.
Up ahead on the left, at the corner of Mainzer Strasse and Blucherstrasse, is St. Peterskirche. The church commands an imposing presence in the center of town – pure white French Gothic architecture augmented by the rich red hues of its ornamentation. The structure dates back to about 1230 but has remained virtually unchanged since the 14th or 15th century. Turning left here, and heading up Blucherstrasse in the direction of Hotel Im Malerwinkel where my friend has reservations, panic slowly returns as I remember that I do not have a hotel reservation and therefore nowhere to sleep tonight. Compound this with the knowledge that August in Europe is holiday time for most Europeans, a time when little of importance is accomplished. Contracts, deadlines, and emergencies must wait until September when all of Europe comes back from their travels. Thus, it is advisable to always make advance travel arrangements to avoid the crush of Europeans on top of visiting Americans. This day, 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon in August, will be pivotal.
Querying the innkeeper at Hotel Im Malerwinkel produces the result I fear: no rooms available. With that, my friend and I embark on a walk through town searching for a room to hold four people. There are a few rooms available, but mostly singles and doubles. One innkeeper, who is also full, graciously takes me into her office and calls around to the various inns and hotels in Bacharach. After twenty minutes and many phone calls, she finds a newly refurbished room above a local café centrally located right across from St. Peterskirche. The price of the room is a bit lofty for Germany, at 100 euros per night, but I am willing to forego that considering it is quite possibly the last available large room in this small cozy town.
The room itself is a quad, with a separate sitting room complete with TV/Cable overlooking Blucherstrasse, St. Peterskirche, and Werner Kapelle. The most amazing thing about this room is the extraordinary size of the bathroom, all decked out in tile and chrome. It houses a bathtub, large sink with medicine/storage cabinet, bidet, toilet and separate shower and is almost as large as the bedroom. Very clean but unfortunately, like most small hotels in Europe, it comes with only the bare necessities
toilet paper and towels. This is a distinct disadvantage. At least it is safe – the after hours entry is around the back through a keylocked door at the end of a well-lighted passageway. With this task done, we are free to explore, and EAT. We meet the rest of her family in the front of our inn and proceed down Blucherstrasse toward the Altes Haus – Bacharach’s oldest free standing building. The air is quite heavy and warm but evening is approaching and I feel the cool breeze sneaking through. The atmosphere is further lightened by the myriad of floral color at the windows of the surrounding buildings.
Altes HausThe Altes Haus dates from 1368 – check out the date painted on both the southern and eastern sides – and serves as a Weinstube today. The food is traditional and delicious, especially when washed down with a cool German Pilsner. The service is a bit slow, but concise and deliberate. By the end, we have our waitress smiling despite the antics of our five restless children. Our outside table enables us to entertain ourselves with people-watching and as the sky darkens with the oncoming evening, the crowds grow. It never becomes overwhelming – just adds more variety. We treat the children to homemade ice cream at a shop down the Mainzer Strasse – twice because the serving sizes are so small – and then pass under the Munzturm at the other end of Mainzer Strasse and walk across B9 to the Park Platze along the Rhine River. It is quite dark by now, making any detail difficult to see. I feel somehow safe as I listen to the steady hum and see the lights of the slow barges moving down the Rhine. We are here and settled in Bacharach so these sights and sounds are now a comfort to me.
Back in our room I look out our window to see the beautiful Werner Kapelle, or Werner Chapel, lit up against the night sky. It is an exquisite piece of architecture that at first glance reminds me of an incomplete shell of the Dom Cathedral in Cologne. Unlike the Dom, it is pristine and appears to glow, even during the day. Construction was begun in the late 13th century from proceeds of a pilgrimage to the miraculous gravesite of a young German boy supposedly killed by Jews in 1287. However, the building was not completed until the 15th century because of financial problems. It sustained major damage in 1689 as a result of the French bombing of Stahleck Castle and was put to partial demolition because of this in the 18th century. It has been restored as recently as the 1990s and remains one of the oldest artifacts related to the persecution of Jews in Germany.
The following day is rainy and cold. Undeterred, we check out of our room after a traditional and yet wonderful German fruhstuck (breakfast)- cheeses, meats, yogurt, granola, juice and lots of coffee. I rescue my car from the parking lot along the Rhine and we all embark on a trip to our next destination, St.Goar, mainly the home of Burg Rheinfels, the fortified castle built in 1245 by Count Dieter von Katzenelbogen. It survived unscathed, unpenetrated and the most formidable fortress in the Middle Rhine Valley until the late 1790s when it was captured and blown up by the French. Today, it stands only as a shell of what it once was, but still a well-preserved and imposing structure clearly visible from many points along and around the Middle Rhine River. Hours of fun and exploration can be had by imaginative children as they run through the labyrinthine tunnels and embattled embankments, climbing stairwells to views of the entire valley area or playing “Capture the King” who is then placed in the stockade in the middle of the compound.
We head back north in our little BMW wagon, out of history and towards the mundane reality of school and work and home. The rain continues to come down, in torrents at times, making our return trip long and treacherous. Despite this all I feel light and somehow freed from the burdens under which I have traveled all these years. Although I would probably never do it in August, and probably not with kids trailing behind, I would welcome the opportunity to travel once again on a whim and a prayer for it gave me the chance to appreciate the travel experience in the raw – the panic, the people, and the pleasure.