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In September 2015, my mom, my wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘romantic road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.
This is part three of the story, and is about our experiences in the Upper Middle Rhine valley.
The Rhine valley, Ruedesheim and Oestrich-Winkel
When we got back from Brussels, we spent a few more days in Wuppertal, and then started our road trip in earnest. The first leg was a drive down the Rhine valley via Leverkusen, Cologne and Koblenz to Ruedesheim (a distance of just over 200 km, roughly one-third of the length of the Rhine in Germany) to meet some old friends of my mom’s. This route took us about three hours. Happily, once we were off the autobahn, the roads mostly ran alongside the river.
A drive through the German countryside
Driving along the river through tiny villages and past hilltop castles was vastly more enjoyable than using the autobahn. This was our first real experience of the German countryside. The only problem was that we kept having to slow down to the urban speed limit of 50 kmph every time we passed close to a village. And there were a lot of them! We were also acutely aware of the hidden automated speed monitors along the road. But despite our best efforts, we were sent a few speeding tickets at the end of our trip. We felt a bit better when we found out that was normal for that route, though.
Overall, the drive was lovely. Surprisingly, though, the weather was quite warm, and the water level in the river was unusually low. We later found out that Germany was experiencing something of a drought that year. Because of this, the low water level of the Rhine—which is a major trade route—was preventing a lot of the big container barges from plying up and down the river. And that was having a big impact on the economy.
Ruedesheim and its tourist traffic
We got to Ruedesheim late in the morning. We were to meet my mom’s friends for a quick brunch at the very nice K&U Bakery in the nearby town of Oestrich-Winkel. Little did we know that the area is a hub for local tourism along the Rhine, and gets quite congested. Unfortunately, the bakery was on an intersection of a lots of busy one-way roads, so finding a parking space was surprisingly unpleasant. After a bit of searching, we finally did find a slot in one of the numerous parking areas. So we bought a ticket at one of the dispensing machines, left the ticket on the dashboard of the car, and trotted off for lunch.
(Aside: For those interested, the ticket dispensers work like this. You punch in the amount of time you will need your parking slot for, in multiples of 30 minutes. The machine tells you how much you need to pay, and you put in the money. The machine prints out your ticket. Lastly, you leave on the ticket on your dashboard in case an inspector comes around. One usually needs to pay for parking only during certain daytime hours, which vary between parking lots. The nice thing is that, if you pay for parking time that runs beyond the paid parking hours, you can use the remaining time the next day.)
A short cruise along the Rhine
After we finished eating, we decided we would take a cruise on the river and see the sights. This meant we had to go back to the parking lot and buy some more parking time period before heading to the pier. The initial plan was to take a long cruise back up the Rhine to the famous Loreley rock. We were looking forward to seeing this center of many siren-type stories and myths. Unfortunately, the level of the river had dropped so drastically that year that the larger cruise ships were not plying for fear of running aground. Only smaller cruises were plying, and they were running short trips. Somewhat disappointed, we hopped over the railway tracks under the watchful eye of a medieval guard tower, and booked a two-hour cruise.
Despite being shorter than we wanted, the cruise was still spectacular. We sat out on deck in the hot sun, drinking in the views of hills, vineyards, castle ruins and quaint villages on both sides of the river. The ship had a well-stocked bar on board, and the nice beer we ordered made our cruise even more enjoyable. As we floated along, we were watched by the imposing hilltop Germania memorial. Built in the late 1800s, it commemorates the unification of Germany and the foundation of the first German empire.
We were also treated to a view of the Krone hotel. Supposedly founded in 1541, it’s touted as the first guesthouse in Europe. But most impressive were the numerous old castles built on hills on both sides of the river. These were built by the ‘robber barons’ of the 12th and 13th centuries, who made their fortune by taxing all trade on the river.
After our cruise, we were checked into a very cozy apartment at the homestay Pension Allendorf in Oestrich-Winkel, with nice views over the village, and a charming little chapel in the middle of the street in front. Once we had recuperated from our morning’s exertions, we headed over to our friends in Ruedesheim for a traditional home-cooked dinner of ‘kartoffelpuffer’—potato pancakes—and with applesauce. While it may not sound very appetizing, the combination, in fact, works incredibly well. Needless to say, we did the meal justice! After dinner, all of us decided that a walk would be an aid to digestion, so we took a leisurely stroll down the river.
We walked on as it got dark (it gets dark only around 8:00 PM at that time of year). The twinkling lights across the river gave everything a magical quality. Finally, we stopped at a tiny outdoor wine garden, and sat around on the scattering of benches and chairs. After much sampling of the excellent local wines, we decided that we liked the rosé the best, and continued with that. Eventually, we were happy in more ways than one, and it was time to head back. Wrapped up against the unexpectedly brisk breeze, we said our goodbyes. And so we sauntered happily through the street-lit village back to our homestay to turn in for the night.
Gau-Algesheim and the Rhineland hills
The next morning, after a nice buffet breakfast in our homestay’s pretty garden, we headed off to Gau-Algesheim, a village on the other side of the Rhine, and home to another friend of my mom’s. The village itself was not on the riverbank but in the hills that run on either side of the river, and even though it didn’t take us long to get there, our ‘navi’ led us astray often enough to make us late. We finally got to our destination by calling ahead and getting directions.
Gau-Algesheim didn’t have much by way history or architecture, and was mostly a normal little village. What made it special for us, though, was that we could take long, leisurely walks in the hills accompanied by my mom’s friend and her dog Taps (pronounced ‘tupps’), through fields, vineyards and patches of forest, with spectacular viewpoints suddenly emerging through the trees. We spent the better part of three days there, just recovering from our travels thus far, and gathering strength for the long stretch ahead of us.
IQ’s top tips for the Rhine valley
- When driving down the Rhine to Ruedesheim, the route through Cologne and Koblenz might take longer than the other two options, but is far more scenic.
- Watch out for the urban limit signboards while driving through towns and villages. They indicate a reduced speed limit. Overall, it might be a good idea to drive well below the speed limit, no matter how tempting the road gets.
- While driving through Ruedesheim on the main Rhine road, choose your lane well in advance of the lone traffic signal. The signal itself can be confusing, and doesn’t allow you to switch lanes at the crossing.
- Finding parking can be a problem, both in public parking spaces as well as on the streets. Pack plenty of patience.
- Cruises from Ruedsheim and Oestrich-Winkel start between 9:00 AM and 2:30 PM, both up- and downriver. Prices depend on the operator, and the length of the trip.
- When taking a cruise, carry a pair of sunglasses. The sun can be very bright.
- Spending an hour or two at one of the small wine gardens along the river at Ruedesheim is a great way to see the Rhine from a completely new perspective.
- The roads in Ruedesheim and Oestrich-Winkel are deserted after dark. If you are averse to crowds, that would be the best time to take a stroll through town.
- When in Gau-Algesheim, take every opportunity to experience the hills firsthand. And help yourself to a grape or two when passing through vineyards. The owners don’t mind, we were told.
Though German food isn’t big on vegetarian food, kartoffelpuffer (also called reibekuchen) make for a simple, homely meal. Traditionally served with apple sauce, these potato pancakes are usually made at home, and might not be available in a restaurant. It might be a good idea to ask anyway. If not, you could always try asking for vegetarian flammkuchen, the German version of pizza that comes with a thin, crackling crust.
Walking or cycling is an amazing way to get around while still experiencing the clean air and gorgeous countryside.
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