A road trip through Germany, and other ways to pass the time (Part 3): the Rhine valley

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.

Also read: Part 1 (Wuppertal and Cologne)Part 2 (Brussels and Nieuwpoort),  Part 4 (the romantic road); Part 5 (Ainring, Salzburg and the Jenner); and Part 6 (Munich and the Oktoberfest)

The great Rhine, 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 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, and once we were off the autobahn, the roads mostly ran alongside the river. Driving along the river through tiny villages and past hilltop castles was vastly more enjoyable than using the autobahn, and gave us 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—while being acutely aware of the hidden automated speed monitors along the road. Despite our best efforts, we were sent a few speeding tickets at the end of our trip (though finding out that that was normal for that route made us feel a bit better).

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A passing castle on the way to Ruedesheim

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, and the low water level of the Rhine—which is usually a major trade route—was preventing a lot of the big container barges from plying up and down the river, having a big impact on the economy.

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Pit stop with a view of the much-depleted Rhine

We got to Ruedesheim late in the morning, and 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 its surroundings, and can be quite congested. Unfortunately, the bakery was on an intersection of a bewildering number of busy one-way roads, so finding a parking space was unexpectedly unpleasant. After a bit of searching, we finally did find a slot in one of the numerous parking areas, bought a ticket at one of the dispensing machines, left the ticket on the dashboard of the car, and trotted off for lunch.

(For those interested, the ticket dispensers work like this: you punch in the amount of time —in multiples of 30 minutes—you think you will need your parking slot for, the machine tells you how much you need to pay, you put in the money, the machine gives you your ticket, and you leave it on the dashboard of your car 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.)

After we finished eating, we decided we would take a cruise on the river and see the sights, so we went back to the parking lot and bought another ticket for an extended 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, the 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, so only smaller cruises were running short trips. Somewhat disappointed, we hopped over the railway tracks under the watchful eye of a medieval watchtower, and booked a two-hour cruise.

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The railway crossing at Oestrich-Winkel (the watchtower is behind us)

Despite being shorter than desired, the cruise was spectacular nevertheless, and we sat out on deck in the hot (!) sun, drinking in the views of hills, vineyards, castle ruins and quaint little 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 placidly by the imposing hilltop Germania memorial, built in the late 1800s to commemorate 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 and touted as the first guesthouse in Europe. But most impressive were the numerous old castles built on hills on both sides of the river, built by the ‘robber barons’ of the 12th and 13th centuries who made their fortune by taxing all trade on the river.

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An ex-robber baron’s ex-castle
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Germania, mistress of all she surveys
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The Hotel Krone: ancient, and appropriately overpriced

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—served 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.

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The view from our attic-apartment at Oestrich-Winkel
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The tiny chapel in front of Pension Allendorf

We walked on as it got dark (it gets dark only around 8:00 PM at that time of year), and 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, sampling some excellent local wines (after much sampling, we decided that we liked the rosé the best). Happy in more ways than one, and wrapped up against the unexpectedly brisk breeze, we said our goodbyes and sauntered through the street-lit village back to our homestay to turn in for the night.

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The Rhine in the evening, as a cyclist goes by

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.

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Secret viewpoint near Gau-Algesheim
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Meadow and village church near Gau-Algesheim
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Taps and the view
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Roses growing wild along the path

Top tips

  • ­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.
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Few views get better than this

Also read: Part 1 (Wuppertal and Cologne)Part 2 (Brussels and Nieuwpoort)Part 4 (the romantic road); Part 5 (Ainring, Salzburg and the Jenner); and Part 6 (Munich and the Oktoberfest)

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