One of the things that I have wanted to do for ages is to hike village to village through the backcountry of Europe. Years ago, on a visit to Wengen on the edge of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, I thought, “This is the place.” There are several scenic villages (Mürren, Grindelwald, Kleine Scheidegg) on the Lauterbrunnen rim between which one could hike along the feet of the Alps, and as we learned in Wengen, the train will deliver your bags to the town of your destination, and you can pick them up at the train station when you arrive, or the hotel can come pick them up before you get there.
Years later, still not having done that, I received an email from Sunrise Travel, which organizes hiking vacations around the world. The email announced a hike on the Rheinsteig (Rhine River Trail). It would be village to village, hotel, meals, transportation, etc. etc. all arranged and managed by Ed, who is good at that. We very seldom go through a travel agency, because I like to research and arrange our trips. It’s part of the fun for me, but I always have to hold my breath, hoping that I hadn’t picked a bad hotel.
Several things caused us to book this trip. Among them was the fact that I had been diagnosed with cysts in my pancreas and those could become cancerous in the near future. For that reason, we had already booked three trips to Europe for 2019: The Strasbourg Christmas Markts, the Lapland & Norway Winter Cruise, and a trip with our daughter to Berlin and Rome. One more seemed a bit much, but with that diagnosis I thought I should do the things I always wanted to do now because later might not come. As it turned out, later got jammed up by the COVID virus.
Also I had no idea how to put together a hiking trip in Europe, and here was one already put together by someone who had planned many. Finally, we read the itinerary and it sounded really good. So we booked it, and it booked fast. His trips generally fill up within 24 hours of their first announcement. Usually, the participants are people who have gone on his trips previously, and generally he does not need to offer the trip to strangers. It turned out that we were the only new people on this trip. We were lucky to have gotten the opportunity.
So if you are interested in this trip, see if you can find a company that organizes this type of outdoor adventure (See the Rheinsteig link above and others). You would probably want to go with a group, with a guide who is familiar with the trail and the history of the region.
My wife was a little hesitant about going, given the number of miles we would be covering each day. I told her that it would be no problem. If we got tired of hiking then we could rent a bike, catch a taxi, or take the train. If it pissed anyone off, well, maybe they wouldn’t invite us on another trip, but we’re just trying this out and if it doesn’t work for us, then we won’t do it again, anyway. I was assuming that the trail was paved and ran alongside the river, and that bike stands, taxis, and trains were replete along the way. Nope, none of that exists.
The trail was neither paved, nor flat, but the travel group was great, and the excursion was planned to perfection. The daily hikes were exhausting, but fun and interesting. A native German speaker, Ed was well informed regarding the history of the area, and his wife, Helen, is an instructor of medieval history, so along the trail and in the hotels at night we often had impromptu lectures and informative discussions. Having that kind of expertise deepened our understanding of the region, making our hike not just through space, but through time as well. Again, in my opinion, expert and knowledgeable leadership elevated the trip from simply one of physical exertion in a picturesque environment, to being absorbed into the spirit and culture of the region.
The group hiked about 120 miles of the 200 miles of the Rheinsteig, at a rate of roughly 10 miles a day. My wife and I made about 100 miles since we sat out two days. If you are hiking here at that rate then you can expect to cross roughly two tributary valleys each day, which amounts to between 1000 and 1500 meters of ascents and the same in descents daily. These are often very steep. Chains or cables are there to help with the steepest of these. The trail is well marked, but not perfectly, particularly within the villages. At a few places along the trail, you will have the opportunity to rest and buy drinks and food at the castles, family pubs, and the Lorelei Monument. However carry adequate water, snacks, lunch. Check the weather before you leave each morning, as it can be very warm or rainy and cold. Hopefully your guide will provide a tour of one or more castles and some of the other historical sites.
Summary of our trip:
We flew into Frankfurt Airport two days early so that we could spend a day exploring Mainz. The train ride from the airport to Mainz is basically a commuter trip, and most of our fellow passengers were commuters. We spend the night at the Hammer Hotel, one of the three or four that sit across the traffic circle from the Mainz Train Station. The next day we wandered the streets of Mainz and down to the Rhein River and the Ancient Boat Museum, something a bit different from the usual city or regional museum. It is modern and spacious inside, and had excellent displays explaining Mainz in Roman times, when it was a Roman military outpost on the Rhein River. On display are several hulls of Roman river boats that had been retrieved from the mud of the Rhein River, and a life size model of what the barge would have looked like when it was used to patrol the river. Throughout the museum are many smaller models and other Roman items that had been recovered in the Mainz area. They also have a virtual reality station which was not manned when we were there.
Of further note in Mainz is the Gutenberg Museum, which we did not have time to visit. There are other museums, churches, and landmarks of significance, being that Mainz was one of the three major Catholic dioses that ruled Germany throughout the Middle Ages. The other two were Köln (Cologne) and Trier.
Video from Rheinsteig Hike:
The next morning, our destination was Rüdesheim am Rhein. We could have taken the train back to Frankfurt Airport and met our group’s bus, but preferred to go on our own time table, so we took the train west to Bingen ( as in Saint Hildegard of Bingen), where our train terminal was Bingen Rhein Stadt which is one stop before the Hauptstadt (Bingen Central) Station. Rhein Stadt is just a platform, not more than twenty yards from the Rhein River, and about a hundred yards east of the ferry docks along a popular promenade lined with ice cream stands, excursion booths, bars, eating places, etc. We rolled our bags from the train platform to the ferry ticket booth, and then to the ferry dock to be ferried across the river to Rüdesheim.
We arrived in Rüdesheim to be disappointed at the maddening crowd of people. As Ed told us later, Rüdesheim is something of a weekend day trip for Germans: Oh, I know what we’ll do! Let’s go to Rüdesheim today.
We found a taxi and were taken on a quite lengthy ride up the hill and through the forest to our hotel, Hotel Jagdschloß Niederwald, where it was refreshingly uncrowded, cool, relaxed, and quite. The hotel property has a long history and was once (1400-1500) a feudal estate, later (1700) a hunting lodge, and later became a “park” for the entertainment of nobility. The hotel burned and quickly was reconstructed in 1929 following the original plans. Of note, in 1948, it was the meeting place of Conrad Adenauer and other German leaders who had returned after the defeat of Hitler, and here they developed the constitution of the modern German Republic.
Of more importance to the modern vacationer, the rooms are modern and reasonably sized, the service is attentive, and the food is good, with lots of Riesling at dinner, and it resides adjacent to the Rheinsteig trail. The morning and evening views of the fog shrouded forest and pastures were enchanting. We spent three nights here. Each morning after breakfast, we grabbed a premade lunch from the hotel, and then took a bus to our trailhead for the day. When we hiked our predetermined distance, we were returned by bus to the hotel, until on the third day we ended our hike at the hotel and started from there the following morning. While hiking this portion of the trail we visited the Niederwalddenkmal, better known as the Germania Monument, which was dedicated to the newly born German State, previously a collection of principalities alternately under the thumb of the Hapsburg Empire (Austria, mainly), or France (Napoleon or Louis 14th). The statue is huge and quite awe inspiring, whether you like the idea of the German State or not. We also toured the 900 year old abbey at Eberbach, where In the Name of the Rose, with Sean Connery was filmed; the nunnery of St. Hildegard; and two ancient wineries, along with plentiful wine tasting: Johannisberg Castle and Schloß Vollrad. All worth doing.
Upon leaving Jagdschloß we hiked to Lorch where we began our stay at the Schulhaus Hotel, a school house of 1930’s architecture that was turned into a model clean and interesting hotel in 2013. The classrooms converted into spacious hotel rooms. The rooms and halls maintain the school house décor. The grounds have several picnic tables where you can sit and have a drink or snack. We spent four nights here. While we hiked, we visited each of the castles along the east bank that one sees from their boat or train as they travel along the Rhein. These included the Maus; Burg Liebenstein and Burg Sterrenberg, the homes of two warring brothers which are only a few yards apart, and the Marksburg. There were tours of these castles and an opportunity to stop, get something to eat or drink, and use the restroom. One day, the trail took us over the Lorelei Rock (actually a bluff over the river) where we visited the museum and had lunch. It is a popular place and was quite crowded.
Returning to Lorsch, the Schulhaus Hotel does not have a restaurant so we ate at several different restaurants in the village, my favorite being Weingut-Laqua. From our guided tour of Lorsch we learned that despite its small size today, it was an important place in medieval times, and it holds the earliest Christian church in the region, Lorsch Abbey, established in the Eighth Century by the Carolingian Dynasty. This church is quite primitive and I think is worth the time to check it out. The older part of the village is along the river, and has some interesting structures, including a guard tower with a dungeon to throw witches into.
Our next hotel was Rheinhotel Bellevue in Boppard, a larger village with an active “resort” strip of restaurants, hotels, ice cream carts, bar gardens, and boutiques strung out along the river front. The hotel is of early 1900 vintage, and the common areas of the hotel has preserved that character. Our rooms were however quite modern, and we had a nice river view balcony from which to watch the street and river traffic. In Boppard we took a city tour with a local English speaking guide where we visited the Roman Fort. On our own, we visited the Boppard Museum, which has every design of wicker furniture ever made, as well as many other interesting things.
After two nights in the Bellevue we moved on to the village of Braubach to stay at the Hotel zum Weissen Schwanen, which is located near the city gate. The Weissen Schwanen is a unique hotel/museum built in an old millhouse with a functional water wheel in the center of the building. The hotel is worth visiting even if you aren’t staying there. If you are staying there in the hot months, do not accept a south facing room on the third floor. We got shuttled into one of the two and it was stifling in the afternoon.
After our last day of hiking we took the train to Koblenz where we took a group tour of the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress which you reach by a cable car that passes over the river to the fortress high on the bluffs above the town. The place is huge. After the tour we split up and explored Koblenz on our own, and then reassembled at the Altes Brauhaus for dinner. The food was plentiful and heavy on the meat. The beer was the best. The next day, we took the Goethe paddlewheel steam ship down the Rhein to Bingen and then caught the train to Mainz. You aren’t long on the river before you realize that it is a freeway full of barges and commercial traffic, intermingled with pleasure boats and ferries. There are always scenery and other boats to look or wave at.
The next morning we caught the train to Frankfurt Airport Train Station, went upstairs and checked in for our flight home.