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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Upper Middle Rhine

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I had to do a good deal of research before I was confident that I had identified the best towns to stop at along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz. To visit all the ones mentioned glowingly in guidebooks and blogs would have taken a week and we had just one day for this legendary stretch of the river. It was already afternoon when we left Koblenz and it only took us half an hour to reach Sankt Goar. This small medieval village is best known for the partially ruined hilltop Burg Rheinfels, a Rhine landmark. Across the river is an even tinier village called Sankt Goarshausen with its own castle. Burg Katz is a late nineteenth century rebuild and private property so it doesn't enjoy the same cachet as other Rhine castles but it was a beautiful and romantic feature of the landscape.

The old part of town was comprised of just three streets parallel to the river and the short lanes that connected them. As was typical of the small towns it was a fairly busy place in the midday but I imagined it would become nearly deserted by dinner after the daytrippers and cruisers had moved on. The most memorable building within the town was the Late Gothic pink and white Stiftskirche whose steeple dominates the town skyline.

It only took us another half hour to walk every block of the town. The side streets were more interesting than the main pedestrian drag which was clogged with souvenir stores. We almost missed one house that was painted black and festooned with ghoulish decorations, some of which were embedded in the facade. The word "Underwelt", meaning underworld, was emblazoned over the entrance but the door was locked. We never found out if it was some kind of museum or a store specializing in the occult. Mei Ling and I were skipping lunch after the huge breakfast in Koblenz so we just bought the kids some snacks in a cafe. The restroom was festooned with comic posters of various people engaging with the facilities.

We only had to drive fifteen minutes further upriver to reach Bacharach. Along the way we passed the landmark Ochsenturm defensive tower in Oberwesel but gave the town itself a miss.

Despite its diminutive size Bacharach felt like a more important town with elaborately decorated half-timbered houses and wider cobblestone streets. The town was notable in medieval times as the location where wine barrels were transferred to larger ships from the smaller boats that were needed to cross a shallow point in the river.

What made Bacharach truly beautiful and unique were the preserved pieces of its history that stood at various points of the surrounding hillside. The first of these was the Postenturm, a remnant of the medieval city fortifications that has been rebuilt as an observation tower. The tower stands on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards and wild blackberry bushes. From its uppermost level we could see Bacharach's own pink and white church, Peterskirche, in the center of town with the curving Rhine as a backdrop. Above the main town were the ruins of a Gothic chapel and at the very top of the hill was another reconstructed castle. We had seen many beautiful views of the Rhine from Schloss Drachenburg onward but this one stands out to me as the most memorable and inspiring.

Once we had seen the chapel from the Postenturm we were determined to see it up close. We returned to the town and found a walkway from the upper level of Peterskirche to a steep staircase. At the top of the stairs was a platform on which stood the ruins of a medieval sandstone chapel that had been destroyed in some long-forgotten regional war. The ruins contained several open grassy areas where it appeared a classical music performance had just concluded. Another staircase led upward from here and this turned into a series of dirt switchbacks that ascended the hill. We weren't sure where this would lead us and almost turned back but some people coming the other way assured us that it wouldn't be long before we reached the castle at the top of the hill.

The original castle above Bacharach was blown up by the French at the end of the seventeenth century. It remained a ruin for more than two hundred years before being reconstructed as a youth hostel in the early twentieth century, a function that it still maintains. The inner courtyard captured the traditional look of a Rhenish castle although the stone walls and flagstone floor showed clear signs of more modern construction. There was a snack bar where we bought some beer and ice cream before retiring to the upper level to gaze out over the Rhine.

We returned the way we had come until eventually we found ourselves back at the staircase leading down to the church. Many of the people we had passed on the way up to the castle had collected here and I realized they were all middle aged men, similarly dressed in black shirts and khaki shorts with yarmulkes. They were gathering around a photographic exhibit behind the church and then suddenly broke into song which sounded like a hymn. They may have been commemorating the lives that were lost during a pogrom against local Jewish communities in medieval times. We never did figure it out exactly but it was a very moving moment.

At this point we figured we would meet our Airbnb host in Zornheim, since he seemed eager for us to arrive early, but when he took a while to respond to our message we continued onward to Mainz. I had originally hoped to fit this city into our itinerary in such a way that we could have been there for the famed Saturday weekly market in the main square. Eventually I had to scrap this idea as it would have cut too deeply into our sightseeing plans for the Middle Rhine Valley. I was glad I'd made that decision as we had been to so many markets at this point that it was hard to see how one more could have made much difference. Mainz is the capital city and the largest city in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, about double the size of Koblenz. We only had about an hour to whirl through the highlights of the town center before meeting our Airbnb host. Mainz was not shy about revealing its riches. The thousand year old Romanesque cathedral that dominates Markt, the main square of the old town, is a magnificent construction of reddish sandstone, quite distinct from the other massive cathedrals and churches we had seen on this trip. This same reddish color characterized many of the other buildings on the square similarly to the way that golden brown sandstone was used in Metz. The rows of beautifully decorated facades around Markt rivaled anything we had seen in Trier or Bruges.

The Altstadt of Mainz felt like the best of both worlds. It had all the beauty of small towns like Cochem and Bacharach with the energy and authenticity of a large city. This city had a purpose that was much greater than catering to the relatively small number of tourists that found their way there. It was a truly fascinating place to explore and I regretted that we had not made it an overnight stop.

Driving inland from Mainz was a reminder that we had not in fact traveled centuries backward in time during our exploration of medieval riverside towns. The atmosphere of the hinterland was utilitarian, suburban, and depressingly modern. Our Airbnb was set apart from the more populated zones in an area dominated by low hills and wheat fields. We met our host who got us settled in our lower level apartment and then turned our thoughts to dinner. I considered returning to Mainz where there had been numerous tempting restaurants with outdoor seating but I also thought it would be a good idea to get a city on the next day's itinerary out of the way to have more time in Heidelberg. It was a forty minute drive to Worms but it was still early so we chose that option. The kids thought I was joking when I told them we were going to a city called Worms, and even more so when I told them the most famous thing about the city was the Diet of Worms. By the end of the drive I had them half-convinced that all the restaurants in town served various preparations of worms and there wouldn't be much else to choose from. Honestly, it probably wouldn't have been the most bizarre culinary ingredient I've thrust upon them. We parked close by the Cathedral of St. Peter in the center of the city. This twelfth century Romanesque cathedral is mainly distinguished by four belltowers at each corner of the structure.

I had hoped the surrounding area would be similar to the Altstadt of Mainz but instead it was surprisingly drab and deserted. The older houses were rather plain and they were overshadowed by modern commercial buildings. There were few restaurants around but I believe we found the best option, a grill that offered local specialties of Flammkuchen and enormous brochettes that were hung from a ring above the table. I'm not partial to the German rendition of pizza but the meat was well-received. Afterwards we got the kids ice cream at a small cafe with the cathedral as a backdrop.

Worms was quite disappointing in comparison to Mainz. The downtown had no atmosphere at all even though it was a Saturday evening. Determined to make the most of our short visit I drove to the Luther Monument in a small park just west of the center. Bronze statues of Martin Luther and several of his contemporaries commemorate the founder of Protestantism. With this I was satisfied that I had justified the long drive to Worms as much as possible and we returned to our Airbnb in Zornheim for the night.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:35 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family worms mainz family_travel travel_blog bacharach pirmasens sankt_goar tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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