The Rhine River: a fairytale land of vineyards clinging to steep hillsides and half-timbered towns hugging the riverbanks, guarded over by crumbling castles. There are lots and lots of castles, ruined and otherwise--in medieval times, about 300 little "countries" made up what is now Germany, and they each needed a castle. Along the Rhine, many castles were placed in strategic locations to extract tolls from passing boat traffic, others were fortifications built to protect neighboring settlements, and some were royal residences. Today, the castles are in various states of repair, from photogenic ruins to fully rebuilt complexes housing hotels or youth hostels.
We spent one and half days in the Rhine Valley, with the town of Bacharach as our base. That gave us enough time to see the sights in Bacharach and the neighboring town of Oberwesel, take a Rhine cruise from Bacharach to St. Goar, tour Rheinfels Castle, and cruise back to Bacharach. Our trip to Burg Eltz by car took an additional half day. This was a good length of time for us, but if you have an extra day, you could take a longer Rhine cruise (the scenic part of the Rhine is the 36-mile stretch from Koblenz to Bingen; our route from St. Goar to Bacharach covered about a quarter of that).
Bacharach is only about an hour's drive or train ride away from the Frankfurt airport, making it a convenient stop at the beginning or end of your trip.
Where to eat
Tourist-friendly Bacharach has plenty of restaurants, with most focusing on classic German cuisine. Posthof Bacharach Restaurant (Oberstrasse 45-49) has the best ambiance: it's located in the courtyard of the old postal station, with Gothic chapel ruins towering above and tolling bells from of the adjacent Protestant church. The trilingual menu (German, English, and French) has a selection of pork and beef entrees, sausages, classic bacon and vegetarian flammkuchen (south German flatbreads similar to a pizza), salads, and various meat spreads served with rye bread.
Since vegetarian entree options were a bit sparse, I opted for a large salad topped with a zesty housemade vinaigrette dressing. Mike tried the house special--Rhine-style roast pork topped with a delicious onion gravy and served with French fries.
Bacharacher Pizza & Kebap Haus (Oberstrasse 43) is a no-nonsense counter service restaurant on Bacharach's main street, serving up pizzas, salads, and döner kebabs (pitas filled with salad, rotisserie-cooked meat, and sauce; originally Turkish, they're a fast food staple throughout Germany). The food is basic but solid, thin-crust pizzas baked to order and döner kebabs filled to the brim. Our meal for two--a 12-inch cheese pizza, side salad, döner kebab, and beverages--was one of the best bargains of our trip, ringing up at a €14.50.
If you have any room left for dessert after döner and pizza, head across Bacharach's main street to Eis Cafe Italia (Oberstrasse 48) for housemade gelato. Besides the standard flavors, there's Rhine wine gelato--a refreshing, almost sorbet-like scoop that tastes like a Riesling slushy in the best possible way. Single scoops are only €1, and the small shop has indoor and outdoor seating.
If you visit Rheinfels Castle in St. Goar (see below), swing by Cafe St. Goar (Heerstrasse 95). The bakery case is loaded with struesels, savory croissants, pretzels, elegant layer cakes, and adorable mouse-shaped pastries. There are also loaves of bread or pre-made sandwiches for a more substantial meal. Grab something to go, or enjoy your snack with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate in the seating area. I highly recommend the cherry streusel (Kirchenstruesel), a sponge cake topped with tart cherries and brown sugar.
Things to do
Bacharach doesn't have any headliner sights, but it's a pleasant town to explore. Get a bird's eye view of the Rhine River from the tall tower in the vineyard above the town. The outer wall of the Catholic church (across from the park by the river front) is studded with plaques noting the high water marks of various historic floods, while the Protestant church (the red and white building in the center of town) features a medieval fresco to the left of the altar. The Posthof, a postal station built in 1724 for stagecoaches to switch horses on the way from Cologne to Frankfurt, is worth a visit even if you're not eating at the restaurant (mentioned above).
Oberwesel--only 4 miles down the road from Bacharach--is another good small town for an evening stroll. You can walk along the top of some stretches of the medieval city wall, which is one of the best preserved in the Rhine Valley. Sixteen of the wall's 23 original towers are still standing. A few have been converted into private residences (you can get a 100-year lease from the city for €1, on the condition that you restore the tower).
The best way to see the castles along the Rhine is from the river itself. We opted for a round-trip cruise from Bacharach to St. Goar on the K-D Line. Yes, the narration is cheesy, but the castles, villages, vineyards, and international barge traffic make up for it (especially if you listen to the Rick Steves Best of the Rhine audio tour or read the printed version in the Rick Steves Germany guidebook).
Buy tickets at the booth by the boat dock. If you're planning to do some sightseeing in St. Goar, be sure to check the timetable for your return trip so that you don't get stranded.
Rheinfels Castle, built in 1245 and once the strongest fortress in the Holy Roman Empire, is now a sprawling ruin above St. Goar. So sprawling, in fact, that hundreds of scouts were having a camp out there on the day we visited. You can wander through the site at your own pace--I recommend starting with the museum, with a model of the castle in its heyday and exhibits (with English descriptions) about the castle's history. Other highlights are the tower lookout and the big cellar, which would have been stocked with enough provisions to feed 4,000 people throughout a six-month siege. The cellar is so huge that the scouts were using it as the performance venue for a sing-a-long.
Most German castles are either in ruins or were rebuilt at some point (often during 19th century, when castle renovations were a bit of a royal craze). Burg Eltz is unique: it was never destroyed and has been in the same family since its construction in the 1100s. The castle is perched on a rock formation in a valley--as you hike down from the parking lot, you turn the corner and the castle suddenly appears, summoned from a fantasy.
The only way to see the castle is via a 45-minute guided tour, which is offered in English. All the rooms you see on your tour are furnished, with pieces from the Middle Ages through the early 20th century reflecting the different eras that the castle has been occupied. The highlights for me were how brightly painted the bedroom walls were (I think of the Middle Ages as being bleak and brown, not adorned with twisting green, red, blue, and yellow floral designs) and the medieval kitchen, complete with hooks to hang food from the ceiling for protection from rats. The tour takes you through about a quarter of the castle; other wings are still used as a weekend home by the Eltz family.
Burg Eltz is located near the village of Moselkern, along the Mosel River. It's about an hour's drive from Bacharach, so it can be seen as a half-day trip if you have a car.
Where to stay
I loved Bacharach's Pension im Malerwinkel (Blücherstrasse 41), a small hotel nestled into the town wall. The city center is a short walk away--just follow the little path along the brook. The hotel's half-timbered exterior is charmingly picturesque, while the room decor is modern Ikea-style. Our room had a balcony with a view of the vineyards, and there's also a garden with plenty of tables and chairs. Other amenities include a parking lot, fast WiFi, and a fabulous breakfast spread.
While online reservations are accepted, note that the hotel is cash-only.
More posts about my trip to Germany: