Floating through history

Rhine Gorge winds its way through the German countryside. Photo: Mike Yardley
Rhine Gorge winds its way through the German countryside. Photo: Mike Yardley
Floating along the Rhine reveals fairy-tale scenery at every turn, writes Mike Yardley. 

Gazing out from my private balcony on board MS Emerald Sun, every bend in the river revealed another cultural gem. Like a living history book, a river cruise on the Rhine is like a rolling movie reel. Plying the Amsterdam to Basel route, it's a classic cruise destination, where leisure-seekers share one of the world's busiest shipping rivers with a floating pageant of commerce, barge after barge packed to the gunnels with freight.

After departing Koblenz, the Rhine Gorge soon beckoned, housing the river's crown jewels within a 60km section, until you reach Bingen.

Medieval castles along the banks of the Rhine. Photos: Mike Yardley
Medieval castles along the banks of the Rhine. Photos: Mike Yardley
Rugged hills and cliffs are dotted with vineyards and tiny villages snuggled along the riverbank. As we glided along the river, dozens of castles and fortresses appeared like time-honoured sentinels. Each of the 46 castles that line the river boast their own distinctive backstory, many of them informally known as "robber-baron castles".

In the Middle Ages, Germany was made up of 300 independent countries, including scores of little kingdoms governing the Rhine. A passing barge had to pay a toll to each castle if they wanted to get through.

Fast-forward almost a thousand years and these once rapacious and palatial cash-cows spangle the skyline with timeless imperious wonder.

But some have withstood the test of time better than others: the 900-year-old Marksburg Castle was built so high up, it was impervious to attack from the river.

Some of the Rhine castles served as inspiration for many of the 19th century neo-Gothic fantasy Bavarian castles, including Neuschwanstein. You can stay inside some of these storied structures. Rheinfels Castle, above St Goar, was once the largest fortress in the Rhine Gorge, or Middle Rhine as it was known. Constructed in 1245, it withstood repeated attacks until 1791 under Napoleon.

The romantic ruins of the castle include a hotel and a tour of the battlements.

As we floated through this fairy-tale world, one particular story made me chuckle. The Mouse Tower is a column-like castle on a river island, which ended up as the roost of the Archbishop of Mainz in the 10th century.

As the story goes, his tower was besieged by thousands of mice, as rapacious as he was greedy, and they ate him alive. But the most famous legend is the tale of Lorelei, a beautiful maiden who drowned for love and became a mermaid. It is said her seductive song lures boatmen to their deaths. You'll find her statue on a narrow strip of land jutting into the river between St Goar and St Goarshausen, about 25km from Rudesheim.

The wine terraces of the Rhine Gorge.
The wine terraces of the Rhine Gorge.
Lording above the narrowest and deepest part of the Rhine is the dramatic Lorelei rock, which is the most difficult stretch to navigate, with treacherous currents, and probably the source of the legend.

Further downstream are the killer reefs called the Seven maidens. The story goes the prince of Schonburg Castle had seven spoilt daughters who always dumped men because of their shortcomings. After inviting seven knights to the castle, his daughters refused to choose any of them to marry, escaping in a riverboat, only to be turned into the seven rocks that form the reef.

Equally enchanting are the wine terraces that rise up from the river to spectacular heights. The vineyards date back to Roman times, and the Rheingau wine region is considered Germany's most prestigious.

Riesling is the dominant variety here, ensconced on sheltered south-facing slopes and benefitting from the the river's role as a heat mirror. Around Assmannshausen, the slate-containing soil also produces splendid pinot noir. Suitably, over dinner later that evening, we saluted our day by gorging on the Rhine's timeless treasures with some winning vintages.


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