Fairytale and folklore comes alive on the green banks of the Rhine River.
The Rhine is one of Europe’s greatest waterways, flowing 766 miles through six countries on its course from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea. Half-timbered towns, Disney-like castles and legendary forests have led to the river becoming known as the ‘Romantic Rhine’, its historic riverside towns and villages casting their spell on all who enter. Of course, life on one of Europe’s busiest rivers isn’t all folklore and fable; the Rhine has some of Germany and Switzerland’s largest and most influential cities along its banks, their cityscapes offering an invigorating contrast to the sleepy old-world hamlets in between.
Cultural, creative and more than a little risqué, Amsterdam has built quite the reputation around its iconic Canal Ring. Since the Golden Age, the city has grown around these four parallel canals and their hundreds of bridges, the crossing of each yielding a chance to experience something new in river cruising’s most eclectic destination. For the culture vultures, there is Museumplein and its three world famous institutions; Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh Museum. For the history buffs, there is Anne Frank House, and for the green fingered there are the Keukenhof Gardens, where ‘tulip time’ turns fields of green into a patchwork of springtime colour, red, pink, yellow and white tulips blooming in their millions. And of course, for the curious, there are tentative steps through the melee of the Red Light District and its ‘unique’ boutiques.
Koblenz is the epitome of a picturesque Rhine town, thanks largely to its position on the ‘German Corner’, where the Moselle and Rhine rivers meet. The town’s backdrop is a patchwork of vineyards, forests and four mountain ranges, its scenery best-appreciated from the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. Taking the cable car back down to the western bank will not only save your legs and deliver you to the centre of the town’s pretty old quarter, it’ll also give you more time to take in those views from high over the Rhine River and beyond.
Wine has been cultivated in Koblenz since the Roman’s brought the first vines to the region two thousand years ago and there are countless family-run wineries along both riverbanks. Those on a Rhine river cruise should take advantage of a day spent along the Moselle, heading out into the countryside on the ship’s often complimentary bikes.
River ships dock in the centre of Cologne, so you’ll waste no time at all in getting to grips with everything one of Germany’s largest and most diverse cities has to offer. A good starting point is Cologne Cathedral, with its openwork spires and stained glass windows having dominated the city skyline since 1880, seven centuries after construction on the cathedral first began. Cologne’s Old Town is concentrated around the cathedral, its alleyways and squares hinting at life in the city of yesteryear.
In more modern times, Cologne has come to be known for its springtime Carnival, shopping streets, Lindt chocolate factory and Kölsch breweries, many of which have beer gardens that spill onto the Rhinegarten embankment. Relaxing with an ice cold local brew, with the Rhine in front of you and the Cologne skyline behind, is one of the city’s great pleasures.
Sailing through the Rhine Gorge is like turning the pages of a storybook, each twist and turn in the tale revealing a new castle or chocolate box town, some of them nestled high in the hillsides, others tucked quietly away in deep, dramatic gorges. There are more castles here than in any other river valley in the world. Some have been reduced to ruins by the ravages of war and Mother Nature, while others like the 700-year-old Marksburg Castle stand proud and Disney-like. If Rapunzel were to throw down her hair anywhere, it would be here.
This is the Rhine you see in the travel magazines. It is the section of the river so heavy with castles and fortresses, historic towns and incredible scenery, that UNESCO deemed its entire 40-mile length worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The legend of Lorelei Rock depicts a beautiful mermaid whose spellbinding song lured sailors from their ships and to their peril. Anywhere else, it would seem ridiculous, but in the land which inspired German folklore and fable, the story suddenly sounds quite plausible.
Board the blue and white Winzerexpress mini train from your ship to the town of Rüdesheim, one of Germany’s most important and scenic wine growing regions. The town sits in the heart of the Rheingau wine region, its perfect grape growing climate having cultivated world-famous Rieslings since 1074. Vineyards surround the city and wine tasting excursions to family wineries on the banks of the Rhine are incredibly popular; there’s nothing quite like sipping a crisp white wine with the valley laid out before you. For scenery without the strenuous walk uphill, Rüdesheim’s cable car will take you all the way to the Germania monument, another highlight of the town.
Despite measuring less than 10ft wide and 500ft long, narrow Drosselgasse lane is the town’s most popular and authentic attraction. Lined with local winebars and beer taverns, live music streaming into the street, this is the liveliest spot on the Rhine.
Germany’s oldest town perches on the River Neckar, just south of Frankfurt. Heidelberg was named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2014, its castles having not only served as the heart of German Romanticism but also inspiring the work of writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Mark Twain. “Nature knows how to garnish ruin to get the best effect” remarked Twain, seemingly describing the green hills from which regal Heidelberg Castle rises. Overlooking the Old Town, the castle and its gardens are stunning and, most notably, are home to the ‘World’s Largest Wine Barrel’. The Heidelberg Tun stands seven metres high and over eight metres wide, holding an incredible 58,124 gallons of wine!
Heidelberg is half storybook setting, half lively student city, its turreted university having stood since 1386 and nurtured some of history’s great minds. Its studentenkarzer, or student prison, is the must-see on campus, the graffiti of mischievous students sent here to reflect on their wrongdoings still visible on the walls.
The Alsatian city of Strasbourg merges French and German influences, meaning you can sample the best of both while in town. Eyes tend to wander immediately to the Gothic Strasbourg Cathedral, the tallest medieval building in Europe, but there’s more to the city than this red sandstone structure. The River Ill encircles the town and many of its bridges and one-time defence structures have been given a new lease of life in recent years, including the 17th-century Barrage Vauban, which has been redesigned to incorporate modern art exhibitions and the chic ‘Terrasse Panoramique’ overlooking the Petite France quarter.
The city’s tendency to merge old and new means you can be eating tarte flambée in one of the Old Town’s cosy canalside ‘winstubs’ one minute, and shopping the collections of the world’s leading fashion designers in the boutiques of the Carré d’Or district the next.
Breisach is the gateway to the legendary Black Forest, Germany’s fabled land of cuckoo clocks, cherry gateau and pear schnapps. This olde-worlde port town nestles between the Rhine and the rolling hillsides of dark, shadowing fir trees which gave the Black Forest its name. The town is pretty, with its lazy cobbled streets that wind towards St Stephan’s Cathedral, but its real appeal lies in its proximity to Germany’s most mysterious mountain range. Delving deep into the Black Forest has a tendency to spark a sense of nostalgia for childhood stories by the Brothers Grimm and rightly so; legend has it that these are the very acres of evergreens which served as the inspiration behind the cautionary fairy tales.
Lively Basel is the most cosmopolitan city on the Rhine, often serving as the start or end point for a Rhine river cruise and providing a lively contrast to the sleepy towns more often seen along its riverbanks. In 1970, the Swiss city gained fame as the host to the world’s ultimate contemporary art fair, Art Basel, and with over forty art galleries and museums, is considered Switzerland’s capital of culture.
Basel’s split personality spills onto both sides of the Rhine, which flows through the heart of the city and divides it into two very different districts. While historic Grossbasel is home to the must-see landmarks and charming atmosphere of the city’s gorgeous Old Town, Kleinbasel is considered its free-spirited sibling, characterized by the district’s artsy boutiques and multi-cultural eateries.