We Rocked The Boat – Our Boat Trip Up The Rhine

One of the Rhine’s most renowned sections is the Rhine Gorge in Germany (aka the Middle Rhine, Rhine Valley and Romantic Rhine). Technically, this area starts in Mainz and ends in Koblenz (that area is the stretch of the river designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site).   A boat trip down the Rhine is an excellent way to see the area’s magnificent landscape, towns, vineyards, castles and fortresses.   We’d heard that the stretch between Bingen and St. Goar (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was particularly beautiful.   It was.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site means that there are no bridges.

Castles + vineyards + valley = storybook cute   There are at least 30 castles in the 66 kilometer (41 mile) stretch from Rudesheim to Koblenz.   Why are there so many castles there?

The Rhine has been a major transport route since Roman times.  Where there is money, there are those that want a piece of it.  River barons built the castles to impose tolls on the river traffic by controlling their stretch of the river.  If boat captains didn’t pay the toll, they would be treated to “complimentary room and board” in a dungeon until they paid.

From the dock at Bingen, we could see something that looked like the Statue of Liberty.  We weren’t far off; it was Rüdesheim’s Niederwalddenkmal.  Built by Kaiser Wilhelm I from 1881-3, it commemorates the founding of the German Empire after the end of Franco-Prussian War.  Essentially, it sits near the French border and serves as a warning to France that they will get another whooping if they try to invade again (or at least that’s how it was explained to us).

The toll tower “Mäuseturm,” known as the Mouse Tower, was the first sight we saw from the boat.  The name comes from a legend in which the tower belonged to a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the local peasants. in his domain. During a famine, he refused to distribute any of the tower’s grain supplies to the starving peasants.   When they threatened to rebel, the ruler tricked them, telling them to wait in an empty barn for him to come with food. He ordered the doors barricaded and set fire to the barn, commenting “hear the mice squeak” (referring to their cries).  Returning to his castle, an army of mice began to swarm him.  He fled to the tower, they followed and ate him alive.  Yikes!

We barely had time to listen to the story before seeing our first ruin, the ruin of Ehrenfels Castle (Burgruine Ehrenfels).  The rapid succession continued for the rest of the trip.  Wow!  We were amazed.

Built in the early 1300’s on a strategic hilltop, is Burg Rheinstein.  Prince Frederick of Prussia bought the castle and rebuilt the castle in the 19th century.  Nearby the impressive medieval Burg Reichenstein is a now a modern hotel.

Burg Sooneck, also known as Saneck, Sonneck and Schloss Sonneck (click on the link to find out its relationship to Swiss history and the Battle of Sempach), was an infamous haunt of the river’s robber barons. The Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick William IV, and his brothers Princes William, Charles, and Albert bought the completely derelict castle and rebuilt it as a hunting castle.

The tiny town of Niederheimbach has the 13th century Heimburg Castle and the little church called St. Mariae Himmelfahrt.

Lorch is a small town that has a lot for its size.  You can easily spot it’s church, Pfarrkirche St. Martin (Saint Martin’s Parish Church), from the water.  In the 18th century, the witch’s tower served as a sort of jail for wrongdoers and “witches”.  The Nollig ruins (Ruine Nollig on the Rheinsteig trail), overlook the town and are the remains of the old town fortifications on the rugged ridge.

Bachrach is over 1,000 years old, and I thought we were getting a little long in the tooth.  Just like the house of an octogenarian, it accumulated bits and bobs over time (the walkable city walls, 16 watchtowers, the picturesque “Malerwinkel”, the ruins of St. Werner’s Chapel).  Stahleck Castle (Burg Stahleck), one of the most photogenic castles, sits on a hill above.  It was destroyed by the French in 1689 and is now a youth hostel.  I’ve stuck him in some cheap hostels before, but never a nice one like this.

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Switzerland’s Panoramic Train, The Bernina Express

When you look at advertisements for Swiss trains, you often see pictures of a train crossing an imposing stone viaduct through the mountain wilderness.  This photo is on the Bernina-Express, the Rhaetian Railway, from Graubünden to Veltlin.  The portion between Thusis and Tirano is a UNESCO world heritage site, the third train to receive such an honor.  It received the distinction for its combination of engineering and impressive scenery.

Completed in 1910, you can take it from Chur (on the Albula Railway), St. Moritz or Davos, to Tirano, Italy.  On the way, It passes through 55 tunnels, crosses 196 bridges and overcomes gradients of up to 7%.  Incredibly, it does it all without the benefit of a cogwheel drive (rack and pinion).

The Bernina Express, which is one of Switzerland’s special panoramic train journeys.  The cars have larger windows to for a better view of the amazing scenery.  I hear that in the summer there are open air trains.  They would be great to avoid the glare.

The best part about the Bernina Express is the dramatic change in scenery during the four-hour ride.  It starts in  near Heidiland in Chur.  You pass farms, cows and even vineyards.  Not long after, the train hits the Domleschg Valley (famous for Turner’s romantic paintings of it).  The valley is strategically positioned on the route to three main Alpine passes (the Splügen Pass, the San Bernardino Pass and the Julier Pass) and is rich with castles that were built to control these trade routes.

For at least 20 minutes, there is always a castle in view.  We oohed and aahed over the castles, having no idea just how much cooler it was about to get.

Landwasser Viaduct

Landwasser Viaduct (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwa...

Rhaetian Railway Glacier Express on the Landwasser Viaduct entering the Landwasser tunnel Français : Un train franchissant le viaduc de Landwasser et entrant dans le tunnel du même nom, sur la ligne Glacier Express des Chemins de fer rhétiques. Español: El tren suizo Glacier Express cruzando el puente Landwasser y entrando al viaducto del mismo nombre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From the Domleschg Valley, the train climbs to the famous Landwasser Viaduct shown above.  Constructed from stone, it is one of the world’s most famous railway viaducts and in most Swiss tourism brochures.  Built in 1902, it necessitated the development of new construction methods.  They didn’t use scaffolding.  Instead, they built steel towers and covered them in stone.  Notice the sheer drop exiting the tunnel?  Construction started there!

Unfortunately, these were the best shots I could get.  I love to take pictures and hate to sit still, but was worried about being rude leaning over people.  The guys above had no problem leaning over groups of four to film or get their shot.  After seeing everyone else out of their seats snapping away, I decided to get up and stand in an empty area.  My pictures improved dramatically.  I’ll post more about the journey tomorrow.

St. Saphorin

St. Saphorin, one of the towns in the Lavaux Vineyards (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), is known for its white wine, terraced vineyards and its beauty. It is not false advertising.  This place is insanely beautiful.  They weren’t lying about the terraces or the wine either.  

Lots of things have to come together to make a town this cute.  They include: winding streets, gorgeous views of the lake and mountains,  stone buildings, cute decorations, adorable fountains, narrow alleys, Roman ruins and, of course, free wine.   

Winding streets? Check.
Gorgeous views of the lake and mountains? Hmmm.
Yeah, that’ll do.  Check.
Stone buildings?  Check.
Cute decorations? Check.
The cute decorations were everywhere.
Adorable fountain?  Check.
Narrow alleys?  Check.

St. Saphorin is built on a Roman site.  In the basement of the house where I grew up, there are canned goods, potatoes and onions.  In St. Saphorin, they have excavated Roman ruins in their crypt. 

Roman ruins?  Check.
Free wine?  Check.
The town was handing out free glasses of wine and bread sticks.   It was really good.   Okay, so free wine doesn’t actually make a town cute, but it doesn’t hurt either.   They receive bonus points for the bread sticks.

Lavaux

If you are a wine person, or even if you are not a wine person (merely an incredibly beautiful views person), when you come to Switzerland spend a day hiking around the Lavaux  vinyards.  They are amazing and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The terraces can be traced back to the 11th century.  In the 12th century, the Bishop of Lausanne gave various lands to the Cistercian Order.  They have grown wine here ever since.  In fact, this is one of the best-known wine producing regions in Switzerland.  The sunlight reflected off the lake and the heat that remains stored in the stone walls and lake help the grapes.

Franz Weber helped to get them declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ensure their protection from development.  He continues to oppose their development calling it the “concretization of Lavaux.”  Can you imagine Del Boca Vista Phase III here?  

Yep.  That’s France across the water.  I hear they make wine there too.

Warning: The wineries are not usually open earlier in the day. Check their schedules if you want to go inside and meet someone.  We were perfectly happy to walk through their vineyards and see their grapes, which you can do at any time.