Paul's Travel Pics

Monday, June 30, 2014

2 Nights in Bacharach on the Rhine

After checking out of the castle-hotel of Burg Liebenstein, we took the KD ferry to Bacharach for the final two nights of our 1500km voyage. In 24 days we had journeyed through the Low Countries, the Black Forest, the Alsace, the Mosel Valley, and now came to our last stop in the Middle Rhine Valley.

There were good reasons why we chose this charming medieval town as our last stop -- worlds away from metropolitan Frankfurt, yet only 90 minutes by train from Germany's largest airport for a cheap flight back home. Why waste the last night before our flight in a nondescript urban sprawl when we could spend it in a historic town of UNESCO World Heritage designation, on the Romantic Rhine, under the shadow of a picturesque castle?

Quaint little Bacharach is located in the south of the Middle Rhine Valley, 10km upstream of the legendary Lorelei Rock and a short and scenic ferry ride from the more popular destinations of Oberwesel or Sankt-Goar. A half-day cruise on the Rhine would reach Koblenz for transferring to boats up the Mosel Valley, or further downstream towards Cologne. And by rail, Frankfurt, Cologne and even Heidelberg are within a two hour radius by ICE trains via nearby Mainz. That's big city convenience at a tiny town of less than 2000 residents.

For independent travelers like ourselves, Bacharach makes an excellent base for a multitude of reasons: beautiful timber-frame houses from the Middle Ages, outstanding hiking with panoramic views of the Rhine, great public transportation and of course, some of Germany's best Rieslings growing out of the steep local hills. Not so great if you're solely looking for shopping or night life I must warn, but perfect for some relaxing day-cruises, trail hikes and wine tasting.

Bacharach's historic core is a haven of half-timber architecture from the 17th Century and beyond, forgotten by time after its harbour silted up and the once-prosperous town slumbered through centuries of anonymity. The oldest building, aptly named the Altes Haus, dates from the mid 1300's and continues to serve up traditional Rhenish dishes to townsfolk and newcomers alike. The Town Hall is about the same age, and the Tithe House is only slightly younger at 600 years old.

Compared with the more popular Oberwesel and Sankt Goar, we found Bacharach more compact and better preserved overall as a historic enclave still surrounded and sustained by its centuries-old vineyards. During daytime it gets slightly overrun with day-trippers from nearby Koblenz or Frankfurt, but that all changes at twilight when its rural serenity returns to the town's cobblestone streets.

One of our favorite spots was an unsightly modern lookout known as the Postenturm. Despite the tower itself being a complete eyesore, it offers the best vantage point of Bacharach with its lush vineyards, the mighty Rhine and a medieval skyline of gothic ruins and church steeples.

From the Postenturm there's a well-used trail that snakes around the town's perimeters amidst the well-manicured vineyards of Spatburgunders, Rivaners and Rieslings. It's a brisk but excellent hike that took us past the town's medieval defensive towers, crumbling town walls and ultimately led to the local castle on the hilltop.

The brooding presence of Burg Stahleck stands a hundred metres above the town, watching over the river traffic on the Rhine and offering panoramic views of the territory. The 12th Century castle had been completely rebuilt over the past hundred years and now operates as an extremely popular youth hostel with modern amenities. It's also a great place to break the hike and sit back with a drink to accompany the view.

We would have chosen this as our base for two nights, except for its inconvenience of location for a taking stroll in the old town or accessing the train station. Hiking down to the station should take less than 15 minutes without baggage, but I wouldn't try to come back up in the evening without a taxi. That said, if you ever want to stay overnight in a castle on a tight budget, this would be my recommendation as long as you can book in advance.

The trail zigzags past the castle above some sheer cliffs on its way down towards the train station. Directly across the Rhine is the hamlet of Lorchhausen with more prototypical Rhenish landscapes of idyllic villages and terraced vineyards stretching for miles.

The hike from one side of the town to another, starting near the Postenturm, climb up to Burg Stahleck and returning to the town near the train station, should take about an hour without stops. For us it probably took about twice as long as we took frequent photo stops and paused for a drink at the castle. It's a breathtaking way to spend a leisurely afternoon.

Our favorite eatery in town was the locally celebrated Weingut Bastian, housed inside a 15th Century half-timber house right next to the Altes Haus. While it's more of a lunch spot/watering hole rather than a proper restaurant, the limited repertoire of snacking bites was terrific, and the wine of course was fantastic as expected.

Like most Weinstubben the place focuses on its collection of local vintage from the immediate region, many coming from the steep hillside just above the town. I had heard about its popularity among Americans courtesy of Rick Steves, though on this Saturday afternoon almost all of the clientele were German speakers aside from ourselves.

We started with a clear broth and the regional version of Vesperteller platter with Schinken, cured sausages and cheeses to share between the two of us. I pondered ordering the 15-wine-sampler for 20 Euros, but realizing that I might not make it back to the guesthouse on my feet, I settled for a delectable glass of local halbtrocken Riesling that was certainly among the best of our trip.

Equally as good was the classic combination of Zwiebelkuche and Federweisser, an autumn favorite available only as long as the season's supply of the sweet, half-fermented wine lasted. I would have loved to return for more, but we ended up spending the next day in Oberwesel and Sankt Goar and didn't get another chance.

Bill for Two Persons
Vesperteller10.5 Euros
Zwiebelkuche2.7 Euros
Chicken Broth4.0 Euros
Glass Riesling4.8 Euros
Glass Federweisser2.5 Euros
TOTAL before tips24.5 Euros (CAD$34.3)

Our only proper dinner in town was spent in a traditional little Gaeststatte in an inconspicuous alley. I don't remember how we came across Jaegerstube, but as it turned out it was also recommended by Rick Steves and thus had become somewhat of a tourist hangout. That's usually not a good sign as far as the quality of food is concerned.

To its credit though, prices were unbelievably cheap even for a rural small town. Where else would you find a whole Eisbein with Sauerkraut for 8.5 Euros (CAD$12)? My wife's Jaegerschnitzel cost only slightly more, though I have to say ... the flavors were nothing too memorable. Rick's good at spotting these authentic little joints, but I don't think he ever claims to be a gourmand. As I mentioned, I'd rather go back to Weingut Bastian.

Bill for Two Persons
Eisbein8.5 Euros
Jaegerschnitzel12.5 Euros
Glass Rivaner3.7 Euros
Glass Federweisser2.8 Euros
TOTAL before tips27.5 Euros (CAD$38.5)

This pleasant and unassuming little town served well as our base for exploring the rest of the Middle Rhine Valley. We stayed at probably the closest Privat Zimmer to the train station, operated by an elderly Oma named Ursula Orth, for some of the cheapest B&B prices we've come across in Western Europe. While the room may appear spartan without even a TV, the place was clean, came with a private bathroom, and of course came with a hearty German breakfast in the morning. Leave me a message below if you want her daughter's email contacts for booking.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Day Trip on the Middle Rhine - Sankt Goar, Oberwesel and Koblenz

Staying at Bacharach as our base, we devoted a full day for exploring the left bank of the Middle Rhine Valley by train. This was the legendary Rhine Gorge of UNESCO World Heritage fame and, I thought at the time, a fitting climax for our second-last day in Germany. I didn't take into account the fact that it was SUNDAY ... but I'll talk about that later.

We already had a glimpse of the Rhine's picturesque landscape as we floated upstream on the KD ferry, but this was our last chance to get intimate with its charming small towns. So we finished our characteristically hearty German breakfast at Ursula's guesthouse, boarded the convenient Mittelrheinbahn and arrived in 15 minutes at Sankt Goar, a town slightly larger than Bacharach yet equally sleepy on a holiday morning.

Halfway between Koblenz to the north and Bingen am Rhein to the southeast, Sankt Goar once controlled one of the narrowest sections of the Middle Rhine along with its sister town Sankt Goarhausen, merely 250m away on the opposite bank. For years the local government has proposed a bridge across these rapid waters, but as of 2014 the tiny Loreley Ferry remains the only way to cross ... just as it's been for centuries past.

This strategic location naturally sprung a collection of medieval castles on both shores throughout history -- the comically named Burg Katz and Burg Maus on the Sankt Goarhausen side, and the stern and masculine Burg Rheinfels on the Sankt Goar side. This was exactly what we came for -- the largest and arguably most impressive castle ruin on the Middle Rhine, perching on a sheer cliff above the busy shipping lanes.

What remains today is but a mere shadow of the mighty Burg Rheinfels from the middle ages, reduced to crumbling ruins after being blown up by the French in the late 1700's and subsequently quarried for its wealth of quality cut stones. But even with half of the castle destroyed, enough of the 13th Century turrets and ramparts remain to witness what a serious piece of business this must have been.

It's easy to spend half a day just exploring the maze-like tunnels and ramparts, and trying out various instruments of medieval punishment. As a side note the Burg also features one of the most fascinating public washrooms anywhere ... with a hand-operated water pump for faucet and an old copper pipe for hand dryer.

If you're really fascinated with castles and want to enjoy Burg Rhinefels as your backyard, the castle does operate a private hotel right outside its front gate. While its view of Sankt Goar is splendid, I must point out that there are cheaper castle-hotels in the region such as Burg Stahleck at nearby Bacharach, Burg Liebenstein at Kamp-Bornhofen or Burg Arras on the Mosel.

We hiked back down to Sankt Goar right at lunchtime and headed straight for the cluster of traditional Gasthofen around the town square. My terrible reading knowledge of German barely deciphered enough of the hand-scribbled daily menus to spot one of my favorite seasonal ingredients ... frische pfifferlingen, or fresh chanterelle mushrooms. Autumn is a great time to be in Germany.

Prices at Hotel am Markt were reasonable for its prime location on the waterfront, directly across the Rhine from lovely Burg Katz. To the right were the piers for ferries and pleasure boats on the Rhine, and a two minute walk uphill led to the town's tiny unmanned train station. It doesn't just get more convenient than this.

Amazingly this was only the first time that we came across chanterelles in the form of a creme soup ... all our previous encounters were in the form of sauces on top of main dishes. This was certainly nowhere as magical as a Boletus mushroom soup we had earlier at Heidelberg, but it's fresh, wild-picked and still notches better than any creme of champignon.

My wife's broiled trout came out as perfectly charred as one can ever ask for. As I remember the flesh had a slight muddy taste, meaning that the fish was probably farmed rather than caught. That said, I don't think anyone could complain about the price of 12.9 Euros for an expertly cooked fish with a side salad, on a town square facing the Rhine.

Arriving last was the seasonal special of Schweinebraten with Chanterelle mushrooms. While I'm never a huge fan of German pork roasts, there's just something about the woody flavor of wild fungi that turns mediocre dishes into memorable ones. The portions were generous as usual, and now we're quite ready to move to the next town and walk off those extra calories.

Bill for Two Persons
Creme of Chanterelles3.9 Euros
Broiled Trout12.9 Euros
Schweinebraten with Chanterelles14.9 Euros
Glass Rivaner-Kerner x 25.8 Euros
TOTAL before tips37.5 Euros (CAD$52.5)

We walked back to the unmanned train station, hopped on the Mittelrheinbahn again and arrived at yet another unmanned station 8km upstream. Every town along this stretch of the romantic Rhine seemed to be crowned with its own medieval castle on a hilltop, and Oberwesel was no exception with the colorful Schoenburg adorning this section of the river gorge.

What elevates Oberwesel above all its peers along the Middle Rhine Valley is its remarkable collection of defensive towers, scattered along remnants of the old town walls dating from the 1200's. Surrounding the town are hills after hills of the region's prototypical vineyards that outputs some of Germany's best Rieslings and Spatburgunders.

A few towers are open to inquisitive hikers and offer excellent views of the town, while others remain private properties of the townsfolk. We even saw one fitted with a doorbell and occupied as a residence, possibly of a family who has dwelled in parts of the wall for centuries. This is a community with a long history -- a number of churches survived from the late Middle Ages and some private houses date from the Renaissance era.

We walked along sections of the extant town wall facing the riverfront, turned uphill after the round turret of Ochsenturm and went for a short hike along upper edges of the town. We could have hiked up to the Schoenburg for some afternoon tea and an inside look at yet another castle-hotel, but we're quite content to stay within the town and enjoy the folk architecture.

The historic Market Square of 18th Century timber-frame houses would have been a lively spot for people watching, except almost EVERYTHING in town was closed on this day, including all stores and most restaurants. It was then that we realized ... it's Sunday in a region of the world where observance of the Lord's Day is taken literally. The only two stores open were an Italian ice cream parlour, and a Turkish Donerhaus that sold us a life-saving bottle of water.

As quaint and fascinating this little town was, it was time to move on to a busier place for some more sightseeing and, if we're lucky, last minute shopping. Armed with our regional train daypass (Rheinland-Pfalz-Ticket) we hopped on the Mittelrheinbahn yet again, this time heading north towards the regional hub of Koblenz.

We previously traveled through this stretch of the Rhine by ferry and by local train on the Right Bank, and this train ride on the Left Bank afforded some more great views of the castles along the route, including the white and stately Marksburg above the town of Braubach. I still prefer the KD ferry as the best way to see the Middle Rhine, but I also appreciate these local trains for their frequency and speed for day-trips.

We arrived at Koblenz to find just about EVERYTHING being closed on Sundays. That's everything including the major shopping centres and supermarkets, hence no last minute shopping for us. We'd just have to be content with rummaging through the old town en route to the one sight we didn't want to miss, the confluence of the Rhine and the Mosel at the famous Deutsches Eck.

Just about the entire Koblenz gathered around the Deutsches Eck on this Sunday afternoon, basking in the early autumn sun and enjoying the waterfront view of both rivers. This place used to be THE symbol for aspiration of national unity in West Germany, but a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it now seems mostly a place for family outings and biergartens.

The surprise entertainment of the day was an informal gathering of local residents in 19th century attire, laces and top hats and all, made even more impressive by the backdrop of the Ehrenbreitstein castle and stately mansions across the Rhine. We had dinner at an unremarkable restaurant serving modern German food (should have gone back to the Alt Coblenz we came across earlier!), but made it up with some excellent gelati down the street.

In 45 minutes we're back at Bacharach by the trusty Mittelrheinbahn, wrapping up a full day of sightseeing along one of Europe's great rivers. We couldn't help comparing these towns on the Rhine with those on the Mosel which we just visited several days ago. The Rhine has become legendary mainly for the sheer number of medieval castles on every defensible hilltop, though in truth I actually prefer the intimacy of the Mosel's quaint small towns and the visual impact of its frighteningly steep vineyards. But most of all, both valleys are among German's best wine regions, and I wouldn't mind revisiting both during harvest season.

Monday, June 09, 2014

German Castle Stay #2 - Burg Liebenstein on the Rhine

This is the 2nd article on staying overnight in authentic German castles, particularly along the Mosel and Rhine Valleys.

During trip-planning I considered 4 different castle-hotels in the region: Burg Arras in the Mosel Valley, and Burg Liebenstein, Schönburg, and Burg Stahleck on the Middle Rhine. I struck off Burg Stahleck as it's a youth hostel on an inconvenient hilltop, and after some consideration excluded Schönburg as it's almost as expensive as Arras and Liebenstein combined. At the end I had two winners ... Burg Arras and Burg Liebenstein.

I told my wife nothing about these two special nights prior to the trip, and after spending the first night at Burg Arras, we switched over to the Rhine for the second at Burg Liebenstein. We had such a fantastic time at Burg Arras that we're quite anxious to see what Burg Liebenstein would bring in terms of atmosphere, amenities and level of comfort.

Located on a steep bluff overlooking the shipping lanes on the Rhine, Burg Liebenstein is much more convenient to access compared to Burg Arras. Hourly trains serve the local township of Kamp-Bornhofen, as does several boat excursion companies including the immensely popular K-D. We arrived by train and left by boat, and took advantage of a free shuttle service offered by Hotel Rheinischer Hof (pictured above) to get to the castle from Kamp-Bornhofen.

Now these were two very different approaches to running castle-hotels: Burg Arras was an immaculately maintained private residence with guest quarters renovated to the standard of 4-star hotels, while Burg Liebenstein was more of an informal German gasthaus with exposed timberframes, creaky stairs and a medieval ambiance. It's also supposed to be haunted, or perhaps that's only a publicity stunt.

Even our private bathroom was somewhat of a medieval vault, only fitted with a toilet, a sink and a shower stall in modern times. In terms of comfort it's certainly no match for Burg Arras, but there's one unique characteristic that's simply unparalleled among 99% of the world's castles ...

... a jaw-dropping view of another medieval castle right outside the window! Here's the white tower of Burg Sterrenberg, staring right at us even as we're sitting on our bed. This was absolutely the most beautiful hotel room view we've ever had, anywhere in the world.

These are two of the Middle Rhine's legendary castles, but for all the wrong reasons. Sterrenberg used to preside over the entire domain, until a fight for the same woman between two brothers got so acrimonious that one decided to build a rival castle on the next hilltop. Fast-forward 700 years and we've got a fabulous view of Sterrenberg from our bedroom window in Burg Liebenstein, merely 200m away.

From our room it took only minutes to walk down the steep valley and hike up to Sterrenberg's elegant white tower. The castle is now operated as a café, rivaling Burg Liebenstein in offering the same excellent view of the Rhine Valley and the towns on the opposite bank. Even after centuries the two castles are still fighting to this date, but for the patronage of the day-trippers.

At the top of Sterrenberg's tower we tried to spot our own room at Burg Liebenstein. Our room had two square windows, which led us to conclude that it's probably the lefthand side section of the second floor. The first floor was the restaurant and the tiny third floor hosted yet another room above our head.

We returned to our room by sunset and simply sat on our bed gazing at the magnificent view of our neighboring castle, perched high above the constant river traffic and quaint little towns of the Rhine Valley. Did I mention that our room was so medieval that it had no TV? Sitting back with a drink and watching ships glide along the mighty Rhine was the old-fashioned entertainment.

Dinner was served in the castle's own restaurant, an old dining hall with exposed beams, heavy wooden furniture and the occasional gimmicky touches of knights' armours or sabres. Prices were very reasonable, and perhaps it had something to do with that 700-year-old competition with its archrival Sterrenberg.

The best part of the restaurant was of course its view of Sterrenberg and the Rhine in the twilight. Across the Rhine was the tiny village of Bad Salzig, with the regional hub of Boppard just to the north. As far as the eye could see there were simply no bridges -- the nearest crossing would be tens of kilometers away in Mainz or Koblenz.

The menu was a galore of German carnivore favorites such as the pictured Sauerbraten, which made me even more thankful that all main dishes came with a green salad. My favorite wasn't the beef, but the hearty balls of Klöße, a local variant of potato dumplings that tasted surprisingly similar in texture to rice-based Gohei Mochi from halfway around the world.

My wife ordered the Schweinbraten and again the sides, in this case the croquettes, turned out better than the main dish itself. After dinner we strolled around the castle under the starry skies ... after all there's no TV, and the old tower and ramparts were the main entertainment.

We fell asleep in the soft glow of the floodlit Sterrenberg outside our window, and to the occasional creaking of the antiquated and steep wooden stairs next to the room. Burg Liebenstein was of course no match for the luxurious decor and posh amenities of Burg Arras in terms of modern comfort, but on the other hand this was much closer to a real medieval residence ... and one with a breathtaking view that's truly unparalleled.

After a hearty German breakfast we're chauffeured back to Kamp-Bornhofen by the proprietor himself, who rented the castle from the government some 30 years ago and pioneered this hotel. At that moment I realized the subtle but significant difference between these two castle hotels -- Burg Arras was a family residence under the owner's loving care, while Burg Liebenstein was a money-making venture.

Now you know my opinion on these two German castle hotels as a traveler. I have no problem recommending both to fellow travelers with enough time and budget, and while I personally preferred Burg Arras, I wouldn't advise overlooking Burg Liebenstein and its stunning views. And if you can't decide, stay at both like we did ... just make sure you budget about 400 Euros for two nights' stay with dinner and wine. While it's not cheap, I must say ... my wife and I would do it all over again.