Cas­tles in the mist

Sail­ing in the Up­per Mid­dle Rhine’s most scenic stretch

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Europe River Cruising - CHRIS­TINE McCABE

We are hud­dled aboard the top deck of MS In­spire on a chilly au­tumn day, a bedrag­gled group of sight­seers buf­feted by blus­ter­ing rain as grey skies ham­mer down on the Rhine Gorge, and cas­tles loom eerily from the mist like Mid­dle-earth fortresses.

A faint dis­em­bod­ied voice em­anates from a sound sys­tem hid­den some­where be­hind the damp deck chairs or empty hot tub of Tauck’s new­est and very smart river ves­sel. It is our Ger­man guide, snug be­low decks, his name lost on the wind, pro­vid­ing a run­ning com­men­tary as we cruise the Up­per Mid­dle Rhine play­ing what he calls “castle ping pong” — an­cient ed­i­fices and im­pos­ing bat­tle­ments are so nu­mer­ous on ei­ther side of this stretch of the river it was listed a World Her­itage site by UNESCO 13 years ago.

“Most cas­tles tell the same old story,” our in­vis­i­ble guide dead­pans, “some­one falls in love, some­one dies, the French sack it, then it be­comes a youth hos­tel.”

The ru­ined Rhe­in­fels Castle is a case in point. Dat­ing from 1245 and once the might­i­est fortress on the river, it was thor­oughly sacked by the French in the late 18th cen­tury and to­day is home to the Ro­man­tik Ho­tel Schloss. The 65km stretch of river known as the Up­per Mid­dle Rhine Val­ley or Rhine Gorge is a high­light of any cruise along this busy wa­ter­way, a ma­jor trad­ing route since Ro­man times. More than 40 cas­tles, some in­tact (Marks­burg is a good ex­am­ple), some re­stored, are con­cen­trated on a nar­row stretch be­tween Bin­gen/ Rudesheim and Koblenz that also in­cludes the fa­mous Lorelei.

Our late-sea­son cruise crowd has been look­ing for­ward to this day since we boarded In­spire in Basel but only a few are pre­pared to brave the weather on top aided by kindly stew­ards hur­ry­ing out blan­kets and cups of tea. Even be­fore break­fast we have crossed into a fairy­tale realm where white­washed tow­ers rise above mossy ru­ins and tiny vil­lages snug­gle against the wa­ter’s edge. There are pas­tel-painted houses and pretty churches and cas­tles perched on pre­cip­i­tous forested ridges or above steeply ter­raced vine­yards stitched onto the hill­side in a ta­pes­try of shim­mer­ing gold. (Vines have been cul­ti­vated here for a mil­len­nium.)

The low cloud adds oo­dles of at­mos­phere as cas­tles ma­te­ri­alise through the gloom and swirling fog muf­fles all sound; it feels as though an army on horse­back might ap­pear on the ridge at any mo­ment. That is, un­til a high­speed train darts like an arrow let fly from a bow above the river­bank. More pas­sen­gers come up on deck as we ap­proach Lorelei, a rocky head­land on the eastern bank soar­ing 120m.

Here the river is at its deep­est and nar­row­est and dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages these swirling wa­ters claimed many boats giv­ing rise to leg­endry tales of a gold­en­haired siren. In 1824, Hein­rich Heine penned Die Lore­lie, adapt­ing an ear­lier work by Cle­mens Brentano, about a fair maiden “preen­ing” on the cliff top, her echo­ing song lur­ing count­less barge­men to their deaths.

Even mod­ern river­boats, length­ier than any me­dieval barge, must be care­ful and be­tween Ober­we­sel and St Goar­shausen the cap­tain re­lies on sig­nals to guide our ves­sel.

Safely through, our day is chim­ing nicely with the poem as we power to­wards Koblenz and the con­flu­ence of this fair river with the Moselle: “The air is cool in the gloam­ing … and gen­tly flows the Rhine.”

Damp clothes and a slight snif­fle are a small price to pay for a re­mark­able day on the Mid­dle Rhine, although the iden­tity of our la­conic guide re­mains a mys­tery and just who died and who fell in love we will never know.

Chris­tine McCabe was a guest of Tauck, Travel the World and Eti­had Air­ways.

MS In­spire river cruise ship, top; Marks­burg at Braubach, above

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.