Friday, December 2, 2011

Germany/Austria Trip, Part 2: The Rhine Valley

Day 3
On Monday, September 19, we left the Black Forest and traveled to the Rhine Valley, a region of Germany near the border with France that is known for its wine (particularly Riesling, which is my favorite!).  We left Staufen around 10am, and due to having to change trains a number of times, didn't arrive in Bacharach until about 2:30pm.  But it really wasn't a bad trip.

We were staying in a hostel called Jugendherberge Stahleck, which was built on the ruins of a 12th century castle!  There are a number of other castles-turned-hotels in the area (this region has a bunch of so-called robber baron castles - more on that later) but most are quite expensive.  So we jumped at the opportunity to spend the night in a renovated castle for a reasonable price!  The one downside is that the castle was built, in typical castle fashion, way up above town on a hill.  Without luggage, it's not a bad hike up there.  It takes about 15-20 minutes.  But with our backpacks on, it was fairly exhausting.  It's pretty much all stairs, which gives you an idea of how steep it is.
Jugendherberge Stahleck

 Our walk up to the castle/hostel
 This was our first time staying in a hostel, and we weren't really sure what to expect.  But once we finally made it up the hill and checked into our room, we were pleasantly surprised by how nice it was!  It's very dorm-ish: small rooms, bunk beds, simple wooden furniture, shared bathrooms, etc.  But everything was clean and in good shape, the place was quite, the people were friendly, and all for under 50 euros a night!  The hostel also had a cafeteria, where free breakfast was served in the morning.  You could also order a lunch to go for 4,40 and an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner for just 7,50.  Throughout the day and late into the evening, the cafeteria sold snacks (like pizza) and bottles of local wine, all for around 9-12 euros!  You could even enjoy your wine out on the castle terrace with incredible views of the city and Rhine river below.  It was a great place to stay!
Entrance to the hostel
The terrace
Those windows are where our room was
Our room at the hostel
View of vineyards from our window
After dropping off our bags in the room and checking out the castle at little bit, we headed back down the hill to explore the town.  We followed the tour in Rick Steves guidebook, which lead us on a long walk around the old medieval town wall.
View of the wall and a couple watchtowers from the waterfront
High water marks from some especially bad floods
A covered section of the wall that you can walk on
One of the wall's watchtowers
There are a total of six watchtowers still standing.  One of them (the white one pictured below) you can actually climb up!  So of course we did.  The view of the city from the top was fantastic!
View from the top of the watchtower
We also visited the ruins of a Gothic chapel.
Central Bacharach was filled with traditional half-timber houses and old cobble stone streets
We ended our walk in a beautiful part of town.  The entire area looked like a secret garden!  There was a tiny stream with quaint little stone bridges crossing it, lush green plants growing everywhere, lovely bright colored flowers dotting the landscape, and it was all surrounded by picturesque half-timber houses.  We found a bench and sat for awhile just enjoying the view.
For dinner, we went to a place recommended by Rick Steves called Altes Haus.  It's a very old building (it says 1368 on the side, although we read it was actually built around 1568).  And the inside definitely has a lot of character.  But that's about all the positive things we can say about it. It was absolutely freezing inside, and we told the waitress, but all she did was shut the door - it didn't help much. So that made it difficult to enjoy our meal.  Carolyn thought her food was just ok; Mike didn't like his at all (he ended up getting some pizza later). We left pretty disappointed.
The inside of Altes Haus
After dinner, we were going to do some wine tasting in town at two placed recommended by Rick Steves, but one was closed and the other had it's doors wide open - and we'd had enough of freezing restaurants!  So we returned to our hostel and got a bottle of Riesling from the cafeteria instead (for half the price that the wine tastings would've cost!).  We weren't sure what quality of wine we were going to get at these low prices, but it turned out to be incredibly good!  And best of all, the cafeteria was nice and warm.  Not a bad way to end the day. :)

Day 4
On Tuesday, September 20, we headed out for a day trip to St. Goar, another city on the Rhine river.  We had breakfast at the hostel and purchased a couple packed lunches from the cafeteria, then hiked down the hill to the riverside dock.  There we bought tickets for the Koln-Dusseldorfer river cruise and waited for our boat to arrive.
The boat ride from Bacharach to St. Goar takes about an hour.  We sat on the top deck and read Rick Steve's description of the scenery we were seeing as we traveled down the river.  The weather was perfect - it was a bright sunny day - and made for a very pleasant cruise.

The Rhine is a wide, fairly swiftly moving river, with lots of boat traffic.  The hills of the Rhine valley are steeply sloped and covered with the grape vines of the local vineyards.  Every so often, we'd pass a picturesque little town with colorful half-timber houses lining the river side.  And all along the river, on the tops of hills, are castles!  There are dozens, each with its own unique style.  According to Rick Steves, these are "robber baron" castles, erected by wealthy men for the purpose of charging fares from the boats passing down the river.  But they still look pretty impressive.

This is the famous Lorelei rock, named after the mythical feminine water spirit believed to be responsible for the large number of boat accidents that happened here.  It is the narrowest section of the river, with rocks below the water and very strong currents.  When our river cruise passed this rock, it played a German song. 

This section of the river is called the "romantic Rhine."  And now we know why - with the cute little towns, castles everywhere, all surrounded by vineyards and on a lovely river, it's a beautiful place!

We disembarked in St. Goar and headed straight for the main attraction - the ruins of Burg Reinfels.  Burg (which means castle in German) Reinfels was once an enormous castle, but it fell to Napoleon and the French army blew it up, so today there's not much left.  But it was still pretty neat to explore the ruins and imagine what it was like in its glory days.

Look, a maiden in the castle tower!
A gun turret
Cannon balls!
There were tunnels underneath the castle, but we did not explore them
View down the Rhine from the top of Burg Reinfels

After exploring Burg Reinfels, we headed down to the park by the river to eat our picnic lunch that we brought with us from the hostel.  It was fun to just sit and watch all the boats going down the river.
After lunch, we walked around St. Goar for awhile.
But St. Goar is a very small town, and we ran out of things to do pretty quickly.  So we caught the boat back to Bacharach.  The return trip is a bit longer - about an hour and a half - since you're going upstream.  But it was still sunny and warm, so we enjoyed sitting on the top deck watching the castles and cute little towns go by once again.
Our return boat
View of Bacharach from the boat
Back in Bacharach, we hiked up to our hostel and had dinner in the cafeteria.  After dinner, we bought another bottle of local Riesling from the hostel.  This time, since it wasn't as freezing as last night, we enjoyed our wine outside on the terrace.  We sat there sipping wine and watching the sun go down over the houses below for as long as we could handle it.  When we finally got too cold, we took our wine inside and finished our drinks in the cafeteria before heading to bed.
View of Bacharach from our castle/hostel terrace

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