A chilled Riesling in one hand, my smartphone in the other, I let my gaze wander over the beautiful Rhine Valley. Only a few minutes ago, the sun has set, slowly changing the colours of the sky from grey to blue. On this late October day, only the warm colours of the streetlights are reflected on the unusually calm surface of the Rhine river.
Tracing the footprints of the past
It’s the final hours of the first day of the sixth blogger hiking trip organised by the Rhineland-Palatinate Tourist Board and I find myself in a moment of quiet introspection while enjoying the view from Sterrenberg Castle. I’m thinking about how I will present everything that’s happened today on my Instagram. And how I might try to explain the peculiar feeling of standing on this rocky ground – the very spot where, over the centuries, countless people must have stood looking down into the valley, just like I am now.
When I arrived, I already knew that this valley had a lot to offer. In fact, it’s almost too much to experience in only three days, especially if you’re supposed to also relay all of it online. Nevertheless, our hiking group, consisting of seven bloggers, a number of journalists and various representatives of the local tourist associations, valiantly took on the task of exploring all of the region’s intricacies so we could report our findings to you, dear reader. And I, for one, gladly accepted that in order to do this, I would have to do everything at the same time: Experiencing the environment, taking pictures, preparing and publishing the information and so on.
During the three-day trip that was to come, we would be led through the Middle Rhine Valley on the RheinBurgenWeg trail (on the “left” side of the Rhine, as the locals say) and the Rheinsteig trail (to the “right” of the Rhine). From the very first day, we all knew that a new story would be waiting for us behind every fork in the road.
Travelling along the RheinBurgenWeg trail
The first stage of our journey starts at the old Roman thermal baths of Bad Breisig on a sunny Friday. I already had a first glimpse at the beautiful Rhine Valley during my train ride from Bonn, and now I stop briefly at the promenade to take in the landscape with all of my senses.
Steep slopes frame the river on both sides. Their south sides provide plenty of sunshine, which, combined with the dry weather of the area, makes them the perfect spot to grow thick bunches of grapes that will be used to produce first-class wines. On the northern sides of the slopes, mother nature is allowed to reign unchecked, with shrubs and trees growing wild. “Since vehicles can’t move up these steep slopes, you can’t cut down the trees for their wood. That’s why you’ll find a lot of pristine forested areas here,” our hiking guide, Rheinsteig expert Wolfgang Blum tells me.
From the Rhine promenade, we make our way through the village centre to one of these natural forest areas. This one is mostly home to beech and oak trees whose leaves form a thick canopy over our heads. However, you can already see the first orange and yellow highlights of October amongst the green.
Every few metres, you can find less densely forested sections that give you a great view of the surrounding landscape. And the higher we go, the more amazing it gets: As the Rhine is one of the main thoroughfares for traffic across Europe, you can see ships, trains and even the occasional glider, in addition to the local castles, vineyards and forests.
We finish the first stage of our journey at the Mönchsheide estate, as we have more things to do today. Normally, the trail would lead you all the way to Andernach, where you can visit the world’s biggest cold-water geyser. I guess I’ll have to save that for another day, though.
Between history and story time
That’s because our next destination is Marksburg castle. With more than 65 castles in total, the stretch of land between Rüdesheim and Bingen is considered to have the highest number of castles of any region in the world, and Marksburg castle is one of the oldest ones in the Middle Rhine Valley. This attracts a great number of tourists from all over the world, as Christian Kuhn, director of the Rhein-Nahe Tourist Board tells me. He shares a peculiar anecdote: “I met this one visitor from the United States once who didn’t want to believe that Stahleck castle is approximately 900 years old. Her only experience with castles had been with the ones in Disneyland, so she assumed our castle had also been built quite recently to draw in tourists.”
Apparently, Walt Disney is not the only one who knows that great stories are the key to success when it comes to entertaining people: Stories arouse our emotions and make us long for experiences. They give places meaning and can turn simple slate rocks into tourist attractions that draw in people from all over the world.
Time for romanticism
Slate rocks becoming a tourist attraction!? Yes, I am referring to the main symbol of Rhine romanticism: the Loreley. When we arrive at the 132 m high rock in the morning, it is shrouded in thick fog. “That’s a typical weather phenomenon of the Middle Rhine Valley,” Karin Hünerfauth, project manager for domestic marketing (hiking and nature) at the Rhineland-Palatinate Tourist Board tells us. Apparently, on clear autumn nights, moisture collects in the valley, turning into thick fog in the early hours of the following day.
This section of the Rhine is infamous among sailors, not only because of the weather conditions, but also because of its nautical intricacies. Despite being the largest river in Germany, the Rhine narrows down to about 90 m at this point, only about a third of its normal width. The “Loreley myth” probably stems directly from the large number of shipping accidents that have historically happened here: As the story goes, a beautiful woman named Loreley sits on top of the slate rock, enchanting sailors with her songs so they would forget about the dangers of the Rhine and run aground on its many reefs, rocks and shoals.
Enjoying the beautiful view on the main stage of our journey
The main stage of our journey along the Rheinsteig trail leads from St. Goarshausen, the location of the Loreley, to Kaub. It’s 21.7 km long and includes 1,114 metres of altitude difference to be overcome. Most hikers start this stage of the journey at Kaub, but we chose to start in St. Goarshausen instead. In my humble opinion, that’s actually the better choice, since the part of the trail near St. Goarshausen leads through fields and forests along the edge of the riverbank, offering plenty of opportunity to take in the view of the majestic Rhine.
Living like a king in Stahleck castle
On the third and final day of our blogger hiking trip we once again visit the “left” side of the Rhine, travelling towards Bacharach. The small town nestled between the vineyards of the region is over 1,000 years old and the starting point of the “Stahlberg-Schleife”, a 12.7 km long trail leading from Stahleck castle through the forests and vineyards, past castle ruins and slate mines, until it returns to Stahleck castle again.
Here’s a tip for anyone who would like to spend a night in a historic castle at least once in their lives: Stahleck castle houses a youth hostel open to all travellers. But you’ll need to plan the timing of your trip, as the hostel is typically booked out well in advance, especially outside of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In my opinion, the “Stahlberg-Schleife” trail makes for a beautiful trip through a very varied landscape, while not being overly difficult. That makes it perfect for a leisurely day trip. Afterwards, you should definitely take your time to visit some of the local inns to relax your tired feet and taste the local wines.
The Middle Rhine Valley – worth the trip?
Though I am an avid hiker and I’ve been living in Bonn, the starting point of the Rheinsteig, for a couple of months now, this was my first time actually hiking on the trail. And ever since I learned about all of the great spots the Middle Rhine Valley has to offer, I’m sure this will not have been my last time. Especially considering that there’s actually too much to experience for just the three days of the Blogger hiking event to cover.
Some more tips and recommendations
If you’re planning on a longer stay in the Middle Rhine Valley, you should have a look at the hotel “Zum Weißen Schwanen” in Braubach and the recently opened hotel “Papa Rhein” in Bingen. These two could not be more different from each other: One is focussed on history and the arts, while the other offers modern wellness treatments. But both are exceptional and well worth a visit.
During the blogger hiking event, we stayed overnight in both of these hotels, free of charge. Though the only difference to me is that I would probably have spent the night in a tent otherwise ;)