TRAVEL’S A BUG. A nice bug. But it gets under your skin, causing itchy feet and a restless hankering to go somewhere … anywhere … just GO! It’s highly contagious. And some destinations just keep calling you back. Like the Rhine, the famous river that flows through the middle of Germany:
The Rhine starts high in the Swiss Alps. It swoops through alpine forests and over tumbling waterfalls, then snakes westward through grand German cities and medieval towns before emptying out near the Dutch port of Rotterdam.
One extra-famous stretch, the Rhine Valley, is strewn with fairytale castles, postcard-pretty villages, pastel-coloured houses, clock-towers, and landscapes that ache your eyeballs. It oozes such charm and olde-worlde history that it’s been named a World Heritage Site.
And the best way to enjoy it is from the deck of a luxury riverboat …
One lunchtime, long before Covid, we boarded our floating hotel and motored off – docking eventually in Cologne, Germany’s fourth largest city, founded by the Romans and dominated by its looming Gothic Cathedral.
We got chilled to the bone exploring the unseasonably-cold city – and stiff-necked staring up at the Cathedral’s teetering towers. But, back on ship, a gourmet feast soon had us warmed up and ready to party.
We woke next morning in Coblenz, and went ashore to walk the cobbled streets of the Old Quarter (badly damaged in WW2). There’s history here reaching back 2000 years, plus the huge Ehrenbreitstein Fortress that stands guard over the town – and we Kiwis were all agog.
Our agog changed to gaga, later that day, as we cruised the 65km-long Rhine Valley: wide green waters squeezing through narrow, winding gorges … near-vertical terraces smothered in clinging vineyards (“winyards” say the locals, when talking to us wisitors) … ornate stately homes … domed churches with spires stabbing the skyline … and dense forests punctuated (like scenes out of Beauty & the Beast) by castle after hilltop castle.
On both banks of the Rhine, people walked their dogs, rode their bikes, tended their gardens, fished, and waved at us gliding slowly along their beloved waterway.
Back in the 12th and 13th centuries, rival barons built 40-plus castles (with turrets, battlements, moats, the works!) along this strategic river. Some, having survived the ravages of time, are now converted hotels. Others beckon tourists, who wander echoing banquet halls, taking selfies with knights-in-shining-armour, and sipping wine in spooky dungeons. But many Rhine castles are quietly crumbling, their dark secrets lost forever.
Romantic? You betcha!
Ten days later, we were still in Germany – but high in the Bavarian Alps, no longer on a riverboat. It had bucketed down en route, and we got soaked to the skin during an ohh-aah stop at crazy King Ludwig’s magnificent palace. Which is why we arrived in Oberammergau, at our frescoed 90-year-old hotel, looking like drowned rats!
This stunning little alpine village is a sight for sore eyes – ringed by snow-splashed mountains, and famous for its scenic peace’n’quiet, its murals, its wood carvings, and its once-a-decade Passion Play.
We went wandering next morning, photo-snapping and shop-shop-shopping. Then, after lunch, we claimed our seats in front of the giant outdoor stage where some 2000 locals were about to re-enact the dramatic final days in the life of Christ. The dialogue was in German (not that we had any problem following the story). And the play lasted through the afternoon and evening – with a nice, long dinner break.
This Passion Play (in case you’re wondering) dates back to 1633 during the Great Plague. After months watching the Black Death ravage Europe, the villagers made a vow to God that, if they were spared, then every 10th year thereafter they would perform a play about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The villagers lost no more lives to the Plague. And, for nearly 400 years, they’ve kept their word. The once-a-decade spectacle of pageantry and devotion that we witnessed was performed five times weekly over several months that year – wowing half-a-million visitors from all corners of the globe.
Oberammergau’s Passion Play was a moving, inspiring, unforgettable TREAT … and we’re still talking about it!