ONCE UPON A LONG TIME AGO, in a country too far away, knights in shining armour roamed hither and yon – engaging in daring quests, rescuing damsels in distress, jousting with their rivals, and, in the weekends, building great stone castles on available hilltops.
A river that runs through the middle of Germany is strewn with these castles, looming high on both banks like scenes out of Beauty & the Beast. That river is the Rhine. It’s not the longest river in the world, but it is one of the most romantic: medieval villages with clock-towers and cobbled streets … pastel-coloured houses with flowery balconies … landscapes that make your eyeballs ache.
And the best, most relaxing way to see all this is from the deck of a luxury riverboat …
We met our floating hotel in Amsterdam one lunchtime in May, and motored off through the tranquil flatlands of Holland – accompanied by four-course feasting and five-star pampering! First stop was the ancient city of Cologne – dominated by its magnificent Gothic Cathedral, complete with flying buttresses, lacy spires, and a bejewelled sarcophagus, said to hold the remains of the Three Kings who followed the star to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Next morning, while we yawned over breakfast, our riverboat docked in Koblenz (where the Rhine and Moselle rivers merge). And, equipped with cameras plus a pretty Bulgarian guide, we went wandering in the Old Quarter (badly damaged in WW2). There’s history here stretching back 2000 years, plus a huge castle that overlooks the town – and we Kiwis were all agog.
However, our agog changed to gaga later that day, as we cruised through the most famous stretch of the Rhine Valley. Talk about magical! I mean, try to picture wide green waterways squeezing through narrow winding gorges … precipitous woods hosting centuries-old Roman leftovers … high-up terraces smothered in vineyards (the locals call them “winyards” when talking to us “wisitors”) … neat riverside towns, ornate stately homes, domed churches with spires stabbing the sky … and dark, dense forests punctuated by castle after clifftop castle.
From both shores of the Rhine people waved us welcome, walked their dogs, rode their bikes, tended their gardens, fished, or just stood there watching us glide slowly along their beloved river.
Word has it that, back in the 12th and 13th centuries, feudal lords tried to defend their turf by building 40-something castles around here, and fitting them out with fortified walls, turrets, moats, the works. Many have since been restored or
converted into hotels – but others are quietly crumbling, their dark secrets still lurking in damp dungeons.
This region has powerfully influenced writers, poets, artists and composers. And around one bend upstream we came upon the legendary Lorelei Rock, where (according to one of those dark secrets) a beautiful blonde maiden once threw herself to her death over a faithless lover (sob) – and now lures sailors onto nearby reefs with her hypnotic songs.
I listened hard, but couldn’t hear the girl – and our sailors avoided the rocks. Instead, we docked in another gorgeous old town, Rudesheim, where we rode the Winzerexpress (tourist-train) up to the Droggelgasse (centre of town) and spent a delightful hour marvelling at the ingenuity of long-gone eras in a unique museum: Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet …
We still had one more fairytale castle on our gotta-see list. Heidelberg is a lively university city that’s hugely popular with visitors – millions of whom flock here each year to soak up the ambiance … guzzle wine from its famous Great Vat (the world’s largest wine barrel) … and ogle views of the Neckar River from the Grand Terrace of the evocative half-ruined fortress (built in 1214 out of red sandstone).
Which is exactly what we did a couple of days later. We joined the crowds – and flocked, soaked, guzzled and ogled!
Fun? You betcha!