Castles and wine: roadtripping along the Rhine and Mosel, Germany

To me, there is nothing more exciting than being in a new place, surrounded by a state of complete unknown. On the edge of a frontier tempting exploration. Like listening to a Bo Diddley song: you’re legs just have to move. To my dad, there is nothing more overwhelming; yet, almost the day I moved to Europe he applied for his passport to come visit. Now almost a year later, he emerged from the gate at the Shonefield airport looking bewildered. We celebrated his arrival with beers on the train as we made our way to my apartment. It was late, after 10pm,  but still light out because of the long summer nights in the far northern hemisphere. He was here on the Summer solstice after all. As dark settled in we walked to a cozy candlelit neighborhood bar for a great introduction to classic German food: schnitzel and white asparagus.

Waking up late the next day, my dad enthusiastically asked “so, this is what jet-lag feels like?”

After a certain amount of travel, the law of diminishing returns takes over. The bright, wild feeling of burgeoning excitement of adventure becomes diluted by the collection of previous experiences. But traveling with someone who has never traveled before is a great way to rediscover that feeling. It took my dad nearly 60 years to leave his country for the first time and to him, everything is new, and I am able to enjoy it through his eyes: breakfasts are different – not the pancakes and syrup or biscuits and gravy of the US; tipping is almost non-existent in comparison; toilets having two buttons depending on how big you want your flush to be; it’s legal to drink in public; the cars are smaller and of different brands; the airlines are also new and unfamiliar (WOW does seem suspicious for the name of an airline operating a long international flight).

Walking around Berlin, he was startled by how different everything was, like the graffiti everywhere:“Lodi employs a person full-time to paint over all of this stuff. Is this gang related?” And the city attitude: “People don’t smile, they just look right past you.” And the peaceful drivers: “No one’s honking” he remarked. “Everyone’s quiet”…”This place is crazy.” 

We walked through my neighborhood along the canal to the Eastside Gallery to see the largest section of the Berlin wall still standing, now mostly painted over by street artists. Then on to Maroush, my favorite kebab restaurant, to give him a taste of the Turkish influence in the city. We capped the day off with an authentic sausage restaurant listed in the NYT, for a taste of southern Germany. The next day my dad visited the Pergamon museum to see the monumental Gate of Ishtar, one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world from the city of Babylon, built in 575 BC. From there we explored one of the best parks in Berlin: Victoria park, a monument to the victory in the War of Liberation fought against Napoleon. Climbing to the top, past a waterfall, you can see all of Berlin, its history splayed out before us – off in the distance, the golden wings of the Berlin Victory Column in Tiergarten. A little to the right are the church steeples and behind them, the three domes of the Oranianburger synagogue, saved by a German police chief during krystal nacht. Further right, we see the tower of Alexanderplatz marking the East-West divide and the hill in Volkspark Friedrichshain made of the debris from burned out buildings that were bulldozed and gathered up after the bombing. Again hungry, we decided on authentic pizza, cooked by Italians, in a large wood-fired oven.

On day three we flew to Amsterdam. From the plane we could see the landscape, saturated with canals, resembling a yard after the water hose has been left on all day by accident. During our two days here we traced the canals on foot, slowly, as if surveying the city for historical record. My dad was in heaven admiring the incredible architecture dating from the 1600’s, his eyes constantly scanning the buildings, eagerly investigating every detail like an anthropologist interpreting the story of the city based on the grain of the wood and how the panels and windows were assembled. “Unbelievable” he remarked over and over, scrutinizing the size of doors, the shapes of the roofs, the cabinets, and then giving his diagnosis: “a quick reconstruction”.

A half-day in the Rijksmuseum, two spectacular dinners, and a stop-off at the Harley Davidson gift shop rounded out our trip. My dad was surprised to discover that “Nobody’s stressed and everybody’s easy-going – even the dogs act differently”, their passivity adopted from the demeanor of their owners, who must have served as the model for the ideal Trader Joes employee, and who have the height of an average NFL player.

We departed Amsterdam after our third long leisurely breakfast in a row at Winkel, the best café in the city for Dutch apple pie, off to spend a few days touring the vineyards and castles along the Rhine and Mosel rivers. A high-speed train from Amsterdam to Frankfurt took us through the western part of Germany, reaching a speed of 180 miles per hour through a chaotic stretch displaying a staccato of light and green rolling hills separated by the darkness of the tunnels flashing through the windows. We arrived at the Frankfurt airport, the ford of the Franks, where Charlemagne crossed the river, and picked up our rental car to begin our drive up the Rhine. The Rhine river’s name comes from the Celtic word renos, meaning  “that which flows,” or “raging flow.” The river begins at the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier in the alps of Southeast Switzerland and runs for 820 miles to the North sea, passing through six countries and taking on three names, representing the power that it has over central europe: Rijn  (Dutch), Rhin (French), and Rhein (German).  

We crossed the Rhine and followed it north, passing several of the castles along the upper-middle Rhine that have given this region UNESCO world heritage site status. Our destination was Oberwesel, one of the highlights of the trip, where we were spending the night in Castlehotel Schönburgan authentic castle. We crested the hill into town and spotted our “hotel”, perched high on a hill, well before we reached it. From the castle parking area we crossed a newly built bridge on our way to reception that lay over the former moat, the ancient stone base still visible. The original castle wall still covered about a quarter of the property, standing several stories high with pigeons now standing guard on the ramparts and embattlements. Seeing the size of a castle up close and walking among the layers of walls, I began to imagine a tough life spent in a permanent state of servitude.  All of the castles are built on top of hills – it was hard enough to walk up to the top with luggage, but the thought of dragging stones from quarries up here makes you think about the intense physical labor of those forcibly employed.

It was an expensive hotel, but would have been worth every penny if only for the look on my dad’s face during our stay. On top of that, the room came with a  fridge stocked full of local sherry, a four course dinner, and a gourmet breakfast complete with mimosas the next day. When you add on the fact that we actually spent the night in a castle, the price seemed like a bargain and gave us a memory we’ll carry with us forever.

The next morning after breakfast, a bright blue sky emerged with white clouds drifting past. We took in the view from the castle, looking out over vineyards climbing up steep mountains and a large section of the Rhine. The fast-moving murky brown water served as a link between southern and northern Europe since Roman times and it continues to be Europe’s major river for both commerce and sightseeing, with up to 3 million tourists a year cruising between its castle-crested banks. We watched as a constant stream of barges, tugs, tankers, container ships, tourist cruises and ferries chugged up and down the water, the heavier boats almost drowning in the strong current. After taking in the 360 panorama from the top of the castle wall, we were ready to seek out some more castles along the Rhine before jogging over to its smaller, and just as sceneic neighbor, the Mosel.”Do you think someone could become ‘castled out’?” asked my dad as we started our journey. We didn’t.

We stopped first at a local winery, one of the main reasons for the trip. The Romans came here in 55 BC and pushed out the Celts, establishing the area as a wine-producing region , now composed primarily of Riesling. The grapes are placed on the southern-facing slopes to create the same growing conditions as those found 500 km further south. The wine was incredible.

Church spires and medieval towers stick out like exclamation marks in the green rolling hills and valleys dotted with castles. From Oberwesel we travelled up to Koblenz, and in this short 50 km stretch there were 14 major castles and just as many quaint towns. You could actually peer out the top of one castle and see two or three other castles at the same time. An indication of the conflict that dominated this area for so long. The castles served as toll booths and still stand guard over the landscape and valuable waterway.The lords that occupied these castles had total control over the people in their fiefdom. Some were directed to war, the lords trying to expand their borders to increase their fortune or spread their brand of civilization, their control, their views of the world and beliefs to others. You can’t help but feel and think about the blood that runs through this landscape as you walk past dungeons and down secret tunnels. Now, only tourists, stopping for a night or a wedding, occupy the castels, some of which have been restored as hotels or museums, and some are just ruins. IMG_2224

 

We mosied from the Rhine over to the Mosel, marveling the entire way at the beauty of our surroundings, a landscape that inspired Lord Byron, Turner and Wagner. Mark Twain wrote about his trip along the Rhine. And many German legends have been inspired by the Rhine, like the Lorelei, a rock formation on the bank that is associated with many tales.

After a long stop at Burg Eltz, a beautiful castle lurking in a mysterious forest that has been left intact for 700 years, we ended the night in Rick Steve’s favorite  Mosel town, the picture-perfect half-timbered village of Beilstein. The sun was setting over the river as we arrived. We watched it sink into the mountains, and then, in the dark, we wandered the tiny medieval streets, finding our way into an anceint wine cellar to watch the Eurocup with a boisterous older crowd of locals, all wearing Germany’s team jersey, that soon erupted when Ronaldo missed the PK needed to win the game. We came back early the next morning to get a better look at the exhilarating landscape: the Moselle winds its way in magnificent loops, with tiny villages, castles and ruins towering above, dotted along its banks. Wine growers, in vineyards and wine cellars, offer tastings of the area’s world-renowned wines along the way. The towns and wineries also cater to a  steady stream of bikers making their way along the international Moselle Cycle Route or the Saar Cycle Route, a bike path that winds along the river through the magnificent scenery, from France up to Koblenz.

The city of Bacharach was our final destination of the trip, a beautiful city of stone streets and timbered houses constructed with huge wooden beams in the thirteen and fourteen hundreds, as noted by the signs along the top of their door frames.

We woke up to perfect weather on the final day so we headed out for a quick early morning hike to culminate the trip. Thoreau  wrote that there is nothing better than starting your day with a hike, and I can’t help but agree. A beautiful trail led along the side of a steep hill that serves as natural protection for the city below and up to the castle 500 feet or so above the city that now serves as a youth hostel. On the way down, we stopped at a demolished cathedral, built in the 1100’s, and destroyed in the 1600’s after it was ruled that the story behind the saint of the castle which carries his name was a racially motivated story and not all that factual.

After a fiasco pumping gas, avoiding a swerving car on the highway, and walking my dad to his flight, I arrived at 10:44 for my 10:42 am train. I was late, and for once, the train was later. On my ride home I reflected on the past week, thinking about how, partway through the trip, my dad mentioned that his perspective on things had changed. That’s the power of travel – it allows you to step outside of normal ideology and see things in a completely different light. And hopefully that is the best souvenir he brought back from this trip. And for me, the best souvenir I have is a new set of memories of traveling with my father for the first time, in a completely new place.

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