Do you know who he is? He’s very famous!” I take another sip of the wine handed to me by this famed mustachioed man and glance at the autographed photo that’s been thrust into my possession. I haven’t the faintest. “Well, we know him now!” I blurt back at the sous-chef, who’s popped out from behind a grapevine.
It just so happens I’ve stumbled upon one of Germany’s most famous TV chefs, the Michelin-starred Johann Lafer, who is entertaining guests on a cliff in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rhine Valley. A helicopter has whisked the party up here, soaring above church steeples, treetops and Lafer’s own castle, to a vantage point overlooking the medieval town of Bacharach, where they’ll quaff wine and dine into the early evening.
Oh, and Lafer pilots the chopper himself.
“How else would you get to the top of a cliff than by helicopter?” you might ask. For those of us without €1200 to spare for lunch, we hike. At some point, after slugging up a mountainside and wandering between rows of riesling, we’ve gone off course. It might be the lunchtime wheat beer taking control of my senses, or it could be I simply suck at reading maps – either way, we’re definitely lost.
Decked out in hiking gear, we look a far cry from the beautiful people imbibing vino under a sun umbrella, but the team of chefs preparing the spread seems unperturbed by our arrival.
We’ve caught them somewhere between entrée and main, and as one carves a thigh-sized slab of beef, another creates art with pea-green puree. “I use local produce, everything is grown nearby. And it’s always fresh. That’s very important,” says Lafer, reciting every modern chef’s mantra as he points out the squash assembled on each dish. “But the truffles come from Italy, of course! Would you like to try?” As quick as you can say “danke schön” a cook unfurls a tablecloth over an esky and we’ve joined the party under the chef’s marquee. So much truffle is shaved onto a tasting plate for two I feel I might have to declare my body part fungus when I next go through customs. As far as wrong turns go, this has to be the best.
It’s easy to see why Lafer chose this spot for his high-flying experience. Although the slate-grey Rhine River cuts through 1230 kilometres of Western Europe, bringing glacial waters from Switzerland all the way through to the Netherlands, Germany’s Rhine Gorge is considered its finest stretch.
Picturesque towns dot the riverbanks. One of them is Bacharach, with its cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and rows of vineyards marching up the surrounding slopes to the cherry on top – a twelfth-century castle-turned-youth hostel. It’s just one of the highlights my partner Lachie and I will encounter as we tramp more than 100 kilometres through the valley, from Bingen to Koblenz, on a self-guided hike devised by On Foot Holidays.
Germanic tribes settled on these banks back before Jesus gave carpentry the flick and decided to stick it to the Romans, who, of course, later took over the area. Feuding lords in frilly shirts did their best to destroy most of the castles, along with much of Europe, in the Thirty Years’ War, before the Romantic Era waltzed into the late eighteenth century. Poets, composers and painters flocked to the region, enamoured with the Rhine’s wild forests and crumbling forts, telling tales of Lorelei, a golden-haired maiden who lured shipping captains to their deaths upon the rocks.
These days the valley is known less as a destination for enlightenment and more for ferries stuffed with tourists hurtling towards their twilight years. But hiking and cycling trails snake through the same woodlands that charmed the romantics, and most available real estate is crammed with grapevines. I’m not much of a hiker, but vineyards tend to lead to wine, so it’s a path I’m keen to take.
A pack of maps lands in our letterbox before we jet off, with each day’s route planned out by one of On Foot Holidays’s hiking gurus. Directions like…“at a crucifix, turn R and another 200m brings you to Sieben-Burgen-Blick,” make plenty of sense. On the other hand, “buy excellent quality local wine in airline size bottles from local producer (wooden display cabinet with honesty box)” leaves me a tad confused.
As our luggage is to be shipped to our next bed and breakfast, we’ll have plenty of space in our daypacks. Surely a full bottle is far more appropriate in a region awash with plonk? Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine, sends us a sign at our first hotel – an honesty fridge stocked with the owner’s own label. We snag a proper bottle of riesling for €10. Prost to you, Bacchus!
“Most Germans are not interested in wine, they’re more used to beer,” says Justus Bringer, a young wine-shop keep, with a shrug of disappointment, when we ask which local drop sets the national population aflutter. If that’s even Germanically possible. Slurping down about 25 litres of wine per capita sounds like a solid effort, but the figure pales when compared to the 110 litres of beer consumed by the average German every year.
For those who do dabble in wine, white trumps ruby, and in the Rheingau – the celebrated wine-growing region encompassing the valley – riesling accounts for about 80 per cent of the harvest. Despite each family-run vineyard producing just a few thousand bottles each year (making the Rhine wine-snob heaven), it’s not the valley’s major drawcard. “Most Germans come here for burgs – castles. We have lots of castles around the country, but even more in the Rhine Valley,” explains Justus. “They were very lucrative.”
He’s not wrong. Old dames hold their ground around every twist, their stony walls often just out of reach of a well-aimed arrow from the next stately structure. Most sprang to life between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries after an emperor in Koblenz devised the bonny idea to slug an iron chain across the river and extort coin from ship captains wishing to pass – with the blessing of the Holy Roman Emperor, of course. So lucrative were these ‘tariffs’ that 40 castles – just half of the former stations built by nobility and robber barons – remain in the Middle Rhine today. Many were destroyed at the hands of the French and lay neglected over the centuries.
“Das ist so schön!” heaves a young couple, pausing to eat up views of Burg Rheinstein sprouting from a jagged rock up ahead. They’re right: it is so beautiful. Heavenly rays illuminate a turret tacked on by Prince Frederick of Prussia in the 1800s and a burgundy vine creeps out of the courtyard, its roots sucking nutrients from the soil for the past 500 years.
I can almost hear Sleeping Beauty’s snores rumbling from the crypts containing the moulding bones of the prince. This burg is just one of many that locals have spruced into guest houses and restaurants, often complete with suits of armour standing guard.
Within the hour we’re lounging on Rheinstein’s patio, feeling a bit unfaithful to the god of wine as we slurp ale and watch a farmer tend to the grapes. But sometimes needs must be met, and when you’re in Germany sometimes that need is beer.
Free from the pitfalls of group tours, we ignore the time suggestions on our maps and stop for castles, designer benches and to sluice off the afternoon’s warmth in the clear, cool waters of a brook. The smell of decomposing leaves infuses the air and streams trickle across the way, vanishing into chasms that have collapsed from heavy rain.
We pass fields of wheat that crackle in the heat and are laced with royal-blue cornflowers, and stamp through soaring pines with mossy undergrowth and a plethora of mushrooms.
There’s everything you’d expect to find in a place dubbed the Romantic Rhine – except for the crowds. Aside from a couple of locals walking dogs and a old chap reading a newspaper in the middle of the woods, just a handful of German explorers pass us on the trails, dropping “hallos” as they stride on. It’s not exactly a summer crush.
“That’s the ugly side,” announces Edgar Kirdorf, cocking his head at the west bank, which we’ve just left behind. His bed and breakfast, Hotel Deutsches Haus, in Kaub, is planted on the pretty side, danke very much. It’s a proven fact, Edgar explains, tongue firmly in cheek, because back before engines could haul ships upstream, horses did the heavy lifting while sporting blinkers that blocked the unsightly bank from view. The eye shades might have also had something to do with the glaring sun, he concedes.
With light beating down on the eastern side, the grapevines extend almost to the water, and the locals are said to possess a sunnier disposition, although I’m not quite sure I can tell. Travellers tend to stick to the sunny side, too, missing out on the charm of the other ‘ugly’ bank. With no bridges for 65 kilometres, little ferries chug passengers across the drink for €1.80 a piece, allowing our adventure to take in the best of both sides.
Curiosity reaches peak force on day four and we can’t resist flagging down one of the passenger ferries we’ve seen from afar. The Köln-Düsseldorfer vessel doesn’t boast the mini-golf courses and day beds present on the luxury cruise liners, but it does contain passengers squished onto benches, chewing servings of Subway. “Call off the search parties,” Lachie mutters. “The missing crowds have been found!” They remain glued to their seats when we walk the gangplank alone at Oberwesel, grasping their iPhones to record the disappearing view while a loudspeaker narrates sound bites about the town in English, then French, then Japanese.
Scroggin on a hike usually vanishes as fast as popcorn at the flicks, but our stash sits forgotten at the bottom of our bags. Instead we gorge on plump cherries plucked from trees dangling over the path and eye off unripe walnuts that promise the supply of fresh trail mix extends into autumn. Blackberry and raspberry bushes grow in abundance, establishing their own toll stations by draping thick barbed chains across lesser used tracks and collecting payment in flesh and fabric. We start a war of our own, thwacking through with walking sticks and plundering fistfuls of sweet harvest as our reward.
“Boar!” yells Lachie, pointing at a stocky behind hightailing away from our intrusion. Hunting is serious business here, done quietly and from wooden hides – essentially tree houses with guns. Not a single hunter seems to be out on the prowl, but their prey has made it onto the menu at Hotel Roter Ochse, in the walled town of Rhens. “I’ve caught 40 pigs, 30 small deer and two roe deer in the past three months,” says the father of the owner and chef as he sets down a hulking portion of boar. Spearing a hunk on my fork I can’t help but picture the creature we spied frolicking in the hills, but the moment’s forgotten with the second bite of dark and delicious meat.
Rhens is the type of place where a cloaked guy brandishing a wand wouldn’t look out of place, with higgledy half-timbered buildings sitting at odd angles and Latin inscriptions scrawled above the occasional door. We’re not the only ones to notice the vibe – back in the seventeenth century ten witches were captured, tortured and beheaded in the town’s toll tower. When those in power weren’t flaying randomly selected women, Rhens was considered neutral ground, and kings and emperors were elected upon a giant throne built nearby. The sorcerers got the last laugh, though, and as this throne fell into disuse, they held Sabbaths on the decaying erection.
On our final day we sit in the woods on the ruins of a Roman-Gallic temple, sharing a bottle of Boppard wine and our stolen berries. Constructed more than two millennia ago, the stone structure honoured the Roman god Mercury and Rosmerta, the Gallic goddess of fire, warmth and abundance.
We’ve followed in the footsteps of Romantics searching for higher truths, hunters foraging for a feed, and even gods of wine. People have been drawn to the powerful Rhine River and celebrated its bountiful forests for thousands of years and we’re no exception. We raise a glass to Rosmerta and decide to polish off the bottle.