Cruising Rhine Past German Wine Country
Legends and history unfold around every bend of the Rhine. Along the the banks of Europe’s most important waterway we caught glimpses of a fairy-tale past . . . from medieval castles high on the cliffs overlooking the river to pastel-hued wine villages with clock towers.
The slow-moving Brittania glided its way along the famous river. Relaxing on the sun deck of the 200-passenger vessel, my wife and I watched the stunning scenery pass.
Our five-day, four-country cruise began in Basel, Switzerland, passed through France with a stop in Strasbourg, and continued through Germany, calling at Heidelberg, Rudesheim, Cologne and Dusseldorf.
The 500-mile journey ended in the lowlands of Rotterdam, Holland, where the river empties into the North Sea.
For more than 161 years the white ships of the KD German Rhine Line have been plying the Rhine. Meals are served in a pleasant dining room with large picture windows that afford magnificent views. Other amenities include a swimming pool and sauna, a lounge for entertainment, a gift shop, a bar, a game room and a reading room.
Each of the shore excursions were enjoyable but our favorite stops were in Heidelberg and Rudesheim.
Spared by Bombers
Heidelberg, celebrated in song and poetry for centuries, was one of the few German cities not destroyed by air bombs during World War II. It still has many buildings from the latter part of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.
Our first stop in this romantic city on the Neckar River was the fairy-tale Heidelberg Castle, built in the 13th Century and the city’s most prominent landmark. Only a dignified ruin today, the castle is in a pretty setting of woodland and terraced gardens in the verdant hills overlooking the Neckar and town below.
The castle was burned by the French in the latter part of the 17th Century, and lightning added to the destruction by striking twice and causing a fire in the mid-18th Century.
A fun stop was the wine vat in the cellar of the castle. A great cask, symbol of the good life of the Rhineland-Palatinate, is there. Built in 1751, the huge vat holds more than 50,000 gallons.
Watching over the wine cellar is a comical replica of Perkeo, a dwarf and court jester who was guardian of the wine for the rulers of the day.
In summer, visitors can enjoy serenades, wine tastings, dancing and concerts in the courtyard. Sigmund Romberg’s classic operetta, “The Student Prince,” is performed every August before huge crowds.
After our visit to Heidelberg the ship headed into Rheingau country, a famous wine-producing region. Along this section, vineyards extend from river banks up the slopes on both sides.
Our next stop for the night was Rudesheim, probably the most popular center of this part of the wine region. With its old courtyards and winding alleyways lined with timbered houses, Rudesheim is a festive village that lures 3 million visitors yearly.
This lovely town is renowned for grapes that produce some of the most famous white wines in the world. In addition to the full-bodied Riesling, brandy and champagne are produced from grapes grown in the verdant hills surrounding the town.
Rudesheim’s narrow cobblestone streets are packed with wall-to-wall tourists. By following the crowd, we reached the Drosselgasse, referred to by locals as “the merriest lane in the world.”
Song, Food and Drink
Lined solidly with pubs and wine taverns, the narrow lane is jammed when six or seven ships are in port. If you’re lucky you’ll find a table at one of the garden restaurants or taverns where you can sample some of the local dishes and a glass of wine served by smiling Frauleins .
You will find yourself tapping your feet or singing along to a three-piece oompah band playing everything from Bavarian beer songs to boogie and old favorites.
Rudesheimers take their wines seriously. Germany’s oldest wine museum is located in the 1,000-year-old Bromserburg Castle. The museum traces the history of the grape with exhibits of wine presses, goblets and drinking utensils from Roman times to the present.
Not far from the Drosselgasse is Siegfried Wendel’s Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum. Housed in a 16th-Century building, the museum features what it claims is the largest collection of self-playing musical instruments from the 18th to the 20th centuries, including early gramophones, music boxes and hurdy-gurdies.
A short trip from Rudesheim is the chloss (castle) Vollrads which has been a winery for almost 800 years. The vintners of this area are known throughout the world for their high-quality, fruity Riesling wines.
At Schloss Vollrads is a majestic, four-story, beige tower with dark-brown trim and an observation deck at the highest point of the castle. We could see a huge clock in the cupola as we approached.
Built in 1330, the tower is surrounded by a moat and tall trees. Most of the 116 acres of the estate are below the castle on a hillside facing the Rhine and 98% of the vineyard is planted with Riesling grapes.
On our fifth day, scenery along the Rhine changed sharply as we left Germany, cruising past the windmills and lowlands of Holland on our way to Rotterdam. As the Brittania pulled alongside a pier at midday we bade farewell to our shipmates.
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Rates for a five-day, four-night cruise on the Brittania are from $845 to $955 per person, depending on the deck of your cabin, slightly higher for the six-day, five-night voyage from Rotterdam to Basel.
For information on KD Line ships, write to the Rhine Cruise Agency, 323 Geary St., San Francisco 94102, or call (415) 392-8817.