RUDESHEIM, West Germany — A cruise on the Rhine has become a tourist cliche like the Taj Mahal, so hackneyed and overdone that you're tempted to skip it. That would be a mistake.
Just as the Taj Mahal transcends its overfamiliar image, a voyage on certain sections of the River Rhine is one of the great journeys of the world. It has grandeur, the fascination of legend, and above all intense, dramatic beauty.
And it's so easy. You don't need to speak German. There is no hassle, no problem. You don't need to spend a week or two weeks on a Rhine cruise, although you can. The best of it takes half a day.
Several company fleets cruise Europe's greatest river, some using floating palaces as long as a football field. You can board one in Holland and get off in Switzerland, with a side trip up the vineyard-tiered Moselle river en route.
But the Rhine's main line is K-D, the Koln-Duesseldorf line. Its white restaurant boats operate like a country bus service between Koln (in the United States, Cologne) in the north and Mainz in the south.
Short Hops or Long Rides
Some K-D services stop at every village, ideal for short hops. Hops can be short indeed--between St. Goar on the west bank and St. Goarshausen on the east, the boat has so little distance to turn that it simply backs across the river. Express routes cover longer distances with less frequent stops.
Getting onto either one is simple. Every Rhineside town or village has a K-D pier. Timetables are posted by the ticket booth. State your destination, pay the figure printed on the ticket, and when the big passenger boat ties up, walk aboard.
The only trick is knowing where to get on and where to get off.
Some guidebooks say the best part of the Rhine is between Bonn and Coblenz. Don't believe them.
The Rhine is an industrial river. One castle, Schloss Soonech, is all but swallowed by a stone quarry devouring a precipitous riverside hill. Just above Bonn are the legend-hung Seven Hills of Siegfried, with ruined Drachenfels Castle jutting like a rotted tooth from the Dragon's Peak, plus a vast riverside cement factory disfiguring the whole scene.
As Romatic as Mud
Furthermore, north of these seven hills the river banks are flat and dull all the way to Andernach, where things get much worse. From Andernach to Coblenz is solid industry, a stretch of the Rhine as romantic as mud.
No, the way to "do" the Rhine is to start in the south at Mainz, or the wine villages of Johannisberg or Winkel or Geisenheim. Best of all, at the vineyard-backed, castle-dotted village of Rudesheim.
Board the K-D local in Rudesheim in the morning. That way, sailing north, the sun is behind you to throw the best picture-taking light upon the steep vineyards and half-timbered villages on the banks and the incredible castles above them.
"Oh, look, there's another castle!" cried a Florida woman on this Rhine stretch the other day. "And there's another one! This place is like a supermarket of castles."
So it is. Between Rudesheim and Braubach, the very best part of the Rhine, bar none, there seems to be a castle every mile.
Castles Come in Pairs
So fortress-crowded are these banks that some castles come in pairs: ruined Ehrenfels brooding down upon the miniature "Mouse tower" at the bend below Rudesheim: castellated Gutenfels towering over fairy-tale Pfalz on its tiny island at Kaub.
No matter that most of the castles are either ruins or sham 19th-Century rebuildings. They look magnificent.
Many of the most impressive are now hotels. Schloss Gutenfels, the very symbol of the Rhine in German Tourist Office pictures, is one. So is the most dramatic castle on the entire Rhine, Schloss Marksburg at Braubach.
You could drive from castle hotel to castle hotel on roads that run along both banks of the Rhine. You could hop from castle to castle or from quaint village to fascinating village by train, also on both banks.
Or you could do it the best possible way, sitting in the open, sipping cool superb Rhine wine, threading through vast barges sunk to deck level by their loads, aboard a passenger boat on the Rhine.