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A Watch on the Rhine

May 15, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

ASSMANNSHAUSEN, West Germany — This village may not be on your mental map of the Rhine valley, but it's a place you won't miss if you drive slowly or walk.

That's why the town is expecting more visitors than ever this summer, during what is being called the "Year of the Walker" in Europe.

The renowned German poet and dramatist Goethe, for one, wouldn't be surprised to see this happening. Assmannshausen was one of his favorite Rhine villages. He stopped here often after his journeys along the Rhine in 1772 and 1774 gave momentum to the dawning Age of Romanticism in literature as well as in attitudes toward life.

Assmannshausen is a little more than two kilometers of leisurely walking along the Rhine as it curves north from the famed wine town of Rudesheim in the middle of the Rhine valley between Mainz and Koblenz.

My wife and I stopped during our walk for lunch on the terrace of Hotel Krone, which has been receiving guests since the 16th Century. Goethe stayed there often, no doubt watching the flow of river traffic, as we did.

The Riesling Route

Assmannshausen is along the 90 kilometers of what has been called the Rheingauer Riesling Route, a name that seems natural for a walking path beneath vineyards and castles.

Assmannshausen had been a Franconian settlement as early as 1108. The village church has an altarpiece and Madonna that are 15th-Century works of art.

From Rudesheim, the walking path along the Rhine is also a bicycle path, as it is between most towns and villages along this route. For another kind of walking experience, a chairlift rises high above Assmannshausen, the river and vineyards to footpaths winding through the greenery of the Niederwald.

The entire Rheingauer Riesling Route expects to benefit from the walking trend that now has more than 55 million Americans taking daily walks for pleasure as well as for exercise and fitness.

Walking in this area was recommended back in 1839 in one of the early Baedecker guidebooks. It told readers: "The most pleasurable way of seeing the Rhine is undoubtedly on foot."

Wide Budget Range

Walks have been mapped for this summer far beyond the northern and southern limits of the Rheingauer Riesling Route and there are a wide range of overnight accommodations.

The village of Assmannshausen typifies this range. Amid the 16th-Century architecture and modern amenities of the Hotel Krone, a river view room like the one in which Goethe wrote is about $125 U.S. this summer. At Unter Den Linden, a small inn with the same river views, doubles are about $60.

One of the most dramatic walks is above the medieval town of Konigswinter, across the river from Bonn, capital of West Germany.

Here the Drachenfels, the Dragon's Crag, is above the Seven Mountains vineyards where Cistercian monks tended the grapes in the Middle Ages. You can walk, as Lord Byron did, up the steep road to the ruins of the castle built in AD 1147.

From there you can see along the Rhine to the spires of Cologne Cathedral. Byron wrote of where "the castled crag of Drachenfels frowns o'er the wide and winding Rhine."

Other poets were there long before Byron. The Nibelungenlied poem, composed about AD 1200, told of the legendary dragon killed by Siegfried. The poem became a Wagnerian opera.

In Castle Country

From the cities of Mainz and Wiesbaden, on opposite banks of the Rhine, about 40 castles crown the steep, vineyard-covered slopes. Each can be a destination for walking up from the road and path beside the river.

Collectively they silhouette the story of the barons who lived in the castles and protected traveling merchants from bandits along the river, and who came to be known as the Robber Barons because of the high tolls they collected for that protection.

The Roman era brought Christianity as well as vineyard culture to the Rhine. The visitor is also walking where hunters settled as early as 200,000 years before ago. Wild grapes grew on the hillsides in prehistoric times.

Marksburg Castle above Braubach is so high and massive that it is the only one along the Rhine unmarked by enemy attack. After a walk or drive up to the castle we have sipped and dined while a chorale group sang old songs about the Rhineland.

You can hear another kind of music when you reach the towering cliffs of Lorelei, named for the tale of the lovely maiden who lured sailors to destruction on the rocks at the base of the cliff.

The Lorelei song comes from a poem of Heine, set to music by Silcher. Mark Twain put Heine's verse into his own poetic English when he traveled the Rhine valley in 1878 to write "A Tramp Abroad."

Across the Rhine from the Lorelei we like to stop for a picnic lunch at a water's edge table in the town of St. Goare.

Scenic Footpath

Just to the south a scenic footpath winds up from near the 14th-Century Gothic church in the town of Berwesel. About 30 minutes of walking leads to the crest crowned by Schloss Schoenberg, one of the most awesome Rhine castles.

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