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Exploring Germany’s Rhine Valley

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Photo: Whitney Lawson

Climbing up the spiral stairs and through a stone tower to our room, we notice a passageway. “Where do you suppose it goes?” asks my wife, Sandra, as she signals me to follow her. We emerge atop a medieval parapet. On our left is the steeply banked Rhine Valley and the vineyards that line the winding Rhine River; to our right is a medieval inner courtyard with a multilevel patchwork of Romanesque arches, half-timbered chambers, and tumbledown stonework.

I’d first stumbled upon the Schönburg Castle Hotel while traveling through Germany’s Middle Rhine Valley four years earlier. The 13th-century fortress had struck me as one of the most hauntingly romantic places in Europe. And so here we are on our honeymoon, the first leg of a two-week journey through the Rhine Valley: south along the Burgenstrasse (“Castle Road”), to the Romantische Strasse (appropriately, “Romantic Road”), then north toward the vibrant city of Weimar.

Oberwesel to Heidelberg: 90 miles

From the Frankfurt Airport, we drive an hour northwest to the town of Oberwesel, contending with jet lag and a torrential downpour. As the Schönburg Castle Hotel comes into view, however, the unforgiving weather subsides and we forget our desperate need for sleep. Darkened by storm clouds, the crumbling fortress commands the valley with a sphinxlike gravitas. Its stones have survived countless histories: throughout the Middle Ages wealthy nobles lived here, accumulating monies from river traffic tolls; during the 17th-century Palatinate Heritage War, the French Army set the castle on fire; it was abandoned for more than two centuries until, in the late 1800’s, an American of German descent purchased the property and sold it to another family, who turned it into a hotel in the 1950’s.

Our wood-paneled room, an octagonal chamber at the top of the highest tower in the hotel, resembles an officer’s quarters on a sailing ship: the bed is built into a windowed alcove, high off the floor, so we have to climb a semicircular stepladder to reach it. A doorway leads to a tiny stone balcony overlooking the valley. I can’t help thinking of Rapunzel locked away in her belfry.

With the castle as our base, we explore the Middle Rhine, stopping at small villages along the valley floor and amid the forests on the plateau above the river. At the Historische Weinwirtschaft (“Historical Wine Inn”), a stone-walled restaurant with a wood-beamed ceiling, dogs and children run around freely, popping up every so often at our table, which had been made from an old wooden bed. The place strikes me as the very essence of Heimat, the peculiarly German nostalgia for connection with home and homeland. The notion is reflected in the food we eat—the ingredients of our sauerbraten have been raised a literal stone’s throw away—and the welcoming, laid-back staff are locals. The road heading south of Oberwesel takes us to the university town of Heidelberg, with its stone-arched bridges spanning the Neckar River and the grand, 12th-century Heidelberg Castle perched above the town on a high promontory. Sandra and I trek up a narrow cobblestoned alley, past gabled stone houses with ancient doorways, and through a lush green park until we reach the castle. What was once a thick-walled tower now stands torn in half, the remnants of centuries of warfare. But as old ruins always do, the broken masonry now radiates calm in the cool autumn sunlight.

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