A 12-day driving tour along Europe's great river, taking in castles and vineyards, ancient towns and tiny villages

IF THERE IS A PATRON SAINT OF TRAVEL WRITERS, he must have foreseen the riches I would bring home from my trip along the Rhine. He must have decided to relieve me of my notes (I left them in a taxi), to cause my camera to malfunction and double-expose two rolls of film, and to hide a third, potentially useful roll of film in the pocket of a shirt that ended up in the washing machine. How fortunate! What remains in memory is an uncluttered view, the distilled essence of those 12 days' most charming moments and places.

Our first walk in the town of Konstanz, for example. We were three: my wife and I and our friend Max, who was born by the banks of the Rhine, knew the treasures to be found along its course, and wanted to share them with us.

Lake Constance was one of them. There it was—wide, blue, and sparkling, with an ample fringe of lush lawns and prosperous villas. In the distance, veiled in mist like the bulwarks of a fairy kingdom, stood the Swiss Alps. And the smells: a scent of pine resin, and a milder aroma coming from the acacias down by the lake. As we approached the harbor, the sound of clinking glasses and chattering voices stole our attention. The hubbub came from the wide-open doors of the town's medieval council house, once the site of weighty deliberations but now, it seemed, a place for public cocktail parties.

Friendly nods welcomed our timid entrance, and we walked in on a most unusual occasion. The Old Catholics, a sect founded in 1871 to protest the doctrine of papal infallibility, had—for the first time in its history—invested two women with the authority of priests. The church was celebrating its act with a sumptuous buffet and large supplies of white wine. The two newly ordained women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, spoke of thankfulness and dedication. Then a red-faced and thoroughly plastered Roman Catholic priest asked for the microphone. He wouldn't speak long, he promised, and proceeded, wickedly, to quote Martin Luther in praise of short speeches. But his speech really was short. "I wish to say, as a man—not as a priest, which would get me into trouble, and definitely not ex cathedra—that this happy day has made me happy, too." And he raised his glass: "Praise the Lord."

Pleasantly inebriated, we walked to the nearby Münster, a splendid cathedral where the reformer Jan Hus was sentenced to death by burning in 1415. Was it this knowledge that sobered us, or simply the architectural magic of those vaulting arches and steep, somber walls?Suddenly a group of young men and women walked in with a purposive clatter of heels, assembled with their backs to the altar, smiling expectantly (for a photograph, I presumed), fell under a trance of obedience as an older man summoned them to attention, and burst into song. Before I realized that they were a choral group rehearsing for a concert, the effect of that first explosion of harmonious noise was one of astonishing beauty.

WE FOLLOWED THE RIVER DOWNSTREAM FROM KONSTANZ in a rented car, crossing briefly into Switzerland, then France, and back into Germany, sleeping and eating at hotels and restaurants that ranged from modest and homey to refined and luxurious, and stopping en route to take in the surprises Max had so thoughtfully planned for us. A couple of them failed to impress our jaded American sensibilities. Switzerland's Schaffhausen Falls—"the mightiest waterfall in central Europe," according to one guidebook—consists of two modest spills. Pretty to look at and pleasing to the ears, but mighty?At our next stop, however, in the small German town of Waldshut, we experienced a wholly unexpected pleasure: a cobbled street reserved for pedestrians and lined with medieval guildhalls that had colorful, carved wooden figures of birds and beasts on their roofs and cornices. Any child's heart would leap with delight at the thought of possessing such a toy street, but here the miniature world had risen around us—or perhaps we were reduced to its proportions, toy men and women having coffee and cake at a little outdoor café.

We stopped often to pay our respects to the river, taking note of its varying hues, from deep bluish green to muddy yellowish brown. At those moments I wished we were traveling by raft rather than car. It was as if we had come a long way to visit some ancient personage of whom we had heard wondrous tales all our lives, and then found ourselves awkwardly tipping our hats, not quite knowing what to say or how to listen. But the ancient one's children—venerable towns like Basel, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Mainz that had grown along the river's shores, and blooming villages with vineyards, churches, castles—these we were able to meet and engage with easily. Our pace and their rhythm did not conflict.

One of these encounters, however, was almost too intense for comfort. In the Musée d'Unterlinden in Colmar, 42 miles south of Strasbourg, we stopped to look at Matthias Grünewald's early-16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece and stayed, transfixed, for nearly two hours. I had seen a print of the massive central panel—that gruesome image of a tortured body, green with putrefaction, its nailed-down hands clawing the empty sky—but was unprepared for such overwhelming emotion. And what was one to make of the Virgin's shocked expression as the angel of the Lord storms into her bower with his momentous announcement?And what of that demonic angel covered with blue-green scales, serenading the Virgin and Child with a band of winged fiddlers who do not at all appear to be heaven-sent?The museum guidebook dispelled these questions with ink clouds of speculation. In my fractured French, I asked one of the uniformed guards for her opinion. "I stare at these pictures every day," she said, "and they just look stranger and stranger."

Our favorite hotel, the Teufelhof in Basel, presented a very different kind of art. Eight of its 33 rooms were original works commissioned by the hotel (since our stay, they have been redesigned, based on the theme of time). My first impression was that we'd been had. My wife and I stayed in room No. 3, designed by Brigitte Kordina. It was equipped with two cotlike single beds, and the only decoration was some 20 jagged shards of mirror affixed to the wall between the two windows. The furnishings, apart from the beds, consisted of a black table and chair, two black bedside tables with black lamps, and what looked like a little black radio. (And there was a white-tiled bathroom with a red hair dryer.) "This is it?" I asked. John Calvin could not have designed a sparer hotel room.

Then we discovered a small lamp near the door. When we turned it on, its beam cast the reflections of the mirror shards onto the walls and ceiling. Instantly we were both reminded of nights we had lain awake as children watching the mysterious reflections of moonlight on the ceiling. That impression deepened after the sun had set. Wall and ceiling edges became indistinct, and the splash of luminous shapes suggested the presence of unbounded space. Sadly, we never made use of the object I had mistaken for a radio. According to a brochure I read later, its purpose was to emit a "sound carpet" to go along with the visual magic.

Max (who had chosen a less expensive pension on the other side of the river) joined us for dinner that evening in the Weinstube, one of the hotel's two restaurants. I still remember the delicacy of a poached fillet of perch in lemongrass sauce, and our little delirium of eye-rolling, lip-smacking delight over a raspberry parfait that vanished deliciously on the tongue.

When we awoke in the morning, our night-lights had paled and the three-dimensional world had returned. Two shimmering, slender, rectangular bars of warm color—red and yellow—had appeared on one of the walls. We traced them to pieces of colored glass that were mounted on the outside window jambs. Presumably the sun would continue to paint the room as the day progressed.

THOSE DOUBLE-EXPOSED PHOTOGRAPHS I mentioned earlier suddenly look like accurate records, not exactly of the moments and places we passed through, but of the capricious way memory stores its pictures—with a few jokers shuffled into the deck. Here is the center of Basel, roiling with buses, pedestrians, and visible noise, and rising above it in stately tiers, the patrician houses that stand in perpetual calm by the right bank of the Rhine. Here, swathed in the fumes of a sulfurous spring in Wiesbaden, is the Neoclassical pomp of the nearby casino from which we were excluded because of our casual attire. Here is my wife, smiling amid the roses of an exquisite garden in Eltville, attended on either side by gargoyles from the Strasbourg cathedral. Here, stenciled onto the spires of the cathedral of Worms, where Martin Luther refused to recant his beliefs, is a memorial for that city's murdered and expelled Jews.

That last picture doesn't even look arbitrary. I remember the moment in front of that church when Max told us how Kriemhild's and Brunhilde's enmity had erupted on this very spot, with disastrous consequences for Siegfried, Hagen, Gunther, and themselves. He was smiling at the quaintness of such information, but I felt something akin to vertigo, as if I were standing before an abyss of time. Then he turned to point out the proximity of the cathedral to the Jewish cemetery, with its ancient rain-smoothed gravestones, gnarled trees, and undulant knee-high grass. Clearly Christians and Jews had been close neighbors in Worms for almost a millennium. A walk of a few dozen steps to the Judengasse was the proof. There, in a dense cluster of some 80 houses adjacent to the city wall, Jews had been confined at night and on Christian holidays for several centuries. The old synagogue, which we visited next, was, not surprisingly, empty, though well kept and equipped with a Torah in the event of a visit from 10 Jewish men, the number required for a service to take place. It does happen once in a while, the somber young woman in charge of the place said shyly.

WE DIVIDED OUR LAST SIX NIGHTS BETWEEN A SMALL, MODESTLY PRICED PENSION and a palatial hotel near Eltville, a beautiful village just north of Mainz, where the Rhine takes a westward bend and the land begins to display all the clichés of Romantic literature: castles by the edge of steep cliffs, rustic inns beneath spreading elms, winding roads offering view upon view of gently rolling, vineyard-clad hills. And wherever we stopped to eat or look around, there were delicious Riesling wines to be savored.

Some of the vineyards had names like Monk's Path, Bishop's Hill, Jesuit's Garden, and God's Valley. We saw more than one church with a wine press in the front yard and its cellar vaults filled with enormous barrels.

Such easy confluence of wine and religion surprised me. In Protestant Prussia, where I had spent my formative years, no one would mix religion and alcohol (at least not in public). Yet here in the Catholic, wine-drinking Rheingau, Christ and Dionysus appeared to clink glasses on a regular basis. I found this style of religiosity appealing, but how did sincere believers make sense of it to themselves?Three days before our departure, I received a surprising answer to this question.

We attended a mass at St. Valentinuskirche in the village of Kiedrich. Gothic through and through, this church has no Baroque accretions, thanks to a 19th-century Englishman named John Sutton, who fell in love with it and sank a fortune into its preservation. The entire mass was conducted in Gregorian chant (a great rarity, according to Max) by two men whose faces and voices were set in a mode of sweet solemnity, while the chorus of village children standing behind amused themselves with what appeared to be a customary game of secret pinches and cuffs.

Ceremonies completed, the parishioners left the church and a tall, dark-complexioned man with straight black hair stepped in front of the altar, introduced himself as Walter Bibo, the organist, and proceeded to deliver a talk about the history of the church. His audience, apart from ourselves, consisted mostly of 40 or 50 members of a tour group. They began to look at their watches. I felt sorry for the organist, who wanted us all to appreciate the delicate charm of the gold and red altarpiece, the splendidly painted 500-year-old instrument entrusted to his care, the rhymed admonitions to 16th-century gossips and sluggards lovingly carved into some of the benches, the windows depicting motifs from the Passion, and, not least, a picture of Sir John Sutton kneeling in prayer. At the mention of the benefactor's name, Herr Bibo became very animated, and his audience began to leave, first singly and then in one solid, shuffling drove. Their guide, a young man, interrupted the speaker with an apology: something about train schedules and pressing appointments. Only a dozen people remained in the church, yet Herr Bibo continued his lecture with undiminished enthusiasm.

But now I was distracted. His name, Bibo—wasn't it Latin?He even looked Mediterranean. And didn't bibo mean "drink"?At that moment, I heard him pronounce the word Wein so emphatically that it recaptured my attention.

"Wine," he said, "is a sanctified part of our liturgy. But we would be poor Christians if we did not honor this precious gift outside our churches as well. As a musician, I can attest to the wonderful ways in which wine guides our spirits back to their harmonious source. Naturally, we must be moderate—one or two bottles a day is sufficient. Our ancestors knew all this very well, as you may see by that pulpit, which was built in 1493. It is shaped like a goblet. I wish I could raise it, in closing, as I would a glass, but it is too heavy. Perhaps if you help me, we can raise it together."

I imagined the pulpit filled with the light and subtle Riesling we had been drinking all week.

Herr Bibo paused while the pulpit rose in our minds.

"Zum Wohl!" he said. "To your health!"

Allow 12 days for a comfortable tour of the Rhine, which will take you through the heartland of Germany, with forays into Switzerland and France. Here, an ideal itinerary:

Day 1: Frankfurt
Easiest way to get to the area: Fly into Frankfurt. Hotel: Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof Am Kaiserplatz; 800/223-5652 or 49-69/215-920, fax 49-69/215-902; doubles from $137. The most luxurious haunt in town.

Day 2: Konstanz
Travel by rail from Frankfurt to Konstanz. The four-hour ride takes you through the Black Forest, which offers amazing views. Hotel/Restaurant: Seehotel Siber 25 Seestrasse; 49-7531/630-444, fax 49-7531/64813; doubles from $150; dinner for two $167. A 19th-century villa overlooking Lake Constance. The restaurant serves a fantastic bouillabaisse of fresh-caught lake fish.

Day 3: Basel
In Konstanz, pick up a rental car and drive west on Route 13 to Schaffhausen Falls, on the Swiss-German border. Head west on Route 34 to Waldshut (stop for cake at Kaffeehaus Ratsstübe), then take Route E54 to Basel. Hotel/Restaurant: Der Teufelhof Basel 47 Leonhardsgraben; 61-41/261-1010, fax 61-41/261-1004; doubles from $198; dinner for two $185. The hotel as art. Meals are as memorable as the rooms, at the unpretentious Weinstube restaurant on the ground floor.

Day 4: Strasbourg
Drive north on E25 (A35) to Colmar, home to Matthias Grünewald¹s Isenheim Altarpiece. Continue on E25 to Strasbourg. Hotel: Régent Petite France 5 Rue des Moulins; 800/223-5652 or 33-3/88-76-43-43, fax 33-3/88-76-43-76; doubles from $180. A modern 72-room hotel in three buildings made to look old, with tile roofs and mottled exteriors. Restaurant: Le Roi et Son Fou 37 Rue du Vieil Hôpital; 33-3/88-23-22-22; lunch for two $20. Perfect for a sightseeing breather on the outdoor terrace.

Day 5: Heidelberg
Head east across the Rhine on E52 to Appenweier and continue north on E35 until you reach Heidelberg. The imposing remains of the Heidelberg castle loom above the town. Hotel: Romantik Hotel "Zum Ritter St. Georg" 178 Hauptstrasse; 49-6221/1350, fax 49-6221/135-247; doubles from $148. The only patrician house that survived the city¹s destruction by invading French troops in 1693. Restaurants: Taj Mahal Tandoori 134A Bergheimer Strasse; 49-6221/166-461; dinner for two $65. Indian and Pakistani dishes. Weisser Bock 24 Grosse Mantelgasse; 49-6221/900-000, fax 49-6221/900-099; dinner for two $90. A pub-like place in a 200-year-old building.

Days 6-11: The Rheingau
Drive from Heidelberg through Mannheim on Route 656; continue on the autobahn (Route 67) to Worms. Then it¹s on to Mainz, either on the autobahn or on scenic Route 9. Take Route 671 to Wiesbaden, then Route 42 to Eltville. You are now in the heart of the Rheingau. Towns worth visiting include Kiedrich, Mainz, and Winkel. Hotels: Hotel Weinhaus Engel 12 Hauptstrasse, Rauenthal; 49-6123/72300, fax 49-6123/71639; doubles $60. A 10-room family-owned hotel and restaurant with its own vineyard. Hotel Schloss Reinhartshausen 43 Hauptstrasse, Eltville; 49-6123/676-199, fax 49-6123/676-400; doubles from $228. Secluded in a large park, this former castle of the Knights of Erbach has 38 rooms, 15 suites, and splendid views of the Rhine. Restaurants: Weingut Eberhard Ritter und Edler von Oetinger 2 Rheinallee, Erbach; 49-6123/62648, fax 49-6123/61743. A cozy wine bar. Try the fruity 1993 Erbacher Riesling. Historisches Gasthaus Engel Marktplatz, Kiedrich; 49-6123/5729; dinner for two $45. Hearty home cooking. Dine outside, with a view of St. Valentinuskirche. Jagdschloss Niederwald 1 Auf dem Niederwald, Rüdesheim; 49-6722/1004; dinner for two $85. Sophisticated regional cuisine at a restaurant in a castle-hotel high above Rüdesheim.

Day 12: Frankfurt
It¹s a 30-minute drive from Eltville to the Frankfurt airport for your return flight.

Seven Towns Not to Miss:

  • Basel One of Europe¹s cultural capitals, Basel is home to the modern Kunstmuseum and a comical fountain designed by Jean Tinguely (who also helped create one at the Pompidou Center).
  • Eltville The oldest town in the Rheingau. Stroll the promenade along the Rhine below the remains of the Electors¹ Castle.
  • Heidelberg No German town has received more loving tribute from poets and painters. It¹s easy to see why (despite throngs of visitors).
  • Kiedrich You¹ll find the jewel box of the late Gothic era, St. Valentinuskirche. Sunday mass is sung in Gregorian chant.
  • Mainz Visit St. Stephanskirche, a Gothic church bathed in blue light from nine remarkable stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.
  • Strasbourg An ancient and bicultural (French and German) city crowned by the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Check out its astronomical clock, ferocious gargoyles, and cavernous 11th-century crypt.
  • Winkel Here, the summer house of Clemens Brentano, a leading figure of the German Romantic movement, is now a museum.

On Screen
Kloster Eberbach is the 12th-century monastery where The Name of the Rose was filmed.