Executive summary by darmansjah
Between Rüdesheim and Koblenz, the Rhine cuts deeply through the Rhenish slate mountains, meandering between hillside castles and steep fields of wine to create a magical mixture of beauty and legend. This is Germany’s landscape at its most dramatic – muscular forested hillsides alternate with craggy cliffs and nearly-vertical terraced vineyards. Idyllic villages appear around each bend, their neat half-timbered houses and Gothic church steeples seemingly plucked from the world of fairy tales.
High above the river, busy with barge traffic, and the rail lines that run along each bank are the famous medieval castles, some ruined, some restored, all mysterious and vestiges of a time that was anything but tranquil. Most were built by a mafia of local robber barons – knights, princes and even bishops – who extorted tolls from merchant ships by blocking their passage with iron chains. Time and French troops under Louis XIV laid waste to many of the castles but several were restored in the 19th century, when Prussian kings, German poets and British painters discovered the gorge’s timeless beauty. Today, some have been reincarnated as hotels and, in the case of Burg Stahleck, as a hostel.
In 2002 Unesco designated these 67km of riverscape, more prosaically known as the Oberes Mittelrheintal, as a World Heritage Site. The World Heritage Atlas (published 2011), a 220-page book available at tourist offices for a bargain €2, has reams of information on everything between the river’s Kilometre 526 (Rüdesheim and Bingen) and Kilometre 593 (Koblenz).
One of Germany’s most popular tourist destinations, the area is often deluged with visitors, especially in summer and early autumn, but it all but shuts down in winter. Hotel prices are highest on weekends from May to mid-October but are still remarkably reasonable
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