Let me start off by saying that I have the upmost respect for the German people. I marvel at their architecture and engineering, love their beer and pretzels, and tip my hat at the guts it takes for a grown man to wear Lederhosen. That said, I must have come across two of the most clueless citizens in that great nation during a recent stopover in Frankfurt.
With ten hours at my disposal, my destination was the nearby World Heritage Rhine Valley – by far the most famous landmark in the region. The problem was, nobody seemed to know how to get there. Without a GPS, map or internet connection, I overcame my masculine impulses and actually stopped to ask for directions. The Frau at the hotel where I stopped was very kind and told me to take the nearby highway in the direction of Wurzburg. No problem. I hopped on the 3 and was soon zooming down the Autobahn.
At about the 45 minute mark I was certain I should see some signs or familiar town names, but none were forthcoming. So at a rest stop I asked a friendly young man if I was correctly headed in the right direction. “Yes,” was his reply, and my doubts were assuaged. I drove on for another 45 minutes and made it to Wurzburg. It was at this point that I realized that I was not in the Rhine Valley. In fact, I wasn’t even in any valley. No offense to the fine people of Wurzburg, but this was not what I came to see.
Sneaking a peek at a map for sale in a gas station, I realized that I had been given bad information – to the tune of an hour and a half in the wrong direction. And not just the wrong direction. The complete opposite direction. And they say Americans are bad with their geography! It may be true, but you can ask any Long Islander which way to the Statue of Liberty and even the dumbest among us would still say west (likely with a thick accent and the question: “What’s it to you?”).
Trekking back across the Fatherland, I briefly entertained the idea of abandoning my quest; but with another five hours still at my disposal, I figured why not and raced on to the small hamlet of Bingen. Stepping out of the car to admire the panorama before me, I knew I had made the right decision.
After parking the car along the western banks of this ancient waterway, it was a pleasant walk along a shoreline promenade lined with restaurants, shops, and a tranquil garden. Across the way was the imposing Niederwalddenkmal monument of Germania, erected to commemorate the foundation of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. The slopes of the gorge were a verdant patchwork of vineyards and terraced fields, with some quaint little fairy-tale villages thrown in for good measure. Clearly the people who gave me directions earlier had never been here. This is not a landscape one could easily forget.
As I moved along the banks, I was struck by the number of castles that sat perched on rocky escarpments – and on some occasions – right in the middle of the river (apparently taxing river traffic was a Medieval cash cow – sort of like the Throng’s Neck Bridge without the EZ Pass). Barges and ferries still ply these same waters, with the addition of river cruise boats whose only cargo are passengers looking for a better view of one of Central Europe’s most dramatic natural scenes.
At Rheinstein Castle, I made the trek up the zig-zag ‘driveway’ and past the portcullis only to find out that entrance was cash only. Since I didn’t have any Euros or breath left, I just admired the stunning views and let gravity assist my descent. I’d say that it was a waste of time, but my photo album would say differently.
I should also mention that the valley isn’t the only thing worth looking at. The towns are rich with ethnic architecture, impressive churches, and that Oktoberfest vibe the rest of the world tries to recreate. If I wasn’t driving (and about to take a ten hour flight that evening), I would have loved to party with the locals – whether they could give directions or not.
Sadly, due to my misadventure, I missed out on exploring the rest of this must-see region. Bingen is pretty much about as far as I got on my original itinerary to see it through to Koblenz. But the valley has been there long enough for me to rest assured that it isn’t going anywhere, and the next time I pass through I just might be able to see it all.
So if you’re looking for an easy day trip from Frankfurt that incorporates rich history, a wealth of castles, and truly dramatic natural scenery, Germany’s Rhine Valley has everything you need. Just be sure to bring your GPS so that you don’t have to ask for directions.
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