The train meandered through charming medieval towns, verdant vineyards and dense woodlands lullin g us into a deep sleep. Keeping us company was the winding river, weaving tales of history. There was a romantic allure about it, a quaintness that intoxicates your senses. We woke up to find ourselves in the land of barons, knights and counts.
Germany greeted us with a heady mix of concentration camps and world war stories. We gulped down chunks of history with fresh beer. We were in a mood to indulge our senses. The Rhine enchanted us with its little legends and what better way to savour it, but by cruising down the romantic river. We get to try the wine growing on its slopes and also a taste of the Middle Ages. This is the heart of castle country, where the wine God Bacchus ruled.
The train brought us to a quaint old station and they announced Rudesheim. The automatic door slid past us and we took in a moment to breathe. The doors had opened into the banks of the Rhine. I thought for a moment that this is a dream, the kind of stuff fairy tales and picture post cards are made of. The curvy river with sloping vineyards, petite villages huddled on its banks, countless castles on rocky outcrops, it was breath taking.
Rudesheim seemed straight out of a fairy tale book. We were greeted by live music from the rustic wine taverns .It was vibrant and colourful out there. A few couples were on their bicycles peddling down along the river. Some backpackers were immersed in maps. Further down, loud guffaws of laughter was heard amidst lots of singing. We downed our glasses of wine and gorged on delicious pastries. Half timbered buildings on cobbled pathways with colourful flowers sprouted out of windows. There was not a single car on the road.The loud horn pierced through the air announcing the cruise. We perched ourselves on the deck along with a multitude of tourists. As we steered our course down the river, we were greeted by a 360 degree panoramic view of green slopes dotted with cable cars flying across them. The blue green waters heightened our senses. A slight drizzle started. The breeze caressed our cheeks. A collage of colours blinded us, he blues and the greens merged with the browns. The story of the Rhine cruise had begun.
We were sailing down the Upper Middle Rhine valley where the river carves its way through the slate mountains between Rudesheim and Koblenz. A UNESCO world heritage site, this melodramatic panorama is the perfect setting for real life stories of human passion and suffering. At every turn of the river, we relived a bit of history. Tales of yore of rogue barons, wicked bishops and lives of countless counts echoed from the ruins of castles and fortresses standing atop the lush green vineyards. Every picturesque hamlet was like a picture post card, replete with its church, clock tower, castle and cottages. Even the names had a romantic allure like Bingen, Lorch, Bacharach and the like. The weather was perfect for wine tasting and we were already swaying with the endless parade of pageantry. If the medieval revelry and chivalry does not bewitch you, the wine will surely give you a high.Rudesheim gave way to Bingen where the Romans were the earliest settlers. The Klopp Castle, the Mouse Tower stands tall here. The rivers Rhine and Nahe meet making it a perfect muse for ballads and legends. A wicked bishop, dying peasants and a multitude of mice weave the plot of the next legend as we went past the Mouse Tower, a toll gate located right in the middle of the river. It was the year 970 and the miserly Bishop Hatto 11 was controlling the toll gate. He withheld grain from peasants, tricked them into a barn and set it on fire. Millions of mice emerged from the burning structure, chasing the bishop to the Mouse Tower , nibbled at the massive doors and devoured him .The sky seemed to have become overcast as we heard a tragic ballad, ‘Bingen on the Rhine’ being recited – a dying soldier’s nostalgia for his town.
The story had made us thirst for more wine. As we cruised down, negotiating a curve, we saw a castle perched atop a cliff surrounded by vineyards. The baritone of the guide echoed. “It was the ruins of Ehrensels Castle,” he said. This fortress along with the Mouse Tower was a toll station and was destroyed by the French in the wars of the17th century.A train whizzed past and we were in Lorch. A toast was raised to the town that gave the world the first red wine from the Rhine valley. Nestled at the mouth of the Wissper Dell, this valley smacks of dwarfs, knights, witches and talking birds .We gazed at the ruins of Castle Nollingen and on the other side, the miniature mountain Kedrich, known in legends as Devil’s ladder frowned upon us. It was time for another story. A dwarf takes revenge on an inhospitable knight and abducts his daughter. The tale talks about her rescue by a gallant knight who befriends the gnomes and uses a ladder to reach the top of the hill.
Our next port of halt was a wine market named after the Roman God. Bacchiara explained our guide means altar of Bachchus . “Medieval Bacharach boasts of one of the most magnificent castles, Stahleck, now a youth hostel.” A German prince got married here, our guide informed us. A flag fluttered high and there were green vineyards around. Not a single soul in the hill. The brown turrets of the castle seemed to be touching the sky.
The journey took us into a different world of fortresses and dungeons. We slowed down as we saw the turrets with pointed guns staring right in our faces. “A toll station,” explained our guide, “welcome to the Pfalz castle.” An extortion tactic, a chain across the river forced ships to submit and a rebellious trader was thrown in a dungeon. The Pfalz which had never been conquered was used by Prussian troops in the war against Napoleon. "A ferry would take you to the castle which is a museum today, where you find no electricity or toilets like it was in those times," says my guide.
We were getting impatient now. Stories are great, but the touch and feel was missing. Schonburg meaning a beautiful castle gazed at us lovingly from atop a hill and impulsively we just got off the cruise at Oberwesel. "The town of towers," the guide calls it as “16 medieval town defences remain here today.” From the 12th century, the Dukes of Schönburg ruled over the town of Oberwesel and levied customs on the Rhine River. Burned down by the French in the 17th century, the castle was restored and is now a hotel.
The ship stopped at the green banks. We saw a few locals playing soccer next to the river. A bridge appeared from nowhere taking us to the town. We looked down and saw a riot of colours. Brick red churches, a pink castle with brown walls, green vineyards, a railway station with orange buildings, bright purple and blue flowers, and houses painted in pink and cream, a misty river encircled by green hills and an empty grey road. The town looked inviting. The Church of Our Lady, Chapel of St Martin along with the Schonburg gave it a medieval touch. There was not a soul around. We had no map, nor were there boards. We walked through row houses and vineyards and climbed uphill to the castle. The railway clock said 4 .05 pm as we went to check the train schedule. The station was empty as well.
The houses gave way to sloping vineyards and the river flowed below, enveloped by mist. Our feet grew tired. We had walked for more than half an hour. Finally we saw an arrow mark pointing upwards to the castle. A small wooden bench called us. We stopped and looked down at the river and town .The blue sky beckoned us as the castle towered atop the hill. We walked - and all of a sudden, the road broke into bright fields of yellow and orange flowers. I felt like I had walked into the sets of a Yash Raj Film.
We could not see the castle anymore...did we miss a road? We went a bit further and realized that it was a private property. The road curved down and ended in a fence that was a stud farm. For miles and miles around there were just meadows with a few horses grazing blissfully unaware of us. And then we saw it. Across the meadows, beyond a wired fence against the backdrop of the mountain and the river, with a ladder down its walls, was the Schonburg Castle, looking like Rapunzel may climb out any moment from the pink window. We looked at each other in awe. The silence was mesmerizing. We had lost our way, but what a wonderful way to lose it. We sat there on the grass for a few minutes and then retraced our steps. We had missed a little detour; a car just came down from there - the first we had seen in more than an hour. A steep descent took us down a wooden bridge that led to the curved arches of the castle.
The wine had just stirred our senses, the charm was working. We had just walked into the world of fairy tales, legends and myths and I don't think we wanted to leave, then or forever ... Maybe this is what they call Utopia.