RÜDESHEIM AM RHEIN, GERMANY – Sophie, the weinprinzessin (wine princess), welcomes me to a popular family-run restaurant with the exuberant local greeting gude.
“We use gude (sounds like gouda, as in cheese) to say hello in Rüdesheim,” she tells me as we dive into heaping helpings of white asparagus (yum!) and pork schnitzel (double yum!).
“But,” she adds with a twinkle in her eye, “we also use gude to say goodbye … and to say how are you? … and to order a glass of wine … and to say thank you …”
About the only thing locals don't use gude for is to describe this fairy tale town that sits on the banks of the Rhine at the mighty river’s widest point. That’s because there’s no one word that can truly capture Rüdesheim’s allure.
Above: Castle Rheinstein sits high above the mighty Rhine and its turrets offer great views.
This is a place where fertile vineyards cascade down to the shores of the Rhine. A place where Medieval castles crown the rolling hills that overlook the great river. A place where a gigantic monument, which has become Germany's second most visited tourist site, casts a shadow on the Rhine's calm waters. A place with an enchanted forest that UNESCO has designated to be one of its World Heritage Sites.
Rüdesheim truly is magical. Maybe that’s why this section of the river is called the “Romantic Rhine.”
The highlight of any visit to this fascinating region of southern Germany, though, is to stop at one of the castles that cling precariously to the rocky ledges high above the river. There are plenty to choose from — 26 alone in a 69km stretch of the Rhine between Rüdesheim and Koblanz.
Above: Markus Hecher, left, and his family live in Castle Rheinstein surrounded by ancient treasures.
Some of the castles were abandoned long ago, their skeletal remains now used as nesting places for hawks and other great birds that soar high above the vineyards. Others, like Bingen’s castle Rheinstein in Assmannshausen — 2.8km down river from Rüdesheim — have been lovingly restored and are now open to the public.
I trudge up a steep, winding path after leaving a ferry to reach the entrance of the 14th-century castle Rheinstein and there to greet me is Markus Hecher, the current owner.
It was Markus’ father Hermann, a famous German opera singer, who fell in love with the castle when he saw it from the Rhine while on a river cruise and decided to buy it.
Hecher reportedly paid the equivalent of one euro for the castle, which was originally built by a Prussian prince. Then Hecher, the elder, spent a fortune restoring it.
Money well spent, in the estimation of those who visit the castle, which was abandoned for 200 years before the Hecher family made it their home.
To help defer the costs of maintaining such a wonderful piece of history, Markus has established a terrace restaurant that serves up some wonderful food and a small gift shop.
One part of the castle is where Markus and his family live and is off limits. But the ramparts and turrets, from where you get jaw-dropping views of the river and surrounding vineyards, are free to roam.
Above: Coffins from the 15th century lie exposed in the castle and a cross in the river marks the spot where a famous German poet reportedly asked for his body to be buried.
The winding staircase in the largest turret leads me to rooms filled with Medieval memorabilia — suits of armour, ancient tapestries, gorgeous stained glass windows and furniture dating back to the 14th century. Some are original but most of the museum-worthy items were bought by the Hacher family after they took possession.
One room in the oldest part of castle is offered for tourist stays and a night here gives a whole new meaning to the term “sleeping with history."
The small courtyard has become popular for parties and weddings but the most fascinating part of the castle is the crypt, where three perfectly-preserved coffins lay exposed.
“We do not know who are in these coffins but they do date back to the castle’s earliest days,” says Markus.
A short ferry boat ride takes me back to Rüdesheim, and along the way we pass a rock in the river with a small cross attached. According to legend, the cross signifies the spot where the heart of a German poet supposedly rests. He apparently loved the Rhine and requested his heart remain there after his death.
It’s not hard to see why Rüdesheim am Rhein has become one of the most visited towns in Germany. Almost two million people — many arrive on river boat cruises — visit the sleepy hamlet each year and marvel at a place where both the Celts and Romans established settlements.
Above: Wine towns like Rüdesheim are gathered along the Rhine and are tourist favourites.
Market Square is the town gathering spot and, as the name suggests, it's where local farmers come to sell their produce each week. The square is ringed with small shops selling everything from hand-painted beer steins to handmade chocolates. A small wine shack dispenses glasses of the area’s renowned Riesling, so, as you’d expect, a festive mood prevails here most days.
The small town is also home to the Asbach distillery, makers of Germany’s favourite brandy, a music museum with instruments from the 18th century and Eibingen Abbey, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 12th century. The 45 nuns who still live there make some of the region’s best wines. Legendary St. Jakobus church casts a shadow over market square.
Many of the homes in Rüdesheim — the oldest is a half-timbered, three-storey house called the Klunkhardshof that leans to one side — have been turned into charming hotels and inns where visitors who stay overnight get a real sense of local life.
The town is populated with lots of narrow streets filled with charming homes and most are painted cotton candy colours. The most famous of Rüdesheim’s streets is Drosselgasse, which dates back to the 15th century and ranks among the shortest and narrowest in the world. During the summer months, the two-metre-wide street that runs for just 144 metres is jammed with people who come to enjoy the town’s nightlife in one of the many wine taverns and restaurants located there.
Above: Rüdesheim is dominate by colourful homes that date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
The most popular spot to eat on the Drosselgasse is Breuer’s Rüdesheimer Schloss, where I meet the wine princess. It has been family owned and run for 40 years.
The large dining room and adjoining terrace covered in grape vines rocks with traditional German music each night and the local grub served here will have you singing with joy. Breuer’s also offers quaint rooms that overlook a large garden where herbs used in the restaurant are grown.
Around the corner from Breuer’s is where you board the cable car that takes you to the Niederwald Monument and UNESCO park. The two-person cars slowly soar over the town’s lush vineyards and gives occupants some breathtaking views of the Rhine.
The 38-metre-high Niederwald Monument is one of the most impressive in the world and was erected to commemorate Germany’s 1871 victory over France, which led, a few years later, to the country’s first unification.
The statue, with Germania, the personification of the German nation, standing proudly atop, is the second most visited site in the country after Berlin’s Reichstag (parliament).
Again, the views one gets from here are spectacular.
Above: The 38-metre-high Niederwald Monument, left, looks down on the vineyards that sweep to the Rhine.
The monument also serves as the gateway to Osteinsische Niedwald, the stunning 100-hectare UNESCO park filled with trails that lead to the back doors of abandoned castles like Burgruine Ehrenfels, an assortment of caves and 300-year-old giant oak trees.
With all that it has to offer, Rüdesheim really is a gude place to visit.
JUST THE FACTS
Places to eat in Rüdesheim:
• Breuer’s Rüdesheimer Schloss on the Drosselgasse: http//:www.ruedesheimer-schloss.com
• Niederwald visitor centre at the entrance to Osteinsische Niedwald:
Place to stay:
• Central Hotel Rüdesheim is a few steps away from Market Square. Rates start around 100 euros a night: https://www.centralhotel.net
• For more information on Germany, go to http://www.germany.travel/en