KOBLENZ, GERMANY — If you’ve ever wanted to experience time travel, but haven’t managed to thumb a ride aboard Dr. Who’s TARDIS, here’s a hot tip. Step inside the glass elevator within the soaring atrium of the Forum Confluentes cultural centre in Koblenz and let it whisk you to the rooftop. From there, you can take in centuries of history, with 360-degree views over this picturesque city hooked in the crook of the junction where the Mosel River flows into the Rhine.
To the north, the skyline is punctuated by the twin onion domes of the Liebfrauenkirche, sprouting over Old Town’s 17th-century half-timbered houses and flanked by modern skyscrapers. On a bluff overlooking the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) where the two rivers meet, the honey-coloured walls of the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress gleam like gold in the sunlight. To the south lies New Town, rebuilt in a hodgepodge of architectural styles after the majority of it was destroyed in World War II.
To see just how far Koblenz has come since the war, the Forum Confluentes — a combination of tourist office, museum and library — features an interactive touch screen on the ground floor. Slide your finger across the monitor and watch the aerial image change from a bombed-out skeleton in 1945 to a buzzing post-millennial metropolis in 2011, when the city hosted the bi-annual German Federal Horticultural Show.
Above: Koblenz sweeps up from the banks of the romantic Rhine River.
“In Koblenz, you have BC. You have AD. Then you have the Garden Show,” says Johannes Bruchhof, a native of Koblenz who now works with its tourism office.
“For us, it’s a new age,” he says of the transformation that has taken place here over the past decade.
With a garden show budget in excess of 100 million euros, this city, located 125km northwest of Frankfurt, didn’t just splash out on shrubberies for the white-columned Electoral Palace, the Deutsches Eck park and the 200-year-old Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. Koblenz built on the momentum created by this event to treat itself to an urban overhaul, creating an environment that marries the charm and grandeur of the past with the hip, forward-thinking vibe of a 21st-century university city.
“Koblenz is very popular with students, and a lot of people come from surrounding areas, too, when they want to make parties,” Johannes explains. Although the city has a population of only about 113,000, Johannes says it boasts the highest restaurant and club density in all of Germany. (Take that, Berlin!)
As part of the city’s garden show makeover, promenades along the Rhine and Mosel were refurbished, and the white-washed Forum Confluentes, which adopted the name the Romans gave this city when they founded it 2,000 years ago, was erected in the central square. Perhaps most importantly, a cable car system was built to transport passengers from the Deutsches Eck to the hilltop UNESCO-listed Ehrenbreitstein Fortress on the other side of the Rhine. Nearly one million visitors a year make the pilgrimage to the fort, which is home to a café, restaurant, youth hostel and three museums.
“The fortress is open 24 hours a day,” Bruchhof explains, as we explore its maze of alleyways and cobblestone squares. Although the museum is closed, you can walk through the grounds, taking in views of the riverbanks, anytime of day or night.
Above: Cafés and restaurants flank Jesuitenplatz, left, while right, Liebfrauenkirche rises above Koblenz' Old Town.
Koblenz also sits in the heart of Germany’s wine country, with vineyards gouged out of steep slopes better suited to mountain goats then men. All along the Rhine and Mosel, tiny towns seem to have been herded downhill by the inexorable advance of the vines, leaving the populace clinging to the riverbanks in one stubborn last stand.
It’s worth hiring a car to explore these villages, not only to take in tilting half-timbered houses and historic highlights like the medieval Marksburg Castle, but for the authentic cuisine you’ll often find in these pocket-sized hamlets.
In Winningen along the Mosel, for instance, we lunch at Fronhof-Stuben Café Restaurant, situated in this hamlet’s oldest house, built in 951. Here, Chef Michael Klein serves only wine from Winningen and uses local, seasonal products to create traditional dishes with a modern twist. His “zander” (pike with blood pudding) is shaped like a spring roll and perched atop sauerkraut and mashed potatoes. Definitely not the way a German hausfrau would serve it, although Klein’s mother, as well as his wife and young son, all pitch in at this family-run restaurant.
In the town of Rhens, alongside the Rhine, Hotel Restaurant Roter Ochse (the Red Ox) specializes in fresh game. Chef Werner Kochhäuser’s grandfather founded the restaurant in 1935 and his father hunts to supply a meaty menu that is 90 per cent wild boar and 10 per cent venison.
Above: The area's lush vineyards cascade down into the mighty Rhine.
There’s wild boar stew, wild boar roulade and even an amuse-bouche of wild boar liver. I find all its incarnations surprisingly delicious — not gamey, but rather more intense and flavourful than regular pork. Furthermore, Kochhäuser assures me that the piggy on my plate enjoyed a frolicsome, free-range existence.
“The animals feed themselves in the forest and are happy until the end,” he says, soothingly. “Then one day he hears a noise and thinks, ‘Oh, they take a picture!’ ”
If that doesn’t make you feel better, then perhaps the restaurant’s variety of Rhine wines will. Or, if you’re a whisky lover like me, Kochhäuser can wheel out such a dizzying selection it would make a Scotsman swoon. Fortunately, the Roter Ochse also has 28 hotel rooms, so you can reserve a bed if you plan to imbibe.
Of course, I can’t leave Koblenz without visiting at least one winery, and Weingut Göhlen proves to be an excellent choice.
I feel instantly at home with owners Georg Schmidt and Franziska Schmidt-Göhlen, whose grandfather founded the winery in 1921.
This jovial husband and wife team have created a fantasy land of tasting rooms, ranging from a tropical garden with banana trees and potted palms to a candlelit cellar, all bedecked with whimsical statues of gnomes, dragons and fairies.
“This is one of my girlfriends,” Schmidt grins, fondly patting the knee-high head of a curvaceous carved nymph.
We settle down in a wood panelled room with checkered tablecloths for the serious business of tasting several of the 30 different wines they sell here. Although the area is best known for Riesling, Weingut Göhlen grows a wide range of grapes — the legacy of Schmidt-Göhlen’s father, who had a passion for testing new varieties.
When the couple took over the winery in 2000, “my husband wanted to make more Riesling,” Schmidt-Göhlen recalls. “I said ‘No,’ and he came around to my way of thinking,” she laughs, pouring me yet another glass. “So we can serve guests wine from nine different grapes, not just nine Rieslings, and that makes the wine tasting very special.”
Above: Some of Germany's most famous wines come from this region.
“Zum wohl,” I say, attempting a toast I recently learned, but Schmidt shakes his head.
“We say ‘prost,’” he smiles, “because ‘zum wohl’ takes too long.”
While I appreciate German efficiency, I reckon I might just stick with “zum wohl.” Now that I’ve discovered Koblenz’s Garden of Eden, I’m in no hurry to leave.
JUST THE FACTS
• Getting there: Koblenz Hauptbahnhof train station is about 75 minutes from Frankfurt Airport. Train info: https://www.bahn.com/en/view/index.shtml
• Tourism info: https://www.koblenz-tourism.com http://www.historicgermany.travel
• Stay: GHotel is a well-equipped, modern 3-star hotel in New Town near Koblenz Hauptbahnhof train station. https://www.ghotel-group.de/en
• Eat and drink: Weingut Göhlen, Koblenz,
Fronhof-Stuben Café Restaurant, Winningen,
Hotel Restaurant Roter Ochse, Rhens,
• Explore: Cable car to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress:
Tour Ehrenbreitstein Fortress:
Tour Marksburg Castle:
It's a beautifully preserved Medieval fortress rising up above the village of Braubach, less than 15km southeast of Koblenz. http://www.marksburg.de/en/