Beneath the modernity and glory, a reserved romanticism runs in the veins of Germany
When we mention Germany, people quickly think of the financial hub Frankfurt, the historic capital Berlin, the beer city Munich, or the advanced commercial manufacturing and impeccable social system which define the country, yet often neglect its stunning beauty, including mountains, forests, waterways, medieval towns and the living edition of fairy stories.
Upper Middle Rhine Valley
The Rhine, the greatest river in western Europe, originates from the Alps in Switzerland, passing Liechtenstein, Austria, France, Germany, all the way to the Netherlands, and enters the North Sea at Rotterdam. The stretch from Koblenz to Bingen in Germany, namely the upper-middle Rhine valley, is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Over 60 historic towns, numerous castles, vast vine terraces fill both banks of this 65-kilometer river reach.
There are many ways to savor this picturesque area. If you are the athletic type, try walking or cycling. Otherwise, take a train to get around. Nevertheless, the best approach is by cruise. Enjoy the scenery spread out quietly on each bank and wait for a surprise around the next turn. Get off at any stop to deeply explore the towns on foot and then get on the next cruise to continue the water journey. You can both begin the journey from Bingen upriver or from Coblenz downstream. There are trains and ships from Frankfurt or Mainz to Bingen, and from Kolner or Bonn to Coblenz. Currently, the most popular cruise companies that run the upper-middle Rhine valley route are KD and Loreley-Linie. They run 5-6 cruises each day. (For more details, please check KD: www.kd-rhein-main.de; Loreley-Linie: www.loreley-linie.de)
Towns, usually blessed with low-rise houses, running streams, high mountains and time-honored castles, is the DNA of German culture. Bingen is one of them, a tranquil and pristine town. You won’t see many people on the streets, nor are there busy commercial areas. The Burg Klopp castle is the landmark and a perfect place to overlook the town and Rhine.
Opposite to Bingen across the river is Rüdesheim, a prestigious village of wine. People like to take a stroll along the Drosselgasse, a walking street at the town center, and then choose a restaurant to sip the good wine produced locally.
The next worthy-to-visit stop is Bacharach, awarded as one of the ten most beautiful towns of Europe. Vast vine terrace, medieval heritage, wooden structured houses and cobblestone paved streets weave together in harmony. The Postenturm stands high on the mountain which invites for a visit. You can find the way up the mountain on Blücherstraße Street. If time permits, spending a night at Bacharach will not disappoint you. Rhein-Hotel Bacharach at the town center is a family-run hotel and has been in operation for three generations. Guests can enjoy the Rhine directly from their rooms. The hotel’s restaurants provide truly authentic German food with seasonal and local ingredients.
Compared with the previous towns, Koblenz is really a “big city.” Severely damaged during the World War Two, it has been rebuilt since. Now, many parks and squares are dotted around the town, conveying a lively atmosphere. A cable car connects the old town with the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress (Koblenz Castle) rising 118 meters above the Rhine. This castle is said to be the most solid of those from the 19th century and has been well-preserved. On the cable car, you will have a bird’s eye view over this unique town perched at the junction of the Rhine and the Mosel River. Every cable car has its own design. For example, one car has a completely glass floor. The best time to take the cable car is around sunrise or sunset. Near the lower station of the cable car at the old town is a traditional German restaurant named Gerhards Genussgesellschaft which has all the German dishes you have ever heard of yet haven’t had the chance to try.
To the south of the Rhine Valley, by the River Neckar, an old university town quietly dwells. It is regarded by many as the most romantic city in Germany. Mark Twain once wrote: “I have never enjoyed a view which has such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one (The Heidelberg Castle) gives.” And Goethe said: “I lost my heart in Heidelberg.”
Heidelberg is located between Stuttgart and Frankfurt and can be accessed directly from these two cities by trains.
Built in the 13th century, The Schloss, or Heidelberg Castle, perches on the mountain of King’s Throne at the south bank of River Neckar. It was once the residence of the Prince Electors of Heidelberg and served as a fortification. It became a ruin during a war in the 18th century, which, however, added a veil of mystery to the castle. That is why so many writers, painters and musicians have come to visit it since then and have been inspired by the site for their masterpieces.
To arrive at the castle, you can either take the funicular from Kornmarkt at the main street of old town or walk up the mountain. The former takes 90 seconds and the later 15 minutes. As a typical Renaissance construction, the castle is breathtakingly magnificent with statues standing on the walls façade and grand arch windows inviting people into the depth of history. Most of the rooms in the castle have been renovated and are open to visitors now. Banquets and art performances are occasionally held in the halls. The castle is the home to the world’s biggest wine barrel, 8 meters tall and 9 meters long, which can hold 220,000 litres of liquor. Also, there is an interesting Deutsches Apotheken Museum where a large variety of herbs and pharmaceutical tools are on display. When you stand on the outdoor terrace and look far from the same angle as those in the past, you may feel that time freezes in the moment. Then when you go down to the big garden, all is back to today. Big lawns, statues and fountains makes the garden full of life.
After the castle visit, you can continue taking the funicular upwards to the mountain top. There are different treks and a children’s park there. Or you can directly go downhill to savor the local daily life at the old town. The most vibrant place at Heidelberg town is its 1.6 kilometer long walking street – Hauptstrasse, the main street, along both sides of which are dotted many restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries and other stores. There are some shops you may not want to miss. Firstly, the Student’s Kiss handmade chocolate store. It boasts not only the best flavor but also the best story. At the beginning of the last century, German society was not so open as today, so it was impossible for the students to openly express their love for each other. The clever store owner created his Student’s Kiss chocolate brand. And very soon, it became a trend for the students to speak of love with chocolate as a gift. Also, don’t miss the Zum Roten Ochsen German restaurant which once entertained Mark Twain and Marilyn Monroe. The place features a cosy atmosphere. Recommended dishes are bratwurst, spätzle, roast ox and sauerkraut. Jinx, Pinte and P11 are popular bars among the local students.
Heidelberg University is completely open, with no walls or gates. So, when you see the baroque buildings scattered throughout the town, they might be either the classroom buildings or dormitory buildings. Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University is the oldest university in Germany and the third oldest in Europe.
The Old University built in 1712 and the New University of 1930s stand at each side of the Universitätsplatz (University Plaza). On the west of New University is the grand University Library, with a collection of 2,600,000 books, including over 6,000 precious manuscripts and printed books from ancient times.
On the east side of the Old University building, there is a two-storey building, commonly known as the “Student Prison”, which was set up and in use from 1912 to 1914 to hold students who violated school rules. However, the interesting thing was that not only did the prison fail to serve the purpose of punishing students, but it quickly became a paradise for students to enjoy a happy time together. They played cards, painted on the walls, and chatted all night. Many students even deliberately violate the rules to try to get into the “prison”. Today, the iron beds and tables that were used are still preserved, and the graffiti on the walls and roofs are still clearly seen.
Walk toward the river, cross over the Old Bridge (Alte Brucke), and upwards along the hill, you will meet the Philosophenweg, or Philosophers’ Walk. It is called so because many philosophers, writers and poets have come here for a stroll, contemplation and communication with each other, such as Goethe, Hegel, etc. As you climb up the mountain along the path, you can see the strikingly beautiful picture being spread out little by little, including the castle on the opposite bank, and the colorful old town below. There are several terrace gardens at the top of the mountain.
On weekdays, locals also enjoy hiking on the Philosophers’ Walk. Note that it is best to choose a sunny day for your walk since the road will become slippery during rainy days.
On the south of Heidelberg is the largest forest mountain area in Germany, the Black Forest of Baden-wurttemberg, stretching from the traditional hot spring town of Baden-Baden in the north to the Swiss border. Looked at from a distance, the dense waves of trees is quite dark, and hence get the name.
The land is richly blessed with valleys, woodlands, meadows, lakes, waterfalls and farmhouses, like a wonderland out of a storybook. Therefore, please reserve enough time to fully explore the magic of nature, by walking, cycling or driving.
The B500 highway across the Black Forest is known as Germany’s most beautiful 50 kilometers, also called “Black Forest Highway”, or Schwarzwaldhochstrasse. Along the way, there is a wealth of natural treasures as well as many hotels and hiking trails. Thanks to its comparatively higher altitude, it offers a more complete view of the mountains and woodlands. You can stop anywhere, put your car aside, and walk into the depths of the forest, encountering secluded waterfalls, fairy valleys and singing birds.
Famous attractions along B500 include Black Forest National Park, Mummelsee Lake and Geroldsau waterfall.
The Black Forest National Park is undoubtedly the essence of the entire Black Forest area. It covers 100 square kilometers of marshes, wild land, lakes, canyons and trees composing a pristine natural environment. There are also many hiking and cycling routes, as well as exploration trails designed for children.
The wide Mummelsee glacial cirque lake is a lively ornament to the forest. It is very pleasant to enjoy the scenery by taking a boat on the water, or strolling on the lakeside where many benches are set, so you can have a rest whenever you like. There are signposts which clearly indicate the way up to the highest peak in the Black Forest, the Hornisgrinde. From the Mummelsee Lake, you can also travel to several other towns nearby on foot.
The nearest parking lot to the famous Geroldsau waterfall is Wannacker. After passing the tree-shielded wooden road, and climbing over a few small slopes, guided by the increasingly thunderous sound, you will finally meet the waterfall. The water curtain pours down from high into the turquoise pond, pounding against the rock and nourishing the blooming flowers around. If you happen to come in summer, you will find it an ideal place to cool off. If you feel tired, rest at the nearby Bütthof Forest Inn.
Baden-Baden in the north of Black Forest is a famous historic spa town with a pleasant climate and rich mineral spring resources. Since Roman times, people around the world have flocked here to experience the healing power of its hot spring waters. Today, there are still many remains of the baths of Roman times.
Today, the top two public hot spring baths in Baden-Baden are the classic Friedrichsbad and the modern Caracalla Baths.
The two baths are near each other, although they look very different. With 170 years history, Friedrichsbad features magnificent statues, fresco, archways and domes. Built on the old Roman bath, it best preserves the Roman bathing traditions, being one of the very few baths today which offer mixed-sex bathing. Its luxurious 17-step spa treatment program includes varying baths at different temperatures of the thermal waters, combined with Irish hot-air baths and concluding with a soap and brush massage. The glass-walled Caracalla is quite modern, occupying an area of 4,000 square meters across two floors. The main facilities include two circular pools and a large central fountain, plus hot and cold rock grottos, whirlpools, swimming pools, saunas, a current channel and water jets, all fed by the springs. The major difference of the two baths is that Friedrichsbad is all-naked bathing while Caracalla allows for swimsuits.
Another landmark in Baden-Baden is the Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa built in the 19th century. Embraced by trees and running streams, the spa hotel provides not only relaxing and beauty treatments, but also medical programs including oral rehabilitation, body check, physiotherapy, prevention and healthcare. The spa team is composed of professional therapists, doctors, physiotherapists, dentists, gynecologists, nutritionists and dressers.
Hotel Bareis and Traube-Tonbach are two other great spa resorts in the Black Forest area.
Tucked away in the picturesque Baiersbronn village not far from Baden-Baden, Hotel Bareiss has 8 restaurants, serving everything from rustic regional dishes to global delicacies. One of the restaurants has been awarded three Michelin stars. The spa offers a wide range of wellness experiences, from Finnish sauna to aromatic steam, from modern treatments to Ayurveda, and more. The newly-renovated garden is a place for sunbathing and rest. Furthermore, there are several indoor and outdoor salt swimming pools and fresh water pools for a joyful plunge.
Just four kilometers away from Baiersbronn is the Tonbach valley where Hotel Traube Tonbach is located. The resort boasts a distinct regional style that combines Swabian carvings, crystal chandeliers, and pastel plaids. The spa’s sauna and steam facilities go beyond traditions, with salt inhalation chambers and ice fountains. You can also get a classic German hay wrap here, a detoxifying treatment where you’re wrapped in wet, organic hay for twenty minutes. After the treatment, take a ride up into the mountains in a carriage pulled by a pair of sprightly workhorses and learn the history of the Black Forest.