Biking Bacharach and Beyond

I’d mentioned my plans to travel down the Rhein River while I was chatting with some Colognials at the Dom Forum. I was mildly confused when they kept referring to each place along the river as a “bend” not a village, but as I rode the train along the Rhein River from Koblenz to Bacharach, it made perfect sense. The Rhein is a very curvy river, and at almost every bend, you’ll find a castle. The area I was going looks like it could have come out of a fairytale storybook, and indeed, the area has been a tourist destination for at least 200 years, for people who are looking for exactly that form of Germany. Here’s one view from the center of Bacharach:


Cruising along the Rhein is a popular tourist activity, but unfortunately, they’re extremely limited in the off-season. So instead, for only 10 euros, I rented a touring bike from Bacharach’s friendly bike store, and rode along the bike path that runs right along the Rhein River between Bacharach and Bingen.

At first, I headed south towards Trechtingshausen, a path that took me past two castles. One was closed for the winter, and a briefly considered checking out the other. But it seemed like overkill: after all, I was staying in a castle already, and no castle tour can compete with that.


And I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful Rhein River, where I could watch shipping boats sailing down it, ferries furiously fighting the current as they carried cars from one side of the river to another, and the trains running along either side.

Like any river, the Rhein River will rise and flood, so the villages are set back aways from it, and the walls to the village will often show high water marks. In many cases, the pathway towards the Rhein from the village has charming little arches like this:


Instead of biking up to a castle, I biked around Trechtingshausen instead, and came upon this painting on the local fire station:


The area was full of imagery that a fantasist would adore. Here’s a gnome running loose with the region’s most beloved foods, wine and sausage:


And remnants from Roman times are interspersed with more modern echoes of them, like these little clay heads I saw not only here, but in other places:


My bike was so fast, I’d made it to Trechtingshausen in far less than an hour, and my bike rental was good until 8 pm. So I headed back to Bacharach. My favorite place to have a beer was a charming little tavern in Bacharach called “The Coinery.” The proprietess puffed away, completely indifferent to the anti-smoking laws which have banned smoking from all public places in Germany. I don’t smoke myself, but I find it comforting to be with Europeans who smoke as Europeans should. The radio station she was dialed into played only songs sung in German, which included a cover of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” and Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” After hearing Deutschland Sucht Den Superstar finalists singing in English with a German accent, I preferred to hear songs, even ones I knew in their English version, sung in German in Germany.


I asked the proprietress how old the building was, because the answer to such questions was almost amazing to my American sensibilities. “It dates back to 1356,” she told me. I must have looked really dazed, because her husband came and gave me a flyer with the story of Burg Stahleck (the castle), and how the king established this coin mint which created guilders for the area, until Friedrich the First moved the mint to Heidelberg.

I looked in my guidebook for suggestions on where I might bike to next, and asked the proprietress how far away Oberwessel was. “Not far,” she told me: “Maybe 5 kilometers at most.” I could hack that on my fast bike, so I headed north from Bacharach. I had to make do with a wide sidewalk instead of the bike path, and I was surprised to see quite a few people camping on the beach by the Rhein. There were official campgrounds on the Rhein just south of Bacharach, but these people had foregone even that. And even though it was a late drizzly weekday in February, they’d put up a tent and were kicking back by a fire.

Oberwessel is somewhat larger than Bacharach, and like almost every bend on the Rhein, has a castle that overlooks it:


And, just like Bacharach, it’s full of old Tudor houses and big wine barrels:


Once again, I went into a grocery store and stared dumbfounded at the cold cuts until a deli counter worker came up to me and explained them to me. At this point, I think Germans are convinced Californians have no food, or at the very least, no meat or good rolls.

By this time, I was pretty pooped out. I’d been biking up and down the Rhein River all day, and it was beginning to get dark. I returned my bike, and climbed the hill back to my castle. But my time in Bacharach has a postscript.

The next morning, I was trundling my suitcases down the hill, and I’d stopped to catch my breath and enjoy the view. A sprightly man came bounding down the hill and offered to help me. I took him up on his offer, and though I think he was older than me, he bounced down that hill, with me jogging to catch up. We stopped briefly when he wanted to point out the Werner Chapel to me, just above the village, and right on the way to Burg Stahlek:


It’s just a ruined shell now, but it has a dark history. From it spurred several anti-Jewish pogroms, and in that context, appeared in Henrich Heine’s Rabbi of Bacharach. Now it’s been rehabilitated as a symbol of tolerance between Christianity and Judaism, and it’s jointly owned by the city and the local synagogue.

Just below the Werner Chapel where some goats which I’d noticed earlier. The little rocky spot below the chapel seems like an odd place to keep goats, but my companion explained their presence: they’re used to keep the brush at bay in spots like this where a lawnmover would be impossible.

At the bottom of the hill, we parted and I asked him where he’d come from, because I thought all the townspeople lived in the village. But he, too, lived on top of the hill (though not in the castle), which probably explains why he was so fit and could bound over those steps so easily.

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