Page updated 28 December 2011
It was 1974 when I last used a passport. "Over there" was all foreign to me so I never bothered to renew it when it expired ten years later. However, Diana, my new lady, has a brother in Germany, and with her to hold my hand, I felt bold enough to apply for a new one.
There was more excitement too! It was also to be my first trip in a commercial aircraft. Previous trips to foreign parts had always been by ferry and car or minibus. Bear in mind that back in 1974 we still had twenty years to wait till the Channel Tunnel was to open. So it was that Flybe took us from Birmingham to Frankfurt, where Stephen, Diana's brother and his partner, Alistair, picked us up and drove us to their home village near Wiesbaden.
Stephen (to port) and Alistair, our hosts in Germany, seen aboard a pedalo at Weilburg.
The weather during the four full days of our stay was not consistent, nor as expected for the time of year, and the options for the visits that had been planned by our hosts were repeatedly rescheduled, to take account of published weather forecasts and local knowledge. In the end three of our four days included something that could be considered suitable for this site. It means that here there'll be almost no mention of wine tasting, drives through beautiful countryside, lunches taken al fresco, visits to castles or villages with fantastic vernacular architecture and remarkably little, if anything, of consuming wonderful cakes, delicious ice cream and excellent beer!
Sunday had turned out as bad as the forecast. It was dull, with thick low cloud and we suffered light showers throughout the day. By the time we left home "Plan A" had already been abandoned and Diana and I were ushered into the car for a drive along the Rhine. About all I knew of the Rhine is what I learnt at school, where I was told it was the longest river in Europe.
These days, a search of Google suggests that honour has passed to the Volga, which seems to indicate a shift in politics as much as geographical reality. Since school I have learnt more, of course, but not much more. I was aware that praise was heaped on the scenery of parts of the Rhine. Adverts in boating magazines offer cruises past vineyards in dramatic gorge settings in the grounds of the many historic castles. Articles in the same magazines explained how powerful tugs that pushed a number of close-coupled barges, rather than towing them, were found on the same reaches as the cruise boats too. As we drove around Wiesbaden we were told it was these very areas that were close by and we were to see.
© 2005 Windbergbewohner
In this view, looking down from the Burg Rheinfels at St Goar, there are none of the barge trains I had read about but the modern river cruise ship is typical of those you see on the Rhine.
Sure enough we were soon driving along a road with the impressive palace of some prince on one side and the Rhine on the other. I learnt later this was the Schloss Biebrich, but if you're like me you'd have been paying more attention to Stephen who, as we passed the palace and knowing my interest in boats, was pointing out that the Rhine's width can be misleading, as there are many islands and artificial embankments in the river. Indeed the palace faces one such substantial island.
From Wiesbaden the river runs roughly south westerly. Apart from the islands, the other thing you notice about the river are long and narrow tree-planted embankments within the river. I asked, but Stephen was unsure about the function of them, but assumed they were to assist navigation in some way. At Bingen am Rhein the river turns due north and then takes a generally north westerly route towards Koblenz. We were to drive roughly half way there, crossing the Rhine at St Goar.
There was much commercial waterway traffic. I spotted one or two of the barge trains that I had read of, but most were single barges that, nevertheless, were substantial craft. Stephen pointed out how virtually all carried a car on the roof of the crew's quarters behind the bridge. On one I saw two cars and a large RIB - and there was room for another couple of cars, at least.
© 2010 Wolfgang Esslinger
The most impressive of the island buildings was the toll castle Pfalz at Kaub Grafstein, seen here in winter with water levels higher than when we passed.
The weather began to close in and there was spots of rain spoiling the view as we reached Bingen am Rhein. As the river turns north it enters a narrow valley with hills rising steeply 120m above the water. The river is now less than half the width it had been on the run from Wiesbaden. The Rhine is a considerably bigger river but it reminded me a little of Symonds Yat, where the River Wye passes through a similar narrows on its way from Hereford to its outfall into the Severn.The weather discouraged photography through the windows of the car but visibility was good enough to start castle spotting. They came thick and fast, on the opposite bank, clinging to the slope or perched on some outcrop part way up the steep slopes. Each one impressive and often very different from its neighbours, which in some cases were just a few hundred yards away. I became quite blasé about spotting each succeeding one as it came into view but, in reality, I recognised why those adverts make such a fuss of the area. It was quite an impressive sight and I could understand why Alistair and Stephen had brought us this way.
As impressive as the castles high above the river were, the smaller buildings on islands in the river were just as intriguing. These, I was told by Stephen, were Toll Castles. That local barons would extract money from river traffic, whether you call it a toll or maybe just protection money, is something that was easy to imagine. However, I was surprised about how many there were. It seemed that the sphere of influence of each landowner must be remarkably small. Yet castles seemed to bristle even thicker than those on the Welsh borders. There was certainly a lot of money sloshing about in days gone by. The most impressive of these toll catles was at Kaub Grafstein, a wonderful fairytale, turreted, affair. It was hard to judge how much it was designed just to impress and how much to intimidate.
© 2011 WernerAachen
There's an amazing current on the Rhine, as it passes through the narrows at the Lorelei, as indicated by the wave on the navigation buoy.
Continuing north, we were on our way to the The Lorelei, also spelled Loreley. No doubt that's a confusion caused by not knowing whether I was reading German texts or English. There is some debate about whether this should translate as "Murmuring Rock" or "Lurking Rock". Murmuring is associated with the sound of a waterfall and a particular echo that used to be heard here, while lurking is supposed to indicate the treacherous nature of the under water rocks that have caused grief to many a ship. Indeed, within a week of getting back from Germany another barge capsized in the area, while it was only in January that one containing 2.5 tonnes of sulphuric acid went down.
It's hardly surprising that there are such accidents. The current in the gorge beneath the Loreley is quite amazing. The bow wave on the barges going upstream can be quite impressive. We saw one that seemed so low in the water that we believed that its side decks were awash, but later concluded that was optical illusion caused by the wave effect in the waterline down each side of the boat as the hull drove through the water. Going downstream is probably still more dangerous, given the volume of traffic on the river and that you need a certain amount of speed through the water for the rudder to have any effect.
Burg Rheinfels at St.Goar is probably the largest of the castles that we saw. As with many others these days part of the complex now operates as a hotel.
Going further north we reached St Goarshausen, about 60km from where we'd started at Wiesbaden. On the opposite side of the river was the largest castle yet, Burg Rheinfels. It is said that at one time the land it covered was five times the area now occupied. We pulled onto the Rheinpromenade to join a queue waiting for the ferry across to St Goar.
© 2011 gueros
The ferry at St. Goarshausen on the Rhine, seen in much better weather than we experienced.
It's hardly surprising that there are a number of ferries across the river. In the old days there wouldn't have been the technology available to bridge it, while these days much of the river is a World Heritage site, so it's regulation, not technology, that prevent bridges being built. With another 30km to the next bridge, at Koblenz, it seemed reasonable for Alistair and Stephen to decide that St Goar was an appropriate point at which to cross.
Leaving the Ferry Dock at St Goarshausen. Seeing the way the current sweeps over the ramp makes you realise how dangerous this river could be.
We were the second car in our queue, but there are several, side by side, and by the time we get onto the ferry there are a number of vehicles ahead of us and a large coach beside us. Alistair sorted out the fare while Stephen, Diana and I take a quick wander around the boat. At this stage it had stopped raining and I manage to take photographs of the Burg Rheinfels on the bank we head towards, several from the ferry as we cross, and one of Burg Katz, on the St Goarshausen bank, which we had just left.
Burg Katz or "Cat Castle" in English - and yes, there is a Burg Maus, "Mouse Castle", nearby!.
Burg Katz was the first of the castles that I had seen on the east bank. First built around 1371, it was bombarded by Napoleon and only re-built just before the turn of the twentieth century, which perhaps accounts why, these days, it looks more like a magnificent dwelling than a castle, and dwelling it seems to be as it is privately owned and not open to the public or used as a hotel, as many of the other castes are. From the angle that I took the photograph it's difficult to make out the remains of the massive defensive tower, which was once 40m tall, hidden behind the new building.
Looking backwards, upstream, towards the Loreley, as the ferry takes a zig-zag route across the river.
While on the ferry I was busy taking photographs and not conscious of the course we took as we crossed the river. However, looking at the photos, I realise that we must have taken something of an S or W-shaped route. The photograph taken while we were in mid-stream clearly shows us going down-river, while the approach to the landing ramps on both sides must be made facing upstream. The one thing I do recall thinking was that it was hard to believe the boat was more than a season old. It was in such immaculate condition. I'd love to know when it entered service.
Arriving at the St Goar Ferry Terminal I manage one last snap before we get back in the car.
I often wonder why so many boat hirers on the English canal network attempt the circular routes, often known as "cruising rings". When you do a ring you have only one chance to see something and no chance to explore it again. You have to plan exhaustively to make sure you are pacing yourself correctly to complete the ring on time. There's no chance to explore the unexpected, because you haven't allowed the time for it. Or, if you have, and you don't find anything unexpected, you end up with time on your hands, wasted, at the end of the trip. With a ring, what was supposed to be a holiday turns into unending clock watching, as you attempt to re- assure yourself that you are on track to return to base at the due time.
In contrast, if you take an out and back route, you know exactly when you should turn round. It's half way through your holiday, plus an allowance for those things you don't need to inspect a second time, or will be able to reach in opening hours on the return leg. As to those who say "Who wants to see everything twice", I say, "Nonsense!" Nothing will look the same. What you passed by in the morning on the way out, will be passed in the afternoon on the way back. That doesn't just apply on the day you turn round, of course. It applies to every one of the remaining days as well. Distant hills and woods that were in shade will be bathed in sunlight, completely altering their appearance. So, even if, on the outward leg, you spent all your time staring at the view behind you, on the return leg, the approach to every building, tree, village, and especially locks, will be utterly different. Give me an out and back route every time.
Gutenfels Castle, Kaub. The word "HOTEL" painted on the stonework is as faded as the charms of the accommodation, if reviews on the Internet are to be believed.
As was expected, once on the other side of the river, our Rhine drive was just like an out and back canal trip. Now we could see the castles that we had missed on the way out, the ones that had been high on our side of the river hidden from view by the roof of the car. each was as intriguing as the ones on the bank on which we now were. As already mentioned, there were castles in private ownership and others that were now hotels. One of these, Gutenfels Castle, I photographed, not so much for the building, but to show the extensive vineyards round it. "It's the micro-climate", Stephen and Alistair had explained. I confess I hadn't really appreciated that Wiesbaden is on the same latitude as The Lizard in Cornwall, so I suppose it should be warm and it's certainly sheltered withing the slopes of the Rhine Valley.
Once we reached Bingen am Rhein, where the river makes its turn to the east towards Wiesbaden, the scenery becomes less spectacular, but that didn't matter to us as we went straight to a vineyard that Stephen and Alistair knew, knocked up the proprietor, spent an hour or so sipping an assortment of the current vintages, leaving with half a dozen cases which they bought, while Diana placed an order for another couple to be dispatched to England. For the sake of the site, I'm almost glad the weather was bad. I think the original plan had been to climb some mountain!
On the Monday of our stay in Germany the four of us spent the afternoon strolling around the marina in Wiesbaden. It's looks much like any you might find in the UK, making use of a large lagoon set off the river. In Norfolk I'd have taken the site to have been an old gravel or peat digging, with the product loaded onto barges and then transported by river. There were a wide range of craft at the marina, from small dinghies and speed boats to large commercial restaurant and trip boats, all moored to pontoons, around the edge of the lagoon, and often set with security gates.
Pontoons and security gates and a wide range of craft from dinghies to large trip boats make the harbour appear similar to many an English marina.
We parked the car and started our walk along the northern bank of the lagoon. There's a mix of cafés and ice cream vendor caravans found under the trees. Beyond the road there appeared to be typical German houses in gardens surrounded by high walls. However, even over the walls one appeared unusual, having a huge industrial sized chimney. "Look at the top", said Alistair, who then pointed out that what we were looking at was a stork's nest.
This is just one corner of the enormous lagoon that forms the marina. The tall chimney that Alistair pointed out is just visible beyond the trees.
It wasn't until later when I looked at the photograph I took that I realised that the nest was built on a special platform. I have no idea if it was built to encourage the birds to nest there, or if it was built as a protective measure to enable to chimney to be used for its intended purpose.
A close-up of the chimney reveals that the stork's nest is set on a specially constructed platform.
One of the reasons for visiting the area was to visit a sanctuary area for the storks. I'm guessing that July was late in the season and that the nests were abandoned once the chicks were raised. Whatever the reason, we saw none of the distinctive birds. The only activity we saw in the marina was at the end of the lagoon, as we passed a sailing club, with a number of dinghies stored ashore. On the water nearby was a group of boys were playing on a raft, with others in canoes. I guess that's what comes of visiting on a Monday. I suspect the place would be throbbing at the weekend.
It was as we walked back to the car, alongside the various boats, that I started looking at the names of the various craft and the question of a new name for Imagination came up in conversation. Diana had previously suggested Naviculam. It was something we had found as a Latin translation of Little Ship. It resonated with her as she had memories of the tender to one of her boats on Windermere that was a Latin translation of Speed Demon. I wasn't convinced.
Stephen and Alistair started with classical names and soon swapped to things with a Wagnerian feel. I recall that one they suggested was Artemis. I don't recall being told that that name is the Greek equivalent of Diana! Perhaps I should have considered it. However, I rejected all such classical suggestions on the grounds that such names required a boat of some substance. "Mine is just a 17 foot glass fibre tub", I said. somehow that did it. I can't recall now if it was Diana who started singing:
She was just seventeen. You know what I mean,
And the way she looked was way beyond compare.
How could I sail in another?
And I saw her standing there.
But if she didn't, the lines came to me. They seemed so right. The words were, after all, (almost) from the first verse of the first track of the first side of the first Beatles album. I feel myself very much of the Beatles generation and Just 17, as she will henceforth be known. is just seventeen feet long and is the first boat that I have owned outright.
Having heard of our interest in canoeing, on the Tuesday we were taken to Weilburg. After a lunch taken in town square and a tour round the Schloss, it was down to the river. There we hired a canoe. For waterway enthusiasts Weilburg is famous for having the only waterway tunnel in Germany. By British standards it's a pretty insignificant affair only some 250m long. However, it is of reasonable beam, so perhaps I should not be too dismissive and, unlike most British canal tunnels, you are allowed to go through it in a hired canoe.
The Oberlahnbrücke (Upper Lahn Bridge) in Weilburg. To its left, is where we hired our canoe. Through the bridge (just under the van passing over it) can just be seen the top of the imposing tunnel portal.
Understandably, Diana and I headed upstream, towards the tunnel, as soon as we got in the boat. Unfortunately, these days, the full splendour of the main tunnel entrance is hidden by what I suspect is a more recent footbridge. At least it is built in sympathetic stone. When we got there the place was heaving with canoes, all full of noisy teenagers on some organised party. We decided to let them get on with it and paddled round for a bit. Eventually, the noises from the tunnel dissipated and we returned to find the tunnel deserted. The party had passed right through and out of the lock at the other end. We had been told that we should keep clear of the lock.
The Northern Portal of the Schiffahrtstunnel in Weilburg is, unfortunately, partially hidden by the footbridge.
Eventually, We did make our way into the tunnel, passing a few other canoes with less noisy occupants on the way. We made our way right up to the lock gates which were closed. I guess they hadn't refilled the lock after the other canoes had passed through. We we weren't sure if the others around us were waiting to pass through, so we backed away, turned round, and made our way out towards the northern portal, meeting Stephen and Alistair, in their pedalo, half way out.
From the North Portal it seems a very short 250m to the lock at the southern entrance of the Schiffahrtstunnel.
Inside the tunnel I forgot about my camera so, for this blog, had to turn to the Internet for photographs to illustrate this entry. The smooth and perfectly rounded concrete lining suggests the tunnel is quite modern. I wish I had taken some close-ups of the plaque you can see above the northern portal. It might have revealed a bit more about the history of the tunnel.
© 2010 TSG Biersdorf
The group of canoes that we passed through the tunnel with were much like this party from the TSG Biersdorf.
© 2005 Wolfgang Bion
The mystery of the lock is that these are the upper gates. You have to wonder why they are so tall.
Once out of the tunnel we made our way round the rail bridge, a little further upstream from the Oberlahnbrücke (Upper Lahn Bridge) and then back to just below the canoe base. There you get a splendid view of the Schloss, that really had been worth the visit we had made earlier in the day, after a pleasant lunch taken al fresco in the square outside the building that dominates the town.
Schloss Weilburg towers over the river, looking down onto a weir which is just above the old bridge into town.
In terms of our German trip, Weilburg has to rate as the boating highlight. It's unfortunate that it's only the little things I remember. For example, rather than a dry bag, we were handed a large screw-topped polythene jar in which to place our valuables. You can tell it was the highlight as I was so busy messing about in the boat that I hardly took any photographs - none of Diana or the canoe itself. I suppose the canoe was pretty standard stuff and nothing to get excited about, but it would have been nice to have a few more pictures to aid my memory of the trip.