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Rivers Run Through It

Rhineland, Germany

You wouldn’t have thought that any landscape on the planet could be both beautiful and industrial.  But the Rhineland, Germany, manages it.

It’s a strange and compelling part of the world.  The huge river snakes through wooded valleys; fairytale, gothic castles sit atop crags; villages of wood-frame, medieval houses nestle among vineyards.  There are certain spots you can sit by the side of the Rhine, or its tributary, the Moselle, and imagine you’ve traveled back in time by three or four hundred years.  You’ll look out over the river, across to the folks harvesting grapes on the far bank, when…

..suddenly a 200 foot diesel barge ploughs past, piled high with coal.  Instead of a cabin on the stern, it has what looks like a whole house.  A small car is parked on the back deck, and a grubby kid is dangling his feet over the side.  He waves at you.

And the funny thing is, none of this looks out of place.  The Rhineland has always been a place of work and today’s industry melds as seamlessly into the landscape as the timber felling and coal-mining of hundreds of years ago must have done.  The local authorities have been careful to keep heavy, ugly factories tucked away in industrial suburbs of the cities.

Cologne Cathedral

And what cities!  Forget Naples: see Cologne and die.  When you visit that great medieval town there are two things you must not miss.  First, the Stollwerk chocolate factory.  A masterpiece of modern architecture that’s actually beautiful, it sits on a small island just a few feet from the east bank of the Rhine.  You can tour the place and its wonderful museum, see chocolate being made, and then buy it in all shapes, sizes and flavors from the factory shop.  If you have kids, this is a must-visit. They’ll love it.

After Stollwerk, take your chocolate-laden shopping bags and amble over to the cathedral (right).  After St Peter’s Basilica, Rome and Durham Cathedral, England, this is probably the greatest church in the world.  Unlike a lot of European cathedrals, it hasn’t had its stonework cleaned for centuries – so it looms, like some great black dragon squatting in the centre of the city that has grown around it.  Inside it is wonderfully light and still.

Admire Cologne, but don’t neglect the other Rhineland towns.  Trier is a beautiful, provincial city that feels almost French – unsurprising, as it is close to the border. Tucked away it has a great toy museum with probably the world’s greatest model railway set.  Koblenz and Mainz are also great.  All the Rhineland towns and cities are at their best in the weeks before Christmas, when dozens of small stalls spring up everywhere.  These Christmas markets are richly atmospheric.  You can buy handmade goods, jewellery, toys, pictures, and all kinds of food and drinks, including freshly roasted chestnuts and several varieties of local beer.  Don’t miss the chance to try gluhwein – hot, mulled wine flavored with cloves and spices.  Watch out, though – it’ll send you straight to sleep!

After some time in the town, head out into the countryside.  A really good base is the small town of Cochem.  It’s on the Moselle, close to where that river joins the Rhine at Koblenz.  If feel like a little exercise, take the hike up the hill to Cochem castle.  It’s a real fairytale place, with stunning views all over the local countryside.  You can trace the line of the Moselle valley almost all the way to France in the west.

If you can, try to stay in one of the small villages that line the Moselle.  Many of them still have customs towers – miniature castles which hung chains across the river and let barges through only on the payment of a toll.  Beware, though – these are quiet, idyllic places, and they get even more so after about seven at night, when everything shuts. Rural German bars and restaurants aren’t like US bars or English pubs – if there’s nobody around, they just shut up shop.  So if you’re staying in a village and you plan to eat out, make sure the place you’re hoping to visit is actually going to be open when you get there!  These small, rural pubs and restaurants can be a delight, though.  They are often small, wood-paneled places.  The food is invariably excellent, and – this being Germany – the service hyper-efficient and polite.  The food is quite heavily meat-oriented, and is usually served with potatoes or noodles.  The local wines are very young, fresh and sweet.  Try them chilled.

The secret of a great vacation in the Rhineland is to try a little of everything – some of the rural past, the industrial present, and all the bits in between that make this such a special part of the world to visit.

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