I don’t regret a single swallow. After a glorious week of wining and dining along Germany’s River Rhine, I assumed the dimensions of a Wagnerian Rhinemaiden—all I lacked was a horned helmet and spear. Wagner was one of many artiste types to romanticize the river’s rugged, natural beauty—along with Goethe, Lord Byron, and Victor Hugo, plus plenty of other poets, composers, and painters. They courted sentimental inspiration among the river’s deeply forested cliffs, dotted with romantic ruins of medieval castles, and hemmed by postcard-pretty towns where half-timbered houses from the Middle Ages cling to cobbled streets.
Here, Loreley, a mythic maiden who fell from a cliff to her watery death when her lover sailed off without her, is hailed in a song that’s practically the national anthem. As our ferry passed her rock, Germans wept with abandon, Japanese shot photos—and I toasted her ghost, as we picnicked near her funereal rock.
Today, those steep riverbanks are braided with closely planted rows of grapevines, source of the “Riesling Renaissance.” Indeed, it’s not your Grandpa’s cloying Riesling, as we discovered in Rudesheim (population 5,000) in vintner Georg Breuer’s castle-turned-café, where once the Crusaders tarried.
Today, Breuer is on a crusade of his own, harking back to tradition to produce the dry, fruity, food-friendly wines we enjoyed with platefuls of “Hessian tapas”: boar pâté, game bird mousse, another of smoked eel, blood sausage with applesauce, mushroom salad. Even Brunnhilde might have been sated, but no: As the oompah band leaned into “Lili Marlene,” I demolished the roast duck that followed, then toasted our host with Rudesheim Coffee, a habit-forming blend of java, Asbach brandy, and whipped cream.
We’d visited the venerable Asbach Distillery earlier to be schooled in the double-distilling process; next to enjoy a sampling of the smooth, aromatic product, as visitors are urged to do; then off to bed.
Our hotel, the Krone, in nearby Assmannshausen, has been bedding guests for 450 years, yet it’s an upstart as the village (founded 900 years ago) goes. But the kitchen is so 2008: quail stuffed with foie gras on dark chocolate jelly; consommé with duck liver ravioli, nectarines, and coriander; potato-watercress soup lush with lobster and sweetbreads; or lobster baked with truffled Savoy cabbage pasta (and those are just the starters!).
Just when I thought the view from the banks was perfect, it got better: We boarded a cable car to fly above the vineyards to the very mountaintop, where lies the monastery of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-Century mystic whose chapel depicts her visions, and whose nuns today produce their own respectable Riesling.
Then, don your lederhosen to hike the Niederwald Forest, where guys like Beethoven and Goethe sought inspiration. Mine came, instead, from Jagdschloss Niederwald, a princely hunting lodge in 1765, now a hotel with terrific views, and a kitchen that turns out a princely salmon in lime sauce, plus a saddle of venison with cranberries and cherries over spaezle. Our apple tart came with a Riesling sabayon, to continue our theme.
To soak up more history (and wine), we toured the nearby Eberbach Cloister of 1136, conducted with a different Riesling at every stop: the moody hospital-turned-wine cellar; the scriptorium, where monks stood at writing podiums in the damp, dark cold; and the chapel, with likenesses of armored knights atop their tombstones.
When those brooding romantics could tear themselves away from the river, where did they head? For more water. Bad Kreuznach is one of the most flat-out charming spa towns in Germany, centered around Hotel Domina, hangout of Victorian aristocrats, and today offering an array of massage treatments. Just outside, folks are free to pull up a chair, and inhale the healing saline vapors rising in the spray.
I preferred hiking-as-healing along the Panoramic Walk bordering the mountains into the Old Town, to explore its medieval squares and valiant churches, including St. Paulus, where Karl Marx got married (strongly encouraged by his sweetie’s father to tie the knot or head for home).
On the outskirts of town, amid more grapevines, we seized the chance to eat in one of those time-honored vintner setups we’d heard about. Winemakers are allowed to serve food with their pours for 100 days a year without going through the red tape of becoming a full-blown café. Set a flowerpot on your doorstep, and folks know something tasty is on the stove. In this case, at the rustic, jovial Buchenlender Hof, it was a pumpkin coup fired by chilies, followed by hearty cuts of pork, beef, lamb, or sausages, along with the owner’s Riesling of 2008—“a good year, both in quality and quantity,” Manfred said, as he refilled my glass.
The next day, we were on the river, not merely overlooking it, as a ferry carried us to historic Oberwesel (population 3,000), a vineyard town surrounded by the two-mile city wall of 1215, which visitors can hike atop, peering into the sturdy crenellated towers that pierce its span.
We also had time to peer into the 14th-Century Gothic church of St. Martin, with its magnificent golden altar, an ornate triptych, and walls shadowy with fading frescoes, before we hiked up—really, really up—to the 12th-Century hilltop Castle Schoenburg for lunch. In tasting portions—tasting portions, mind you!—we sampled marinated salmon with mustard ice cream (no, they’re not crazy); stuffed prawns on spinach in lime beurre blanc; rabbit atop lentils; scallops married with bacon and mashed peas; beef tartare; and more. Can these fellas cook, or what?
Back on the boat to St. Goar, and above it, Marksburg Castle—the only one on the Middle Rhine left undestroyed and unremodeled since its Romanesque stones were set in place in 1223. Our guide—straight from “bad guy” casting—brooked no interruptions, as he painted a picture of medieval life, from kitchen to bedchamber, blacksmith shop and hall of armor to torture room.
After that, Castle (now Hotel and Spa) Rheinfels, anchoring a mountaintop on the opposite side of the river, erased the sting of “Achtung!” with a genteel gourmand menu centered on rabbit with bacon and juniper sauce, artichokes and dumplings, following a way-too-dreamy cream of chanterelle soup and fish in Riesling sauce.
Our final castle, Hotel Lerbbach, set aside a silver lake in a 70-acre forest, proved even more sybaritic, as it also boasts the Michelin three-star restaurant of uberchef Dieter Muller, who offers cooking classes on the site. Of course, we signed on. (We’re not stupid.) Helping him fabricate our multicourse feast (well, if sipping Riesling counts as “help”), we then lunched on the fruits of his labor, including crème brûlée of foie gras; cappucino of curry and lemongrass with roasted shrimp; turbot swimming in a fumet of citrus and melon; and veal with vanilla carrots—climaxing in a molten chocolate number that left us speechless. Well, not quite: Cheers of “Wunderbar” resounded.