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Ride a Rail Along the Romantic Rhine

By Ruth WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1996



BONN/KOBLENZ/LUXEMBOURG/TRIER

It is one of the ironies of history that the Germans didn't really learn to appreciate the beauties of their riverscapes until multitudes of English watercolorists descended on the Rhine and Mosel and started producing paintings of picturesque castle ruins and waterfronts.

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And the further irony is that these painters didn't really discover the romantic Rhine themselves until the early 19th century, when the rather unromantic commercial steamship lines began plying the river. But once discovered, this area has stayed discovered, remaining popular both with day-tripping locals and intercontinental travelers.

With good reason. The scenery is right off the posters in your travel agent's office: the slate-roofed villages along the water, with the houses clustered around one or two churches; the castle ruins like giant chess pieces perched on the heights above the waters; the nearly vertical vineyards tended with a care and precision that even a teetotaler has to admire. And the intrusions of the 20th century (satellite dishes sprouting from the sides of stone houses) seem minimal.

The little itinerary I put together from Bonn to Koblenz, then Luxembourg, and back via Trier would make a good set-piece weekend at the beginning or end of a group tour or business trip, or a change of pace if you've been renting a car for a few days and want a break from the Autobahn. And because the distances are small, it would be a good itinerary for those who want to be out and about, too.

First stop, Koblenz. This is where Karl Baedeker, of the famous red Baedeker travel guides got started, in 1823. He started writing his books to give travelers an independent source of information and to spare the emerging tourist class from the extortions of local "guides."

On my half-day stop in Koblenz, I left my bag in a coin-operated luggage locker in the train station, and headed out the front entrance straight toward the river.

Spaziergehen am Rhein - going for a walk along the Rhine - is one of the most popular pastimes here, and the promenade at Koblenz - the Kaiserin Augusta Anlage and the Konrad Adenauer Ufer, with its huge sycamores - is appealing. I turned left at the river, going with the (roughly northward) flow toward the Deutsches Eck, the "German corner," where the Rhine and the Mosel, Koblenz's other river, meet. The site of a monument to German national unity (19th-century unity, that is, not post-cold-war reunification), the Deutsches Eck is one of those places famous for being famous, full of people taking one another's photos. With a little more time, I would have taken the passenger ferry across the Rhine to the Ehrenbreitstein Castle, with its panoramic view.

As I was, I turned the corner at the Deutsches Eck to follow the Mosel riverfront, for a stretch, and turned left again to see some of the old town. The Mittelrhein Museum, in the restored Altes Kaufhaus (old market), just a few steps from the river, has been running an exhibition of paintings of the rivers over the years. The exhibition showed how we see what we are taught to recognize - and helped explain some of the camera-toting tourists at Deutsches Eck.

Next stop, Luxembourg. The city, with its fascinating medieval walls and military fortifications, has one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in late 20th-century Europe, since it has carved out a role for itself as a "capital" of the European Union, serving as the seat of the European Court of Justice and some other Euro-entities as well.

I am a pushover for walking tours, and so of course I followed the city tourist office's suggestion of one of the self-guided walking tours as outlined in a little leaflet. The problem with such guides is always that it is hard to follow written directions and/or a map and pay attention to the scene around one all at the same time. And in Luxembourg the problem was compounded by the fact that when I lost my place in the printed directions, I kept ending up on the Luxembourgian-language side of the leaflet by mistake. Tip for the tourist office: Do what they do for the Freedom Trail in Boston, and paint a line on the sidewalk!

Still, the architecture of Luxembourg City, whose historical core was named part of UNECSCO's "World Heritage" program, makes for an interesting half-day ramble, and all but cries out to be photographed. There are paths along the medieval wall, the so-called Wenzel Wall, and visually fascinating juxtapositions of upper and lower levels of the city. One doesn't usually get this kind of variety in such a compact urban area so accessible to the average pedestrian.

Next stop: Trier. All three of these cities have ancient Roman associations, but Trier was actually the capital of the Western Roman Empire, and an imperial residence for a period in the fourth century, during the reign of Constantine, who converted to Christianity in 313.

The oldest city in Germany, Trier was founded in 16 BC as a supply center for the defensive fortresses of the Rhineland, fortresses which later became Cologne, Bonn, Koblenz, and Mainz.

Trier's Porta Nigra ("black gate") is the best-preserved Roman gate north of the Alps, and the center of the city's tourist infrastructure.

It was time for another walking tour - this time in a group, with a guide, which solved the can't-read-and-look problem. We saw not only sites of significance in the Roman era - the Imperial Baths and the Constantine Basilica - but also those of importance to medieval Trier. The Hauptmarket, the main market square, just up the road from the Porta Nigra, is an excellent example of a German town center, with gabled facades, old market halls, and the Petrusbrunnen, named for the patron saint of Trier, St. Peter - who was still fishing for a living when Trier was founded.