We weren’t that impressed with Passau when we were here at the start of our cycle ride but on our return find the old part of town which, no surprise really, is lovely.
There are lots of small lanes and alleys that have a very arty feel to them, helped by some funky paintwork and street art, and brightly coloured cobblestones. Large buildings are, as we’ve become used to, painted in pastel pink, green, yellow and blue, with details picked out in contrasting colour. It’s very intricate and, I suspect, an old art form practised now by craftspeople.
There are also a lot of towers, some hidden behind houses, which seem to appear from nowhere as you round a corner, and an imposing church (or cathedral) in the old square that glows in the evening sun. As we walk back to the hotel after dinner the full moon plays hide and seek with clouds, glowing behind them, lighting thin layers silver, occasionally darting out to show his face.
Our journey north the next day is interrupted by a hold up on the motorway. Blue-flashing-light vehicles whizz down the emergency lane between queuing traffic and the air ambulance hoves into view. Within seconds everyone is out of their cars. Dogs are walked and people stretch, some looking ahead to try and see what is happening. In a first for us we eat a picnic lunch in the middle of the motorway and I use the crash barrier to do my own stretches. On the way again I’m relieved to see the accident appears to have been a couple of nose to tail shunts and hope that no one is seriously injured.
We’re staying in Geisenheim, a small wine town on the Rhein, and we cycle a few miles into the more famous Rüdesheim. I was here in 1977 on a school trip but nothing seems familiar. It’s pretty enough, small cobbled streets and some traditional buildings, but we’ve seen better elsewhere in Europe. The main street runs alongside the river, a rail line between them, and is, frankly, Blackpool, lined with cheap clothes shops and tacky souvenir shops. It’s hard to see why the town is such a tourist draw – Geisenheim is much nicer, a lovely old church in its centre.
After the cool and rain of our Danube adventure the sun has found us again and we walk through vines heavy with fruit to a row of tents and awnings amongst more vines overlooking the Rhein – a local wine festival. There are few better ways to spend a hot sunny Sunday and we join locals in a few glasses of Riesling, wandering back with an ice cream. That evening we watch Primoz Roglic being crowned Vuelta a Espana champion, becoming the first Slovenian to win a grand tour. I wish I was back in Slovenia to see their reaction.
This is Scloss/Burg* (castle) country, many of them lining the banks of the river, testament to how feudal this area once was. We drive up to St Goarshausen, the village in which I stayed as a teenager, in the shadow of Loreley. I’m dismayed to see that the area has been seriously touristed, a huge visitor centre (with an entrance fee) and the requisite overpriced cafe atop the rock. A motorway wide path leads to the overlook of the river. It’s all very clean and sanitised but any character it had has been stolen.
The Rhein shames the Donau – it is blue. And very beautiful, villages merely lines of houses between it and the hills that rise behind, some with the warm colours of early autumn beginning to show through, others pine green or with lines of vines snaking along them. Houses are often grey or white, or a brown stone which must be local, but some are brightly painted, green or yellow, a splash of purple on one. Most of the Schlossen are grey stone but one is a distinct tinge of red and Burg Pfalzgrafenstein, that lies on an island in the middle of the river, is white.
We cross the river on a small car ferry, one of many that operate in this region, and drive down the other side, spotting more Schlossen. Two shake a memory from me, Burg Katz across a hillside from Burg Maus, the latter not its real name but long known as such because of the feud between the two brothers who owned them. Who says Germans don’t have a sense of humour? The area isn’t as heavily forested as I remember, much of it striped with vines. I remember turrets poking from trees but most are clearly delineated against the sky, only a few below the horizon. Maybe my memory has failed but I’m certain I would have noticed the large quarry alongside one Schloss. Possibly the area has been deforested and the vines that I can’t remember weren’t here when I last was. Frighteningly it’s been nearly forty years, and a lot has gone through my head since then, much of it lost in the depths of my grey matter. Forty years! What the hell happened?
*A Burg is a castle built for defence, a fort if you like, not usually used as a home. A Schloss is a palace, built to reside in. Originally these on the Rhein would be Burgs and are so called, but most are now private homes or hotels. To quote someone who knows more about the language than I: ‘the line between the two is often blurred’.