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Germany, 2019

Updated: May 10, 2021

This is our fourth trip to Germany, on this occasion to Rheinland-Pfalz (the Rhineland Palatinate) in the west, probably prompting the question: Why? English people, and others, tend to be surprised by our choice of Germany as a tourist destination. Why do we go?

One of our reasons, it has to be said, is to meet up with our friend Gerhard, who we met years ago in Bequia; he lives in Hamburg but doesn’t go to Bequia any more. The other is that Germany has so much more to offer than most people seem to realise and the Germans we meet are unfailingly welcoming and charming.

Our destination this time is partly dictated by opera. Gerhard is an immensely knowledgeable and enthusiastic opera fan. So we consulted him. He recommended a visit to Wiesbaden with its highly regarded opera house. It turned out that they were doing Carmen. What better contrast to the gloomy autumnal weather being forecast for the area?

After Wiesbaden the plan is to drive along the Rhine, then the Moselle – enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in Germany – before landing up in Luxembourg, all organised by the travel firm Kirker who pride themselves on serving “discerning travellers”.

Saturday 19 October

We flew to Frankfurt, rented a car in the airport, followed Kirker’s excellent directions to nearby Wiesbaden and, with substantially more difficulty, helped out by Google Maps, found the Oranien Hotel, an elegant, pleasantly old-fashioned, but extremely comfortable hotel located just above the old city centre.

We met up with Gerhard in the evening and had dinner at a traditional, very German, restaurant, in the old spa building, the Kurhaus. (Wiesbaden rose to fame way back – even in Roman times – as a spa with its thermal springs.) The restaurant was called Käfer’s but now for some unexplained reason is called Lambertus. The walls are lined with photographs of singers, actors and film stars, including surprisingly Clark Gable who couldn’t have been a very regular visitor. The atmosphere is gemütlich, the food excellent, the service impeccable if perhaps rather leisurely. However, we were in no hurry and decided to return the following day. We sampled some local wine – to get us in the habit as we were going to be passing through some of the key wine regions of Germany during the next days. It was a good introduction: a dry Riesling, robust, full of flavour, from Johannisberg in the Rheingau.

Sunday 20 October

We started what was essentially our first day in Wiesbaden with a leisurely walk into the

centre of town, mainly pedestrianised. It being Sunday – and Germany – the place was very much closed and largely devoid of people, actually making it easier to admire.

We aimed for the old spa buildings and the theatre where we were due to see the opera that evening. It’s all set out on a grand scale with colonnades, fountains, statues and beautifully maintained gardens.

The history is confusing. Wiesbaden was the capital of the Duchy of Nassau and one admires a statue of William the Silent, Duke of Nassau and Prince of Orange – the latter being the very same Orange that we visit in the south of France. His descendant (also William) had the good fortune to marry James II’s daughter and become King of England as William III – William of Orange. But the whole place owes much to the Prussians in the shape of the German Emperors, in particular Wilhelm II – Kaiser Bill to our forebears. They took over the duchy in the 19th century. The spa is named after his father the Emperor Friedrich who married Queen Victoria’s daughter Vicky and who tragically died after reigning for only 99 days. (Had he survived and continued to reign rather than Kaiser Bill, the history of Germany and Europe might have been very different.) Enough history, perhaps.

The highlight of the day was to see Carmen at the Hessische Staatstheater. The theatre has a magnificently decorated Baroque auditorium and, courtesy of Kirker’s “concierge” service, we were seated centrally in the fourth row of the stalls. But the pièce de resistance of the theatre is an adjoining foyer where one has a drink in the interval. It has to be the most extravagantly wonderful place in the universe to have an interval drink. (See below.) It looks as though it was designed, in baroque even rococo style with its frescoed ceiling and sculpted angels, as a ballroom or concert hall for the reigning dukes. Was it? I couldn’t find any mention in the guidebooks.

Carmen was a delight, certainly for the singing and the music. The scenery was minimalist, with the bullfighting elements played down somewhat. But the characterisation of Carmen put some strain on the story line: she was clothed mostly in a long matronly patterned dress – not exactly sexy. The programme had an interview with the singer, Lena Belkina from the Ukraine, saying how she thought of Carmen not so much as sexy, more as lively and self-assured. Oh yea? I detect some me-too-ist reinterpretation.

Monday 21 October

On our last day with Gerhard we drove out of Wiesbaden toward some of the local wine regions. Our main target was the Schloss Johannisberg, whose wine we had enjoyed in our two visits to Lambertus and which turns out to be one of the, if not the, leading wine maker of the region.

It is located very near Wiesbaden at the southern end of the Rheingau and sits high above the valley with splendid views of the surrounding vineyards. Its history is interesting. It prides itself on being the first Riesling estate in the world. It was originally a Benedictine monastery; monks seem so often to have been key players in the early days of the wine industry.

It came into the hands of Prince Metternich after his good work at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Apparently his family came from this area, even though he made his name - and got his way into the history books - for his services to the Hapsburg emperors in Vienna. The family owned it until quite recently, when it was taken over by the Oetke family, who originally made their money (surprisingly) by making cakes, but are now one of the richest families in Germany with interests in food, chemicals, banking, hotels – and of course wine.

We also visited the charming riverside villages of Rüdesheim and Assmannshausen, failing to make it up to the Niederwald Memorial, with its statues of Bismark and the Kaiser, commemorating the founding of Germany in 1871.

Tuesday 22 October

Today we decided to cross the Rhine and see Mainz, but first we said good-bye to Gerhard who got the train back to Hamburg.

The main sights in Mainz are the great cathedral, the Kaiserdom, one of the few surviving Romanesque cathedrals in Germany (see below), and the museum devoted to the inventor of modern printing, Johannes Gutenberg.

The cathedral is magnificent on the outside in its red sandstone, but somewhat grey and dismal on the inside. There are many imposing statues of the Prince-Archbishops of Mainz, some impressive, but all hard to appreciate fully in the stygian gloom. Mainz was 80% destroyed in the War, but the cathedral largely survived – miraculously.

Herr Gutenberg is well served by an extensive modern museum, showing printing presses of all ages and displaying many of their products. Pride of place goes to one of the surviving copies of his first printed bible, held in its special highly protected room. It was acquired not long ago, having originally been owned by Sir George Shuckburgh, an 18th century renaissance man (politician, mathematician, astronomer) who I’d certainly never heard of. Actually there are three volumes in the glass case: the two that comprise the so-called Shuckburgh Bible and one other that is only a New Testament. (I have to add that I have a

particular interest in Gutenberg bibles as one of the 49 that survive resides in the Eton College Library.)

The museum, to its credit, gives full recognition to the fact that the Chinese invented printing with moveable type many centuries before Gutenberg: various rooms have images and models of Chinamen hard at work on their doubtless much more complex printing operations.

Mainz was at its best during our day there. We had lunch sitting outside in the market square, admiring the cathedral under bright glorious sunshine.

The market is a real vegetable market, not just a tourist affair. Actually it’s not just vegetables. I bought a small bottle of marmelade, a commodity always in short, even non-existent, supply outside England. I plan to sneak it into breakfast.

It also sells eggs. The stall selling them boasted a very large golden-brown hen that seemed happy to be displayed to the admiring customers and to have its – sorry, her – photograph taken.

We went to Mainz by train. It’s always a pleasure to use the comfortable, efficient, un-crowded German trains. I refrain from making invidious comparisons.

Mary put the Mainz retail business to a challenge. She had forgotten to bring her walking stick. Surprisingly we found a shop in central Mainz selling umbrellas (no surprise) but also a range of elegant walking sticks. Not only this: we all decided exactly how long the stick should be and the chosen item was immediately cut down to size in the backroom workshop.

Wednesday 23 October

Today we move on – up, or rather down, the Rhine towards Koblenz, along perhaps the best-known stretch of the river passing the various castles and, of course, the Lorelei.

Our first stop was the abbey of Eberbach, much recommended by the green Michelin guide, possibly because The Name of the Rose was filmed there. It’s an impressive group of monastic buildings, originally Cistercian but “secularized” at the time of Napoleon. The simple, bare, abbey church was hard to enjoy as workmen were making a hideous racket with what sounded like powerful drilling equipment. (Which reminds me: there was much the same situation in the Kaiserdom – the Germans seem to be rebuilding everything.)

The most attractive room was the monks’ refectory, decorated in the 18th century after they had relaxed the original more ascetic Cistercian rules.

There was an important distinction between the monks, who probably tended to come from higher class backgrounds, and the “lay brothers” who came from the poor and the needy and did the rough jobs. They were accommodated in less salubrious quarters.

We had a 21st century surprise as we walked into the cloister: one of those robot mowing machines, calming moving over the lawn, presumably doing one of the jobs reserved for the lay brothers in former times.

Eberbach is up in the hills surrounded by dense forests. Now is the time to visit. Autumn is much more advanced than in England. The trees are glowing in their autumnal colours.

The Lorelei was our next stop. It is of course just a cliff, overlooking the famously narrow bend in the river. I was half-expecting to find at the top of the cliff at least a statue of the eponymous siren, but found none. (Apparently there is a statue, but it’s down at the bottom of the cliff by the river.) The view from the top is magnificent although, I have to report, the sunny skies we had in Mainz have disappeared. Heavy cloud now, with some drizzle.

Thursday 24 October

We are in Boppard, still on the Rhine. I had expected Boppard to be a small town and our hotel, the Bellevue, to be a modest establishment by the riverside. Not really! Boppard is a substantial place with a row of large buildings, mostly grand hotels, lining the riverside esplanade – catering, doubtless, to hordes of tourists in the summer months, though delightfully quiet now.

Our hotel is probably the biggest. It is old-fashioned in décor, as in much else. The lift is

typical: the mechanics creek a bit, but it has polished wooden panels, brass rails, a fitted carpet and, believe it or not, a leather upholstered sofa.

The hotel is still owned by the family that has run it for over a hundred years. There is much wooden furniture of a style that you don’t see much these days, and countless 19th century dramatic and romantic landscape paintings on the walls. It has two serious restaurants, one of which we sampled on our first evening (excellent, though everything served in massive quantities), the other boasting Michelin accolades – and priced accordingly.

As regards furniture, the hotel does also have some chairs in the “bentwood” style that is still popular. It was originally designed by the Thonet brothers who established themselves in Boppard 200 years ago. Their firm still survives with some family participation, apparently.

We did a drive down the other (west) side of the Rhine. Much better weather – hazy sunshine, bringing out the autumn colours.

The Rhine famously has castles, mostly ruined, on every bend of the river. You need to be selective. We chose the Rheinfels, probably the biggest and best with a history going back to the 13th century when it was founded by the Katzenelenbogen family (the name curiously reminiscent of an insistent Max Bygraves tune!). It was then taken over by others who seemed to fight each other fairly continuously until the French under Napoleon blew it up. It’s well worth a visit with its stupendous views of the Rhine below it.

It owed its existence to its owners being able to tax the passing river traffic as they prepared to brave the perils of the Lorelei currents – the Lorelei being almost opposite.

As with castles, you need to be selective with the riverside towns. Many have charming market squares, timber-framed buildings, cobbled streets and, crucially, pedestrianised areas. They do tend to merge in the memory. The nicest we came across was Bacharach – no connection, I think, with Burt.

Railways are more of a feature in Germany certainly than in Britain, but maybe elsewhere too. There are railway lines on each side of the Rhine. Almost whenever I looked, I saw a goods train with its 20 or 30 trucks lumbering along. I suppose it’s simply because Germany is a bigger country. But maybe also they never had the equivalent of our Dr Beeching.

Friday 25 October

Friday was devoted to driving along the Moselle valley to get to Trier.

Our first stop provided a quite unexpected discovery, the Burg Eltz. (See the photo right at the beginning.) Mr Michelin gives it two stars, high praise in the area , which encouraged us as we went along seemingly endless winding roads with no indication as to how far away it was. Eventually you reach a car park, but you’re then faced with the choice of a longish walk through woods or a shuttle bus. Is this all worth it, you wonder. We, needless to say, opt for the shuttle bus. But when the bus makes its way down the hill, you get an amazing surprise. Wow! A castle that almost outdoes Neuschwanstein. It has its multiplicity of towers and turrets, rising high above a rocky foundation, against a backdrop of densely forested hills. Definitely worth it!

The castle has an interesting history, as you can imagine. It was founded some 1,000 years ago and hasn’t been seriously damaged since about 1350. It is still owned by the same family. You can only go inside with a guided tour, but it’s worth it, even with my aversion to guided tours. Some of the rooms give more of a feel for what it must have been like living four or five hundred years ago than anywhere I can think of.

One incidental benefit of seeing Eltz is that you don’t feel the urge to do any more Rhineland castles – of which there are plenty, albeit mostly ruined. You can admire them from a distance.

The Moselle valley is quite different from the Rhine. It’s smaller and less dramatic, but the most obvious feature is the way the vineyards on each side lie on immensely steep slopes running right down to the river, or at least the road by the river. This provides, certainly at this time of year, presumably after the grapes have been harvested, a splendidly multi-coloured patchwork effect all the way along the river.

Saturday 26 October

Our hotel in Trier, the Villa Huegel, was a real contrast to our previous resting places. It appears at first sight to be small and intimate. And indeed the front has all the appearance of an old house. But it has 50 rooms, two large dining rooms, an indoor swimming pool (and sauna) and an underground garage. It achieves this miracle by being constructed on a hillside with great architectural ingenuity. To get to our room (Madrid – they’re all named after cities) you go down a staircase, proceed along a winding corridor and then go down some more stairs. You’d expect to be in a lower basement, but the room has large windows opening onto an outside balcony that itself looks onto a small garden, with a pool (for fish and frogs perhaps, rather than humans) and a view of the mountains on the other side of the valley.

It’s all ultra-modern - and family owned. As we were checking out I asked the man at the desk who it was who owned the hotel. “Well I do”, he said. As well as, it turned out, the lady behind the glass screen ordering a taxi for us.

As you might expect, the hotel has a top-quality, elegant and excellent restaurant. Breakfast is astonishing, even by the standards of modern international hotels. They have a spread of every conceivable delicacy, ranging from all kinds of fish, pickled and smoked, various cheeses, salami-type sausages (of course), fruit and muesli, as well as the eggs and bacon expected by the Anglo-Saxons and the delicious breads favoured by the Germans – and me.

One area where modernity has gone to excess is – as usual – the bathroom. It is extremely difficult to switch on any tap anywhere, in bath, shower or basin, without getting drenched from an unexpected direction. No tap is clearly marked as to whether it is hot or cold, shower or not. And the water comes out in great quantity and at high pressure! It is all, of course, amazingly beautiful.

Saturday was warm, with a clear blue sky, in contrast to the forecast for the next day, so we decided to defer an exploration of Trier itself in favour of a drive towards some of the Moselle wineries – and also to see more of the Moselle valley than we were able to the day before. This turned out to more difficult than we had thought.

As to wineries, we took advice. The hotel named three. The first we almost missed entirely. When we got there, we found that it was a small building in a residential street – with absolutely no human being around. We moved on to the next, which we knew was basically a hotel and restaurant, with presumably a wine making operation alongside. It didn’t seem to be. It was indeed a hotel with a magnificent view of one of the famous loops of the Moselle. So we enjoyed the view and sampled a glass of dry Moselle. The third was a minor disaster, even though our own fault. We had tapped something wrong into Google Maps and found ourselves many miles, and even more kilometers, away from where we were aiming for. At this point we gave up the search. The conclusion has to be that the Moselle wine industry does not do visitor centres in the way that certainly they do in California and also, nowadays, increasingly in France. I imagine that the wineries tend to be small and that they’ve decided that marketing to itinerant tourists is not the way forward. They may be right.

One aspect of this that I missed was trying to understand how the cultivation and particularly the harvesting of the grapes actually works, bearing in mind that they grow on seriously steep slopes that would seem to defy any attempt to mechanise the process. You do see at the bottom of the slopes what look like mini-chair lifts. I would have liked to understand how it all works.

Sunday 27 October

We picked the right day to see the beautiful Moselle valley. Sunday, as correctly forecast, was cloudy with a tentative drizzle.

We aimed for the cathedral. It’s a complicated structure comprising two churches, all made slightly more confusing by the need to avoid the rain. We went into the one that seemed to be the cathedral, having (shamefully) to lie that we wanted to attend the service that was in full swing. After a decent interval, we crept out, discovering that it wasn’t the cathedral at all. It was the Liebfrauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, that is adjacent to it.

We were able to see the cathedral without any lying as no service was going on. It is an ancient Romanesque building, said to be the oldest in Germany. The most interesting features are the extravagantly Baroque tombs, dating from the 18th century, of assorted Prince-Archbishops who, often in the capacity of Electors, were highly significant players in the politics of the Holy Roman Empire.

Trier has a history that is in some ways more interesting than

what appears on the ground today. There is a splendid inscription on one of the buildings just off the main square which says that there were people in Trier 1,700 years before the Romans got there. The place was highly important in the days of the later Roman Empire. It’s hard to believe now but, as capital of the western Roman Empire, it was as important as Rome itself, Constantinople and Alexandria.

The main relic of these times is the curiously named Porta Nigra, the massive gatehouse to the Roman city. It survived, rather like the Pantheon in Rome, because it was converted into a church. Napoleon decided to roll back the clock and ordered all the Christian bits to be dismantled and removed. As its name suggests, it is indeed pretty black. Why I wondered don’t they give it a shampoo? The answer is that this would damage its relatively soft sandstone.

We gave up further sightseeing, partly because of the dreary weather, and retreated to our now favourite café/restaurant on the main square. It offers what it claims to be “Roman” – as in ancient Roman – dishes. We go for Roman sausages, which seem to be deliciously German – and none the worse for that.

Monday 28 October

This is the day we left for Luxembourg (by train) where we’ll be meeting up with other friends, also coincidentally from Bequia, Nicolas and Sally Forwood, who live in Luxembourg, before going back to London.

But Nicolas had happened to mention that we should see the St Paulin Church – a church that hadn’t made it onto our schedule. I decided to se it before we left. It’s definitely worth a visit. It has recently been restored in all its Baroque splendour. No one knows who the architect was as the records have disappeared, but it may have involved the great Balthasar Neumann. The interior is light and wonderful. The ceiling paintings would be interesting if you could see them properly. They apparently depict a legend about the massacre of countless Christians where the blood turned the Moselle red. But it’s all much too dark and far away to see it. The paintings look amazing in the guidebook!


A question that has been occurring to me from time to time as we progress through Germany: Why is it that Germany has more family run establishments than we do in England? Certainly two, and I think all three, of the hotels we stayed in were distinctly family owned and run, often for many generations. The Italian restaurant, Quo Vadis, that we went to in Trier was owned by a Sicilian family. The son of the owner (who served us enthusiastically) said how he was hoping to continue the business. Is one of the reasons that we have the most sophisticated investment banking firms in Europe and that they make money by encouraging family owners to sell out? Answers on a postcard, please.

Tony Herbert

30 October 2019

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