After leaving Heidelberg, my husband and I set out by car for our next destination, Bacharach, a small village on the Rhine River. We exit the autobahn at Bingen am Rein (Bingen on the Rhine), or “Bingen” for short. The small city serves as the gateway to a legendary part of the Rhine called the Oberes-Mittelrheintal (Upper Middle Rhine). Like most villages along the river, Bingen was settled during (or even before) the early Middle Ages. The town’s most famous resident, Hildegard von Bingen, was born almost a thousand years ago in 1098. Influential during her lifetime, she wrote about theology, science, philosophy, and medicine and also composed her own music. After Hildegard died, she was forgotten for centuries until she was rediscovered in the 19th century. Because she was so remarkable for anyone of her time, let alone a woman, the Catholic Church made Hildegard a saint in 2012.
On the way out of town, we pass the first of many castles. The Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower) is on a small rocky island in the Rhine. It was originally a watch tower where, according to myth, mice ate the Archbishop of Mainz because he was so cruel to the starving villagers. We later discover that each castle seems to have an interesting story or legend of its own.
We’re soon following a scenic route that hugs the west bank of the river. Terraced vineyards climb up the precariously steep hills beside the road, making us wonder how they are tended. The hills on the other side are blanketed with deep green forest punctuated by patches of soft green.
A castle perched on a lofty summit comes into view and then another. The road winds its way along the narrow valley past villages wedged between the river and the steep hills. Towns along the Rhine haven’t grown much since the Middle Ages, and we can see why. There is absolutely no place to expand.
When we reach the walled town of Bacharach, our base for exploring the rest of the area, we debate whether to try to squeeze our car through the absurdly narrow tunnel in the city wall that seems to be the only way into town. Since our car is a rental, we decide to play it safe and park outside.
We are early and our hotel room isn’t quite ready, so we set out to explore the 11th century village, which has managed to preserve its medieval feel. Bacharach is small, with narrow streets flanked by timber-framed houses.
It’s May, but the hills are verdant and the flowers in full bloom. Like Heidelberg, the Rhine has its own micro-climate, and spring starts earlier here than in the rest of Germany. Because the summer tourist season is still weeks away, there are no crowds. It’s a perfect time to visit.