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A Walk From Hell Along the Rhine

What started out as one of our most pleasant experiences in Rüdesheim turned into a bit of a nightmare.

Our plan, one cloudy morning in Rüdesheim, was to hike the Ostein Route through Niederwald Park perched on the bluffs overlooking the Rhine. Supposedly the easiest of the Rhine Gorge walks, with relatively level trails and well maintained and marked paths, it traversed the “fairy tale forest” of beach and oak, created by Count Graf von Ostein in the late 1800s complete with a temple, enchanted cave, castle ruins and a hunting lodge.

What could go wrong, unless perhaps you were Hansel and Gretel?

Although there was a light sprinkle of rain occasionally, our day trip went as advertised. After a nice breakfast at the hotel, Mary and I walked to the cable car ticket window about 50 feet away. We purchased a Ring ticket ($15) which included the cable car ride up to Niederwald, the chairlift down to nearby Assmannshausen and a ferry ride that would take us down the Rhine back to Rüdesheim. We climbed into the gondola and soon were gliding above the old town and vineyards, enjoying a spectacular bird’s eye view of the towns along the Rhine River.

Once at the top, it was a short walk to a large classical temple built by Ostein, destroyed in 1944 and rebuilt in 2006. We joined a dozen or so hikers taking photos and enjoying of the expansive views of the Valley. A few hundred yards down the path is Germainia in her full busted glory –the imposing 125-foot high centerpiece of the Niederwald Monument, a tribute to German nationalism commemorating the rebirth of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War.

We continued our walk down the trail into the magical woods through a stretch that inspired Brahms to pen his third symphony. Other artists have created works dedicated to the beauty here for over a century. As we walked the trail, sheltered by a canopy of trees and serenaded by scores of birds, we occasionally passed a solo walker or small, group of nature lovers, but mostly we enjoyed our nature walk undisturbed.

Later along the main path, we passed what looked like a large covered Gypsy wagon pulled by two beautiful black horses, there to give exhausted walkers a lift. Feeling good and energized by the scenery, we declined the transportation, but, as it would turn out, later I would have willingly paid a lot of money for that same ride.

The light sprinkle turned into a thunderstorm with pounding rain. Fortunately, as we exited the forest, a storybook hotel appeared to save the day. Dozens of other walkers joined us in running toward shelter in the classic Jagdschloss Niederwald hotel. Walk into the small hotel lobby it’s like walking back in time to 1764 when it was used as a hunting lodge. Later it was converted into a hotel for visitors to the Niederwald Memorial so that they could enjoy the scenery and wildlife.

The Jagdschloss is a historic place for Germans – the Niederwald Conference was held here after WW II to lay the foundation for Germany’s current constitution. Oblivious to its history, we dashed through the front door, seeking a warm dry haven and perhaps a glass of wine or two until the sun returned. When the rain let up, we leisurely strolled to the nearby lift for our trip down to the village of Assmannshausen.

This is when our journey begins to go south.
At the lift station, a long line of soggy walkers was waiting for trips to resume. Operators had shut it down because of lightning; with thunder still rumbling, it stayed stalled. Bummer. I hate waiting and no one could estimate how long it would be before the chairs were loaded again. What to do?

Nearby, we overheard a distinguished-looking couple discussing a plan to walk to town. It is an easy trail and we’ve walked it many times, they told us before turning and disappearing down a trail and into the woods. We weighed our options, knowing that ferries to Rüdesheim stopped service in the late afternoon and it was now afternoon. I felt pretty fresh, and the wine effect was still engaged, so I said, “Let’s do it.”

Bad mistake.

We began our trek down the path that we would learn is called the Freiligrath route after the revolutionary poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, called by his friends the “bugler of the revolution” of 1848. It is the one route labeled with a heart on the map– which most likely meant you risked a heart attack somewhere along the route. The steep serpentine five-kilometer path, slippery from the rain, led down through the woods. We tread slowly and carefully over the now treacherous rocky trail.

About two kilometers down the trail, a familiar sensation in my legs triggered red flags. I was experiencing the onset of rubber legs – at least that’s what I called them. It’s a symptom often called weak legs, jelly legs, or shaky legs. It get’s worse as you continue, but I had to move on even though my legs buckled with every step. I forced myself to walk slowly, one wobbly step at a time, resting frequently

By the way, we never saw the couple who suggested this trail from hell. I had begun to believe that they were not kind old Germans at all, but evil Gremlins inflicting pain on ignorant strangers. But we did see the chairlift when we stepped into a clearing. People who waited out the storm waved to us as they sailed over us and down to the town. I swear I saw the old couple among them, evil grins on their faces. It was probably an illusion, a side effect of rubber legs.

Finally, we began passing vineyards (pinot noir I was told), and soon the whole village came into view. It still took us another half-hour to navigate the steep streets down to the ferry landing. Each cobblestone was my enemy as I stumbled along until finally we turned a corner and saw the Rhine. We were at the riverfront. We had made it.

With tears of survivor joy in my eyes, I quaffed a cold German beer at the café while waiting for our boat to take us home. Now it was Mary’s turn to be disappointed. Throughout our ordeal, she had visions of cake and the brandied coffee made tableside that was a regional specialty. That’s what she ordered with glee, but she was soon crestfallen when a machine-made lukewarm brew arrived accompanied by stale strudel. It was that kind of day.

What to do? We boarded the ferry for our ride back to Rüdesheim and walked from the ferry landing to our favorite Riesling tasting room. A few glasses later and our good spirits returned, and If nothing else, we had a great tale to tell of our memorable walk in the woods. q

Ron James

Ron James

Publisher/Travel Writer at Wine Dine & Travel Magazine
Ron James is the “wine, food and travel guy.” The San Diegan, is a nationally award-winningprint and onlinejournalist, designer, television producer and radio personality.He has worked for San Diego Magazine, Time Warner, Broadband Interactive Group, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Uptown News and SDNN. The native Californian’s nationally syndicated wine and food columns for CNS have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. He is an avid world traveler who is passionate about great wine and food and enthusiastically enjoys them every day!
Ron James

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