Days of wine and castles

“Everyone who visits Germany should stand right here,” says Ulrike Bahm with all the confidence and concern of a good friend showing off the fabled sites of her home country.

Perched high above the mighty Rhine River, we drink in the view from the terrace of the famous castle, Schloss Johannisberg. It is one of stunning beauty. We gaze out over tidy rows of grape vines shining like gold in the autumn sunshine. To the right, the picture-perfect village of Johannisberg is a cluster of neat, pastel-coloured houses capped with black peaked roofs. On the horizon to the left is the town of Wiesbaden.

Then there’s the mighty river, with its continuous stream of barges and ferries chugging in both directions. They fly the flags of many nations, like a celebration in a giant international neighbourhood. The Rhine also flows through Switzerland and France and the Netherlands, but it really is a river of Germany.

Ulrike and I were touring the wine regions of Rheinhessen and Rhinegau. “We’re actually at the same latitude as Winnipeg,” she tells me. Yet, unlike Winnipeg, these regions are ideal for growing the elegant Riesling grae. The weather is warmer although Winnipeg actually clocks in more hours of sunshine annually.

Back in eighth century, Emperor Charlemagne thought grape vines would do well here because he noticed the snow melted faster on this side of the river. Today, the region’s vineyards are recognized for their superb Riesling wines and other traditional varieties such as Silvaner and Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).

Schloss Johannisberg, located on the site of a medieval Benedictine monastery, presides over vineyards that produce some of the Rhineland’s finest wines. Tours of the ancient cellar are available on Sundays, and visitors can taste a succession of luscious Rieslings from crisp and dry to sweet dessert offerings.

Between the cities of Mainz and Wiesbaden, some 40 castles crown the steep, vineyard-covered slopes. Once, these imposing buildings were home to the barons who protected travelling merchants from bandits along the river. Because of the high tolls they collected for that protection, they came to be known as the Robber Barons. Some of the castles are crumbling reminders of their former grandeur. Others have been restored and now offer elegant accommodation for anyone who has dreamed of spending the night in a real castle, complete with turrets, towers and moats.

I fulfilled that fantasy at Schoenburg Castle. For more than 1,000 years, the massive stone structure has watched over the little town of Oberwesel. Today, it is an elegant hotel complete with a vaulted dining room, superb meals, winding staircases and cosy sitting rooms. No detail had been overlooked in my tiny perfect room for one. The wrought iron and brass bed with its tapestry canopy hugged one wall. Behind the handsomely carved cabinet was a flat-screen TV, while a mini-bar hid behind another antique door in the wall. Leaded glass windows opened onto the rooftops of the town and the mesmerizing river.

Whether your favourite mode of exploring is on foot, by bicycle or car or cruising down a river, the region delivers on all counts. It is a valley of cobblestoned villages and pretty walled towns. Bright geraniums spill out of the window boxes of tidy stucco and half-timbered houses. Friendly, welcoming people, many of whom speak English, make it easy to explore on your own. Wineries welcome visitors for tastings. Spring or fall is a lovely, un-touristy time to visit. Wear comfortable shoes and take your camera. It will get a good workout.