Cologne – Bacharach – Marburg – Heidelberg (August 2022)
- Most beautiful: I am torn between Marburg and Bacharach.
- Most touristy: Heidelberg. By a long long way.
- Worst Deutsche Bahn delay: All of them, although the final leg back to Switzerland was almost an hour delayed.
- Best food: Not the best, but Marburg curry house, finally a curry in Germany which was actually spicy.
A friend was getting married in Marburg, so we expanded the wedding into a bigger trip around the region.
This worked pretty well as a mix of urban and rural, and modern and old. If I was to repeat this without the wedding I would swap a Marburg day for a day in Cologne to use for a trip to Aachen.
- 13th – 23rd August 2022.
- 2 months into one of the hottest and driest summers. The low level of the Rhine was making international news, all the parks were brown, trees looked autumnal and were dropping leaves. I didn’t even bother taking a rain jacket (and it wouldn’t have been used if I did).
- Peak summer season. I would have ideally done such a trip in spring or autumn, but this was when the wedding took place. So mid-August it was. It was not actually too bad in terms of crowds, but cooler weather would have been much better.
- All of this was done by public transport.
- This was the summer of travel chaos in general, and Deutsche Bahn wasn’t going to stand by and let everyone else outshine them. Delays, cancellation, and rammed trains seemed to be common. I had hoped the stories of problems were exaggerated, but it was rather accurate. Every train I got on was delayed before or during the ride (but no cancellations at least).
- This was also the period of the 9 Euro ticket, but we actually mostly travelled by ICE for the longer distances between destinations. All of the transport within Germany could technically have been done on 9 Euro which would have been a damn sight cheaper, but the travel times (even without delays and missed connections) and heat/crowds made that rather unappealing.
- I will be very glad not to get back on a German train for a while.
- We took a fairly relaxed approach so I didn’t bother tracking this. Most meals were taken out, but they were relatively cheap (compared to Switzerland anyway).
- There were numerous places (even in cities) where it was cash only. Quite a contrast to my last trip in Scotland where pulling cash out got stares like we were trying to pay with some pebbles that we just picked off the floor.
Cologne (2 nights)
- My main goal was to see the Dom and get a feel for the city which I had been curious to visit.
- Knowing that it had been somewhat flattened in the war I didn’t expect to be blown away but I liked it. It had a very young and lively feel (or did coming from a small Swiss city at least). I wouldn’t want to spend much time purely as a tourist in the city itself, but it was worth the time to see the Dom and take in the atmosphere.
- Not a must see, but worth a look if you are passing by.
Bacharach and the Middle Rhine (3 nights)
- Bacharach was by far the nicest of the villages we saw in the area. It was historic and important enough to have plenty of littles corners and bits of wall and tower to explore, but small enough not to have modern development spewing around.
- There were a few tourists but it never felt rammed. It only got busier when the river cruise crowd appeared, and even then it just meant 30 Americans wandering around for an hour.
- The Middle Rhine Valley is a very beautiful region of castles and little villages. It feels strangely out of place in a way with flatter and industrial/modern landscape at both ends. The main juxtaposition from the modern world are the cargo ships constantly going back and forth, and a trainline up each side.
- I was surprised by how limited the passenger boats were. Given the popularity of the region I had expected an hourly boat allowing hop-on-hop-off travel. But no you are very restricted to small round trips, or just one long distance boat each day.
- I had also considered using Koblenz as the base instead and having both the Middle Rhine and Mosel valley to explore. I am glad I didn’t go through with that as it was much nicer in the smaller town.
Marburg (3 nights)
- The reason for coming here (and the whole trip really) was a friend’s wedding. I knew it was meant to be nice, but I am not sure I would have bothered going out of my way for it otherwise.
- It turns out that Marburg has possibly the prettiest and most whimsical town centre I have seen in Germany (the city escaped the war relatively untouched). The very extensive old town climbing up a hillside filled with endless little alleyways and staircases then topped out by a castle is everything you could want from the romantic idea of a German city. Being surrounded by heavily forested hills was a nice addition
- Yet somehow it is rather obscure, being best known, if at all, for the virus of the same name. There was an almost total lack of tourists. There were some German tourists and a handful of international visitors, but mostly very quiet. I don’t think I saw a single generic souvenir shop in the whole place. Marburg is slightly obscure and a little out of the way, but it is only 1.5 hours from Frankfurt airport.
Heidelberg (2 nights)
- Added on to help break up the trip home. Obviously a famous spot and one I had been meaning to visit for years.
- The old town is indeed pretty, but it is more handsome than whimsical. Given that the whole town burnt down and was rebuilt it is ‘relatively’ modern in style with straight roads and grander facades. It made me think of a mini version of Prague.
- I didn’t do it on this trip, but taking the train line along the Neckar towards (but not as far as) then there are a whole series of little villages and castles in the narrow valley, like a mini version of the Middle Rhine gorge. The castle and Wolfschlucht at Zwingenberg are worth a visit.
Day 1 – To Cologne
A series of trains to Cologne.
- After leaving Switzerland the views were mostly of a rather dull flat landscape. The black Forest is off to one side and the Vosges to the other, but they are mostly too far away to add much to the journey. This changed with the gorge, villages, and castles of the Middle Rhine Valley. Then changed back again.
- Walked through the streets and park which were filled with people out enjoying a warm Saturday evening.
- Stayed at the Steigenberger Hotel. A standard hotel a little way out from the centre around the Dom, but in a fairly lively area filled with bars and restaurants.
Day 2 – Cologne
- Breakfast around the corner at the Cafe Buur. Sunday brunch demand.
- Walked into the old town and to Dom. Normally I would charge up the tower, but the temperatures and crowd put me off (plus I can’t imagine it is the best view).
- Along the Rhine to the former harbour area which was a nice enough way to spend a day which was too hot for much else.
Day 3 – To Bacharach
One of those awkward days where you need to transfer, but don’t need all that long to do it in, but you have too much to lug around (wedding clothes+shoes) to really make the most of anywhere along the way. What we should have done was try to store our luggage and go see the fortress.
- To Koblenz where we had thought to take the boat along the river to Bacharach. The website hadn’t been much use and we had hoped to find more info in person. Turns out there really was just 1 boat a day at 9am, and the river was too low for the ferry to stop in Bacharach anyway. Koblenz isn’t of much interest.
- We got our first taste of RE trains: 20 minutes late, busy, but at least not rammed to the bursting point or cancelled like some of the other trains we saw going past.
- Bacharach was worth the bother of the trains. Insanely picturesque. Hard to imagine a bigger contrast to Cologne and yet so close by.
- Stayed at the Bacharacher Hof. A nice little family run place in the centre of town.
- Up to the castle Schloss Stahleck for a scenic mug of local wine.
- Dinner at Zum Grünen Baum which had a limited menu of food, a rather extensive menu of wine, and a very beautiful terrace.
Day 4 – Biking along the Rhine
I had thought to spend a few days exploring the area by boat and train. Those methods were either broken or not possible, so we looked for something else.
- Rented bikes from Fahrradverleih Weber in Bacharach. Not exactly the highest quality, but they were good enough for the flat river path and 2 bikes (1 being an ebike) with accessories came to only 40 euros for the day.
- Followed the river upstream to Bingen at the southern end of the gorge (17km). The route was easy being almost entirely flat and on a path well separated from the road. It was also often in the shade from trees which was a bonus in the heatwave. There was a steady flow of long distance cyclists loaded up with panniers which gave the feeling of life without being too busy.
- Passed by a few small villages and castles along the way.
- Bingen itself wasn’t anything special. Just a typical small German town.
- Just outside Bingen is the Mouse tower. It is famous for the story associated with it, but otherwise it doesn’t really stand out any more than the other many towers and ruins along the route.
- Ideally you could cycle up one side and then use ferries to come back on the other bank. Given the low river levels we just doubled back along the same route – which in such a scenic area wasn’t a bad thing.
Day 5 – Biking along the Rhine (again)
Again with the bike and this time downstream. Cloudy start so much cooler which was nice.
- In this direction the bike path stayed directly alongside the road, but had much better views. The road was generally fairly quiet so it didn’t bother me.
- Detour into Oberwesel. Pretty, not as nice as Bacharach, but it does have more practical things like supermarkets and a hospital.
- The Lorelei is the most famous/promoted bit of the gorge. A bit more of a sheer cliff than other sections, but not something
- The goal of the day was St Goar. I had heard this was very pretty but was a bit disappointed. Not very pretty or charming (at least not after Bacharach).
- Walked up to the castle Burg Rheinfels and had a look around followed by lunch on the terrace of the Burgschänke overlooking the village and river.
- Back in Bacharach we took a walk over what should have been the river bed until the village on the other side seemed to be just out of reach. Kind of a cool experience, if you ignore all the worrying implications.
Day 6 – To Marburg
- Arrived at the station early to find our train was delayed by 30 mins already. The previous train (to a different destination) which should have left 20 minutes before was about to turn up. This was going in the right direction at least so we got a surprise visit to Mainz.
- Mainz seemed to be alright if not overly exciting. A typical modern German city really with some nice buildings and corners, but with plenty of unremarkable modern aspects too. We just went wandering around towards the old town area, it seems there are some more points of interest if you are better prepared.
- Decided to take ICE going onward to minimise having to suffer through multiple changes and delays.
- This wasn’t as effective as we hoped. The first train was delayed by 20 minutes out of Mainz, which was ok because the train out of Frankfurt was 30 minutes delayed (and the wagon order mixed up just for fun). What should have been 2hr40 took closer to 6 hours (a good chunk of which was spent waiting in Mainz to be fair). I assume sticking with the regional trains would have been even worse.
- Stayed at the Elisabeth Apartments. A nice apartment which was across from the historical church of the same name and convenient for the old and station, just a shame about the traffic noise outside.
- Good African food at Dromedar.
Day 7 – Marburg and Wedding
- Explored in the morning. Around the old town and up to the castle.
- The most memorable place was the book shop where the owner took the hardest sell I have seen from any vendor of books by inviting passers by in to see his curated collection of books in each genre.
- Most bilingual wedding I have been to so far, everything being repeated in English and German.
Day 8 – Recovery and Marburg
- Relaxed day hanging around Marburg and exploring a bit more including the small but pleasant former botanical gardens.
- Dinner at the Marburg Curry house (going to Germany is my chance for more exotic food). This was one of the few curry houses in Germany that actually did a spicy curry.
Day 9 – To Heidelberg
- The train was not only on time but 3 minutes early. DB of course made up for this and the train ended up delayed, but it was a direct ride so at least that didn’t matter.
- Heidelberg got in on the disruption fun with several tram lines not running from the station and the bus to the old town being comically undersized for the demand.
- Sushi with a fantastic view at the Schilling Roofbar then a walk along the river and around the old town.
- Stayed at the Exzellenz Hotel. Nothing overly exciting but a nice place and just outside of the old town.
Day 10 – Heidelberg
- Crossed the river and went along the Philosophenweg which does indeed have a good view.
- Dropped down to the old bridge and into the old town towards the Schloss. Buying a Schlossticket covered the funicular up to Molkenkur (where the kiosk did a very good cake) and entry to the Schloss. The castle reminded me somewhat of the various ruined abbeys that are combined (but on a bigger scale). The apothecary museum was surprisingly extensive. The big barrel is indeed very big.
- Dinner at the Restaurant Schnookeloch. A traditional local pub (even down to the students in their club hats) with the curious addition of plastic bonsai trees on the tables.
- Met a friend for drinks at Vetter’s. A brewery who proudly claimed to have the world’s strongest beer at 33%. A claim which has long been beaten by Brewdog and is kind of pointless as any beer at such a high alcohol level tastes awful anyway.
Day 11 – Homeward
In theory an easy last day simply riding a few trains home (DB allowing).
- Our train to Karlsruhe was delayed to the point of probably missing the next one before we even started walking to the train station. Then as we reached Karlsruhe our connecting train was delayed just enough so that we could watch it slowly pull away as a crowd of us dashed onto the platform.
- It wouldn’t have hurt them to wait. Problems on the line meant that it (and the coming train which we did catch) was delayed by almost an hour anyway.
- Arriving back in Switzerland the trains were suddenly all on time again.