TRAVEL: Putting on a party in the Rhine
THE small German winemaking town of Rudesheim in the Rhine Gorge has just 10,000 inhabitants yet it receives three million visitors a year. So what is its secret?
It knows how to put on a good party. And there is never a shortage of good local wine.
Vines grow lavishly up imposing hills soaring from the Rhine, flourishing hectares of them ascending to the heavens. Just the sight of such abundance puts you in a party mood.
The small but lively town is a labyrinth of cobbled lanes and narrow streets crammed with bars, cafes, shops, all built around picturesque half-timber houses. A tad touristy, especially by the river, but that is part of its allure.
We got to know Rudesheim briefly but comprehensively in one big day on a shore excursion with Avalon Waterways when our ship Imagery II pulled up.
Before we scaled those vine-covered hills, about to burst into spring bud, we stopped at the Museum of Musical Cabinets where a privately owned collection of musical instruments - mostly organs - varied from the so tiny you could hold them in one hand to the enormous, those colourful organs used in fairs in bygone days complete with giant pipes and bellowing music with twitching puppets and dancing figurines.
It was a marvellous segue into the attractions waiting for us at the top of the vine-covered hills.
Depending on when you go - early spring in our case - it could well be the coldest but most exhilarating journey up a hill you are ever likely to experience. The icy spring wind cut across the open air cable car, through our thick jackets and bit into our bones as we were swept speedily over thousands of budding vines to the top of the Niederwald Forest with its famous Germania Monument, built between 1877 and 1883 to commemorate the rebirth of the German Empire.
It was breathtaking in the literal sense. High up there we stamped our feet and squealed against the cold and looked down over the panoramic view to Rudesheim's old town where the tranquil river was dotted with small green islands.
Our guide Suzanne, who we surmised owned half the town and was the unofficial mayor, told us to brace against the cold and walk. All the way down. On first look it seemed impossible but the path zig-zagged lazily through myriad vineyards and it was so bracing, so beautiful, so invigorating.
And it didn't hurt that Suzanne had organised a picnic for us halfway down: tables with pale German sausage, fat red radishes, excellent bread and endless glasses of riesling.
Suzanne gave up good information: "We all have parcels of land here, and we all help each other care for the vines," she said. "One man had a sick daughter and had to spend a year in Frankfurt when she was in hospital. All the other land owners pitched in and cared for his vines so he did not suffer any loss during the awful year he had to care for his family."
Suzanne guided us to the Rudesheim Schloss Hotel and we were ushered into its wonderfully welcoming warmth where about 100 people sat eating hearty sausages and drinking wine, and frauleins dressed in traditional garb made us brandy flambé coffee while the band stopped playing German beer songs and burst into a good rendition of Waltzing Matilda.
- Avalon Waterways offers river cruises across Europe including the eight-day Romantic Rhine itinerary travelling between Zurich and Amsterdam. Highlights include Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Rudesheim, the Rhine Gorge, Koblenz and Cologne. Departures in 2017 are now on sale, priced from $3462 a person twin share.
- Until May 31, 2016, fly return economy to Europe with airlines including Cathay Pacific from $789 a person next year with all cruises of 7-14 days. Cruises of 15 days or more are available with free return economy flights.
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways.