Even if you don’t speak German, it’s so closely related to English that an educated guess at meaning will often bear fruit. Nouns such as Fisch, Finger, Glas and Bier, for example, need the merest of tweaks to convert into perfect English.
But there are times when the common link is lost. Take the first question asked by my guide, Frank, when we meet at breakfast.
‘So are you ready to do some climbing?’
Climbing? I thought I was in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley for a straightforward hike. In a moment of panic, I look out of the window, across the dark, creeping expanse of river to grey cliffs that rise for a near-vertical 120 metres from the water. There’s a matching wall of slate on our side of the valley so I check under the table for helmets, coils of rope and Frank’s first-aid certificate.
He puts my mind at rest. English doesn’t differentiate between the subtle meanings of the verb, he says. The Germans use ’klettern’ for rock climbing. What Frank intended was ‘steigen,‘ or climbing in the context of a ladder. With my schoolboy-level German, I should have guessed: the clue is in the name of the trail.
The Rheinsteig was opened in 2005 and follows the Rhine for the 320 kilometres from Wiesbaden in the south to Bonn in the north. Nature, history and route designers have joined forces to create a trail that is visually stunning, packed with numerous worthy diversions, and never far from good food, drink and welcoming hosts.
The trail is easy to divide into civilised, day-sized chunks. A typical itinerary starts with a steady, moderately steep climb to the top of the cliffs. You then pick up the Rheinsteig and wander through tranquil, open woods of oak and beech, flower-dotted meadows and slumbering hamlets.
Coincide lunch with an intoxicating view of the imperious Rhine. Back on the trail follow a switchback track down - and then up - the side of a deep, wooded gorge; take a minor detour to visit a castle; and, finally follow another path back to the river. Check in at your next hotel and celebrate your feeling of enhanced well-being with a glass of the local Riesling.
Thanks to the trail’s architects it’s impossible to get lost. You won’t need GPS but, just in case, your precise location is etched on the frequent signposts. And the distinctive Rheinsteig logo - a sweeping R in white, representing the river, against a blue background - appears with comforting regularity.
Frank tells me that the trail was originally marked by small metal plates nailed to posts and trees. But they now use a stencil and indelible paint because some walkers were detaching the plates for souvenirs. ’We lost over 4,000 in four years,’ he said with mild irritation and a smile.
While such petty theft might be annoying, it does reflect the distinctiveness of the logo and the popularity of the trail. The Rheinsteig suits walkers of all ages and fitness levels and if gentle strolling through peaceful woods becomes a little tedious, the trail invariably delivers a calf-stretching climb.
One of the most satisfying ascents is Ruppertsklamm. After crossing a footbridge over the river Lahn near Niederlahnstein, the trail follows a dribbling stream up a mile-long gorge, populated by lanky beech trees and carpeted with sun-streaked rusty leaves.
The valley soon narrows into a corridor of slate which is steep enough - and sufficiently slippery even in dry spells - to justify a handrail. The trail architects have provided a steel cable for this purpose. They even encased it in green plastic to match the natural colours of Ruppertsklamm.
Frank and his team have seemingly thought of everything. But there are plenty of places when nature doesn’t need a helping hand. At Hindenburghöhe, for instance, just north of Kestert, the trail pauses on a rocky outcrop some 250 metres above the river.
Against a backdrop of an immense, powder blue sky with billowing white and grey clouds, one can appreciate how the Rhineland has captured hearts since the Romans were here.
It must have seemed like home to the legionnaires, particularly in the summer. With dusty tracks and sleepy glades of stunted oak trees, this region can have a Mediterranean atmosphere. Thanks to the dark slate which absorbs heat, temperatures on the south facing slopes of the Bopparder Hamm vineyards can hit 50 degrees.
The best times to visit are May, when the deciduous woods are bursting into leaf, or October when the views from vantage points like Hindenburghöhe are vibrant cacophonies of autumnal colours.
There‘s no word in the English language to describe the subtle beauty of the Rhineland. Maybe this is why it has plucked at the heartstrings of poets, painters and romantic myth-makers since records began.
Like its language, there are echoes of England in the climate, the scenery and history of the Rhine Valley. This part of Germany has an air of familiarity but on a grand scale. And it might be my imagination, but I’m sure the wine is served in much larger measures, too.
This article was published by Country Walking magazine, and short-listed for the German Tourist Board Travel Article of the Year Award 2010
Hike through Germany's Rhine Valley for views, castles and wine on the grandest scale
Words and photos by Gary James Merrill
Against a backdrop of an immense, powder blue sky with billowing white and grey clouds, one can appreciate how the Rhineland has captured hearts since the Romans were here
There‘s no word in the English language to describe the subtle beauty of the Rhineland. Maybe this is why it has plucked at the heartstrings of poets, painters and romantic myth-makers since records began