Germany: Autumn pathway at Rudesheim

By Jim Eagles

Legend has it that the ghost of the great European emperor, Charlemagne, still watches over the riesling grapes growing on the steep fields sloping down to the River Rhine at the village of Rudesheim.

Locals say that every spring, when the grapevines burst into flower, a tall shadowy figure wearing a crown wanders the vineyards at night blessing the harvest.

I don't think I saw the ghost, though I did find myself wandering abroad late at night, but it's a tale which is easy to believe.

Rudesheim is a village of fairytale beauty and its quaint jumble of medieval towers, castles and cottages make it the sort of place you'd expect to see kings and princesses, ghosts and fairies.

Local history also says it was Charlemagne who, some 1300 years ago, first planted the grapes upon which the district's fame rests.

The story has it that once upon a time the great king was surveying his domain from his castle across the Rhine at Ingelheim - where its remains can be explored - when he noticed a blanket of overnight snow, which covered the landscape, had melted in just one place ... on the hills at Rudesheim.

Musing that this extra warmth from the early sun might be good for growing grapes, the king remembered the fine wine he had enjoyed in the French city of Orleans, and sent a messenger to collect some cuttings.

When they arrived he planted the first cutting, supervised the development of the vineyards and later, in old age, greatly enjoyed the wine which resulted.

I arrived in the village during a cruise down the Rhine in the Avalon Tapestry, having heard much about Rudesheim rieslings and eager to try the regal beverage.

However, it was dawn when we berthed, which was perhaps a little early for drinking wine, so I was persuaded to first try some of the village's other attractions.

Perhaps the most spectacular is the 10.5m high statue of Germania, an Amazonian woman wielding a mighty sword. It was erected in 1871 by the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to mark the creation of a united Germany.

The cable car to the top wasn't running and it would have taken too long to walk.

Another option was the Medieval Torture Museum whose programme of delights included "whipping posts, gallows, stretching ladder, knee screws, breast talons, heretic forks, guillotine, iron lock jaw, iron collars of thorns, chastity belts, thumb screws, head presses, pendulums, storks, three-beamed harrow, barrel pillory, humiliation masks, wheels, garottes, tongs, interrogator's chair, hanging cages, Judas scale, the rack, executioner's axe and lots more". It sounded interesting but I was worried I might get an upset stomach and be unable to drink.

Instead, I took a cute miniature train for a tour of the steep cobble-stoned streets lined with charming houses hundreds of years old, picturesque inns with flowers bursting from their window boxes and the occasional stone tower or castle which served as a reminder of Europe's turbulent past.

Encouragingly, it was quickly apparent that it would not be hard to find a place to have a few glasses of wine. Most of the largest houses were built as homes for rich wine merchants but now house restaurants and wine bars. Even Castle Broemserburg, whose 2m thick walls on the river bank have defended the town for a 1000 years, is a wine museum.

Our train stopped at another castle where a woman in peasant costume with a foghorn voice ushered everyone into something called Seigfried's Mechanisches Musikkabinett, which turned out to be a museum of mechanical musical instruments.

There may not have been any wine on offer but this was, nevertheless, an extraordinary place with more than 350 music boxes, barrel-organs, player-pianos, automated string quartets and huge mechanical orchestras all ready to perform at the click of a switch or the winding of a handle.

In the first room, the attendant opened a cabinet, pulled a lever and a 21-piece jazz orchestra, complete with drums, saxophone and string bass, sprang into action.

It was amazing.

Nearby, a row of banjos plucked away at Swanee River. Round the corner six mechanical violins and a piano produced a wide range of classical music.

Up the stairs, a grand player piano played one of Franz Liszt's sonatas in the style of the composer. There was a 27-piece orchestra of monkeys musicians all playing enthusiastically on their instruments, as they have done since 1888.

Finally we headed for the wine cellar. Aha, I thought, music and wine, the perfect combination. But, no, instead of barrels of wine the cellar was full of barrel organs, huge brightly-coloured affairs capable of churning out cheerful music at great volume.

Leaving the museum, I wandered down the hill toward the river and, as luck would have it, ended up in the Drosselgasse, a narrow alley lined with wine bars and restaurants, all offering local wines.

I tried a few glasses - all delightful - and that night returned for more to the wonderful Rudesheimer Schloss, built 270 years ago by the Archbishop of Mainz to house his tax collectors, but these days put to much more convivial use as a restaurant.

As manager Heinrich Breuer put it, "We still collect the money from the people but today they are much happier about giving it."

Judging by the hilarious atmosphere in the restaurant the night I was there, he was absolutely right and it was easy to see why.

The Georg Breur terra montosa riesling, produced by the family which owns the restaurant, was superb. It was the perfect accompaniment for the black bread and dripping - something I haven't had since I was a kid - they gave out while we studied the menu.

It also went marvellously with the tapas plate of pate, brawn and smoked meat all made from wild boar pate, sour trout, black pudding with apple sauce and smoked duck, which allowed us to sample a range of local specialities.

It was ideal with a traditional German dish of hessisch worst - frankfurter, bratwurst and mettwurst sausages accompanied by sauerkraut.

I'm sure it would also have gone well with dessert but sadly I didn't have room.

However I did manage a cup of Rudesheimer's own special coffee - made by setting fire to a mix of brown sugar and locally-made Asbach brandy, adding coffee and topping it with whipped cream and sprinkling chocolate on top.

As I wandered back to the Avalon Tapestry, a freezing mist was drifting through the village and it was easy to imagine spectral figures drifting by.

If one of them was the ghost of Charlemagne then I'd like to think he was well satisfied with the result of the wine industry he launched.

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies to Heathrow, London via both Los Angeles and Hong Kong and has connections to Europe via its Star Alliance partners. See airnewzealand.co.nz, call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

CRUISING THE RHINE: Avalon Waterways has eight-day Romantic Rhine river cruises, visiting some of Europe's most picturesque regions, from now until October. Cruises are available from Basel to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Basel, visiting the towns of Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne along the way. Built in 2006, Avalon Tapestry has a lounge and restaurant at its front, as well as an outside viewing deck. All meals onboard are included and wine is complimentary with dinner.

MORE INFORMATION: See your licensed travel agent or visit avalonwaterways.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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