M. S. "Moby Dick"
“The” famous day cruises on the Rhine are those on the Middle Rhine Gorge. However, there is another scenic option further north, starting from Bonn in upstream direction past the Seven Mountains. During my recent stay in Bonn I decided to dedicate my last day, a beautiful sunny afternoon in early October, to this pleasant and relaxing pastime.
It was a “trip down memory lane”: As a kid I used to do Rhine cruises with my grandparents, who lived in the surroundings of Bonn. The classic tour from Bonn goes to the small town of Linz on the right river bank. The ride takes about two hours – a bit longer in upstream direction, a bit less back downstream. To make it really classic, the family would stay in Linz for two hours for a walk of the town and of course coffee and cake.
A local company named Bonner Personenschifffahrt is doing these cruises. They have ‘normal’ boats, the usual white ones just like those on any other lake or river, but they also have a peculiar vessel which is unique… it is meant to resemble a whale, and they named it “Moby Dick”. When the boat was built, I was ten years old – the perfect age for such funky designs. On the one hand we laughed about this weird thing, on the other hand it was and still is fascinating.
There is a story why they wanted a whale sailing on the Rhine, and why the boat got this name. Some years earlier, in 1966, a real whale had indeed made an appearance in the river. It was a captive young Beluga who was meant to be transported to London zoo. But the ship he was on toppled over in a storm, the whale escaped and made his way from the North Sea into the Rhine and upstream as far as Bonn. Media named him Moby Dick after Herman Melville’s novel. Protests from nature activists with growing support in the population frustrated all attempts to capture the whale. This was one of the first pro-nature movements in Germany. Moby Dick finally found his way back to the sea and disappeared.
My plans were tight because I had to catch the train back home in the evening, hence there was only one possible departure time for me. By coincidence it was the “Moby Dick” that did this course. My original plan had been taking my bike on board and going as far as Bad Honnef, and then cycling back to Bonn along the right river bank. However, the low water level made this plan obsolete since the stops at Bad Honnef and a few other places were cancelled. Königswinter was too close for a cycling tour, Linz much too far.
So it was Plan B: I chained my bike to a lamp post behind the ticket office and bought a ticket to Linz and back. I would not have time for the obligatory coffee break in Linz but simply stay on the boat and go straight back to Bonn.
I grabbed a seat on the upper deck by the railing, with the intention to keep it for the whole cruise so I’d have the view of one river bank on the way to Linz and the other on the way back. They have tables there, drinks and small food dishes can be ordered from a waitress to be served right there.
All seats were soon taken. I was, not surprisingly, not the only one who decided that a river cruise would be a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the most glorious weather October is capable of. Most passengers disembarked in Linz, so the boat was much less occupied on the way back.
Good views from the lower deck, too, thanks to the big windows
I shared the table with two retired couples. The two men were notorious “explainers” who knew everything (a type of men that I heartily dislike) but luckily they sort of neutralized each other. Next to me I had a single lady, a bit younger than myself, with whom I had a pleasant long chat and happily shared my pack of biscuits. She told me that she was staying in Bonn for work for some weeks and that she was doing this cruise to relive her childhood memories, and it had to be on “Moby Dick” – her grandparents had been living in the area and they used to take her on cruises… doesn’t this sound oddly familiar?
The wombats enjoyed the cruise, too…
The cruise starts at Bonn Alter Zoll, a bulwark that’s left of the city’s fortifications. This is a few steps from the palace and a few minutes from the city centre, hence easy to reach. Tickets must be bought on shore from the pavilion by the boat landing. But you can also board at every other stop along the way. All details, routes and timetables and a lot more can be found on the company’s website: https://www.bonnschiff.de/en
During the ride there is a commentary in German and English. It is quite basic and superficial but enough to know where you are and what you are looking at. Besides, it is pleasant that they are not talking all the time.
The route first passes the former government quarter. The government of the Federal Republic of Germany had its seat here in Bonn from the foundation in 1949 until the move to Berlin in 1999 after the reunification. Some buildings are still used by our government while others now host UN and other organizations.
The parliament building is located right on the river bank, but recent construction works have changed a lot there. The skyscraper nicknamed “Langer Eugen”, now used by the UN and proudly displaying their logo, was built in the 1960s and contained the offices of the Members of Parliament. It is a landmark of Bonn. Its even taller neighbour, the post tower, is a more recent addition.
The bridge across the Rhine was built in the 1950s for Chancellor Adenauer: He lived in Rhöndorf on the opposite riverside, and crossing by ferry was too time-consuming, so he ordered the construction of the bridge. Consequently, it was later named after him.
Round the bend the landscape view opens up. The Seven Mountains appear on the eastern river bank. This ridge has, strictly speaking, far more than seven peaks, but the name has stuck.
Petersberg made history. The large complex of buildings on top is now a luxurious hotel. It previously served as the guest house of the Federal government. All state guests who paid official visits to Bonn the capital of West Germany were accommodated up there. This includes all the big names from all over the globe. The remote location was easy to handle security-wise. And the views from up there must be breathtaking.
The most spectacular mountain is Drachenfels, the one that is closest to the Rhine. A castle was built on top in the middle ages in order to control the valley. Only a ruin is left of the castle. Drachenfels is a popular destination among locals. A funicular goes up, but many people do the hike.
Halfway up another castle appears, but this one, known as Drachenburg, is not as old as it pretends to be and in fact it is not a castle either. It was built in the 1880s in neogothic style as a residential palace for a rich banker and broker, who, however, never lived there. In the meantime it has been turned into a museum.
Rolandseck on the opposite side of the river used to be a proud castle, too, but hardly anything is left of it except one open arch, named Rolandsbogen. A restaurant has been built next to it, this is another popular destination to visit.
The village below is famous among art lovers. The train station building has been transformed into a “Kunstbahnhof” that does exhibitions of contemporary art. A large museum building has been erected on the hillside above, which is dedicated to the abstract painter and sculptor Hans Arp.
Outside Bad Honnef the river forms two islands, Nonnenwerth and Grafenwerth. Nonnenwerth is the seat of a convent and a renowned school. The former castle on Grafenwerth is long gone. The island is now covered by a park with leisure activities, a boat harbour etc.
The village of Oberwinter appears in regional radio news every day: It is the seat of the tide scale which measures the water level of the Rhine. Important for ship traffic on the river.
Low water creates new playgrounds
Water levels are terribly low after the long, hot and almost rainless summer. Boats and barges are still able to run but not all boat landings are accessible. Wide pebbled banks have fallen dry. People enjoy playing on them. But this is not what the river bed ought to look like.
Then the boat reaches Remagen, a small town on the western river bank. Its skyline, if we want to call it such, is dominated by the beautiful neogothic church of St Apollinaris on a hilltop above the town.
However, Remagen is most famous among the so-called “history buffs” whose interest in German history is focused on World War II. The bridge of Remagen was, in March 1945, the last functioning bridge across the Rhine. German soldiers were to blow it up before the arrival of the Americans but they failed because they used too small an amount of explosives, but they nevertheless caused substantial damage. The U.S. Army were able to use the bridge for several days until it finally collapsed.
The bridge towers on both sides are still standing. They are memorials, but not for ‘military glory’. One of them contains the Peace Museum which informs about the gruesome sides of war rather than glorifying it.
Linz is the turning point. The boat stops for some 10 minutes to let passengers disembark and new passengers board. I simply stayed on board. It was a pity not to have time for a walk round the town, though. Linz is known for its beautiful half-timbered houses and I would have liked to see it and take some photos. But then I would have missed the evening train back to Karlsruhe.
The right riverbank was now in my full view. It was accompanied by a serving of French fries and an alcohol-free beer that I treated myself to.
Traffic on the river was heavy. The Rhine is a major highway for freight barges.
Opposite Remagen lies a village with the funny name of Erpel (which is the German word for a male duck) with its pretty church.
The mountain behind Erpel, where the railway line across the Remagen bridge entered a tunnel, is formed from basalt. The typical rock structures are amazing.
The panorama of the Seven Mountains can now be seen from the other side. The view of Drachenfels is most spectacular from the south, where it has its steepest and rockiest slope.
Back in Bonn