A Travellerspoint blog

October 2018

Cruising the Rhine on a Whale

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.

Langer Eugen

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.

Unkel is another of those landings where we could not stop due to low water. It is a wine village which looked quite interesting from afar.

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.

Königswinter sports the river promenade of an upscale resort town. Another place that would have merited a stopover.

Back in Bonn

Posted by Kathrin_E 01:50 Archived in Germany Tagged cruise bonn rhine nordrhein-westfalen Comments (0)


Beethoven monument and one of the prettiest post offices in the country

Münster church (currently under renovation), the historical city hall, and the monstrous new Stadthaus


Bicentennary advertised on the hoarding

I came to Bonn because of a conference I had signed up for. Since I had neither paper nor talk to give, I had a relaxed approach to this event. The programme had some nice features but not everything was of interest to me. So I granted myself the freedom to run off the last panel of the day.

The conference took place at the university’s main building, which is no other than the big yellow palace that had once been inhabited by the Archbishops and Electors of Cologne. At some point the city of Cologne did not want the Archbishop to reside within their boundaries anymore, so Bonn was chosen as the new residence.


The university of Bonn is celebrating its bicentenary this year. In time for the festivities they decided to do some renovations and refurbishments…in other words, parts of the building are a construction site. The iconic view from Hofgarten is thus obstructed by an ugly high fence.
Hofgarten, formerly the gardens of the palace, is now a public park. Its wide lawn is a popular hangout among university students, be it for studying, chatting with friends, playing games or just doing nothing.


The interior of this university building is a maze. The organizers failed to set up a logical system of signposts, so finding one’s way was a complicated matter, at least for those who, like me, did not know the location. I have always considered universities (semi-)public buildings but in Bonn they are very tight about who may enter. That means many corridors and passageways blocked by locked doors secured by alarm, which does not make matters easier. Or doors were opened for a few minutes before and after lectures, and then relocked. Even to leave the building you needed to ask for the door to be opened. They say that due to their location in the middle of the city they have to be this careful, but to me it all seems overzealous. It was certainly confusing and annoying for us temporary guests.


The conference programme included a guided tour of the main palace as well as a visit to Poppelsdorf, the summer palace of the Archbishops. Sadly, both have been hit excessively by World War II bombings. There are very few rooms which have preserved a bit of original stucco and give an idea of the baroque splendour that ruled here. After all, the Archbishop of Cologne was the one who crowned the Kings and (in the early modern era) the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and the second highest in rank (after his colleague in Mainz) among the Prince Electors. He needed a home that befitted his status.

The palace consists of four wings around a rectangular central courtyard, with the characteristic four towers on the corners, and a number of side wings. We learned, though, that not everything is as old as it pretends. In the baroque era the palace had not been completed. One and a half wing and one of the towers were still missing. Only in the 1920s the gap was closed. The interiors show distinct 1920’s style.

Clandestine snapshot of a historical photo from the beginning of the 20th century that we were shown during the tour. Front wing and tower are still missing.


The central courtyard, unfortunately used as a parking lot for university employees, which does not add much good to its looks.


Two rooms in the souterrain, once the Archbishop’s private “party cellar”, have preserved their stucco. They now host the library of one of many university institutes.


A seminar room on the first floor with some leftover baroque stucco.


The neoclassical university church, formerly palace chapel. In recent times it has been turned into a protestant church.
This is, apart from the inner courtyard, the only bit which is freely accessible. All the rest is off-bounds to tourists.

A perfectly straight boulevard in westward direction, lined with trees, connects the main palace with the summer palace in the suburb of Poppelsdorf. Perspective makes it look rather close but in fact the distance sums up to about 3 kilometres. It’s quite a walk. I wish I had rented a bike already on the first day!


Weird things were going on along the way. These must have been some strange rituals for the welcoming of the new first-semester students of medicine - including some kind of race dressed in underwear.



The little palace on Poppelsdorf has a square ground plan which looks rather simple from the outside. It was supposed to be one storey higher but financial problems required a simplification of the plan. The architect’s fanciest idea was inserting a circular inner courtyard into this square block. Unfortunately, you guessed it, this building is also currently undergoing renovations.

It is occupied by university institutes like zoology and botany, and the politics of closed doors apply here just the same. The inner courtyard is accessible during the day but not the interior of the building. There is one hall which is preserved in its original shape with baroque stucco, all the rest is post-war.



In order to show us this hall, the organizers had obtained an arrangement with the caretaker who had, after some negotiations it seems, offered a time slot for us in the last 15 minutes of his workday.

It almost went wrong because the caretaker had expected a call on his cell phone while our guide had expected him to show up at the appointed time… a search party then found him somewhere in the building, so all looked well… but the battery of the electronic key was empty so the substitute key had to be found… phew… in the end the door opened and we were able to enter.


The hall has some interesting stucco that shows gardening tools and devices. The Archbishop had founded some kind of “gardeners” order who held their meetings in this room. Nowadays the university rents it out as a venue for seminars and conventions. They do not even use it for their own events.



The palace is surrounded by the botanical gardens of the university. These, including the greenhouses, are open for everyone and can be visited for free. They are worth seeing. After the tour we still had plenty of time before the evening reception, so some of us took the chance for a walk in the gardens (while others did not get any further than the terrace of the café). In the meantime the sun had come out, the first autumn colours were shining.

Once in every couple of years the botanical gardens of Bonn make the headlines and attract thousands of visitors at once: when the titan arum is in bloom. The largest flower in the world blooms for hardly more than one single night. They are currently hoping in Bonn… the question is whether this here, about 25 cm high at the moment, will grow into a blossom or a leaf.

Information board showing the life cycle of the titan arum



Biking Bonn and the Rhine



My hotel offered rental bikes, and the next morning I got one for the rest of my stay. No more painful walking…

Biking in the centre of the city isn’t that entertaining. Bike lanes exist on the main roads but they are narrow and car traffic is heavy. The pedestrian zone in theory allows cyclists, which is fine in the evenings, but during shop opening hours the crowds of pedestrians are just too dense. The side streets are a maze of one-way streets, tram tracks, huge buses that take almost the whole width of the street. But the numbers of cyclists are nevertheless high, also due to the vicinity of the university, so we hold our ground.


Ready for takeoff

As soon as you leave the immediate centre, though, the situation changes drastically for the better. A signposted network of bike trails and bike lanes leads practically everywhere. The finest route for a little bike tour is, of course, the river promenade.

The weather was much too nice and sunny to spend the whole day inside a darkened lecture hall watching PowerPoint presentations. During the afternoon coffee break I ran off and jumped on my bike. The wombats were already hiding in my backpack as they had expected this and wanted to join – they know me ????

We made our way down to the Rhine promenade and cycled upstream. There is a bike trail right by the river that leads I don’t know how far, but one could cycle for several days in a row.


This afternoon I went as far as Mehlem, the southernmost suburb of Bonn. The next day, watching the river bank from the boat, I was actually very proud of myself when I saw how far I had come, all the way against the wind!

The route first passes the government quarter, seat of the Federal Government from the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 until the move to Berlin after the reunification.

After passing the former parliament building (Bundestag), the trail runs through a large park that covers a vast area in the wide river bend, known as Rheinaue. This area was the site of the Bundesgartenschau (garden exhibition) in 1979. I remember our family visit. My father was very much into gardening, so the Buga was a must. As a teenager who had to spend far too much time in the family’s allotment garden, I probably wasn’t as enthusiastic. – The exhibition grounds were then turned into a permanent park, truly a gain for the city and the citizens.

The Rhine promenade continues along the following suburbs of Plittersdorf and Bad Godesberg, the spa town within Bonn's boundaries.

In Plittersdorf this chapel-like building next to church and cemetery caught my eye. In the 19th century it had been built as mausoleum for the noble family von Carstanjen. The last member of the family died in 2005. For about a decade it has now been used as a burial site “for everyone”. The architecture was designed after the Pantheon in Rome, a popular model in neoclassical architecture, though at much smaller scale (obviously).

Cycling past Bad Godesberg, the Seven Mountains on the other side of the Rhine came into clearer view. I was already opposite Königswinter, and almost opposite Drachenfels. Two car ferries cross the river, one at Bad Godesberg and one at Mehlem.

The Mehlem-Königswinter ferry and Petersberg

Reaching the promenade of Mehlem, I decided it was enough and I deserved a break. The café by the river wasn’t open, unfortunately, so the snack was limited to an apple and some water on a park bench, enjoying the landscape view.

And resting my aching backsides: the bike itself was fine but it had a terribly hard saddle!

Enjoying the view of Drachenfels

The return back to Bonn was easier because I now had the wind in my back. In the city I had a quick light dinner and a big glass of Apfelschorle, before it was time for the evening event.

Memories coming back - found this in an old photo album: Family walk on the Rhine bank, 1971

Posted by Kathrin_E 14:15 Archived in Germany Tagged bonn rhine nordrhein-westfalen Comments (1)

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