Bonn and Rhine in Flames Tour
One of our regular and popular escorted tours explores scenic regions that surround the mighty Rhine river in Germany and is run to coincide with one of the country’s most culturally important events in the calendar year – the ‘Rhine in Flammen’ Festival. This is a very relaxing 5-day holiday, and our next visit will be based in one of Germany’s oldest cities, Bonn. In this blog, tour leader John Robson, offers an insight into this short European break and why it is worth considering joining us when we run it again in 2022!
What is the Rhine in Flames Festival?
The tour is arranged around one of the Rhine in Flames firework and wine festivals. There are five on different dates over the year located in towns or villages in the Mittelrhein area; Bonn, Rudesheim, Koblenz, Oberwesel and St. Goar. Supporting this is a varied program of escorted visits to notable attractions in the area (although you can plan your own visits if you wish to vary the program).
Why choose this tour?
This is a short tour staying in one hotel, so provides an easy and relaxing break. At the same time, you see some of the best of Germany, the River Rhine, and travel on high speed trains, a rack railway at Drachenfels and the overhead suspension Schwebebahn in Wuppertal. If you have never been on a rail-based holiday before, then this is an opportunity to try out an easy but also interesting short tour. As well as rail enthusiasts this tour always attracts many couples looking for a more general holiday. Many passengers book because they have seen the Rhein Valley on a longer tour and wish to stay in the area and see more of it.
London to Bonn and return (Day 1 and Day 5)
We travel by Eurostar to Brussels, usually in one of the latest Siemens designed 320Km/hr trains. These are a derivative of the latest German ICE (InterCity Express) units. Occasionally one of the original Alston designed trains is used. These are a derivative of the French TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse).
We have a relaxed change at Brussels. There is time to stock up on Belgian beer or chocolate, with the CarreFour supermarket on the station being well stocked at supermarket prices. (Remember you have to carry it, and German supermarkets sell cheap beer too!).
We then join a German ICE which takes us along the Belgian High Speed line to Koeln (Cologne). To complete the journey, we change on to another train for the short journey on to Bonn.
Being the capital of West Germany prior to unification, there are many attractions in the City. Your hotel (usually the InterCity) is located next to the main station, close to the city centre. The river, town squares and Beethoven's house are all within easy walking distance. You will have a public transport card for a wide area, which includes the trams and buses, as well as trains (but not boats on the river). The tram system is very easy to use, so you can quickly get anywhere in the city and beyond.
Drachenfels (usually Day 2)
After catching a tram to Koenigswinter, we then change on to the rack railway to Schloss Drachenburg. The middle Rhein has many castles (recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site) and Schloss Drachenburg is the first to come into view when travelling south along the river from Bonn. As it is located high above the river, there are stunning views from the train on the rack railway, and at the summit. If you haven't experienced a rack railway before you will be certain to enjoy this experience. On the steep gradient I find it more comfortable to travel facing forward if seats are available.
Rhein in Flammen (usually Day 3)
There is plenty to see and do in Bonn today. As well as the City itself, the river promenade and some city squares are usually buzzing with the wine festival. I've never understood why the Germans distinguish between wine, beer and food festivals as there is always plenty of all three! Expect to find a lot going on, as well as lots of wine, beer and food stalls. There should be programs of events, with maps of the layout readily available, but if you have any difficulty the Tourist Information Office is a reliable place to pick one up. It is worth getting one to plan your day, although you could just wander!
There is a lot of musical entertainment, a genre to suit everyone. It typically includes pop groups, jazz bands, accordion bands, classical ensembles, and brass/military bands playing across multiple stages -- all of which have seating and usually waiter service of food and drink (not obligatory, you can just sit and listen). I last enjoyed listening to the immaculately turned out “Band of the Luxembourg Navy” (think about it!). They played the Waltz from Shostakovich's Second Jazz Suite with remarkably excellent saxophone and trombone leads.
We will join our cruise vessel mid-afternoon and head off along the river. As well as the scenery, there is some railway interest, as there are busy lines on both sides of the river. There will be refreshments and light meals available on the boat at moderate prices. You can eat inside or have a more alfresco drink and snack on the deck. Towards evening, as light fades, all vessels assemble into a procession of fifty or sixty boats. They move along as fireworks explode from castles on both sides. Whilst there is joint marketing of the five Rhein in Flammen events, the five towns do compete to try to assemble the largest number of ships (Koblenz usually wins, with Bonn second), and to have the most impressive fireworks (rather more arguable as the different towns’ displays vary somewhat in character and they all claim victory).
After the display, our boat returns to its mooring and it is a short walk (or option of a tram ride) back to the hotel.
Wuppertal (usually Day 4)
Here we have a round trip on the Schwebebahn. We travel to Wuppertal Hbf (main station) by train, then it is a very short walk to the Schwebebahn station. This is an overhead suspension railway which for much of its route hangs over the River Wupper. This line nearly closed in the late nineteen 1960s, but fortunately the city changed its mind, realising it was essential for city transport. At that time much modernisation and re-equipment was needed for the line to continue. Many of the suspension gantries had expired and needed renewal.
In the last few years rolling stock has been totally replaced by specially designed units from Swiss builder Stadler. These new units have large windows, with wrap around views from the rear. Riding the line is an experience! The units sway as you board, and from inside there is no visible support. At each terminus, you must leave the train which then goes through a 180 degree turn, but if you are organised, there is time to get down the steps, and up the other side to catch the same train. As the service is very frequent it doesn't matter if you have to wait for the next one. (There are lifts available as well as stairs).
Wuppertal is a fairly ordinary town, and most passengers choose to visit Koeln (Cologne) in the afternoon, with its massive Gothic Cathedral, conveniently situated next to the station. A walk down to the Rhine Promenade or on to the railway bridge (which has a pedestrian walkway) is well worth doing.
If you've visited Koeln before you might choose instead to break your journey back at Düsseldorf. Düsseldorf has an attractive Rhine Promenade, adjacent to a lively Aldstadt. The main shopping street, Koenigsallee (or Ko for short!) is impressive with sculptures and fountains running between the rows of expensive designer shops.
Whilst there are excursions planned each day, there is some spare time, or you may simply want to do something different. Ffestiniog Travel is always happy to let you divert from the main program if you wish, or alternatively extend your trip by a few days if you want more time. Within the planned itinerary, you'll also be able to find space to add other things.
There are plenty of stage services on the river (although you already have a reasonably long cruise before the fireworks). There are also rail lines along both sides of the river. Lines along the River Lahn and River Mosel are also scenic.
Rhein Branch Lines
In times past there were many minor branch lines from the Rhein, both standard and narrow gauge. Many have closed but a few survive. The Hunruecksbahn from Boppard to Emmelhausen (the remaining section of a previously much longer branch) has the steepest standard gauge gradient in Germany as it climbs away from the Rhine Valley. This is now franchised to a private operator but is part of the national network. There is a fairly frequent service (including Sundays, although Sunday train times are different from the rest of the week). The Brohltalbahn from Brohl to Engeln is a steeply graded narrow gauge preserved line. Some steam trains operate using a Mallet articulated locomotive, although this is replaced before the very steep gradients on the top section. The scenery makes this a worthwhile trip even if diesel hauled. (Check timetable before going, as days of operation need to be verified, and when operating, the service is quite sparse).
There is a very large tram network covering both Bonn and Koeln. Until the 1970’s this was operated by a number of independent companies, but it is now one integrated system managed by the local passenger transport authority (the InterCity Hotel public transport pass is valid throughout). Within both cities all lines have been reconstructed in tunnels, and it is easy to think the trams have gone! Stops are indicated by large blue U signs. Outside the cities trams are surface level, mostly on reserved track. The main tram line between the two cities was owned by the Koeln Bonner Eisenbahn (KBE) which as its name suggests saw itself more as a railway (eisenbahn) than a tramway (strassenbahn). Freight is still carried over many of these lines. This is now hauled by private operator Hagen und Gueterverkehr Koeln (HGK), which took over the freight operations of KBE when all the passenger operations were integrated. You can be standing on a rural tram stop and find a heavy freight trundles by (often with a “Class 66” locomotive). One interesting run by tram is to travel to the southern extremity at Bad Honnef, where the terminus is adjacent to a more rural feeling River Rhine beach. You can return by tram or by train as the DB station is only a short walk away.
There are long distance low- and high-level footpaths on both sides of the Rhine. The low-level paths are adjacent to the river throughout. (Make sure you go on the inside of boat harbours as there can be long spits protecting them which are dead ends). Occasionally, as the Middle Rhine Gorge is quite narrow, you can be next to the road, but there are always heavy armco barriers between the road and the path, so it is very safe. You are never very far from the railway, so you can watch trains or find good locations for photography. The high-level path is much more challenging. It isn't particularly difficult, although you need sturdy footwear, ideally boots. It's tiring rather than difficult, with much up and down terrain across the many tributary streams and rivers.
You can confidently get off at any local station and walk to the next....or further if you have time.
Journey Home (Day 5)
Inevitably this short tour is soon over! The return journey is again on ICE and Eurostar trains.