The Rhine By Rail: The Romantics’ Tour
There are many ways to explore Europe. Here is but one idea. Follow the Rhine River by rail.
In 1814, the married young poet Percy Byssche Shelley and 17 year old Mary Godwin scandalously escaped from London - two years before that famous stormy summer of 1816 in Geneva when Mary Shelley started her novel of Frankenstein - sailed to Paris, then walked and rode donkey carts across France to Switzerland, finding themselves in Brunnen on Lake Lucerne when Shelley’s money was running out, left with only £28.
According to Mary’s journal, traveling by rivers was the cheapest form of conveyance, "that by taking advantage of the rivers of the Reuss and Rhine, we could reach England without traveling a league upon land."
Over the next weeks the two romantics made the perilous journey by boat over roiling river rapids and waterfalls through Switzerland and Germany to sail home from Rotterdam.
There are still river cruise boats traversing portions of that journey, but if the modern European rail network existed in the early 19th Century, that trip would have been made by train.
Moreover, for the modern traveler with a bit of poetic wanderlust in the soul, why not follow in the footsteps of the romantics.
The best way to make this a cost effective trip is with a Eurail Rail Pass. The Select Pass or Saver Pass (for two traveling together) allows the choice of countries to travel through and a number of days of travel.
Travel a bit, then stop and explore, a little farther, stop and explore. A rail pass allows the freedom to get off and on when the mood strikes. Show up at the station and get on a train, or arrive in a city and take excursion trips for that day.
For example, if you want to explore five cities or areas get a pass with six to eight days of travel on the pass. Select passes go up to 14 days of travel. ( How Rail Passes Work)
Europe’s most famous river begins in the Alps of Graubunden in southeast Switzerland, where it is a swift flowing churn of ice blue-green rapids, flowing north past the postage stamp Principality of Liechtenstein to Lake Constance (the Bodensee in German), then between the southern Black Forest and Switzerland, over the Rhinefall to Basel, where it turns north, flattening to the familiar wide river between Germany and France’s Alsace, past Mannheim and Mainz to Koblenz, Cologne and Dusseldorf, then out to the north sea.
The portion of the Rhine between Mainz and Cologne is referred to as the Middle Rhine, known for its wine vineyard slopes and haunting castle ruins around nearly every curve. For this trip you could manage with a two country pass for Switzerland and Germany only.
If you wanted to venture into the French Alsace you could add France, or if you wanted to explore Holland, Belgium or Luxemburg, add Benelux. You don’t have to strictly stay to the Rhine, it’s not a rule, there are lots of possibilities for exciting touring variety.
Curiously German DB (Deutschbahn) trains operate in Switzerland, but Swiss trains (SBB) don’t generally venture into Germany. You can use either the DB website for route selection or the Swiss SBB site for Switzerland, these two sites are the clearest and most detailed in English (best to use the DB site if you want to venture into France or Holland from Germany, the SBB if from Switzerland) and each site will have more detail and more trains listed for their own country.
If you have a rail pass, you don’t need to purchase tickets through these sites, just use them to plan routes and times. With a pass you show up and get on the train you want.
If you prefer the comfort of an assured seat, make a reservation at any rail office. On some routes in Germany on ICE (InterCity Express high speed trains) reservations are required. However, in most cases seats are usually open, just look above the seat at the reservation placard (electronic or paper) if it is empty or blank, the seat is open.
Once on board, the German DB trains provide a Travel Plan (Reiseplan) which lists the stops and schedule times, with connections, times and tracks to other destinations from each stop.
The trains in the direction you’re headed will generally run every hour (or half hour) to major cities.
Every rail station in Switzerland and Germany has luggage storage, either coin lockers or a baggage window. With a pass, if you want to get off at a stop, stow you stuff, wander around and explore for a few hours, have lunch, then get back on and keep going to the next stop, that’s the fun.
The Shelleys started their journey in Brunnen on Lake Lucerne where the Reuss River empties from the lake into the Rhine. Lake Lucerne is one of the most beautiful of Switzerland, and Lucerne one of the most beautiful cities in the world with lots to do and explore.
Don’t miss the Swiss Transport Museum and perhaps a ride on the world’s steepest cog train up Mt Pilatus. Starting from Lucerne, overnight in Brunnen or Weggis and explore the trails of Mt Rigi and the Swiss lake "Riviera."
Continue on a paddle steamer down the lake to Fluelen, then by train to Basel via Zurich, or up to Lake Constance via the VorAlpen Express to Romanshorn, and the European version of Niagara Falls, the Rhinefall at Schaffhausen, where the Shelleys had to depart their boat which could not traverse the great cataract.
The Lake Lucerne boat ride and some cruise boats on Lake Constance are included with a rail pass. In Switzerland, you can send your luggage ahead at major rail stations to pick at your destination, so you don’t have to haul it with you at interim stops.
A German ICE train starts in Interlaken, not strictly on the Rhine, but one of Switzerland’s most popular tourist spots, near to the triplets of snowy peaks, the Eiger, Monch & Jungfrau, reachable by mountain train to the highest Alps rail station at Jungfraujoch, or by thrilling cable car to the Piz Gloria revolving mountaintop restaurant famously assaulted in the 70’s James Bond film "On Her Majesty’s Secret Service."
These scenic side trips get a fare discount or 25% to 50% with a rail pass.
From Basel, the German DB trains follow the Germany side of the Rhine through the Black Forest. You could stop at the famous Bel Age resort of Baden-Baden, the getaway of 19th Century royalty, who gambled in the grand casino and relaxed in the nude Roman Bath spas.
On to Mannheim where you can catch a regional train to Heidelberg with its famous "Beautiful Ruin" castle or to Bad Durkheim along the German Wine Road.
From Mainz, the medieval center of Rhineland Germany, trains run along either side the Rhine River to Koblenz. The mainline trains make few stops along this scenic section of the river, at Boppard and St Goar. The MittelrheinBahn (MRB) is a new local service train which stops at all the small villages where one can explore the castles. Get off at Trechtingshausen for Castle Rheinstein and Castle Reichenstein, reachable on foot.
If you want to stop and stay in one of the Rhine river towns, or stay in a castle hotel, try at Castle Reichenstein or the Auf Schonburg at Oberwesel. For an even slower view of the river scenery, take an on-off river cruise from Bingen to Koblenz. The Koln-Dusseldorfer KD Cruise boats between Mainz and Cologne on the Rhine are free with a rail pass.
After Koblenz and Bonn, the Rhine River shore turns a little industrial as it travels through Germany’s developed and most densely populated areas.
Here your journey offers some choices. With Benelux added to the pass you could head over to Luxembourg, up through the Belgian Ardennes to Amsterdam.
If sticking with Germany, from Cologne with its famous Gothic Cathedral and lively bar scene, you could head over to Aachen and the Mosel River wine vineyards - continue up the Rhine to Dusseldorf or Hamburg and the infamous party streets of the Reeperbahn - or head over to bustling vibrant Berlin.
To complete the romantic tour of the poets, take the Eurostar from Brussels to London. The new International Terminal at St Pancras where the fast train under the English Channel arrives is actually built on top of the graveyard where Mary Godwin’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft was buried, and where the poet and young Mary fell in love on long walks to visit to her mother’s grave.
But not to worry about haunted trains, the graveyard was moved. The Godwin house is two blocks away.