Wiesbaden, Germany - The Rhine seems to take its time beside the Rheinsteig trail, meandering in sweeping arcs past gentle slopes and vineyards between Wiesbaden and Bonn. Now and then rugged cliffs narrow the course of its dark waters, which mirror the half-timbered houses on the shoreline in splashes of colour.
The river swerves as if to draw out its own enjoyment of the view. Near Boppard, it even doubles back in a long loop before heading north again. All this is spread out like a tablecloth before hikers on the Rheinsteig trail, much of which is in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Hikers are guided by signposts bearing the blue-and-white Rheinsteig logo, a stylized "R" resembling the winding river.
One of the most impressive sections of the trail, on the Rhine's right bank, is the valley between Ruedesheim and Lahnstein. Narrow paths give way to broad hiking trails that snake through adjoining valleys, descend hundreds of metres, cross a babbling brook and then become a steep footpath climbing to the next peak.
The idyll frays only during the arduous evening descent into the sleepy villages on the bank. On the most popular part of the trail, of all places, the hike veers between charm and gloom, natural beauty and creeping decay.
The often forlorn places in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley can hardly hide that their best days are behind them. You cannot help but notice the many "For Sale" signs on houses that are sometimes dilapidated. Little by little, small shops, butchers and bakers are giving up.
For hikers this means bring your own food! On the other hand, there are hotels that offer lunch packets or display "Hikers Welcome" signs. And some long-established restaurants and pubs can surprise you with their regional cuisine.
The Rheinsteig Office estimates that as many as 250,000 hikers hit the trail every year. Nevertheless, long stretches are people-free, with the exception of sections like the 22 kilometres around the Loreley rock between Kaub and St Goarshausen, the most beautiful and demanding leg of the trail.
"Most people hike the Rheinsteig bit by bit, in stages," said the Rheinsteig Office's Frank Gallas. To cover all 320 kilometres, you need a little less than two weeks at a brisk pace. It takes three weeks or more at a leisurely pace.
After departing Wiesbaden, hikers soon arrive at the spa town of Schlangenbad and then pass the Eberbach Monastery, the location of the film "The Name of the Rose." They walk through terraced vineyards of rieslings esteemed worldwide, and on to the Niederwald monument, which commemorates the founding of the German Empire in 1871. Further on, they cross the Doerscheid heath high above the Rhine.
The trail then winds its way up to the castles known as "Cat" and "Mouse." Between Kestert and Osterspai, it climbs to the small village of Lykershausen and snakes through dense forest to Marksburg Castle.
After it has passed the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress near Koblenz, the Rheinsteig briefly becomes an educational trail devoted to the Limes, the fortified frontier that once separated the Roman Empire from German tribes.
Then it enters the mountainous Westerwald region on its approach to the small, wooded Siebengebirge mountain range where it ascends steeply to the Drachenfels, one of the range's peaks. From here Bonn, the end of the Rheinsteig trail, is visible in the distance. (dpa)
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