I’m enjoying tagging along as a tour member on the Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour. We’ve left the Netherlands and have arrived in Germany. Here I’m reminded that a hallmark of our tour program is the gang of beautiful friends and teachers that meet our groups throughout Europe to share their heritage and culture. For 20 years, my dear friend, Rolf Jung, has taken our groups around his hometown of Bacharach, on Germany’s Rhine River.
Herr Jung (literally “Mr. Young”), while well into his 80s, is as frisky as can be when it comes to sharing his story and town with our groups. While he was long the headmaster of the town’s school, today his students are visiting Americans. After a harrowing childhood under Hitler and through WWII, he has amazing stories to tell that vividly bring that chapter of tumultuous German history down to a very personal level.
Gathering together under the medieval arcade of our hotel in Bacharach — with the half-timbered town on one side and the churning Rhine River on the other — Herr Jung kicks off the morning with a song. If it’s sunny, we sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” If it’s rainy, it’s “Singin’ in the Rain.”
A challenge for any tour organizer is the smart choice of overnights in each region. On our Best of Europe in 21 Days itinerary, we start off in the Netherlands; rather than overnighting in Amsterdam, we sleep an easy half-hour train ride away, in cozy Haarlem. On the Rhine River, it’s the historic town of Bacharach.
Another important choice when putting together a tour itinerary that wrings the most travel experience out of each minute is which castle to visit. For us on the Rhine, it’s the mighty Rheinfels Castle. Here our group has just survived the tunnel system (built 800 years ago to reach out from the castle — secretly and underground — to plant explosives in order to blow up any approaching enemy)…and is happy to once again see the sun.
A big castle needed to house and feed literally thousands of people during times of siege. This huge room, under the biggest unsupported stone arch of its kind in Europe, was where the food and wine were stored.
Medieval river towns like Bacharach were generally T-shaped: a long main street running parallel to the river, and another street running up the perpendicular ravine. By the way, many illustrious Jewish people came from families named for their village, from Irving Berlin to Burt Bacharach.