“Where are we?” I said to Melanie. “How have I not heard about this place before?”
We were in Walporzheim, walking through the village center—a convergence of two quiet streets with a couple of restaurants and a bus stop—during a sunset that looked like it was painted with acrylics. The orange-violet sky shrouded the valley in darkness, amplifying the quiet of this place we’d never heard of until about a week earlier. We’d only had a glimpse, but I could already tell that the scenery would be something spectacular as soon as we got onto the trails in the hillsides the next morning.
Walporzheim is just one of a collection of villages and towns that sit along the Ahr River, a tributary of the much larger Rhine that runs westward to the half-timbered village of Blankenheim. I selected it for this holiday weekend getaway because the Internet told me it’d be easy to get to by train and it was along yet another one of Germany’s multi-day hiking trails, the AhrSteig. But what’s appealing about the Ahrtal (Ahr Valley) on paper is greatly exceeded by seeing it in person.
Holiday Home in Walporzheim
When I first started researching this impromptu trip, I was looking at Ahrweiler and Bad Neunahr for a hotel, but any hotel we’d feasibly want to stay in was either sold out or exceeded our modest budget. Germany very much rewards prior planning in all aspects of life and our late planning did not bode well for getting a decent hotel in one of the main towns.
That’s when I turned to VRBO for the first time, spotting a holiday home in Walporzheim that had everything we were looking for. That is, a quiet spot with easy access to the train and nearby trails. As advertised, trails connecting to the AhrSteig ran right behind the building. And while I initially thought we’d want to be in town, even on what was supposed to be a quiet weekend getaway, the historic Ahrweiler Markt was a short walk away or we could hop on the train for free. (Well, free-ish. You have to pay a small tax for each night you stay in the region, which funds the train.)
Our host met us outside just as we arrived, walked us up the three-floor building, and didn’t leave until we knew everything we could about the area. There was the Rotweinwanderweg trail on the northern side of the river, the AhrSteig behind the building, all kinds of wineries in the region, and a wine festival was just getting underway (hence the full hotels). If there was anything else we needed, we could text or call her, she said. I tried to joke, “I can’t imagine what we could possibly need,” after she covered every base and did another lap, but I’ve found that such light humor is often lost in German.
“You never know,” she said.
Hiking The AhrSteig
The AhrSteig covers approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) of trail running alongside the Ahr River from Blankenheim to Sinzig, a stone’s throw from the Rhine where you could keep moving and pick up the Rheinsteig. Ending up in Walporzheim for the trip put us at the beginning/end of one of the toughest stages in the hike: the 17.2-kilometer fifth stage from Kreuzberg (not the hipster haven neighborhood in Berlin) to Walporzheim.
Like the Rheinsteig, Moselsteig, Eifelsteig––all the ‘Steigs’ of the Rhineland––the worst you’ll deal with are hills. Some can be challenging and steep, but you’re not ascending an alpine mountain like you might be in the country’s southern border. The trail runs similarly, too. You start in a town in the valley, hike the trail up along the ridgeline of the hills, and stay up there pretty much the entire time until the end of the stage. It makes for some meditative hiking, an easy wander through quiet forests with the kind of postcard views of hillside vineyards that bring tourists to wine country. Above all, it’s gorgeous with so many overwhelming vistas that I had to force myself to stop taking pictures.
About 10 kilometers into the hike, we took a short detour up to Saffenberg Castle in Mayschoß, a typical castle of the Roman era in the Eifel region of modern-day Germany. The castle was founded in the 11th Century by Graf Adolf von Nörvenich and Albert von Saffenburt with its first mention showing up in records in 1081, giving it the contemporary distinction of the oldest castle in the Ahrtal.
Then, European history happened. That means various occupations by foreign powers over the centuries, but the one we’ll skip to is in 1704 when the German Hanoverians feared that the French would occupy the castle again. Apparently, that was too dismal of an outcome to bear, so they destroyed the castle with artillery before moving onward toward Bavaria. Meanwhile, a local winemaker used stone from the ruins to build vineyard walls around the area. The castle itself sat in disrepair until restoration efforts began in 2004.
Today, like most any castle in Germany, you can hike up to it, admire the views, maybe take a moment to ponder the senseless back-and-forth occupation and continue onward.
Now here’s the thing that surprised us the most––there were hardly any tourists. No, I didn’t do an impromptu census. That said, I’ve been to towns along the Rhine and ever-popular Mosel and could sense their tourist appeal even if I wasn’t actively swimming through crowds. I could see where the river cruises pulled in and recognize the images I’ve seen time and time again plastered across Instagram.
The Ahrtal proved to be a different story. What tourists crowds they did have seemed to be almost exclusively German (I heard one native English-speaker the entire three-day weekend) and not at all overbearing. I’ve been to similar regions in different countries where the romantic appeal of a medieval town pulls in more tourists that it can stand to handle (looking at you Sintra), but things seemed to be sustainable––at least in this corner of the Ahrtal. I’m quite confident that Ahrweiler Markt’s equivalent along the Mosel or Rhine saw far more tourist foot traffic over the June holiday weekend.
Weingut Kloster Marienthal
Lunch and a bottle of rosé at Weingut Kloster Marienthal was the proverbial icing on the cake. Sitting among the ruins of the monastery at our high-top table next to the decorative fountain shooting water to the delight of children, we realized where we’d seen such similar scenery before—Provence. Germany doesn’t often get credit for such objectively beautiful surroundings, but it’s plentiful along the rivers and hills of the wine country. Perhaps that’s why the French invaded and conquered parts of this region on and off over the centuries. Maybe they legitimately thought it was French territory.
“Pierre! Zis is gorgeous! Why are their Germans here? This is obviously notre chère France.”
Kloster Marienthal sits on a hillside above the town of the same name and is best reached by bike or hiking along the Rotweinwanderweg. (The nearest train stations are Dernau or Walporzheim.) Lunch can be a busy time to grab a table, especially during a summer holiday weekend, but it’s worth making the time.
We first ventured out to Ahrweiler Markt on our second evening in town, post-hike, and following our VRBO host’s recommendation to check out the ongoing wine festival–one of a variety of regional wine festivals throughout the year. Weinmarkt Der Ahr happens annually over the Pfingsten holiday weekend.
The highlight of the festivities is the crowning of the new regional wine queen, “Die Ahrweinkönigin.” Unfortunately, we missed the momentous occasion but saw plenty of signs throughout the region commemorating the year this town or that town had the distinction of being home to the wine queen of the Ahr.
We were, however, able to indulge in the party atmosphere, buying a bottle of wine from Mayschoss Altenahr (a wine we realized we’d bought back home in Düsseldorf, somehow remaining ignorant of the region’s existence), and watch as Germans continued to defy their stoic stereotypes with drunken dancing to live covers of “All Night Long” and other campy American hits.
On a second visit to Ahrweiler Markt, at the end of a trail run using a mix of the AhrSteig and Rotweinwanderweg, I decided that Ahrweiler Markt was one of the most beautiful towns I’d seen in Europe, certainly in Germany. I couldn’t understand how after nearly three years of living in western Germany, I’d never heard of this town or region. The fact that Germany continues to surprise me, right in my relative backyard, is a blessing.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.