Koblenz is blessed with a naturally interesting location. The mighty River Rhine, the busiest and most important inland waterway in Europe, runs past. Here it is joined by the equally important and large River Moselle, which runs into the Rhine at right-angles. Koblenz is situated in the corner of this river junction.
Over time, the dark Moselle (caused by the slate through which it runs) deposited sand as its flow was checked by the green Rhine, and a sand bank was gradually formed. In 1888 the plan was formed to pave over this area and erect a massive statue to Kaiser Wilhelm 1st, and this was achieved in 1897, creating the "Deutsches Eck" – the German Corner. This monumental statue (37 metres high, of which 17 metres is Wilhelm on his horse) brought millions of visitors.
However, World War 2 was disastrous for Koblenz. Despite having no industry, it has bridges over both rivers, so in 1944 it was blitzed, causing huge destruction, and in 1945 the statue was bombed and destroyed. It was not until1993 that the replica was completed which stands there today, still attracting millions of visitors, and is the background to countless tourist photos. The large triangular pedestrian area in front of the statue gives great views of the castles around Koblenz, and the constant river traffic.
There are passenger ferry boats shuttling across the river, tour boats and the massive river cruise ships, and always goods barges. These craft are always in sight, I never saw a moment when there was not at least one in view, and when one of these leviathans was slowly overtaking another, with another coming the other way and passenger boats cutting in and out it was fascinating.
It was the Romans who originally founded Koblenz, and brought the vine culture here, and it has flourished ever since – and they are great wines, served every day in the many restaurants along the river side and in the historic town centre. The Romans built the first castle or fort, followed in 1216 by the Teutonic Knights. Their name is the origin of the "Deutsche" that we use today. Their white building is visible behind the Wilhelm 1st statue, best viewed from the Ehrenbreitstein Castle just across the river.
There used to be four massive castles around Koblenz, but we made the Germans demolish three after WW1. The first castle here was built in the year 1000. The current one was built by the Prussians between 1817 and 1828, and after Gibraltar is the largest historical fort complex in Europe. It stands 118 metres over the river, with views over Koblenz to the mountains beyond. To get there, catch a passenger ferry from March to November, a bus service from the Rhine bridge further upstream, or a cable car.
In 2011, Koblenz hosted a Federal Horticultural Show, which brought hundreds of thousands of visitors. The main exhibits were in the castle, so Doppelmeyer of Switzerland, world experts in this technology, were contracted to build the cable car capable of carrying 3,500 people per hour, across the Rhine and up to the castle.
As it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UNESCO objected, but relented to allow the operation of the cable car for the duration of the exhibition, and then it should be dismantled. However, it is so successful, and as it does not detract from the beauty of the surroundings, UNESCO relented and has allowed it to continue until 2026 – still owned and operated by the Swiss company.
It is a great experience to swing soundlessly out over the river, looking down on the barges and boats, then glide ever upwards to the top at the castle. The castle complex covers a vast area of fortifications, angled walls and cleared areas for the field of fire as it can only realistically be attacked from one side, the rest is precipitous cliffs and walls.
This prickly, offensive side changes as you go through passageways and gates to the interior – here it reminds you of Italy, with arcaded parade grounds and piazzas and gentle building frontages. This was deliberate. The Prussians didn’t want an army of conscripts, ill fed and poorly clothed. They wanted a professional army, volunteers. Their soldiers were housed well in these barracks, fed better than most people, and paid and clothed and equipped well, and the ambiance of the citadel went with this culture – and it worked!
All this history does not make Koblenz a dull place to visit – far from it! For example, for 20 years in Napoleon’s time, Koblenz was garrisoned by French soldiers, and the Rhine was the frontier. During this period, the rather dashing French soldiers, with their colourful uniforms and Gallic charm proved too attractive for some of the local girls, and the result was the birth of some children, who were called rather derisively "Schängel", from the common French name for a boy of Jean, which is corrupted into the Koblenz dialect as Schängel. This became the name for a cheeky or naughty boy, and then gradually became a nick name for all Koblenzer folk.
In the old town are many squares, and in one small one a fountain with a small statue of a boy, leaning forward and holding his hand to his face as he says something cheeky. At random intervals water suddenly shoots out of his mouth to wet unsuspecting tourists. This is typical of the tricks that a Schängel would do –and it faces the town hall, to show just how cheeky these boys could be, to do such a thing in front of the Mayor! It is also typical of Koblenz that the outline of the cheeky boy is also on all the man hole covers in the town centre!
Another square, the Görresplatz, has a most unusual statue in it, the History Pillar. In 1992 Koblenz celebrated 2000 years since it was founded, and the Rhineland – Palatinate region gave this as a gift to the town. The pillar has 10 three-dimensional scenes, one on top of the other, each one depicting a period in the history of the town. It starts at the bottom with Romans rowing a wine boat – rather haphazardly too, obviously they have been sampling their cargo. It then moves through the centuries, past the smoke and flames of WW2, into the forward looking town it is today.
Koblenz is also a good shopping centre, with both streets of shops and modern shopping centres featuring all the international names there – and when that gets too much, go and have a great lunch at the restaurant Wacht am Rhine, on the Rheinzollstrasse (very good value for money, top quality) and watch the Rhine glide by. Refreshed, you can then explore the wonderful old buildings in the centre.
There are two tourist offices in Koblenz, one by the railway station, and one at the Forum Confluents, a strikingly modern bulbous white building in the centre. Here is the multimedia Rhine voyage experience – allow far more time than you would expect to explore and experience this. You actually take part in the exhibits, and record everything on your smart card entrance ticket to download when you get home, including driving a boat down the Rhine in a simulator that is as real as it can be. The tourist office is open 360 days a year from 10 o’clock to 6 o’clock in the evening. See www.romanticum.de and www.forum-confluents.de and www.koblenz-touristik.de There are lots of hotels to choose from. I stayed at the Ghotel (www.ghotel.de). Opened in 2010, it is three star and right next to the main railway station, only a few minutes walk from the town centre, and maybe 15 to the Deutsches Eck. Despite being near the bus and the railway station, it is surprisingly quiet and civilised. The staff are very helpful and can advise on trips, directions and so on.
A good thing to buy is the Koblenz card, which costs 9.80 Euro for a day (available from the tourist office) and gives you 24 hours free public transport, a guided city tour, 50% off museum entries, 20% off the cable car, boat trips, the theatre, etc. Good value for money.
Koblenz is easy for us to get to. The very good Lufthansa flights (www.lufthansa.com) leave Aberdeen 05.30, 12.25 and 16.10 for the two-hour flight, returning to Aberdeen at 11.45, 14.50 and 22.15. I have just checked their website and if you are flexible and book in advance, prices start from £98 return.
They also have a very good offer – you can book Deutsche Bahn railway tickets at the same time for a good price. From Frankfurt airport railway station there are direct trains to Koblenz. The first 22 minutes to Mainz are uninspiring, but from there to Koblenz, another 51 minutes, sit on the right (in direction of travel) if you can as the railway snakes along the bank of the Rhine, and you glide pass castles and old buildings and watch the boats and barges busily churning up and down the river.
Koblenz is a great place to visit, any time of the year, any weather. There are lots to see and explore, and the boat trips up and down the Rhine, seeing the chocolate box fantasy castles, or visiting the quaint towns and villages are great fun. Of course, if you are more energetic than I am, bike hire is available and along the river segregated cycle paths make it an easy way to explore – and you can always come back by train or boat.
Prices are a bit cheaper than in the UK, and English is widely spoken – well worth a trip!