Germany’s rolling rivers: The Main’s attraction

Germany’s rolling rivers: The Main’s attraction

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Anchors away, it’s time for another scenic sail along one of Germany’s famed waterways! This time we’re taking a look at the mighty Main. Of course, most of the cultural sights and activities mentioned below remain closed for the moment—but we live in hope of resuming exploration of the wonderful places in our midst in the not-too-distant future.

Portrait of a river: The Main River begins near Kulmbach, in Bavaria’s Franconia region, where its two headstreams, the Red Main and the White Main, join forces. Before it merges with the Rhine, it flows in a mostly east-to-west direction for 326 miles, making it the Rhine’s longest tributary. Some of the larger cities through which it passes include Bamberg, Würzburg, Aschaffenburg, Offenbach and Frankfurt. Some of its stretches mark the borders between the states of Hesse, Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. The Main enters the Rhine across from the city of Mainz and just southeast of Wiesbaden. Between Bamberg and its mouth, the Main is navigable thanks to a system made up of 34 large locks. Since 1992, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal has linked the Main with the Danube and thus provided an entirely navigable artery for ship traffic between the North Sea and the Black Sea. With a well-marked trail mirroring the course of the river, multi-stage bicycle tours along the MainRadweg are a favorite pastime. The Romans knew the river as the Moenus.

Start at the source: West of Kulmbach, just below Steinenhausen Castle, the clear waters of the White Main merge with those of the earthy Red Main. Kulmbach’s must-see sight is the mighty Plassenburg Castle. The town was once a brewing powerhouse, although most of its largest breweries have since merged. You can still find tasty beer at the Zum Mönchshof-Bräuhaus or the Kommunbräu, chosen by the gourmet magazine “Der Feinschmecker“ as one of the 40 best beer pubs in Germany. About a mile away from the confluence, the Naherholungsgebiet Mainaue is a recreation area offering swimming, windsurfing and fishing possibilities.

Lichtenfels/Bad Staffelstein: A detour here is in order to take in the beauty of the immense Basilica of the Fourteen Holy Helpers-Vierzehnheilige, a pilgrimage church brimming with Baroque splendor. While its exterior is sure to wow, it’s the interior, with its gold, marble, sculptures and wall paintings, that must be seen to be believed.

Bamberg: This UNESCO World Heritage site is a destination in its own right, but since we’re concentrating on the Main, we’ll leave exploration of Bamberg’s famed breweries and churches for another occasion. The river that flows through the heart of the city is not the Main but rather the Regnitz. To take in the Main from Bamberg, make way to the suburb of Hallstadt, where the Rabenhorst beer garden beckons hikers, along with those on kayaks and canoes, to stop for food and drink. The Upper Main Canoe Trail offers 20 miles of scenic paddling, uninterrupted by locks, between Bamberg and Bad Staffelstein. Many towns along the Main offer canoe and kayak rentals.

Schweinfurt: This city of 53,000 people has had a rich and astonishing history. First documented in 791, it’s one of the oldest cities in Bavaria. A thousand years ago, the Margraves of Schweinfurt controlled large parts of northern Bavaria from this seat, and from the 12th century until 1802, Schweinfurt was a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire. USAG Schweinfurt, to the northwest of town, was home to tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers up until the time of its closure in 2014. Don’t miss its stunning Town Hall overlooking the lively market square. Families with kids might wish to check out the Wildpark an den Eichen, a free-entry nature park that’s home to birds and beasts.

Volkach: This small town is worth a detour to experience the Mainschleife, a nearly 360-degree turn in the river. The Pilgrimage Church of Mary in the Vineyards can be visited by means of a scenic hike.

Kitzingen: Put down your beer mug, as you’ve now entered wine country! This pretty town surrounded by vineyards and its environs is Bavaria’s largest wine producer and a center for the wine trade. Americans are no strangers to the delights of Kitzingen, with thousands having called Larson Barracks and Harvey Barracks home-sweet-home for more than 60 years. The 1st Infantry Division bases were returned to the German government in 2007. Sightseers should take in the 13th-century Leaning Tower with its crooked roof. Legend holds its construction workers used wine instead of water to make the mortar, causing the top to lean. Other lore concerning the tower is that the heart of Vlad Dracula rests in the golden ball atop it. Nowadays the tower is home to the German Carnival Museum.

Würzburg: In another city so richly blessed with UNESCO World Heritage sites, it can be hard to stay focused on what’s close to the Main. The Marienberg Fortress, a stunning walled complex with palace, church and stunning gardens, offers views of the river far below. Another must is a walk across the pedestrian-only Alte Mainbrücke, lined with 12 statues of saints. Atop the bridge, there’s a sidewalk café at which wines produced in the surrounding hills flow freely.

Miltenberg: If half-timbered houses are your thing, a walk through Miltenberg’s historic Old Town is certainly in order. As a stop on numerous river cruise line itineraries, the town often hums with international visitors. As any Bavarian town worth its salt, it’s home to a brewery. The Faust – Bräustüble offers a beer garden, lounge and pub serving regional fare. Guided brewery tours are also available.

Aschaffenburg: This pleasant city makes the most of its Main location with two attractions found directly on its banks: the late-Renaissance Johannisburg Palace, along with the Pompeii-inspired Roman villa known as the Pompeiianum. The idyllic Schönbusch Park, one of the earliest examples of English landscape gardens in Germany, is also worthy of a stop.

Seligenstadt: Although we have now left Bavaria and entered the state of Hesse, the sights keep coming. Seligenstadt is perhaps best known for its former Benedictine monastery and the picturesque gardens surrounding it.  

Frankfurt am Main: After all the quaintness and age-old sights, an ultra-modern city with skyscrapers shifts us into a new era. The river makes an appearance in the city’s nickname, “Mainhattan.” Our Main-related sights here include the Eisener Steig, a footbridge crossing the river and linking the cosmopolitan downtown area with Sachsenhausen, a neighborhood known for its apple wine taverns. For more of the Main and Frankfurt’s fabulous skyline, hop onto one of the river’s cruise lines—they run both day and night.

Last run to the Rhine: While the last of the big cities is now in our rear-view mirror, the final stretch of countryside between here and the mouth of the river is a mix of urban sprawl, orchards, vineyards and villages not entirely without charm: Hattersheim, Flörsheim or Hochheim are all great places to take a break and enjoy wines from grapes grown in the vineyards rising up from the north side of the river.

Once this tour has ended, you’re just a few minutes’ drive from Wiesbaden, and it will take you just over an hour to get back to Kaiserslautern. The start of this tour, on the other hand, is just an hours’ drive from Grafenwöhr. Nature, culture, churches, castles, history, wine and beer—just another day along a German river!

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