Germany's rolling rivers: The languid Lahn

Germany's rolling rivers: The languid Lahn

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Feeling stuck for day trip ideas? Make like a drop of water and go with the flow of a river! Wherever there are rivers, history and beauty combine compellingly. Today it’s the Lahn river we’re putting under the microscope.

Portrait of a river: The Lahn rises at the Lahnhof in southeastern North Rhine-Westphalia. It flows 153 miles through Hessen and the Rhineland-Palatinate before entering the Rhine from the east by the town of Lahnstein, some six miles south of Koblenz. After first flowing through the mountains in an easterly direction, it shifts its course just north of Marburg and from there moves to the southwest. It doesn’t have much of a current, and the boats you see coursing up and down it are mostly recreational craft. Along its leisurely way, the Lahn passes by castles, monasteries, dozens of villages and the larger towns of Marburg, Gießen, Wetzlar, Weilburg, Runkel, Limburg, Diez and Bad Ems. Hikers and cyclists will find trails running alongside the river for almost the entirety of its length.

Start at the source: The Lahn rises in the Rothaargebirge mountain range in the hamlet of Nenkersdorf, a community of the larger town of Netphen. Its source is an idyllic spring pond situated at an elevation of 2,000 feet. Two other rivers, the Eder and Sieg, originate nearby. A short distance away, but only accessible on foot is the Ilsequelle, a sacred healing spring during the Middle Ages. Unless you’re planning to drive, hike or cycle the Lahn in its entirety, a good place to begin this tour instead is the city of Marburg.

Marburg: This handsome college town seated high atop a hill has all the architectural flair you expect from Middle Ages Germany. Marburg is home to Philipp University, founded in 1527 and thus the world’s oldest Protestant university. Both of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, lived here for a time as students, and it was here they were inspired to begin collecting the children’s tales passed down through generations.

Start a walking tour of the town at fabulously gabled Town Hall, from which a metal rooster raises his wings to greet the start of a new hour. By means of many steps, make your way high above the fray to the Castle of the Landgrave, one of the country’s earliest examples of hill castles and today the home of a historical museum. Of all the town’s visit-worthy churches, don’t miss the Elisabeth Church. The tomb of its namesake was an important medieval pilgrimage site. Marburg also has some lovely green oases, including the castle gardens and two botanical gardens.

Gießen: Some 20 miles south of Marburg we find ourselves in Gießen, once home to the U.S. Army’s Giessen Army Depot; the garrison itself closed in 2008 but remained an AAFES distribution center until 2017. Scholarly students might appreciate Gießen’s Mathematikum, a museum focused on math, or the Liebig Museum, with its chemistry exhibitions and 19th-century laboratory of the scientist Justus von Liebig. The botanical garden, founded in 1609, is the nation’s oldest and home to thousands of varieties of plants. Watching over the surrounding Lahn Valley is the Burg Gleiberg, a thousand-year-old castle.

Wetzlar: This small city boasts a handsome Old Town filled with half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and hidden staircases. Pause to admire the cathedral, whose construction began in 1230 and remains unfinished to date. Leica camera owners might wish to drop by the Leitz-Park when it reopens; a museum, factory and an exhibition of photos taken by the iconic brand of camera await. It’s hard to overlook the Lahn in Wetzlar, as it bisects the town. The stone bridge with seven arches that runs across it dates back to the 13th century.

Weilburg: This town is a must on any Lahn tour for several reasons. Weilburg rests high on a hill enwrapped by a bend in the Lahn. Note its many old buildings constructed of loam, including the six-story structure at the end of Spielmannstrasse, Germany’s oldest house of its kind. Dominating the town is the gorgeous Weilburg Palace, a baroque beauty surrounded by stunning gardens. Another unique feature of Weilburg is a circa-1847 tunnel carved into a hill for waterborne traffic. A handful of operators rent out canoes here. Just outside town is the Kubach Crystal Cave, a show cave open to visitors only as part of a guided tour.

Kloster Altenberg: Just a stone’s throw outside city limits in Solms-Oberbiel is the Kloster Altenburg, a former monastery dating back to the 13th century. When the on-site cafe is open for business, it’s worth stopping in for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.

Limburg an der Lahn: Around 15 miles southwest of Weilburg we find charming Limburg, worth a stop for its cathedral alone. Also known as Georgsdom, this soaring, orange and white Gothic-Romanesque beauty has seven spires and can be seen from miles away. Limburg’s small but remarkable Old Town has numerous buildings dating back to medieval times. The House of the Seven Vices at Brückengasse features creepy carvings of the seven deadly sins. To enjoy a cruise along the Lahn, hop onboard the tourist ship Wappen von Limburg.

Bad Ems: German towns with the word “bad” in them tend to be just the opposite, and that holds true here too. Like all good spa towns, Bad Ems boasts of a thermal bathing facility, the Emser Therme, a swanky casino, an elegant building with hot springs for drinking and green landscape parks in which to stroll. The Russian Orthodox St. Alexandra Church lends a touch of exoticism to the scene. Energetic types unfazed by steep heights can hike up to the Concordiaturm for more views across the Lahn Valley or a bite to eat at the restaurant with a panoramic terrace.

Lahnstein: Our final stop is Lahnstein, where the Lahn pours into the Rhine. There’s one last castle to visit, or at least use as a backdrop for final photo ops—the imposing Burg Lahneck. If the trip is a form of a pilgrimage, opt instead to visit the Kloster Allerheiligenberg, a monastery with a café where pilgrims can toast to their safe arrival with a glass full of the goodness of the grape. From Lahnstein, it’s an hour and a quarter’s drive to Wiesbaden or a two-hour drive to Baumholder, Bitburg, Geilenkirchen or Kaiserslautern.

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