Hikers find beauty along the Rheingau Monastery Route

Cistercian Abbey Monastery Eberbach
Cistercian Abbey Monastery Eberbach

Hikers find beauty along the Rheingau Monastery Route

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

If you live near Wiesbaden, Germany, there’s no doubt you’ve heard of the Rheingau, but what does the word refer to, exactly? The Rheingau is a cultural and historical region bordered by the Rhine River to its south and west and framed by the Taunus mountain range to its north. Its rugged and handsome landscape includes steep ravines, wooded hills, castles, churches and rolling vineyards yielding world-famous wines. The western part of the Rheingau lies within the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The best-known towns of the Rheingau include elegant Eltville, quaint Rüdesheim am Rhein and Assmannshausen, famous for its red wines, making it an outlier in an area overwhelmingly dedicated to the cultivation of whites, first and foremost Rieslings.

The Rheingau’s rich history and prosperity has much to do with its strategic location alongside one of Europe’s most important waterways. It was also heavily influenced by its proximity to the Archdiocese of Mainz, long one of the most important seats of church power north of the Alps.

While cycling and day trips by car are fine ways to get to know this unique area, there’s something about a journey undertaken by foot that helps an explorer connect with the landscape in a much more intimate way. The Rheingauer Klostersteig, or Rheingau Monastery Route, is a long-distance hiking trail conceived for those with an eye for beauty and a head for history. Along its 20-mile route, hikers can explore the traces left behind by the many religious orders once based there.

Considered a pilgrim’s way, the route passes by six churches and monasteries, tranquil beauty spots and testaments to a past peopled by monks, nuns and visionaries. Those interested in completing the hike for spiritual purposes can collect stamps in a special brochure available for free in the churches along its route.

Although ambitious walkers could conquer the route in a single spring or summer day, taking on the trail in the colder months when darkness sets in early, is a different story and tackling it over the course of two days might prove the better strategy. A less-rushed itinerary allows modern-day pilgrims the chance to linger over sweeping landscapes and sites of historical interest and enjoy stops for picnics and warm beverages. You may find that this overview of the highlights along its route leaves you thirsting to complete a spiritual journey of your own.

Day One

Although it’s not the official starting point of the walk, the picturesque town of Kiedrich makes a good place to begin. To reach it by public transportation, take the train to Eltville am Rhein and from there hop on bus number 172. Doing so ensures you can use public transportation for your home journey without having to double back to pick up your vehicle. From Kiedrich, just follow the signage marking this stage of the Rheinsteig long-distance hiking route until you reach your first landmark, the Kloster Eberbach, or Eberbach Monastery.

Eberbach Monastery: In 1136, Bernhard von Clairvaux, along with Abbot Ruthart and twelve monks, founded a Cistercian abbey in this idyllic wooded nook. It functioned until 1803, when it was secularized and much of its property was put up for sale. An elegant arcaded cloister forms the monastery’s central complex, and the large Romanesque church impresses with its simplicity. In 1985-86, the Eberbach Monastery served as the set for the film “The Name of the Rose,” in which Sean Connery plays a Franciscan friar tasked with trying to solve the murder of a young monk. Visitors on guided tours can see how the monks once lived by visiting their dormitory and dining quarters and exploring vast wine cellars lined with wooden casks. Be sure to visit the shop selling locally produced wines, as modern-day pilgrims need fortification too! 

Schloss Johannisberg: Nine miles of walking, at times through steep terrain, leads walkers to an impressive stone basilica named in honor of St. John the Baptist. The site of a Benedictine monastery founded in 1100, the surrounding vineyards date back even earlier, to the year 817. Newer but no less impressive is the circa-1716 Johannisberg Palace, recognized as the world’s first wine estate completely dedicated to the production of Rieslings. Before visiting the wine shop, check out the statue of a rider on horseback. The event to which it refers took place in 1775, when the start of a grape harvest could only begin with a nod from the prince-bishop in distant Fulda. Legend holds that the courier bearing permission to let the harvest commence was delayed for reasons lost to the mists of time. The late harvest of the shriveled and rotting grapes didn’t diminish their quality in the least; in fact, it heralded the start of the production of Spätlese.

From Schloss Johannisberg, a two-mile downhill walk will bring you back to the train station in either Geisenheim or Oestrich-Winkel. Take your pick—they are roughly equidistant.

Basilika Schloss Johannisberg | Photo by Karen Bradbury
Basilika Schloss Johannisberg | Photo by Karen Bradbury

Day Two

Marienthal Monastery: From either train station, vigorous uphill walking leads back past Schloss Johannisberg and to the day’s first highlight, the Marienthal Monastery and pilgrimage church founded in 1330. Miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary are tied to numerous events said to have occurred here. The site once occupied by Jesuits is now in the hands of Franciscans. Inside the church, note the exquisitely carved statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and the many tablets on the walls thanking the Virgin Mary for her intercession. Leave time to explore its peaceful leafy grounds traversed by a trickling brook. There you’ll find the Stations of the Cross and a small enclosure of St. Francis surrounded by animal statuary.

Nothgottes Monastery: The Nothgottes Monastery also dates back to the 14th century and is founded on the spot where a farmer is said to have uncovered a blood-sweating figure of Jesus Christ while ploughing his field. Between 1620 and 1622, a Capuchin monastery was built on this site and existed until secularization in 1813. Inside the pilgrimage church, take a look at the copy of the original carved figure and note its elongated pleading hands.

St. Hildegard Monastery: The imposing St. Hildegard Monastery rising high above the vineyards and the town of Rüdesheim is hard to miss. Also known as Eibingen Monastery, the 20th-century structure is much younger than it might first appear, but its roots stretch back to 1165, when a community of sisters led by the visionary Hildegard of Bingen was founded here. Today, it is a functioning Benedictine community of some 48 nuns. The interior of the striking abbey church with its mighty twin towers is decorated in a style known as Beuronic, characterized by murals in muted colors and pleasing geometric proportions. The abbey shop sells wine and spirits, herbal teas, spelt breads and noodles, condiments, soaps and other natural products.

Marienhausen Monastery: The hike concludes at the Marienhausen Monastery, which was once subordinate to the Eberbach Monastery, the starting point of your pilgrimage. The old monastery church was thoroughly renovated in 2010, its simplistic yet highly symbolic artistic design conceived and executed by people with disabilities.

To download a copy of the brochure about the Rheingau Klostersteig or a pilgrim’s passport in which to collect your stamps, see the Rheingau Tourism website. You can also request hard copies to be sent to your home address free of charge.

Hiking along the Rheingau Monastery Route | Photo by Karen Bradbury
Hiking along the Rheingau Monastery Route | Photo by Karen Bradbury


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