Crisis at the Castle: 24 Hours on the Rhine River

Best laid plans often turn into wish-I-never-hads when traveling. But the seemingly worse the situation, the better the story and more interesting the outcome. So was it with Dave's visit to Bachrach.

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by Dave Demerjian


"I travel a lot but what can I say … Geography is the only way to live!" scribbled on bathroom wall in Berlin

I had been backpacking through Europe for nearly two months, and on a warm week in late October I found myself in Cologne Germany. It was a lovely place, but after four days there, I knew I’d have to move again soon. When you're spending an entire day at the Cologne Chocolate Factory and Museum, and telling yourself it is a historically significant place, it's time to move on.

Having no particular destination in mind, I consulted the ever handy Lets Go: Europe! guidebook. The riverfront town of Bachrach was described as a "hidden but beautiful gem of the Rhineland," and was home to a youth hostel located in an authentic 12th century castle. The castle had a gourmet restaurant, as well as a bar featuring "local beers and wines." It sounded very cool, and I didn’t have any other ideas, so I decided to do it.

I found my way to the Koln-Dusseldorf Limited, the boat that made the journey down the Rhine River between Cologne and Bachrach. As I headed toward the river, I was feeling psyched. I was doing this trip right. Finding the hidden little treasures of Europe, living like the locals do, being a traveler, and not a tourist -- OK, I got that last part from the back cover of my guidebook, but I was feeling it.

Imagine my horror then as I arrived at the Cologne ferry port only to be greeted by a line of ticket holders who looked exactly like me, Dave The Naïve American Backpacker. Even I knew native Germans don't wear khakis, hiking boots, reversible polar fleece, and 60 pound LL Bean backpacks for a weekend in Bachrach. I couldn't believe I was going to be sitting on a boat for four hours with a bunch of Americans, most of who looked like they just got off a non-stop flight from Frathouse USA.

I scanned the line, looking for some non-American with whom I could have a meaningful multicultural exchange. I spotted a gaggle of Asian tourists, some old people who looked like they might need oxygen to make it up the gang plank, and an unhappy looking group of people wearing pink name tags. It seemed unlikely that I would meet my new best friend on this ferry.

By the time we arrived in Bachrach, I had a carafe and a half of wine. My pleasant buzz had turned into fully rocked. I gathered up my things, stumbled off the boat and headed toward the tourist office.

I finally found it, and asked the friendly German woman at the desk to direct me to the Jugenherberbage (if that was the word for castle, I wouldn't be learning German anytime soon). She pointed out the window to a hill far away. At the top I could just make out something that I suppose could have been a castle of some sort. Friendly tourist office woman quickly turned to evil, miserable tourist office bitch when I asked her which bus went to the castle. She snorted at me, placed two of her fingers on the counter, and moved them one in front of the other, as to simulate walking. Thinking that she didn’t understand my question, I very slowly repeated myself, using simple, single-syllable words. She looked at me, snorted again, and said in perfect English "I'm sorry sir, but unfortunately there is neither bus nor rail service to the top of the mountain. You'll have to hike using one of the dirt paths." Stunned and embarrassed into silence, I put my backpack on, fired up a fresh Lucky Strike, and headed toward the mountain.

An hour later, I arrived at the entrance to the castle, sweating, hyperventilating, and wanting to throw the goddamned backpack off the hill. After ten minutes of actually being lost within the grounds of the castle, I found the front desk, dropped the backpack on the floor and handed over my passport to begin the registration process. The castle, while certainly castle-like and impressive on the outside, bore a striking resemblance to my hometown elementary school on the inside. I finally got checked in and realized that I was starving. I asked the front desk guy for some details on the in castle restaurant. He said something like "ah yes, we have the foods you backpackers need". At 320 pounds, he certainly looked well fed, so I decided that it was time to eat.

I dropped my bag off in my room -- a 16 person dorm with bunk beds, 32 DM doesn't buy perfection -- washed my face, and headed to the restaurant.

Perhaps in German the words for cafeteria and gourmet restaurant are similar. I would have hoped though, that my friends at Lets Go!, being the travel experts that they are, and well versed in the English language, would understand some of the subtle differences between the two. I was far too hungry to quibble so I got in line, picked up a tray, and waited my turn. I grabbed a plate of hard boiled eggs garnished with lettuce, which I think was my salad course, and then proceeded to the "hot lunch" area, where a hair net wearing German lunch lady stood by, serving spoon in hand, ready to assist me with my main entrée. Tough decision: short stubby sausages in brown foamy sauce or the vegetable lasagna in pale yellow goo topped with hard-boiled egg and chopped tomato. In the spirit of good coronary health, I went with the lasagna. As the lunch lady cut into the steaming, oozing mass, I was delighted to observe that some more eggs appeared to be baked into to my lasagna.

With dinner done, I headed to my room for a little nap, figuring that I should rest up a bit before hitting the big castle bar. I didn’t sleep, but instead ended up chatting with two of my roommates. Ed, the 72 year-old former Marine from Clearwater, had been traveling for three months. When I asked him what brought him to Europe, he launched into this story that involved his "gal" in West Virginia, a trailer park in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, and trying to buy a car in Stuttgart. The story made no sense at all, so when Ed paused to cough up a lung and relight his cigar, I took the opportunity to begin talking with George, the giant German staying in Bed #3. George was from Hamburg and was in Bachrach for the weekend to "take some pictures and forget about my girlfriend". George whipped two pieces of burlap out his bag and started sewing, obviously uninterested in my mindless banter, so I gave up and headed for the bar.

This "bar" was actually the cafeteria with one of the fluorescent lights turned off, so as to create a sense of moody, bar-like ambiance. The buffet had been cleared of sausage and lasagna, and in its place sat three bottles of red wine and a case of local beer on ice. The same lunch lady was on duty, but she had removed the hair net and replaced her ladle with a corkscrew. I ordered myself a glass of wine, found a quiet table and began writing in my journal. Two hours later, I was drunk again, but also bored out of my skull. The place was packed with people, but I was having trouble connecting with them. I had the option of hiking for two hours in the dark down the big scary mountain to get into town (the front desk actually provided flashlights for the brave few who tried), but from the looks of things this afternoon, Central Bachrach wasn't likely to be booming either.

As I made yet another trip to the bar to refill my glass, I noticed a woman sitting by herself in the corner of the room. She was reading Atlas Shrugged, which I had just finished myself. This was more than enough for me to begin a conversation, so I headed over to her table and sat myself down. Her name was Robann, she was from Kentucky, and she was 28 years old. Like myself, she had been traveling for about two months, and like myself, she was fairly annoyed that she was stuck in a castle in the middle of nowhere on a Friday night. We talked about Atlas Shrugged, smoked some cigarettes, bought a couple of bottles of wine, and started playing cards. Two hours later I was so drunk that I could barely see in front of me, but as I stumbled off to bed I promised Robann I would meet her for lunch the next afternoon.
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes the next morning was the view from my window. The October sun reflecting off of the red, yellow, and orange leaves of the German forest was almost enough to make my crazy trip to this castle worthwhile. It was as beautiful as anything I had ever seen.

A woman wearing a yellow housecoat and green eye shadow suddenly burst into my room and shattered my tranquility. She waved her vacuum cleaner around menacingly and began barking at me in German. As I lifted my body out of bed, a bolt of wine related pain shot through my head. It was 8:30 am on Saturday morning. I had been sleeping for just over four hours. I was the only one left in the room. It appeared I was getting kicked out of my room without the benefit of a shower or time to properly pack my things, which were scattered all over the floor around my bed. I felt a major spiral of depression coming on. I jammed my stuff into my backpack, and managed to brush my teeth before supermaid came after me again.

As I trudged up the steps with my bag the man at the front desk began announcing over the loudspeaker that the building needed to be vacated by 9 am for seasonal castle maintenance. My hungover body and head ached. I got to the cafeteria, and saw Robann slumped over a cup of coffee. She could barely even force a smile when I sat down across from her. We sat there for a few minutes in silence. She said she had nothing planned for the next ten weeks. I asked her if she wanted to walk down the hill with me and see Bachrach. I knew she didn’t really want to move, but we had to leave the castle, there really was no other option.

Two hours later we had seen all of Bachrach. Four hours after that, we were on a train to Munchen. We were two hungover, disenchanted Americans in Europe. God only knew what was going to happen next.

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