If you grow up in what is considered to be the most romantic place in the world, the Rhine Valley, with its castles and vineyards, you'll never be aware of it until other people tell you. Last year I visited home around six or seven times in between concerts and on some of those trips I brought musicians with me; they were stunned not only by the picturesque landscapes but also by my nonchalance. Their reaction made me look at the valleys afresh.
If I have to choose one region that I know well and that is worth visiting, it's the region I come from, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt and the Rhine Valley. More particularly, it's the little stretch where the Rhine changes direction from east to west. It has moved up through Switzerland, through France, Germany from south to north, and then it makes this little twist through my country. This adorable strip along the Rhine Valley is roughly 40km long and takes in Mainz and Wiesbaden. It passes through Koblenz and the famous Lorelei, a rock towering over the river where a woman was said to lure sailors to their deaths. All very romantic!
Not far from here is my home town Eltville, which is known for three things: we have permission from the Vatican to sing the Gregorian chant every Sunday from a 12th century choirbook; our organ is the oldest one playable in Germany and our church is dedicated to St Valentine whose relics you'll find there. The church was quite an important place of pilgrimage, which is why it is much bigger than our town merits. This is where I started my career as it were, singing in the choir. An odd experience when I was young was being an extra (a monk, in fact) in the filming of The Name of the Rose. However, Eltville is probably more interesting to most people for its Riesling wine.
When I was young, my parents always told me that our village was world famous, and I thought "ja ja ..." but when I started to travel outside Germany, in Australia or America, I did actually find people who knew about it, so I imagine I'll be saying the same thing to my daughter.
When I started doing concerts, I didn't travel around Germany much because the centre of early music, where the baroque repertoire was more developed, was in Belgium and Holland. But now I regularly visit Berlin, Munich, Cologne and Hamburg and crossing the country has made me realise what an undiscovered beauty Germany is - the landscape is gorgeous.
I'm a big fan of Bavaria, principally because this is where authentic country cooking, great landscape and the genuine friendliness of people is probably best preserved. Wurzburg in particular is a cute town full of baroque and Gothic architecture, but also the start of the Romantic Road, a 350km trail that passes through stunning countryside. But it's the Bavarian food, unfussy and hearty, that I love most. If you like French cuisine and classy three-star restaurants then this isn't for you, but they have this honest style of cookery here with delicious homemade sausages. You can smell them in the beer gardens and hear them sizzle in the Kellers.
Sauerbraten (sausages of beef soured by vinegar), Schweinbraten (roast pork in beer, usually wheatbeer) and Schweinhaxe (pork knuckle) are all here. Come hungry and don't be a vegetarian! Then to wash it all down there are the local breweries; I think Bavaria has the highest density in Germany of independent breweries. Bamberg alone has 27 different breweries - it used to have more - with exotic varieties such as smoked beers.
In Munich my favourite restaurant is Zum Dürnbräu. It has a traditional style and it's where you get the good solid food I'm talking about. It has one big table and everybody sits together. It's not a place you go for a romantic candlelit meal, but it expresses perfectly what I love about Munich and Bavaria: the people are not afraid to meet each other, to chat to strangers, share a joke and then go their separate ways. I had a New Year's Eve concert with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra that finished at about 10pm and I was wandering round foraging for food feeling it was going to be a pretty lonely New Year's Eve until I came across this restaurant. It looked good and had my favourite dishes but it was completely packed. I was about to turn back into the cold when a robust waitress dragged me in, shouting "Hey guys, room for one more", and wedged me in. A few hours before they had been strangers as well, but, after a few beers and some chit-chat, we celebrated New Year in the way that it should be celebrated.
I went back to my hotel in Munich, the Palace Hotel, which is a favourite with musicians. The manager is nuts about music and goes out of his way to accommodate the wishes of divas.
I miss this atmosphere when I leave Bavaria. It is just so easy to talk to people and there is a genuine friendliness. It's not too close or personal; it's more a type of politeness. Some might think of this as naivety but it's not; it's just an openness which I find refreshing. In most parts of Germany you would not walk into a restaurant and start talking to someone. But I think people who live on the Rhine, from Eltville right up to Cologne, are friendly and have a modest, self-deprecating humour, especially with strangers.
I probably know Germany from Cologne southwards quite well. Concerts and festivals have helped. Two of the biggest summer festivals in Germany are in this area. The Rheingau Musik festival (24 June to 2 September) takes place in castles, baroque churches and vineyards between Wiesbaden and Lorch. This year there is a special emphasis on Mozart as it is his 250th anniversary. I've appeared in the Burghofspiele summer season in Eltville for the past five years, but will miss this year - when among the items on the programme will be a premiere of The Comedy of Errors - in German of course. You can easily travel around these areas on a bike, cycling through vineyards and stopping off for a tasting or two.
As for the east, I adore Dresden. I have been there for concerts quite a lot and love the city. You hear all the hype from people about it being the Florence of the Elbe or the Venice of the north, and then, when you go there, you are astonished to find that it's all true.
The river is spectacular with wide pastures on either side which act as flood plains and allow the scenery to breathe. In summer you have this wonderful place for picnics and general lounging. Now with the Frauenkirche totally restored from just one crumbling wall to a complete church, the panorama, with its many domes and churches, resembles a baroque painting.
Considering the destruction of Dresden during the war, it seems like a miracle to engage in this peace and beauty. But the city isn't all museums and niceness, it has a vibrant cultural scene. I've been lucky enough to sing at the Semperoper opera house several times, a place that saw the premiere of Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. They also grow wine here, particularly a good white.
Not far from here is Leipzig. For anyone who has sung as much Bach as I have, it is a pilgrimage to come to the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Cantor for 27 years, and sing. I can recommend anybody who is a Bach fan to attend Sunday service and hear the St Thomas choir. This is the same choir in the same place that Bach conducted. That's impressive enough but it's more so if you sing there. I sang the St John Passion with the choir and the B Minor Mass with Philippe Herreweghe. When you sing those pieces in that place you really feel your soul soar.
Musicians are inevitably drawn to the capital. But up until a few years ago I just didn't like Berlin. It's a big city, dirty and ugly - I come from the most beautiful part of Germany remember. But then a buddy of mine, who I do pop music with and who lives there, took me off the beaten track.
It may not be the most picturesque city but gradually I have developed an affection for it. Now it's a place I love. There are lots of young people there and it has a buzz. It is Germany's only proper metropolis, a place that can truly compete with Paris, London and New York.
They have an artistic openness that is remarkable. I did a classical recital in a nightclub, the Yellow Lounge, which was pretty wild. It shows you that new and bizarre things are always happening in Berlin. They "push the boat out", as my online dictionary says, more than most cities. It has an energy and renewal that is symbolised by the fact that it is a constant building site. People are beginning to realise that it is the centre of the new Europe after the ten new countries joined.
When Germans are asked what they think of their country, their response tends to be muted. That's not something you find in, say, France or Italy. But the mood in Germany is changing. Germans are known to be very self-critical and not too enthusiastic about themselves, and it's probably a good thing that we are not over-confident or praising ourselves too much. But things are changing and we are taking pride in what is a very beautiful country.
For details see Eltville Tourism (00 49 61 23 90 980; eltville.de) and the Palace Hotel, Trogerstrasse 21 (00 49 89 419 710; muenchenpalace.de).
The Rheingau Musik festival takes place from 24 June until 2 September (00 49 1805 74 34 64; rheingau-musik-festival.de).
My top village
The Rhine cuts through a soil called schist, with steep banks descending directly onto the river. All of this geological detail means it is perfect for Rieslings. Eltville might be my hometown but my favourite village is Kiedrich, also home to Robert Weil and his clan. Over the years, they have become like my second family and they also produce my favourite wine. In the past 15 years they have grown from being a good local producer to a world-class one, with top ratings from Robert Parker. The house was built by an English baron, Sir John Sutton, who visited the Rhine Valley on his Grand Tour. He loved gothic architecture, loved Riesling, and then decided to travel no further and built a unique English manor house, which the Weils still use today.
My top boat trip
A boat trip on the Rhine is truly special. Start at my hometown of Eltville, which is a pretty town with a castle famous for its rose garden. You can follow the Rhine up to the Lorelei - the famous rock towering above the river - and then get the train back, which is nice in itself because the track follows the course of the river. Alternatively, returning by boat gives you the most gorgeous prospect of the valley from the other direction.
My top castle
Of all the castles in my area, Burg Rheinstein (00 49 67 21 6348; burg-rheinstein.de) between Bingen and Trechtingshausen, is my favourite. A former opera singer, Hermann Hecher, owns it. It sits on a big rock overlooking the Rhine. It has a good restaurant. You can look at, and even stay in the old apartments. The bedroom has a fantastic view of the Rhine. Or you can climb the turrets and have a Romeo and Juliet balcony scene.
Fire and water: Teutonic Tips - On The Riverbank
RHINE IN FLAMES
The highlight of this season of pyrotechnics is at 11pm on 12 August; fireworks and crowds greet 80 ships at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel, by Koblenz, after a 10-mile trip from Spay. (firework.rhine-river.com)
The Rheingau, one of Germany's distinguished wine regions, stretches along the Rhine between Lorch and Hockenheim. Drive, cycle or hike one of thewine routes, while sampling over 50 wines. (www.deutscheweine.de)
This 320km walking trail was opened in February and runs along the right bank of the Rhine. It provides some outstanding views of the valley's vineyards, castles and palaces. (rheinsteig.de)
WORK UP SOME STEAM
The Volcanic Express steam train takes you on a stunning journey from Brohl, on the Rhine, to Engeln in the Eifel. The guide will point out highlights such as volcanic tuff rock formations. (vulkan-express.de)
The Rhineland's trees offer reds, coppers and golds to rival New England. Andit's the time for wine festivals. Try zwiebelkuchen, a hearty onion cake, with Federweisser, a sweet light wine.
Emma FieldReuse content