Loreley, Lureley or Lorelei - it doesn't matter how you spell it, the legend of the Rhine will draw you to its bosom. Not to shipwreck and disaster, but to clamber over castles, to scoff dumplings and to sink fine bottles of Riesling

How impressive is it?

How impressive is it?

The Rhine is unmatched in Western Europe - much longer at 820 miles (1,320km) than the Rhone or the Loire, and offering much more in terms of magnitude and scenery than either (although the Eastern European Danube is more than twice as long).

The Romans enjoyed a charmed life here, primarily on the left bank of the river. Consequently, there is an abundance of archaeology, and building work in cities such as Cologne is forever being delayed due to new finds.

In a region plagued by war and border troubles, the river was often used for political convoys and pilgrimages. Until the 1800s, the Rhine was seldom travelled for pleasure. This all changed when Romantic poets and English tradesmen chose, for the sake of variety, to travel downstream on their way home and the Rhine traveller was officially born in 1835 when Baedeker published its first guide to the region.

These days, travellers come to see Roman ruins and not-so-ancient castles, to enjoy fine food and drink and to visit the area's vineyards and museums.

What's the best bit?

The most picturesque stretch is known as the Middle Rhine, the 150km stretch between Mainz and Cologne. Here, many of the castles (there is one on almost every peak) have been converted into hotels and youth hostels, surrounded by vineyards, pastures and gentle mountains. But much of the course through Germany is beautiful. The Rhine tumbles from a lofty 586m above sea level at Lake Constance to a paltry 10m at Emmerich, varying from 1km wide at Wesel to 112m at the Loreley.

Don't you mean the Lorelei?

Yes, or Lureley - there are several spellings for the celebrated rock. On what is popularly held to be the first Rheinreise ("Rhine journey for pleasure") in 1802, Friedrich von Schlegel, along with Clemens Brentano and Achim von Armin, was captivated by the dark valleys and sun-soaked vineyards of the Rhine. But Brentano was the first of the Rhine Romantics to express in writing his appreciation of the region.

He created the legend of the river's seductive rock in his mythic tale, Lureley, later to be given poetic form in Heinrich Heine's Loreley, which tells the tale of how a beautiful mermaid, also known as Lorelei, sat on a rock high above the river at St Goarshausen and lured ships to disaster. Thus the Rhine acquired a cachet, just in time to lure some of Europe's first tourists.

The rock on which the legend is based can be easily reached by boat from Boppard with KD Rhein Cruises (00 49 221 2088318; www.k-d.com). Boats go to St Goarshausen five times a day, (pounds 6 per adult, pounds 2 per child), from where it is a walk up to the rock. Or a local company, Hebel-Linie (00 49 6742-2420; www.hebel-linie.de), offers daily round-trips from Boppard, starting at 2pm and returning at 5pm. These do not stop but offer better views of the rock and its surroundings than you can get from the rock itself.

Visitors with romance on their minds might also want to head just upstream of Mainz, to the Brentano-haus (Am Lindenplatz 2, Oestrich-Winkel; 00 49 6723-2068), considered the true home of the Rhine Romantics. The house where Brentano was born now stands as a testament to those who first sang the region's praises. There is a library of original Bretano volumes here and the house, occasionally open to the public, is a good introduction to Romantic literature and music.

What's the scenery like?

At its southern end, the Rhine flows through a prosperous but industrial- looking landscape. Which explains why most visitors head instead to the vine- and forest-clad slopes, pretty villages and exquisite castles further north, between Mainz and Koblenz.

The poetry and prose of some of Germany's finest writers - Brentano, von Schlegel and Heine - have been inspired by this landscape but so, too, have the large number of summer visitors, most of whom tend to congregate in the area's tiny towns. To avoid the crush, you'd do better to head out into the countryside, hiking, biking or gently exploring. Don't miss the castles, though. The need to guard this great river in the Middle Ages left the region with a generous scattering of towers, turrets and fancy stonework. Many of these fortifications later fell into disrepair but several were restored in the 19th century. Those open to visitors include Schloss Stolzenfels (00 49 261 516 56) and Marksburg (00 49 262 7206) outside Koblenz, and Burg Rheinfels (00 49 6741 383) near St Goar.

How do I get there?

By air, the places to aim for are Cologne/Bonn and Dusseldorf. There are scheduled no-frills flights on Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) from Stansted to Dusseldorf, and the German Travel Centre (020 8429 2900; www.german-travel-uk.com) has cheap flights on airlines including British Midland and Lufthansa. By train, you can travel by Eurostar from London Waterloo and at Brussels take the express Thalys connection on to Cologne. German Rail (0870 243 5363; www.bahn.de) offers tickets from around pounds 85 return as well as some useful rail passes.

Where can I find out more about the history of the Rhine?

One of the best-preserved sites is that of Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler. At the Museum Romervilla (Am Silberberg 1, Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler; 00 49 2641-5311), entrance costs around pounds 2 per adult and pounds 1 per child (pounds 4.50 per family) and the visitor can wander past marble and floral decorations, admire the under-floor heating and peek at the ceramic pottery, all very much a part of the Rhine's heritage.

But if archaeology is your thing, you really shouldn't miss Cologne's Romisch-Germanisches Museum (Roncalliplatz 4, Cologne; 00 49 221 221 24438; www.museen.de). Entrance here costs around pounds 3 per adult and pounds 1.70 for children and this excellent museum offers an authoritative and in- depth look at the Romans in Germany.

The museum is close to the city's cathedral, one of the most famous buildings in northern Europe. Dominating the city, it's a great landmark by which to orientate yourself.

Cologne is a relaxed and pleasant city, with fun-loving citizens and an almost Gallic flair - especially the area down by the Rhine, around the old Fischmarkt. It's definitely worth spending a few days here. If you're into art, find solace in museums such as the Wallraf-Richartz Museum (Bischofsgartenstrasse 1, Cologne; 00 49 221 221 22379; www. museenkoeln.de), which houses everything from Old Masters from 17th-century Spain and Italy to 19th-century French and German realists. Entrance costs around pounds 3 per adult and pounds 1.30 per child. The Ludwig Museum Koblenz (Deutschherrenhaus, Danziger Freiheit 1, Koblenz; 00 49 261 304040) is also worth a visit (pounds 1.70 to pounds 2.70 depending on the exhibition; children go free) and it gets a thumbs-up from Caesar (well, a big bronze copy of one of his thumbs greets visitors as they enter the museum).

And something more up-to-date?

Ever since the Romantics, the Rhine has been a home to artists, including August Sander (photography), Max Ernst (painting) and Carl Zuckmayer (literature). In the 21st-century, the region's larger cities have begun to transform themselves into major media centres. Cologne has even voiced plans to establish itself as Germany's Hollywood, with the Media Park (00 49 221 921 5510) showing the way and the WDR (00 49 221 2200), allegedly the continent's largest station, offering daily tours (admission free).

The Media Park itself does not offer tours of individual studios but it is possible for teenagers to take part in a live music television programme, Interaktiv, at VIVA (weekdays, 3-5pm). You can get tickets by writing to: VIVA Fernsehen, Postfach 190309, 50500 Koln. But be warned: if you leave your children at the station while you go shopping, they will be expected to take part in the proceedings and may even have to read out e-mails in German - either a great learning experience or just plain terrifying.

Over in Bonn, the Haus der Geschichte (Willy-Brandt Alle 14, Bonn; 00 49 228 91650; www.hdg.de), to which entrance is free, has been widely praised for detailing Germany's social tapestry in an accessible, modern and interactive way.

What's the best treat for children?

Phantasialand (Berggeiststrasse 31-41, Bruhl; 00 49 223 236 200; www.phantasialand.de) is open until the end of October, daily 9am to 6pm, and costs pounds 13 per person (children smaller than 1.20m or who can prove it's their birthday go free).

I want to get out and about

Nature lovers can find free guided walks in the wine-growing region of Bad Munster am Stein/Ebernburg every Monday at 2pm, by checking the notices at the local tourist office (Verkehrsverein Bad Munster am Stein/Ebernburg, Berlinerstrasse 60, Bad Munster am Stein/Ebernburg; 00 49 670 861 516). Walks include a glass of refreshing nectar.

Or, sample an Eco-Trail at the Volcanic Park of Brohltahl Lacher See (Tourist Information Brohltal, Kapellenstrasse 12, Nieder Zissen; 00 49 263 697 40410; www.brohltal.de). The Volcanic Express train takes you on a comprehensive journey through the geological developments that make the valley such an amazing sight. An hour's guided tour in English costs around 30p per person (or around pounds 13 if you can't make up the minimum numbers).

If you prefer more dormant rock, you could just pack a bag and head for Drachenfels (Tourismus Siebengebirge GmbH, Drachenfelsstrasse 11, Konigswinter; 00 49 222 391 7711). This rock formation has a steep ascent to a sweeping view of the river and, down below, there are stalagmitic and stalactitic caves. Those who would rather not be bound by opening times can walk to the top at almost any time of the day for free, or if you'd rather go easy on your knees, you could take Germany's oldest rack railway for around pounds 4.60 per person.

Is there such a thing as a Rhine cuisine?

You won't only be offered black bread and blood sausage here. The Romans obviously left their flair for hedonism, and the Italians, Greeks and Turks who have settled in the region have all found their way to local hearts through the Germans' very accommodating stomachs. Make sure you save room for the region's oldest culinary traditions.

Rheinische Sauerbraten, wine- and vinegar-marinated beef, so tender it should fall apart, is absolutely delicious - especially served with red cabbage and a dumpling or three. Similarly tasty is Schweinshaxe, a leg of pork wrapped in a devilish crust of fat, served with sauerkraut; Himmel und Erd (potatoes, apples and black sausage); Reibekuchen (potato pancakes - yummy with apple mousse); and Doppekooche (potato and bacon souffle baked in an iron roasting tin).

Be warned though, that portions are huge; Paffgen in Cologne's Friesenstrae (00 49 221 135 461), for example, is an excellent place to find these specialities but the size of the dishes are not for the faint-hearted.

A final note of caution: if you order a "halve haahn" in Cologne, don't expect chicken, as the name would suggest, but a cheese roll.

Is there more to German wine than Blue Nun?

Wild wine grapes have always grown on the Rhine's banks, but the official production of wine began in AD300, when Kaiser Probus lifted a ban that had until then prohibited its cultivation. Wine production in the Rhine developed further in the 10th century, when vineyards were moved up into the valley to capitalise on the southern slopes. This allowed the grapes to soak up sun for longer and expend the stored warmth during the night, avoiding frost damage. It is this slow growth that gives the sweet, full- bodied taste.

By 1971, West Germany had become home to more than 10,000 vineyards, with up to 50 types of wine being produced. The Riesling is the most famous local variety but Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau-Rebsorte, Rulander, Gewurztraminer and Kerner are just as popular. Beware the local red wines though: only the Spatburgunder is worth sipping.

Wine-tasting opportunities are largely presented between Mainz and Koblenz. You are usually under no obligation to buy, although you will learn all about the wine and how it's pressed. The fact that this is a multimillion- mark industry that no longer relies on wooden barrels but on huge metal tanks is overlooked.

Even so, the Rhine producers do not always appreciate people just turning up, particularly in the weeks just before the harvest, so it's best to make arrangements before you travel, either direct or through a tour operator. Moswin Tours (0116-271 4982; www.moswin.com) offers tailor-made wine-tasting holidays, although the company shows a preference for Franz-Josef Weiss wines over on the Mosel, as does Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours (01730 893344), which this year is concentrating on the Alsace and Mosel wine- growing regions but can tailor-make holidays for groups of eight or more to the Rhine.

If you prefer more urban surroundings, Rudesheim's infamous Drosselgasse is a must. This cobbled street is littered with lively half-timber taverns in which to drown your sorrows or toast your joys.

And if all the talk of wine has got you thirsting for more information, visit the Bromserburg wine museum (Rheinstrasse 2, Rudesheim; 00 49 672 22348). Entrance costs around pounds 1.70 per adult (30p per child) and it's open from 9am to 5pm daily.

To spend time on a wine-festival crawl, plan a visit between mid-August and mid-October.

How do I find out more?

In the UK, contact the German National Tourist Office (PO Box 2695, London W1A 3TN, 0900 160 0100, www.germany-tourism.de/e/).

Alternatively, get in touch with the relevant tourist information centre in Germany: Bonn (00 49 228 910 410), Cologne (00 49 221 221 23345), Mainz (00 49 613 128 6210), Boppard (00 49 674 23888), Rudesheim (00 49 672 219 433) or visit: www.loreleyvalley.com