Bacharach is a town in the Mainz-Bingen district in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. The original name Baccaracus points to Celtic beginnings. Above the town looms Stahleck Castle (Burg Stahleck), nowadays a youth hostel. Bacharach is about an hour and a half from Frankfurt, or about 15 minutes away from Bingen. This stretch of the Rhine is dotted with castles and small towns that historically made its money from the tolls extracted from vessels passing down the river. The area is also know for its white wines which are harvested from the vineyards that line the hills along the river.
This charming small town with friendly people, historic old buildings, cobblestone streets, and a big old castle with nice views on the river is exactly how you’d imagine a beautiful German town.
In the early 11th century, Bacharach had its first documentary mention. It may have been that as early as the 7th century, the kingly domain passed into Archbishop of Cologne Kunibert’s ownership; pointing to this is a Kunibertskapelle (chapel) on the spot where now stands the Wernerkapelle. The Vögte of the Cologne estate were the Elector of the Palatinate, who over time pushed back Cologne’s influence. Count Palatine already had so much influence that he resided at Stahleck Castle.
His successor Konrad von Staufen’s daughter secretly wed at Stahleck Castle a son of the Welfs, who were family foes, leading to Bacharach’s, and indeed the whole County Palatine’s, falling for a short time to Henry of Brunswick. In 1214 the Wittelsbachs became Bacharach’s new lords. Together with the Unteramt of Kaub they received here their most important toll and revenue source. In 1314 it was decided to choose Louis the Bavarian as the German king. Furthermore, Bacharach was the most important transfer point for the wine trade, as barrels were offloaded here from the smaller ships that were needed to get by the Binger Loch (a quartzite reef in the Rhine upstream near Bingen) and loaded onto bigger ones. From then on, the wine bore the designation Bacharacher. The timber trade from the Hunsrück also brought Bacharach importance, and in 1356, Bacharach was granted town rights.
Widely visible is the Wernerkapelle, a Rheinromantik landmark of the town, lying on the way up to Stahleck Castle from the town. It is the expanded Kunibertkapelle, and is still an unfinished Gothic ruin today. Its namesake is Werner of Oberwesel, known in connection with pogroms triggered by his death. According to the Christian blood libel, which was typical of the times, a 16-year-old Werner was murdered on Maundy Thursday 1287 by members of the local Jewish community, who then used his blood for Passover observances. On the grounds of this alleged ritual murder, there arose an anti-Semitic mob who waged a pogrom, wiping out Jewish communities in the Middle and Lower Rhine and Moselle regions. In folk Christianity arose the cult of Werner, which was only stricken from the Bishopric of Trier calendar in 1963.
In 1344, building work began on the town wall, and was already finished about 1400. In 1545, the town, along with the Palatinate, became Protestant under Count Palatine Friedrich II. Stahleck Castle and the town wall could not stop Bacharach from undergoing eight changes in military occupation in the Thirty Years’ War, nor the war’s attendant sackings. Moreover, further destruction was wrought by several town fires. Then, in 1689, French troops fighting in the Nine Years’ War blew Stahleck Castle and four of the town wall’s towers up.
In 1794, French Revolutionary troops occupied the Rhine’s left bank and in 1802, Bacharach became temporarily French. During the War of the Sixth Coalition the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher, after crossing the Rhine near Kaub, came through Bacharach and the Steeg Valley on New Year’s Night 1813-1814 with his troops on the way to France. Recalling this event is a monument stone somewhat downstream, across from Kaub. After the Congress of Vienna, the town went, along with the Rhine’s left bank, up to and including Bingerbrück, to Prussia. After the harbour silted up, Bacharach fell into a slumber from which it only awoke in the course of the Rheinromantik. Among the first of the prominent visitors at this time was the French writer Victor Hugo.
Caring for and maintaining Bacharach’s building monuments, spurred on in the early 20th century by the Rhenish Association for Monument Care and Landscape Preservation (Rheinischer Verein für Denkmalpflege und Landschaftsschutz) which took on the then highly endangered town wall and Stahleck Castle ruin jobs, and the great dedication of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate to the Wernerkapelle have seen to it that Bacharach is still a jewel of the Rheinromantik and a multifaceted documentary site of mediaeval architecture on the Middle Rhine. The Wernerkapelle ruin is under monumental protection and before it a plaque has been placed recalling the inhuman crimes against Jewish residents.
Today Bacharach thrives on tourism, and wine from Bacharach is still enjoying international popularity. Not to be overlooked, however, are problems arising from a shrinking population, itself brought about by a lack of prospects.