The vineyards of Oppenheim and the Katherinenkirche.

The vineyards of Oppenheim and the Katherinenkirche. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

Mention the Rhine and its wines, and one usually thinks of the river between Bingen and Koblenz with vineyards climbing up its banks and mighty castles.

But a little farther south, on the left bank of the river, there are also vineyards, attractive towns and a castle or two.

The towns of Oppenheim and Nierstein are in the wine region known as Rheinhessen — which stretches from the banks of the Rhine west toward Bad Kreuznach, south to Worms and north to Mainz.

Oppenheim grew up on the site of a Roman settlement called Bauconica. It was a free imperial city in the Middle Ages and saw a number of invaders throughout the centuries. The Spanish and Swedes occupied it during the Thirty Years War, and later the French attacked and occupied it. Oppenheim even belonged to France from 1797 to 1814. Today it is a center of the Rheinhessen wine trade.

Besides its wineries and lively marketplace, Oppenheim’s highlight is its 13th-century Katharinenkirche — Katherine’s church.

Unfortunately for those visiting now — but fortunately for future visitors — the church is undergoing extensive renovations, and the inside is mostly hidden under tarps.

One thing not under wraps is the Michaelskappelle, a chapel with a charnel house with 20,000 bones and skulls stacked in it. As gruesome as this sounds, it is always an attraction for the youngsters.

An interesting aspect of Oppenheim is the labyrinth of connected cellars under the town. Supposedly it once reached all the way to the Rhine. Only parts of it can be viewed by the public, and only on tours set up through the tourist information office.

In addition, according to legend, a tunnel once led from Landskrone castle, above the town, to Katharinenkirche, letting the inhabitants escape during a siege. The castle is in ruins now, destroyed by the French in 1689. But there is a great view of Oppenheim and the Rhine from the ruins.

Besides the Marktplatz, church and castle, Oppenheim also has a vintners’ museum (closed November through March), a Catholic church dating to the 14th century, the mighty Gautor, a 16th-century city gate, and strolls through the vineyards as attractions.

A little farther to the north is the town of Nierstein. The area around it has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and the Romans once had a bath here. As far as invasions and occupations go, it shares a lot of history with Oppenheim.

Although it does not have an imposing church or castle ruins, Nierstein has a certain simple charm that its neighbor lacks.

Without Oppenheim’s tourist attractions, Nierstein is a little less populated. That is not to say that there are no tourists here. There are, but they are not looking at old churches or castles — they are looking for a good glass of wine and the Gemütlichkeit the Rhineland is known for.

Along its winding cobblestone streets, wineries stand cheek to cheek. On weekends in spring and fall, many of the wineries open their doors and turn their courtyards into little wine taverns called Strausswirtschaft en offering wines and snacks. Often tucked away under vines, they are perfect places to try the winemaker’s products. You can then buy your favorite vintage at a lower price then you could at a store.

One place to stop is the Weingut St. Urbanshof, not only for the wine, but also to see the 16-bell carillon on the front of the house. The bells weigh 550 pounds altogether, and their “vocal” range is 1½ octaves. The carillon plays daily at noon, 3, 5 and 7 p.m.

Every year in September the vintners of Nierstein host an open house where one can visit their wine cellars and taste the wines. People wander from winery to winery sipping the famous Nierstein wines.

This year, after running in to the same couple at different taverns, we agreed that Nierstein ist klein, aber fein — German for “small but fine.”

And that’s a perfect description for Nierstein — and Oppenheim — two wine villages on a different stretch of the Rhine.

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