Sunday, January 18, 2009

Conquering the Rhineland

The Rhein River gets started in the Swiss Alps the flows through Switzerland, along the French, German border, then through the western portion of Germany, eventually emptying into the North Sea through the Netherlands. As the longest river to flow through Germany it’s always been an important trade route. During the Roman Empire the Rhine and Danube formed the Northern borders of the empire. Then, the Rhine was used by enterprising Romans and Northern Europeans (the Romans would say barbarians) and this role hasn’t changed for 1900 years.

The Katzenburg (Cat Fort) , a fortress just north of the Lorelei that was once a robber baron abode. Nearby is Mausburg (Mouse Fort). No joke.

One of the most picturesque sections of the Rhine flows between Mainz and Bonn, thanks to a little geology. The region was uplifted, likely during the Pleistocene (Ice Age for the uninitiated), but the river stuck to her guns and incised a deep gorge into the steadily rising rock. The result is about 150 km of steep valley walls lining the waterway. Vineyards are planted along these severe cliff faces along with dozens of Medieval Castles. By building your castle on the river, you gave yourself a pretty safe spot to rule from, and you could easily tax the passing river traffic. Robber barons would set up massive chains across the river. When they saw a barge coming, they would lift the chain. The trader would then have to shell out a tariff to get the chain dropped. It provided a steady stream of income to the local lords, but probably frustrated the heck out of the bargemen.

Today, the castle ruins and forts are picturesque tribute to the age of princesses, knights and plague. We started our voyage along the Rhine at the Marksburg. Here’s a link to their website which has a fantastic soundtrack. The castle was never destroyed by war so it’s a great insight into the evolution of the castle through time as weapons and standards of comfort changed. It perches high above Braubach, a little town on the river with cute restaurants that were closed or required reservations (to be fair, we found a great place for schnitzel and spatzle near the old town center after a bit of hiking).

The tower of Marksburg Castle. Even though the place has never been destroyed, it needs constant work. A new layer of paint keeps it looking clean and lived in.

The castle offers German language tours of the Marksburg’s rooms and towers. They provide non-German-speaking visitors with explanations in their native tongues. The English guide was thorough presented on laminated sheets in a binder. Our Japanese tour companions just had a couple flimsy sheets that clearly didn’t go into the detail we enjoyed. We saw a room of armor with authentic Medieval equipment. The Roman and Viking gear lacked authenticity, but maybe I was biased by the creepy mannequins that supported the antiquated armor. They also had a real chastity belt on display in the armor room. Interesting note, these pieces of feminine armor were primarily used by upper-class women to protect themselves while their husbands were away on business.

Armor through the ages. The mannequins, on the other hand, seem stuck in 1974.

The kitchen included a fireplace with a spit large enough to roast an ox and a cozy breakfast nook. You can rent the castle for your wedding or business meeting. Personally, I think a wedding venue with a room displaying methods of torture would be a very memorable one.

The whole crew outside Marksburg castle. The flag flying over Josh's head is the coat of arms of the private commission in charge of restoring castles and mansions in Germany. Their headquarters is at the castle, so they keep it especially spiffy.

Our next stop was to the Lorelei – also spelled Loreley – a massive chunk of rock on the east bank of the Rhine that marks the narrowest passage of the river. It also once had shallow reefs and a fast current, making it one of the most dangerous sections of the river (these reefs have since been removed with explosives). The high walls and fast current combined to give the area a distinctive murmuring echo. German legends describe a Siren-like water spirit, also called the Lorelei, whose song would entrance sailors, causing them to crash and drown in the treacherous passage. Some say she was the ghost of girl betrayed by her lover. Others say she is a creation of the German tourist bureau. Regardless of who or what you believe, the view from the top of the rock is fantastic, allowing you to take in the length of the Rhine as the boats and trains motor by a couple hundred meters below.
A statue of the Lorelei (Siren-like water spirit) sitting atop the Lorelie (big rock next to the water). She's wishing you a Fröhlich Weihnachten while clepto-Santa scales the tourism center. I feel like the sculptor stepped back when he was done and though, "There's something missing...Oh I see it." Reaching into his bucket of with an ice cream scoop he dragged out a round lump of cement and slapped it onto her chest. "There, all done. Now it's art."

Now came a tricky part of the trip. We needed to cross the river to get to St. Goar’s Rheinfels Castle, once largest fortification on the river. We knew there was a ferry nearby, thanks to a rough Rick Steves illustration in our guidebook, but we weren’t sure exactly how to get there, and we assumed Brigitte would be at a loss when it came to crossing the Rhein which didn’t have another bridge for a couple dozen kilometers in either direction.

I should never have doubted Brigitte. As we left the Lorelei, I plugged in the name of our destination just so she would navigate us back off the precipice. As we sized up the road along the river, Brigitte told us, “Turn left.” Well that seemed like a good direction to head in. “Turn right in 200 meters.” Again, it was close to the river…”Board ferry.” She knew. She knew there was a ferry crossing. I would put my life in her electronic hands from now on.

Getting up to the castle became a bit confusing as we tried to find a road to the summit of the hill. The castle didn’t have an address listed in the tour book, so we couldn’t let our trusty GPS guide us up. After driving back and forth along the river we found a little tunnel bored under a bridge that led to a steeply ascending road. Seemed like the way to go. Fifteen minutes later we were standing at the gates of the castle reading everyone’s favorite word: Geschlossen.
Rheinfels Castle, once the largest on the river. Now it's a capital "R" Romantic ruin as viewed from the plain above the gorge.

We did take the opportunity to look around at the view from the west side of the river and ogle at the ruin that is the Rheinfels Castle. It withstood French attack in 1692 but was finally laid low by the French Revolutionary army in 1797. After its defeat, the walls were used as a handy source of building stone. It’s still an impressive ruin, though possible even cooler when its geöffnet (opened).

The sun was quickly setting…at 4:30, so we pressed on to Boppard, another cute town along the river with a church Rick Steves found particularly interesting. Churches are easier to appreciate than castles when the light is wanting. Brigitte took us high into the hills running along the Rhine. Normally I would have felt we were tracking in the wrong direction, but Brigitte knew there was a ferry at St. Goar. She knew how to find Boppard.

Boppard was a Roman town once upon a time and remnants of the Roman city’s walls were incorporated into the structure of the Romanesque church we visited. The town was adorable with ice cream shops and tacky gift shops lining the pedestrian-only cobble stone streets. My brother and I were drawn to the light of a toy store showing off the latest Playmobil merchandise. We were huge fans of the toys when we were little. It figures now they would make dinosaurs and manta rays. As we gazed at these plastic wonders we were joined by a half-dozen eight-year olds who also crowded in to see the Playmobils. Josh and I retreated to give them a better view and contemplated the meaning of the word “mature.”

The Romanesque entrance to the church. I really love gargoyles. Nothing gets me in the mood to worship quite like a grotesque face sticking its tongue out. Inside the church were frescos from the Dark Ages. It's an old town (and church).

It was time for a caffeine pick-me-up so we went into a coffee shop that looked like a cross between a 50’s soda shop and your great aunt’s living room. We slid into a booth, so we could banter in English without disturbing the clientele, one of whom, a 60 year-oldish woman, was snoozing at her table. She really needed some coffee. As we sipped our coffee, our waitress packed her things and headed out the door. The proprietor started packing up the cake and made an announcement to the room that I didn’t quite understand, but it seemed like a “geschlossen” kind of speech. We hurried to finish our drinks even though it was only 7 and no one else seemed to be headed for the door (including our slumbering neighbor). It was time to leave “Beautiful Boppard” as it was called by a tourism newspaper Carolyn picked up at a shop we visited. When the weather warms up I’ll need to go back for “the Rhine’s only cliff-face tour” among other renowned attractions the city offers.

Dinner was at a Rheinisch winestube close to Remagen. Our waiter was very enthusiastic to practice his English on us, eagerly answering every question we had about the menu. When we ordered water, he assumed we would want it without bubbles as most Americans do. We confused him a bit by going for the gas. As we ate a delicious meal of wurst, noodles and goulash, I noticed the man at the next table over leaning towards us. Sometimes he would just stare in our direction, creeping me out a tiny bit. He was part of a big party, so maybe he was getting bored, but then he said something to his wife and both of them leaned our way. My working hypothesis is they were trying to understand our conversation, getting in the free English lesson we offered. That, or they were inept German spies sent to track our movements through the Rhineland. If neither, then I’m fresh out of ideas.

I didn’t have much of an opportunity to follow up on the whereabouts of German spies once we got back to the Forsthaus because it was time for bed to rest-up for my third trip to Kassel and a return visit to schöne Marburg to show the family where I was first introduced to this goofy/wonderful country.

Romantic sunset over the Romantic Rhine.


1 comment:

Erin said...

You are so into the Kohlensäure now...