Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Romantic Rhine (sans girlfriends)

The first part of this photo album has images from our day on the Rhine. Soon I'll let you in on our adventures in the Netherlands, but first Deutschland!

After a surprisingly restful night’s sleep on our upholstered barber’s chairs, we stepped off the train in Cologne ready to see a huge cathedral and a few castles. We had to hustle, though. It was 6AM, peak time for tourist traffic at the Dom.

But first, we had to stow our luggage. We wandered the Cologne station searching for the standard locker bays, but only found a short row of terminals fronted with mini-garage doors and the “locker” icon. We sized up the contraption, weighing the benefits of dropping our gear against an innate fear of new technology. Eventually we rounded up enough change to stuff our luggage in the garage door. After taking our money, the door closed and mechanized noises rattle from within. Then the door popped open again, ready for the next duffel bag. Apparently there’s a vast Swiss-bank-like network of storage containers under the Cologne train station with a giant claw hovering over your deposited luggage. I briefly considered investigating this novel world of infrastructure by climbing through the door, but decided I would rather see the Romantic Rhine.

The cathedral confronts you as soon as you exit the train station. It’s impressive every time.

We walked around the building and found out it was open for visitors and 7AM mass was about to get underway at the Marian Chapel. So, as the organist performed the opening hymn on a small, piano-sized organ, we squeezed into the pews of the chapel off to the side of the main alter.

The Marian Chapel is so named for the ornate altar that depicts the arrival of the magi (a popular theme in the cathedral that houses their relics) at Mary and Jesus’s feet. An art museum argued the altar was too delicate to remain in the cathedral. The church wanted to keep it to use for worship. The court decided to let the Dom hang onto the precious piece of art as long as the church actually put it to use. So now they are legally required to say Mass in front of it at least once a day.

Apparently they opt to use it for the early mass so only the truly dedicated (read “old”) can appreciate the masterpiece of the Late Medieval Kölner school. We raised a few skeptical eyebrows as we took our places near the front of the chapel. The Sign of Peace was not extended to these youthful intruders.

At 8AM we finished wandering the cathedral and were on our way south. We kept checking our watches to make sure it was really that early. No one can accuse of us wasting a moment on that useless enemy of active tourism: sleep.

We hopped off the train in the small town of Bacharach. On one side of the town is the noble Rhine River. On the other are the steep, slate slopes overgrown with vineyards. The town was first settled in Roman times and earned its name “Bacchus’s Altar” for its prolific wine production. Looming over the vines is the stately Stahleck castle whose foundations go back at least a millennium. I really don’t get tired of typing statements like that.

My ankle was feeling flexible, so we walked through the old Medieval gate in search of a path to the castle. It’s a pretty popular tourist stop, so we figured it would be well marked. As soon as we veered from the quaint fachwerk drag of town, we were rapidly in the burbs. We could still see the castle, but couldn’t figure out how to get up there without crossing through a few yards.

We started to follow a small sidewalk that crossed a stream that once washed all the town’s garbage out to the river and saw signs for a youth hostel that was also uphill. We followed the signs. After a couple switchbacks we had a commanding view of the valley and realized the youth hostel signs were leading us into the castle. We crossed a drawbridge and discovered we could have stayed in a turret for a few euros. I guess no self-respecting older guest would want to slog up a hill for their bed.

A small Medieval fair was underway and people in leather armor were sipping coffee and shooting arrows. Perfect. We explored the castle, including a great hall that was decorated with the coat-of-arms of just about every city on the Rhine. Bonn and Cologne made an appearance along with Bacharach and Boppard.

We crossed through the main gate and up to a defensive wall that gave us these views of the river:

It was worth the hike. Looking down at the river though, I had a desire to get to the shore and onto a boat.

As we climbed down from the castle’s perch we saw Werner’s chapel, a Gothic ruin of a church that was dedicated to St. Werner. According to a Medieval legend, a traveler found the butchered body of young Werner on his way to Bacharach. The body smelled of violets and was undisturbed by wild animals. The butchering was blamed on Jews and the sweet smell was chalked up to God.

The locals built a soaring Gothic church over the spot and interred the body of the boy in its foundations. Eventually a bishop got word of Werner’s beautification and the pilgrims who were visiting his grave. This bishop thought the story of Werner’s “martyrdom” a little weird and stopped the beautification process. No more St. Werner and no more Gothic church. The ruin is picturesque though.

On our way through town we grabbed a bottle of Riesling made from the vineyards immediately behind us. The woman at the register of the small wine shop gave us a knowing nod when we asked her to pop the cork and lend us a few plastic cups. We then hustled to the kebab place across the street to grab some quick take-out food. The Döner is a Turkish/German mash-up that’s essentially a gyro with cabbage: lamb meat from a pole, tomatoes, a yogurt sauce, and slaw. Of course, we picked a place that bakes its own bread for your sandwich. This would normally be a welcome addition to the döner kebab, but we had a boat to catch. We anxiously watched the clock and scrutinized the bizarre pictures of giant grouses fighting in a stream, and a woman lassoing white horse - I can only assume these are idyllic images of Turkey - while our bread baked.

Finally, with only minuets to spare we bolted from the shop with our warm flatbread and wine and clamored aboard the H.M.S. Boppard. Our rail passes covered the ride, and we found a table near the front where we could see both castle-littered banks of the river. We toasted the river and set to our lunch.

In mid-bite I was interrupted by the a scowling waiter. Pointing at the bar on deck he declared. “No eating. This is a restaurant.” I thought about pointing out his obvious contradiction, then decided it probably wouldn't fulfill the Fulbright mission of extending positive impressions of Americans. We packed away our food and wine brought from outside and scurried to the other end of the boat, away from his disapproving glare. We didn’t want any of his overpriced food or beverages. We would wait to enjoy the rest of our lunch on shore. For the moment we would just enjoy the castles.

Periodically a series of timed, recorded announcements in German, French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese would let us know what we were seeing on each bank. The announcement failed to point out the gathering grey clouds. Just as we neared the Lorelei, the narrowest section of the river that was said to be haunted by an alluring river spirit who would coax sailors to their death on the rocks, the heavens opened and we retreated to the sumptuous lower deck. There we watched the towns and castles from the comfort of a dry table. Coffee was deemed a necessary purchase even though the day was still young.

The rain petered out and I got to stand over the noble Rhine with the wind in my hair one more time before we disembarked in Boppard. As soon as our shoes hit shore, the deluge started all over again and we found shelter in a conveniently placed Carmelite church. As in Zurich, we evaluated the interior for exactly as long as the heavy rain lasted. Then it was back into the streets in search of the train station. Dripping red cabbage juice from our döner kebab sandwiches we could finally finish lunch as we waited for the train north. Mike is a fan of Beethoven, and there is one city every Beethoven fan should visit for roughly an hour: Bonn. I would briefly be home.

In the warm comfort of the train we could watch even more castles go by and Mike and Tim got to listen to my running commentary on the un-romantic Rhine that begins north of the city of Koblenz (the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers). When we got to the former capital of Western Germany I lead Mike and Tim directly to the scowling centerpiece of the city: Beethoven’s statue. We also ducked into the Münsterbasilica (Münster means “Head” or “Chief” by the by) to see the ancient, chunky basilica - my home parish - then rolled on to Beethoven’s birthplace. We didn’t have time to actually take a tour though. I have yet to make this Bonner pilgrimage through the home of the Romantic composer. I keep waiting for a visitor who has the interest and time. Next weekend, maybe.

Humming the 9th, we turned and went back to the train station. We were really getting our money’s worth out of the rail passes. Unfortunately there was a stamping error on Mike’s and he had to get the mistake corrected at the customer service desk at the Bonn station. All wrongs were made right with three new stamps. It’s not official in Germany until at least two stamps have been applied, so we knew Mike’s pass was extra official with a third.

In Cologne we plugged in our code and our luggage miraculously appeared behind the garage door. Vowing I would find out more about this system, we turned to the tracks leading north. With a “Tschüss” to Germany, we set our sights on the Dutch. In three hours we would be in the international capital of tulips, pot-heads, and 'dam jokes: Amsterdam.

Until then enjoy the first part of this album!

1 comment:

Mama B said...

Rick Steves actually had filled me in on the magnificent Koln locker system. Allegedly it is available in Frankfurt and other large cities too!