Bonn to Heidelberg

On The Road Travel Essays

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Bonn to Heidelberg

(COURIER: The sights come in quick succession after you leave Bonn, so you should know just what you're going to say when. After Bad Godesberg, select one or two anecdotes and leave the others, since there's not likely to be time for all of them.)

Bad Godesberg  An affluent suburb of Bonn. Many diplomatic missions are located here. Diplomatic meetings and industrial conferences take place in villas in the town. Embassy personnel who can afford it live here.

Roland and the Nun  (COURIER: To do this story, you have to begin right after passing under the railroad viaduct leaving Bad Godesberg. Then you'll get to the nun part at Nun Island (Insel Nonnenwerth).)

Two personalities are associated with this area of the Rhine: Roland and the nun. Opposite the Drachenfels (Dragon Castle), on the west bank of the river, there used to be another castle. (Those in the front of the bus can just make out an arch on the hill.) Only an arch of that castle remains, known as Roland's Arch (Rolandsbogen). Signs point the way to the arch. The railroad station here is called Rolandswoerth. Thus, the legend of Roland is reflected in many of the names of this area.

The story is set deep in the Dark Ages, during the time of Charlemagne, the first Christian emperor in Europe after the fall of Rome. Charlemagne's nephew was Roland, a great knight and a brave man. One day, between battles, Roland had some time to spare, and he set out for the Rhineland with his faithful servant to do some sightseeing. He came up to the Dragon Castle (Drachenfels) and handed the butler his credentials (a forerunner of our passports). The duke inside received him, since he, the duke, was an especially close friend of Charlemagne, Roland's uncle. At dinner, Roland met the daughter of the duke and fell immediately in love.

They were about to be married, but the day before the wedding, Roland received an urgent message from his Uncle Charlemagne to come immediately to his assistance to help fight against the Moors in the Pyrenees. Roland left immediately, but in the fight against the Moors, the division was ambushed and everyone was killed. This sad message was brought to the Dragon Castle. Roland's fiance, heartsick, vowed to become a nun. but her father didn't give up hope; he made her promise not to take the vows and veil until a year had expired, since no one had seen the corpse of Roland. The year passed, and she entered the convent as a nun. The convent can still be seen on the little island in the Rhine below Roland's Arch: Nonnenwerth.

Roland, however, had not been killed, but very badly wounded. His faithful servant had dragged him to a farmer in the area who nursed him back to health. But it took many months.

Before even telling Charlemagne about his recovery, Roland immediately set out for the Rhine. But it was too late. The ashen face of the duke at the castle told Roland that something was wrong. All he could do was to settle in the castle opposite the Dragon Rock (on the other side of the river). All that remains of this castle, as we said, is the arch. Roland built this castle in anticipation of his marriage — he was hoping against hope. Every day he looked out his window at the island on which the nun lived. And every afternoon a nun would appear to walk around the gardens. He knew instinctively that this was his wife-to-be. But day after day her walk became slower, and one day she didn't appear at all. She had died of a broken heart. But Roland continued to gaze at the island every afternoon, until one day his servant came in to call him for dinner. Roland didn't move, but stood motionless. He too had died of a broken heart. (One might call this the story of Roland and the "blue" nun.)

Siebengebirge (Seven Hills)  This cluster of hills lies on the other side of the Rhine. The hills are of volcanic origin, with an average height of 1300 feet. At one time, there was a castle on each summit, utilizing the natural protection of the hillside.

Wines: This is the northernmost point in Germany where vines are cultivated. The most famous local vintage is the Drachenblut (Dragon Blood).

Romanticism: The Seven Hills figure prominently in Rhineland Romanticism. All manner of tales have circulated about the strange goings-on in the Drachenfels Castle, many of them reworked as children's tales by 19th-century writers. Vampires, Vincent Price-like nobles, and swooning maidens were all supposed to inhabit the Drachenfels Castle in olden times, with monsters, ghouls, and mysterious shrieks for companionship.

Drachenfels: The castle itself is named for the dragon which once lived up on the rock. It was slain by Siegfried, who bathed in its blood to make himself invincible.

Petersberg: This luxury hotel sits on top of an old castle ruin. President Johnson, de Gaulle, and other dignitaries stayed here when they gathered for the funeral of Adenauer. In 1965, Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed in the hotel on their state visit to West Germany. During his retirement, Adenauer lived in a villa just below the hill, growing roses.

Remagen  The famous railroad bridge over the Rhine fell intact to the Americans on March 7, 1945, giving them a valuable beachhead into the German heartland. Once it fell to the Americans, the Germans made furious attempts to destroy it by air. the new jet fighters the Germans had just developed (the Messerschmidt 262's) were pressed into service too, but they just couldn't land the bombs in the right place. Later, however, and ironically, the bridge collapsed of itself. It has not been rebuilt. In the town itself is an old Roman gateway, cut out of a wall running around the parish church.

Sinzig  Just before coming into this town, we can see, to our right (i.e. west), the Ahr Valley, one of several valleys branching off of the Rhine Valley. The Ahr is renowned for its wines: the vineyards are planted with sprigs brought in from Burgundy in France. The wines are a deep red and are drunk lukewarm.

(COURIER: Now would be a good time to begin your commentary on the Rhine Valley and Rhine legends.)

The Rhine Valley  This is the Rhine Valley, cradle of German folklore. Haunt of 19th-century German poets and musicians, the quintessential image of medieval Germany. The Rhine is to the Germans what the Seine is to a Parisian, or the Mississippi is to the Old South. Banks are lined with vineyards and mossy castles, and we'll see them from a pleasure steamer.

Rhine Legends  Immortalized in art by operas by Richard Wagner. The most famous is the myth of the Nibelungs, found in many forms in Germany and Scandinavia. Wager celebrated the myths in a series of four operas, known collectively as the Ring of the Nibelungs. (1) Das Rheingold. This opera sets the theme developed by the remaining three operas. It is about a huge treasure of gold hidden at the bottom of the Rhine. (2) Die Walkure. This opera is about a race of fierce she-warriors (Valkyries) who ride horseback, collecting corpses of fallen heroes and bringing them to Valhalla (the hall of the gods, the Teutonic equivalent of Heaven). (3) Siegfried. The most popular of the four operas. It celebrates the exploits of a blond-haired, blue-eyed warrior who is the son of the god Wotan and brother-lover of beautiful Brunhilde. (4) Die Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods) is the most titanic of all, when Valhalla and all the gods go up in flames, returning to the cosmic womb. Fearful emotional power of Wagner's music for concert audiences: women (and some men) fainting dead away, etc. It shows how deeply buried in the human subconscious are the themes of love and self-annihilation originating from these Teutonic myths. Freud was the first psychologist to take these myths (and Wagner's treatment of them) seriously as document of human nature. The Nibelungs are a race of people from the land of mist. (Nebel, mist.) A revealing characterization of early Germany and Scandinavia. Nibelungs posses a huge treasure of gold at the bottom of the Rhine. The operas describe intrigues, plots, murders, etc., as different parties try to get it. The Ring of Nibelungs: the ring into which the gold is fashioned for much of the story.

Another myth: Lorelei. Lorelei Rock is still visible on the Rhine (you should pass it; but check first). According to legend, a blonde siren, Lore, sat on the rock, singing in a haunting voice and combing her locks. Sailors on passing ships were spellbound, and drawn toward the voice. They drowned in whirlpools. Lore just sat singing and combing. Apart from bizarre details, this myth reveals much about the dangers of prehistoric river travel.

The Rhine today: The Rhine starts in Switzerland passing through Bodensee (Lake Constance). The river runs west, to Basle, then turns north becoming for the first 120 miles the French- German border. It then angles west into Holland, and then to the North Sea at Rotterdam. Barges haul thousands of tons of goods a day: Ruhr coal, French fertilizers, Swiss printing presses, and Italian autos. Vital for today's material life, as it was once for spiritual life.

Weissenthurm  During the French Revolution, much fighting took place at this point in the Rhine. The French wanted to cross the Rhine here, but were challenged by German armies from the Rhineland. Overlooking the church is a height on which a pyramid has been built. The pyramid honors the French General Hoche, who died in 1797. He is buried in a crypt below.

Koblenz  The name comes from the Latin Confluentia — the confluence of two major rivers, the Rhine and the Mosel. As it was situated at the junction of two navigable rivers, its commercial success was assured. Throughout the Middle Ages, Koblenz thrived as a trading town and developed a good-size middle class.

French emigres come to town: During the French Revolution, many well-heeled French aristocrats, fleeing the revolution at home, came to Koblenz because it was easily accessible. Since they brought their fortunes with them, the town prospered under this fresh influx of capital. French-style houses were built, French restaurants and inns, and French mannerisms became a regular feature of the city. People called it "little Paris." The leaders of the French colony were two brothers of the French King Louis XIV: the Count of Artois and the Count of Provence. But French Revolutionary troops advanced on the city and took it, making it the chief city of a "department" (state). With this renewed French influence, more Gallic-style building went on, including a famous promenade, the Rheinanlagen.

World War II: The city was heavily bombed, and was 3/4's destroyed. But it came back to life again quickly, and has not completely lost its French look.

"Rhine in Flames": A famous summer festival takes place in Koblenz on the second Saturday in August. Up and down the Rhine Valley, huge bonfires and fireworks are held, culminating with the Rhine "set ablaze" by hundreds of floating torches. The display is especially impressive in Koblenz, attracting thousands of visitors.

Ehrenbreitstein Castle: (This is visible up on the hill, near the junction of the two rivers, and on the east side of the Rhine. This fortress controlled the confluence of the two rivers, and was the mainstay in the town's defenses during the Middle Ages. The original castle dates from the 10th century, when it was used by the Archbishops of Trier, who dominated the political life of the city. The French Revolutionary soldiers destroyed most of the castle when they occupied the city in 1799. The castle was rebuilt between 1816-32 by the Prussians, who were given control of the Rhineland after the fall of Napoleon (Treaty of Vienna, 1815). They expected to use these fortifications against the French, of whom everybody in Europe was still suspicious, even after Napoleon's fall. But in fact the fortifications were never used.

Stolzenfels  This castle, sitting on the western bank of the Rhine, is associated with the medieval troubadours: wandering minstrels who sang at the courts of nobles, providing winter entertainment and outside-world news. The songs they sang were invariably of heroic deeds in war, famous lovers, and the poet's own nostalgia for home. Appropriately, the name of the castle means "proud rock."

Lahneck  This fortress was reconstructed in the 19th century to preserve the medieval "look" of the Rhine hillsides. The name means "Lahn Corner," since it marks the confluence of the Rhine with a little tributary, the River Lahn.

Marksburg  This is the only castle on the Rhine which was never destroyed: it is therefore an authentic remnant of medieval Rhineland life. The "Great Battery" of guns is still pointed at the Rhine, but the guns haven't been fired since the time of Napoleon, except on ceremonial occasions.

Boppard  Since the landscape is less rugged at the "Boppard bend" in the river, the growing of fruit trees and vineyards flourishes.

Sterrenberg and Liebenstein  These two castles, facing each other, are called the "hostile brothers." An old legend claims that two brothers, who quarreled over their father's inheritance, built these castles to defend each other. The legend doesn't say who finally got the inheritance. Probably the butler made off with it.

St. Goarshausen  This town is dominated by the castle above, called the Burg Katz (Cat's Castle). The name "cat" in this case comes from the nobles who built the earliest settlement: the Counts of Katzenelnbogen. This castle was said to have been built as a defense against the Mouse Tower (Mauseturm) which stood a bit downstream.

Rudesheim  This town marks the beginning of the Rhine Gorge — where the riverbanks slope steeply up and form mighty walls. It's known mainly as the center of wine-tasting in the Rhine Valley. Would-be wine experts congregate here to sample each new vintage. Distilleries and wine cellars have sprouted in the town, making it a major wine-producing center in the Rhineland. There are many wine bars in the town where vintages old and new can be tasted. An attraction in Rudesheim is the Bromserburg, an old castle which has been converted into a wine museum. Old presses, storage jugs, and carts used for transporting the wine are displayed.

Wiesbaden  Like other cities ending with the word "-baden," Wiesbaden is a thermal spa, long popular for Europeans with aching joints, liver ailments, or paunchy midriffs. There are 27 hot springs in the town. The Romans built the first thermal baths, and by the 18th century, the aristocracy of Europe flocked regularly to cure their ills. With money came patronage of the arts. Opera flourished in Wiesbaden; it still does, along with concerts and theatrical companies who perform here in May. Wiesbaden is a major center of German film production, a sort of Hollywood-near-the-Rhine for contemporary Teutons.

Frankfurt Airport (To our right.)  This is now the most modern airport in Europe, the result of years of planning. Frankfurt is the busiest city in Germany, the commercial hub of this part of Europe. With businessmen, trade delegates, and Common Market officials coming and going, a modern airport had to be built to accommodate them.

Into Heidelberg  At Mannheim, the Rhine branches off in one direction to form the Neckar River, on which Heidelberg lies a few miles to the east. Between Mannheim and Heidelberg are U.S. army jeeps and base camps which are a part of the NATO contingent in Germany. Since 1945, Heidelberg has been the headquarters of all U.S. forces stationed in Germany. This has tended to increase the familiarity of the city to Americans back home.

(COURIER: Now start your Introduction to Heidelberg.)

Supplementary Notes for Rhine Cruise

The Niebelung Saga  The mythological legend on which Wagner based his celebrated opera: The Niebelung Ring.

The legend concerns the story of Siegfried, a teutonic superman, renowned in mythology and folklore for his martial and athletic powers, and Brunhilde, a proud and beautiful Rhineland princess.

Brunhilde's beauty attracted many heroes, kings, and princes to woo her, but she insisted that before she let any man marry her, he would have to best her in a series of athletic contests, and if he failed, he would have to submit to execution. Many strong men attempted to win the hand of this Queen of the Niebelungs, but lost their lives in the attempt.

Gunter, King of the Burgundians, was hopelessly in love with Brunhilde, but being old and infirm, he knew that he would be beaten in the running and javelin contests. So he went to his great friend, the mighty Siegfried, and asked his help. Siegfried was happy to offer his assistance, and explained that he would don his "deceptive cloak" (a magic garment given him by a witch, allowing him to resemble whomever he pleased), and thus take Gunter's place in the contests.

Thus, when the day arrived, Siegfried, resembling Gunter, bested Brunhilde in all of the contests, and so they were immediately married. As soon as they were able, Gunter took Siegfried's place (Siegfried assuming his normal appearance again), and was happily married to Brunhilde, who was, of course, completely unaware of the deception.

Now Brunhilde, although happily married to Gunter, was also in love with Siegfried, and had initially designed the contests so that only Siegfried could win her. But Siegfried had married much earlier, to the beautiful Grunhilde, whom Brunhilde consequently hated with a vengeance. One day, while Brunhilde and Grunhilde were talking, Brunhilde began boasting about the strength and manliness of her husband Gunter, the only man able to beat her, and casting unflattering remarks about Grunhilde's husband, Siegfried. After a while, Grunhilde could stand no more, and finally told Brunhilde the truth, that it was her husband Siegfreid who had beaten her, and not Gunter as she thought.

Brunhilde, eternally wicked, and furious at being tricked, planned her revenge. She went to see her friend, Hegen, a more brutal man there never was, and explained her plan to him.

While out hunting one day, Hegen drew Siegfried away from the rest of the party, and treacherously slew him from behind, claiming that he had been killed accidentally by an arrow intended for the deer. Grunhilde, bereaved at her loss, refused to believe Hegen's story, and was sure of treachery when Brunhilde killed Gunter, and married Hegen, making him King of the Niebelungs. Hegen, fearful of vengeance, threw Siegfried's gold, the Niebelung treasure, into the Rhine, so that Grunhilde would be unable to buy retribution.

But Grunhilde planned and conspired for 15 long years, and eventually married Attila the Hun. She invited the Niebelung tribe, with Hegen and Brunhilde, its King and Queen, to the marriage celebration, which was touted as the greatest the Rhine would ever see. The Niebelungs made the long journey to the camp of the Huns, but smelled a trap. It was too late, and the Huns descended from the hills, destroying the Niebelungs completely. Grunhilde herself killed both Hegen and Brunhilde with Siegfried's mighty sword, thus ending the legend of the Niebelungs.

NOTE: The legend is based on some truth, since Attila the Hun did massacre a mighty Rhine tribe, in circumstances that are not entirely clear, in the early 5th century.

Mouse Tower of Bingen  The wicked Archbishop of Bingen was notorious for the cruel taxes he harshly levied on the people. They begged for relief, but he ignored their cries for food. So God, furious in his wrath, sent a plague of mice to his castle, which ate him alive.

The Lorelei Rock  Not really a rock, but more of a cliff face jutting out into the Rhine. It was here that the Lorelei, a siren who used to lure sailors to their deaths, sang her seductive songs.

But one day, she lured the son of a local count, who was out hunting, onto the rocks, where he perished. His companions saw what happened, and gathered a large hunting party to find and kill the siren. As they approached her, with their weapons ready, she shrieked with laughter, and the Rhine rose up to envelope her. When the waters subsided, she was gone, and was never heard of again.

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