The Nile of Germany: The River Rhine and its legacy

Rivers are the literal life line of civilisation. The heart and soul of many countries developed on their banks. Not to say that mountains, forests and of course the coasts aren’t important for human settlement either… but having grown up around one of the most important rivers in Germany, this has always been very obvious to me.

Comparing the legendary River Rhine with the Nile in Egypt is going to attract disagreement, of course. Not only is the Rhine shorter than the Nile, it also isn’t the only source of water and by far not the only important stream in Germany. But what sort of Rhinelander would I be if I wasn’t willing to ignore all this and praise “my” river above every other?

For good reasons! You can’t say you visited Germany without paying attention to at least the Middle Rhine with its wealth of history, fairytale landscapes, legends, myths, beautiful towns and villages and the most stunning castles you will ever see. (Scots and even Englishmen might disagree, but trust me, I am a Rhinelander).

Much of the romantic ideas about the Rhine are based not only in its natural beauty, but in the age of Romanticism, when German writers and poets discovered the river and its rich treasury of tales and ancient legends. While Johann Wolfgang von Goethe distinguished between Classicism and Romanticism (calling the later the “sick” version of the former), he nevertheless did a lot to promote the romantic ideas of reviving traditional, old tales and the spirit of medieval times, focusing on emotions, passion, the beauty of nature and the spirit of men.

He wasn’t the only one who at the same time criticised and promoted the dreamy ideals of this era. Author Heinrich Heine, as political and enlightened as his attitude was, delivered the epitome of Rhine romanticism with his work “Die Lorelei” in 1824. The word “Die” is just the German version of “the” and has nothing to do with death – the legend it refers to, however, is gruesome and reminds of the Greek myth of the sirens, luring sailors to a cruel fate.

Legend has it that an alluring maid used to sit on top of the Lorelei cliff, situated on a river bend full of dangerous rocks hidden beneath dangerous stream currents, distracting boatmen passing by, causing accidents and deaths among them. Of course, like every good siren, she was singing – and combing her blonde hair.

Loreley by Heinrich Heine

English Translation © Richard Stokes

I do not know what it means

That I should feel so sad;

There is a tale from olden times

I cannot get out of my mind.

The air is cool, and twilight falls,

And the Rhine flows quietly by;

The summit of the mountains glitters

In the evening sun.

The fairest maiden is sitting

In wondrous beauty up there,

Her golden jewels are sparkling,

She combs her golden hair.

She combs it with a golden comb

And sings a song the while;

It has an awe-inspiring,

Powerful melody.

It seizes the boatman in his skiff

With wildly aching pain;

He does not see the rocky reefs,

He only looks up to the heights.

I think at last the waves swallow

The boatman and his boat;

And that, with her singing,

The Loreley has done.

The legend has mixed up the name of siren and cliff. The Heinrich Heine memorial in the Bronx in New York City is called “Lorelei Fountain” and, of course, shows the maid, not the mountain. For me, personally, the Lorelei cliff holds a set of different memories: Today, there’s a huge event venue on top of it, and I visited many a lovely concert there.

The story of the boatmen drowning in the river has a more realistic background, though. The River Rhine indeed is to the day one of Europe’s most important traffic routes, and it has been for ages, turning the metropolis Cologne into one of the most influential Hanse cities. The Hanseatic League was a medieval confederation of seafaring merchant guilds and free cities around the Baltic and North Sea. Cologne, some 200 miles away from the closest coast in the Netherlands, connected to it via the proud stream on its doorstep.

Castles and old legends

Its role as central trade route gained another meaning during medieval times. With Germany being not a united nation, but the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation splintered into hundreds of small realms, often as tiny as a few villages, their rulers often saw the Rhine as a source of income. What evolved was a culture or robber barons – German: Raubritter – who taxed and plundered the travellers on the river and its shores.

With it came an abundance of beautiful castles, now lining the sides of the River Rhine especially between the cities of Mainz and Koblenz, in the valley of the Lorelei. All of these castles are soaked in history and local legends, many are in ruins but just as many are restored as tourist attractions, hotels, youth hostels or even private property.

There are too many castles to list, so I will only mention two famous ones (and a fortress) here. Marks Castle is a paradise for fans of the dark ages, and the guided tours are a delight. Schloss Stolzenfels (Stolzenfels Palace) offers an amazing journey into German history – a once ruined fortress from the 13th century, it was gifted to the Prussian Crownprince Frederick William in 1823 and turned into a palace of great beauty. It is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Forget about the world famous Neuschwanstein in Bavaria that was never really finished and is essentially a fake… visit Schloss Stolzenfels instead.

Which brings us to the aforementioned fortress. Festung Ehrenbreitstein majestically overlooks the famous (and pretty) city of Koblenz, where yours truly was born. Its history doesn’t reach as far back as the other castles surrounding it, but its location, its size and its amazing architecture make it worth visiting anyway. It features a film- and media museum, a cable car across the river, amazing views of the city, a memorial remembering the fallen German soldiers in two world wars and a youth hostel. As a part of the “Fortress Koblenz” it was build by the Prussians as a defence against French invasions of the Rhineland in 1813.

From Ehrenbreitstein, the visitor’s view goes far over the city of Koblenz and its surrounding. In the very centre of this view: Das Deutsche Eck (the German Corner), where the River Rhine is being joined by the River Moselle. “Confluentia” (confluence) was the name the ancient Roman conquerors gave the city when they founded it in 55 BC. No lesser man than Julius Caesar himself decided to build a huge bridge crossing the Moselle in Koblenz. The remains of this bridge are still visible today, as are many other parts of the Roman city.

Connecting people

Paying too much attention to only one city is highly unfair to the many others – the River Rhine connects three countries from its origins in the Swiss Alps to its mouth in the Netherlands. When I was a teenager, I attempted a bicycle trip with a friend from Cologne up the Rhine from city to city. We didn’t make it nearly as far as we planned, but we visited Cologne, Bonn (still German capital at the time), Koblenz, Mainz, Wiesbaden, Wormsand Ludwigshafen. While the Rhine valley was beautiful to travel, the river itself was extremely dirty back then. Hardly a place to fish, surely not a place to swim. I remember that in the same year we did our bike trip, I visited Constance, a lovely South German city situated at the High Rhine and next to Lake Constance. The Rhine, a much smaller stream here, close to the Alps, was so clear that I could see fish and actually was able to swim in it.

A slightly bizarre anecdote: In September 1988 the then-environmental minister Klaus Töpfer made a bet that the Rhine is clean enough to swim in it. And he did. It was, however, pretty disgusting. Today, the water quality in the river has recovered so well that in some places drinking water is taken straight from the stream and even salmon has come back.

Rhine Wine: The choice of gourmets

That this most important of all topics is introduced at the very end of this article goes to show that I am maybe a foodie, but far from a sophisticated gourmet. The vintners of Rhine and Moselle are famous for their high quality products, grown on the hills of the river valleys. The climate of the Middle Rhine area is perfect for wine – many days of sunshine, without getting too hot, a decent amount of rain and graywacke/slate-dominated soil create a unique taste.

Wine has been grown in the area since Roman times, although its taste profile changed a lot, as I was told in one of the many wine museums of the region. Temperatures in Germany were higher 2000 years ago, which didn’t stop Romans living along the River Rhine to constantly moan about bad weather and cold feet. But, as I was also told, modern climate change might bring back sweeter and more fruity tastes to Rhine wine.

Forget King Arthur. Meet the Nibelungs.

Much more could be said about the legendary Rhine river, but to stop this article from growing even longer, we close with one of the most epic tales of German heritage: The Nibelungs. If you love King Arthur and his knights, this ancient family drama from the times of the migration period at the end of the Roman Empire is perfect for you.

It features dragonslaying (and bathing in the blood of the beast to become invulnerable), intrigue, war, love and passion, treason and murder, kings, queens and knights… in short: It is amazing! Written down the first time in 1200 in Passau, the roots of the Nibelungs reach back to the 6th century.

The saga of the Nibelungs (finally made immortal by Richard Wagner in his opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung”) unfolds in huge parts in the Rhine valley, and that makes perfect sense: No other surrounding would be epic enough for a legend of these proportions.

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