The lure of the Rhine: Rhine River

Great rivers have their own wonder. The Mississippi, the Congo, the Nile, the Amazon, the Danube, the Rio Grande, the Volga, the Colorado, the Ganges, the Mekong, the Hudson--they wind their way, in their various moods, through beds they help create, beneath grand canyons they cut.

They are power. They are movement. They are nourishment. They are life.

Our relationship with the planet's rivers has never been passive. Rivers have been worshipped and cursed, celebrated and damned and dammed. They have carried ships of war, and they have carried knowledge and wealth and sewage and victims of humanity's inhumanity.

On rare occasions, our existence has actually enriched their wonder.

So it is with the Rhine.

Not all of it. From its source in the Swiss Alps to its splintering in the Netherlands as it empties into the North Sea, the Rhine over its 820 miles per the world almanac is many things, and not always pretty.

But from Mainz, about 25 miles downriver from Frankfurt, to the cathedral city Cologne 120 miles or so to the north, Man and Nature have combined to give us something truly marvelous.

This stretch, the Rhine River Valley, is a valley of castles centuries old, and of sloped vineyards whose beauty may actually exceed the elegance of the product they provide. It is a valley of walled towns and cobblestone villages, and of cities crafted by artisans as much as by the needs of commerce and industry.

It is a valley of myths, and a valley whose mists bring softness to rocky gorges.

It is all these things. It also has been a battlefield.

From Mainz to Cologne, tourists have long enjoyed luxury cruises up and down this river. Other boats, local shuttles, connect the towns along the route; it is possible to build your own cruise.

Maybe driving this was a mistake.

"By boat, it's even nicer, because then you have time to see both sides," said Fritz Stumm, owner of a bistro in Linz. "If you're driving, you don't have that chance."

I drove it. I changed sides a lot. The journey was designed to be leisurely: What's actually a one-day drive was turned into a five-day exploration. Along with castles to see, there were preconceptions to overcome, and not a little bias.

This is, after all, still Germany--and a visit to Munich 20 years ago, with its side trip to the camp at Dachau, had been more grim than gemuetlichkeit.

This, fortunately, would turn out to be mostly a celebration of good things. The celebration began with a slice of apfelstrudel from a little bakery in Mainz.

Mainz is a 30-minute drive from the Frankfurt airport. It is a real city, pop. 180,000, with a university. It exists because its position at the confluence of the Main and Rhine Rivers made it strategically important to armies at least as far back as the 1st Century Romans.

Here, Johannes Gutenberg was born and in the 1450s printed his first Bibles, two of which are displayed at the city's Gutenberg Museum. Gutenberg's baptismal church, built around 1300, is today a bombed-out memorial. The bombs were ours.

It is impossible to do this route without becoming aware of the devastation done by Allied bombing in World War II. In Mainz, Koblenz, Cologne and other towns, broad empty spaces exist unnaturally between ornate, centuries-old buildings that certainly didn't stand in that kind of isolation before the war. Blocks of poured-concrete commercial buildings coexist uncomfortably a few steps from other blocks of structures obviously crafted in another age.

Signs, in German, tell stories: Built 1300s, destroyed 1944, restored 1948-54. And there are other stories: In Mainz stand rescued columns of what, until 1938, was the city's New Synagogue.

But also in Mainz, not far from the stunning Dom--the great cathedral begun in the year 975--is another church, the church of St. Stephan. Dating from the 1200s, it was totally gutted by three Allied bombing raids, the last on Feb. 27, 1945.

Today, replacing the bombed-out stained glass are nine windows, the ninth completed in November 1984--just months before the death of the artist: Marc Chagall, Russian-born, Jew.

And that is the last we will talk of the war. Until we reach Remagen.

It is the castles--39 of them in this valley--that provide the primary connection with history here. It is the Rhine, and the rocky promontories on either side of the river, that put them here.

Some were begun as early as the 1100s, maybe a little earlier. Most began their existence in the 1200s. In almost every case, they were first built by locally powerful political forces, mainly the ruling kings, princes, dukes and bishops, who collected duties from anyone who floated past them on the Rhine.

This protection racket built fortunes, of course, which in turn built additions to the castles and more fortifications to protect them from potential marauders.

"These," said Cornelia Hecher, whose family owns Burg Rheinstein, which was formerly home of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf von Habsburg, "were people who had a lot of money."

A little of that cash trickled down from the castles to peasants below, who--where the topography permitted--gathered for safety in villages that supplied these mini-kingdoms with everything from armies and servants to cheese and candles.

So today, above the village of St. Goarshausen is Burg Katz ("burg" meaning "castle"). Above St. Goar is Burg Reinfels. Above Oberwesel is Schonburg.

Everybody, more or less, did OK.

Wars, time and eventually treaties eroded the toll system and many of the castles. From 1689 to 1692, French armies under Louis XIV finished off most of these surviving symbols of Germanic dominance of the Rhine; eventually, only Marksburg--above the village of Braubach--was left intact.

The Prussians, eager to restore a sense of German identity to the region after the Napoleonic wars, began restoration of the Rhine's castles, walled fortifications and watchtowers in the mid-1800s.

And that's pretty much what we see above the river today. That's what draws us, and has drawn others before us.

"In the 19th Century, we had tourists from Great Britain," said Barbara Huttl, whose family owns Schonburg, now preserved as an upscale hotel and restaurant. "They came here, and they painted. Lots of German poets and painters went to Rome, and the British came here."

From her castle's turrets and exposed passageways, the village of Oberwesel truly looks like something that might have been painted centuries earlier. Two spires of churches dating to the 1300s--the ochre Liebfrauen and white St. Martin--and surviving watchtowers add to the sense of this being a place from another time, especially when dusk fuzzies up the modern details.

And if dusk doesn't do it, a couple of hours in any of the town's 14 weinguts-- wine houses--will.

Far from being one extended musty museum above a river, the towns and villages of the Rhine River Valley are alive. In Rudesheim, a favorite tourist stop, are at least three museums: one with mechanical musicmakers; one featuring torture devices of the Middle Ages; and, in the thousand-year-old Bromserburg (another castle), a wine museum.

All of the above rank in interest well behind the Drosselgasse, a narrow lane lined by places designed to get visitors merrily drunk. With music, mostly bad. It's at its best, though, in the early morning when the townsfolk are sweeping up and most of those tourists are secure in the bunks of their floating hotels.

Farther north, from just below the promontory that holds Burg Sooneck on the Rhine's west bank, vivid green vineyards spill down the hillside almost to the river. Annually refreshed and so brilliantly alive, they lend a kind of counterpoint to the stern, yet somehow incurably romantic castles.

Together, they are unforgettable.

Bacharach, Sooneck's town, will make you want to linger; the skeletal ruins of the 13th Century Werner Chapel maintain a delicacy that belies the violence that left it this way. Across the river, on its own island alongside the village of Kaub (below Burg Gutenfels), the Pfalz--one of the finer examples of toll-station/fortress--remains little changed from how drawings portrayed it hundreds of years before.

No wonder boats carrying passengers slow as they pass this place.

Just beyond Oberwesel is a great black-rock outcropping that rises nearly 400 feet straight up. It bends the Rhine and squeezes the channel, creating the closest thing we will see to rapids.

The mighty rock is called Lorelei. Legend says a lovely siren would station herself atop this rock, calling out her song and distracting sailors long enough to send their vessels slamming against the channel's boulders.

There are other legends and stories along this river--of mice, and of men, and of knights and damsels as well--on both sides of the Rhine. The castles are the links to it all.

"For me," said Burg Rheinstein's Hecher, "when I go into a castle, I'm feeling like the people of that time. I like Americans very much, because they feel the history. They feel the culture."

All along the river, where there aren't bridges (and away from the larger cities, there aren't any), frequent auto and passenger ferries carry autos and passengers and bicycles and motorcycles between the banks. The short ferry ride from St. Goar to St. Goarshausen, with Burg Katz (bigger, naturally, than Burg Maus not far away) looming high above the river's east bank, leaves indelible memories and burns up nearly an entire roll of film.

Barbara Huttl had warned me: "It is such a beautiful area."

More castles. Just ahead and up the hill is Marksburg, the one castle that wasn't blown up or knocked down. A tour includes a kitchen created in 1350 that could use an upgrade, and a medieval chastity belt, which confuses most in a large tour group of 12-year-old British schoolgirls.

The Moselle meets the Rhine at Koblenz. The junction is Deutsches Eck, the "German Corner," graced by the rebuilt statue of the first Kaiser Wilhelm. Much has been rebuilt in Koblenz. One of the town's stylish restaurants: Einstein, who left his German homeland forever in 1933. In the restored Theater der Stadt Kloblenz (1780), I watched a revival of "Die Shone Helena," an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, son of a Cologne cantor.

The river is a short walk from all this. Across the Rhine, the huge fortress at Ehrenbreitstein, born a millennium ago, rebuilt by the Prussians and decommissioned only after the first World War, looks in the pink glow of sunset like one of those old hand-tinted etchings.

Koblenz must have been a gorgeous city.

To some, Koblenz is the end of the wondrous part of the Rhine River Valley. The terrain does flatten a bit, and the land and the confluence of the two great rivers have brought industry here.

But at Leutesdorf, minutes up the road, the charm returns, and along with the hills and vineyards and castles. Here are the spa towns--Bad Honningen and Bad Breisig. Linz, with its ancient gatehouse, fine town hall (1517-27) and agreeable square, turns out to be one of the best places on the river.

At Linz, a ferry carries cars and drivers across the Rhine to a town whose name I recognize.

The town is Remagen.

In March 1945, Allied troops were on the move toward Berlin. Retreating German soldiers had destroyed every bridge across the Rhine--but one. Attempts to blow up the railroad bridge at Remagen, as the Americans approached the river, failed.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers crossed the bridge at Remagen over 10 days before the structure, weakened by earlier Allied bombing and by the failed attempts by the Germans, finally collapsed, killing 28 Americans.

The story became a movie.

In Remagen I looked for the bridge site. Books said it was there. I couldn't find it. I moved on.

Bonn is a little different. It is home to Beethoven and the Al Pacino Cafe-Bar-Bistro. It may not be what it was when it was capital of West Germany (most of its official functions have been shifted to Berlin since the 1991 reunification), but away from the post-war office buildings built for bureaucrats, it's an agreeable city.

Outside the Beethoven birth house, as we waited for it to open one morning, a man introduced himself. He was from Hamburg. We talked about Americans' perceptions of Germany, and about the ghost that haunts it still.

"Hitler was an Austrian, you know," said the man. "He wasn't a German. But of course, that doesn't matter now. We're all Europeans.

"Have you been to Remagen? You must see Remagen."

I drove back to Remagen. This time, I found the bridge.

The span is gone, but the massive black-stone, castle-like structural towers on either side of the Rhine are unmistakable. From the towers on the Remagen side, the flags of Germany and the United States fly, side by side. Within those towers is a museum, with stories, photos and documents related to the building, capture and collapse of this bridge; and a Memorial to Peace.

The man from Hamburg was right.

Cologne. It is difficult to find words to describe the magnificence of the cathedral at Cologne. From any angle, it looks utterly impossible. From the boats that approach it on the Rhine, for passengers who have seen half-timbered beer halls and castles and town walls that are reasonably human in scale, it must seem a mirage.

At kiosks in Cologne, near the train station, they sell postcards of the cathedral as it looked in 1945. It is surrounded by devastation. Its interior is rubble. Its exterior looks untouched.

Der Kolner Dom stands in the heart of rebuilt Cologne today as parts of it have been standing since Burg Katz and Burg Maus and Burg Rheinstein and Schonburg were new, since the vineyards were forests, since Lorelei's first song, through invasion and erosion and air raids and centuries.

The Romans were here too.

And the Rhine? Inseparable. Inseparable from it all.

E-mail Alan Solomon at