The Rhine, flowing past some of Europe’s most ravishing landscapes, is as much myth as waterway. Wagner’s maidens frolicked here. George Eliot swooned over its fanciful castles. Western music was born nearby. Traveling by road, Justin Davidson follows the great river upstream—from the Dutch flatlands to the Swiss Alps—and finds inspiration of his own.
You can’t trust what you see along the Rhine. The thought comes to me as I board the day’s last ferry at the absurdly picturesque German village of Oberwesel. The river narrows here, between sides of craggy rock and luxuriant vegetation. As the boat strains across the current, the sun angles low, varnishing cliffs and deepening shadows. A sugar-white mini-manse with curlicues of coral icing sits like a mirage in the middle of the water, catching the evening’s glow. Above, a dark fort glowers on an outcropping. Faded block letters painted on the stone foundations advertise it, ominously, as a hotel. The whole scene looks ravishing, uncanny, and artfully unreal, like an illustration for a children’s book about vengeful giants and glittering knights.
The Rhine River is a busy thoroughfare, which makes weeklong cruises and greatest-hit day-trips both wildly popular and quite confining. The Rhine Valley, on the other hand, is a wide and varied region crisscrossed by tributaries and best explored by car. I choose the latter and spend two weeks driving upstream from the Dutch flatlands to the Swiss Alps, meandering from bank to bank. All along, I wrestle with uncertainty: Am I seeing the Rhine as it actually is, or am I seeing a river of imagination? I think this as I mosey up the Mosel River to Piesport, a busy little village so prettily pillowed in soft, vine-striped hills that I feel as if I’ve found my way into a snow globe.
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The 766-mile Rhine, which passes through a spectacular variety of landscapes, has for centuries bewitched composers, artists, poets, patriots, writers, and warriors, who have layered it with myth. Its tales take place both above and below the waves: the siren Loreley perching on a lofty rock, luring youths to their death; Wagner’s Rhine maidens frolicking on the deep bed. The real river is hardly a ribbon of unbroken beauty—over the centuries, it’s been exploited, polluted, developed, and redirected. Still, the journey from mouth to source unfolds in a sequence of disorienting experiences in which the actual and the mythic merge, and I find it difficult to separate elaborate story from mere truth.
The nineteenth century’s Romantics loved this stretch of Europe precisely because they could adapt it so well to their fantasies. George Eliot swooned over “the effect produced by those ruins on the castled Rhine, which have crumbled and mellowed into such harmony with the green and rocky steeps that they seem to have a natural fitness.” Still today, the natural sublimity of decay along this section of the Mittelrhein—the sixty miles between Koblenz and Mainz—evokes a hazy past, some primordial and poetic era. And whenever the Romantics found reality disappointing, they improved it. In the nineteenth century, ruins were rebuilt, mosaics replaced, and decrepitude reversed—all to make the relics of the Middle Ages look more convincingly medieval.
I discover this for myself at Burg Rheinstein, the castle that teeters photogenically over Trechtings-hausen. Built around a.d. 900, it was expanded, sacked, abandoned, and rebuilt so that the original fuses ecstatically with the ersatz. Mystified and astonished, I rove through the moated cornucopia of ramparts, turrets, arched windows, vaulted halls, and heraldic blazons. It’s as if I’ve wandered into someone’s chivalric dream, and indeed I have. The Prussian prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig bought the imposing pile of stones in 1823 and reshaped it into a neo-Gothic concoction, complete with a mausoleum for his own and his descendants’ remains. In 1975, the decomposing palace was rescued by an opera singer named Hermann Hecher, who attained far greater glory by restoring it than he ever did on the stage. So is Burg Rheinstein real or is it theater? The question has hardly any meaning here.
In nearby Bacharach, an adorable hamlet, I settle down in the Posthof beer garden with a stein of Hefeweizen. I pull out the little book of Rhine lore I’ve been toting around and read a typically gruesome story about the town: The devil wants to cut off the emperor’s thick red beard, until a giant intervenes by drowning all of Bacharach’s barbers. I set aside the fables and turn to history instead, where I find a different mass killing. In the thirteenth century, the mutilated body of a local boy named Werner was found in a ditch. The citizens of Bacharach immediately decided that his murder must have been a Jewish ritual sacrifice, so in reprisal they slaughtered a few dozen Jews. Fact and surmise, real and imagined violence, scholarship and invention, legend and landscape—all these things merge in this lovely scenery. I try to focus only on the quaintness of conical spires, wrought-iron bakery signs, half-timbered houses with bulging walls, bowed floors, and cheery geranium boxes. But from the beer garden, my eye drifts upward to a Gothic ruin that rises beyond the roofline. It’s St. Werner’s Chapel, named for the boy whose murder triggered a fever of pogroms.
I have come to the Rhine Valley laden with literary preconceptions, and I am beginning to find that those who preceded me did too. I walk in the footsteps of dreamers. Heinrich Heine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Achim von Arnim, and a thousand minor bards sang of the river as a changeable symbol—of majesty, national pride, brotherhood, or the German soul. They observed it so minutely that their descriptions are sometimes more vivid than what is actually there.
For years, I have been looking forward to seeing Cologne, my mental image formed primarily by Heine’s poem “Im Rhein”—which Robert Schumann set to music in the song cycle Dichterliebe (“The Poet’s Love”). Heine circles the city from above, gazing at the watery reflection of the cathedral spires. Then he swoops inside the massive door, lingering before a comely Madonna “painted on gilded leather.” It’s a painting within a church within a poem within a song, a multimedia convergence of the arts by the banks of Europe’s greatest river.
The reality is less tidy and more complex. Hotels, restaurants, and peak-roofed houses crowd the strip of park along the riverfront, while the spires poke up beyond—too far to be mirrored in Heine’s “holy stream.” Cologne’s cathedral, a glowering Gothic behemoth, is a survivor: The souvenir stores in the neighborhood sell place mats emblazoned with aerial reconnaissance photos from World War II, showing the battered church soaring over a sea of rubble. Cologne has since re-created itself into a vibrant international town. During the day Brüsseler Platz (Brussels Square), in the Belgian Quarter, looks leafy and staid, but on summer nights it transforms into a hangout for the under-thirty crowd, who converge to drink amiably and chat in a multitude of languages.
Some old scars have been poetically preserved. The architect Peter Zumthor folded the ruins of a medieval church pulverized by Allied bombs into the Kolumba Museum, where mottled sunlight flows through uneven perforations in the pale-brick shell. But the public spaces surrounding the cathedral were laid out in a postwar fit of miserable urban planning. Standing there, amid the ungainly arrangement of plazas, roads, and overpasses that nearly succeeds in spoiling the spot’s inherent grandeur, I’m crushed—at least until I come across a perversely optimistic comment by the postwar writer Heinrich Böll. “Not even the Rhine’s industrial filth can rob it of majesty,” Böll said. “It can very well be both dirty and majestic.”
Still chasing vicarious bliss, I detour to Heidelberg, which has beguiled articulate travelers for two hundred years. It’s an ancient university town, all pastel buildings and maroon stone, nestled prettily along the Neckar River and crowded with tourists, students, and fabulists, as it always has been. On the Hauptstrasse, I amble past a graceful pale-yellow building, and a sign in Japanese catches my eye: It’s a high-end souvenir shop, full of Steiff bears and Meissen porcelain destined for apartments in Tokyo. Above the modern store sign is a marble plaque, and I laugh to discover how long the business of packaging German culture for public consumption has been taking place on these premises. According to the plaque, the writers Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim holed up in the second-floor apartment in 1808 to assemble a landmark anthology of rustic poetry called Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”). The texts, about lovelorn youths and burbling streams, became fantastically popular. Schoolchildren memorized them, composers set them to music, and painters illustrated them, all as if the verses had sprung from the soil. But the editors cared more for contemporary audiences than for historical sources, and the Rhine’s most celebrated legend—about Loreley, which every tour guide on every riverboat tells—was one that Brentano made up out of whole cloth. Not even the ancient folk myths are always ancient—and sometimes they’re not even folk myths.
Even Heidelberg’s kitschiest tourist attraction comes with an overlay of literary commentary. The Schloss, the half-ruined but still-splendid castle posted on a hill above the town, contains the famous Heidelberg Tun, a colossal (but never used) wine barrel so vast that it could comfortably house a couple of families. Goethe praised it. Heine saw it as a coffin ample enough to contain his sorrow. I find it rather silly, a piece of carpentry that would seem a lot less impressive if you just called it a house. Mark Twain nailed it: “An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me,” he wrote. “I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.”
There is some irony in the fact that the Rhine, which runs through the heart of German culture, also defines Germany’s western frontier. For centuries, nationalist zeal played out across the floodplain in appalling spasms of violence. In the nineteenth century, Vater Rhein (Father Rhine) became the emblem of German national pride, begetting hundreds of patriotic songs. “They shall not have it / the free German Rhine…so long as the rocks hold fast to the stream,” wrote the poet Nikolaus Becker in 1840. But the French did have the river’s western shore, until Germany grabbed it in 1871. Depending on what flag flew from the battlements, these lowlands have been known by the German name Elsass-Lothringen or the French version, Alsace-Lorraine.
The area is thoroughly French and pleasant now, and as I meander down country roads, past placid vineyards and marzipan towns, it’s difficult to believe that so much bitterness and blood run through its past. The wars fought here are a testament to the strange compulsions of the imagination. Armies battled in order to impose on the landscape their separate, but similar, utopian visions. War is the violent side of myth.
When the killing stopped for a while, Alsatians quickly figured out how to use the power of fantasy to their advantage. The town of Sélestat found itself with the burnt and shattered fortress called the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg, and rather than deal with the headache of fixing it up or the shame of letting it crumble, the locals shrewdly presented it to Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1899. The emperor didn’t need an obsolete fortification to protect the fatherland, but the castle proved very useful as a dramatic symbol of Germany’s antiquity and might.
I advance through the heavy gates and file through reception rooms into courtyards and kitchens, up staircases, along ramparts, down ramps, and up into towers. Every corner is designed to make the maximum impression, but I’m not quite sure now who is trying to awe me, or why. The kaiser’s architect, Bodo Ebhardt, took a rigorously archaeological approach to restoring what was then just a husk of a building. He scrutinized the ancient plans, made an exhaustive study of medieval building techniques, and fortified conjecture with research. Haut-
Koenigsbourg represents the state of the art in turn-of-the-century accuracy. And yet I can’t escape the feeling that I’m touring a back lot, the product of someone’s spectacularly detailed illusion.
All this encrustation of history and lore can get oppressive if you have to live with it. Even along the Rhine, modern life does not play out among brooding crags and sprite-thronged woods, and this part of the world knows a thing or two about the dangers of excessive myth making. Consequently, the epicenter of Western European nationalism has been repurposed as the heart of the euro zone. The border of France and Germany is marked only by a sign reading willkommen or bienvenue. And as I wind toward the Alps, I sense an ever-intensifying cosmopolitanism. I’m told that the most advantageous way to arrange one’s life is to reside in France, commute to Switzerland, and shop in Germany. The EuroAirport, near Basel, serves all three. The disappearance of visible borders signals the progress of civilization—here, at least, countries don’t go to war over strips of turf. And yet I miss the romance of those crossings that I knew as a child, when I lived in Italy and traveled all over Western Europe, the whisper of danger that persisted through the Cold War, the implied hint that one’s papers might not pass muster. Frontiers impeded the movement of people, but they gave fancy permission to roam.
Near Basel, the river swings by the German town of Weil am Rhein and the ultimate expression of a chic transnational utopia: the Vitra Campus. The design firm’s headquarters is also an exciting architectural theme park. Zaha Hadid’s flamboyantly impractical firehouse strikes a pose next to Frank Gehry’s wiggly museum, a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome, and Herzog & de Meuron’s Seussian arrangement of longhouses stacked every which way. I spend a happy morning touring this conclave of buildings, then a leisurely afternoon examining living rooms, lighting, and kitchen gadgets I have no intention of buying. I can’t help marveling at the transformative powers of consumer culture. In old Europe, potentates asserted their dominion through castles, songs, and bloodshed; in today’s Europe, the powerful assert their status through style. At least in this borderless cosmopolitan zone, consumer-friendly aesthetics have replaced Vaterland and patrie as the highest human goals. It’s a less lofty philosophy, perhaps, but less lethal, too.
The aspiring intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who followed the Rhine’s highway south on the Grand Tour struggled across the mountains into Italy in search of ancient culture. I too make for the Swiss Alps, though by now I am eager to dispel all the literary and artistic ghosts that have trailed me for six hundred miles and just get out on the trail. After a few days of serious hiking, I make my way to the Gotthard Pass along a road that switchbacks strenuously over bleak, rocky fields pummeled by ceaseless winds. I stop to gulp scarce oxygen astride the continental divide. Somewhere beneath my boot soles, a trickle of groundwater is trying to decide whether to turn south toward the Mediterranean—or flow northward, joining other springs and streams of glacier melt, gathering its energies to form the great river that courses through the middle of Europe’s soul.
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