Sept 7 – I was still in a rush to get to Eibergen, Netherlands, and wanted to see Strassbourg, the section of the Rhine north of Bingen, Bonn, Cologne, and Dusseldorf, before heading to visit my friends in eastern Netherlands. I bid Würzburg with its beautiful Residence farewell and headed to Strassbourg for the evening. The next day was my birthday and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I would be 55, a significant turning point, though I’d been camping in a tent in the rain on my 50th, and hadn’t had a birthday party for 7 odd years. I still really like birthdays and parties, and was sad that I seemed always to be out of town on my special day. The drive to Strassbourg was easy, compared to a lot of the driving I’d done in Europe. Germany has great roads. I didn’t particularly like going from no speed limit (I’m afraid when people jet by at 120 mph) to 35 mph zones, which seemed too numerous to count. Germans follow the law. They will slow down on a dime, so it can be really dangerous if you don’t know the road.
I slogged through miles of urban sprawl to get to the historic center of Strassbourg. Arriving around 9pm, I found parking near the train, and headed to the nearest hotel. I’d taken to getting city maps from hoteliers, and they seem happy to oblige. My preference was to get lost. That was generally what I did when I had the time. But I was operating on a tight time frame, and only had hours in some towns. I headed toward the old German town built between several canals, and walked the narrow streets till I reached the water mils that lined this part of the canal. I love water and wind mills. I must have been a miller in another life. Seriously! Maybe I should move to a small town in the mountains and run a mill. Not sure how long I’d last, but it would be a worthy endeavor. I crossed a brick bridge to the other side of the canal and walked the moon-drenched streets. I realized that the moon was full. I criss-crossed the canal several times, then headed to where I thought the cathedral was. I was in luck, arriving at the cathedral just as a film was being projected on its exterior. I’d seen something similar in Montreal, Quebec, and was excited to see what artists had come up with. It was mind-altering. The sides of the cathedral melted, burst into flame, and went through various metamorphoses.
After 15 minutes it was over. It felt more like 30. Feeling lucky to have caught the show, I wandered further afield along canals toward a church that appeared to be floating on the water. There seemed to be a lot of drunk, noisy 20-somethings here. They were shouting and singing, and two French women stopped and stared at them, probably wondering at their audacity. I certainly did, though I had become used to such bad behavior. Young people who travel seem most interested in getting drunk. It seems that one wouldn’t have to leave home to accomplish this task. Maybe they find it easier to deal with the uncertainties of travel if they are drunk. They might have a point. There have been plenty of times that I’ve been stressed or worried about the unknown, and being drunk would certainly have lessened both. But it’s not an option for me. I get violently sick when I drink.
I walked until about 11pm, and then started heading back to the car. A nice man at a very fancy hotel and restaurant acquiesced to my using the bathroom. I wasn’t sure where I’d be sleeping, as usual. I had thought about staying somewhere near the center, but the urban sprawl I’d driven through was less than encouraging. It would be hard to find a quiet corner. So I recrossed the border into Germany, and searched for a bit of nature. By the way, this border was invisible. I only realized it as I crossed the Rhine. There were signs saying Eurozone, and multiple exchange offices. But no archway to drive under, no buildings where you had to drive 20 mph for fear that they’d stop you. I found a patch of woods near a small lake outside Willstätt, and pitched my tent next to a dung heap. No joke. I figured I’d be left alone in this less than ideal spot, which was quiet, but damp and smelly. Happy birthday me!
Sept 8 – My birthday. I woke and tried to wash my ground cloth off, which reeked of the distinct smell of manure and fertilizer. I had heard 2 guys go for a midnight dip the night before. They had sounded drunk and I’d wondered whether they’d sobered up after the cold water hit. I decided to head to Heidelberg and parked near old armory along the Nekar, the site of my near-drowning when I was 5. Luckily my mom had slid down the mossy embankment after me, and with some struggle, was able to get me to back up the rough and slippery moss-covered cement bank. I was looking for a good place to have a birthday cappuccino and piece of cake. I ended up at a vegan cafe, and the soy milk left a lot to be desired. The cake and frosting were margarine-based, which I hate with a passion, so all in all it was less than ideal.
From there I walked to the main church, which is now protestant, and was struck by the large number of universities, specifically focused on the sciences. Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest and one of Europe’s most reputable universities. A scientific hub in Germany, the city of Heidelberg is home to several internationally renowned research facilities adjacent to its university, including four Max Planck Institutes. I wrote to Brian Von Herzen, my first boyfriend ever who when I was a senior in high school had graduated from Princeton in Physics about the Max Planck Institute I’d seen. He said that his great uncle Edouard Herzen, a chemist, was involved in the Institute. He sent me an article about his participation in the Solvay Conference, to which Einstein, Neil Bohr, Max Planck, Lorentz, and Marie Curie also attended. What a lineup! The who’s who of physics.
After walking through the town’s baroque buildings, I headed up to Heidelberg Castle, the residence of the Electorate of the Palatinate. The castle dominates the view of the old downtown. The castle ruins are among the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. I wish I’d known about the Philosopher’s Walk on the northern side of the Neckar along the side of the Heiligenberg (Saints’ Mountain). Traditionally, Heidelberg’s philosophers and university professors would walk and talk along the pathway, enjoying scenic views of the old town and castle. Instead, I walked up to the castle, but decided to come back the next day to take a tour of the interior. I would be sorely disappointed after the splendor of Würzburg Residence, but had been told that it was worth seeing. By the ticket seller, of course. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I walked down through the narrow and steep streets back to the main town, enjoying the lovely buildings and buzz from university students. On the main pedestrian walk, people were out in droves. The next day, an anti-animal cruelty organization was asking people to commit to a week of not eating meat or dairy. I said I would. It started to rain, and I ran to my car, seeking shelter. I drove up into the woods above town and found a dirt road in the forest. It turns out that I was near the spot where students liked to race their cars, and it was a Saturday night. The sound of revving car engines didn’t die down till 4 am.
September 9 – It had rained hard the night before, and my tent had held up despite not having the top pole. I’d been using my hiking pole in lieu and it had worked, even with torrential rain and wind. Lucky. I headed back down to Heidelberg and parked near the castle, and bought a ticket. The English tour wouldn’t start for 45 minutes, so I decided to see the art gallery in a beautiful hall. The earliest castle structure was built before 1214 and later expanded into two castles circa 1294; however, in 1537, a lightning-bolt destroyed the upper castle. The present structures had been expanded by 1650, before damage by later wars and fires. In 1764, another lightning-bolt caused a fire which destroyed some rebuilt sections. The castle was only partially rebuilt after being damaged.
On a visit to Heidelberg in 1838, the French author Victor Hugo took particular pleasure in strolling among the ruins of the castle. He summarized its history in this letter: “But let me talk of its castle. (This is absolutely essential, and I should actually have begun with it.) What times it has been through! Five hundred years long it has been victim to everything that has shaken Europe, and now it has collapsed under its weight. That is because this Heidelberg Castle, the residence of the counts Palatine, who were answerable only to kings, emperors, and popes, and was of too much significance to bend to their whims, but couldn’t raise his head without coming into conflict with them, and that is because, in my opinion, that the Heidelberg Castle has always taken up some position of opposition towards the powerful. Circa 1300, the time of its founding, it starts with a Thebes analogy; in Count Rudolf and Emperor Ludwig, these degenerate brothers, it has its Eteocles and its Polynices [warring sons of Oedipus]. Then the prince elector begins to grow in power. In 1400 the Palatine Ruprecht II, supported by three Rhenish prince electors, deposes Emperor Wenceslaus and usurps his position; 120 years later in 1519, Count Palatine Frederick II was to create the young King Charles I of Spain Emperor Charles V.”
The castle tour started at 1:30pm. I had arrived early and told others waiting that I’d dash to the bathroom. No one bothered to tell the tour guide this, and when I arrived at 1:31pm, they were gone. I pounded on the door, shouting. There was a saying that trains run on time in Germany. Teutonic efficiency. It turns out they don’t anymore, but that’s another matter. They appear to start tours on time with not a minute to waste. After 10 minutes of banging, a nice gentleman came up and let me in. I joined the tour and the guide claimed I hadn’t missed anything. What had they been doing for 10 minutes, I wondered? It turned out the castle had been struck by lightning twice, and had been destroyed during the Palatinate wars. It had been rebuilt, of course, but what we walked through was a shell of what it had been. And I was spoiled by Würzburg. There was no furniture in this castle. Being famous as a ruin is not the same thing as being a place where I could fantasize about kings, queens, and dragons.
Here I have to share a quote by Mark Twain about the castle. He had traveled extensively during his speaking tours to raise money after losing investing in the ‘wrong’ printing press: “A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude. Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it. ”
The Heidelberg professor Ludwig Giesz wrote, in his 1960 essay titled Phenomenology of the Kitsches, about the meaning of these ruins for tourism: “Ruins are the pinnacle of what we have called ‘historical’ Exoticism. As a jumping off point, a story from experience may serve: in 1945 shortly after the surrender of Germany, when asked by an American soldier who was eagerly “picture-taking” at the Heidelberg Castle how this place of pilgrimage for all Romantics came to be a ruin, I replied mischievously, “it was destroyed by American bombs.” The reaction of the soldiers was very instructive. I will speculate briefly: the shock to their consciousness—stemming from an aesthetic, not an ethical problem—was extraordinary: the “ruin” no longer appeared beautiful to them; on the contrary, they regretted (thus: with realistic present consciousness) the recent destruction of a large building.”
As I have already expressed, I am continually upset by the large number of historical buildings destroyed by American bombs in WWII. When I voice this, locals often defend America and Britain, saying that it couldn’t be helped and was necessary to stop Hitler. Hitler was certainly single-minded in his vision of taking over the world. We will never know whether it was “necessary” to destroy the majority of Europe. It was a huge price to pay, from a cultural perspective. Like the sacking of Babylon and similar destruction of world heritage sites. I don’t think the damage can really be measured. The items were priceless, and no price tag can be put on its value.
But back to the tour. I learned that the Winter King and Queen had celebrated their marriage here, with weeks of parties, on their way from England to Prague. Frederick V was the Elector Palatine of the Rhine in the Holy Roman Empire from 1610 to 1623, and served as King of Bohemia from 1619 to 1620. He was forced to abdicate both roles, and the brevity of his reign in Bohemia earned him the derisive nickname of “the Winter King”.His Queen was Elizabeth Stuart, the second child and eldest daughter of James VI and I, King of Scotland, England, and Ireland, and his wife, Anne of Denmark. Frederick was apparently head over heels in love with Elizabeth, which is almost unheard of among political royal marriages. As love is blind, he modified the most important defensive tower, converting the top into a dining room, and considerably reducing the girth of its 7 meter thick walls. Sadly, the tower was blown apart during the Palatinate Campaign, part of the 30 Years War.
Apparently, when Frederick V of the Palatinate married Elizabeth, he made a plan for a large show garden beside the castle, such as Germany had never yet seen. Elizabeth knew the right man to carry out this plan, and summoned her own tutor, Salomon de Caus, who since her brother’s death and her own departure from England had lost his occupation. Elizabeth had been very fond of her brother Henry Frederick, whose intention it had been to accompany his sister to Germany for the wedding festivities; and now, at Heidelberg, she was glad to keep a living memorial of her lost brother in this teacher whom they had shared; thus it came about that Salomon de Caus became architect to the Palatine court. He made a little book of a collection of drawings of fountains and grottos, and dedicated it to Elizabeth in 1615. The ground was extremely uneven and it took two years to complete five terraces, so that that the grounds could support the famous garden of Heidelberg Castle. There was a special grotto built at one end of the gardens, with many fantastical creatures carved in stone. Elizabeth was to give Frederic a kiss for each one she found.
He may have made a better poet than king. There probably have been many a sensitive person thrust into positions of royalty who were ill-equipped for the job. After all, it was obligatory. Strange way to think about it. I took a walk on the grounds and looked for the grotto, but it was closed. I walked around the rest of the grounds and imagined what it must have looked like in the 1620s when de Caus had devised the ornate, world-famous gardens. Another loss. I guess that’s a theme. Not surprising, as I just got a call yesterday that a dear man who had rented from my mom and I for many years had died in the hospital this month. He’d gone in for lung issues, and they’d discovered an unrelated blood clot and decided to operate. He didn’t make it out alive.
I would have stayed in Heidelberg for days, but had a deadline. Full of the loveliness of the town, I pushed on to Worms, looked at the Dom of St Peter and the city gate on the bridge, then headed to Bingen am Rhein at dusk. It was a Saturday night and they were celebrating the annual wine festival. The area around Bingen is wine-making country. I walked up to the castle on the hill, then down to the small square where people were making merry. Various bands were competing for air space. I heard a good jazz band, then headed to the river, and was floored. A jazz standards singer was belting Motown, R & B, and Funk. She was on fire, and had the crowd dancing and excited, which is saying something. I was so impressed that I decided to talk to her during her break. We had a great conversation, and I found out Pamela O’Neal grew up in Sacramento, California, a two hour drive from my house. She moved to a small town near Bingen, Germany, to be near her sister who is stationed in the military in Germany. A lovely woman, and very humble. And what a voice! She grew up singing gospel, like the best of them. Her favorite singer is Chaka Kahn. I bought a CD and listened to one more song before calling it a night. I drove to the other side of Bingen and up a narrow winding road into a small forest that hugged the mountains along the middle Rhine. It was nice to go to sleep with the smell of pine in the air.