The Middle Rhine Valley, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Sept 10.  I was awoken by the sound of cyclists.  Apparently the forest where I’d camped was on the main cycle path up the mountain leaving the Rhine.  I drove the narrow twisting road and discovered a forest inn. Back in Bingen, I tried to find the site of the convent that Hildegard of Bingen had founded, and while I discovered the general proximity, couldn’t find the actual ruins.  I did find the church that she had attended as a child.

I was excited to drive the 65km-stretch of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley between Bingen and Koblenz with its castles, historic towns and vineyards. My parents and I had taken a ferry ride down the ride in 1968, and I wondered if any of it would look familiar. The Rhine has served as a link between the southern and northern halves of the continent since prehistoric times, enabling trade and cultural exchange, which in turn led to the establishment of settlements. Condensed into a very small area, these subsequently joined up to form chains of villages and small towns. For over a 1,000 years the steep valley sides have been terraced for vineyards.  The landscape is punctuated by some 40 hill top castles and fortresses erected over a period of around 1,000 years. Abandonment and later the wars of the 17th century left most as picturesque ruins. The later 18th century saw an increased interest in wild nature, and the often dramatic physical scenery of the Middle Rhine Valley, coupled with the many ruined castles on prominent hilltops, made it appeal strongly to the Romantic movement, which in turn influenced the form of much 19th century restoration and reconstruction.

I stayed on the Bingen side of the Rhine, and within 15 minutes was in Bacharach, whose impressive gates and tours dot the river front. I walked through one of the old gates, gazing up at Stahlek castle perched on the hill overlooking the town.  I discovered that the town  had been the most important transfer point for the wine trade, as barrels were offloaded here from the smaller ships that were needed to get by the Binger Loch (a quartzite reef in the Rhine upstream near Bingen) and loaded onto bigger ones. From then on, the wine bore the designation Bacharacher. In 1214 the Wittelsbachs became Bacharach’s new lords. Together with the Unteramt of Kaub they received their most important toll and revenue source from the town. The timber trade from the Hunsrück also brought Bacharach importance, and in 1356, Bacharach was granted town rights.

I passed through the city gates and headed uphill.  Two young women were looking for a hotel and I tried to help them find it.  I walked quickly to see whether it was up ahead, then turned around and told them it wasn’t there.  I walked along the city wall and climbed the observation tower to watch the barges go up and down the Rhine, then headed to the center square, then said goodbye to Bacharach and headed to Oberwesel and Sankt Goar.  After wandering around, I headed to Boppard. I parked and headed to the closest church, the catholic church of St. Severus, and was surprised to find some of the most beautiful frescoes and vivid colorful stained glass windows I’d seen.  As I left the church, a wagon with a crowned and robed young woman lumbered toward me. I found out that that the town had just celebrated the biennial wine festival and had crowned a new wine queen.  Cool!  I’m really sensitive to loud sounds and had to plug my ears as I passed the main stage, where some guy was bellowing on a microphone.  He didn’t need one.  It was a cute town, but too loud at that moment for my taste, so I bid it farewell and headed to Rhens. I wandered around, doing my usual ogling of beautiful old buildings, then headed away from the Rhine through Koblenz and on to Bonn.

Bonn was stunning.  I arrived at night, and was impressed by the friendliness of a hotel concierge whom I asked about using the wifi.  It turned out I didn’t need it, and continued to the center of town.  The main square was hosting a virtual Beethoven Festival, and I took a seat to listen to the last piece, Petrushka by Stravinsky.  I felt like a civilized human being, and really enjoyed letting the music wash over me.  When finished, I wandered the narrow streets, and came upon the stunning facade of University of Bonn.  Since 1818, the Electoral Palace, which was the former residential palace of the Prince-Electors of Cologne, had been the University of Bonn’s main building, home to the University administration and the faculty of humanities and theology.  It was built by Enrico Zuccalli for the prince-elector Joseph Clemens of Bavaria from 1697 to 1705. The Hofgarten, a large park in front of the main building, is a popular place for students to meet, study and relax. I drove across the river to seek an adequate camping spot, resolving to return the next day to learn more about Beethoven’s life in Bonn.

September 11. I was excited about Bonn.  I drove back, running shoes in hand, as I’d unknowingly worn out the right heel such that I was keeled over perilously and getting a horrible pain in my achilles.  I found someone who kindly directed me to the closest shoe repair place in the mall, Mr. Minute.  The guy shook his head when he saw the damage, but I pointed to a piece of rubber that I thought might adequately prop up the shoe, at least as a stopgap measure.  He glued it to the bottom, and I left, very happy to have a repaired shoe.  I’d given up hope about my flip flops, which had been patched so many times I could no longer wear them.  I wandered around the town, reading signs about places where Beethoven had studied or played the organ as a child.  I discovered a French bakery, and had my first croissant after a 4 month drought, and a cafe au lait.  It was lovely.  It was a very pretty cafe, and I admired the interior decoration.  I walked to the river and made my way along its bank for some time.  There were some really lovely buildings, though also large swaths of new ones.   Later in the day I discovered the actual old town, which consisted of a number of blocks of very old houses and some nice statues lining the lanes.

But I had to learn more about Beethoven.  I searched for his birthplace, and finally found it with the help of several locals.  Once there, I listened to an excellent audio guide which provided great detail about his early years. He adored his Dutch grandfather, who settled in Bonn in 1732. His grandfather was a bass player at court, and in 1761, he became maestro of the chapel. Beethoven’s father, Johann, did much to traumatize his son.  He was also kapel master, and taught Ludwig violin and piano.  He didn’t like Ludwig’s penchant for improvisation, and was known to shout at him to stop that scratching and play music. His mother was kind to him, and it was a blow to both he and his father when she died in her 40th year.  This spurred Johann to lose himself completely in drink, and he never recovered.

Beethoven’s principal piano teacher and very important early influence was Christian Gottlob Neefe, opera composer and conductor who became court organist in Bonn (and later prefect of the local chapter of the Illuminati, the Minervalkirche Stagira).  He helped Beethoven produce some of his first works.   Neefe received a musical education and started to compose at the age of 12. He studied law at Leipzig University, but subsequently returned to music to become a pupil of the composer Johann Adam Hiller under whose guidance he wrote his first comic operas. Neefe placed great emphasis on improvisation and composition. He stressed that Ludwig commit to paper everything that he heard in his head, a habit which he never ceased. Neefe proclaimed that playing with feeling was the only condition of artistic value.

Ludwig’s literary world—he read widely and voraciously—was rooted in the German classics, above all Goethe and Schiller.  Before Beethoven left Bonn, he had acquired a very considerable reputation in northwest Germany as a piano virtuoso, with a particular talent for extemporization. Mozart had been one of the finest improvisers of his age; by all accounts Beethoven surpassed him. In the age of sensibility he could move an audience to tears more easily than any other pianist of the time. For this reason especially he was taken up by the Viennese aristocracy almost from the moment he set foot in Vienna. Waldstein had, of course, prepared the way with his talk of a successor to Mozart; and it is significant that Beethoven’s earliest patrons in Vienna were Gottfried, Baron van Swieten and Karl, Fürst (prince) von Lichnowsky, who alone among the aristocracy had remained Mozart’s supporters until his death.

Perhaps, as well, Beethoven traded on the “van” in his name—which was widely if wrongly understood to denote noble lineage—to gain easier access to aristocratic circles. In the Vienna of the 1790s, music had become more and more the favorite pastime of a cultured aristocracy, for whom politics under the reactionary emperor Francis II were now discreditable and dangerous and who had, moreover, never shown appreciation of any of the other fine arts. Many played instruments themselves well enough to be able to take their place beside professionals. Probably at no other time and in no other city was there such a high standard of amateur and semiprofessional music-making as in the Vienna of Beethoven’s day.

As he got older, Ludwig struggled with his increasing deafness. His despair at losing his hearing was clearly expressed in letters he penned to his brothers, where he states that he would like to end his life, were it not for the music within him which must be written.  He collected ear trumpets in hopes they could lessen his handicap, but to no avail. There is more to be said, but suffice it to say that I learned a tremendous amount about this sensitive and exquisite human being.  I felt honored to be in his childhood home, and to get a glimpse of his early life.  A foundation was started which has collected many objects central to Beethoven’s life.  Some of those items, like original compositions, letters, and photos, have been meticulously gathered and guarded at the Bonn house.  There is a research database in the adjoining house, and I did a bit of reading before bidding Beethoven farewell.

I drove on to Cologne, where I parked near the train station and walked to the Cologne Cathedral.  The apse was closed for the day, and I decided to return the next day to admire the apse, the oldest part of the church. Also known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter, the Cathedral is a renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture and is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting an average of 20,000 people a day. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second-tallest spires. The towers with their two huge spires give the cathedral the largest façade of any church in the world. The choir has the largest height to width ratio, 3.6:1, of any medieval church.

Construction of Cologne Cathedral commenced in 1248 and was halted in 1473, leaving it unfinished. Work restarted in the 19th century and was completed, to the original plan, in 1880. Cologne’s medieval builders had planned a grand structure to house the reliquary of the Three Kings and fit its role as a place of worship for the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite having been left incomplete during the medieval period, Cologne Cathedral eventually became unified as “a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value” and “a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe”.

From the Cathedral, I walked along the Rhine towards the rest of the old town.  The cobblestone streets were very authentic and I almost sprained my ankle trying to maneuver them.  It was getting dark and I spied an old pub with a pretty wooden bar.  I asked to take a photo and was regaled with jokes and sarcastic one-liners by two Irishmen pub goers who were in town to set up a convention hall.  I ended up hanging out and talking with them for several hours, then joined them to listen to a German dixie land jazz band.  One of the guys offered that I could share his room, but I declined, not wanting an awkward situation.  I bid them farewell and crawled off to bed, and regretted not taking the guy’s offer as my tent was lashed with heavy rains and storm winds.

September 12.  After attempting to dry my tent, I headed back to Cologne, and was moved to explore the Basilica church of St. Ursula. It is built upon the ancient ruins of a Roman cemetery, where the 11,000 virgins associated with the legend of Saint Ursula are said to have been buried. The church has an impressive reliquary created from the bones of the former occupants of the cemetery.  I met two women who were on a pilgrimage of various important churches in Europe.  They told me the story of the St. Ursula, and encouraged me to check out the skull relics in the Golden Chamber, which contains the alleged remains of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins who are said to have been killed by the Huns, possibly around the time of the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains. The original legend said only 11 virgins accompanied St. Ursula but the number grew over time, eventually to 11,000. The walls of the Golden Chamber are covered in bones neatly arranged in designs and Latin words, along with the relic skulls. The remains were found in 1106 in a mass grave and were assumed to be those of the legend, so the church constructed the Golden Chamber to house the bones. 

From there I headed back to the Cathedral, where I viewed the apse and took photos of the myriad stained glass windows and beautifully-crafted altars.  There is a miraculous Madonna statue near the right nave, and I admired the wooden figure, wondering at the miracles purported.  After spending an hour or two in the massive church, I headed to the historic city hall.  It is Germany’s oldest city hall with a documented history spanning some 900 years. The history of its council during the 11th century is a prominent example for self-gained municipal autonomy of Medieval cities. I admired the way that structures from various historical periods were seamlessly connected: the 14th century historic town hall, the 15th century Gothic style tower, the 16th century Renaissance style loggia and cloister (the Löwenhof), and the 20th century Modern Movement atrium (the Piazzetta). The so-called Spanischer Bau is an extension on Rathausplatz but not directly connected with the main building.

From there I headed to the Roman Praetorium, the official residence of the Imperial Governor of Cologne, the capital city of the Roman province of Lower Germania. It is the city’s most significant official monument and the most important Roman palace on the banks of the Rhine. The Praetorium was the political-administrative cradle of the region.

Archaeological remains of all epochs are preserved and date back to the birth of Christ They display multiple building phases: the walls of the monumental palace dating from the fourth century are entirely accessible and visible. The building complex comprises a central octagonal room flanked by two rectangular halls and adjoining pillars, with apses. A gallery (the Portico), fronting enfilades faced east towards the Rhine while spacious courtyards stretched to the west. Finds include pottery, a lavish decor of wall-paintings, marble wall decoration, flooring and mosaics, remains of monumental sculptures and inscriptions on marble, limestone and tufa, as well as significant finds of ceramics, glasses and fragments of other workshop artifacts. At the close of the eighth century, an earthquake put an end to the historical development of the governor’s palace. Signs of the event are still clearly visible on the building in the shape of cracks and displacements.

Time was short, and I had to be in Holland tomorrow.  So with a heavy heart I bid Cologne farewell and pushed on to Düsseldorf.  I arrived around 5pm and parked near K21, the museum building known as the Ständehaus am Kaiserteich, the second pillar of the Kunstsammlung for modern and contemporary art. Built between 1876 and 1880, the Ständehaus was erected in the historicist neo-Renaissance style by architect Julius Raschdorff. For many years, it accommodated the Provincial Diet of the Prussian province of the Rhineland. The Parliament of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia met there between 1949 and 1988. Following the relocation of the Parliament, the Ständehaus remained empty and unused for 14 years.

I walked toward what I thought was the old town, and upon getting a map from a hotel, found out I was walking in the opposite direction.  I doubled back and discovered the long, tree-lined shopping street and canal river flowing down its middle and adorned with ornate fountains and statues.  I walked through the old town to the Rhine and the one remaining palace tower, then back towards my car.  On the way, I stumbled upon a reception at the Stadtmuseum about Cameroon after 1884 when it became a German colony and the process of decolonization. I partook in a delicious traditional Cameroon meal, and enjoyed the exhibits, which were in both German and French.  Around 11pm I crawled off to sleep.

September 13. I returned to Düsseldorf and spent four hours in the Stadtmuseum, which did much to lessen my ignorance of the sociopolitical history in this region of the Rhine.  I hadn’t had time to explore museums in Bonn or Cologne, so this was my first foray. The town began as a small settlement on the Düssel river.  The people of Düsseldorf supported the Counts of the Berg who successfully fought off the Archbishop of Cologne’s forces. This paved the way for Düsseldorf’s elevation to city status, which is commemorated by a monument on the Burgplatz. After this battle the relationship between the cities deteriorated, because they were commercial rivals; it is often said that there is a kind of hostility between the citizens of Cologne and Düsseldorf.

In 1380, the dukes of Berg moved their seat to the town and Düsseldorf was made regional capital of the Duchy of Berg. During the following centuries several famous landmarks were built, including the Collegiate Church of St Lambertus. In 1609, the ducal line of the United Duchies of Jülich-Cleves-Berg died out, and after a virulent struggle over succession, Jülich and Berg fell to the Wittelsbach Counts of Palatinate-Neuburg, who made Düsseldorf their main domicile, even after they inherited the Electorate of the Palatinate, in 1685, becoming now Prince-electors as Electors Palatine.

Under the art loving Johann Wilhelm II (r. 1690–1716), a vast art gallery with a huge selection of paintings and sculptures, were housed in the Stadtschloss (city castle), and later an academy of fine arts was formed by such figures as Joseph Beuys, Emanuel Leutze, August Macke, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Andreas Gursky. After his death, the city fell on hard times again, especially after Elector Charles Theodore inherited Bavaria and moved the electoral court to Munich. With him he took the art collection, which became part of what is now the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Destruction and poverty struck Düsseldorf after the Napoleonic Wars. By the mid-19th century, Düsseldorf enjoyed a revival thanks to the Industrial Revolution as the city boasted 100,000 inhabitants by 1882; the figure doubled in 1892.

I took a last walk along the stately tree-lined shopping avenue, formerly a royal boulevard, then bid my leave of the lovely town, vowing to return.  I was finally on the road to Eibergen, the Netherlands, and arrived at Roel and Coosje’s lovely duplex at 6pm.  Roel was out, making arrangements for the sad occasion of his mother’s funeral.  Coosje welcomed me and we had a nice chat.  After several hours I took a shower, washed clothes, and organized my things, which had become a clutter from living in the car.  Roel got home late, and we talked till late about nearby places to visit.




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