The Faded Romance of the Rhine. Much “Achtung!” About Nothing. Episode 7

The Faded Romance of the Rhine.


A rather scenic train trip. Things that wash up on the banks of the Rhine.

The first glimpses of Bonn.

Downstream washed the ooze, the driftwood, the germs, the excrement, and the industrial discharges… I thought it was supposed to be pretty here, thought Lorkowski, I shit on the Rhine.

– Wolfgang Koeppen, Das Treibhaus.

Der Rhein wäscht einen nicht ab.

– German proverb.


The train trip from Frankfurt to Bonn, along the old track which passes through Koblenz, must be one of the most scenic in Germany. The tracks turn north at Koblenz, a fortified city since Roman times and still dominated by the hulking remains of a medieval stronghold on a bluff overlooking the town centre. It’s here that the Mosel meets the Rhine; and Germany’s biggest and best known river, having already swallowed all the water from the Main, surges northwards all the way to the Dutch coast.

The Rhine holds a special place in the German psyche, so much so that it is even referred to as Father Rhine, though mainly by elderly Rhinelanders. The river is western Germany’s major transport artery and one of the most popular domestic holiday destinations. In the last 100 years or so, it has also become the birthplace of several pivotal Germanic myths.

The Rhein valley is a rich playground for those who love ruined castles.

As the railway tracks head northwards out of Koblenz, dark cliffs chaperone Father Rhine on his way towards Rotterdam. Villages from a model railway nestle on the narrow shelving banks either side of the flow, their backs turned to the glowering rock faces on both sides. Occasionally the sun catches a church steeple half way up a narrow valley leading away from the river; and vineyards creep up the steep slopes at the base of the cliffs. High on the bluffs along both sides perch little castles, some ornate, turreted fantasies built for the pleasure of minor princes, others masses of dark stone built by robber barons, squatting businesslike and menacing as they scowl down on the river traffic.

It was this meandering valley with its fortifications and forbidding cliffs which gave birth to Rhine Romanticism.

The movement developed in the 19th century and spawned several generations of landscape painters and nationalist xenophobes. During that time the Rhein became the source and the focus of a rewriting of Germanic legends. Suddenly it was here that Siegfried slew the dragon, it was here that the Greek sirens found a new form in the shape of the Loreley, a buxom blond who sat atop the stony bluff which looms not far south of Koblenz for the purpose, apparently, of singing sailors to their watery graves – a legend invented in the early 19th century and immortalised by the likes of Heinrich Heine and British painter J.M.W. Turner. Whether it was because of or in spite of Heine’s verse, it was here that mass tourism was born, thanks to Baedeker’s first edition, which was devoted to steamship travel along this very stretch of water. This is where Germany’s (and possibly the world’s) first package tourists flocked to point at the scenery, mock the locals, and complain about the toilets.

And the tourist ships still ply the Rhine, though these days with a recorded commentary mixed with what is locally called “Mucke” – a Rhenal variety of entertainment, a bargain basement Oompah music played on the kind of home organ briefly popular in family homes of the 1970s but which now clog charity-stores all over the western world. These machines are perfect for the “Mucke” of the Rhineland, removing whatever soul there may have been in Oompah music and replacing it with poorly synthesised horn and string sections, sometimes with a Cha Cha or Rhumba beat just to add variety. Added to that tempting formula are lyrics delivered in exaggerated Rheinland accents and trying desperately to be funny. This poor imitation of Oompah music, this Faux-pah music, if you will, is highly regarded in the region and valuable works in the genre can be bought on CD at most filling stations.

Unfortunately I was traveling by train, so I would have to wait for an introduction to the pleasure offered by this local form of musical expression.

Having passed a plethora of sites recently added to German legend, the Rhine carves its way between the steep banks south of Königswinter and the railway follows the river into the broad, flat fields around Bonn. By this time all the magic has been spent on shipwrecked sailors and operas about dragons, incest and greedy dwarves, and the Rhine is really nothing more than a fairly wide, averagely muddy river, with broken bottles and rubbish strewn along the man-made levees on both sides.

The spirit of Rhine romanticism persists in Bonn, predominantly among people who have never left the river’s banks.

German, Belgian and Dutch-flagged barges chug up and down the river in a constant string, all day and all night, their bows burrowing deep in the oncoming current and their gunwales running with feet of water as they haul coal south, or rushing high and fast on the flow as they ferry steel northwards. The pattuckata-puckata-puckata of marine diesel engines fills the air and the waters shimmer gaily with the rainbow colours of fuel-oil.

In summer time one can not infrequently observe people, sometimes whole families, swimming in sheltered corners along the bank. In the shallow eddies they part the tide of plastic bottles, syringes and used condoms (collected from every village all the way from Switzerland and Liechtenstein nearly 1000 km away), to wade or dog-paddle in the refreshing waters.

In spite of all this, some of the spirit of Rhine romanticism persists in Bonn, predominantly among people who have never left the river’s banks, but occasionally amongst the human flotsam who have washed up there from elsewhere.

But all that was yet to come. I was finishing my second beer in the bar car on the Intercity service from Frankfurt when the train slowed and began passing through Bonn’s southern suburbs. The bells on the level crossings were dinging, people waited in orderly little groups with their dogs or their bicycles and Mercedes drivers took the opportunity to light another smoke.

The town looked orderly, quiet and pleasant. Leafy avenues of chestnut trees rolled past and in dappled light between the boughs, grand gingerbread villas of the Gründerzeit (Germany’s take on Art Nouveau), with their ornate, sugary facades, beckoned enticingly. I reached into my pocket and found a handful of breadcrumbs. It was the crackers from the plane. I binned them, dusted my hands off and picked up my rucksack.

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