Travelogue XLIII: Rheinromantik

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMay 24, 2015 This afternoon, a trip down the Rhine to Bacharach, a tiny town in the midst of the Loreley region. There was still and warm air, birdsong, and solitude in the midst of the Sunday tourists. The chance to get out into the green and move and breathe a bit.

The town itself was lovely, of course, full of timber-frame homes and grape vines climbing up stone walls, built up around a 1,000-year-old church. Wine and religion–the two great shaping forces behind the appearance of so many small towns in this region of Germany.

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I first hiked up to the castle, high above the town–Burg Stahleck, originally dating back to the 11th century, and now a youth hostel.

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The only way one can get up to the castle was by climbing steps.

Lots of steps.

Lots of steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

So. many. effing. steps.

The top step. My poor calves.

The top step. My poor calves.

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But the castle was lovely–very rustic, partially carved out of the mountain side.  It serves as a youth hostel today, so you can actually come and spend the night.

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There was also an abandoned Gothic cathedral on the way up.

….And then back down into the gorge and up the other side, into the vineyards. The air smelled like freshly-cut hay–the smell of a Vermont meadow in high summer, here in May and thousands of miles from home.

Along the Rhine, the vineyards plunge right down to the water’s edge. There are zigzagging paths along the tops of the stone terraces, and one can walk for miles, high above the river and the slate rooftops below.

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The views down into the town were lovely.

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Vineyards--plunging down to the Rhine, almost impossible steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe....

Vineyards–all the way down to the Rhine, almost impossibly steep. Here, Riesling and Scheurebe….

Teeny tiny grapes!

Teeny tiny grapes!

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I stopped at one of the Weinstuben in the town on my way back to the train station to eat a bowl of excellent potato soup and drink a glass of wine grown from the grapes on the slopes behind me. I sat across the table from an older gentleman who was on his yearly bicycle tour, from Stuttgart to the Rhine, and then down river all the way to Koblenz.

Zum Wohl,” I said, when my wine arrived. “Cheers.”

He spoke about the Rhine as if he was talking about a person. “There is such power there,” he said, “and such violence. You have to accept it, have to give yourself to it heart and soul. It is impossible to do otherwise, especially if you are out on the water itself. Even those great powerful barges you see can’t escape it. Vater Rhein–Father Rhine–there is something to that, I think.” We talked about the Rhine as a creator of art, of Mythos, of music, from the Middle Ages to Wagner and back again. I told him I most likely wouldn’t be in Germany at all without the opening chords of Wagner’s Das Rheingold–E-major swelling into the sun, the Rhine as creator, as Father and Mother and God all at once. “That river is the original Genie,” he said. Yes, exactly.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Lorch on the left, Bacharach on the right. Father Rhine, indeed.

Travelogue XXII: Worms–Martin Luther, Richard Wagner

IMG_107129. December, 2014 Yesterday there was real Vermont weather in Mainz–clear blue skies, snow on the ground, bracing cold. I was restless and giddy from the sun, and decided to take the train to Worms, a small city about half an hour to the south.

Worms is, along with Wittenberg, a city of Martin Luther, one of the great players in the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century. In 1521, the city hosted the Diet of Worms, the council at which Luther was ordered to first claim authorship of and then recant his theological works. He refused, and an edict was issued several weeks later condemning him as a heretic and enemy of the Church.

Today, the city is home to the largest monument to the Reformation in the world. It was completed in 1868, and features statues and carvings of Martin Luther along with some twenty other figures involved in the movement.

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Philipp Melanchthon, professor in Wittenberg and friend of Martin Luther’s.

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John Wyclef, English theologian and an important early reformer.

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The city of Speyer represented as a woman, here protesting against the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which condemned the spread of the Reformation.

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Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, 31 October 1517.

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The stone under the statues is inset with the coat-of-arms of the 27 cities who took part in the reformation. Above, Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s city.

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Johann Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, with excerpts from Martin Luther’s works above them. Below, Luther himself, the statue at the center of the monument. At the base are inscribed his famous words from the Diet of Worms in 1521: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir, amen–Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God, amen. 

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So much for Luther–Worms’ other great narrative stands in almost comic opposition to the stringent, overtly Christian story of the Reformation. Worms is the Nibelungenstadt, City of the Nibelunglied, the anonymous epic poem at the root of German myth. The work is a sweeping re-working of pagan Norse legend, spanning generations and playing out against a backdrop of gods and men, giants and dragons, swords and treasure.

Worms serves as the setting for much of the story. Brunhild and Kriemhild fought on the steps of the cathedral; Siegfried himself is buried before the old wall; part of the great Rhine hoard is supposedly hidden somewhere deep under the city. Today, there’s a museum and a yearly festival and a dozen monuments dedicated to the original epic and its countless reworkings over the past millennium. The boundaries between history and legend are not clear in Worms, and the myth is still very much alive.

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One of the many monuments in the city. Here, Siegfried’s death at the hands of Hagen.

For me, it is all especially close to home. The Nibelungen saga, and more specifically Richard Wagner’s operatic rendition of it, was the story that drew me to German. The figures in the monument above have a great deal of power over me.

There is a flexibility and strength to this myth, to all myths. Over the past thousand years, the story has served as a study of Medieval courtly love, of Jungian psychology, of German nationalism, of Gesamtkunstwerk, of Western politics. The events of the narrative are big enough to contain the entire world, yet small enough to fit within a single human psyche.

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The Nibelungenlied in the Renaissance: courtly love and Medieval customs. 

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Fritz Lang’s silent film from the 1920s: ground-breaking artistry, unfortunate overtones of German nationalism.

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Arthur Rackham’s illustrations: Nibelungenlied as romance and fairytale. 

 

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Achim Freyer’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered in Los Angeles and is now playing in Mannheim, Germany. Jungian psychology, modern politics. Mythology for the 21st century.