Since my friend arrived a couple of days earlier to get acclimatized to the new time-zone, she wanted to know whether a short boat ride on the Rhine would be a good idea. She settled on the Lorelei tour, and how about joining her? My bags were packed and I was ready to go!
We met at Bingen train station. She had flown into Frankfurt from Western Canada, and took a train to our meeting point. I arrived from Southern Germany and travelled also by train. It had been a last minute plan. She was joining a large group in order to criss-cross Luther’s Germany on the occasion of the 500th Luther year.
We set sail from Bingen towards St. Goar, an easy 1.20 hour ride. Bouts of rain pelted our ship but we were able to enjoy the scenery all the same. A little storm was not going to deter us!
Lorelei is steeped in colourful lore. Our ship’s captain regaled us with the one where the beautiful maiden, heartbroken by her unfaithful lover, threw herself from the cliff, and was changed into a siren. Her bewitching voice captivated seafarers and sent them to their deaths. Heinrich Heine’s immortalized Lorelei in a poem, which was later put to music and now heard blaring through the ship’s speakers.
To this day, unexpected undercurrents cause shipwrecks at this particular bend in the river.
Click below to listen to the melody:
1. I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.
The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.
2. The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist’ning;
She combs her golden hair.
She combs with a gilded comb, preening,
And sings a song, passing time.
It has a most wondrous, appealing
And pow’rful melodic rhyme.
3. The boatman aboard his small skiff, –
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, –
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.
I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.
(English translation by Frank 1998)
Lorelei’s story threw me back in time where, as a child, I was enthralled by the Grimm Brothers’ fables. In the beautiful Lorelei I saw instead the lovely Rapunzel, held captive in a stair-less and door-less tower. Her long golden hair provided the only access to the tower. When her Prince Charming came calling, she threw her long golden hair from the tower’s window, allowing him thus to free her. In my memory, Lorelei and Rapunzel will for ever be intertwined.
Further along, just before Oberwesel, the Pfalzgrafenstein Castle stands as a silent sentinel in the middle of the river. In former times it was a toll point for the wine traders who would transit at Bacharach. There, wine barrels were transferred onto smaller ships and delivered at various destinations along the Rhine.
We disembarked at St. Goar and made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t exactly what we had had in mind, but due to the long week-end the better options were gone.
We had dinner at the historic medieval Gasthaus Zur Krone, where we found history more interesting than the fare, after which we wandered along the Rhine banks and into the old town.
Early morning found us ready to tackle Rheinfels Castle; a medieval burg and the largest castle along the Rhine River. In its heyday it had been an important military bastion with a commanding view of the Rhine and surrounding areas.
On our way back down, the narrow path wound its way through wooded areas and fragrant vegetation, punctuated by colourful arrays of wild flowers. From the height of the mountain downwards, we enjoyed a 160° view of the Rhine Valley with its various castles and ruins dotting the landscape alongside inviting vineyards.
We tried to cover as much territory as possible in the three days at our disposal. We managed to take in Bacharach, a short sail away from St. Goar, where we explored Stahleck Castle, now transformed into an enviable youth hostel.
Both castle and town underwent eight different military occupations during the Thirty Years’ War. By and by Bacharach lost its appeal, and it’s only in the Romantic period that it experienced a revival. French author Victor Hugo was one of the first visitors to arrive at Bacharach.
A dark parenthesis in its history is the Werner Chapel (Werner Kapelle), on the way down from Stahleck Castle. The unfinished Gothic structure is known for the pogroms that took place in 1287. Certain Jews had allegedly murdered a 16-year old youth named Werner, from the neighbouring town of Oberwesel. The Jewish community supposedly used Werner’s blood for their Passover rituals. (These false allegations are known all blood libel.) Christians sought revenge in an ensuing anti-semitic pogrom, which caused lead to the extinction of the Jewish communities in the region of Middle- and Lower Rhine and Mosel. A commemorative plaque at the Werner Chapel, testifies of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews along with a prayer for forgiveness offered by Pope John XXIII:
“We recognize today that many centuries of blindness covered our eyes so that we do not see anymore the beauty of your Chosen People and we do not recognize in their faces the features of our firstborn brother. We recognize that Kain’s sign we have caused as we forgot your love. Forgive us the curse which we wrongfully affixed to the name of the Jews. Forgive us, that for the second time, we nailed you to the cross. Because we did not know what we had done.”
We walked the city walls with its eleven towers, each named according to their function; Guard Tower, Tower of Thieves, Lover’s Tower, and so on. We ambled through the medieval town, admiring the rich history of its timbered buildings. I seem to never get enough of these old towns. Each seem to hold their own secrets begging to be discovered.
Next afternoon, we boarded the train and parted ways at Bingen; my friend headed to her Luther tour and I for home. I still had 2 ½ hours to kill however, and decided to explore the town’s eponymous resident.
I was overwhelmed at the detailed accounts of Hildegard von Bingen’s life and work. This Benedictine nun was an accomplished poet, prolific writer and composer. Besides writing on natural history, she wrote several medical books. Her famous healing plants, with which she nursed people back to health, are still popular today. As if that wasn’t enough, she painted her 26 prophetic and apocalyptic visions, while a monk recorded them in writing. She would take advantage of her frequent evangelistic trips, to also share and teach her works. For her, nature and people had a physical and spiritual connection that provided a bond between the Creator and His creation. I was exhausted just taking in all that she did during her lifetime!
Hildegard’s Garden of natural remedies, is only a small part of what she achieved in the area of healing plants. Each flower and tree was labeled, and recorded what ailments each could cure. Unfortunately, her original writings were not handed down and some medical descriptions and formulae may have been falsified.
This remarkable saint made me proud to be a woman, and I was happy to have taken the time to examine her life. Today her medical herbs are still being used, and I can attest that the remedies work. Over the years, a good number have been commercialized and may not quite follow the same recipe that Hildegard once concocted.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed Hildegard von Bingen a saint and doctor of the church.
On this note, I wish you all a joyous and meaningful Easter, knowing that Christ is risen indeed and is very much alive today!