Thursday, 1 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 1

We are cruising on the Rhine, upstream from Cologne to Strasbourg and back down again, some 700km of river for the round trip. The theme is Cathedrals and Castles of the Rhine. I am looking forward to boarding at Cologne, my grandmother's city, in the shadow of the mighty Cathedral we shall visit on the return leg. Unfortunately it doesn't turn out as planned. A catalogue of incidents on the coach journey between the Brussels Eurostar terminal and the Rhine delays our arrival until late in the evening. By then our ship, Rex Rheni, has had to leave the berth at Cologne and begin the voyage. So we join her (him? this is a Rex) at midnight on the quayside at Bonn. It sounds romantic until you have to do it.
 
By morning we are berthed at Linz-am-Rhein (not to be confused with the big Austrian Linz on the Danube through which sailed on our last cruise). It's a pleasant, uneventful little town whose half-timbered houses clamber up the hillside. The church crowns the summit. Not a lot is stirring as we stroll the pretty pedestrianised streets. In one of the squares underneath a great lime tree there is a captivating sculpture of an old woman going about her daily work. She has a lovely face. It's endearing that the vernacular is captured in this central spot, rather than the heroic. It goes with the place somehow.

J asks me what I am feeling about being back in Germany and in the region of my mother's birth. I find I don't really have an answer to this. I love Germany, and I like the thought that when my mother was a child my grandparents might have brought her to some of these ancient Rhineland towns and villages that would have been an easy day's drive from their home in Düsseldorf. (But then I don't even know if they have a car, though I guess that an upper middle class Jewish family like theirs would have done.) I'm also aware of my personal journey towards establishing my identity late in life. The German Embassy is unsure if I qualify for dual German citizenship on the grounds of my mother's German-ness, And while I want at all costs to retain my European citizenship after Brexit, towards which this could be one route, am I really trying to honour a part of my personal history as well, the part for which I eel a much deeper cultural affinity than I do for my father's unquestioned Englishness?

We sail upstream. Kilometre and 100 meter posts chart our progress, like railway mileposts. The countdown is to the limit of navigation around Basel, not to the source. The thickly wooded valley sides steepen. Other cruise ships pass by, mostly bigger and smarter than ours. There is a lot of cargo traffic on this river (as there is on the railway that runs alongside the river). Castles sit proud among the trees, though none of them looks particularly ancient.

We arrive at Koblenz. The name is from the Latin Confluentia, that is, the confluence of two rivers, the Moselle and the Rhine. I feel I ought to have known or guessed this, but didn't. We berth alongside the old town on the Moselle. A guided tour departs for the imposing castle that crowns the right bank of the Rhine. We have already decided that in cities, it's far better (and cheaper) to create our own itinerary with the help of a good guide-book. So we set off to explore what is called the Deutschen Ecke, the "German Corner" of the triangle defined by the meeting of the rivers.


We stand on what feels like the prow of a ship. You can watch the waters mingle. The faster-flowing Rhine is muddier, seeming to pollute the cleaner Moselle. I think about the contrasting origins of these two great European rivers: the one from the forested uplands of eastern France, the other from a glacier in the distant Alps. It reminds me of home and the confluence of the North and South Tyne a few miles from our village. There too the rivers bring different geographies and different histories: the North Tyne out of the Cheviots and the South Tyne rising on the slopes of Cross Fell in the North Pennines. I must go to Warden where the two rivers meet, and check which water is the clearer.
 
Rearing up at this "corner" of Koblenz is a gigantic equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. He stands on a monumental basalt temple-like structure with sweeping stairs rising up to it on both sides. It demonstrates the unbridled confidence of the unified German Empire energised by the Prussian spirit. In this heroic monument with dragons and serpents sculpted into its base, there is not a trace of self-doubt. Later in the day I venture up the staircase. The interior of the temple is a marvellous grid of basalt columns and narrow aisles. You peer out of these dark alleys at the framed church towers of Koblenz. Incongruously it reminds me of the Romanesque crypt chapel of Durham Castle, or perhaps more in tune with the subject matter, of the pyramids in Egypt. At sunset, the volcanic stone glows magnificently in the sinking red light. More associations, this time of the Whin Sill and the Roman Wall that strides along it. Roman imperialism, Egyptian deification - Wilhelm would have liked that.

 
We visit the medieval churches in the old town. All have been rebuilt after severe allied bombing. They are fine, but have that scraped look of heritage that has been painstakingly restored. For us the ecclesiastical highlight is the Jesuitenkirche, the Jesuit church hidden away behind the shops and offices of the busy city-centre. The facade is original, but the interior is entirely new. The cool restful nave is a beautiful space with a strong spiritual sense of place. 20th century windows depict both biblical scenes such as the Prodigal Son, and events from the life of St Ignatius of Loyola. There is a touching sculpture showing Ignatius being embraced by Jesus, a tender piece that is a world away from the militaristic depictions of him as the fervent soldier of his Lord.

After a day of varied weather we walk back to the meeting of the waters in glowing evening light. I am tempted to take scores of photographs of this glorious epiphany, but know that it's a seduction to capture what is sentimentally beautiful rather than artistically interesting or in any way new. The exception is the way the basalt of the Wilhelm Monument responds to this light, so I do allow myself a few images of that, to be entitled "Studies in Black and Red", or, in Stendahlian mode perhaps, Le Rouge et Le Noir.


Next morning, it is raining. The ship sets off up the Rhine. This section of the river, the Rhine Gorge, is exceptionally lovely. I sit in our cabin by the window, camera at the ready. I can get Radio 3 on my phone so Rob Cowan keeps me company with Essential Classics. Chateaux pass by, and below them, villages with half-timbered houses and church spires. The cloud wraps round the highest of the wooded summits. Vineyards stripe the hillsides, each one a subtly different shade of green from the next. Working them must be challenging, given the steep gradients. At the foot on both sides of the river, trains hurry along what must be one of Europe's most scenic railways. I glimpse cyclists on the road entrapped in plastic, heads down against the driving rain.
 
We berth at Boppard. We set off in pouring rain. When you only visit a place once in your lifetime (probably), you know you'll always remember it and imagine it in that day's weather. The sun always shines in Sorrento. It always rains in Boppard (and Prague and Buxton and Limoges and a thousand other places we've landed on once in our lifetimes). It's full of riverine charm with beautifully cared for medieval and Renaissance buildings. We visit its two churches. Carmelite St Margaret's which is full of splendid art including 15th century carved collegiate stalls and baroque altarpieces, and Romanesque-Gothic St Severus whose twin spires give the town's skyline spreading horizontally along the river a necessary vertical accent at just the right place. Both these churches feel more rewarding than yesterday's at Koblenz.

Then we go shopping. A nice man in an outdoor shop sells me a waterproof jacket and Jenny some trainers. He compliments me on my German (which is all accent with no grammar or vocabulary). And he throws in a pair of socks for Jenny as his gift. We head back to the ship and it rains on and on.

Back on board, I start writing this blog, read my novel and look out over the river. The rain intensifies. On the right bank, goods trains pass by, hauled by cheery little red DB electric locos Another cruise ship has berthed alongside ours. Our two craft oscillate to different rhythms, so when a passing ship creates a backwash, they gently bump against each other like a well-behaved couple tapping each other on the shoulder. A succession of low-slung barges pushes upstream against the current. Some carry coal or minerals, some containers, some machinery. Every barge carries a car or two on deck to give the crew mobility at their destination. Living accommodation looks comparable to ours on this human cargo ship, though it may be grander and better equipped for all I know. I speculate about life on board these freighters, this river-bound existence for - I suppose - weeks on end. "In-land" yet not of it - it must be a curious liminal state for these quasi-mariners to inhabit.

That night I discover that I can get The Archers here on the BBC iPlayer. So although it's raining, all's right with the world. 

More to follow.
 

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