Friday, 2 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 2

Saturday
We are on the move all night. We wake up to an industrial landscape. Saturday is a working day in Germany so there is a lot of activity on the banks and a lot of freight traffic on the river. This is Mannheim. Not the sort of place you'd come to for a city break, but convenient for today's first port of call, Heidelberg. The hills of the Rhine Gorge have receded. This is more like the Danube. 

I've always wanted to come to Heidelberg. The medieval town sits where the Neckar flows out of the hills into the floodplain of the Rhine. It's such a musical name for a river, I've always thought so: maybe that's because it features in one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, Reunion by Fred Uhlmann. My mother gave it to me as a teenager. It's about the relationship between a Jewish and an Aryan boy in the 1930s. Their friendship blossoms in the valley of the Neckar and the rolling landscapes of Baden-Württemberg. If there is one book I'd love to have written it's this, barely 10000 words long but what words! 

The coach winds up Heidelberg's steep narrow streets to the Schloss at the top. We affix our portable radio gadgets to our left ears and step off, our guide is a feisty woman who cracks lewd jokes in her broken English. She wears a funny helmet like a Great War soldier in the trenches, festooned with hundreds of badges. This distinctiveness is helpful in the crowds. She evidently knows her stuff. 

For this is a tourism honey-pot, one of those places where everybody, just everybody, has to come. And I look for all the world like a tourist with my earpiece, my camera and my slightly helpless look. It's true that I don't follow my camera around on the end of a stick like some. But I do stop to take all the classic shots of this ancient city: the castle, views down to the town therefrom, the bridge, the church onion domes, the quaint cobbled streets. If I were borrowing from the travel-writer's lexicon I would wax eloquent about this "iconic" place, this little city that "nestles" on the banks of the Neckar, its "vibrant" street life and so on. Yet I do fall for the photographic clichés, all of them. I hate myself at the very moment I'm committing these outrages against cultural courtesy. It would take a Patrick Leigh Fermor to cure me of it. 

The Neckar is about the same width here as the South Tyne at Haydon Bridge. It too has an elegant seven-arched bridge with hills rising steeply on either side. And both places begin with the same letter. This is helpful in explaining to our fellow-cruisers the topography of home. 

You aren't shown much of the Castle interior. Some of it is ruinous anyway. But what survives is very splendid. We mark the occasion by having a group photograph taken in the courtyard. We all grin dutifully. Some people pay €8 for a print. We dont.

Our only entrance inside the Schloss is to a vaulted room where there are two enormous wine vats, a Big One and an Extremely Big One. You can clamber up staircases and over the top of the EBO. This of course is what tourists love. Cameras flash in their hundreds as they try to capture the scene (which is very hard to do as it is so dark inside). The trick then is to fall for buying a drink at the strategically placed counters. As it is so early (about ten o'clock), no one in our group succumbs to this temptation; anyway, our guide wouldn't stand for a moment's delay in her rigorous schedule that is timed to the last second.

We descend from this acropolis in a funicular, then fight our way through the streets. We visit the Heiligen Geist Kirche, a remarkably lovely gothic church in the MarktPlatz. I am struck by a window in red near the entrance. It is known as the Physics Window. It quotes Einstein's energy equation and the date 6 August 1945, the bombing of Hiroshima. The text speaks about science can equip humanity for both good and evil. In a university city this seems apt.
 
We meet the boat at Speyer, another city I've longed to visit for decades. It doesn't disappoint. After lunch we walk to the Cathedral. It's an immense Romanesque building, very grand, very pure, very disciplined and very pink (in sandstone). If there are later architectural additions to this grand church begun in 1030, they don't draw attention to themselves. It is said to be highly restored, but it is lovingly done. Maybe its as fine as Durham? I entertain that impious thought, allow myself to ponder. It's unthinkable to say so, and yet... The way the spaces interlock - nave, aisles, transepts, baptistery, presbytery, an immensely high sanctuary - it works with a harmoniousness I can't recall seeing in any other Romanesque church. Conques maybe? Paray-Le-Moniale? It's hard to say. But this church moves me deeply, even from our first sight of it above the trees, and I wonder why.

The best part of the Cathedral is its crypt. "The best crypt in the world" someone has written. It is vast, consisting of three great spaces (a quire and sanctuary with two transepts) that flow seamlessly into one another. It reminds me of the Norman crypt chapel in Durham Castle (for the second time on this voyage that was my thought inside the grand but absurd monument to Kaiser Wilhelm in Koblenz). You know you could pray here. There's a fourth room up some stairs where Ottonian electors, kings and bishops are buried. It's breathtaking. It's beautiful. And it puts you in your place by bringing you to your knees. Which is what a good church building should always do (said J.L. Pearson, whose Truro Cathedral proves his point). 

Later, someone reports that they'd overheard a Brit saying they didn't like the Cathedral because it was "a bit too plain". "Who is that person?" I retort? "Bring them out so that we may shoot them." "O they weren't from our ship" comes the quick reply 

J goes back to the ship while I seek out the Technik-Museum Speyer. We have seen it as we arrive on the coach: a Lufthansa Boeing 747 suspend d High above an extraordinary array of aircraft, ships, road vehicles and railway engines laid out on a big campus that surrounds the exhibition galleries. It is worth the €16 I pay (and that fee doesn't include the iMax cinema which shows films on a variety of transport and space travel themes). I enjoy the trains best of all, of course, such as the huge beautifully engineered 2-10-0 locomotives built for the Deutsche Reichsbahn during the 1940s. But there are lots of other machines to relish as well: vintage cars, U-boats, buses, emergency vehicles and ships. I suppose the highlight has to be climbing up to the 747 where you can view the aircraft at the closest possible range, and get inside it (where sections of fascia have been removed so you can see how the fuselage is constructed). You can even walk out on the wing, a giddying experience if you make the mistake of looking down.

Across the city the four towers of the Cathedral stand "strong and stable" as if to say, never forget that technology did not arrive with the Industrial Revolution. Our great cathedrals called for cutting edge technology in their own day, and this cathedral proves that its practitioners succeeded brilliantly. So our day in Speyer has been of a piece. Which is both thought-provoking and satisfying.

Sunday
Clear sky, warm sunshine. The landscape glides by as we sit on deck on this dreamy morning. We overtake a freighter called Promessa. So long is it and so tiny the difference in speed that it takes half an hour. Children on board in the crew's quarters at the stern give us a cheery wave. We pass Karlsruhe where there are massive oil installations and power stations.

We get into the coach and drive up into the Black Forest. This is an act of piety on my part: I have a clear memory of a holiday in the Schwarzwald in 1952, which must make it my earliest of all. We are in a hotel dining room. I can see fir trees outside the window. My parents and at least two others (women I think) are eating at table. But I am on the floor underneath the table playing with a toy train. J thinks this is replete with Freudian symbolism (evergreens, being alone in the presence of others etc). I know that we holidayed there when I was two. We were also in Düsseldorf that year from where I have another very primitive memory of being in bed in a garret while bells are tolling in a church tower across the road.

The coach tour is allegedly to give us the feel of the Schwarzwald. It is indeed very beautiful, the German mirror image of the French Vosges on the other side of the Rhine that I got to know as a student when I worked in Alsace. These wooded hills feel steeper, less tamed, as if you would not be surprised to meet a wild boar or a wolf or a bear here (all alleged, though the evidence is inconclusive).  

We leave a river valley and climb up to the plateau on which sits Freudenstadt, one of the larger communes in the North of the Forest. It sits at an altitude of over 700 metres which means it's the same height as Cross Fell or the Cheviot. We are to spend an hour here. This may prove quite a challenge as there is not much to see other than an immense market place (the largest in Germany) and the Lutheran church that is positioned at one corner. As we go in, the afternoon service is ending. The congregation is singing Nun Danket Alle Gott. So we have got to church on Sunday after all. The town has an interesting but sad story. Towards the end of the war, French partisans burned it down in revenge for the destruction of Haguenau by the Germans. So, very little of Freudenstadt is original. The church burned too, but has been well restored. The town is lively with locals enjoying their sunny weekend. Apart from cafes, no shops are open. The first day of the week is for recreation, family, churchgoing.
 
We drive off the plateau down a spectacular road whose hairpin bends cause a few intakes of breath. Near the mouth of the valley, we stop at a hotel for Black Forest Gateau of which much has been made all day. It's in a beautiful setting. But all the clichés are there: cuckoo clocks, maids in peasant costume, overhanging roofs, the celebrated gateau, and even cowbells in a nearby field which I'm sure are not serendipitous but laid on for the enjoyment of tourists greedy for every experience that matches their "Germany" of the imagination. It feels like a parody of itself, playing unashamedly to the tourist market of which I am an involuntary (or voluntary) part. I have another of those "I hate this" moments. And yet this is just such a place, in a more innocent era, where my parents could have come all those years ago. I'll assign it to the memory I've been toying with all day and imagine that this was the locus, edit out all nonsense and recreate a mental image of how it must once have been.

And so we descend into "Rhinedale", cross the river and are in Strasbourg and France. For years this has been one of my favourite cities, though this banlieue near the busy Port of Strasbourg where the ship is moored is new to me. Here at least, when I look out of the cabin window, I see a working riverine environment with not a cliché in sight. This authenticity is a relief after all those cuckoo clocks.

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