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 don’t.
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
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 it’s 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
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
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
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 othersetc). 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.