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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Cruise on the Rhine Part 4

I don't have high hopes of
Rüdesheim. But we make a good beginning at the Jacobi Church. It was gutted at the end of the war but has been beautifully rebuilt in a contemporary idiom behind the original facade. Original sculptures have been reinstalled in this new setting and it works to perfection. We are struck by the contemporary bronze stations of the cross. This is a pilgrim church of the Camino and it feels well used for prayer and reflection.

By contrast, the rest of the town (almost) has sold its soul. In the Drosselgasse you can buy cuckoo clocks (real and fake), hear Edelweiss pumped out of loudspeakers (this song beloved by the Austrians in defiance of Hitler - see The Sound of Music), buy lederhosen, marzipan and Riesling, be served beer by a girl in peasant costume, and at either end, board the ubiquitous Noddy trains. We stop for a drink. Coffee and tea for two costs us nearly €9. At the far end of the town things improve with a ruined castle, a wine museum and lovely views up to the vineyards. But Rüdesheim did not require a stopover. I doubt we shall ever come again.

We enter the Rhine Gorge. Here it is fairy tale Germany straight out of Wagner, the Grimm brothers and a thousand scenic postcards. But while the risk of parody exists, this is an undeniably beautiful stretch of the river with pretty villages, churches and castles at every loop of the river. You feel you are the centre of both history (the Holy Roman Empire) and - in the strict sense of the word, myth. We pass the rock of the Loreley and I imagine Rhine Maidens playing beneath our feet. It calls for the opening of Rheingold to be played through the ships loudspeakers. A fierce northerly wind is funneled through the Gorge. We arrive at Loreley Stadt (is it really called that?) and St Goar. After lunch we board the coach again.

It doesnt turn out as planned. We are promised a trip to the Loreley rock. When we get there we find ourselves put through the "experience", i.e. a visitor centre complete with an audio-visual presentation. This consists of a stereoscopic film featuring the Rhine in its various guises. The film is fuzzy, the stereoscopic spectacles are irritatng, the light levels of the film are too low and there is no commentary. Is this a grumpy old man speaking? Anyway, we learn nothing about the Loreley myth, how the poet Heinrich Heine elaborated it, and how romantic writers and painters latched on to it. We are ushered into the cafe for tea and cakes. Then we are told that because the normal path to the rock is impassible owing to big development works, and the alternative route will take half an hour, we won't be able to visit the rock after all! This is a big disappointment as the Loreley was billed as a highlight. I was looking forward to indulging in Wagnerian thoughts about the Rhine and its gold. This experience feels like an enacted parable of tourism-in-our-time. You go to the visitor centre, watch the presentation, enjoy your cake, and hey! - theres no need to see the actual attraction at all!

We drive on to the Niederwald which we have seen from below at Rudesheim. The monument is a celebration of the unification of the German Reich after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It is on a huge scale, full of imperial rhetoric about pride in the fatherland, the virtues of taking up arms for your country, the heroic ideals for which we should live and die. The enormous figure of Germania dominates the composition while the personifications of War and Peace that have placed her on her throne are depicted at her side. It strikes me that like the Loreley which we did not see, this heady nationalism is directly inspired by romanticism. Archaic and absurd it may be, but we mustn't underestimate the hold nationalistic ideas have on people today. The unification of Germany has been an immensely powerful idea and cast a long shadow over European history ("Deutschland über alles" meaning "stop thinking provincially or city by city. Think Germany, think the Holy nation before everything else.")

We dock at Andernach where there is a wonderful sunset over the river. Yet again my camera falls for it. Then we go for a walk in the pretty medieval town and enjoy meandering among its medieval walls, towers, bastions, houses and churches in the gloaming.

Ascension Day. We explore
the ancient and interesting city of Andernach on the right bank. It is an intimate place with a strongly enclosed feel thanks to its walls and bastions. The town is silent, Ascension Day being a public holiday. We visit the Romanesque Cathedral, climb the Round Tower, wander the streets enjoying the old buildings and the churches. The city authorities have taken a lot of trouble to interpret their history to visitors. There are information plaques in three languages at all the sites, and maps to guide you from place to place. It is exemplary.

The bells of the Cathedral and of the Protestant parish church ring out for services on this feast day. We go back to the ship through one of the medieval gates. We look up and there, above our heads, are two hives with bees buzzing round them. It is not a place to linger. But we recall the story of the medieval baker boys who, when invaders were at the gates, dropped bee-hives from above the gate on to the luckless enemy heads.

We glide down the sunny river to Bonn. We join the walking expedition into the city-centre. Our guide is fluent, knowledgeable, knows how to condense information into digestible chunks and above all, keeps us moving. After a tour of some of the principal locations, we go to Bonns great shrine, Beethoven's birthplace. It's moving to know for a certainty that my grandmother will have brought my mother here in childhood from their home downstream in Düsseldorf, possibly many times. She (my mother) always used to say when I was young that Beethoven was her favourite composer. Perhaps she felt an affinity with him because of their common Rhineland origins. Later on she turned more to Mozart and Haydn, but she never lost that first love.

The house is the only one of several associated with Beethoven in Bonn to have survived. It's a fine museum that displays many key documents, paintings and artefacts associated with Beethoven such as his pianos (one is an early Broadwood, so we have that in common), his manuscripts, the letter in which he confesses to his brother that his deafness is driving him mad and he intends to commit suicide, and his ear-trumpets and other devices with which he desperately tried to stave off his deteriorating condition. We see his life-mask as well as his death-mask, his will and a painting of the crowds who gathered for his memorial service in 1827. It is impressively done and touches me deeply in much the same way as visiting Haydn's mausoleum at Eisenstadt in Austria did.

We leave the group and go round some of the principal churches. The former Jesuit church is now Old Catholic whose bright cheerful interior speaks of a church that is loved and prayed in. The Münster is a grand Romanesque church with rather too much baroque furnishing and decoration inside, but is still a noble building. The church has a lovely pure Romanesque cloister with a fountain in the middle, a bit like Fontenay in Burgundy, but more intimate. Then we go to Saint Remigius, a church of the Friars Minor, where we see the font at which Beethoven was baptised in 1770.

J goes off into town for a walk. I sit on deck for a while and then decide it's time to listen to The Archers on the iPlayer.

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