Friday, 8 October 2010

I'm Not Singing in St. Goar

The first thing that changed things was the dog, a dachshund called Spritz. It is late and after a grandish dinner in a place on Bacharach's market square, a dark woody restaurant where elderly German Warrrior Queens with unfeasibly large breasts snigger with their somewhat smaller husbands about the man in leather on his own (who is actually reading James Fenimore Cooper's Rhine diaries from 1836, newly downloaded onto I-books) I am in the late night retreat up a narrow alley.

That's me in the leather, BTW. Serves me right for going a little upscale. Still the venison was lovely. Now I'm sitting with my free, digital, Last Mohican author and realising it's all been done before (again) and Spritz is all over me in the corner. It's a local Bacharach bar, but there are English voices, an Australian woman, it is her birthday, she's pleased she tells me later, once my bona fides as genuine listener are established by Spritz's owner, because she came to Bacharach ten years ago and has never left. There's been a hiatus with her boyfriend, but he's come tonight, the first time they've seen each other in three weeks. "Now I can get back to my old, real, life," she says.

Somewhere else an American woman is talking about the haircut she needs before she goes home to see her parents. She hasn't seen them for "about 15 years." She works in munitions at base somewhere.

Spritz speeds outside with me when I go for a smoke. His owner follows. A scholarly looking chap, neat but tweedy, scarf, the air of someone who quotes Thomas Adorno or Klaus Mann. He's my age, I discover, but could easily be 30. Is there a hint of a lisp? "I come from an old family, I mean old, East Germany, way back, I mean we had a lot of workers, we were farmers with land. They were loyal, patriotic, and then something snapped in my grandfather, he realised it [the war] was wrong. He and his wife began to hide people, a professor of Russian, one of the old school. At the end of the war he had to move, the Russians wanted him dead. He became very religious, Calvinist, we couldn't know anything of the world, no newspapers, no television; he wanted us taught at home. Very strict. And the professor of Russian, well he married my cousin and she became a great translator of Russians, I mean Breznev, he was a friend...Gorbachev...

What do you do Wilhelm? (And why are you in exile in this tiny town on the Rhine?). "I teach, in a high school, politics and civil engineering. I've been here eight weeks, with Spritz. I mean everyone might not know me yet, but everyone knows Spritz."

Why are there American soldiers here, is there a base?
Dismissive, yes, 80 kilometres away. "Do you want to know something? I used to work - I'm 52 - for a minister, in Berlin. I went to university....many places. I was his advisor, I went to many countries with him. I was in Washington, just before the invasion of Iraq. With Senators and Congressmen and (there is a list of very famous names, the usual suspects of the Washington of 2003). Afterwards we went to a bar and - ha! - said to me, this war is a good thing, we can get rid of some of our rubbish, and get hold of the oil." I shrug, the detail is good, but the idea is a commonplace of anti-Americanism. Who knows?

"The minister wanted me to get involved, being a member of the parliament, but I couldn't balance, I mean, the life led at cocktail parties and receptions and the formality, with my real friends, my life."

And so Bacharach?

The expression is beyond wistful. I realise that Wilhelm is in some kind of exile. Was it a scandal in Berlin, or just a sudden Emersonian desire for escape? "Writing a book? That's good, I should like to write a book one day. What stories I have!"

In the hotel I've done a search for "The Rhine" on I-Books and Amazon, and come up with the unexpected James Fenimore Cooper title, "A Residence in France with an Excursion up the Rhine."

"To write anything new or interesting of this well-trodden path, one must linger days among the ruins, explore the valleys, and dive into the local traditions."

Or as my friend who grew up in Bingen emailed: "you must go up."

At first it is the shafts of early morning light exocetting through puffy off-white clouds. The housetops of Bacharach, the spires and the absurdist castles are the natural beneficiaries. And then the vineyards begin and the sun starts to make a more concerted effort; the clouds develop subtleties, gradations, lighter and darker shades, gaping mouths of whiteness and jaws of deep gray. And the landscapes colours beg to be bathed in. After the relentless routine of Rhineside walking on cycle paths, this is something utterly different, and not 500 metres in land.

Just "up".

The greens (Hildgard of Bingen was obsessed with "greening" a kind of religious metaphor for spiritual growth, as I understand it), the dark soil, soiled, earthy and fertile. The russets. Silence descends, but quickly I realise this is not silence, just not urban-sound. It's like nature's version of John Cale's musical theories.

The vineyards vie with tilled fields; sheep grazing suddenly achieve acute definition as the sun breaks loose. And punctuating everything trees solitary, in pairs, clumps and forests, each with their own allegory to tell. Solitary beasts of aged knowledge, imperious rows like sentries. There is a curious geometry to it all. Or perhaps it is just the pantheist neural network that lies dormant in my head kicking in.

In the hills ahead a small town, lolling in the contradictions of the skies. Somewhere, not so far away, the Rhine. But for once, for now, nowhere in sight, unseen and un-needed.

I am photographing like a Dervish, a sufi of spinning shots and dances as I try and bring the sky and the land together in compositions. A hundred, two Oberwesel, when I come down, I've taken 700 photographs.

The light had seemed mysterious and un-catchable from the first moments I climbed out of Bacharach. It played restless tricks on its canvasses. A few hundred metres from the vineyards the Riesling green vines swim in a yellow wash; then a more formal undulating green, Turner town, Constable, if I was a painter I'd never leave. This is fashion shoot territory too: I can imagine Nadav Kander - or indeed Mathew Barney - up here. Abstract, crisp, delineated and then lost. Architypical, wonder they loved the Rhine, those guys. I hope Tom got up here. Wasn't down by the river with the kiss me quick brigades.

It does become easier, suddenly, to understand the Romantic Sublime.

Later I go down, a trick of descents and re-climbs, into another hilltop castled town, Oberwesel. There's an Italian ice-cream and coffee shop. The young waiter is surly at first, checking out the old leathery man with the Ipad but when I tell him about the first walk, across northern Italy, and now Splugen, he gets very excited. "I've only seen people like you on the television," he says. I want to say that if they were on television they had a crew and a make-up artist with them, however solitary their jaunt. Some elderly cyclists, grazing on giant sundaes, just say: "Bravo!" when they hear my story.

Down the main street and a little right, falling towards the river there's an old school hotel where the German national anthem was first sung. I go check it out. There's a plaque and a framed document, but it's all a bit too uber ales for my mood. I'll write more about German singing and songs from St Goar, my afternoon destination.

I stay low now, the trains pass by near me and across the river; and the barges, the cruisers, cyclists, cars on the B9 road. The valley has narrowed, it's tight now and must once has been so treacherous....cue, suddenly the Loreley "thing". A big slab of rock that means a lot. Cruise ships cruise it like seedy businessmen on the Kaiserstrasse in Frankfurt. One boat named "Germania" handily passes as I'm taking pictures. Thanks Tom.

The river arc as I approach St. Goar is a demi-crescent of motor-caravans; a caravanserai of mobile homes. And every one of them has, or is in the process of having attached - a satellite dish. Deck chairs, pick nick stuff; late afternoon sun puffing now, thinking about a rest. Long long shadows. "What you watching?" I ask a man from Munich.

"Champions League,"

Ah yes. And Mainz are still top. "On Saturday, all over, they play us."
We will see. I like the fact that the small underdog team is top of the Bundeslege.

Another climb, muddy paths, steps. Blowing for air, and I am fit now. But still smoking. Finally Rheinfels castle, now a splashy-ish hotel and spa. "We've been expecting you, Mr. Hunt." At least Herr Owner does not have a white cat. The view from the bar is everything a Turner or Claude might want. I'm in the Mrs Rochester attic, the only thing I can afford. In a strange kind of digital apartheid, the old castle rooms are ADSL, and the new conference centre annex hotel is wi-fi. I wander over in the light rain and download more Rhine books. I book a table for dinner - posh - and take a sauna, relaxing. I "dress" for dinner (new underwear). And am told the table's not ready. I sit in the gallery bar for half an hour without a drink reading Fenimore Cooper. Ignored by Buddy Holly the rookie waiter, and certainly by all the scooped cleavage waitresses who are serving a conference party in the main dining area. I go out for a smoke: there is a delegate Iphoning his wife. A Candian-German. "Plastics, we are coming together from around Germany - and the world - to exchange best practice and to ensure that the environment is our central consideration. And you?"
I explain.
"That's very cool. I live in Heidelberg once, you know."
I go back inside still no drink. Then my table; a lonely Lorelei space surrounded by Biedermanns and their Wives. Lots of jewels. And stares. No drink, no menu. Around fifty minutes into my dinner date I get a thin gin tonic. "And to eat, sir?
A menu.

I get up and walk out. I have my first hissy-fit of the trip, explain to the Italian maitre'd that the restaurant service is "rubbish." He practically hugs me; in reality it is more of a rugby malling movement that finds me sitting back in the gallery bar with a free glass of rather fruity Rhein red and better service than Angela Merkel gets.

I go for the venison stew.

Next door the Plastics Boys are being entertained by a fat-Falstaff with a post-modern lute. He's been warming up with a beer in the lobby, now he's on a roll. When everyone starts singing Take Me Home Country Roads, I begin to lose my new found contentment. Then the lute-ing stops and the Plastics Men sing a long acapella song that isn't Tomorrow Belongs to Me; isn't a Michael York Cabaret Closer kind of number.

But is scarily close to it. I feel sick. I start joining the dots from the Germania staute at Bingen, the National Anthem locale in Oberqwesel, the Loreley, and now something about flowers and blossoming and...well what do you rhyme burn the books with? It aint' Wagner, and it's not The Scorpions. And it is definitely not Supertramp...The Italian maitre'd looks embarrassed; so do many of the Biedermanns. Tomorrow my new Italian friend will apologise. "Too much wine," he will say.

Plastics Men vanish; they're not in the little house behind the castle where the management close down their night with the more social of the castle guests. I drink some wine, write about my day in the Moleskine, watch some Champions League, listen to pretty much every unusual song composed in the 1970s in Britain or American, I mean The Legend of Xanadu? Magic, by Pilot? Heart of Gold? Sir Duke? All Around My Hat? Then I pay. I am 16, going on 17.

The barmaid Gustel, writes the bill with a fountain pen.

In the most perfect High German Script. The handwriting is so lovely, so time consuming, I ask to keep the bill. I can have it when I leave the hotel.

Only later do I wonder why High German Script is so popular in these parts. In the morning the 30 kilometre walk to Boppard - through more of this fertile land. After eight hours in the rain I come to a village with signs (my first for hours): I had completed a perfect circle, by accident, and was 18 straight kilometres from Boppard, and two kilometres from St Goar. I am the worst walker in history. I book, damply, for another night, and am moved from Mrs Rochester's attic to Dorian Gray's. But that walk is for tomorrow.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Bingen: the mystic multimedia artist

I didn't know much about Hildegard before I came to Bingen, though I did know someone who was born and grew up here. They'd said to expect a few minor miracles. They'd also said that the waterside front - where the cruise liners pull in and everyone but everyone, and I was no exception, take about a thousand bad photographs of the castle on the far bank in conjunction with the "mouse tower" on a small island close to our side - was where they smoked their first joint, many years ago. This morning it was rowers, mists, and a hint of dare one say the mystical? Probably not. I hadn't smoked anything stronger than a Marlborough Light.

You'd have to say it's pretty photo-friendly here in whatever light. Today was a dull morning, but that just made the hill-tops greener, rather than yellow, and the mists gave Germania a spectral glow. I

The museum to Hildegard is maybe thirty metres in land, around an area with a Swiss hotel, a conference centre and an ominous looking bar. It's all peace inside, and Hildegard's music is playing.

Hang on, she's a twelve century religious mystic; what gives? In 2008 the academic William Harmless wrote "Mystics" for Oxford University Press. His chapter on Hildegard is entitled: Mystic as Multimedia Artist. It is fair to say this is interesting. She was the 10th child of a noble family, born in 1098. At eight she was "enclosed" that's locked away for life, in a cell of a monastery at Mount st. Disibod, not so far from where I'm standing now. That was supposed to be it: a life given up to contemplation of God. She ends up running a monastery, touring Germany preaching, having visions, persuading the then Pope they are good visions, writes the first known European morality tale, invents a secret language and writes beautiful music. She's a prophet too. We need to know more.

"Truly," as Tom wrote, "there are very admirable matters written of this woman by the historians."

The museum is lovely, but what really grabs me are the maps: how far her letters, her relics, her ideas, her music, travelled. It is the Niebelungens all over, except that this is even earlier. I don't buy the CD in the gift show; I download it at half the price next door at the Swiss hotel on the lobby wifi.

There's a great image of Hildegard, a saint and also known as the Sibyl of the Rhine, writing on a wax tablet in her study, looking for all the world like she's checking her Facebook page on an IPad. Multimedia indeed. Her visions are apocalyptic, flame-driven. There is so much rich material here in terms of image, music, ideas, language, geography, sexual politics...Hildegard seems to have fallen off the radar in the Renaissance and her writings and ideas were only really re-discovered in the twentieth century, when some saw her as a kind of feminist icon. Did I mention the medicinal innovations? Or the sartorial freedoms her fellow sisters had in her monastery? Amazing.

There is much to be read about Hildegard of Bingen. Rhine route now, check out the mouse tower, many myths and kids stories, but really a navigational point at what was until the damning of the Rhine a treacherous (lecherous, Gershwin joke) part of any ships's navigation of the river. Hence, soon, the Loreley and all that mermaid/undine stuff.

Can't disagree it looks good, but then so do the vineyards, the castle, the freighted-up barges. In a riverside garden there's a small museum with brilliant technology, invented by the University of Dortmund. A large Mac-Style computer screen mounted on a moveable frame that is a camera/telescope to all around, the mouse tower, Germania, etc, but clickable and data emerges. Downstairs a touchscreen 10,000 year history of the Rhine, watch it change. The curators here could not be more friendly. They release me from embarrassment and pull the switch for the model railway upstairs that illustrates how trade and freight was brought from one bank to the other. The trains move too, very exciting for boys of all ages. But the train sets - on the left and right of the upstairs gallery remind me of the model railway quality of the entire mise en scene. I scoot down to the Rhine and march on Bacharach, trying not to make too many Burt jokes. But, on Facebook at least, failing miserably. About ten minutes out of town I look up and see an amazing "Gothic Novel" castle. I have to go see.

I was right. Rhinestein castle is a steep upward walk. It looms down on ground level with the same kind of broody/moody intensity possessed by Bran castle in Romania. It also has the best post box address in the world.

Romantik Schloss
Burg Rheinstein

Later the owners point out to me that whilst this is a very cool address, it is a bit of a bore having to walk up and down a steep hill to pick up the gas bill, twice a day.

There's history here alright. Bought in 1975 by a former opera singer named Hermann Hecher from Barbara Duchess of Mecklenburg - the last owner of the "House of Prussia" (which is not a retail outlet) - the castle was improbably first built in the very early years of the fourteenth century, first mentioned as "belonging to Mainz" in 1323. We're in beween, or Betwixt as we like to say in these pages, Bingerbruck and Trechtingshausen, the real start of the Middle Rhine Valley.

The restoration is sublimely good. There are libraries in rounded turrets high in the clouds that Borges would have killed for. There are amazing dining rooms; and most bizarrely perhaps there is wifi everywhere. I immediately email the info@burg-rhinestein for an interview, because I would come back like a shot. A tour party of Swiss and then French school kids Iphone their way around the rooms and later I get it pretty much all to myself. This was a place to collect taxes, oh yes. Like Bran, actually.

I email some more and then Cornelia Hecher wanders down from the family apartments. We talk for half an hour or so. Her father in law bought from the Barbara Duchess because she was threatening to sell to the Hare Krishna. There was a big pow-wow at the next castle down, local government wasn't happy. Hermann got to buy his castle.

How long did the restoration take?
It will take forever, always. Cornelia says.

The family lived at first high in the state rooms, had electricity installed, water. Now they live in housing at the rear of the castle. Cornelia and Marcus's son, Marko, is also part of the castle business here now. "We were so happy when he decided to do that."

A detour but a great one. Back at riverside the school kids are waiting for their motor cruiser: will it be Germania or Goethe or Loreley? I'm long gone when it arrives. The colours are moving towards the autumnal now. The Russets are Coming, I note. At Bacharach I'm staying in a place in the city walls. And they are old. I send emails of Bingen home. My friend who grew up there says I have to go high tomorrow from Bacharach. Into the vineyards and the woods. I feel altitude sickness already. Later after dinner I have a curious interlude in the late night pub.

Wilhelm and Exile is for tomorrow though.

Publishing and the oldest brothel in town. Mainz 2

"A matter that may seeme incredible to the understanding of many men, yet most certainly verified by experience. By virtue of this arte are communicated to the publike viewe of the Worlde the monuments of all learned authors that are set abroach out of the sacred treasurie of antiquity, and being now freed from that Cimmerian darknesse wherin they lurked for the space of many hundred yeares, and where they did cum tineis ac blattis rixari, to the great prejudice of the common weale of learning, but especially of God's church, are divulged the common light, and that to the infinite utility of all lovers of the Muses and professours of learning. By this arte all the liberall sciences are now brought to full ripeness and perfection. Had not this art bene invented by the divine providence of God, it was to be feared lest the true studies of all disciplines both divine & humane would have suffered a kind of shipwrack and have bene halfe extinct before this age wherein we breathe. I would to God we would use this great benefite of our gracious God (as a learned author saith) not to the obscuration but the illustration of Gods glory, not to dis-joine but rather to conjoine the members of Christes militant Church here on earth."

Thomas got printing in Mainz, there's no doubt of that. There is an argument that says printing created the Reformation, helped to promulgate its "framework." I'm really struck here in Mainz about the relationship of printing, especially those early printing centres that emerge in the later fifteenth century and onwards to Tom's time in the early years of the seventeenth, to the "River". Especially the Rhine. Strasbourg, Basel, Zurich, Mainz - and Frankfurt just a barge away up the Main - are all deeply constructed around the River as information highway, surely? This is for more thought, in colder, bookier, climes. AKA London.

Baby Photographer One told me about her previous job, house photographer on cruise lines, navigating the world with rich, older, guests. It was hard work: wherever in the world they landed her job was to capture the myriad being happy - and photogenic - in front of, well, the pyramids, the Bob Marley museum, the skyscrapers of Dubai. Photos all day, developing at night. I tell the baby photographers about The Venetian hotel in Vegas; they tell me about the security guards that follow into the toilets in the hotels on the Emirates, because the taps to flush are pure gold. "I'd rather have the smell of real Venice," Baby Photographer 2 says. "Although, I like casinos, as long as I win."

On the outskirts of Mainz heading for Bingen, not so far away up the Rhine, I stumble across a very modern building (photos on Facebook). It is beautiful in a slightly kitsch angular way, and it is certainly out of kilter with its surroundings. An older couple are investigating the exterior, seeing if it is possible to go inside. What is it, I ask.

The new synagogue, it is not even open yet.
It's rather amazing, no?
Yes, very nice. It is a Swiss architect. Mr. Hertz. (Although a later news story says from Cologne.)

They are cousins, he has has come to visit her. She has just retired as Professor of Archaeology here, he too is retired and nowadays translates Irish and Anglo-Irish poetry.
- He's very good, says the archaeologist.
The most recent a volume of Bernard O'Donoghue.
Yes and next an anthology of anglo-Irish writers including Derek Mahon - one of my own favourites. We talk a little of The Hudson Letters. Both Swiss, both enjoying the new Synagogue, an unexpected surprise.

I had my first IPad meeting last night. At the next table a well dressed young man, flipping through his "Flipboard" app - Norbert got me clued into that in Zurich, I use it myself, it is a kind of mobile "Daily Me" thing.

You enjoying yours?
Absolutely, for work really.
Of course.

He's a publisher of a business magazine, a trade title, about fast moving consumer goods, FMCG. His title has a great market share, and German - good old still "making things" Germany - is riding the recession a little better, as it were, than Britain or American. We talk about publishing for ages, he's met my old boss; hung in New York with the Economist guys. Likeable, fun. A professional. Apps may be the salvation for publishing? We discuss. In Germany the regional press has a much greater strength and resilience than in American or Britain.

I wonder too if it also has a more refined readership.

The Pubishers' Wife arrives; she's involved in NGO work, Africa. Practical, friendly. They have travelled a great deal, big trips, southern India is next week. I talk about my love of that region, how once, many years ago, I got engaged down there. And next?

Oh next is another big trip - or a baby. I think it is time. The juggle of lives. It is time for dinner, they are going home. We swap Facebooks, then The Publisher says, hey, want to see the oldest Brothel in Mainz?

Irresistible, obviously.

It is their home, right in the centre of town, metres from the cathedral. They have an apartment; it's a very old house, but the interiors are modern and bauhausly less is more.
"Napoleon, when he was here, set this house up as the brothel for his officers. In the grand simple lobby a glass framed exhibit of Roman finds made here, when the rebuilding was being done. An instant series of archaeological and historical allusions.

"Julius Caesar having conquered all the Cities on this side of the Rhine which was in his time called Gallicum littusthe shore of Gallia &c. planted garrisons in each of them...for the better fortification of the place, and to keepe the bordering people living in the same territorie in awe and subjection of the Romans. For which cause he assigned Lieutenants called in Latin Proefecti to all the principall cities and Townesthat he had conquered," Tom writes. I think about that long sequence in Goethe's autobiography in which he describes his family house in Frankfurt being sequestered by the French - he makes some interesting observations, which find an echo I something I read by Tony Judt, but I'll come to them in Frankfurt.

I somehow miss dinner and chat to a couple about terrorism. An IT guy and a Graphic Designer, what really struck me, he says, about 9/11 was how personally I took it. I really thought "these guys are after people like me. And I'm just a regular guy who works with computers."

There's a Siegfried statue outside the Deutsch bank offices, and Mainz win again in their mid-week match. Top of the league still. In the bottom of my back pack I find a ripped newspaper article I've found. The London Daily Mail from September 15. An English woman who fell asleep and woke up speaking perfect French. I sometimes wish I could have that kind of sleep.

Instead I wake and walk to Bingen. It's about six hours, along the Rhine, the Rhine is its mid-Rhine glory, where each curve in the bend augurs another castle on the hills; more vineyards, and a lot of pleasure cruises, with or without in-house photographers. I stick low, close to the river, and parallel to road B9 - and the trains. Which now resemble a giant train set, spotted across the river, some great fantasy of mittel-European play. But they carry everything from people to tanks.

It is dark when I hit Bingen and the hotel sheets are itchy. In the back streets there is a lot of Russian being spoken. In the internet cafe, because there's no wifi around, a group of Turks and Slavs Skype home.

But I haven't seen Bingen by day, so I can't really judge. I know there is a big feminist mystic thing here. Hildegard. I fall asleep staring out of the windown into the gloom across the river and the vineyard hills. There is something up there, bright when the fog or the clouds move. I check the hotel tourist sheets. It is the statue of Germania, one of those Rhine Warrior Women. Frustuck is rather doleful; I head for the Hildegarde museum in the rain. Above me, in and out of the clouds, Germania looks down across the vineyards of the right bank.