January 13, 2012
It takes a week of following the Rhine upstream into Germany before I know I have truly left the Low Countries behind. After the port city of Koblenz, where the Rhine and the Mosel converge, the banks either side of the river begin to rise into folded foothills, jagged peaks and escarpments dotted with gothic ruins. During the next few days, castle after castle appears with almost frantic regularity: Stolzenfels, Rheinfels, Gutenfels, Furstenberg… in this valley, I have entered the realm of German Romanticism.
My introduction to fairytale country is the nightmarishly-named Burg Drachenfels, a tapering stump of weathered stone perched above the river. In the book I’m using as my road-map, Paddy mentions ‘the Siegfried-haunted Drachenfels,’ and I ask about this with my hosts that night in the village of Sinzig. Siegfried, I discover, was a mythical hero who showered himself in the blood of a dragon (drachen) to gain immortality – of course, myths being what they are, a leaf landed on his shoulder during the immortalising process, leaving that spot unprotected. Later he was betrayed by a friend, who skewered him with a spear. ‘You can look it up on Wikipedia,’ my hosts assure me, waving at the laptop, but stories like this don’t need to be confirmed. It feels much better to hear it from them – this legend of the Teutonic Achilles – in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside.
They also talk of a connected legend: the treasure horde of the Nibelungs, who were either – depending on what you choose to believe – the royal house of the Burgundians, or a race of dwarves. I choose dwarves. It seems no less unlikely. The fabled stash of gold and jewels is reputed to be buried in Worms, but later, when I reach that city with vague fantasies of stumbling across it – glinting, perhaps, at the bottom of a drain or at the border of a municipal flowerbed – the only evidence I can find is a signpost that says ‘Nibelungenring.’ It is sad, but not surprising, that the best the modern world can do with the legend of a dwarfish treasure horde is covert it into the name of a ring-road.
If Siegfried was the Teutonic Achilles, my walk also brings me to the lair of the Teutonic Siren. The towering Rock of Lorelei marks the narrowest point of the Rhine, and the river bends sharply to create treacherous shipping conditions. In these waters dwells the Lorelei, a golden-haired water maiden who lures sailors to their death. Over the years, Romantic poets have rendered the legend thoroughly twee, but the Lorelei has not lost her teeth: only last year, she capsized a barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid.
(That statistic came from Wikipedia. But hopefully, in a few hundred years, travellers will hear the story – in a suitably distorted version – sitting in a cosy, wood-smoke-smelling room with the rain beating down outside. Meanwhile, reconstruction work on the Worms outer-city ring-road will have uncovered caverns of gold, and armies of furious dwarves.)
So far I’ve escaped the Lorelei’s clutches, and haven’t yet been skewered with a spear. I am, however – in a vague nod to at least one of these legends – having problems with my Achilles tendon. Myths are there to teach us things. I’ll use more dragons’ blood.
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