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Along the Rhine

The mystical pull of the Rhine

In 2002 the Upper Middle Rhine Valley was named a World Heritage site. The Rhine's real heydey, however, was 200 years ago when the Romanticists first discovered the river and made it their muse.

Georg Schneider's painting 'View from Niederwald of Bingen,' 1800

Painting from Georg Schneider, 'View from Niederwald of Bingen,' from 1800

English poet Lord Byron was so enraptured by the ruins on the Drachenfels mountain in 1816 that he immediately reached for his pen and wrote the famous lines of "The Castled Crag of Drachenfels."

Byron wrote with fervor that he would like to spend the rest of his life at the foot of the tower-crowned mountain. His verses sparked an avalanche of nature-inspired poetry and also kicked the Rhine tourism industry into gear.

The region is known as Siebengebirge or Seven Mountains. Today, the Siebengebirgsmuseum in the sleepy town of Königswinter near Bonn illuminates the Romanticists' fascination with Germany's most famous river. The exhibition hall is in just the right place: When visitors exit the train, they see the Drachenfels mountain and the Drachenburg castle looming majestically in the sky.

Georg Schneider's 'Ruins of Ehrenfels by Moonlight,' 1790

Georg Schneider's 'Ruins of Ehrenfels by Moonlight,' 1790

Painters' muse

The area on the Rhine is a popular tourist destination that is mentioned in every guidebook. Not only poets like Heinrich Heine, Clemens Brentano or Joseph von Eichendorf visited the region, but numerous painters also ventured here to interpret the landscape with their brushes.

"The mix of this region fascinated artists," said the museum's director, Elmar Schueren, "On the one hand, it was the scenery that lends itself beautifully to being painted, and on the other hand, it was the activity of the people."

Castles on the left and the right of the Rhine were witness to this activity. During the Middle Ages they were built as obsolete. New weapons techniques made them superfluous and, built for battle, they didn't make suitable residences.

It's amazing that any are left standing at all, said Scheuren, because some were used as stone quarries for the construction of churches. Even the stones of the Cologne Cathedral stem from the Rhine. Up until the 19th century, the gray stone of Drachenfels was dismantled and shipped to Cologne.

Rhine scene painting, unknown artist, 'View of Rüdesheim and of the Rhein'

Unknown artist, 'View of Rüdesheim and of the Rhein,' ca. 1820/25

The other landscape

For the Romanticists the ruins along the Rhine provided just the right amount of eerie inspiration they needed for their art. Their works also became political symbols of a growing national sentiment in the 19th century.

While the wild and untouched nature inspired the artists, signs of civilization and progress also surfaced in their art. Johannes Jakob Diezler crafted the painting "Niederlahnstein and Kappellen-Stozenfels" in 1830, portraying a perfect idyll - but only at first glance.

Upon closer examination, you'll see that the artist wasn't only interested in beautiful scenery, but that the painting also depicts modern infrastructure. A steamboat glides through the Rhine; a vineyard dots the riverbanks; a carriage brings travelers to the river.

"The cultural landscape was, for them, the landscape," explained Scheuren.

Birth of the Lorelei

The Romanticists had plenty of imagination; they exaggerated the landscapes they saw and projected their own fantasies into them. One result was the legend of the Lorelei.

Prior to the 19th century, the Lorelei was nothing more than a slate rock at St. Goarshausen near Koblenz. Due to shallow spots in the channel, the passage was dangerous, and a number of shipwrecks occurred.

The legend of a mystical mermaid, who sat on the rock, combing her golden hair and casting sailors under her spell of song, can be traced back to the year 1801.

In his ballad, "In Bacharach on the Rhine," Clemens Bentano described an enchantress in the village. At this time, the rock played no role. It wasn't until the 1820s that Heinrich Heine revisited the story and placed the hair-combing enchantress from Bacharach on the stone.

"As such, the legend was perfect," said Scheuren, adding that the story of Siegfried the dragon slayer came about in a similar manner.

"The dragon fight was pure fiction," he said. "The story first appeared in the 18th century. The debate ran for a few years; then it became a legend that continues today."

Johannes Jakob Diezler's 'Niederlahnstein und Kapellen-Stolzenfels,' 1830

Johannes Jakob Diezler's 'Niederlahnstein und Kapellen-Stolzenfels,' 1830

Landscape of memories

What didn't exist was quickly invented. The Rhine depictions by Swiss painter Ludwig Bleueler demonstrate a contradiction between dream and reality. One of his pictures of Mainz shows a park with people milling about and a locomotive passing through.

"At that point the railway on the left side of the Rhine was only in the planning stages," said Scheuren. "When it was opened, Bleueler had been dead for three years."

The ongoing spread of technology didn't just change the portraits of the Rhine. At the end of the 1820s, thousands of tourists flocked to the region. The exclusive production of photos gave way to mass consumption.

Steamboats began offering affordable travel, and even members of the British royal family - attracted perhaps by the verses of their national poet Lord Byron - visited the acclaimed river.

The popularity of Rhine artwork peaked at the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, long-distance travel replaced vacationing on the Rhine. Nevertheless, the beloved river has not been forgotten. At 350 meters, Drachenfels is allegedly the most-climbed mountain in Europe.

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