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.
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.