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.
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 hundred…by 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, biblical…Claude….no 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.
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?”
“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?
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.