The thing about having done parts of this trip twice or three times is that sometimes I don’t have much more to say than I did in my previous blogs. That was the case with Rudesheim, where we visited the wonderful Siegfried’s Musical Kabinet in 2015, and the Germania monument (via chair lift over the vineyards) in 2016. If you’re interested, you can read all about it via the links. Same thing with the Rhine Gorge. For sheer beauty, a warm late October in 2015 resulted in the best pictures, but we were there again – with a LOT more water in the river – in 2016.
We’d also seen glass-blower Hans demonstrating his craft in 2015. But this one IS worth adding to. Last time, I ducked out rather a lot to admire the glorious beauties of the river. This time it turned out that an elderly couple on our cruise could trace their ancestry back to Hans’s village of Wertheim, just a few generations ago. Hans was entranced, and arranged with our tour director, Jude, to take them with him when he left the ship at the next lock so he could take them back to his village to meet his family and have a look around. He brought them back to rejoin the ship further down the river. I thought that was simply awesome.
Needless to say, Hans used his long-lost relo to help him make a blown glass ornament, just as he’d done with our mate Bruce a couple of years ago. That couple will have had an adventure they’ll never, ever forget.
Although we’d been to Miltenberg before, our visit this time was different in many respects to the last time in 2015, because the guide was different. Each guide has his/her own interpretation of what’s important to show, I suppose. Our guide was Raul, a septuagenarian Canadian who had married a German lady and lived in a nearby village. He was dressed in the costume of a medieval night watchman, complete with halberd and Bavarian flag. The basic structure of the visit was the same as last time – a sort of treasure hunt where the guide explained some of the features of medieval life, including an opportunity to sample some of the food and drink. Of course, the history hasn’t changed, but no guide can tell everything.
Raul took us away from the picturesque main street with its seventeenth century half-timber facades and up away from the river, where the streets are steep and narrow. Miltenberg has a town wall, and Raul pointed out a building he described as ‘the witch’s house’. He was quick to clarify that it wasn’t really a witch’s house, but it’s easy to imagine it in an illustrated version of Hansel and Gretel. Raul pointed at the archway further up the hill. “The old Jewish cemetery is up there.” Then he took us back down into the town, stopped in front of a house, and pointed at five brass plaques set in the cobbles. These weren’t book titles, though. These were lives. Five Jewish people had lived here until 1942, when they were deported, and murdered. Miltenberg was the site of one of the oldest synagogues in Germany. Later (he pointed) a new synagogue was built there. It’s gone, along with the Jews. One hundred and forty Jews called Miltenberg home before the war. Now there are none, and there is no synagogue.
After Raul finished his formal tour, Pete and I retraced our steps to that archway up the hill to see the Jewish cemetery. The town council cuts back the grass twice a year, but apart from that the tombstones linger in the shadow of the town wall, the markings fading with each passing season. Even so, these Jews have a memorial, unlike the anonymous ashes blown on the wind from the belching chimneys at the death camps. The brass plaques in the cobbles outside the houses where they lived at least bear their names.
Strange. When we started this trip, one of the reasons was to take the extension into Poland and Germany. Auschwitz was on my bucket list, but long before we reached there the spectre of those events seemed to beckon us on. Starting with the book burnings in the square at Bonn.
One other thing Raul said has stuck with me. I’d always thought Miltenberg had been rescued by the rise in tourism along the river. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s plenty of work in light industry in the Main valley, unemployment is low. Nobody lives in Miltenberg’s old town anymore. All the ground floors of the buildings are shops and all the upper stories are empty. The cost of renovating these old heritage-listed buildings for 21st century living would be astronomical, and even with modern flood walls, the danger from the rising river waters is always there. So when the tourists leave, the street is empty.
People living in the surrounding villages don’t want the tourists, thanks. The buses hardly fit the narrow streets and the increased traffic belches fumes that damage the old buildings and help to break down what had been an idyllic way of life. That meshed nicely with what we’d heard in the Rhine gorge. Fewer and fewer vines are being planted. Each year the harvest is less. The work is back-breaking and hard to automate, and the young people are moving to the cities. It’s as if the boats cruising down the great European rivers are catching a last glimpse of something that is rapidly fading into the mists of history.