Gute Reisen

My visit to the Rhein

This is a plan I've had for years. In 2014, when I was in Germany for my 30th birthday I had intended to take care of this, but my adventures then were primarily in the east, and the Rhine river is an exclusively western feature.

So, a few weeks ago, I did some research and found the closest and hopefully prettiest section of the Rhine that I could get to easily. Ideally I'd be headed up north to the famous Rhine Valley where the wine comes from and where Lorelei Rock is. A dramatic, suicide-worthy cliff would feel epic enough. But years have passed, and as I prepared for the trip my quest felt more custodial than epic.

Instead of the mythic rock of the Lorelei, I'm headed to the Ketsch Rheininsel, which is about 20km west of Heidelberg. Heidelberg is about 300km west of Munich, and when I decided on going to Heidelberg, I knew it was time to try Mitfahrgelegenheit, a website that I've talked with a lot of people about, and they always reassure me that they've had pleasant experiences. I’ve been told I should give it a try.

The way it works is that someone posts on the site that they are driving from one place to another, and they tell you how much money they want, and if the price is right you can take a spot in their car and save some money in your travels in Germany.

It cost me 20 Euros to hop into Adrien's car. There were 2 other riders, so that made Adrien's Audi quiete full. Roberto, who lives in Mannheim, but is originally from Munich, was visiting family. Philip who is studying and in the military had just spent the weekend with his girlfriend. And Adrien, our driver, works for Jaegermeister, and was in town for a concert. That was about the extent of our small talk, and we all settled in on the rainy, sleepy afternoon for a long drive. 

We listened to a comedy box set by someone named Loroit which I will have to research when I get back to my computer. There were definitely sketches about The Ring Cycle, but Adrien kept skipping them, and for the most part, they were the sketches I understood the best. 

I had hoped that we would have gotten to know one another better, to chat, and to talk about shit as we gobbled up Tarmac, but no, it was all business, we all just wanted to get where we were going. The best thing I noticed along the way is that at regular intervals when a large gas station was next the Autobahn very usually there would be huge red neon letters of the name of the town across the top of the pump canopy. In the dim light and the rain it was cool to see those town names going by as Adrien moved us along at 180 kmph.


And so I arrived in Heidelberg, and checked into my hotel. The Hotel Hemingway. I had been tempted to go cheap and stay in a hostel, but my time in Hamburg had been so unpleasant, and considering that I was on a mission I thought deserved something slightly better. So, inexplicably, I found myself in the Hemingway Hotel. It's theme is, you guessed in, Ernest Hemingway, on the walls what isn't a picture of Hemingway is nautically themed: lots of rope, wood, brass. The bathroom doors have portholes being used as frames for the man and woman signs. I arrived on Sunday around 7:30, and the bar was mostly empty save for two Eastern European men trying to take photos of each other's forearm tattoos. I filled my paperwork out, and set my bags down in the room, and I walked out into a cold rainy Heidelberg evening.

I've been to Heidelberg before, in 2002. When I traveled through Europe with two friends from high school (not even a year after 9/11), Molly, the girl we were traveling with, had been born in Heidelberg on the Military Base, so we came and saw the castle. I thought I didn't remember a bit of it. 

High above the Old Town is the castle, the big tourist draw, so I hiked up there, around every corner was a couple chatting away in German, taking selfies, clutching each other tight to defend against the chill. 

After accidentally interrupting either some serious petting or full on sex in a dark corner of a park overlooking the city, I figured I should move on since I had clearly stumbled into Heidelberg's Makeout Point. I walked along the back wall of the castle, and saw the gate to the inner courtyard of the castle was wide open. I walked in, unsure if I was supposed to be there or not.

The castle is mostly in ruins, but is still beautiful, and standing there looking around and enjoying having it all to myself almost over whelmed me. I figured I needed to take advantage of it somehow. I whistled out a single note to see how the sound would bounce around the old stone walls. It sounded very nice. So I stood in the center of the castle and whistled my favorite bit of Tannhäuser, the pilgrim's chorus. I kept waiting for someone to shush me, or for a stranger to emerge and see what was going on. When I was done it was just as quiet as before I had started.

I explored the castle a bit more and found myself on the inside of a locked castle gate, I am almost certain that rear gate I'd come through should have been shut, and I was getting something special. I noticed a sign showing the way to the Giant Keg, and remembered visiting it with Matt and Molly. That, the world’s largest keg, is all I remember from coming to Heidelberg almost 15 years ago. As I retraced my steps and walked back out another giggly little couple were entering the Hof, or court, "Genieße es," I said "es gibt niemand hier." Enjoy it, there's no one here. 

I had a beer on my way home, and then back in the strange shrine to Hemingway I pulled the cold blankets up, hugged them tight, and slept not thinking about what tomorrow would be all about.

I've carried my wedding to Germany twice now. Back in 2014 I concocted the idea to throw it into the Rhein, but at the time the offer to go see Markus in Großschönau was too good, so I carried the damned thing back across the Atlantic. 

Naturally this idea came from the climax of the Ring Cycle. After so many hours and operas the ring is finally returned to the Rhein and the world is wiped clean so that a new world can begin.

Certainly I'm plenty guilty of weird, magical, superstitious thinking, but can anyone think of a better way to rid myself of it? It wasn't worth anything, any value it had was simply put there by me for what it had symbolized.

So I woke up in Heidelberg with an hour bus ride ahead of me. The Ketsch Rheininsel, as far as I can tell, isn't much of a tourist draw, and is seemingly out of the way enough that there's little infrastructure to aid anyone trying to get to it by anything other than car or bike.

As I had my cup of coffee before the bus I really didn't feel much, and felt really silly about how far I was going just to do this weird talismanic act. A few times I stuck a finger in that little key pocket in my jeans where I had stashed the ring. There was still enough power and emotion soaked into that little band to give me the willies when I’d come in contact with it. 

My expectations were low, the weather was shit, I expected the Rheininsel to be small, and despite what I was doing, I feel like I've put so much of all this stuff behind me. However, as I got off the bus and the rain picked up, I started to feel a little emotional.

It was a long walk just to get to the Island, and when I finally arrived the approach was by a wonderful wooden bridge. As I walked across I noticed lots of graffiti, I took my time translating it, as I was sure I would be done on the island in no time. Right next to a poem in German dedicated to a departed lover promising to love Philip until death were the plain, simple words in English, “I love you, bitch.”

As it happens the Rheininsel is quite large, 8km at it's widest, and I was walking the full length of it. The first thing I came upon was the wild pig pen, it was cold, and the Wildschwein were all huddled up in a bunch, they started and turned to watch me go past. 

I was just starting to realize how large the island was and how alone I was on it. I came around a bend in the path and saw that the trail led away far enough that I couldn't really see the end. I decided to get into this spirit, took off my headphones, and listened to the pops of rain on the leaves and creaks of the branches in the wind. I started to think about what I was here to do.

After a long meandering, detour-filled walk through the island, I finally came upon the banks of the Rhein. Time to get in a melodramatic mood. I looked along the path again, and still there was no one else around. I'd been walking for at least an hour and hadn't seen a single person. I put my headphones back on and turned up Das Rheingold, the incredible opening note good and loud. I thought about the last time I saw the Rhein.

As I walked south along the western edge of the Rheininsel I kept praying for the clouds to part, to give me a beautiful bit of light, so that the pictures I took of the Rhine would look at least a quarter as romantic as the Rhein is meant to be. But I was on the wrong stretch of the river, it's all flat here, and if I looked north I could see smokestacks. It was about half way down the island that I happened upon the only other person I would see on the island that day. He was walking his dog out in the rain, we swapped guten tag’s, his dog gave me a quick sniff, and we headed our opposite directions. If he'd have asked me what I was doing there I would have told him everything.

I kept looking for the right spot, but nothing jumped out at me, I reached the south end of the island, and I could have turned following the little y in the river, but if I'd have thrown the ring in an offshoot of the Rhein itself wouldn't have felt right. I walked down to the bank, bottle caps and an overturned BBQ grill suggested this was the place to be under better weather conditions. I set down my back pack, sat down on some stones and started the last half hour or so of Gotterdammerung on my iPhone. Turned it up a bit more. At this point, Brunnhilde has been through it all and understands what's happening, she's pissed, and she's only to happy to reset the earth and let a new age begin.

I put on the last 30 minutes if the final Ring opera, Gotterdammerung. I had plenty of time to get the tripod out and take a few pictures while I chewed this over.

I sat on that pile of stones, Wagner ripping through my ears, waiting to hear the lovely moment when the redemption through love theme floats above everything and the curtain drops, and just as the opera in my ears resolved into some of the most sublime music ever written, a huge flat, boat with a backhoe on it came around the bend right along my side of the river. The music ended and I watched the boat, "The Viktoria," motor by. I took a while before it was far away enough that I felt comfortable willfully and obviously littering. I sat twirling the ring between my fingers, half tempted to put it on one last time, just to see how it felt. I started talking to it.

I said a lot of stuff, but that's all just for me. Eventually I said: "it's time for you to go now," and I finally did what I came here to do. As I threw the ring I must have given it a little flick because it spun making a perfect globe as it arced up into the grey sky. It didn’t fly as far from me as I would have liked. The current, I noticed, was pushing it back towards me. I packed up quickly and took the most direct path off the island.

I've got a few hours of being a tourist left here, and when I get back I have to figure out how to do something fun and uplifting for my birthday. On Friday I've invited everyone I've met so far to come out and drink and eat with me, it's going to be a weird group of folks, but it's my first attempt at bringing people together in Munich. We'll see how it goes.

But now this thing is done. At any rate, if this all falls a part and I have to move back to the states, I've got one less thing I have to pack.

Here's a gallery of other photos taken from my little Ausflug: