For much of its northern reaches the Rhine courses along relatively flat terrain. Just at Bonn the topography starts to change. Suddenly there are hills. In the distance I can see two mounds like lopsided breasts where I must drive my boat through the cleavage-like gate that opens to a new area, one that is historic, challenging, and lovely.
The section of the Rhine from Bonn south is the land of the robber barons and the occasional toll levying archbishop. From around 800 to just a couple of hundred years ago, those who plied the waters of the Rhine had to pay for the privilege and most often they paid in coin or in kind to square-jawed brigands who placed chains across the river to exact their remittances. Here at Bad Honnef you can see how the river cooperates by narrowing between two islands, Grafenwerth on the Bon Honnef side and Nonnenwerth towards the opposite shore. High on the hill tops the barons and others would construct castles to help them enforce their tolls. Here where I float tied to a dock I look up to the ruins of such a fortress with Rolandsbogan, a single window all that remains of the structure. Stories tell of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s knights who would brokenheartedly look out this window to Nonnenworth below where his true love was married to Jesus at the convent on the island. So moving was the tale that a 19th c romantic poet returned to his native Rhine and repaired the relic leaving only this window to love’s lost battle.
With the narrowing of the river the current is wicked. I am tucked behind an uncertain breakwater that comes and goes as the winter melt arrives from Switzerland. The large barges have to rev their diesels and their bows slam the water in big pushes. I look on and remember the hour it took just to cross the river to find the Wasserverine Hannef where I have found safe moorage and a welcoming community. How would this new rise in the river level and the enhanced currents impact my ability to move forward? Peter Kaufer, my friend who is a retired skipper and worked with the Wasserpolizie, is skeptical that Djes’ Volvo engine has the jam to push us through the ‘Gates’ between Koblenz and Bingen where the rocky shore towers and the barges really squeeze by. I have to admit that as I sit here in Bad Honnef getting the engine fixed, I am somewhat nervous. I have read about the region and now people on the ground are telling me to hold on to my hat for an intense hard ride. I believe in Djes and know her Volvo engine might not be speedy, but she is strong and like the tortoise – will get us to the finish.
This haven I have found is a small Rhine-side rowing club. Its well equipped with a full gym, locker room with shower and barn-like storage area for the array of boats they have in their bunks. The club is used by everyone from young teens who show up during school hours to seniors who go out in four man crews for an early morning pull. The one and two-man boats like those you see at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games are fiberglass with long oars that really get them going. The larger boats are wood, many with the rudder at the front. On weekends the harbour is awash in craft as they launch and set out to take on the currents of the river with crews first heading upstream for a tiring paddle before returning on the helping hand of the nine km river power.
The people at the club have been interested in my story and have offered me their hospitality for which we are very grateful. At first I was uncomfortable using their facilities given that I amount to someone who is squatting on their dock. They have been very welcoming in this regard and greet me with a friendly ‘morgan’ when I run into members out for an early row.
I was lucky to find Wasserverine Hannef. As I have discovered, I will have a significant challenge to run the currents up as far as Bingen where I can cross over and slip into the Mainz river and its gentle ways. Here I am able to get repairs done and use the area as a staging point for journeys around the region.
In fact, yesterday we rolled out Bike Too for a mission that took us as far as Sinzig. The Rhine offers easy bike paths on either side that move along the shore and deek into towns as they come up. Great ride along paved, cobblestoned, asphalt or packed pea gravel paths. Took the Ronsdeck ferry across and rode into Sinzig and the River Ahr. Had a Kolsch and looked out to cherry blossoms below the Romanesque church’s square. This side of the river is more rural with orchards and small garden plots in abundance. Across the river from Kripps where I took the ferry back (Linz), the towns are more frequent and are interesting in their preservation and way of life. Properties can date from the 1300’s and they are in better shape that most I have seen in new developments. You just couldn’t get a good quality particle board in the Middle Ages so they had to build with wood and stone.
Shops here are nothing much. There are the prerequisite souvenir outlets, but for the most part the goods in the stores are utilitarian or fairly downscale with slim selection and a trimmed back style that is indicative of the conservative nature of the region. Grocery shopping has been an eye-opener. While there are large populations in small footprint centers, there is only small grocery to offer them foods. Yes, there is a butcher, several bakers and other specialty food stores, but the Edeka, Kaisers, and others like Netto are just a bit bigger in layout than a community bread and milk store with maybe 10,000 to 15,000 skus in five narrow aisles that cover everything from fresh produce, to general grocery and dry goods to meats and dairy and beverages. Most stores have a lot of space devoted to wines, and beer that I would say averages about 15 per cent of total footage and stock. Interesting is the cost of beer. Very fresh and quality laden, the Alts and Kolsch’s can be had for 69 cents for a half liter bottle or 7.99 for a case of 20 on sale (add 30 per cent to get a Canadian context). Indeed, with so many good beers to try its hard to get involved with the wines or run the risk of becoming like some jolly friar going from town to town in a state of alcohol infused frivolity (doesn’t actually sound so bad). Here on the dock we have a refrigerator that has proven its worth as a storehouse for everything from Gaffel Kolsch to Frankenheim Alt.
Indeed the fridge has been a godsend especially today. Warm and sunny I have pulled out the fishing equipment. Back In Amsterdam at the big box sports store I decided to gather some tackle together and after putting the pieces in shape over the past couple of months I tossed a line into the water this afternoon. I’m using an 8’ telescoping pole with a spin cast reel and 20 lb line (you never know). Got a few spinners and something that looks like a cross between a Lazy Ike and a Red Devil – I’m calling it Lazy Nelson. I’m going for a little garlic rub on the hook and piece of herring to bring in the big one. Now its just a case of patience and a fond hope that the beers in the fridge will last as we look out across to the Rhine and its slice of history.