The German middle Rhine valley, from Bonn to Rüdesheim, is full of dark, romantic, Teutonic folklore, crude 19th century nationalism and lots of serious history. The setting is the mighty river, surrounded by craggy river banks with castle ruins and cold northern woods.
This is classic territory for the historian and the traveller alike. Caesar was here, fighting the German tribes and this is, more or less, where the Roman empire came to a halt. Then it was the heartland of Frankish and Holy Roman empires and later, to many, a sort of quintessential Germany and German culture, an image boosted by artist such as Richard Wagner and tainted first by chauvinist nationalism, later by Nazism.
And then there are dragons. The fearsome Fafner of the medieval Siegfried legend is said to have lived on the strange Drachenfels cliff by the river just outside Königswinter.
It is here, on this very rock, that the ultimate Germanic hero Siegfried slayed the beast, bathing in its blood. You get here on foot from Königswinter and a stiff walk uphill takes you to the ruins of Burg Drachenfels on the top and a remarkable view of the river valley.
So, the middle Rhine valley is heavy stuff as historical travel goes. This is a landscape of thick historical legends, of imperial scale history and of the darkest days of the 20th century. The nationalistic lure of this landscape and it sights were thoroughly exploited by the Nazi state. Halfway up Drachenfels hill lies a neogothic castle that served as an “Adolf Hitler School” during the war, intended for bringing up new leadership in the Third Reich.
Even stranger than the Hitler school is the odd “Niebelungenhalle” just nearby. This is a temple to the greatness of Wagner, opened on the 100th anniversary of his birth, in 1913. It contains eerie artworks celebrating the master and, no less strange, a dragon’s cave with a crude plaster beast and an actual reptile zoo with miniatures of mighty Fafner.
You can stay in Bonn to get to the Drachenfels area, or in Königswinter as I did. This is also a perfect base for trips up river.
In the woods to the north are the Siebengebirge area with wonderful forest treks. Wine cultivation, wine castles and wine drinking are major attractions all over the river area.
Myself I went up river to the peculiar Deutches Eck – the German Corner – a most dramatic spot where the Mosel river joins the Rhine at Koblenz. The rivers float together monumentally against a backdrop of high cliffs and at the precise spot of their unification is a triangular area, the eck itself, with restaurants and a pompous monument to another Germanic dragon, emperor Wilhelm I, father of the WWI Kaiser.
Tired of Teutonic lore, dragons and dramatic river settings I then retreated westwards, to Cologne and Aachen, to see some more history.