Daily Dose of Europe: Battleground Bacharach

I’m thinking back on my favorite European memories, and my favorite Europeans…including Herr Jung, the German schoolteacher who passed away not long ago. When I close my eyes, I can still imagine Herr Jung walking me around his hometown…

Even if we’ve had to postpone trips to Europe, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my favorite travel memories — a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe at the other end of this crisis.

Cruising down the romantic Rhine River, we dodge the treacherous reefs that spelled disaster for ancient sailors distracted by the fabled Lorelei siren. We dock at the half-timbered town of Bacharach, where I jump out. Bacharach, wearing a castle helmet and a vineyard cape, is a typical Rhine village. It lines the river and fills its tiny tributary valley with a history you can hook arms within a noisy Weinstube.

“Bacharach” means “altar to Bacchus.” The town and its wine date from Celtic and Roman times. Local vintners brag that the medieval Pope Pius II preferred Bacharach’s wine and had it shipped to Rome by the cartload. Today, tourists drink it on the spot.

For each wine festival, Bacharach installs an honorary party mayor. He’s given the title of Bacchus. The last Bacchus, one of the best wine gods in memory, died a year ago. Posters left up as a memorial, it seems, show his pudgy highness riding a keg of Riesling, wearing a tunic, and crowned with grapes as adoring villagers carry him on happy shoulders. Bacharach’s annual wine fest is the first weekend of October, just before the harvest. Its purpose is to empty the barrels and make room for the new wine, a chore locals take seriously.

The festival is months away, but the dank back alleys of Bacharach smell like the morning after. I drop my bag at Hotel Kranenturm, then head back to the boat dock. I’ve arranged a private walk through town with Herr Jung, Bacharach’s retired schoolmaster.

The riverfront scene is laid-back. Retired German couples, thick after a lifetime of beer and potatoes, set the tempo at an easy stroll. I gaze across the Rhine. Lost in thoughts of Bacchus and Roman Bacharach, I’m in another age…until two castle-clipping fighter jets from a nearby American military base drill through the silence.

The Rhine Valley is stained by war. While church bells in Holland play cheery ditties, here on the Rhine they sound more like hammers on anvils. At bridges, road signs still indicate which lanes are reinforced and able to support tanks. As the last of the World War II survivors pass on, memories fade. The war that ripped our grandparents’ Europe in two will become like a black-and-white photo of a long-gone and never-known relative on the mantle.

I pause at Bacharach’s old riverside war memorial. A big stone urn with a Maltese cross framed by two helmets, it seems pointedly ignored by both the town and its visitors. Even when it was erected to honor the dead of Bismarck’s first war in 1864, its designer sadly knew it would need to accommodate the wars that followed: Blank slabs became rolls of honor for the dead of 1866, 1870, and 1914–18.

Herr Jung arrives and I ask him to translate the words carved on the stone.

“To remember the hard but great time…” he starts, then mutters, “Ahh, but this is not important now.”

Herr Jung explains, “We Germans turn our backs on the monuments of old wars. We have one day in the year when we remember those who have died in the wars. Because of our complicated history, we call these lost souls not war heroes but ‘victims of war and tyranny.’ Those who lost sons, fathers, and husbands have a monument in their heart. They don’t need this old stone.”

Rolf Jung is an energetic gentleman whose glasses seem to dance on his nose as he weaves a story. When meeting my tour groups for guided walks, he greets them as he did his class of fifth-graders decades ago, singing like a German Mr. Rogers: “Good morning, good morning, to you and you and you…” Like so many Europeans, he has a knack for finding dignity and pride in his work, no matter how grand or small the job. A walk with Herr Jung always makes me feel good about Europe.

As I ponder the memorial, he quotes Bismarck: “Nobody wants war, but everyone wants things they can’t have without war.”

Herr Jung looks past the town’s castle, where the ridge of the gorge meets the sky and says, “I remember the sky. It was a moving carpet of American bombers coming over that ridge. Mothers would run with their children. There were no men left. In my class, 49 of the 55 boys lost their fathers. My generation grew up with only mothers.

“I remember the bombings,” he continues. “Lying in our cellar, praying with my mother. I was a furious dealmaker with God. I can still hear the guns. Day after day we watched American and Nazi airplanes fighting. We were boys. We’d jump on our bikes to see the wreckage of downed planes. I was the neighborhood specialist on war planes. I could identify them by the sound.

“One day a very big plane was shot down. It had four engines. I biked to the wreckage, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was this a plane designed with a huge upright wing in the center? Then I realized this was only the tail section. The American tail section was as big as an entire German plane. I knew then that we would lose this war.”

The years after the war were hungry years. “I would wake in the middle of the night and search the cupboards,” he says. “There was no fat, no bread, no nothing. I licked spilled grain from the cupboard. We had friends from New York and they sent coffee that we could trade with farmers for grain. For this I have always been thankful.

“When I think of what the Nazis did to Germany, I remember that a fine soup cooked by 30 people can be spoiled by one man with a handful of salt.”

Herr Jung takes me on a historic ramble through the back lanes of Bacharach. Like any good small-town teacher, he’s known and admired by all.

Then we climb through the vineyards above town to a bluff overlooking a six-mile stretch of Rhine. “I came here often as a boy to count the ships,” he says. “I once saw 30 in the river in front of Bacharach.”

We look out over the town’s slate rooftops. Picking up a stone, he carves the letters “Rick” into a slate step and tells me, “Now you are here, carved in stone…until the next rain.”

Ever a teacher, he explains, “Slate is very soft. The Rhine River found this and carved out this gorge. Soil made from slate absorbs the heat of the sun. So, our vines stay warm at night. We grow a fine wine here on the Rhine.

“Today the vineyards are going back to the wild. Germans won’t work for the small pay. The Polish come to do the work. During the Solidarity time I housed a guest worker. After 11 weeks in the fields, he drove home in a used Mercedes.”

We pass under the fortified gate and walk back into town, cradled safely in half-timbered cuteness. My teacher can sense what I’m thinking: that Bacharach was never good for much more than inspiring a poem, selling a cuckoo clock, or docking a boat. Stopping at a bench, Herr Jung props his soft leather briefcase on his knee and fingers through a file of visual aids, each carefully hand-colored and preserved in plastic for rainy walks. He pulls out a sketch of Bacharach fortifications intact and busy with trade to show how in its heyday, from 1300 to 1600, the town was rich and politically important.

“Medieval Bacharach had 6,000 people. That was big in the 15th century,” he says. “But the plagues, fires, and religious wars of the 17th century ended our powerful days. Bacharach became empty. It was called ‘the cuckoo town.’ Other people moved in the way a cuckoo takes over an empty nest. For 200 years now, our town has been only a village of a thousand.”

In the mid-19th century, painters and poets like Victor Hugo were charmed by the Rhineland’s romantic mix of past glory, present poverty, and rich legend. They put this part of the Rhine on the Grand Tour map. And the “Romantic Rhine” was born.

A ruined 15th-century chapel hangs like a locket under the castle and over the town. In 1842, Victor Hugo stood where Herr Jung and I now stand. Looking at the chapel, he wrote, “No doors, no roof or windows, a magnificent skeleton puts its silhouette against the sky. Above it, the ivy-covered castle ruins provide a fitting crown. This is Bacharach, land of fairy tales, covered with legends and sagas.”

While military jets soar, Roman towers crumble. Herr Jung has since passed away. But the Lorelei still sings its siren song. Bacharach is a town with a story that I would never have known without a friend and a teacher like Herr Jung.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel. It’s coming out in July, and available for pre-order. And you can also watch a video clip related to this story: Just visit  Rick Steves Classroom Europe  and search for Bacharach.)