National Geographic : 1967 Apr
National Geographic, April, 1967 once ran in torrents upon its dungeon floor. Blood, in fact, runs through the history of the Rhine Gorge almost as plentifully as the Rhine itself. Along the world-famous chasm through the Taunus Mountains, scarely a cas tle or ruin-Marksburg, Gutenfels, Sooneck, Reichenstein-tells a happy or peaceful story. Even those with quaint names, such as the fortresses "Cat" (page 471) and "Mouse," memorialize the Rhine's dark past. Most of the castles date from feudal times, when the Rhine was a freebooter's paradise. Lacking a powerful emperor or king, Teu tonic knights fortified the heights along the narrow gorge and set themselves up as in dependent rulers. For income between wars, they turned to the historic river trade, levying tolls on all ships that passed. Captains or owners unable to pay risked losing not only their cargoes but their lives-the latter, in some cases, slowly. Militarism itself subdued the knights: Prussian supremacy and confederation of German states in the early 1800's put an end to despotism on the Rhine. The practice of tolls died in 1868 with the historic convention of Mannheim. Under the treaty, countries bordering the Rhine declared its waters free and unhindered to ships of all nations. Today the fortresses, once known to the poet Byron as "chiefless castles breathing stern farewells," breathe welcome instead as public museums, and in some cases even as restaurants, hotels, and youth hostels. One despot remains in the Rhine Gorge to this day-the fierce, intractable river itself. From early Roman times of exploration and conquest along the Rhine, boatmen have feared the 35-mile-long Gebirgs strecke, or "mountain stretch," as the gorge is sometimes known. Clamped between the mountains' massive jaws, the river twists and writhes in its narrow bed, forever creating new currents and shoals to trap the unwary helmsman. For centuries Rhine ships have turned to special pilots to guide them through the mountain stretch. The 180 Lotsen, as the pilots are called, are divided into three groups, one working the northern half of the gorge, another the southern half, and a third group working both sections. One day at Kaub, the midway point, I talked with one of the pilots on the northern run. I had traveled upriver from Koblenz Sidesaddle rider clutches her plung ing mount at a fair in Mainz. Rhine landers are famous among Germans for a spirit of gaiety. Fasching,a pro longed version of Mardi Gras, reaches its zenith in such Rhenish cities as Mainz and Cologne. Dubious diner tastes a first mouthful of Wurst, or German sausage, as his companion awaits the verdict during a wine festival. Garlands of sausage form a spicy canopy over the booth.