National Geographic : 1992 Aug
forlornness, it still looks remarkably navi gable, but this is an illusion. The Fossa Carolina was never deep enough to accommodate the difference in elevation between the two small rivers it was intended to connect. Charlemagne's men dug and dug, but as the trench repeatedly filled with water under heavy rains, the banks turned into an unstable ooze. Frustrated, and with more pressing problems beckoning from elsewhere within his empire, Charlemagne abandoned the project after just two months. Now, 1,199 years later, Charlemagne's dream is about to be realized on a scale beyond his wildest imaginings. The Main Danube Canal, nearing completion 30 miles east of Graben, will link not only the Rhine and Danube river systems but also (thanks to other canals already in existence) much of the European waterway network. In September, for the first time, a heavy barge will be able to travel from, say, Strasbourg to Bucharest without ever turning to the sea. The question is whether anyone much will want to. "A canal is used not because it is there, but because there is a need for it," says Eugen Wirth, a professor of physical geography at the University of Erlangen-Nirnberg and one of many vocal critics of the project. "And the need for this canal has never been demonstrated." Whether the Main-Danube Canal proves to be a prescient and lucrative conduit to the newly emerging markets of Eastern Europe, as its builders hope, or a costly white ele phant, as many others believe, it is certainly an impressive engineering achievement. Running for 106 miles between Bamberg, where the Regnitz feeds into the Main River, and Kelheim, on the Danube, and climbing and dropping a total of 800 feet as it crosses the Frankische Alb, it winds through some of the most challenging, scenic, and environ mentally sensitive landscape in Germany. It is this last factor that lies behind a long and often passionate ground swell of opposition. "It is the biggest Sauerei of the century," Eduard Steichele, director of tourism for the picturesque cathedral town of Eichstatt, told me, employing a piece of porcine Bavarian slang that is as emphatic as it is inelegant. "Even if the canal is an economic success, and that is by no means certain, the cost in terms of destruction to the Altmiihl Valley is unforgivable." This valley, with Eichstatt at its heart, is one of the most beautiful and environmen tally fragile in Bavaria. Etched by the small and winding Altmiihl River, it is lined with small farms and drowsing villages, punc tuated with the spires of old churches, and hemmed in by jagged hills cloaked with beech and pine. Towering above the valley floor are outcrops of limestone where story book castles perch, looking at once wildly romantic and impossibly inaccessible. An object lesson in progress, the 1845 canal built by King Ludwig I of Bavaria lost business after railroads came. The question now: Can the new canal-a few wingbeats from this relic-turned-nature preserve at Prunn-compete with effi cient but more costly railway systems?