One of the oldest cities we visited – and one about which we knew nothing – is the fascinating town of Koblenz, situated on both sides of the Rhine at its confluence with the Moselle (hence its name, which comes from Latin for “at the merging of rivers”). On the eastern bank of the Rhine stands the impressive Fortress Ehrenbreitstein, a medieval citadel occupying the summit of a steep, rocky hilltop.
Directly across from the fortress is the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, a triangular spit of land that looks like the prow of a ship and marks the spot where the waters of the Rhine and the Moselle merge.
Germany’s biggest aerial tramway, the Koblenz Cable Car, completed in 2010, is a popular tourist attraction, carrying passengers from the German Corner across the Rhine to the top of the fortress.
This small riverside park is really famous, though, for the 1897 monument to Kaiser Wilhelm I, mounted on a 45-foot-tall horse, which came to symbolize the resurgence of the German Empire and Germany’s refusal to recognize any French claims to the region.
In 1945, the statue was destroyed by US artillery; the French who subsequently occupied Koblenz wanted to blow up the whole monument, but the stone base remained more or less intact. In the 1950’s, what was left of the monument was rededicated to German unity, and a copy of the statue was placed back on top in 1993, funded by private donations.
Interestingly, three panels from the Berlin Wall stand in this park as well, a reminder of the actual reunification of Germany after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites.
We had never seen any of the real wall before, and the simplicity of this memorial was very moving. It reminded us of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, and why it is so much more impressive than the more elaborate war memorials with their massive columns and classical architecture.
Another small memorial plaque along the riverfront is in remembrance of the Jews of Koblenz, who were, as the tablet baldly states, taken from their homes to concentration camps and murdered. The citizens of Koblenz certainly haven’t glossed over what the Nazis did to their fellow human beings.
The park includes a display of all the flags of the European Union nations, plus the flags of the German states, which makes an impressive sight when the wind blows. Along the waterfront, an organ grinder played traditional German songs, accompanied by a stuffed toy monkey. The first song I heard was “Freut euch den Leben,” which was coincidentally the first song I learned to play on the accordion in 1949 in Munich. Hated it ever since.
Koblenz has existed as an inhabited settlement since 8 BC, when the Roman general Drusus established a military post on the site. [Drusus was an interesting man – he was the son of Livia Drusilla and the stepson of the Roman Emperor Augustus. He was also the brother of Tiberias, father of Claudius, grandfather of Caligula, and great-grandfather of Nero. If you watched, as we did, the landmark miniseries I Claudius in the 1970’s, all these names will be familiar to you. In any event, Drusus seemed to have escaped the decadence and intrigue of his family history by being a good soldier and a brilliant leader of troops. He was also the husband of Antonia, the daughter of Marc Antony, and was reputed to have been completely faithful to her, something of a rarity among Romans of his class.] The city celebrated its 2000th anniversary in 1992, which makes it 2010 years old today. But Fortress Ehrenbreitstein is even older: early fortifications were built on the hill around 1000 BC, and in 55 BC Julius Caesar’s troops built a bridge across the Rhine from what is now Koblenz to the base of the hill where the fortress stands.
The city was apparently both prosperous and volatile, the former because of its prime location for trade and commerce, and the latter because of its prime location for military struggles for supremacy. It has been Roman and Frankish and German and Norman and Swedish and French and Russian and eventually German again. The French, in fact, occupied the city so often over the centuries that many of the local families bear French names, a reminder of the fact that young people will always find a way to get together, even if their countries are at war.
One very clever statue of a little boy in a small plaza in the center of town spits water at the unwary visitor who steps too close. He represents one of the children of these informal alliances.
Because of the ravages of centuries of warfare, many of the medieval buildings no longer exist, but the outlines of the old city wall can still be seen in the layout of the streets in the Altstadt. The elegant Palace of the Prince Electors of Trier, dating from 1280, stands in its manicured formal gardens along the west bank of the Rhine, and the 13th-century Marksburg Castle on the Moselle still watches over the city from the north. The beautiful 13th-century Church of Our Lady inside the city wall houses a rose garden, fountains, and a lily pond, not to mention some very interesting modern art. Jesuit Square, where the small Rathaus stands behind wrought-iron gates, is bordered by the clean-lined Baroque 17th-century buildings that once were home to the Jesuit College. The long white dormitory has twenty-four shuttered windows on the top floor, which are used as a giant Advent calendar every Christmas.
As if to emphasize the cosmopolitan nature of every European country these days, our attractive local guide told Gerry, during a toilet break for the group – he had said to her, “ Now, what’s your story?” — that she was born in Afghanistan to a German-born father and an Iranian mother, whose family fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and eventually settled in Germany.
Our guide spoke English and French as well as German and, we assume, some Middle Eastern languages, too. We were reminded just how insular we are in our homes in the US, surrounded mostly by people like ourselves, knowing almost nothing of the lives of those from other parts of the world. When we speak of immigration, we think only of Hispanic immigrants from south of our border, but there is a much greater migration to Western Europe, from nearly every other country in the world.
In the central square of Koblenz stands a remarkable and intricately carved fountain and tower, a recent acquisition that depicts the entire history of the city over the past 2000 years. As we followed its progression upward to the modern high-rise buildings that crown its summit, we realized again how very short and relatively uncomplicated our own history is when compared to that of the countries we’ve visited on this trip.
Often, we disembark in one town or city for our tours and then re-embark in quite another, since the ship sails while we’re sightseeing. This means that we might have a drive of an hour or more on one of the very comfortable coaches to meet the ship in the next port. During those drives, though, the Tauck tour directors provide us with a great deal of information, including commentary on the countryside we’re passing through. For example, between Koblenz and Cologne, we passed by the town of Remagen, famous for its Ludendorff Bridge – the last bridge standing on the Rhine near the end of the war – captured by soldiers of the U.S. 9thArmored Division on March 7, 1945. The bridge was built during World War I and carried two railroad tracks (one of which was covered over to allow vehicular traffic during World War II) and a pedestrian walkway. When the American troops approached the bridge and found it still standing, they must have been very pleasantly surprised. As a result of the capture of the bridge at Remagen, the U.S. gained a tremendous psychological advantage by crossing the Rhine and pursuing the retreating Wehrmacht, thus boosting their own troops’ morale while letting the Germans know that inevitable defeat was looming. Hitler, furious at this Allied coup, immediately court-martialed five officers and summarily executed all but the one who had been captured by the Americans.
The Germans tried desperately to destroy the bridge in the days following its capture, and eventually it did collapse, killing 28 soldiers, despite U.S. Army Corps of Engineers attempts to strengthen it. Fortunately, by then pontoon bridges were in place, and the army had a well-established bridgehead across the river. After the war, there were discussions about rebuilding the bridge, but eventually it was decided to leave it as it was. The western part of the bridge approach now houses a museum, with a small garden at its feet. The support pillars that were blocking the river once the bridge collapsed were destroyed, and now all you can see are the two approaches to what may be the most famous bridge of the war.
A flying visit to Cologne concluded this very busy day, since it would have been a shame to come this close and miss seeing what many consider the most beautiful cathedral in the world. This ancient city dates back to Roman times and 50 AD, when a town called Colonia was founded on the Rhine.
There are Roman ruins in many parts of the city – in fact, on our way to see the cathedral, our guide walked us through a parking garage where part of the wall of a Roman house abuts a medieval bishop’s escape tunnel, exposed during excavations and preserved quite casually where shoppers and tourists can see it as they pass by.
Cologne was a member of the Hanseatic League in the Middle Ages, which gave it great commercial power, and a Free Imperial City during the days of the Holy Roman Empire. which added great political power to its arsenal. As a free city, Cologne maintained its own military force, known as the Rote Funken (red sparks) because of the color of their uniforms. It lost its status as a free city after the wars against the French in the 17th and 18th centuries, when all the territories of the Empire east of the Rhine were incorporated into the new French Republic, and later became part of Napoleon’s empire. One of the vestiges of this period was the Napoleonic code of laws, which remained in use until 1900. Louisiana’s legal system was also based on the Napoleonic code, dating from its days as a French territory.
During World War II, Cologne was one of Hitler’s Military Area Command Headquarters and was home to an infantry regiment and an artillery regiment. Its military importance and its strategic position on the Rhine made it a prime target for Allied bombing raids — 262 of them in fact, including Operation Millennium, the first 1000-bomber raid by the RAF. The inner city was completely destroyed during the war, and post-war rebuilding has not generally been an architectural success. Cologne today is characterized by undistinguished 1950’s-style square buildings, punctuated by occasional reconstructed historical buildings.
By the end of the war, the population of Cologne had been reduced by 95%, largely because the residents left the city for more rural areas where fewer bombs fell. Pre-war Cologne had a population of 11,000 Jews; when the war ended, essentially all of them had been deported or killed. The six synagogues of the city were destroyed, and only one has been rebuilt.
One important building that did survive the war is the city’s most famous landmark, the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). It is Gothic in style, begun in 1248 and completed in 1880. It seems to be continuously under reconstruction and cleaning, so it’s almost impossible to get an unobstructed view of the church. In addition, it is hemmed in on all sides by the city, and its massive proportions make it hard to see more than just a slice of it from any perspective. However, it is a magnificent piece of architecture; and standing inside its vaulted spaces, walking on the colored marble floors that millions have walked on over the centuries, seeing the light streaming through incandescent stained glass windows, it would be hard not to feel awe at the achievements of the men who conceived and created this masterpiece.
The most recent addition – in 2007 — to the windows in the cathedral is certainly not something to be ignored. People either love it or they hate it (I fall in the “love it” category), but no one can deny that it’s unique. There was a national competition for the design of the window, which was won by Gerhard Richter, one of Germany’s most important living artists. Instead of saints or angels or biblical scenes, he designed a “Symphony of Light” — 11,500 squares of glass in 72 glowing colors – to replace the plain glass that had been installed after the original window was destroyed in the war. Pictures can’t do it justice, but I can try.
Cologne was our last port in Germany, and only Amsterdam remains on our itinerary. I’ll try to sum up our whole experience with a few short vignettes in the next post, but for now, I can say that this trip has been unique and unforgettable. I hope you’ll agree.
To see more of fascinating Koblenz and Cologne, click here.