A trip to Nibelungen land

Nibelungen is the no 1 German folk tale. The one that every German schoolchild learns, largely I would guess to teach them not to behave like the heroes in the story who seem to be whimsical, illogical and chaotic.

Set in the stunning scenery of the Rhineland Palentine, German gods and their offspring become obsessed by the quest to recover a golden ring that has all powerful though unspecified qualities…..sound familiar?

After much plotting, fornicating, fighting and sleeping they are all, mercifully, burnt to death in a big fire. Along the way their tale takes in every major myth event from around the world: A special sword that can only be drawn by the chosen one (King Arthur); a hero who is invincible except that when he was bathed in the invincible solution – on this occasion dragons blood – a bit gets left out – in this case the shoulder,Dragonfels Castle as opposed to the heal; A maiden who gets put into a special spell to sleep in an out of the way place until some prince comes to rescue her (sleeping b); a hero that has to slay a dragon; siblings getting it on and then not exactly living happily ever after… they do it all..

At Dragonfels, Konigswinter, just outside of Bonn, you can treat yourself to the whole story in miniature as you drag yourself up a big hill to the ruins of the castle where legend has it Siefried slew the dragon (and got the ring! – hurrah).

Halfway up is the fantastically dilapidated ‘Nibelungenhalle’. A 1930s squat rotund faced with a medieval-looking black stone. It is almost impossible to walk past without parting with €5 for a look inside. Step through the red curtains guarding the entrance you are greeted with a bare circular room with mould on the ceiling and fantasy, dungeon and dragons style paintings depicting episodes from the saga on all walls. Accompanied by Wagner extracts, you can walk your way around the whole story.

Even the oddity of the place would not be enough to make you feel you had your monies worth, but fortunately sitting beside a hazy pink and beige representation of a sleeping valkyrie is none other than Siefried’s magic sword itself, which you are free to wield and have your photo taken with as you please. Well at least I was able to – I didn’t see anyone else manage to extract the sword from the block of wood…

An antique funicular railway ride later and you are back at the foot of the mountain and in the nibelungen resort town: Konigswinter. Konigswinter is a real little gem of ‘past its prime’ resort, with some really rather stylish cafes and shop fronts, paint peeling. According to my companions, many a Rhineland holiday destination has suffered in a similar way to English seaside towns in recent years, with Germans deciding there are more glamorous places to spend their holidays. A conclusion I could barely object to, though not true if long walks are your idea of a good time, the surrounding countryside offering great hiking territory as I had discovered walking the Rhinesteig on my way there.

However, if you’re looking for a holiday relaxing in the sun, it is hard to see what the Rhine has to offer. Though apparently the river has recently become clean enough to swim in, it is still very busy Reinsteigwith huge barges and very fast flowing, meaning Rhine swims are only for the more adventurous and certainly not for children. What beach there is all dusty and white. Most of all though, the Rhine, though it cuts through some amazing landscapes, is so incredibly boring.

I have never seen a river to match it for featureless straightness and monotony. The whole thing, from Switzerland to sea, looks like a long wide canal. The pilots of the monster barges that constantly pile up and down it at a brisk walking pace, surely must be half-deranged with the tedium of working such an unexciting thoroughfare.

I imagine that for these poor beasts chained to their achingly slow machines there is little romance left in their hearts for the myths of the Rhine. Clearly, they must have displeased the gods at some point or they would be eating up the miles in some turbocharged truck, travelling huge distances, seeing the world, worrying about changing weathers, road surfaces, striking Frenchmen. A whole litany of concerns to keep the mind active.

Working the Rhine is all clock watching. There are no hazards, no faster or slower bits. As they pass the Lorelei rock the pilots don’t fear the singing sirens anymore, the route has been too well dredged, all dangers removed, nothing can go wrong. What can they do but look at their at their speedometer thinking: “with this tide how long will it take me to reach that port I have been to hundreds and hundreds of times before?”

Somewhere through the process of uber-industrialisation the job of being a bargeman on the Rhine has turned from one of considerable skill, challenge and appeal into one of total monotony.

Bargemen used to enjoy the myths of the Rhine as part and parcel of the romance of their job, and to help them stay safe. Today perhaps the only relevance left is in the one coherent message from the nibelungen sagas: that you can’t turn back time and shouldn’t try. The gods are doomed from the moment they first lose the ring. For it is prophesied that once lost all efforts to recover it will only speed their demise…..


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