The Rhine*


Where else in the world would one encounter a statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus in one hand and a bunch of grapes in another? It is to be found in the Church of Our Lady, originally built in the fourteenth century, in the wine-happy German town of Oberwesel. This little city is typical of others, large and small, that dot the coast along the Rhine, in the kingdom of Riesling. Here is where that grape is grown and revered–and the same could be said of women, real and legendary.

Oberwesel kills two birds with one stone with an annual celebration that elevates to queenly status a local Ms. crowned as Wine Witch. This is an honor bestowed with much fanfare, music and fireworks as the young lady replaces last year’s witch, burned in effigy. Honored and applauded, the new, good witch symbolizes both the purity of wine and maidenhood as she goes out into the world as ambassador of her town and its blonde beverage.

The river itself flows north from Switzerland to the Netherlands, and the soil, in combination with the climate, makes its shores perfect for its wineries. It is the middle region, however, the “Mittel-Rhein” stretch from Mainz to Koblenz, that is of greatest interest in terms of color, history, and perhaps, attention to the fairer sex.

In Mainz, St. Stefan’s Church pays homage not only to the venerable men of the Bible, but also to its heroines. Chagall is the artist who began this design at the advanced age 88 but never traveled from the South of France to see the project, finished in 2000. He created its bluish stained glass windows and came up with a new Biblical spin, dedicating half of them to the women of the Old Testament.

Nearby, on the riverbank of St.Goar is the site where the famous and fictional Loreley* combed out her endless length of blonde hair and lured sailors to their watery deaths. Whether or not she deserved it, the Germans named the place the Loreley Valley after her, and as you climb aboard one of the Köln-Düsseldorfer excursion boats, a modern-day Loreley, yellow wig and all, might welcome you aboard while her partner plays her familiar song on his accordion. As the boat proceeds, a guide will point to the exact spot on the rocks where the temptress sang her song and will describe–in three languages–how she did the sailors in. The poet Heinrich Heide describes their fate best:

“The boatman in his small skiff is
Seized by a turbulent love,
No longer he marks where the cliff is
He looks to the mountain above.

I think the waves must fling him
Against the reefs nearby,
And the did with her singing
The lovely Loreley.”

These boats, which resemble large hotel dining rooms surrounded by glass windows, are one way to move from one village to another. (Trains, bikes and your own two feet are other choices.) Look out and you will see towns of half-timbered houses with funky names like Lorch, Filsen and Spay. Castles, ruins, forests and the Taunus Mountains also slide by. So does the boxy, modern Königsbacher Brewery, a sore thumb amidst so much antiquity. Further up the river, disembark in Koblenz.

This city has a population of 110,000, many outdoor village-y squares for eating, drinking, meandering. On Jesuitplatz is a fountain statue of a mischievous boy who spits water from his mouth every few seconds, the quirky city symbol.

And another an attraction dear to a woman’s heart: In the Liebfrauenkirche, a medieval church rebuilt in 1992, stands a very unusual depiction of the holy family. Here is a plaster Joseph holding the baby Jesus. Holy infant and father? Rarely seen, and at last, a respite for Mary! Also in this church, more Olympian women are rewarded, their images preserved in stained glass. Sophie Scholl, for example, was a student in Munich who with her brother Hans began the Weisse Rose (White Rose) organization, which protested against Hitler during the Second World War. In 1942 Sophie, her brother Hans and all members of the community were killed by the Nazis.

Another window features Edith Stein, beatified by John Paul II in 1987. She was born on October 12, 1891 in Breslau, to an Orthodox Jewish family. Later, she converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite nun in 1922, and when Hitler came into power, was sent for safety to a convent in Holland. The Nazis found her anyway, shipped her to Auschwitz, and there she died in the gas chambers with her sister, also a convert, in 1942.

The window dedicated to Mother Teresa was controversial when installed several years ago. Ordinarily, the living are not accorded such an honor, but special permission was granted in this case. The church is host to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

As is most of this Rhine area, known as a region filled with happy, optimistic people. Whether it’s the wine or the women is anybody’s guess.