Aare Gorge, One Reason To Love The End Of The Ice Age

We saw the mighty Rhine in Germany.  Several rivers feed into it, including the Aare (also known as the Aar).  The Aare is the longest river that both begins and ends entirely within Switzerland.  It flows from the  Aar Glaciers of the Bernese Alps and joins with the Rhine in Koblenz.  When they merge, it actually surpasses the Rhine in volume.  Seeing the size of the Aare close to its source, I’m not surprised.  It flows quickly and is ice-cold.  It’s snowmelt after all.

The Evil Genius wanted to stop by and see the Aare Gorge (also known as the Aareschlucht) while we were in nearby Meiringen.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but ended up being overwhelmed by it.  It is truly an amazing sight.

At the end of the Ice age, torrential runoff water from melting glaciers eroded a deep, narrow chasm.  Over thousands of years, the Aare’s tumbling waters continued to erode the limestone rock, further carving out the gorge replete with niches, caves and hollows.  In fact, the water gets its greenish tint from tiny particles of eroded limestone.  They don’t need to die it green for St. Patty’s Day (unlike the Chicago River).

We entered a tunnel carved from the rock and exited onto a metal walkway suspended over the rushing water.  At first, walking over the torrent was a bit unsettling.  It didn’t take long for amazement to take over.  Isolated in the valley, we only heard the rushing waters echoing off the walls.

The dramatic setting immediately impressed us.  Wandering along, we became even more awestruck.  Not knowing much about the gorge, we had no idea of its size and scale.  It is 1400 meters long (0.87 miles) and 200 meters (656 feet) deep.

At points, it is only 1 meter (3 feet) wide!

Before the walkway was built, the only way to see it was from a boat.  The gorge was unfamiliar and frightening. Legend’s about what was in the gorge abounded.  For example, in 1814 there was a report of a monster.  It’s body resembled that a snake, but with a round head and legs.  It allegedly had a  big mouth, sharp teeth, evil eyes, and made terrifying whistling sound.   Locals called it a “Tatzelwurm.”  We didn’t see any sign of this beast.  Apparently we are very poor mythical beast spotters.  We didn’t see any sign of the Loch Ness Monster when we were there either.

Eventually, the fissure widens a bit allowing you to see some of the cool things erosion has created.  There were several waterfalls.  The river widened enough to allow us to see rocks and rapids.  We even saw a cave that had been converted to military use in the buildup to the second world war.

We saw more evidence of Switzerland’s military preparedness.  I’m guessing  that wall and door inside the cave isn’t the work of the glacier and this use to contain something other than sand.  Just a hunch.

 Not surprisingly, the lack of direct sunlight and the icy waters combine to make it a good deal cooler than the surrounding countryside.  Who cares, the view is worth it.

Oh, and when you emerge.  This is your view.  What’s not to love?

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We Rocked The Boat – The Second Part Of Our Trip Up The Rhine 2

Castle Pfalz (Die Pfalz or Pfalzgrafenstein) sits on the island of Falkenau in the middle of the Rhine.  Not surprisingly, it was a toll castle built for the sole purpose of generating revenue.  The Baron would raise and lower chains across the river controlling traffic.  It worked in concert with Gutenfels Castle (Burg Gutenfels) and the fortified town of Kaub on the other side of the river.  They kept those who refused to pay in the dungeon, a wooden float in the well, until they were paid.

Apparently it has an impressive view from which you can watch ships travel on both sides (take the ferry from Kaub).  As it was never conquered, destroyed, it is in good shape even though it doesn’t have electricity or a privy.  The little extension was the outhouse; it uses gravity and rainwater.

Kaub is known as the spot where Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher  crossed the Rhine with the Prussian and Russian armies, on New Years eve 1813-1814, in pursuit of Napoleon.  During the war against the French, Blücher moved 50,000 troops across a Russian-built pontoon bridge. It was an extraordinary achievement.  It was also an important step toward the final defeat of Napoleon…well, until Waterloo.

Oberwesel is a pictoresque town.  He thought that it’s church, the  Gothic Church of Our Lady (Pfarrkirche Liebfrauen), looked like a larger version of the church built by German immigrants in his hometown.  The Günderrode House is famous in Germany because it featured in TV Series “Heimat.”

Schönburg, also known as Schloss Schönburg (beautiful fortress in German), is another impressive castle.

The Loreley Bend, before modern navigation systems many ships sank here.  Immediately around the bend sits Loreley Rock, a infamous, steep rock 132 meters high.  Legend has it that a pretty, naked blond woman sat on the rock singing and brushing her hair.  She distracted the boatmen from their work and caused ships to crash (described in a well-known folk song).  Today, a statue of a woman sits on top of the rock.

If you look hard, you can see the statue in front of the red train car.

A likelier explanation for the large number of accidents is the narrowness of the riverbed and many rocks around a sharp curve in the river. Even with modern navigation systems, that section of the remains dangerous.   When the water level is low, treacherous reefs appear here (if you believe the fable, they are seven hard-hearted virgins who were turned into rocks).

When we told some Germans where we were headed, they said “oh, the dangerous section.”  Just last year a ship transporting sulfhuric acid overturned there.  Luckily they were able to right it and get it under control before it leaked.  Unfortunately, two crew members were swept overboard and drowned.

Founded in the 6th century, the village of St. Goar is the former capital of the area and the most heavily fortified town on the Rhine.  It is a vibrant town in a picturesque setting, which isn’t surprising given their economies are based on tourism and wine.

In Rheinfels Castle’s heyday, it was the most powerful fortress in the area.   The Baron who built it arbitrarily increased the duties and 27 towns formed an alliance (with 1000 knights and 50 ships) to stop him.  The fortress withstood the siege and they gave up after about 16 months.

The scene of numerous bloody sieges, it has a storied history filled with violent changes of ownership. Napoleon took unchallenged control of the castle in 1796 and promptly blew a good chunk of it up.   Today, it’s only a fraction of its original size.  It’s still one of the coolest of the Rhine castles to tour.

Burg Katz, across the river from St. Goar above the town of St. Goarshausen, was bombarded in 1806 by Napoleon and rebuilt in the late 19th century.  Don’t think about hiking up there.  Some rich guy (or gal) owns it and it’s not open to the public.

We Rocked The Boat – Our Boat Trip Up The Rhine

One of the Rhine’s most renowned sections is the Rhine Gorge in Germany (aka the Middle Rhine, Rhine Valley and Romantic Rhine). Technically, this area starts in Mainz and ends in Koblenz (that area is the stretch of the river designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site).   A boat trip down the Rhine is an excellent way to see the area’s magnificent landscape, towns, vineyards, castles and fortresses.   We’d heard that the stretch between Bingen and St. Goar (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was particularly beautiful.   It was.

It’s UNESCO World Heritage Site means that there are no bridges.

Castles + vineyards + valley = storybook cute   There are at least 30 castles in the 66 kilometer (41 mile) stretch from Rudesheim to Koblenz.   Why are there so many castles there?

The Rhine has been a major transport route since Roman times.  Where there is money, there are those that want a piece of it.  River barons built the castles to impose tolls on the river traffic by controlling their stretch of the river.  If boat captains didn’t pay the toll, they would be treated to “complimentary room and board” in a dungeon until they paid.

From the dock at Bingen, we could see something that looked like the Statue of Liberty.  We weren’t far off; it was Rüdesheim’s Niederwalddenkmal.  Built by Kaiser Wilhelm I from 1881-3, it commemorates the founding of the German Empire after the end of Franco-Prussian War.  Essentially, it sits near the French border and serves as a warning to France that they will get another whooping if they try to invade again (or at least that’s how it was explained to us).

The toll tower “Mäuseturm,” known as the Mouse Tower, was the first sight we saw from the boat.  The name comes from a legend in which the tower belonged to a cruel ruler who oppressed and exploited the local peasants. in his domain. During a famine, he refused to distribute any of the tower’s grain supplies to the starving peasants.   When they threatened to rebel, the ruler tricked them, telling them to wait in an empty barn for him to come with food. He ordered the doors barricaded and set fire to the barn, commenting “hear the mice squeak” (referring to their cries).  Returning to his castle, an army of mice began to swarm him.  He fled to the tower, they followed and ate him alive.  Yikes!

We barely had time to listen to the story before seeing our first ruin, the ruin of Ehrenfels Castle (Burgruine Ehrenfels).  The rapid succession continued for the rest of the trip.  Wow!  We were amazed.

Built in the early 1300’s on a strategic hilltop, is Burg Rheinstein.  Prince Frederick of Prussia bought the castle and rebuilt the castle in the 19th century.  Nearby the impressive medieval Burg Reichenstein is a now a modern hotel.

Burg Sooneck, also known as Saneck, Sonneck and Schloss Sonneck (click on the link to find out its relationship to Swiss history and the Battle of Sempach), was an infamous haunt of the river’s robber barons. The Crown Prince of Prussia, Frederick William IV, and his brothers Princes William, Charles, and Albert bought the completely derelict castle and rebuilt it as a hunting castle.

The tiny town of Niederheimbach has the 13th century Heimburg Castle and the little church called St. Mariae Himmelfahrt.

Lorch is a small town that has a lot for its size.  You can easily spot it’s church, Pfarrkirche St. Martin (Saint Martin’s Parish Church), from the water.  In the 18th century, the witch’s tower served as a sort of jail for wrongdoers and “witches”.  The Nollig ruins (Ruine Nollig on the Rheinsteig trail), overlook the town and are the remains of the old town fortifications on the rugged ridge.

Bachrach is over 1,000 years old, and I thought we were getting a little long in the tooth.  Just like the house of an octogenarian, it accumulated bits and bobs over time (the walkable city walls, 16 watchtowers, the picturesque “Malerwinkel”, the ruins of St. Werner’s Chapel).  Stahleck Castle (Burg Stahleck), one of the most photogenic castles, sits on a hill above.  It was destroyed by the French in 1689 and is now a youth hostel.  I’ve stuck him in some cheap hostels before, but never a nice one like this.

Fresh Seaside Air Inland Thanks To Saline Towers

While in Bad Kreuznach, Germany we saw giant structures on the side of the road.  They were 9 meters (27 feet) high and looked almost like walls.  We wondered whether they were for flooding, remnants of ramparts or used for something else.  It turns out that they are Saline graduation towers, structures used to produce salt by removing water from Saline solution via evaporation.

The towers are made from a wooden wall-like frame stuffed with bundles of brushwood (typically blackthorn).   The Nahe valley has many salt springs. Salt water from them runs down the tower and partly evaporates, leaving minerals behind on the twigs.  The water in the bottom has a higher salt content (as a result of the evaporation).

We’d never seen these before, but apparently they are in spa towns in  Germany, Poland and Austria. Our friends told us that the air around them is beneficial and people with lung problems flock to them like they do to the seaside.  The salt water (for both inhalation and bathing) remains a remedy  for rheumatic diseases, asthma and skin conditions.

Of course, we had to check them out.  We hiked through the Salinental valley from Bad Kreuznach to Bad Münster to see them.  They were pretty sweet.  You almost got a high from breathing in the air.  It had a salty, tangy, fresh smell, kind of like the ocean without any fishy odors.  The area around the towers felt cool and it was very refreshing.

The Kurpark gardens are billed as Europe’s largest open-air inhalatorium, they offer private salt rooms and spas on site. saline nebulizer, the thermal baths and a number of rehabilitation clinics.  Saline nebulizers  spray a fine salt mist into the surrounding area.  The saltwater droplets are then breathed deep into the bronchial tubes.

You have been able to get radon therapy for rheumatism and inflammations for over 100 years. Bad Kreuznach pioneered radon therapy in an underground quicksilver chamber. Patients sit in an underground room, inhaling radon gas. I was surprised to see it because we had to do a radon test in our basement when I was a kid.

We walked along the water to adjacent Bad Munster.  Although there isn’t a ton besides campers and more spas in Bad Munster, it was beautiful.  It was so beautiful that Turner even painted it.  In 1844 while exploring the smaller valleys of the Rhine, he painted the castle of Ebernburg from the Valley of the Alsenz (click here to see the painting or go see it at the Tate in London).