Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Tower on the Rhine

I had to climb it. I’d built forts as a kid, so when I saw a real one, I had to explore it. Never mind that I’d done that for much of the past week. The Rhine River is full of towers and castles as it winds through Germany, and I wanted to see as many as I could.

I stared up at the tower, which loomed above a small park, its masonry strong, but showing its age. In the shadow of the centuries-old building, children slid down a slide and played on a swing set. The small town spread out below the hill.

The oaken door was invitingly open, and I stepped through, to the chagrin of my family, who didn’t seem to care as much as I did to climb another tower. Aware of their reluctance, I paid the entrance fee (50 cents per person) and started climbing.

The tower’s many levels were a museum of medieval weaponry and artifacts. Sets of black armor hung along a wall, pikes and halberds standing between them. Swords, daggers and crossbows were displayed in glass cases in the center of the square rooms. I think there were some butter churns and pottery and junk too, but who has time to look at that when there’s a battleaxe in the next case?

My parents and sister were softening up to this attraction not listed in any of our guidebooks, and were actually slowing me down (because they wanted to see the butter churns and pots).

On the top floor, I passed a small alcove where the curator sat, reading a magazine. He came out to talk to us, overjoyed to practice his excellent English. He asked us the usual questions – where we were from, how long we were in Germany, etc. We made some small talk, then he asked us to wait and scurried off.

When he returned, he held an old leather-bound book in his hands. He set it down on an ancient-looking table and opened it.

“I found this a few years ago when I was cleaning,” he said. It was the original guestbook from when the tower was opened in the 1920s.

“You see,” he continued, “they go all the way. There are many Americans in here.” He flipped through page after page, and there were, indeed, many Brits, Americans, Germans, French and Italians, among other nationalities.

“Then we had a problem,” he announced, turning to an entry dated 1940. It was the last entry until 2002, when they started again in earnest. It was as if the intervening years had never happened. There were new entries from Brits, Americans, Germans, French and Italians. I smiled and signed my name and the date of my visit.

The final level of the tower was its roof. I stood between two of the ramparts and took in the view. The cloudless sky was a brilliant blue, contrasting with the stark green banks of the river, which were dotted with buildings and farms, crops growing on the gentle slopes.

It was easy to see how the tower could be used to exert power. Sitting on a spit of land jutting into the river, there was no way a boat could pass without its lord’s permission. Like many of the towers along the river, this one probably served as a customs checkpoint on what was the main economic thoroughfare of the time.

It was lunchtime, so we left the tower, saying goodbye to the friendly curator, and found a restaurant.

I would love to tell people where the tower is. The only problem with that is that I have no idea. All I do know is that it is somewhere on the Rhine between Bacharach and Bingen.

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