Romanticism, revolution, and Riesling, in Bacharach, Germany
The most interesting thing about the Hotel Kranenturm is not that a very active German railway line passes a few meters from your room, periodically shaking the building with the thunder of gargantuan freight trains, or shivering with the relatively quiet hurricane whir of the passenger Deutsche Bahn. Because turn and look the other way, across the Rhine village of Bacharach, and see a vision of romanticism made manifest.
Stahleck Castle crowns the ridge, just waiting for Lord Byron, or at least a Bronte. The 12th century fortification belonged to archbishops, kings, and Holy Roman Emperors, and at least one real-life Romeo and Juliet saga when Konrad van Staufen’s daughter, though intended for the King of France, secretly wed Henry the Elder of Brunswick, son of Konrad’s sworn enemy, Duke Henry the Lion. If you made this stuff up it would be overwrought, but in a place like Bacharach, it’s history.
And history has been marching through Bacharach for centuries, as Stahleck Castle switched hands, bloodlines, and nationalities over and over until finally the French, always the French, blew it up in 1689. It lay in gothic ruin until the 20th century, when it was rebuilt as a youth hostel. The Nazis got in there and did their Naziness for awhile, but after the war it was returned to a youth hostel, and still is. Have you ever bunked in a 12th century castle? Get in line, it’s booked out pretty far in advance.
But back on March 15, 1689, when the French blew it up, more was destroyed than just the castle. Hunk of debris cascaded down the vineyard mountainsides to smash through the Werner Chapel, the uncompleted facade of which still stands with its empty-windowed sinister architecture. This was not a happy chapel, derived as it was from the death of a 16 year old boy in the 13th century which was disgracefully blamed on local Jews, leading to a wave of murderous pogroms in the area. A plaque now stands alongside the ruins with a prayer from Pope John XXIII for forgiveness of the actions of our misguided ancestors.
So much history in the walls of Bacharach, a town made powerful and wealthy by its position on the Rhine River, just downstream of the quartzite reef (the Binger Loch) that required merchants to use smaller boats to that point, then transfer their goods to larger ships in Bacharach. This trade brought immense wealth and power to the town, aided by the sneaky tactic that all the wine unloaded was then labeled as Bacharacher, spreading the town’s fame even further on waves of Riesling renown.
The heavy casks and crates were loaded and unloaded with a large crane, mounted on a tower of the city’s fortification wall. This tower was therefore known as the Kranenturm, the Cranes Tower, and when Rhine transport moved to the thunderous rails, the tower eventually became a hotel, where I slept the sleep of the blissfully exhausted for two nights in a 12th century room overlooking the Rhine Valley, full to its geographic and historic brim. So no, the cacophonous railway running outside is not the most interesting thing about the Hotel Kranenturm.