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The Rhine Runs Through It

IF THERE IS A PATRON SAINT OF TRAVEL WRITERS, he must have foreseen the riches I would bring home from my trip along the Rhine. He must have decided to relieve me of my notes (I left them in a taxi), to cause my camera to malfunction and double-expose two rolls of film, and to hide a third, potentially useful roll of film in the pocket of a shirt that ended up in the washing machine. How fortunate! What remains in memory is an uncluttered view, the distilled essence of those 12 days' most charming moments and places.

Our first walk in the town of Konstanz, for example. We were three: my wife and I and our friend Max, who was born by the banks of the Rhine, knew the treasures to be found along its course, and wanted to share them with us.

Lake Constance was one of them. There it was—wide, blue, and sparkling, with an ample fringe of lush lawns and prosperous villas. In the distance, veiled in mist like the bulwarks of a fairy kingdom, stood the Swiss Alps. And the smells: a scent of pine resin, and a milder aroma coming from the acacias down by the lake. As we approached the harbor, the sound of clinking glasses and chattering voices stole our attention. The hubbub came from the wide-open doors of the town's medieval council house, once the site of weighty deliberations but now, it seemed, a place for public cocktail parties.

Friendly nods welcomed our timid entrance, and we walked in on a most unusual occasion. The Old Catholics, a sect founded in 1871 to protest the doctrine of papal infallibility, had—for the first time in its history—invested two women with the authority of priests. The church was celebrating its act with a sumptuous buffet and large supplies of white wine. The two newly ordained women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, spoke of thankfulness and dedication. Then a red-faced and thoroughly plastered Roman Catholic priest asked for the microphone. He wouldn't speak long, he promised, and proceeded, wickedly, to quote Martin Luther in praise of short speeches. But his speech really was short. "I wish to say, as a man—not as a priest, which would get me into trouble, and definitely not ex cathedra—that this happy day has made me happy, too." And he raised his glass: "Praise the Lord."

Pleasantly inebriated, we walked to the nearby Münster, a splendid cathedral where the reformer Jan Hus was sentenced to death by burning in 1415. Was it this knowledge that sobered us, or simply the architectural magic of those vaulting arches and steep, somber walls?Suddenly a group of young men and women walked in with a purposive clatter of heels, assembled with their backs to the altar, smiling expectantly (for a photograph, I presumed), fell under a trance of obedience as an older man summoned them to attention, and burst into song. Before I realized that they were a choral group rehearsing for a concert, the effect of that first explosion of harmonious noise was one of astonishing beauty.

WE FOLLOWED THE RIVER DOWNSTREAM FROM KONSTANZ in a rented car, crossing briefly into Switzerland, then France, and back into Germany, sleeping and eating at hotels and restaurants that ranged from modest and homey to refined and luxurious, and stopping en route to take in the surprises Max had so thoughtfully planned for us. A couple of them failed to impress our jaded American sensibilities. Switzerland's Schaffhausen Falls—"the mightiest waterfall in central Europe," according to one guidebook—consists of two modest spills. Pretty to look at and pleasing to the ears, but mighty?At our next stop, however, in the small German town of Waldshut, we experienced a wholly unexpected pleasure: a cobbled street reserved for pedestrians and lined with medieval guildhalls that had colorful, carved wooden figures of birds and beasts on their roofs and cornices. Any child's heart would leap with delight at the thought of possessing such a toy street, but here the miniature world had risen around us—or perhaps we were reduced to its proportions, toy men and women having coffee and cake at a little outdoor café.

We stopped often to pay our respects to the river, taking note of its varying hues, from deep bluish green to muddy yellowish brown. At those moments I wished we were traveling by raft rather than car. It was as if we had come a long way to visit some ancient personage of whom we had heard wondrous tales all our lives, and then found ourselves awkwardly tipping our hats, not quite knowing what to say or how to listen. But the ancient one's children—venerable towns like Basel, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, and Mainz that had grown along the river's shores, and blooming villages with vineyards, churches, castles—these we were able to meet and engage with easily. Our pace and their rhythm did not conflict.

One of these encounters, however, was almost too intense for comfort. In the Musée d'Unterlinden in Colmar, 42 miles south of Strasbourg, we stopped to look at Matthias Grünewald's early-16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece and stayed, transfixed, for nearly two hours. I had seen a print of the massive central panel—that gruesome image of a tortured body, green with putrefaction, its nailed-down hands clawing the empty sky—but was unprepared for such overwhelming emotion. And what was one to make of the Virgin's shocked expression as the angel of the Lord storms into her bower with his momentous announcement?And what of that demonic angel covered with blue-green scales, serenading the Virgin and Child with a band of winged fiddlers who do not at all appear to be heaven-sent?The museum guidebook dispelled these questions with ink clouds of speculation. In my fractured French, I asked one of the uniformed guards for her opinion. "I stare at these pictures every day," she said, "and they just look stranger and stranger."

Our favorite hotel, the Teufelhof in Basel, presented a very different kind of art. Eight of its 33 rooms were original works commissioned by the hotel (since our stay, they have been redesigned, based on the theme of time). My first impression was that we'd been had. My wife and I stayed in room No. 3, designed by Brigitte Kordina. It was equipped with two cotlike single beds, and the only decoration was some 20 jagged shards of mirror affixed to the wall between the two windows. The furnishings, apart from the beds, consisted of a black table and chair, two black bedside tables with black lamps, and what looked like a little black radio. (And there was a white-tiled bathroom with a red hair dryer.) "This is it?" I asked. John Calvin could not have designed a sparer hotel room.

Then we discovered a small lamp near the door. When we turned it on, its beam cast the reflections of the mirror shards onto the walls and ceiling. Instantly we were both reminded of nights we had lain awake as children watching the mysterious reflections of moonlight on the ceiling. That impression deepened after the sun had set. Wall and ceiling edges became indistinct, and the splash of luminous shapes suggested the presence of unbounded space. Sadly, we never made use of the object I had mistaken for a radio. According to a brochure I read later, its purpose was to emit a "sound carpet" to go along with the visual magic.

Max (who had chosen a less expensive pension on the other side of the river) joined us for dinner that evening in the Weinstube, one of the hotel's two restaurants. I still remember the delicacy of a poached fillet of perch in lemongrass sauce, and our little delirium of eye-rolling, lip-smacking delight over a raspberry parfait that vanished deliciously on the tongue.

When we awoke in the morning, our night-lights had paled and the three-dimensional world had returned. Two shimmering, slender, rectangular bars of warm color—red and yellow—had appeared on one of the walls. We traced them to pieces of colored glass that were mounted on the outside window jambs. Presumably the sun would continue to paint the room as the day progressed.

THOSE DOUBLE-EXPOSED PHOTOGRAPHS I mentioned earlier suddenly look like accurate records, not exactly of the moments and places we passed through, but of the capricious way memory stores its pictures—with a few jokers shuffled into the deck. Here is the center of Basel, roiling with buses, pedestrians, and visible noise, and rising above it in stately tiers, the patrician houses that stand in perpetual calm by the right bank of the Rhine. Here, swathed in the fumes of a sulfurous spring in Wiesbaden, is the Neoclassical pomp of the nearby casino from which we were excluded because of our casual attire. Here is my wife, smiling amid the roses of an exquisite garden in Eltville, attended on either side by gargoyles from the Strasbourg cathedral. Here, stenciled onto the spires of the cathedral of Worms, where Martin Luther refused to recant his beliefs, is a memorial for that city's murdered and expelled Jews.

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