Several months ago, when I was still stateside and still perfectly competent in the language being spoken around me, my friends and I (shout out!) took a little day trip through the Ozarks, stopping at the usual sites: Mystic Caverns, a roadside diner, a medieval fortress construction site.
And now, a plug for my favorite roadside attraction: overlooking the fact that present-day Arkansas is neither Europe nor medieval, the Ozark Medieval Fortress is as authentic an experiment as we can get in medieval construction
techniques, from carpentry to pottery to, um, quarrery, plus contemporary safety measures, minus serfs. It’s an (almost) self-sufficient little family-friendly village, if you keep Junior away from the forger’s fire, that appeals to the Harry Potter fanatic and the Ren Fair frequenter buried within us all, and I’d really encourage you to stop and take a look around if you’re ever in the area, and chances are, you’ll be close enough to justify a visit at some point during the project’s duration. Projected build time? Twenty years.
So, flash forward a few months, and I find myself come full circle: from a fake castle being authentically built, to a real castle fallen into authentic decay (isn’t history funny?). I am, after all, stationed along the Rhine in an area known particularly for being dotted with castle ruins (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I might add), so yesterday, I coughed up the 2 Euro train ticket, weathered the twenty-minute train ride, and found myself in St. Goar, home of Burg Rheinfels, the largest and most well-preserved ruin (if a ruin can be said to be well-preserved) on the Rhine.
And that train ride was worth it. You know when you tour something, the most interesting bits are always roped off? Like, take Graceland – you’re not actually
content just looking at the Jungle Room while your audio guide explains the significance of that green carpeted ceiling. That is far too sanitized an approach to something so atrocious! You want to feel your feet sink in that shag carpet yourself; you want to experience sitting your own bottom on that tiki-inspired leopard-print barstool (or whatever); you want to be more than the voyeur judging Elvis’ terrible taste – you want to know what it’s like to be the bearer of such terrible taste yourself: you want to be Elvis.
Well, I mean, I do.
But Burg Rheinfels is no Jungle Room. For one, it doesn’t look like great-grandma’s living room reimagined by Rudyard Kipling. For two, you’re not kept at a frustrating distance with all those other ogling tourists who just don’t
understand; you’re given the freedom to wander, and wander you do (with handy explanations courtesy of my man Rick Steves): through courtyards and a slaughterhouse, through a dungeon and an echoing warehouse of a wine cellar, through a moat and through a winding, claustrophobia-inducing McDonald’s PlayPlace of tunnels, dug to store weapons and the soldiers who used them – and through tunnels that once housed little but explosives, a minefield meant to be detonated when ransacked by those pesky French. It’s nothing but one-fifth of its original size now, being used over time as a quarry of stone to build the town below, and is now in large part reclaimed by nature; in places, it’s difficult to tell what is castle, what is mountain, what is grassy courtyard, what is moss and ivy growing back over this huge outcrop of human effort and human history.
After this excursion, Beth and I stopped into another nearby town, Bacharach (pronounced, wonderfully, bock-uh-rock, which inspired astute commentary like, “If I had a backup band, it would totally be called The Bacharachers”), which may or may not have ties to my man Bacchus. Actually, it’s probably Celtic. But there’s still lots of wine. So, this city has all the charm Eureka Springs wishes it had, all the authenticity Disney World wants, all the timbered houses an American imagines when he imagines Germany, all the tourist shops a spoon collector could hope for. Bacharach, not to be outdone by St. Goar, sports its own castle, but this one is converted into a youth hostel, and sits above the town, lit up at night like Hogwarts keeping watch over Hogsmeade.
So, as if that’s not enough to recommend Bacharach, we also had the good luck to stumble smack-dab into a St. Martin’s Day Parade. St. Martin’s Day is a holiday celebrated here, part harvest celebration, part feast day to commemorate a St. Martin, a Roman soldier who gave half his cloak to a beggar in the snow. It’s marked by a week of sugary pretzels and man-shaped pastries and parades, in which the children of the town carry colored lanterns through the streets singing songs, until, often, they all end up at a bonfire – and this bonfire was the single biggest bonfire I’ve ever laid eyes on. It was astounding.
My parents and my man Joe (shout out!) spent the weekend camping together, which makes me both incredibly happy and incredibly jealous. But, I’m happy to say, I at least have them beat on the campfire front.
Speaking of Joe, just a short five weeks until he gets here, which means – yes, you guessed it – I’m reappropriating the purpose of this blog from account of my experiences to countdown calendar. You’re welcome.