I have been walking for four days. Everything is going to plan.
The plan, in actual fact, is to sweat off some of the excess calories gained during the football season by taking a long walk down the Rhine valley. It is being executed with military precision.
Discipline is tight. I will cover at least fifteen miles a day. I will follow the map religiously and not take shortcuts. There will be no alcohol –at lunchtime.
I am also on a strict diet. This is not because I have decided to keep a lid on my nutrition but because I frankly don’t have much choice in the matter. The cuisine on offer is German, German or German. Breakfast is cheese and ham. Lunch is pork and potatoes. Dinner is another variation or pork and potatoes.
The next day’s breakfast is the same as the day before’s. Lunch is pork and potatoes or perhaps potatoes and pork if I’m feeling adventurous –and so it goes on.
Not that it is ever boring. The Rhine valley is like a giant model train set. The tracks hug to the cliff as they thread though fairytale towns ranged along the river bank. The narrow road twists along the waterside like the grapevines which sweep down the clifftops. The tourists and UNESCO signs are everywhere.
From where I am at the top of the cliff, it’s a jungle. As ever, the route as it appears on the map doesn’t add up with the one on the ground. A short hop on the map is half a day’s march up and down the steep cliffs and through thick forest.
The military style planning which I had begun with is beginning to erode. I have made it to the top of the Loreley gorge, where, so goes the legend, the siren Loreley sits combing her hair with her golden comb and singing so sweetly that the sailors below crash their boats into the rocks. I have fallen into her clutches. Below her statue is a beer garden and I am having a liquid lunch.
Three beers is enough to make the afternoon’s hike go more quickly and I head off back into the jungle. It is the hottest day of the year. Soon, I hope, I will reach the town of Kaub on the east bank of the river and from there I can grab a train home. Mission accomplished.
“Soon” turns out to be five hours later. The jungle turns to plateau, my resolve not to take shortcuts fades as I scrutinse the map looking for easier options. On the map it looks promising –all roads lead to Kaub.
The reality is somewhat different. Predictably enough, my shortcut turns out to be the longest way possible. Kaub really is in the middle of nowhere.
In the end I pluck for the one sure option. I descend through the jungle down the cliff to the riverside then march the last four miles along the road. It is a baking hot day, the sun is beating down and the beer is wearing off. I am starting to hallucinate.
The town is something of a surprise. It is an attractive place with two castles, which still retains part of its original city walls. Its narrow streets are crammed along the steepest part of the cliffs.
Yet the tourists don’t come down this far and the feel is different. The streets are almost empty and there is no bright and breezy bunting in the municipal colours as there is in most of the Rhineland towns. No red and white like in Koblenz, no black and yellow like in Boppard. Kaub has gone for the much more sombre Prussian black.
If Prussia is remembered in Germany at all then on balance it is remembered fondly. History doesn’t often list the Germans among the good guys but in Prussia’s case there were exceptions. Kaub, it turns out as I pass the monument on the waterfront, is the scene of one of them.
The monument is a statue of Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Wellington’s trusted Prussian ally in the struggle against Napoleon. It was here in Kaub in the bitter winter of 1814 that Blücher and his Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine in pursuit of Bonaparte. Not long after they caught him and sent him homewards to think again.
Without the good burghers of Kaub they may not have done so — and had that been the case then you may well have been reading this in French right now. It was the local people’s boats that were used to build the pontoon bridge over the river; this was Prussia’s Dunkirk.
Blücher and the Army of Silesia were not good guests. They had come in directly from Russia and brought with them all manner of diseases and indiscipline. Blücher’s military planning was as short on detail as my own. He soon found out that building a bridge out of boats was a lot more complicated than he had expected.
The Marshall deployed his Russian allies to build the pontoon and they dutifully lined up the boats in the river, ignoring the helpful suggestions of the local boatmen as they did so.
This was not through rudeness mind you; the problem was more fundamental. The boatmen spoke no Russian and the bridge builders spoke no German. Thus helpful advice such as “the anchors are too light, those boats will float way” was lost in translation. Fortunately when half of the bridge broke free and made its way in stately fashion down the river towards Koblenz then the misunderstanding was cleared up.
On the second day, the logistical difficulties were resolved and fifty thousand troops crossed the bridge, leaving the Rhinelanders to clean up the mess. Heaven knows what the latter thought about military planning. By this stage of my own expedition I can empathise.
I’d like to say that Blücher’s invasion was the last experience that the people of Kaub had to do with strategists but to do so would be to tell a lie. It would also deprive you of the chance to hear about Kaub’s other claim to fame.
In 1919, at the end of the First World War, the French came back, bringing their British and American allies with them. Because it constituted a threat to France, the west bank of the Rhine was occupied by allied troops. The east side was slightly more complicated. This was deep into German territory and would overstretch resources.
The solution was typically military. A map was produced and three semicircles drawn from the major cities of Cologne, Koblenz and Mainz. The British occupied the circle around Cologne, the Americans the circle at Koblenz and the French the one at Mainz. Nothing could go wrong.
That is, of course, except for the town of Kaub. Kaub was caught between the lines in a gap of about five miles between the French circle and the American one. Bordered by occupation zones on two sides, steep cliffs on the third and the river on the fourth, the town was effectively cut off from the rest of Germany.
On the map, the shape made by the two circles resembles a bottleneck and so the area took the name “Bottleneck Free State” –and was forced to become a de facto microstate. This was not what the generals had planned, but neither did they care unduly. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs after all.
Given that Kaub is such good wine country the name is apt, but in 1919 the consequences were severe. Wine was about the only foodstuff available. Trucks and trains were forbidden to stop and so food and fuel were hard to come by. There were 16,000 mouths to feed.
Smuggling and hijacking thus became the major pillars of the economy, although the Bottleneckers were organised enough to introduce their own currency and stamps. In 1923 another French invasion put and end to it all, but by that stage Germany was in such chaos that barely anybody noticed.
I am reading all of this from the back of a wine menu by the way. I am sitting in a winehouse next to the station. A sudden shower of rain made a stop here seem advisable. The story of the Bottleneck Free State is on the back of the menu; there are seventeen wines to choose from on the front.
I am sceptical about the story and so I check it out on the internet. The menu is not lying. I am up to number three on the menu so the assertion that Kaub is good wine country is on personal authority.
Everything I’ve learned about Kaub — and everything I’ve read in the news this week — suggests that great leaders rarely cross the bridge between theory and practice. I could do with a drink. There’s good wine in Germany if you know where to find it.
There are rooms free too. I enquire after glass number four.
The best laid plans…