ABOARD AMRAS SILVER II – Oh, the things you can learn from a good tour guide. On a two-hour walking tour of Koblenz, Germany, with Heinz Gerd Reis, I learned about:
– The naughty spitting boy
– The woman in a boat who brought wine to Germany
– The horse statue with its rear end turned toward France
– The meaning of chalk marks on a cathedral door
– A robot vacuum cleaner in a holy spot
– Pieces of the Berlin Wall
– A gigantic thumb
Sure, I might have discovered some of this stuff on my own through googling or asking passersby. But all this interesting information was handed to me by an excellent guide with a great knowledge of history and a wonderful sense of humor.
Leaving the Amras Silver II, six of us walked along the Moselle River while Heinz explained the history of Koblenz and the importance of tourism and wine to the area. “Those are the two most important economic factors in our region,” he said.
With a population today of about 110,000, Koblenz was founded by the Romans as a military post around 8 BC. The name Koblenz originates from Latin for “confluences” as in the merging of the Rhine and the Moselle rivers.
“The Romans brought us wine, stayed for about 500 years and forgot to take the wine back home with them when they left,” Heinz said. “There are 13 wine-producing areas in Germany and we are world famous for our Riesling. I taste it every night just to check the quality.”
Arriving at a huge equestrian statue of William I, Heinz said the original monument was built in 1892-1897. “The statue was shot down during World War II by order of General Patton,” Heinz said.
A new statue of William I was dedicated on Sept. 25, 1993. “If you look at the back end of the horse, you’ll see that it is facing France because France was our arch enemy back then,” Heinz said.
The statue is in a beautiful area known as the German Corner. “This is where the two rivers meet and it is a reminder of Germany unity,” Heinz said.
After the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, three concrete parts of the actual wall were installed next to the William I monument. A bronze plaque gives the wall’s dates from June 17, 1953, to Nov. 9, 1989. The wall sections are dedicated to the “victims of division.”
When we approached the Basilica of St. Castor, I saw chalk writing on the massive wooden door. It didn’t look like graffiti and it wasn’t. These chalk marks have a positive meaning, Heinz explained.
“On Jan. 6, children dress up as the three wise men that followed the star of Bethlehem to find the baby Jesus. The children collect money for charity,” he said. “They go to homes and churches and other places. When some place donates, they say a prayer and write this on the door with chalk.”
The initials of the Magi – C for Caspar, M for Melchior and B for Balthazar – are inscribed upon the door along with the year. The initials, Heinz said, also can be interpreted as the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat” which means “Christ bless this house.”
Originally built around 817 AD, the Romanesque basilica is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is named in honor of St. Castor who is said to have worked as a missionary on the Moselle in the 4th century. “The basilica survived wars, fires and different governments over the years,” Heinz said. “It’s a miracle it is still standing.”
Sitting inside for a few minutes to enjoy the grandeur, we kept hearing a whirring sound. On the way out, we saw what it was. Running up and down the ancient floors on one side of the basilica was a very modern robot vacuum cleaner. The small round device had been programed to clean those hard-to-reach spots under the pews. Makes sense but seemed so incongruous.
Story of Koblenz on town’s History Column
In the town square we stopped at the 1992 History Column tracing special events in Koblenz. On the bottom rung is a sculpture of a boat laden with casks of wine symbolizing the Roman settlement and the gift of wine left behind. At the bow of the boat is a woman instructing the drunken sailors how to navigate.
“That would have never happened in the Roman days,” Heinz said, gesturing to the woman boss. “Today, yes. Back then, no.”
The very top of the History Column shows how Koblenz rebuilt after World War II and looks toward the future. The most destructive period for the city, Heinz said, was World War II when 80 percent of old Koblenz was destroyed by bombing from Great Britain and the United States. An old concrete bunker still stands where civilians could quickly take shelter.
“The worst bombing was on Nov. 6, 1944,” Heinz said. “The goal was to destroy the bridges and it was a matter of petrol, too. The more the plane weighed, the less it could fly. So planes would dump their bombs here on their way back to make sure they had enough petrol to make it back. Even today in low water they are still finding bombs.”
Nearly half of the city’s population was evacuated in 2011 when a 1.8-ton World War II bomb was found in the Rhine River after an unusually dry fall. More than 30 bombs have been found since 2000. Emergency crews are called to defuse the aerial bombs and sometimes residents have to be evacuated.
The gigantic thumb I mentioned sticks up from the lawn outside the Koblenz Museum of Modern Art. “I can’t explain it,” Heinz said with a shrug.
Then we come to the Schängel fountain, standing in the courtyard of the town hall. We are lucky it is too cold for the fountain to be working, Heinz said. “He spits a powerful stream of water. If you are standing in the wrong place, he’ll get you.”
The famous landmark commemorates a time around 1800 when Koblenz belonged to France and many newborn babies were christened Jean. “The babies were from love affairs of French soldiers with German girls here in Koblenz,” Heinz said. “The name Jean became Schang and then Schängel. We are proud to be Schängels. I am a Schängel.”
Heading back to our ship, I marveled at how much we had seen and done in two hours. “Much more to see and do,” Heinz said. “You have to come back again.”
Sounds like a good idea to me.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch