Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The Neckar


To name the river-scenery of Europe is almost to name the inland scenic beauty of the Continent. From the glacier cradle of a stream; through its troublous infancy, racing and leaping, and sounding its cataract trumpets in the hills; through its strong and useful manhood, bearing burthens and spreading fertility, seeking, by winding ways, a passage through an intricate world; to the calmer outspread of its honoured age, in sight of the infinite ocean to which it moves,—a river is in general a succession of varied beauties. To the summer wanderer rivers have the charm of freshness and coolness; they offer easy and almost noiseless travelling; they give opportunity for thoughts which rest and tranquillise the heart, and they pass before the eyes a diorama of Nature’s workmanship and man’s, which has power to soothe many a pain and sorrow to slumber.

A very accessible as well as a very beautiful specimen of the sisterhood of European rivers is the Neckar; one, however, which does not seem to attract so many English as it deserves. During a long day spent on its bosom in the height of summer last year, we did not meet with one of our countrymen; and the few words of English we heard spoken, were from the mouth of a German who had lived in the United States.

The junction of the Neckar with the Rhine takes place at Mannheim. This large garrison and commercial town of Baden contains probably the greatest amount of deadness, dulness, and silence ever collected in one city. In its wide, straight, clean, well-paved streets, lined with trees and fine houses, in its handsome, sunny squares, ornamented with bronze trophies, every noise dies away, recoiling—

E’en at the sound itself has made.

The soldiers march about more quietly than they do anywhere else, and the groups of military in the Wirthshaüser drink in silence, and joke sotto voce. Once in half-an-hour a pair of wheels startles the slumbering genius of the streets, and is lost in feeble echoes. A faint indication of piano-music from the far interior of some of the large pleasant houses falls on the ear, competing with the footfalls, far between, of the very good-looking females with which Mannheim is adorned.

Mannheim is a place of immense commerce,—so one of its inhabitants informed us, in a quaint, stagnant voice. It is very likely to be true, as the city occupies the axil of two important navigable rivers; but even trade walks about there in padded shoes, and makes no ostentatious noises or display. This Baden town, with its oleanders in the doorways, and vine-gardens in the suburbs, is by no means an unpleasing residence, especially to those who prefer a flat tone in life’s landscape. It is a place of education, moreover; it possesses well-conducted schools, and an University,—the very deadest portion of the whole city. And the late Grand-Duchess Stephanie used to show kind hospitality to the English and other foreigners.

Whenever we revisit Mannheim, we do so with feelings of respect akin to those of affection; but we must not now linger there, fit though it be, from the above-mentioned qualifications, to be “a home for man.” Nor may we stop at glorious Heidelberg, which we reach by the Ducal Railway in an hour, except to glance from the deck of the small steamboat on which we have already embarked, at the prematurely ruined castle; and through the fine bridge; and up to the wooded heights on the opposite side of the stream, trying to find the little building where the famous duels are fought; the Studenten when they fight, taking care to pad themselves well all over, leaving only the nose and cheeks exposed, and to use swords, which, like chisels, are sharp at the end alone. One more glance we give,—and that is up the river, and at some banks of gravel high and dry, which seem to occupy almost all its bed.

We wonder what our bold little steamer means to do; whether she be an amphibious locomotive and have the means of crawling over such difficulties, dry-shod; or whether the crew and passengers disembark at certain portages, and carry the boat over, like a canoe in the northern waters of America. However, the bell rings, the landing-stage is withdrawn, and we are off; that is, we should be off if it depended on the efforts of the engine and the exertions of the crew, pushing with their long poles; but, being aground, we are not off in the fullest sense of the word. To prevent others being deterred from navigating the Neckar from fears of stranding and wreck, I would add that we grounded only about four times, and that within the first half-hour; and that afterwards, though our course was not always exactly plain-sailing, the depth of water was sufficient for the small vessels which ascend and descend the river. The slow progress at starting cannot be reckoned lost time. The eye feasts on the hanging oak woods and the pleasant outskirts of Heidelberg, the peeping distance, still holding up the castle and bridge, as a mother holds up her babe to her husband who has left the cottage-door and turns back to take one last fond look at his little one. The Königsstuhl, a modern tower crowning the highest elevation above the city, waves a stern farewell; and by the time we are under the Wolffsbrunnen—a favourite resort of the Heidelbergers—we have lost sight of the town.

When the railway, now in construction which profanes the right bank of the river, is completed, it is very probable that the steamboats to and from Heilbronn will cease to run. This will be a great loss; and the only way then of seeing the Neckar from the water, will be to hire rowing-boats and descend the stream. This will require more leisure, and be a more expensive method. The time occupied in going to Heilbronn, the capital of the Black Forest, is thirteen hours: the longest days and fine weather are therefore necessary to make it an enjoyable excursion. We were particularly favoured in this way, and hope others may visit the Schwartzwald under the same auspicious influences.

Past lawns and woods and coloured rocks, past villages, and here and there a castle—though the latter are met with more sparingly than on the Rhine and Moselle—the little steamer threads its way, at times sounding the depths of the restricted channel when sufficient water is found for its very small necessities. The boats and craft which descend the stream do not indicate a rich country through which we are passing: they principally contain stone—no doubt very good in its way—and other earthy commodities of small value. The rafts of timber are greatly diminished in width; they are long and narrow, navigated by a fine class of men, the foresters of Würtemberg. The river seems a sort of family concern, or to possess a species of freemasonry. A conversation takes place between the steamer and every craft and raft we meet. We slack our paddles or stop them altogether, as the downward navigation approaches us, otherwise in these small waters, our swell would send the water over the gunwales of the boats and over the surface of the rafts. The great nautical event of the day is the passing of the steamboat from Heilbronn. With regard to eating and drinking on board these boats, it should be mentioned that there is no great provision made; but coffee and a cutlet, and a glass of the local wine, may always be had.

In about three hours we reach Hirschhorn, a fine stronghold and walled town, in a picturesque situation. An hour afterwards Eberbach is passed. Two German miles distant, among the hills, and consequently not visible from the river, is the Castle of Erbach, giving its name to a Countdom. Many stories are related of a Count of Erbach, who lived in the last century. He had acquired a passion for collecting; and whilst serving with the Austrian army against the Turks, he had opportunities of procuring a museum of rarities. With him the love of securing curiosities amounted to kleptomania. What he could not buy he would beg; what could not be obtained by gift he would steal. A beautiful inlaid helmet in the Vatican attracted his desire. Going through the galleries with a train of his servants, he managed to carry it away. The curator discovered his loss of the casque the same day, gave notice immediately, and the gates of Rome were closed to all outgoers till they had been searched for the stolen object. The Count was determined to preserve his prize. The helmet was fastened between his wife’s legs, and she walked, or waddled, out of Rome in triumph. A German countess, with the embonpoint of middle-age, may waddle a little without creating the suspicion of wearing a helmet in such abnormal fashion.

With almost equal risk he procured a gigantic pair of antlers, having twenty-four points, from outside the shop of a baker in Nüremberg. In the Italian war his friends obtained many articles of vertu for him, often by means which only an ardent passion for collecting could justify. At his death it was found that he had strictly entailed his collection so as to prevent its dismemberment.

The river is distinguished from the Rhine and Moselle by the almost absence of vines. These are more than compensated by the wood and hills and quarries which make up much of the scenery of the shores. Zwingenberg, with its aspiring keep, its chain of wall-towers, and wooded foreground, makes a fine object from the river; and Hornberg, with a circular tower and conic roof, is more ruinous, but as firmly placed. It is interesting as being the spot where Götz von Berlichingen died in 1562.

The Castle of Horneck keeps guard over the village of Gundelsheim. Externally it is not attractive. Its square white walls, pierced with straight rows of windows, make it look like a convent; and a square central tower, capped with a modern leaden roof, gives the whole the appearance of a factory: and the similarity is not far from the truth, for the old château is at present a brewery. Let us hope that the beer made there is as strong as its walls. The place is rich in historic associations. Here the German Knights Teuton kept their principal residence from the year 1250. The Emperor Ruprecht stayed there in 1401, and Charles V. in 1546. The greater part of the Castle was destroyed in 1525, during the Peasants’ war.

Few towns can boast of a more picturesque situation than Upper Wimpfen (Wimpfen-on-the-Mountain). From the top of a steep grassy and wooded bank, a hundred feet above the stream, the old city, with its towers and gables, looks placidly down into the glassy river like an ancient Narcissus, and shows “double—town and shadow.” Lower Wimpfen, half a mile further up the Neckar, is sought for its saline baths, whilst its grand church claims the architect’s admiration.

We take leave of the steamboat at Heilbronn, crossing the river as we approach that antique town by a covered bridge, in form like a very elongated cottage with its two end walls out. Why in this city, and in Swiss towns, passengers should be so carefully protected from weather in crossing a river, and left so exposed to it in the streets, remains among the things yet to be explained.

Frauenkirche Esslingen (OAW).png
The Frauenkirche, at Esslingen. (See page 504.)

A day or two may be profitably spent in wandering about and around Heilbronn. The cathedral is a grand mass, with fine chiselling and tracery about it; and the deep colour of the red stone of which it is built adds greatly to the solemnity of its whole effect. In the town, the house of the Teutonic Knights, with its curious clock, the narrow streets, the gabled and impending houses, make one long for the pencil of Prout or the younger Stanfield. A more moderate desire, perhaps, would be for a photographic apparatus, which might be carried without occupying space and used without preparation or trouble. Why does not somebody invent such a machine?

We now make our way by railroad through the truly interesting Würtemberg country towards Stütgart, passing ancient walled towns,—Besingheim being one of the best specimens, and most conveniently placed for observation—and an endless succession of valley, hill, wood, and cheerful villages. We do not stop at the capital, which lies two miles from the Neckar on a tributary stream, but pass on till we again skirt and cross our river, and in half an hour find ourselves in Esslingen, where we leave the train, and resolve to explore that antiquated city.

The town of Esslingen resembles in its fate some ancient and noble families. The circumstances which first made them great—internal and foreign wars—having ceased to be habitual, the family finds that modern times are an uncongenial atmosphere, and it falls behind in the race, and makes up for diminished importance in cherishing its noble memories. Some scion, however, more original than his house, rehabilitates the family, in part, by entering a learned profession, or some disguised form of trade.

This free city of the empire had already diminished to one-third of its former extent, and had lost two-thirds of its churches, towers, and strong houses. It gave up its old amusement of levying war on the Dukes of Würtemberg, and its occupation being gone, it was on the high road to oblivion, when it occurred to the First Napoleon, one fine day in 1805, to raise the Duke of the Swabian land to the rank of king, and to give him Esslingen as a keepsake. Dignity apart, the change was excellent in its consequences to the town; the growth of ruins ceased; the river could turn mills and carry merchandise; the people got themselves a name as makers of gloves; then as imitators of Champagne wine, their vine-covered hills furnishing them with a very good grape; afterwards they commenced manufacturing engines, and the railway came to their doors, and the Government instituted a royal school,—now the city is active, prosperous, and again increasing; and, as yet, has lost little of its picturesque beauty. It remains walled in parts, and its approach from the river is by a long bridge defended by a fine tower. Of its churches, the more ancient is, a plain structure with two towers connected by galleries. The other, named the Frauenkirche, is a singularly graceful specimen of the architecture of the fourteenth or early fifteenth century. The height of its roof, and of its columns without capitals, the tracery of its windows, and its spire of open carving, makes it conspicuous from within and without as “a joy for ever.” It is almost unique among German churches in one respect, that the design was executed and finished at one effort. Its situation—on a rocky platform, to which one ascends by steps and sharp gradients,—is very favourable to its effect. It will not excite wonder to say that the Esslingers are proud not only of their gloves, their “Mussirender” wine, and their engineering, but also of their beautiful Frauenkirche.

The navigable part of the Neckar here is very limited, and the deeper channel is so narrow that the rafts of timber which descend the stream are most attenuated, consisting of two trees abreast, and of such length that they wind down the river like a snake. The activity and ingenuity of the raftsmen in guiding them are very striking. But the charming river, however shallow, spreads and frolics in a cradle of vine-clad hills; and here and there a more infantine tributary rushes to join it with child-like glee. Such an affluent pours through the beautiful valley of Reutlingen, half-a-dozen miles above Esslingen. A visit should be made to that picturesque town, and to some of the castle-crowned heights in the neighbourhood—as the Hohenstauffen. Our way is at present to the ancient university city of Tübingen, where we are again on the Neckar. The latter town is prettily situated, and is full of ancient houses and quaint, crooked streets. The University departs from such antique companionship, and its modern, white walls assimilate with the neology and advanced ideas which find a central home in its courts. Tübingen is noticeable, even amongst German universities, for the boldness of its metaphysical speculations. Yet here was Melancthon’s professorial chair. If the “Schwartz-Erd,” the very name of which displeased him, could now give back his gentle spirit for a day, how would the outward and the inward change he would notice appal him! He would see the University glory in being the birthplace of the so-called Ideal Christianity. He would see the spot where Strauss the student paced whilst preparing himself with much diligent learning for his future part as assailant of objective religion, manfully and consistently afterwards maintained in Berlin. Those Swabian hills, in their peaceful clothing of vine and wood, have looked down on the young sceptical inquirer whilst he armed himself for the demolition of one faith, which was old, that he might build up another, fantastic and full of inconsistency, but which was new. Locke has here for a century laboured under the imputation of disbelief for asserting that all ideas are only pictorial images in the mind of objective existences; but here a new teacher, about the same time that an Oxford presbyter raised a contention in the English Church which has not yet subsided, when he put forth the first Tract for the Times, promulgated the reverse of Locke’s doctrine, making facts to be the offspring of ideas, and objects only solid shadows clothing the immaterial idealism which projected them.

In the chancel of the church at Tübingen are thirteen large and richly chiselled tombs, supporting recumbent figures in alabaster, of Swabian worthies. Among the most memorable are that of Eberhard, dated 1496 (he founded the University): that of Ulrich, who introduced the Reformation in Würtemberg; and of his wife, a Bavarian; date, 1564: and that of the unfortunate Gräfinn (or Fürstinn) Anna, who was poisoned on her wedding-day at the age of sixteen. The most elaborate of these very noticeable tombs are that of John George, Duke of Schleswick-Holstein, who died whilst a student at the University,—this monument is supported on lions, tigers, and stags: and that to Ludwig, the rich workmanship of which is of later date.

Round the western end of the church is a series of pictures—without much merit—descriptive of the Saviour’s life. They are principally remarkable for the very local inspiration of the artist. The Woman at the Well of Samaria is a complete transcript of a Würtemberg peasant in festival dress. She wears a wide straw hat, scarlet boddice, white sleeves, and a dark skirt with golden border.

M. H.