Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The great loop of the Main - Part 1
THE GREAT LOOP OF THE MAIN.
That loop of the Main which extends from Aschaffenburg to Lohr, and at the southern point of which lies Miltenberg, comprises the principal as well as the most typical beauties of the Franconian river. Considering the times in which we live, it is singularly apart from all travelled routes, although by no means difficult of access, as the railway between Hanau and Würzburg forms the chord of which it is the arc, and there are excellent roads on both banks of the river. Improved locomotion has had the effect of, in a manner, sending this country to Coventry, for, before the railroad was made, which bores through the Spessart hills, there was considerable passenger traffic up and down the river. At present the principal business appears to be in building-stone, for the cultivation of the vine, once carried to great perfection in this region, seems to have declined, so that the wines, though still some of them excellent in quality, are chiefly consumed on the spot. It is, however, undeniable that this portion of the river deserves a visit more than any other part of its course, not only on account of its picturesque beauty, but its rich stores of historical monuments and recollections. We have heard it preferred by landscape-painters to the Moselle or the Rhine, though for a reason which would scarcely be generally admitted as justifying such a preference, the absence of bold or rugged natural features, and the substitution for them of combinations of the softer lines.
To our eyes the scenery, as a whole, was disappointing, as too constantly repeating itself: the small horseshoe of the river by Miltenberg forming an exception, and this probably because the long sandstone hills at that spot are viewed more in their profile than elsewhere. Miltenberg is the point which most painters would fix upon as the gem of the Main.
At Lohr a brook of the same name, rich in trout and grayling, falls into the Main, the course of which affluent runs mostly parallel with the railroad after the tunnel is passed, by which the railroad escapes the necessity of climbing over the crest of the Spessart. Thus Lohr is a desirable angling station. A fisherman may make himself very comfortable at the large hotel kept by Herr Gundlach, of whom, however, it is necessary to say that his hospitality is not quite gratuitous. He owns the right of fishing for some five miles up the Lohr brook. Lohr is otherwise a pleasant place, with a pleasant garden laid out between the old walls and the Main. Its air is exhilarating and “sweet with the breath of kine.” There are pleasant walks about it on the slopes of the wooded hills, where great droves of associated oxen, goats, and half-wild swine are perpetually passing to and fro, and carts loading with wood come creaking and jerking down the steep ways, ploughing deep into the dust with their rude wheel-breaks formed of elastic branches.
Lohr is not so rich in antiquities as most of the towns on the Main, probably owing to some great fire which caused it to be rebuilt. Its castle is the chief object worthy of notice. We started from it on a blazing day, in the middle of July, to walk down the course of the Main. It is not generally advisable to choose the dog-days for a walk along the banks of a river which runs in a gorge, and it is quite a different thing from gliding down the current in boat or steamer. All the air that is stirring seems on the stream itself. The roads on the banks are windless, and in the noon-hours there is no escape from the direct and reflected heat, though, in the morning and evening, by judiciously crossing and recrossing, the shady side may be taken advantage of. The first place of interest that we come to is Neustadt, on the right bank. Here we find a religious house in course of restoration, built in the Byzantine style. When Germany was in a half-converted state, certain Scottish missionaries had planted a colony of ascetics in the Spessart, called Einsiedel. Charlemagne, pitying their forlorn condition, gave up to them a grange belonging to him on the Main. This was transformed into a Benedictine cloister, and the village that formed itself under its protection was called Neustadt. Its first abbot was Megingaud, who afterwards was consecrated to the Bishopric of Würzburg.
In the Peasant War and the Thirty Years’ War it fared no better than most of the convents and castles in the neighbourhood, and was finally secularised in 1803. Under the auspices, however, of the noble house of Löwenstein-Rosenberg, its restoration was begun in 1855, just in time to save the church from falling. Built into the orchard wall is to be seen a slab of stone with remarkable carvings on it, representing Charlemagne, the Madonna, a bishop and a suppliant, besides some odd figures compounded of man and beast.
These figures have given rise to strange legends. Some say that the bed of the Main was once a lake, on the subsidence of which the first settlers of the country had to fight with and subdue such monsters. The monsters, however, only represent the armorial bearings of the several benefactors of the cloister.
A castle, called Rothenfels, was built on a height about a league down the river, by Abbot Reinhard, for the purpose of guarding the approach to the convent and placed in the custody of one Marguard von Grumbach. This knight, however, turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If he guarded the monks, it was in order that he might fleece them with the more security himself. They were obliged to appeal to the Bishop of Würzburg, who deposed the spoiler, and gave the castle in fee to the Counts of Reineck, of which one line bore the name of Rothenfels.
Near Hafenlohr, the next village we arrive at, was a place called in the legend Mattenstadt, where, on the 12th of December, 1224, a fierce battle was fought between the Archbishop of Mentz and the Bishop of Würzburg, which appears for the number of the combatants to have been one of the bloodiest in the Frankish annals. In it were slain six Counts of Henneberg, four of Castell, three of Wertheim, besides a large number of minor gentlemen.
A chapel called Mordstadt was subsequently erected near the spot. On stormy nights the country people still believe that they hear the din of ghostly battle. At Markt Heidenfeld we strike into the high road between Aschaffenburg and Würzburg, and cross the Main on a handsome new bridge. On a hill near this place is produced that sherry-like Calmuth, a wine whose extraordinary generosity has long been a puzzle to œnologists. The exposure of the vineyard is westerly. Some account for the quality by the manner in which the vineyard, which slopes abruptly, receives the refracted rays from the river. A hundred years ago it was a wine in high repute at the tables of princes, but it appears to have fallen off since the secularisation of the monastery of Triffenstein. The clerical owners of the vineyard cared more for quality than quantity, and for enjoying in moderation the good things of Providence, than for heaping up riches which they had no direct heirs to gather. There was doubtless abundant truth in the old German proverb, “It is good living under the pastoral staff:” for if they took care of their own comfort, the monks were the least rapacious of all mediæval landlords. The monastery of Triffenstein stood there as a chapel in the tenth century, and was afterwards endowed under the auspices of the see of Würzburg. In 1803 it passed into the hands of the Counts of Löwenstein-Wertheim, and one line of this family still resides there.
Here the Main becomes so circuitous that we are tempted to ascend the hill and strike across to Lengfurt, the fine view being an additional reason for adopting the shorter route. We cross the ferry here, and treat another sweep of the river with as little ceremony, but more regret, for on it lies the interesting town and castle of Homburg or Hohenburg, one of the oldest places on the Main. It was given by Pépin to St. Boniface in 740, and in the year 790, Burkhard, first Bishop of Würzburg, died here in ascetic retirement, the cave which he inhabited having been since transformed into a chapel.
To Wettenburg there is attached a very singular and ancient legend. Many hundred years ago a stately castle stood on this spot. A countess dwelt there, beautiful and high-born, but greedy and cruel. She hated the sight of the poor, and, as persons in distress were wont to come to the castle for relief, she resolved to cut off the fourth side of the hill on which it stood by a ditch, not being quite satisfied with the plan she had previously adopted of hunting petitioners with dogs. The groaning serfs were put to perform this work, but its progress was soon arrested by a frightful storm, which swept countess and castle into the Main. Ever afterwards on the site of the castle was a gaping gulf. Once a hardy boor let himself down into it by a rope; he felt his way into a room where lay asleep a large black dog, such as may be seen now in the Odenwald, and he saw there many men and women, in costumes no longer worn, sitting as if petrified at a banqueting table. He was drawn up in a state of unconsciousness. Another time a shepherd went down, and was met by
A woman, fair and stately, but pale as are the dead,
and conducted from chamber to chamber, each more splendid than its fellow. At last he reached a catacomb filled with mouldering bones, rushed back in horror, and was drawn up more dead than alive. When he came to himself again he found that the time he had spent underground, which seemed but an hour, was in reality seven years, and when he reached his home all had changed. It was believed that every seven years the castle showed itself at the bottom of the Main, and persons born on a Sunday, and on that account supposed to be endowed with a supernatural sight, might see on the mountain where the castle stood a cave and a rock, to which a ring was fastened.
The site was really that of one of the ring-walls or old German strongholds, erected in these parts against the Romans, who had advanced thus far their “limes transrhenanus,” or fortified line of frontier. In this case, as in countless others, a story was invented to account for an expression whose origin was dark. Another version of the same legend is that the countess was begged by her subjects to desist from the unholy work in which she was engaged; that she refused, drawing her ring from her finger, and throwing it into the Main with the words, “Never, till I get this ring again.” The ring turned up afterwards inside a, fish that was caught, and the judgment immediately followed. The part which the ring plays here is the same as that in the story of Polycrates in Herodotus, and also in the Moselle legend of St. Genoveva.
G. C. Swayne.