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Chapter 13

LETTER XIII.

Ferry across the Rhine.—Village of Rudesheim.—The Hinter-hausen Wine,—Drunkenness.—Neapolitan curiosity respecting America.—The Rhenish Wines enumerated.—Ingelheim.—Johannisberg.—Conventual Wine.—Unseasonable praise.—House and Grounds of Johannisberg.—State of Nassau.—Palace at Biberich.—The Gardens.—Wiesbaden.—Its public Promenade.—Frankfort on the Maine.

Dear ——,

Within an hour after we left the Ritterstein, we were crossing the bridge that leads into Bingen. Like true flaneurs, we had not decided where to sleep, and, unlike flaneurs, we now began to look wistfully towards the other side of the Rhine into the duchy of Nassau. There was no bridge, but then there might be a ferry. Beckoning to the postmaster, who came to the side of the carriage, I put the question. "Certainly, as good a ferry as there is in Germany."—"And can we cross with your horses?"—"Ja—ja—we do it often." The affair was arranged in a minute. The leaders were led back to the stable, and with two horses we drove down to the water-side. A skiff was in readiness, and spreading a sprit-sail, we were in the middle of the stream before there was time for thought. In ten minutes we landed in the celebrated Rheingau, and at the foot of a hill that was teeming with the vines of Rudesheim. "Charlemagne observing, from the window of his palace at Ingelheim," says an old legend, "that the snow disappeared from the bluff above Rudesheim earlier than from any of the neighbouring hills, caused the same to be planted with vines." What has become of Charlemagne and his descendants, no one knows; but here are the progeny of his vines to the present hour.

François followed us in a few minutes with the carriage and horses, and we were soon comfortably housed in an inn, in the village of Rudesheim. Here, then, we were in the heart of the richest wine region in Europe, perhaps in the world. I looked curiously at mine host, to see what effect this fact might have had on him, but he did nor appear to have abused the advantage. He told me there had just been a sale, at which I should have been most welcome; complained that much sour liquor was palmed off on the incredulous as being the pure beverage; and said that others might prefer Johannisberger, but for his part, good hinter-hausen[30] was good enough for him. "Would I try a bottle?" The proposition was not to be declined, and with my dinner I did try a bottle of his oldest and best; and henceforth I declare myself a convert to Rudesheimer hinter-hausen. One cannot drink a gallon of it with impunity, as is the case with some of the French wines; but I feel persuaded it is the very article for our market, to use the vernacular of a true Manhattanese. It has body to bear the voyage, without being the fiery compound that we drink under the names of Madeira and Sherry.

It is a singular fact, that in none but wine growing countries are the true uses of the precious gift understood. In them, wine is not a luxury, but a necessary; its use is not often abused, and its beneficial effect can scarcely be appreciated without being witnessed. I do not mean that there is no drunkenness in these countries, for there is probably as much of the vice in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, as there is with us; but they who drink hard generally drink some of the vile compounds which exist everywhere under the names of brandy, agua diente, or something else. I was one day crossing the bay of Naples in my hired craft, La Divina Providenza, rowed by a crew of twenty-one men who cost me just the price of a carriage and horses for the same time, when the padrone, who had then been boating about with us several weeks, began to be inquisitive concerning America, and our manner of living, more especially among the labouring classes. The answers produced a strong sensation in the boat; and when they heard that labourers received a ducat a-day for their toil, half of the honest fellows declared themselves ready to emigrate. "Et, il vino, signore; quale è il prezzo del vino?" demanded the padrone. I told him wine was a luxury with us, and beyond the reach of the labourer, the general sneer that followed immediately satisfied me that no emigrants would go from La Divina Providenza.

It is scarcely necessary to tell one of your habits, that the wines we call Hock are Rhenish, and that each properly bears the name of its own vintage. This rule prevails everywhere, the names of Claret, Burgundy, and Sherry, being unknown in France and Spain. It is true the French have their Burgundy wines, and the Spaniards their Xeres wines; but vin de Bourgogne includes liquors of different colours and very different qualities. The same is true of other places. What we call Claret the French term Bordeaux wines; though Clairet is an old French word, still occasionally used, signifying a thin weak potation.

The Rheingau, or the part of the Nassau in which we now are, produces the best wines of the Rhine. The principal vineyards are those of Johannisberg, Hochheim, (whence the name of Hock,) Geissenheim, Steinberg, and Rudesheim Johannisberg is now the property of Prince Metternich; Geissenheim belongs to the Count of Ingelheim; and Hochheim and Rudesheim are villages, the vines having different proprietors. I do not know the situation of Steinberg. The best wine of Johannisberg has the highest reputation; that of Geissenheim is also delicious, and is fast growing in value; Hochheimer Dom, (or houses growing near the village,) is also in great request; and of the hinter-hausen of Rudesheim you have already heard. Dr. Somerville once told me he had analysed the pure Johannisberger, and that it contained less acidity than any other wine he knew. The Steinberger is coming into favour; it is the highest flavoured of all the German wines, its perfume or bouquet, being really too strong.

Rudesheim was a Roman station, and it is probable that its wines date from their government. There is still a considerable ruin, belonging, I believe to the Count of Ingelheim, that is supposed to have been built by the Romans, and which has been partially fitted up by its proprietor, as a place of retreat, during the vintage. This is truly a classical villagiatura. It was curious to examine these remains, which are extensive, so soon after going over the feudal castle, and it must be confessed that the sons of the South maintained their long established superiority here, as elsewhere. Ingelheim, where Charlemagne had a palace, and where some pretend he was born, is in plain view on the other side of the river, but no traces of the palace are visible from this spot. Such is the difference between the false and the true Roman. There is also a ruin, a small high circular tower, that is connected with our inn, forming even one of our own rooms, and which is very ancient, probably as ancient as the great Frank.

We left Rudesheim after breakfast, driving quite near to the hill of Geissenheim, and quitting the main road, for the purpose of visiting Johannisberg, which lies back a mile from the great route. We wound our way around the hill, which on three sides is shaped like a cone, and on the other is an irregular ridge, and approached the house by the rear. If you happen to have a bottle of the wine of this vineyard (real or reputed, for in this respect the false Simon Pure is quite as likely to be true as the real,) you will find a sufficiently good resemblance of this building on its label.

I can give you no other reason why this wine was formerly so little known, while that of Hochheim had so great a reputation, than the fact that the mountain, house, and vines were all the property of a religious community, previously to the French revolution, and that the monks probably chose to drink their own liquors. In this particular they were unlike the people of Brie; for walking one day with Lafayette, over his estate at La Grange, I expressed surprise at seeing some labourers making wine. "Oh, yes, my dear friend," returned the General, "we do make wine here, but then we take very good care not to drink it." The monks of Johannisberg most likely both made wine and drank it.

Johannisberg has changed owners several times. Shortly after our return from the journey on the Rhine of last year, chance placed me, at Paris, at table between the chargé d'affaires of Nassau and the Duc de Valmy. The former observed that I had lately been in Nassau, and asked how I liked the country. Under such circumstances one would wish to praise, and as I could honestly do so, I expressed my admiration of what I had seen. Among other things, I spoke of its rich vineyards, and, as a matter of course, began to extol that of Johannisberg. The more I praised, the graver the diplomate looked, until thinking I had not come up to his own feelings, I began to be warmer still in my expressions. A touch under the table silenced me. The chargé soon after gave me to understand that Johannisberg produced only sour grapes for my neighbour, as Napoleon had given the estate to the first Duke, and the allies had taken it away from his son. This was not the first time I have had occasion to see the necessity of being guarded how one speaks, lest he offend some political sensibility or other in this quarter of the world.

The present owner of Johannisberg has fitted up the house, which is quite spacious, very handsomely, though without gorgeousness, and there is really a suite of large and commodious rooms. I saw few or no signs of the monastery about the building. The vines grow all around the conical part of the hill quite up to the windows. The best wine is made from those near the house, on the south-eastern exposure. The view was beautiful and very extensive, and all that the place wants to make it a desirable residence is shade; an advantage, however, that cannot be enjoyed on the same spot in common with good wine. The nakedness of the ground impaired the effect of the dwelling. The owner is seldom here, as is apparent by the furniture, which, though fresh and suitable, does not extend to the thousand little elegancies that accumulate in a regular abode.

The books say that this celebrated vineyard contains sixty-three acres, and this is near the extent I should give it, from the eye. The produce is stated at twenty-five hogsheads, of thirteen hundred bottles each. Some of the wines of the best vintages sell as high as four and even five dollars a bottle. I observed that the soil was mixed with stone much decomposed, of a shelly appearance, and whitish colour. The land would be pronounced unsuited to ordinary agriculture, I suspect, by a majority of farmers.

I bought a bottle of wine from a servant who professed to have permission to sell it. The price was two florins and a half, or a dollar, and the quality greatly inferior to the bottle that, for the same money, issued from the cellar of the host at Rudesheim. It is probable the whole thing was a deception, though the inferior wines of Johannisberg are no better than a vast deal of the other common wine of the neighbourhood.

From Johannisberg we descended to the plain and took the road to Biberich. This is a small town on the banks of the Rhine, and is the residence of the Duke. Nassau figures in the tables of the Germanic confederation as the fourteenth state, having three hundred and thirty-eight thousand inhabitants, and furnishing three thousand troops as its contingent. The population is probably a little greater. The reigning family is of the ancient line of Nassau, from a junior branch of which I believe the King of Holland is derived; the Duchess is a princess of Wurtemberg, and a sister of the Grand-duchess Helena, of whom I have already spoken so often. This little state is one of the fabricated sovereignties of 1814, being composed of divers fragments, besides the ancient possessions of the family. In short, it would seem to be intended for the government and better management of a few capital vineyards.

Nassau has been much agitated of late with liberal opinions, though the government is already what it is the fashion to term representative, on this side of the Atlantic. It is the old theory, that small states can better support a popular form of government than a large state. This is a theory in which I have no faith, and one, in my opinion, that has been fabricated to suit the accidental situation of Europe. The danger of popular governments are popular excesses, such as those truculent errors that men fall into by a misconception of truth, misstatements, ignorance of their interests, and the sort of village-like gossip which causes every man to think he is a judge of character, when he is not even a judge of facts. The abuses of absolutism are straightforward, dogged tyranny, in which the rights of the mass are sacrificed to the interests and policy of a prince and his favourites. Now, in a large country, popular excesses in one part are checked and repressed by the power and interests of the other parts. It is not an easy matter to make a popular error, that leads to popular excesses, extend simultaneously over a very extended surface; and they who are tranquil, control, and finally influence, those who are excited. In a small state, absolutism is held under the checks of neighbourhood and familiarity. Men disregard accidents and crime in a capital, while they reason on them and act on them in the country. Just so will the sovereign of a small state feel and submit to the authority of an active public opinion. If I must have liberty, let it come in large draughts like learning, and form an atmosphere of its own; and if I must be the subject of despotic power, Heaven send that my sovereign be a small prince. The latter is on the supposition that I am an honest man, for he who would rise by servility and a sacrifice of his principles, had better at once choose the greatest monarch he can find for a master. Small states are usually an evil in themselves, but I think they are least so when the authority is absolute. The people of Nassau had better be moderate in their progress, while they of France should press on to their purpose; and yet the people of Nassau will probably be the most urgent, simply because the power with which they have to contend is so feeble, for men rarely take the "just medium," though they are always talking about it.

We entered the palace at Biberich, which, without being larger than usual, is an edifice well worth viewing. We could not but compare this abode with the President's house, and certainly, so far as taste and elegance are concerned, the comparison is entirely to the disadvantage of us Americans. It is easy to write unmeaning anathemas against prodigal expenditures, and extorting the hard earnings of the poor, on such occasions, but I do not know that the castle of Biberich was erected by any means so foul. The general denunciation of everything that does not happen to enter into our own system, has no more connexion with true republicanism than cant has to do with religion. Abuses of this nature have existed beyond dispute, and the public money, even among ourselves, is not always honestly or prudently expended; but these are the errors inseparable from human nature, and it is silly to quarrel with all the blandishments of life until we can find faultless substitutes. The simple fact that a nation like our own has suffered an entire generation to go by with its chief magistrate living in a house surrounded by grounds almost as naked as a cornfield, while it proves nothing in favour of its economy, goes to show either that we want the taste and habits necessary to appreciate the privation, (as is probably the case), or the generosity to do a liberal act, since it is notorious that we possess the means.

The gardens of Biberich are extensive and beautiful. We are proofs ourselves that they are not reserved, in a niggardly spirit, for the exclusive uses of a few, nor in truth are those of any other prince in Europe where we have been. The interior of the house is much ornamented by a very peculiar marble that is found in the duchy, and which produces a good effect. A circular hall in the centre of the building, surmounted by a dome, is rather striking, from having a colonnade of this material.

The family was here, and the preparations were making for dinner in one of the rooms; the whole style of the domestic economy being that of a nobleman of liberal means. The house was very quiet, and we saw but few menials, though we met two of the children, accompanied by a governess, in the grounds.

Biberich and the castle, or palace, stand immediately on the banks of the river, which, between Bingen and Mayence, is straggling and well covered with islands, having an entire breadth of near half a mile. The effect, when seen from the neighbouring heights, is not unlike that of a lake.

From Biberich we diverged directly into the interior of the Rheingau, taking the road to Wiesbaden, which is a watering-place of some note, and the seat of government of the duchy. We reached it early, for it is no great matter to pass from the frontiers of one of these small states into its centre, ordered dinner, and went out to see the lions. Wiesbaden has little to recommend it by nature, its waters excepted. It stands in a funnel rather than a valley, and it is said to be excessively hot in summer, though a pleasant winter residence. I do not remember a place that so triumphantly proves how much may be made out of a little, as the public promenade of Wiesbaden. The springs are nearly, or perhaps quite a mile from the town, the intervening land being a gentle inclination. From the springs, a rivulet, scarce large enough to turn a village mill, winds its way down to the town. The banks of this little stream have been planted, artificial obstructions and cascades formed, paths cut, bridges thrown across the rivulet, rocks piled, etc., and by these simple means, one walks a mile in a belt of wood a few rods wide, and may fancy himself in a park of two thousand acres. Ten years would suffice to bring such a promenade to perfection, and yet nothing like it exists in all America! One can surely smoke cigars, drink Congress water, discuss party politics, and fancy himself a statesman, whittle, clean his nails in company and never out of it, swear things are good enough for him without having known any other state of society, squander dollars on discomfort, and refuse cents to elegance and convenience, because he knows no better, and call the obliquity of taste patriotism, without enjoying a walk in a wood by the side of a murmuring rill! He may, beyond dispute, if such be his sovereign pleasure, do all this, and so may an Esquimaux maintain that whale's blubber is preferable to beefsteaks. I wonder that these dogged and philosophical patriots do not go back to warlocks, scalps, and paint!

The town of Wiesbaden, like all German towns of any consequence I have ever been in, Cologne excepted, is neat and clean. It is also well-built, and evidently improving. You may have heard a good deal of the boulevards and similar places of resort, in the vicinity of French towns, but as a whole, they are tasteless and barren-looking spots. Even the Champs Elysées, at Paris, have little beauty of themselves, for landscape gardening is but just introduced into France; whereas, to me, it would seem that the Germans make more use of it, in and near their towns, than the English.

We left Wiesbaden next morning, after enjoying its baths, and went slowly up to Frankfort on the Maine, a distance of about twenty miles. Here we took up our old quarters at the White Swan, a house of a second-rate reputation, but of first-rate civility, into which chance first threw me; and, as usual, we got a capital dinner and good wine. The innkeeper, in honour of Germany, caused a dish, that he said was national and of great repute, to be served to us pilgrims. It was what the French call a jardinière, or a partridge garnished with cabbage, carrots, turnips, etc.

I seized the opportunity to put myself au courant of the affairs of the world, by going to one of the reading-rooms, that are to be found all over Germany, under the names of Redoutes, Casinos, or something of that sort. Pipes appear to be proscribed in the casino of Frankfort, which is altogether a genteel and respectable establishment. As usual, a stranger must be introduced.




James Fenimore Cooper

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