In 1840 the great French novelist Victor Hugo, author of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and later Les Misérables, spent three days in Bacharach and wrote an enthusiastic description in his book Le Rhin (The Rhine), first published in 1842.
“I have spent three days in Bacharach, a sort of Beggars’ Headquarters forgotten on the bank of the Rhine by the good taste of Voltaire, by the French Revolution, by the battles of Louis XIV, by the artillery shellings of 1797 and 1805 and by the elegant and wise architects who construct houses in the form of desks and chests of drawers. Bacharach is surely the oldest heap of human habitations that I have seen in my life.”
He wrote this in the “18th letter” of Le Rhin. He was fascinated by Bacharach’s medieval houses, which he described as “gothic constructions, hanging, leaning, groaning and holding themselves obstinately upright against all the laws of geometry and equilibrium.”
He called Bacharach “this fairytale town, swarming with stories and legends” and said it was “occupied by a population of picturesque inhabitants, all of whom, the old and the young, the tots and the grandfathers, the goitrous and the pretty girls, have an unknown something in their looks and profile and comportment that seems like a whiff of the thirteenth century. This does not prevent the pretty girls from being very pretty, on the contrary.”
Today you’d have a hard time getting “a whiff of the thirteenth century”, since Bacharach is now a popular tourist town, but that was not at all the case when Hugo visited there in 1840. He wrote: “In Bacharach a traveler is a phenomenon. One is not only a stranger, one is strange. The voyager is stared at and followed by shocked eyes.”
Since there were hardly any railroads in those days — the first were just starting to be built — Hugo travelled partly by stage coach and partly on foot. When he left Bacharach he walked southeast (upstream) along the river because he wanted to enjoy the scenery and explore the ruins of the nearby Fürstenberg and Falkenburg Castles.
Fürstenberg Castle was built in 1220 and destroyed in 1689. Today the ruins are private property and are not open to the public, but in the nineteenth century anyone who was willing to walk up the hill could go in and have a look around.
In the vaulted cellar of the next castle just one league (4 km we would say today) further upstream, Hugo was surprised to meet three slender and graceful blond blue-eyed girls.
“The oldest of the sisters was already a woman, the youngest was still a child. And yet in age they were no more than two years apart. Only the middle sister was a young girl. Since they entered the cellar she had blushed a lot, smiled a little and hadn’t said a word.”
The girls were speaking English together, so he summoned up all of his English language skills, making a special effort to pronounce the th correctly, and asked the oldest of the three: “Miss, what is, if you please, the name of this castle?” She gave him a lovely smile and replied in absolutely fluent French that the castle was called Falkenburg.
The girls were not English at all but French. They were touring with their father and had been speaking English to amuse themselves (the youngest one said) and for the practice (the oldest one said). The middle sister said nothing but Hugo found her the most beautiful of the three, “a true princess from a fairy tale”.
“She looked at me twice, but did not speak to me. She was the only one of the three whose voice I never heard, but she was also the only one whose name I learned. There was an instant when her younger sister said very quietly: ‘Look, Stella!’ I had never realized until that instant how much there is that is limpid, luminous and charming in that name of a star.”
On one of the walls the girls found a Latin inscription that they couldn’t understand, so they went off to find their father so he could explain it to them.
Hugo himself could have explained it, but: “They didn’t even think of asking me; I was a bit humiliated that my English had given them such a bad impression of my Latin.”
(My translations from Letter XX of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo.)
Falkenburg, by the way, is now better known as Reichenstein Castle. It is located above the town of Trechtingshausen at km 536, which is seven kilometers upstream from Bacharach.
To commemorate his journey there is now a bust of Victor Hugo on the banks of the Rhine River at Bingen, which is fourteen and a half kilometers upstream from Bacharach, a distance of just over nine miles or — as Hugo himself would have said — just over three and a half lieues (in English: leagues).
It turns out that Victor Hugo was fiercely opposed to the metric system of measurement. He wrote in his Rhine book that kilomètres were part of “the disgusting language that the law wants to force on us, as though it were the prerogative of the law to make the language. On the contrary, my friend, in a huge number of cases it is the language that should make the law.”
Forty-one years after his death, through no fault of his own, Victor Hugo was declared a saint — not by the Roman Catholic Church, of course, but by the newly founded Cao Dai religion in Vietnam. In 1964/65 I had the privilege of living for several months with an elderly Cao Dai couple in Tân Ba, Vietnam, as I have described in some of my Tân Ba posts.
My photos in this post are from June 2010. I revised the text in 2017.
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