Living, Breathing Koblenz

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Koblenz is one of those great German cities where you look around and seemingly everything has a story, whether it's the face of an executed robber knight visible below a town clock or the many statues of the city's celebrated characters.

Photography by the authors

We discovered the 13 cities called the Historic Highlights of Germany when we visited Wurzburg, the city of Roentgen, and later Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia. The cities run from Rostock, a jewel of a brick Gothic in the north to Freiburg in the Black Forest to the south, the sunniest city in all of Germany.

The organization started in 1977 with 10 West German cities and has grown. To meet the criteria for membership, the cities must have:

• A population of between 100,000 and 300,000

• 700 years of history

• A university or a university of applied sciences (because young people bring a desirable bustle and curiosity to a city)

• A long-distance railway station

• And, lastly, the cities must be truly representative of their region.

“There are reasons for those criteria,” says Sascha Mayerer, a Junior Advisor to the company. “We want cities to be small enough to walk through easily but big enough to be interesting to shoppers and offer interesting experiences that will keep visitors in a city.

We have a German guide, Gerd Reis (insert above), who is fluent in English, though to our ears his accent sounds Scottish. He has friends in Scotland and has learned the poetry of Robert Burns from them. He proves it by reciting Burns’ famous long poem Tam O’Shanter. What an oddity to hear in Florin’s Market in Koblenz.

Koblenz straddles the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine. The huge statue of the popular William I surveys the scene from horseback.

Koblenz is one of these great German cities where you look around and seemingly everything you see has a story. Notice the building with the orange painting framing the doors and windows. That’s the Mittelrhein Museum, once a merchant’s house and dance hall. It became a jurisdictional house and in 1536 civic amateur judges sat to judge a knight robber.

“It was the decline of knighthood,” says Gerd. “We had a knight who borrowed on the road and the court executed him.”

Turns out his name was Johann Lutter von Kobern and for years he terrorized the Rhineland as a highway robber, stealing equally from the rich and poor. On the gallows he rolled his eyes, stuck his tongue out and said if the town people erected a memorial for him he would bring them luck. Below the clock face is another face — his! The eyes move in time with the pendulum and every half hour he sticks his tongue out. As you see from the photograph he had just finished sticking out his tongue at us so we’re expecting a lotta luck in Koblenz.

Gerd gives us the big picture of Koblenz’s history.

“We’ve been here on the rivers since 9 BC,” he says. “The Romans stayed for 500 years. They brought wine and grapes and educated the locals in winemaking.”

When the Romans left, they left wine behind. Then the Franks came and lived in Koblenz for another 500 years, and when they finally left there was still wine, Gerd says.

“Then in 1018 Koblenz was given away, like a box of chocolates, by the Emperor Henry II to the Archbishop of Trier,” he goes on. “For 750 years we were governed by Trier, the oldest town in Germany until 1794 when Napoleon arrived and we had the most agreeable 20 years in our existence — our time under the ‘laissez faire’ way of the French.”

So Koblenz has its history. It also has statues of some of its celebrated characters. They remind you this is a living, breathing place.

The statues all have stories. The Candy Man (Da Munni) represents those who sell confectionery. The Peppermint Lady was a specific old alcoholic who stumbled around Holy Mary’s Church once when drunk and bent over the cradle of Jesus. To teach her a lesson, the priest crouched in the background and tried to project his voice as if the Baby Jesus was speaking. “Why do you drink so much?” he cried out. She shouted back, “What do you, shitty baby, know about what an old lady needs?”

The drummer boy, Hennerich Resch, was a shoemaker under the Prussians who loved his schnapps (the bottle of which projects from his left hand pants pocket). Drunk, one day he went around town drumming the alarm. All the town guard turned out; the only one missing was him!

In Mint Place, the site of the Saturday Market, stands the Market Wife and the Policeman. She has complained a neighbor’s dog has just urinated on her basket and she wants him to fix the problem.

We see an old painting courtesy of the artist C. Meurer. It shows the half-timbered homes of yesterday. A time long gone? Except as we walk around German cities like Koblenz we see those wooden houses are still standing and look as if they will forever.

Gerd knows we have interest in things medical and leads us to an 1899 statue in Jesuit’s Place of the physiologist and anatomist, Johannes Mueller who lived 1801 to 1858. He graduated MD from the University of Bonn in 1819 so he was surely a prodigy. For his last 25 years he was professor of anatomy and physiology at the University of Berlin.

The façade of Hygeia, the Greek goddess of Hygiene, on the front of a pharmacist’s home is interesting. She was considered to be the daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine in Greek and Roman mythology. Two poisonous snakes are represented in what Gerd calls “19th century juvenile style.”

“Poisons are still useful in correct amounts,” he says, but does not respond to one of our comments: “What would be the right dose for my husband?”

The tall column went up in 1992 as the history column commissioned by the city to show its past. The lower level features Romans rowing a boat. They brought the wine to the region and are shown as disorganized and drunk but still obeying their captain, who is a woman.

“That would be unusual in Roman times, to have a woman in charge but now in Germany it’s a reality in every home!” our guide says. Fortunately he’s smiling.

The thumb statue needs no explanation perhaps other than it’s in front of the Museum of Modern Art.

The signature attraction of Koblenz is its Ehrenbreitstein fortress. Cable car access was built two years ago. The fortress dominates the Rhine by day and night.

What made a town wealthy in the Middle Ages of Europe was being on a river both to have access and to extract tolls from passersby. Too bad for today’s entrepreneurs — all the rivers have been taken!

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.