The land at the Lower Rhine is so flat that you can see today who’s coming to visit tomorrow. Instead of mountains and valleys, this region along the lower section of the Rhine has another kind of highlight to offer in its old Roman towns, medieval church treasures, and important stations from the life of Joseph Beuys. It makes for a bike tour that won’t get you out of breath too quickly while keeping you amazed throughout.
Morning fog is covering the Lower Rhine. “That should clear up by noon,” an employee at Landhaus Beckmann in Kalkar tells me as she pushes my rental bike into the courtyard. She immediately shares the locals’ rule of thumb for my trip: “If the haze isn’t gone by noon, it’s come to stay.” That leaves me with a few hours of hope for sunshine, and I pedal on, soaking up the early autumn crisp air and soft, whitish light. I want to spend the next two days exploring the highlights of the Lower Rhine by pedelec. The area may be as flat as a pancake, but I have several dozen miles of cycling on my plate.
The fresh morning air invigorates my senses. Doesn’t the fog belong to the Lower Rhine like butter to asparagus anyway? As I leave Kalkar, I find myself in scenes just like those I admired in numerous photographs during my breakfast at Landhaus Beckmann: blurry pollarded willows lined up along misty streams, shadowy sheep grazing in the haze of the dyke grass, avenues of poplars mystically running off into nothingness. My view is also broken up by dark violet and orange spots where elderberries and rosehips along the path are ready for harvest at this time of the year. In between, I pass vast meadows and fields and the odd goose farm, where the rightful inhabitants are sharing their breakfast with jackdaws that have invited themselves.
The Lower-Rhine region is covered in a dense network of cycle trails. Many signs with place and kilometre information are waiting at every crossroads. Today, they take me up the Rhine to Kleve. I follow the track on a dyke that runs in parallel to the country road. This highest elevation far and wide is man-made. The great dark cloud of a flock of birds rises from a field to my left. It ascents rapidly, turning denser and looser again, wafting to the right and sheering off to the left to form figures as if it was in fact a single multiform organism. It contains many hundreds of starlings. Eventually, they once again touch down in a string of black pearls on a high-voltage power line a little further on. They rest for just a few minutes before swooping down again, repeating the mysterious choreography of their fascinating flight spectacle.
I would love to linger to keep admiring the flying formation, but the starlings are on their way south while I am headed north. Today I am cycling in the footsteps of Joseph Beuys, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. My first stop will be Kleve, the town where Beuys grew up and to which he returned traumatised after the war to rent his first studio in the partly destroyed Kurhaus.
The classicist façade of the reconstructed building now conceals the Museum Kurhaus Kleve, in short MKK. It is dedicating two exhibitions to the city’s famous son in his anniversary year. The exhibition ‘Intuition! Dimensions of the Early Work’ is set up around his former 70 square metre creative retreat in the building’s west wing. As I wander from drawing to drawing, admiring the delicate landscapes that fall under the umbrella of ‘poetry’, the nude drawings and portraits of women, I also discover some of his early material studies in a room devoted to ‘natural sciences’. This exhibition gives an idea of the intellectual cosmos of young Beuys, while the later Beuys of world renown can be found in the second exhibition in the Kurhaus’s large Wandelhalle and brings together some of the most important items from the collection.
The long hall ends at the massive ‘Bathtub’ sculpture, an immense contrast to the fine pencil drawings I was just admiring! The monumental sculpture, inspired by a mammoth tooth, was made based on the artist’s plans in 1987, a year after his death. It is a mixture of bathtub, oven, and sledge, all of which are important motifs in Beuys’ work. Walking around the sculpture made of lead, bronze, and copper, I get an almost physical feeling of the warmth it seems to radiate. Maybe it’s the sun warming me up after finally making its way through the mist and breaking through the long window front? Across from the museum, I find some the historical gardens established by Johann Moritz von Nassau-Siegen, the governor of the Duchy of Cleves at the time, in the Mid-17th century, and the forest garden added by Julius Ernst von Buggenhagen, president of the Cleves chamber, in 1782, now in glorious sunshine. The tamed, geometric natural beauty here, and an arboretum with various foreign woody plants across from it, are idyllically arranged around a number of ponds, reminiscent of a botanical garden. After my extensive immersion in art, nature now beckons to me.
Around one hundred years after the Prince of Nassau-Siegen treated the local flora to a perfect expression of his love with the baroque park, the great philosopher Voltaire visited the Lower Rhine and found himself just as inspired by the scenic beauty of its surroundings. A hiking and biking trail is named after him today, and that is what now takes me across meadows and fields from Kleve to Bedburg-Hau, or, more precisely, to Schloss Moyland, where I can continue to follow the trail to Joseph Beuys and his art. The legacy of Germany’s most important artist is living on in the collection of the Museum Schloss Moyland Foundation, spanning 6000 pieces, and in the associated Joseph Beuys Archive.
I cross the moat of the impressive complex and follow the steps up to the heavy entrance door in the shady courtyard. Voltaire met the Prussian King Frederick II here in 1740. I bet that both of them also climbed up the north tower to enjoy a view that spans many kilometres, with shades of green as far as the eye can see! The buildings at the tower base are bathed in warm afternoon light. The castle with its four wings, originally medieval, has undergone several distinctive alterations in the Baroque and Neo-Gothic styles. Broad and round towers with prominent pinnacles meet extremely slender, pointed, almost minaret-like additions. Architecture enthusiasts would probably call the style eclectic. I, however, like the fact that the architectural canon seems to be suspended in this building. Beuys, the inventor of the expanded concept of art, might have felt the same way. Breaking rules and crossing boundaries was, after all, a common theme throughout his biography.
Another repeating theme was his penchant for shamanism. The museum is hosting the exhibition ‘Joseph Beuys and the Shamans’ on the occasion of the big anniversary year. His artworks are juxtaposed with ethnological objects of indigenous shamanic life here. I admire drums made of painted reindeer skin, a group of wooden family spirits, a richly decorated walrus tooth, and robes once worn by shamans. The opulently equipped garments are juxtaposed with Beuys’ iconic, plain grey felt suit in the same room. One of the artist’s most memorable works, this exhibit exudes an almost mystical attraction.
Along with felt and grease, the sledge is cast in a central role in the painter’s and sculptor’s work. I find it in drawings, in Braunkreuz colour, carrying moose and people. Its sight spirits me away into the Eurasian steppe. Time is racing just like the elongated animals trying to escape in Beuys’ woodcuts, and my inspiring, fulfilling day soon comes to an end on the medieval market square of Kalkar, or, more specifically: on the terrace of the traditional Ratskeller, whose chef first conjures up fish and then young boar.
The sky stretches blue and clear above the flat land on the following day. Magnificent weather! Today’s plans are going to take me to Xanten. The Roman camp there, the former Colonia Ulpia Traiana, used to be one of the most important cities in the Germanic provinces of Rome.
The cycle path leads from Kalkar through green meadows, orchards, and pastures, meandering through corn fields and diving into small woods. As I pass the village of Marienbaum, I can hear familiar clacking. A pair of storks has moved into a nest on a ten-metre-high stele in a garden along the way, loudly drawing attention to itself now. The garden’s owner is just enjoying the morning sun on a bench. He loves birds and tells me that a pair of white-tailed eagles is nesting in the RVR-NaturForum Bislicher Insel south of Xanten this year. Small, fascinatingly colourful kingfishers are also said to be found there. Unfortunately, birdwatching is not exactly something to be done in passing. After all, I have a travel back in time to antiquity on my agenda for today. I keep going!
The cycle path meets a Rhine dyke and is running in parallel with the great river. I briefly try to keep up with the big barges going up the Rhine on my pedelec but have to admit defeat quickly. Two large lakes are waiting for me shortly before Xanten: the Nordsee and the Südsee, part of a beautiful recreational area. The water skiers and a wakeboarder, showing their tricks on the South Lake, catch my attention for a few minutes. The nearby harbour is crowded on Sundays and the silhouettes of the amphitheatre and the Xanten cathedral rise behind it in a truly historical panorama!
The special thing about the Roman town of Xanten is that it was never built over, leaving its remains hidden in the ground just a few centimetres below the grass. It was a true stroke of luck for archaeology. In the city’s heyday, back in the second century AD, some ten thousand people were living here and using the temples, baths, dwellings, workshops, and accommodations. Countless original finds interlock like mosaic stones to form a picture that vividly presents life in one of the largest metropolises of the Germanic provinces.
The stones that the Romans brought to Colonia Ulpia Traiana, named after its founder, through the nearby harbour, were cut from the Rhine slate mountains, though Italian and Greek marble was also brought to the Lower Rhine, which was poor in stone.
I climb the steps up to the harbour temple. A fragment of it was rebuilt in its original size thirty years ago, using the original materials. Once there, I lean my head far back to get an idea of the dimensions the buildings of this city used to take on almost two thousand years ago just by gauging the height and circumference of these columns. The excavated thermal baths in the Roman Museum tell another eloquent tale of the dolce vita of the town’s inhabitants, which included many former soldiers who had settled on the Rhine with their families after their service.
I sit down on the sun-warmed stone benches of the amphitheatre that afford a view of the double tower of the church of Xanten while my mind’s eye replays movie scenes from “Ben Hur” and “The Gladiator”. What battles might have taken place in this arena? One thing is for certain: The Roman city came to a violent end eventually, when the Franks on their migration campaign attacked and overran the flourishing city at the end of the third century. The building materials, hard to procure otherwise, ended up being carried off every which way and were even used to build the medieval town nearby.
Leaving the LVR Archaeological Park of Xanten, I follow what is called the “Spur der Steine” (trail of stones). The streets of the pedestrian zone are bustling with activity as Sunday guests are flocking around an ice cream parlour. I’m feeling more like some savoury food now. The vegan restaurant Petersilchen is wildly popular and tops up my energy stores for my last visit with a large plate of mashed potatoes and roasted endive salad.
I finally go to see the collegiate church of St. Victor, which is also referred to as the Xanten Cathedral for its size and relevance. The evening sun is falling diagonally through the coloured windows to bathe the interior of the five-nave Gothic basilica in red light. It took a whole 281 years to build! The magnificent high altar with its gem-studded shrine is one of the oldest in the Rhineland and considered the most important sanctuary of the cathedral treasury. It supposedly even contains the bones of St. Victor that have been resting here since 1128. I’m impressed by the comprehensive history lesson I received on this day! Crossing the cloister, I leave the cathedral and the immunity district around it to push my bike out of town through the Klever Tor. On my next trip, I am going to visit the Abbey Museum, to swim in the Südsee lake, and to visit the sea eagles on Bislicher Island. I’ll follow the lead of those migratory birds and come back to this place.
Author: Ilona Marx - Ilona Marx has already travelled to many metropolises in NRW and around the world. The heart of the author, copywriter, and trend consultant has been beating for culture, fashion, and design since her youth.