Mark Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar: truth or tall tale?

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg. Here's where Twain's raft trip took place.

The Neckar Valley between Heilbronn and Heidelberg.

Germany’s lower Neckar Valley is Mark Twain country.

This stretch of river, the locals will fondly tell you, inspired Huckleberry Finn. The author came to Germany in 1878 with writer’s block and Huck Finn half finished. Twain’s raft trip down the Neckar River changed everything, at least according to the locals. Because afterward, Twain finished his novel.

But did that raft trip ever take place?

Historians come down on both sides of the question.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Twain’s raft trip in A Tramp Abroad

Twain’s travel memoir, A Tramp Abroad, covers his 1878 trip to Germany. With Heidelberg as a base, the author made side trips to Baden-Baden, the Black Forest, and several towns along the Neckar. From Heilbronn, a river port north of Stuttgart, he claims to have rafted back to Heidelberg. In fact, no less than six chapters are dedicated to Twain’s raft trip.

According to Twain in chapter 14, he’d intended to hide from Heilbronn back to the Heidelberg. But at Heilbronn’s bridge, he watched raft after raft float under the bridge:

The river was full of longs, — long, slender, barkless pine logs, — and we leaned on the rails of the bridge and watched the men put them together into rafts. These rafts were of a shape and construction to suit the crookedness and extreme narrowness of the Neckar. They were from 50 to 100 years long, and they gradually tapered from a 9-long breadth at their bow-ends.

On a sudden compulsion, Twain abandoned the idea of a pedestrian tour and chartered a raft himself. Twain’s two-day trip back to Heidelberg, writes Peter Messent, was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840 with a log raft to the left.

The Neckar River and Wilhelm Canal in Heilbronn in 1840. On the main part of the river, to the left, you can see a log raft. By A. von Keller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful Neckar

The raft meandered along at about 2 miles an hour and Twain could enjoy being a tourist without doing the work of walking. His description in A Tramp Abroad sounds idyllic:

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft. The motion of a raft is the needful motion; it is gentle and gliding, and smooth, and noiseless; it calms down all feverish activities, it soothes to sleep all nervous hurry and impatience; under its restful influence all the troubles and vexations and sorrows that harass the mind vanish away, and existence because a dream, a charm, a deep and tranquil ecstasy. How it contrasts with hot and perspiring pedestrianism, and dusty and deafening railroad rush, and tedious jolting behind tired horses over blinding white roads!

I’ve boated that stretch of the Neckar and can testify to his statement.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain's raft trip might have started here.

Another 1840 image of the Neckar in Heilbronn, showing one of the bridges. Mark Twain’s raft trip might have started here. By Samuel W. Lacey (1786–1859), based on a drawing by Louis Mayer (1791–1843) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Could you even charter a raft in 19th-century Germany?

The 19th century saw plenty of rafts on the Neckar. The timber industry used rafts to transport logs from the Black Forest down steam all the way to the Netherlands. Although the railroad and chain tugs on the rivers reduced the number of rafts by 1878, they were still in use.

But could you charter one?

I asked two German museums dedicated to the regional rafting history and both indicated Twain’s raft trip was theoretically possible. Rafts were still running and they were known to taken on passengers. You can view a photo of a German raft with passengers here.

Could you pilot one?

Twain, however, went a step further in chapter 20.  As the raft approached Heidelberg, Twain decided he could shoot the rapids under the bridge himself. “I went to the forward triplet of logs and relieved the pilot of his pole and his responsibility.” But that was the end of Twain’s raft trip. He stepped off the raft as it reached Heidelberg’s old bridge and the raft crashed and splintered against the pier. The passengers survived; Twain himself fished them out of the water.

That part of the story showcases the author’s humor, not his historical accuracy.

Piloting a raft required a great deal of strength. The untamed Neckar River sliced through the 19th century with rapids and difficult-to-navigate narrow passages. Only the strongest men were allowed to steer. Considering that his livelihood was at stake, it’s inconceivable the pilot would allow an inexperienced tourist to take over. His boss would have held him responsible for the lost logs.

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

The raft captain from the original edition of A Tramp Abroad (public domain.)

So did Twain really travel the Neckar?

Definitely. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain’s descriptions of Neckar Valley towns like Heilbronn, Bad Wimpfen, and Hirschhorn are detailed and accurate enough he had to have been there. And in Dilsberg, he reported a story about a forgotten tunnel leading from the town well to a place in the woods outside the city walls. An American archaeologist investigating the story discovered the tunnel years later, and it’s now open to the public. How could Twain have known about the tunnel is he hadn’t visited the town?

But on a raft?

Maybe not. The river journey from Heilbronn to Heidelberg in A Tramp Abroad took place on a raft, but in Twain’s diary, Notes and Journals, Twain and his companion boarded a boat in Heilbronn on August 9, 1878. But the diary mentions the boat passing a raft about half a mile below the town of Eberbach. That leaves the truth about Twain’s raft trip a bit of a mystery. I like that. But both sources make it quite clear: The idea of river rafts floated on the surface of Twain’s consciousness during his trip on the Neckar.

Some say that the Neckar inspired one of America’s greatest novels; after he reached Heidelberg, Twain was able to finish chapter 16 of Huckleberry Finn. It’s the chapter in which Huck and Jim, on their raft in the Mississippi, realized they’d already passed Cairo, Illinois and Jim’s one shot for freedom.

But chapter 16 was already completed in 1876, according to Richard Bridgman (pp. 100-101). Twain picked up the manuscript again in 1880. He published Huckleberry Finn in 1885.

Regardless of the plausibility of Twain’s raft trip, it’s clear that river rafts played a prominent role in the author’s imagination. Peter Messent is right. Whether real or not, Twain’s raft trip on the Neckar was a dress rehearsal for Huckleberry Finn. And for that, we can be thankful.

Have you ever rafted a river? What was it like?

Literature on point:

Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain  (Berkely: Univ. of California Press, 1987).

Ditmar Hauer, “Auf den Spuren von Mark Twains ‘Bummel durch Europa’ von Heidelberg nach Heilbronn: Mississippi-Lotse auf dem Neckar,Berliner Zeitung (3 August 2002).

Die kräftigsten Flößer steuerten,” Der deutsche Wald kann mehr als rauschen.

Albert Locher, Mark Twain entdeckt Europa (Urtenen, Switzerland: Albert Locher, 2005).

Peter Messent, The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

Roy Morris, Jr., American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2015).

Werner Pieper, Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through Germany in 1878 (Löhrbach, Germany: MedienXperimente, 1995).

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain, originally published 1880).

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals vol. 2 (1877-1883) (Berkley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).





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Mark Twain and Empress Augusta of Germany

Coronation portrait of Augusta of of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Coronation portrait of Augusta of of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Franz Xaver Winterhalter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Did the church usher mistake him for a duke?

And did Mark Twain mistake the empress for someone else?

Mark Twain’s account of an encounter with Empress Augusta of Germany counts among his most hilarious sketches of Baden-Baden. It appears in A Tramp Abroad, where he recorded his 1878 visit to an English-speaking church in the German resort town.

In the church sat a celebrity: As the wife of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1811-1890) held the titles of Queen of Prussia and Empress of Germany. She was well-connected. Empress Augusta of Germany was Catherine the Great’s great-granddaughter, and her grandson Friedrich married Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter.

And that makes Mark Twain’s description of her particularly puzzling.

Mark Twain and the Empress Augusta of Germany in Baden-Baden’s church

 Because his hired coachman was so well dressed, wrote Twain in A Tramp Abroad, “we were probably mistaken for a brace of stray dukes; why else were we honored with a pew all to ourselves, away up among the very elect…. In the pew directly in front of us sat an elderly lady, plainly and cheaply dressed; at her side sat a young lady with a very sweet face, and she also was quite simply dressed; but around us and about us were clothes and jewels which it would do anybody’s heart good to worship in.”

Johanniskirche in Baden-Baden

The Johanniskirche in Baden-Baden, which Mark Twain and the Empress Augusta of Germany attended. Back then it was known as the “All Saints Church.” Queen Victoria financed its construction. (c) Shutterstock; with permission.

Twain began to feel sorry for the old lady:

I thought it was pretty manifest that the elderly lady was embarrassed at finding herself in such a conspicuous place arrayed in such cheap apparel; I began to feel sorry for her and troubled about her. She tried to seem very busy with her prayer-book and her responses, and unconscious that she was out of place, but I said to myself, “She is not succeeding–there is a distressed tremulousness in her voice which betrays increasing embarrassment.” Presently the Savior’s name was mentioned, and in her flurry she lost her head completely, and rose and curtsied, instead of making a slight nod as everybody else did. The sympathetic blood surged to my temples and I turned and gave those fine birds what I intended to be a beseeching look, but my feelings got the better of me and changed it into a look which said, “If any of you pets of fortune laugh at this poor soul, you will deserve to be flayed for it.” Things went from bad to worse, and I shortly found myself mentally taking the unfriended lady under my protection. My mind was wholly upon her. I forgot all about the sermon. Her embarrassment took stronger and stronger hold upon her; she got to snapping the lid of her smelling-bottle–it made a loud, sharp sound, but in her trouble she snapped and snapped away, unconscious of what she was doing. The last extremity was reached when the collection-plate began its rounds; the moderate people threw in pennies, the nobles and the rich contributed silver, but she laid a twenty-mark gold piece upon the book-rest before her with a sounding slap! I said to myself, “She has parted with all her little hoard to buy the consideration of these unpitying people–it is a sorrowful spectacle.” I did not venture to look around this time; but as the service closed, I said to myself, “Let them laugh, it is their opportunity; but at the door of this church they shall see her step into our fine carriage with us, and our gaudy coachman shall drive her home.”

Then she rose–and all the congregation stood while she walked down the aisle. She was the Empress of Germany!

No–she had not been so much embarrassed as I had supposed. My imagination had got started on the wrong scent, and that is always hopeless; one is sure, then, to go straight on misinterpreting everything, clear through to the end. The young lady with her imperial Majesty was a maid of honor–and I had been taking her for one of her boarders, all the time.

This is the only time I have ever had an Empress under my personal protection; and considering my inexperience, I wonder I got through with it so well. I should have been a little embarrassed myself if I had known earlier what sort of a contract I had on my hands.

We found that the Empress had been in Baden-Baden several days. It is said that she never attends any but the English form of church service.

An older Empress Augusta of Germany

An older Empress Augusta of Germany.
By F.Jamrath & Sohn Berlin (Kabinet Photo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

 Truth or tall tale?

 With Mark Twain’s travel literature, it’s not always easy to tell. Germans love to say that Twain’s 1878 raft trip down the Neckar River, a travel adventure covering several chapters in A Tramp Abroad, inspired Huckleberry Finn, published just a few years later. But that trip never happened – a fact documented in Twain’s travel journal. His German riparian expedition navigated nothing more than the river of his imagnination.*

On the other hand, one of Twain’s most incredible tales – about a secret passage in the town in Dilsberg, Germany, with its entrance in the town well – turned out to be true. Inspired by Twain’s story to search for it, archaeologists discovered the passage years later. It’s now open to the public and one of Dilsberg’s tourist attractions. Some of Twain’s tall tales do have kernels of truth in them. Twain’s interplay between fact and fiction make him so interesting.

So how much of Twain’s story about Empress Augusta of Germany can we trust?

To answer that, I turned to one of her biographers, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer. She joins us today, not only to insert her historical scalpel between Twain’s fact and fiction, but to introduce us to a woman who wasn’t afraid to buck convention and was fascinating in her own right. You can read about Feuerstein-Praßer’s book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin, below.

Interview with biographer Karin Feuerstein-Praßer

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, biographer of Empress Augusta of Germany; with permission.

 Frau Feuerstein-Praßer, did Empress Augusta of Germany visit Baden-Baden often?

Yes, she came there regularly, especially to meet with her daughter Luise, the Grand Duchess of Baden.

 Did she worship at the English church there?

That hasn’t been precisely documented, but it’s entirely possible. Augusta had – much to the regret of her subjects – a preference for all things English (and French), which one can see in her reading material. Although she grew up to a certain extent under Goethe’s wing, German literature hardly interested Augusta at all.

 Where would she have sat in the church?

Augusta was a very status-conscious lady who always avoided contact with “ordinary” people. She would have never mixed with “normal” visitors in the church, but would have taken a separate place of honor.

 Was Empress Augusta of Germany very religious? Would it be in character for her to curtsey at the name of the Savior instead of inclining her head like everyone else?

 Yes, August was indeed a deeply religious woman who interpreted her Protestant faith in her own fashion. As a child, she often accompanied her mother, Maria Pavlovna, to Russian Orthodox services and loved its mystical atmosphere, redolent with incense. The Protestant faith was much too sterile for her; she missed the sensual experience, the spirituality. For this reason, it’s possible that Augusta curtsied during the service, perhaps as a reflex from her childhood, but perhaps it was also a gesture with which she wanted to express her own conviction. Whenever Augusta took leave of her children, for example, she blessed them with the sign of the cross, which was in no way usual for Protestants.

 Was she a member of the Pietist movement?

 No, definitely not. Like I said, she tended towards Catholicism, and her opponents even accused her of having secretly converted to the Catholic faith. That, of course, is complete nonsense.

Empress Augusta of Germany in church.

“An object of sympathy,” showing Mark Twain and Empress Augusta of Germany in church. From A Tramp Abroad (1880), public domain.

 Twain says she snapped her smelling bottle a lot. Was she known to carry a smelling bottle and use it?

 Smelling bottles like that were actually more for temperamental ladies who wanted to call attention to themselves. Augusta was exactly the opposite. She was a dutiful and disciplined woman through and through who would have never allowed the public to see her human weaknesses. Her use of a smelling bottle is thus extremely unlikely. And if she did use one, then Augusta would have never “played” with it during a church service.

 You describe in your book how Augusta wasn’t feminine enough for the emperor. Was her dress unfeminine or inelegant?

 When Wilhelm married Augusta, he was already a man of ample erotic experience. He had hoped to find a sensual partner in Augusta, but the exact opposite was the case. She was cool and disciplined in bed. Sex didn’t appear to be much fun for her. In his letters, Wilhelm always complained of Augusta’s “lack of femininity.” But that didn’t apply to her clothing, in fact, the opposite was true. Already as a young woman, Augusta was very fashion-conscious, and for the somewhat conservative Prussian royal house, way too fashion-conscious. It annoyed Wilhelm that his wife had to follow every trend, and he hoped that would blow over with time. She was only 17 years old when they got married.

 Do you think it’s at all possible that Mark Twain could mistake Empress Augusta of Germany for a poor woman?

I consider it absolutely inconceivable. The period reports all emphasize that Augusta was invariably attired to perfection and with elegance. She used cosmetics, valued a well-fitting hairstyle, and wore jewelry – and all that into her old age. It is of course possible that she selected more ordinary clothing for her church visit, but nevertheless, representation of “majesty” was important to her, everywhere and at all times. There was absolutely nothing folksy about her.

 Thank you, Frau Feuerstein-Praßer!

  Have you ever encountered a celebrity without knowing who they were? It’s happened to me!

 Literature on point:

 Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, ch. XXIV (public domain)

Mark Twain, Notes and Journals

Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin (Munich: Piper Verlag, 2015)

*Richard Bridgman, Traveling in Mark Twain ((Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987) 100.

book cover

 About the book, Augusta: Kaiserin und Preußin: When the Princess Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach married the Prussian Prince Wilhelm, she had no idea she would one day become the first empress of Germany. Raised in the cultural atmosphere of Goethe’s era, she was highly educated and had pronounced appreciation for art. Only with the Revolution of 1848 did she step into the spotlight of history: As the liberal wife of the Prussian king and later emperor, she sought to influence her husband’s conservative politics. But she had a powerful enemy in Otto von Bismark, whose military plans to unite Germany were hated by the staunch pacifist.

 Piper Verlag, 320 pages. Unfortunately available only in German.

The author, Karin Feuerstein-Praßer, ist a freelance historian in Germany and author of numerous biographies.


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Mark Twain and the Winged Lion of Venice

The columns in St. Mark's Sqaure support the winged lion of Venice and a dragon slayer.

The columns in St. Mark’s Square sport a winged lion and a dragon slayer.

Real quick now – which saint killed the dragon? What’s the first name that comes to your mind?

St. George. Is that what you thought?

It’s what I thought, too. St. Mark’s Square in Venice sports two monolithic columns with figures on top. One is a winged lion and the other a man killing a dragon. St. George, I assumed, when my husband and I visited the square. I mentioned it to our gondolier.

“No! Not St. George!” he said. “It’s San Marco. San Marco is Venice’s patron saint.”

“St. Mark also killed a dragon?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno. But it is Marco. Not George.”

Our gonoolier.

Our gondolier, who graciously gave me permission to publish his photo.

 St. Mark, the winged lion of Venice

His answer made sense. Venetian merchants, according to legend, stole the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist from a church in Alexandria in 828. They brought the bones back to Venice. (Some scholars claim the merchants made a major blooper and actually made off with the skeleton of Alexander the Great!) St. Mark’s relics now reside in Venice’s Basilica di San Marco. The winged lion is a symbol for St. Mark, so that explains the figure on the other column.

But my quick perusal of St. Mark’s history revealed nothing about dragon mythology.

St. Mark's Sqaure.

St. Mark’s Sqaure. Pixabay.

 St. Theodore of Amasea and the dragon

Are gondoliers really infallible when it comes to Venice’s history? Maybe not.

You can imagine my surprise when I checked our guide book back at the hotel. It said the dragon slayer at St. Mark’s Square was St. Theodore. I’d never heard of the fellow, but the author said Theodore, a simple Greek soldier and minor saint, was Venice’s patron before Mark’s relics made the trans-Mediterranean trip to the floating city. St. Theodore enjoyed more popularity in the Eastern Orthodox Church. But in the west, he was too minor a martyr for Venice. The Venetians felt compelled to search for another patron in 828. They wanted someone who could offer more protection.

The Venetian flag.

The Venetian flag. Pixabay.

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds the clue to the dragon. Theodore’s iconography often shows him spearing the vile serpent. And sometimes Theodore’s even depicted accompanying St. George.

So that’s where the dragon comes in. The two columns, with the dragon slayer and winged lion, represent the floating city’s two patron saints. That makes sense, right?

 Mark Twain in Venice

Venice's lion is often shown holding a book.

Venice’s lion is often shown holding a book. Pixabay.

Enter Mark Twain. He visited Venice in 1878 and came up with a more charming explanation for the winged lion of Venice than any historian ever did. It came to him while he was viewing Tintoretto’s painting Paradise in the in the Doge’s palace. It offers a view of heaven.

There are fifteen or twenty figures scattered here and there, with books, but they cannot keep their attention on their reading – they offer the books to others, but no one wishes to read, now. The Lion of St. Mark is there with his book; St. Mark is there with his pen uplifted; he and the Lion are looking each other earnestly in the face, disputing about the way to spell a word – the Lion looks up in wrapt [sic] admiration while St. Mark spells. This is wonderfully interpreted by the artist. It is the master-stroke of this incomparable painting.

Lions, in the form of statutes, paintings, and even the city flag, are everywhere in Venice. They’re often depicted holding a book. If Mark Twain is right, that book isn’t a Bible. The winged lion of Venice is holding a dictionary and trying to help us with our spelling. And that gave me a whole new way of interpreting Venice’s artwork.

The winged lion of Venice on the bow of the royal barge.

The winged lion of Venice on the bow of the royal barge.

Here the lion is poised on the bow of the royal barge in Venice’s naval museum, announcing to the world that the royalty, of all people, knew how to spell.

The lion of Venice. Pixabay.

The winged lion of Venice. Pixabay.

You can see by his expression in this picture how disgusted the winged lion of Venice is with the chap to the left. He must be a really bad speller.

Hitzig, Venice 102

In St. Mark’s Square, the lion also appears to have given up on St. Theodore. He’s facing in the other direction, looking out on the tourists, hoping to find a writer among them. And if he does, he whispers down letters to them; he breathes long-sought words across the expanse of the piazza.

I like that lion. And thanks to winged lion of Venice, I’ll never see my dictionary the same way again. From now on it will have soft, golden fur and outspread wings, ready to take my writing to greater heights. And should I ever misspell a word, I expect it to roar and bite me in the buttocks.

As it well should.

 Did you notice Twain’s spelling error? Do you think he did it on purpose? Is this another example of Twain’s sly sense of humor?

Literature on point

Jenny John, Venedig (Munich: Gräfe und Unzer, 1997).

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain).

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Mark Twain in Heilbronn: Awful Accommodations in Germany


I’ll never tell you which castle I stayed at. You have to find it yourself. Image from morguefile.

Back to the Middle Ages?

“Downstairs,” the receptionist said. “In the dungeon.”

Armed with shampoo and a towel, I followed his directions across the courtyard and down two flights of stairs. We had booked rooms in a medieval German castle, and this was one of its disadvantages. Taking a shower meant going down three stories from my room in the turret, across an ancient banquet hall, down more stairs to the courtyard, and taking a quick walk outside to the next building. It was a couple hundred yards in all.

But then I came down to this: a dark, cavernous cellar straight out of the Middle Ages, with old stone walls and no air circulation. Yes, I found the shower stalls. But they smelled so bad I backed right out again. A whole day of my own day-old body odors was vastly preferable to twenty minutes of this. I passed on my shower. And out of curiosity, I checked the dungeon again at checkout time. Every shower stall was dry. For a castle that offers over 160 beds, the guests’ refusal to shower was statement to the reek in the dungeon.

dungeon stairs

Yup! Down the dungeon stairs to the showers. This is what it looked like. Image from Pixabay.

I’d encountered this odor before, in an archaic French town with Roman and medieval structures. Was an ancient sewage system leaking? Or had centuries of sweat, blood, and fumes permeated into the masonry and cobblestones? It’s something old and European; a price you sometimes have to pay to probe the past. My German husband calls it “The Smell of the Middle Ages.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

Mark Twain in Heilbronn, Germany

In 1878, Mark Twain traveled to Germany and complained about bad accommodations too. From his description in A Tramp Abroad, I think he encountered the same odor. Twain was in Heilbronn and wanted to experience history in the very same room where Götz von Berlichingen – the famous knight with the iron hand whom Goethe wrote about – once spent the night in 1519. The inn doesn’t exist anymore, but local lore says it was the Gasthof zur Krone near St. Kilian’s church.

“Harris and I occupied the same room [Götz von Berlichingen] had occupied and the same paper had not all peeled off the walls yet,” Twain wrote. “The furniture was quaint old carved stuff, full four hundred years old, and some of the smells were over a thousand…. This room … was on the first floor; which means it was in the second story, for in Europe the houses are so high that they do not count the first story, else they would get tired climbing before they got to the top….

peeling wallpaper

Peeling wallpaper dating back to Götz von Berlichingen? Image (c) shutterstock.

“There was a stove in the corner, – one of those tall, square, stately white porcelain things that looks like a monument and keeps you thinking of death when you ought to be enjoying your travels. The windows looked out on a little alley, and over that into a stable and some poultry and pig yards….”

And on top of that, a mouse kept Twain awake at night. He tried chasing it in the dark, broke a mirror, and woke up everyone in the house.

A mouse pestered Mark Twain in Heilbronn

One of these little guys also conspired to keep Mark Twain awake. Image (c) shutterstock.

Bad accommodations are fun, as long as you learn to take them with humor. Where was the worst place you ever spent the night?

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Tower Keeper of Bad Wimpfen: Blanca Knodel Keeps a Medieval Profession Alive

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel, tower keeper of Bad Wimpfen.

Blanca Knodel is standing on her “balcony” and the wind whips her hair. The wind isn’t surprising. Her balcony is a walkway around a set of turrets 105 feet above the ground. Blanca Knodel is a tower keeper in the German city of Bad Wimpfen, and wind, stairs, and stunning views are part of her job.

Bad Wimpfen claims to have the longest continuing tradition of a live-in tower keeper in all of Germany, in part for tourism, and in part to keep a medieval profession alive. The tower keeper lives in a 570-square foot apartment right below the balcony. Although Blanca Knodel is the city’s first female tower keeper, she isn’t the only one in Germany. Münster also has a female tower keeper.

Bad Wimpfen's Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower, where Blanca Knodel lives. You can see two windows to her apartment below the level of the turrets. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

According to Bad Wimpfen’s homepage, the tower is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The cost is 1.50€ per person, and you pay 134 steps above the street, at the door to the tower keeper’s apartment.

Blanca Knodel talks of her life above the city, Mark Twain’s visit to Bad Wimpfen, and how to get a free beer.

Interview with the Tower Keeper

Ann Marie: How long have you been at the job, Frau Knodel?

Blanca Knodel: Nineteen years.

How did you get it?

I belong to one of the oldest families in Baden-Württemberg. I love the Blue Tower, and my grandmother’s sister even used to live here in the tower keeper’s apartment. When my predecessor became ill, I covered for him. Eventually I took over with my three children.

Frau Knodel hands me a pamphlet. It says Bad Wimpfen has complete personnel records for its tower keepers going back to 1626. The records before that time were destroyed in the Thirty Years War, but sporadic documentation surviving from the 14th century indicates the city had a tower keeper who lived continually in the tower.

My job might even go back to the 13th century.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

The tower keeper used this speaking tube as a megaphone to warn the city below.

What were the tower keeper’s duties in the Middle Ages?

To watch out for enemies and fires and to raise the alarm. Also to toll the hours.

Did the tower keeper have any crime-prevention functions? If someone raised the hue and cry, for instance, would the tower keeper look for the fleeing criminal from above and let the town know where to look?

Probably not; that was more the job of the night watchman. If a crime happened at night, it would be really hard to spot a fleeing criminal in the darkness from way up here.

They didn’t have street lamps back then….

No, they didn’t!

The tower keeper's view over the Neckar River.

The view from the kitchen over the Neckar River.

What are the tower keeper’s job duties today?

I have primarily public relations duties – selling tickets and giving information to tourists visiting the tower.

Are there any advantages to being the tower keeper?

Yes! I’m so high above everything else; it is so quiet and peaceful. I have a tremendous view. And all my visitors are friendly. People climb the 134 steps to my apartment only if they really want to see me. I get absolutely no solicitors!

The view from the living room over the church.

The view from the living room over the church.

And the disadvantages?

Carrying my groceries. The tower does have a small elevator just for groceries, but it starts at the third floor and ends one floor below my apartment. So that means I have to haul my groceries up several floors. The worst part is carrying up cases of beer. On the days I go shopping, I offer a free beer to anyone who helps carry a case up the stairs.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

The tower keeper has to operate the small elevator by hand.

Even to American tourists?

Yes, of course! I usually go shopping on Wednesdays, so come by and see if you can help me with my beer….

Check for cases of beer when you enter the tower. Frau Knodel usually puts a note on them and you are welcome to carry one up.

How often do you get American tourists?

Regularly. The Blue Tower isn’t a secret tip. It appears in the guide books and I get guests of all nationalities.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left.

Bad Wimpfen has two towers, both named after their original roof color. The Blue Tower, where the tower keeper lives, is the tall tower in the center. The red tower is the smaller, square tower on the left. Courtesy of the city of Bad Wimpfen.

Mark Twain visited Bad Wimpfen in 1878 and sketched one of the towers. Would you say this picture is of the Blue Tower or the Red Tower?

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain

Bad Wimpfen’s tower. Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, public domain.

That looks like the Red Tower. By 1878, the Blue Tower already had its present form – with the turrets. But I don’t know why Mark Twain made the Red Tower leaning. Was he thinking of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

It may have just been one of Mark Twain’s jokes. He wrote that this picture was just a copy. He says he gave the original to the mayor of Bad Wimpfen.

(Laughing) If Mark Twain gave a picture to our mayor, believe me, I would know about it. If Bad Wimpfen had a Mark Twain picture in its archives, I would know.

You can’t always believe what Mark Twain says! But on the other hand, Twain wasn’t famous yet in Germany. If you were the mayor, and if a tourist who was a nobody gave you this picture of your town, would you keep it?

Okay, I get your point. No!

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

A view of Bad Wimpfen from the top of the Blue Tower.

You also have a pet cat. How has it adjusted to living in the tower? Does it ever go out?

My cat’s outdoor territory is the tower itself. In the mornings, before all the tourists come, it patrols the stairs and hunts silverfish and spiders.

There aren’t any mice in the tower?

Not that I know of.

Bad Wimpfen’s Blue Tower also has a music tradition.

Yes! Every Sunday at noon, from April to October, musicians play a hymn from the four sides of the tower. Bad Wimpfen has been doing that for at least a century.

The long way down.

The long way down.

What are your most interesting memories of living in the tower?

I have an upright piano in my apartment. It took four men seven minutes to carry it all the way up the tower. Once they got it into my apartment, I told them they brought the wrong piano.

What?! It wasn’t the piano you ordered?

Well yes, actually it was, but I was just trying to joke with them. They didn’t think I was funny at all.

The oldest guest who ever visited me was 95 years old. I shared a glass of wine with him at the top, and afterwards he used to call me every half year to tell me he would never forget the experience.

I won’t forget the experience either, Fr. Knodel. Thanks so much for the interview.

What would you enjoy about the job if you were a tower keeper?

Coming soon: more about Mark Twain in Bad Wimpfen and all the funny things he had to say about it.

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The Owl and the Wildcat: Mark Twain in the Naturalist Tavern

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Mark Twain wrote about these eyes in A Tramp Abroad. This is the original owl from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Langbein Museum.

They are Germany’s most famous stuffed animals, at least for Americans. A snowy owl and a wildcat lurk in the taxidermy display cases of the Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany. They’re renowned because Mark Twain wrote about them in A Tramp Abroad. And every year, dozens of tourists enter the museum, book in hand, with just one goal. They want to see the owl and the wildcat.

The animals from the Naturalist Tavern are now housed in the Langbein Museum.

The Langbein Museum in Hirschhorn, Germany.

Mark Twain in Hirschhorn

Twain visited Germany in 1878 while he was writing Huckleberry Finn. While living in Heidelberg, he took a trip along the Neckar River and  stopped at Hirschhorn to spend the night of August 9, 1878. It was a night to remember.

Site of the Naturalist Tavern

Hischhorn’s city hall (Rathaus) now stands where the Naturalist Tavern once stood. Mark Twain spent a memorable night here in 1878.

“We tramped through the darkness and the drenching summer rain full three miles, and reached ‘the Naturalist Tavern’ in the village of Hirschhorn just an hour before midnight, almost exhausted from hardship, fatigue, and terror. I can never forget that night.”

The Naturalist Tavern: An Inn Full of Animals

Carl Langbein, a hobby biologist, ran the Naturalist Tavern. It contained a menagerie of taxidermically prepared animals. After the inn closed down in the 20th century, the animals found a new home next door in the Langbein Museum, where you can still see them today.

The owl from the Naturalist Tavern.

Another angle of the same owl.

“ ‘The Naturalist Tavern’ was not a meaningless name; for all the halls and all the rooms were lined with large glass cases which were filled with all sorts of birds and animals, glass-eyed, ably stuffed, and set up in the most natural and eloquent and dramatic attitudes. The moment we were abed, the rain cleared away and the moon came out. I dozed off to sleep while contemplating a great white stuffed owl which was looking intently down on me from a high perch with the air of a person who thought he had met me before, but could not make out for certain.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, public domain

A Crouching Cat

The wild cat in the bedroom.  Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880 ed., public domain.

But at least Twain could sleep. His travelling companion had it worse:

“But young Z. did not get off so easily. He said that as he was sinking deliciously to sleep, the moon lifted away the shadows and developed a huge cat, on a bracket, dead and stuffed, but crouching, with every muscle tense, for a spring, and with its glittering glass eyes aims straight at him. It made Z. uncomfortable. He tried closing his own eyes, but that did not answer, for a natural instinct kept making him open them again to see if the cat was still getting ready to launch at him, — which she always was. He tried turning his back, but that was a failure; he knew the sinister eyes were on him still. So at last he had to get up, after an hour or two of worry and experiment, and set the cat out in the hall. So he won, that time.”

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Museum.

The original wildcat from the Naturalist Tavern, now housed in the Longbein Museum.

This was Europe’s wildcat, felis silvestris, somewhat larger than a housecat. That busy tail with three bold black stripes is one of the field marks for this species.

The Warbler Nobody Noticed

I wouldn’t describe Longbein’s cat as crouching (okay, Twain was known to exaggerate at times), but maybe it gave that impression in the moonlight. But there would have been no reason for Z. to fear: the cat had already found its prey. The taxidermist had prepared it with a male blackcap warbler in its mouth. Poor Z. probably never noticed the small, gray bird in the darkness of his room, and if he had, he might have been able to sleep more easily, knowing the cat had already found its meal for the night.

Close up of the warbler in the wildcat's mouth.

Alas, the warbler was the only one who had anything to fear that night.

Have you ever had an animal keep you up at night?

Male blackcap warbler

Male blackcap warbler. “Sylvia atricapilla -Lullington Heath, East Sussex, England -male-8” by Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom – BlackcapUploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Literature on point:

All quotes from Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (public domain)

Werner Pieper, ed., Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg (Löhrbach: Werner Pieper’s MedienXperimente)

Der deutsche Mississippi, Welt am Sonntag

Reichtum der Region, Echo online


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