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.
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 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….
“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.
Bad accommodations are fun, as long as you learn to take them with humor. Where was the worst place you ever spent the night?
It can happen to anybody. Mark Twain had started several new books when it struck in 1878. His solution to writer’s block might surprise you. And the results probably surprised him.
Mark Twain in Heidelberg
Twain decided a change of scenery would help and booked a 16-month trip to Europe with his family. He had already become famous for Innocents Abroad and his goal was to get away to a quiet place, where people didn’t know him. “I had a couple of light minor purposes, also: to acquire the German language, and to perfect myself in Art,” he wrote.
Heidelberg offered the perfect refuge. On the Königstuhl Mountain, perched high over the city, Twain found an inn where he rented a room as an office. Further downhill, he booked a $250 per month suite for his family in the Schloss Hotel. He lived there for several months. The view from his hotel distracted him from his writing, but later inspired him. In a May 26, 1878 letter to his friends, he wrote:
… divinely located. From this airy porch among the shining groves we look down upon Heidelberg Castle, and upon the swift Neckar, and the town, and out over the wide green level of the Rhine valley—a marvelous prospect. We are in a Cul-de-sac formed of hill-ranges and river; we are on the side of a steep mountain; the river at our feet is walled, on its other side, (yes, on both sides,) by a steep and wooded mountain-range which rises abruptly aloft from the water’s edge; portions of these mountains are densely wooded; the plain of the Rhine, seen through the mouth of this pocket, has many and peculiar charms for the eye.
Neckar River as Distraction and Inspiration
Our bedroom has two great glass bird-cages (enclosed balconies) one looking toward the Rhine valley and sunset, the other looking up the Neckar cul-de-sac, and naturally we spend nearly all our time in these—when one is sunny the other is shady. We have tables and chairs in them; we do our reading, writing, studying, smoking and suppering in them.
The view from these bird-cages is my despair. The pictures change from one enchanting aspect to another in ceaseless procession, never keeping one form half an hour, and never taking on an unlovely one.
At some point Twain looked beyond the beauty of the Neckar River to its commercial activity. Log rafts floated down regularly from the Black Forest. Twain sketched them and described them in A Tramp Abroad. In August, 1978, he took a trip upstream to Heilbronn and returned, in part, by boat, but his fantasy was working the entire trip. Twain concocted a story about a return trip in a raft.
Raft Trip on the Neckar River
While I was looking down upon the rafts that morning in Heilbronn, the dare-devil spirit of adventure came suddenly upon me, and I said to my comrades:
“I am going to Heidelberg on a raft. Will you venture with me?”
Twain claims to have chartered a raft for his return trip and describes a myriad of adventures on the return trip: boys swimming out to them, a naked beauty bathing under a willow tree, a storm, and a shipwreck.
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.
Inspiration for Huckleberry Finn
Back in Heidelberg, Twain got fresh inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. He had already been toying with the raft trip idea, but now his ideas crystallized. He wrote chapter 16, in which Jim and Huck take off on the raft but missed Cairo in the fog, in Heidelberg.
Twain’s biographer Justin Kaplan views the fictional raft trip on the Neckar as a crucial remedy to the writer’s block that stalled Huckleberry Finn. A German river might have inspired one of the greatest works of American fiction. It would be no surprise to the Germans, who consider the Neckar the most “literary” of all its rivers. Friedrich Schiller, author of the Ode to Joy and William Tell, was born on its banks. Goetz of Berlichingen, who inspired Goethe, had a castle on the Neckar.
Can’t write? Then come to Germany!
What places inspire your creativity?
Literature on point:
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
Werner Pieper (ed.), Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through German in 1878 (Lörbach: Medien Xperminente)
Jan Bürger, Der Neckar: Eine literarische Reise (Munich: C.H. Beck 2013)Read More