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Getting to the bottom of the myth

When the imposing Lorelei Rock suddenly emerges into view amid the idyllic Rhine landscape, an eerie feeling comes over many who see it. This is not because of the striking slate visage, which is sure to attract captivated looks for its sheer size alone, but rather because of the legends and myths surrounding the world-famous rock formation. A golden-blonde enchantress, for whom people have been eagerly keeping a lookout for some 220 years, is what gets people talking most of all.

Not only the riverbank, but also the Rhine itself has one very special feature south of the town of St. Goarshausen: the Lorelei forces the river to take a sharp bend and narrows it severely. The narrowest and deepest part of the navigable Rhine lies directly at the foot of the rock mass, with a strong current to match. Here, the river is just 145 metres wide and 23 metres deep.

Notorious echo of dwarves

In the Middle Ages, this section was feared by mariners. After all, there were still sandbanks, rocky reefs and whirlpools in this area back then, which destroyed or dragged many a boat into the depths. On top of that, witnesses of the time noticed a strong echo when they passed the rock. It was widely believed that these were the voices of dwarves who supposedly lived in Lorelei Rock.

Some researchers believe that the approximately 130-metre-high rock mass owes its name, “Loreley” in German, to this notorious echo. The first part of the word, “Lore”, could be an old term for “sound”, while the Celtic word “Ley” means “rock”. But the origin of the word is not entirely clear. In handwritten documents dating back to the 10th century, the Lorelei was given other names such as Lurulenberg, Lorleberg and Lurlinberg. It is noteworthy how at that time there was no mention of the legen-dary figure of the same name who would later make the rock one of the most famous sights in the region.

Golden-blonde beauty leads mariners to doom

She first appears in an 1801 poem by Clemens Brentano. In the ballad “Zu Bacharach am Rheine” (To Bacharach on the Rhine), “Lore Ley” is portrayed as an enchantress who beguiles men with her beauty, but ultimately only brings them disaster and doom. She herself suffers from heartache and in the end jumps off the rock to her death. The Lorelei achieved cult status once and for all in 1824 through Heinrich Heine, who placed the figure at the centre of his poem “Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten” (I do not know what it might bode). In it he describes a beautiful maiden sitting on the rock combing her golden hair and singing, attracting the attention of the boatmen on the Rhine. The men are too distracted to steer their boats safely, causing them to be shipwrecked. Friedrich Silcher later added music to the text and made the Lorelei even more popular with his folk song.

A huge number of tourists from all over the world make their way to St. Goarshausen every year to get to the bottom of this myth. Although they don’t meet the real enchantress, the fascination she exerts is still unbroken. And this is despite the fact that much has changed over the centuries. Among other things, passing through the aforementioned Rhine passage has become much safer: dangerous rocky reefs were blasted away back in the 1930s. In addition, maritime pilots were used for a long time. Today there are signal stations here that regulate ship traffic.

Impressive plateau with a stunning view

The rock itself has also seen a lot of activity: in 1939, an open-air stage was opened where events are still held today. Next to this is a summer toboggan run and the visitor centre and museum, built in 2000. The plateau was recently revamped and became home to the “Lorelei Culture and Landscape Park”, which opened in 2019. Here, visitors will find six lookouts offering an incredible view of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. In addition to the characteristic vineyards and rocky slopes, you can also see impressive medieval castles, including Rheinfels and Katz.

Today, the sandstone sculpture “Loreley” by Mariano Pinton on the rock plateau and the bronze statue “Nixe Loreley” by the Russian artist Natascha Alexandrova (Princess Jusopov) on the breakwater in Lorelei harbour are reminders of the legendary figure. And if you’re lucky, you might even meet the Lorelei representative, who is chosen every two years by the Lorelei Tourist Board. She will make it almost seem as if the myth has actually come alive.

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