St Goarshausen, Germany // A government plan to build a road bridge over Germany's Rhine River near the world-famous Loreley rock has divided local towns and outraged environmental campaigners who say it will spoil one of the most wildly beautiful landscapes in Europe. The regional government of Rhineland-Palatinate has said it wants a crossing at the town of St Goarshausen, just a few kilometres north of the fabled 125-metre-high rock, to regenerate the local economy, which suffers from poor transport connections.
There are no bridges over this spectacular 100-km stretch of the Rhine where the river runs through a deep, winding valley of steep vineyards and ancient towns overlooked by medieval castles. The Loreley rock alone attracts 800,000 visitors a year, many of whom come from Japan, where 80 per cent are reputed to know the ancient legend of the Loreley: she was a lovelorn maid who sat singing on the rock combing her blonde hair, a sight that dazzled ship's crews and sent them crashing into submerged rocks and drowning in what remains one of the most treacherous bends in the river.
"It would be a disgrace to bring avalanches of trucks into this landscape, which represents the myth of the Loreley," said Werner Reh, the transport expert at Bund, an environmental group. "Anyone who wants to build a bridge here is a cultural philistine. The Rhine valley would be desecrated." The Rhineland embodies Germany's folk heritage with ancient fairytales about medieval knights, dragons and dwarves that have originated in this often mist-shrouded region with its secluded side valleys and steep gorges. The area explodes into red and yellow colours in the autumn.
It has inspired such poets as Lord Byron and Goethe as well as the composer Richard Wagner, and is closely linked with the 19th-century romantic movement in European art and literature that sought to counter the ugliness of industrialisation by hailing the splendours of nature and the simplicity of medieval life. Many of the Rhine castles were restored at that time after being left in ruins for centuries.
Heinrich Heine's poem about the Loreley was turned into one of the country's best-loved folk songs. It is often heard echoing around the valley as passing tourist boats play it. The poem with the line "The loveliest maiden is sitting high-throned in yon blue air" is so entrenched in German culture that even the Nazis did not dare to ban it, even though the rest of Heine's work was outlawed and burnt because he was Jewish.
Romance aside, local politicians and business people say they are sick of having to rely on ferries to get across the river. St Goarshausen is on the eastern side of the Rhine, which does not have the motorway and airport connections that are available to towns on the western bank. "We always feel cut off from the outside world on this side and we feel our businesses are bleeding dry," said Bernhard Roth, the mayor of St Goarshausen. "It's frightening how many people have been moving away. The bridge won't affect the myth of the Loreley, it will simply make it easier to reach that myth."
There are six ferry crossing points, but the services stop at 11pm in the summer and 9pm in the winter. After that, anyone trying to get across has to make a long detour by driving to the nearest bridges in Koblenz in the north or Mainz in the south. Ghazi Vilali, a Moroccan-born businessman who has managed the La Belle Rose cafe in Goarshausen for more than 40 years, said: "At night when the ferry stops, people can't get across the river. Even when it's running, tourists think twice about whether they'll pay the 1.30 euros [Dh6.5] fare per person to come across. I'm not against a bridge at all, I hope I'll be alive to see it happen."
Supporters of the bridge say the Rhine is not an unspoilt nature reserve. Trains speed down the valley on both sides with a deafening hiss, and modern barges piled with coal, scrap metal or containers gingerly negotiate the powerful currents and the sandbanks around the Loreley. The 1,320km Rhine runs from the Swiss Alps to the Dutch North Sea coast past the port of Rotterdam. It passes through major industrial regions and is one of Europe's longest and busiest waterways. Pleasure boats share the river with barges, and the dangers of its narrow bends were highlighted in 2003 when a cruise boat with 349 passengers on board ran aground at the foot of the Loreley, injuring 41 people.
But Klaus Hammerl, whose family has been operating the St Goarshausen ferry for almost 500 years and who stands to lose his business if the bridge is built, says a crossing would damage the whole of Germany. "One can justifiably claim that Rhine romanticism is the most successful advertising campaign ever undertaken for any region worldwide," said Mr Hammerl, 44. "Building a bridge here would be a disaster for the whole of Germany, for monument protection, for nature conservation and for Germany's image in the world."
Mr Hammerl owns and runs "Loreley VI", a hi-tech ferry that transports 550 transport units - one unit being either one car or three passengers - per day between St Goarshausen and the town of St Goar on the western bank. "The ferries have been crossing the Rhine for over 2,000 years and are even more part of the culture of this landscape than winemaking," said Mr Hammerl, whose family has run ferries across the river since 1532. "We belong here as much as the gondolas belong to Venice."
He said he would be happy to operate a 24-hour ferry service if the government subsidised it, and that a bridge would not boost the economy. "People are being misled to believe there will be a golden age with a bridge, but that won't happen. All the ferry companies will go bust so there will be even fewer crossing points and the infrastructure will end up being weakened. Besides, a bridge will be far more expensive to the taxpayer than extending ferry services."
The Rhineland-Palatinate government seems determined to go ahead with the ?40 million project provided it does not endanger the region's prized world heritage status awarded it by Unesco, the UN's cultural organisation, in 2002. Unesco said in July it had no fundamental objections to a river crossing in the form of a bridge, or a more expensive tunnel, but asked the government to compile reports on the likely effect on the environment and on traffic.
"In some communities the population has already gone down by 50 per cent, and the number of jobs is decreasing," said Beate Schrader, a spokeswoman for the Rhineland-Palatinate economics ministry. "A bridge is crucial to strengthening the region." firstname.lastname@example.org