“The castle crag of the Drachenfels frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine…”
Lord Byron, in his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, might have waxed poetic about the Siebengebirge’s most prominent hill, the Drachenfels, but he was hardly the first person to do so. The Drachenfels had achieved immortality long before as the site where the 13th-century Nieblungenlied epic hero Siegfried attempted to achieve immortality of his own by bathing in the blood of the dragon he had slain.
Had it not been for the linden leaf which landed on his shoulder as he bathed, Siegfried, like the Siebengebirge, might still be with us. Like Siegfried, the forty hills of the confusingly named Siebengebirge (it means Seven Mountains in English) have had their own struggle to survive — not because of their linden trees, but because of their minerals!
It began with the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century A.D. The Romans were delighted with the huge veins of trachyte, a nearly diamond-hard ore, which ran through the Seven Mountains. They were soon quarrying it and shipping it throughout the empire from their harbor at Königswinter.
The Romans might not have lasted as long as the trachyte, but their quarries weren’t forgotten. In the 12th century the Archbishop of Cologne began mining the ore again for use in the Cologne cathedral. Construction of what was then the world’s largest church continued for six hundred (600!!) years. This seems a bit odd, because in 1140, while the Archbishop of Cologne was destroying Drachenfels with his quarries, he ordered that a castle be built on its heights!
Fast forward to the 19th century, when after countless wars and political horse-trading, the Siebengebirge became the property of the King of Prussia. By that time, another Archbishop of Cologne had ordered the destruction of the Drachenfels castle (don’t ask!), but in 1826 the Prussians closed the quarries, protecting the castle ruins. That almost certainly eased the passing of Lord Byron, who died in the same year.
Today the Siebengebirge is preserved as Germany’s oldest nature reserve. A network of some 200 km/125 miles of hiking trails have opened this ancient and haunting landscape to the world. The most popular of these is probably the Rheinsteig.
Leaving Bonn, it leads to the ruins of Heisterbach Abbey, where the 13th-century prior Caesarius did his best to contribute to the legends of the Seven Mountains. His Dialogus Miraculorum, recounting in vivid detail the miracles of the day, was a medieval best-seller!
At the Petersberg, the trail climbs the hill where a guest house (now a hotel) once wined, dined, and sheltered the most important of German state visitors. At the base of the Margarethenhöhe is the Siebengebirge Hills Visitors’ Center, followed by the Giesberg and its marvelous hilltop viewing pavilion.
From here it’s a short distance to the Drachenfels, with Siegfried’s dragon cave and the ruined castle which so inspired Byron. In the town of Königswinter you’ll find the rack train which climbs Drachenfels, along with dozens of the dragons Siegfried missed! The Seven Hills Museum is full of information about the region’s history, geology, and legends. Then there’s the local wine known as Drachenblut (dragon’s blood!).
Bad Honnef transitioned from a wine-growing town to a spa with the 1897 discovery of its mineral spring, called (naturally!) the Drachenquelle, or “Dragon’s Spring.” Visible from Bad Honnef is the island of Nonnenwerth, where Roland’s beloved Hildegarde lived as a nun upon receiving mistaken word of his death in the war with Spain.
Oh dear, the legend has it that on returning from the war and learning that Hildegarde could never be his wife, Roland spent years watching over her on a rock across from the Drachenfels, until one dawn he saw her coffin being carried from the convent.
Roland made his confession, requesting of the convent’s priest that at his death, he would be buried where he had kept his vigil over Nonnenwerth and Hildegarde. As great romantic heroes must, he died the next day. :-(
The Rolandseck, his resting place, was first preserved as a neoclassical train station and today as the entrance for the magnificent Arp Museum. On that note, let’s bid farewell to the Siebengebirge, because it’s an ending which would have satisfied Byron himself! ;-)