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The reason for my visit to France and Germany this summer was to follow my interest in the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War. However, being a committed conservationist, one naturally notices examples of other people’s efforts to preserve, enhance or save our heritage and the natural world around us.
Of course one goes to Metz, and then east to Bitche — the only place in France which held out against the Prussian blitzkrieg in August 1870. Above the town is a massive fort, known now as the Citadelle Vivante: the living citadel. And why? Because as you walk up the ramp into the main gateway you hear the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, the rumble of heavy iron-rimmed wheels, the shouts of command and the tramp of many marching feet.
As you move through the outer fortifications past the main gate, putting on your headphones, you are involved in an infantry fire-fight: rifle shots, words of command, screams, and the stutter of the mitrailleuse (France’s new weapon, a machine-gun). For one and a half hours one is guided by the recording and by beckoning lights, through the fortress hacked out of the rock. Tunnels lead to stables, ammunition stores, sick bays, abattoir, kitchens, control room, and each has an appropriate film display on the wall, relevant sound-effects and the right smells — brilliant, and at times very moving. The fortress was also used as a civilian shelter in 1945 while Patton and the Germans argued about possession.
My next conservation visit was above Rüdesheim, where the Rhein makes a Z-bend to get past the Taunus mountains. Here, on a prominent hilltop, is the memorial to the fallen of the 1870–71 war (and of the two world wars).
By this massive and impressive denkmal is a sanctuary for birds of prey run by an old friend of mine, Karl Gilles, a German ex-parachutist. People from all over Europe send him injured birds. He mends them, mates them and brings up the progeny. As if that is not difficult enough, he then trains the young birds to hunt for their food, often pairs them off, and then releases them into the wild. I saw two pairs of eagles circling above one of the castles on the banks of the Rhein.
Karl Gilles has trained and set free more than 100 eagles and large birds of prey, and over 100 hawks and owls. I think he will never retire until he either drops or flies up with one of his birds to his God.
Coming down the rope chairlift towards the Rhein, I saw my ship waiting for me. Imagine my delight to discover that she was the good steam padddleship Goethe, built 1913, sunk 1945, raised and restored 1952, and now ferrying her share of the tourists and business traffic alongside the modern and sophisticated craft recently developed. One could look down into the engine room and see her smoothly working pistons driving the paddlewheels: what power, and what staying power! And the engines were made in England!