Rhine River: Tribute to the prince of prints

By Jim Eagles

In the heart of the German city of Mainz, the beautiful Gutenberg Museum building shares the central square with a newspaper office, a corner shop selling newspapers and magazines, several bookshops and a cathedral where you can buy, among other things, a Bible.

It's a reminder of the extraordinary heritage of the man commemorated by the museum, Johannes Gutenberg, the father of modern printing, widely hailed as the Man of the Millennium.

Before Gutenberg, the written word had to be reproduced laboriously by hand, or printed nearly as laboriously from carved wooden blocks.

Producing a single copy of the Bible, which apparently contains two million words, could take a year.

As a result books were rare, periodicals didn't exist and ideas were communicated by word of mouth.

The Reformation - which had its origins in 1517 when Martin Luther objected to the sale of indulgences to finance expansion of the Mainz Cathedral - would not have been possible but for Gutenberg's innovations in the same city 70 years earlier. Nor, of course, would our modern civilisation.

But there's more to Mainz than the Gutenberg Museum. Its strategic position at the confluence of the Rivers Rhine and Main has made it an important centre for at least 2000 years.

Down the centuries it has been contested by, among others, Romans and Attila's Huns, Franks and Alamanni, Catholics and Protestants, French and Germans, and most recently Allies and Axis forces.

Most have left their marks.

It was the Rhine that brought me there, in the course of a cruise on the Avalon Tapestry, a method of water transport which allows travellers to avoid the city's busy autobahns and industrial suburbs and arrive right in the middle of the peaceful riverside parks and the gracious buildings of the old town.

It's a delightful area to stroll around, with its quaint cobble-stoned streets, lovely tree-lined squares - one of which holds a spectacular 500-year-old Renaissance fountain - baroque mansions, half-timbered restaurants, venerable churches and clusters of market stalls selling fruits, vegetables, breads and snacks, as well as the inevitable souvenirs.

Dominating the centre of Mainz is the Cathedral of St Martin, whose finances may have been spiritually dubious but which is nevertheless a spectacular sight, with its newly cleaned red sandstone almost glowing in the autumn sun as visitors walk towards it.

Our guide explained that the cathedral had taken a severe battering down the centuries - not just from invading armies but also from greedy builders seeking free masonry - but it is still an impressive sight. The bronze doors at the main entrance are more than 1000 years old and inside are some beautiful statues of former archbishops and carvings of biblical scenes.

A better idea of how much more spectacular it could have been is highlighted at the nearby cathedral museum, which houses some of the artworks ravaged over the centuries and later recovered, including an evocative statue of one of the architects, his back still stiff from supporting a doorway.

But, for all the impressive bulk of the cathedral, the highlight of any visit to Mainz is inevitably the Gutenberg Museum.

This commemorates not only the work of the city's most famous son - though, whisper it softly, he developed most of his ideas for printing during a period of exile in Strasbourg - but the whole history of the printed word.

The exhibits date back well before the first printing to a full-size replica of a 3000-year-old sarcophagus from Byblos, which carries the oldest text in Semitic alphabet script that is still able to be read.

They are followed by ancient scripts hand-drawn on clay tablets, leaves, animal skins, cloth and early forms of paper from Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

There are also early examples of printing, such as a 1300-year-old Japanese Buddhist scroll printed from a carved wooden slab and four 1200-year-old blocks of hand-carved wooden type from China.

But, naturally, Gutenberg's work takes pride of place and in the basement is a replica of the workshop he operated in the city from 1446.

If you're lucky enough to be chosen - I wasn't ... for some reason they picked an Aussie! - you can get the chance to operate a facsimile of his printing press and produce a page of the famous Bible he printed in 1455.

A total of 180 of these were produced, of which 48 survive, one being the Bible on which US Presidents are sworn into office.

Upstairs, in a dimly lit, air-conditioned strongroom, you can see the museum's two treasured copies of that Bible, as well as a few samples of the indulgences and school texts which were Gutenberg's main source of revenue.

On other floors there is an extraordinary array of the printing machines descended from that primitive press in the basement, from tiny hand-operated proofing presses to the vast electric-powered units able to churn out hundreds of newspapers or magazines a minute.

Perhaps it's because I've spent my life working in the industry Gutenberg helped create that I found the museum fascinating.

If it wasn't for the fact that our vessel had to leave and head down the Rhine I would happily have returned the next day.

No wonder the statue of the man himself at the museum's entrance looks a little bit smug.

"Ah, actually, that isn't Gutenberg at all," said our guide.

"The oldest picture we have of him was done well after his death and - like that statue - shows him as a man of the artist's time rather than of the era when he lived.

"We have no idea what he looked like but it certainly wasn't like that, because he would not have had a beard."

GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand flies to Heathrow, London via Los Angeles and Hong Kong and has connections to Europe via its Star Alliance partners. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz, call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

CRUISING THE RHINE: Avalon Waterways has eight-day Romantic Rhine river cruises, visiting some of Europe's most picturesque regions, from now until October. Cruises are available from Basel to Amsterdam or from Amsterdam to Basel, visiting the towns of Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Mainz, Coblenz and Cologne along the way. Built in 2006, Avalon Tapestry has a lounge and restaurant out front, as well as an outside viewing deck. All meals on board are included and wine is complimentary with dinner.

MORE INFORMATION: See your licensed travel agent or visit www.avolonwaterways.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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