Unplotted, I find myself trailing in the tracks of Lord Byron’s mercurial alter ego Childe Harold: from Lisbon, to Sintra, and then further north, lured by the fairytale charms of the river Rhein.
The castled crag of Drachenfels
Frowns o’er the wide and winding Rhine,
Whose breast of waters broadly swells
Between the banks which bear the vine,
And hills all rich with blossom’d trees,
And fields which promise corn and wine,
And scatter’d cities crowning these,
Whose far white walls along them shine,
Have strew’d a scene, which I should see
With double joy were thou with me!
—Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (155)
Harold never wanders through Mainz, but he would have woven garlands of flowery verse to crown this city’s ancient glories. But what verse, no matter how florid, could outshine the sunrise as it sets the ruins of the Roman Amphitheater aglow? A sky of spotlights illuminates the stage, jet trails kindling like electric filaments in the east. For two thousand years these lights have scared night’s shadows from the ring of stones, splashing the grassy stage with shades of magnesium and tangerine. There’s no entrance fee, but only early birds catch the light show. By the time Seven’s bells have echoed through the Cathedral square, the sky’s dull house lights will go up on the ruins, showing the stones one day greyer than before.
Following the Romans, I enter a glassed-in mall, descend one flight of stairs, and enter the Temple of Isis and Mater Magna. Crumbling walls trace the architecture of devotion: a labyrinth of alcoves, antechambers, prayer cells, and halls of sacrifice. Sacred earth has been planted with seeds that cannot grow unwatered by prayer: clay figurines, glass beads, perfume phials, and the tiny bones of songbirds.
Past the train station and the graveyard, where the sleepy streets grow fat, the ancient Aqueduct sprouts from the ridge of a hill. Like the spines of a dragon, the pylons ripple along the meadow’s spine. After serving the Roman legions for centuries, the remains of the Aqueduct have begun to develop a personality of their own. With an avuncular sentience, the looming stones watch over flocks of sheep and one little lost dog.