Invisible Harmonies in Hildegard-land

by Miranda Stolfo

A traveler and her willful mother find moments of connection and distance as they explore the German region where an iconic saint once lived.

Jesus looked down from a celestial dome high above the altar, holding his arms out in a gesture of welcome, of peace. A cascade of female voices flowed out from a hidden recess with a sound as mysterious and alluring as the art cladding the walls of the abbey.

A tear ran down Margo’s cheek as she took in the music. Back home in the US, she belonged to a church named after St. Hildegard dedicated to the iconic figure’s teachings and the worship of a female Goddess. Here in Germany, we had come to visit St. Hildegard’s old stomping grounds.

Margo, my mother, had come to visit me in my adopted hometown of Nuremberg, but this side trip to Hildegard-land, as we came to call it, meant a lot to her. I had helped her plan as best I could and driven her 300 kilometers west. As we sped along, she reminisced about living in Alaska in the 70s. This was her first time in Europe, and I wanted to help make it special. But Margo knew exactly where she did and didn’t want to go.

The first stop on the itinerary had been the local church that held St. Hildegard’s bones. Next came Eibingen, the relatively modern complex built on the site of St. Hildegard’s 12th century abbey, where Jesus beamed down at us from on high. During her lifetime, St. Hildegard wielded great influence across many areas of study, from theology to music notation. Other than the angelic choir, Margo didn’t seem to think the current facilities did justice to the saint’s legacy.

Outside the convent walls, gardens and vineyards hugged the hillside. Birds swooped high overhead, then dove for prey in the grass. The late spring poppies bobbed their heads along the edges of the path. Signposts with nearby town names beckoned for us to venture further, but Margo wasn’t wearing the shoes for it. We turned around and ended up at the car.

Back at the hotel, Margo sat cross-legged on her bed and took out her phone to order another book about St. Hildegard. I sat sideways on my own twin bed, legs hanging awkwardly off the edge. The window in our room looked out on the tips of some scraggly bushes and a patch of sky. A few birds sang out of sight, just like the sisters at the church.

“Do you want to go on a little walk?” I asked.

“Nope.” She looked up and smiled. “I want to write in my journal, and then have a little dinner, and then go to sleep.” She always had her next few steps planned out, and she stuck to them dogmatically.

Having grown up in a family full of willful individuals, I had a deeply ingrained habit of going along with other people’s plans. When I was a teenager, travel had twisted the world open for me in a new way. Being far from home gave me the freedom to explore on my own terms. At my freest, I had jumped on a bus and traveled from Argentina to Peru alone. But, although I had lived abroad and traveled regularly for over a decade by this point, my habit of sticking to others’ plans had somehow seeped back in. Now, as Margo sat writing, I couldn’t bring myself to get off the bed.

The birds chirped again. The empty air outside the window begged to be put into context. Without waiting to reconsider, I put my shoes back on and stood up. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

The hotel and the surrounding buildings featured the quaint shutters and half-timber architecture typical of many German towns. The by-now familiar streets held ice cream shops, guesthouses, and a torture museum. Rüdesheim clung tight to itself, sleepy and claustrophobic in equal measure. Taking the road going up and away from the buildings, I found a path that seemed like it could lead to a lookout point. I just wanted a view of the river.

The path cut through high grass and bushes in a sharp incline. After only a few minutes, my breath started to quicken, and the edges of my feet started to chafe against my shoes. Just as the concrete tapered out to gravel and my breathing devolved into panting, the underbrush fell away, and the valley opened up to my left. The afternoon sun illuminated the landscape, a vast convergence of vineyards, meadows, forests, and municipalities. The wide, slow expanse of the Rhine sliced through the middle of it all, barges plowing its waters and tiny toy trains running along the far bank.

Rüdesheim already felt worlds away, as its church spires and gables below me merged perfectly into their surroundings. Still, it would have been easy to go back, having gained some new perspective already, a breath of fresh air.

But the path prodded me on. After just a few meters, it traced a small curve in the hill, and the valley opened up even wider. Vineyards careened in all directions now, trees crowned the ridge high above, and off in the distance stood some kind of monument. After little deliberation, I set off to find out what it was, trying not to dwell on the nearing sunset or Margo waiting back in the room.

The path started to split off in different directions, some tilting upwards, some dipping down toward the river. But all roads seemed to lead to the monument. Even a brief trot through a drainage ditch deposited me back on the main path. The sun came in and out of the clouds, and flowers danced in the breeze. Every once in a while, a lone runner or cyclist passed by, but otherwise the hill was mine.

The next hour passed in a state of breathless reverie. Between walking sprints, I stopped to stare, wanting to encapsulate the moment in a snow globe and take it home in my pocket. Maybe this was what religion should feel like. 

Finally, the last slope curved up into the forest and around to the monument. I straightened my hair and socks and stepped back into society.

When approached from the back, the area resembled a well-groomed city park. Couples lounged on picnic blankets. The monument itself jutted up into the air, a pompous stack of polished stone surfaces studded with bronze statues long green with age. A series of informational boards outlined its origins, facts and figures that didn’t stick. What did stick was an earlier chapter in the area’s history, and how one man, Karl Maximilian Graf von Ostein, had set out to transform this hilltop into a fantasia-like leisure destination. The plaques told of a Neoclassical temple structure down on the tree line, castles buried in the woods, and the old horse tracks running over the back of the hill. Von Ostein had taken great pleasure in classical myths and legends and in bringing his imaginary world to life for others to enjoy.

Standing in the reconstructed temple for myself a few minutes later was like embodying a figure in a Frederic Church painting. Its pillars framed sections of the valley into dramatic quadrants like vestiges of civilization giving way to the wilds of nature. Eibingen Abbey, where the nuns had sung that morning, stood just around the curve in the hill, a few kilometers away. St. Hildegard had lived her whole life near this river. All of her visions and teachings had taken root in this landscape. To stumble upon this other man’s imaginary world manifested in the very same valley was like tuning into another kind of invisible harmony.

The walk back down the hill flew by as my head spun with parallels and connections. Back at the hotel, Margo still sat on the bed. No words would have done justice to my solitary walk, and I didn’t want to steal her Hildegard thunder with my story about some eccentric man who built some forts in the woods. But the early summer sun still hadn’t set, and it wasn’t dinnertime yet.

“Do you want to see where I went?” I asked.

In a surprise deviation from her plan, Margo said yes.

I missed the entrance to the vineyards the first time around, and we had to double back. The incline felt steeper than before, and Margo started to worry about her feet. But I kept urging her on, just a little further, because this time I knew what awaited us. Finally, the grass fell away just like before, the sun-streaked sky yawned over us, and my mom walked out into just the threshold of what I had experienced earlier.

She admired the view and allowed herself to be pushed far enough to see the monument for herself in the distance. Hearing about the Neoclassical temple hidden from view didn’t make her want to climb any higher, but she did want to know more about it. At first, she seemed underwhelmed, or perhaps overwhelmed. Then, she had questions. In the end, the eccentric enclave up on the hill fascinated her just as much, if not more, than it had me.

The next day’s itinerary dictated a ferry ride across the river, a drive through the green hills visible from the vineyards, and a visit to the first monastery St. Hildegard had joined in her youth, Disibodenberg.

The monastery had fallen into ruin, but what little remained evoked more peace than Jesus in the ceiling. We picked our way through the crumbling foundations, sometimes side-by-side and sometimes alone.  Birds sang all around us. Margo stared up at the empty shells of buildings and down into pits, as if searching for a spiritual shift or a renewed sense of connection with St. Hildegard and her beatific wisdom that, at least for the moment, eluded her.

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