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When the Rhine catches fire

Russell Hafter fulfils a long-held ambition.

Having been a tour operator to Germany for 28 years, I have long wanted to see the much-publicised ‘Rhine in Flames’ fireworks displays along the Rhine Valley. There are five of these displays a year, but work pressures meant that visiting was just not practicable – until this year. And so Saturday 19 September found four of us in St. Goar, the site of the final and biggest celebration of them all.

You could tell it was going to be big. The previous afternoon the ‘no parking’ signs were already up along the roads from the autobahn into town, while sausage stalls and wine booths were being assembled along the Rhine Promenade. As Saturday dawned, the weather looked doubtful, but the ‘Volksfest’ signs were set out on the main road along the river. By 16:00 every parking place in town had long been taken.

Our advice was to be in place by 19:00, even though the fireworks would not start until 21:00, and that the ideal viewing point would be close to the river bank, opposite Burg Katz, the castle which rises above St. Goarshausen across the river. As evening approached, we walked along the river bank into town laden with transparent umbrellas and portable stools.

As we drew abreast of Burg Katz we saw that picnic tables and benches had been set up, and though the tables were full, there were empty benches; we grabbed one. Two of our party went for wine and sausages; then, amazingly, people from a couple of the tables left and we got our own table.

By 20:00 around 50 boats and river cruise ships, all lit up, had collected downstream, and shortly before 21:00 they moved into a single line, stretched out along the river.

On the dot of 21:00, a maroon was set off from Burg Katz; then the castle was illuminated with gentle fireworks. Suddenly, everything changed. The sky lit up as flights of rockets erupted from the middle of the river into the sky, lighting up the valley. Equally dramatic was the way the sound of the explosions echoed along the valley, bouncing from side to side; something unknown at fireworks displays in flat, open areas such as the fireworks competitions I’ve experienced at Herrenhausen castle in Hannover, or Southport in Lancashire.

The fireworks continued for some 40 minutes, with significant displays from Burg Katz and one five minute show from Schloss Rheinfels above St. Goar itself, before a final massive burst from the middle of the river and the closing maroon from Burg Katz. A fitting end to a wonderful event.

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