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Mackenzie Patel

Hello World travelers! This post is going to be short and sweet, but the subject is so incredibly fascinating and historically rich that I simply had to write a tidbit about it. A few months ago, I went through a “French Revolution” phrase and wiled away many hours on the history archives of Khan Academy. I find the Revolution and Napoleon’s consequent rise to power interesting, especially because I’ve visited France, Italy, and Switzerland before (countries left with a Napoleonic impression stamped into the terrain). So it was quite the serendipitous surprise when I discovered a soaring, ruinous relic of the Napoleonic era smack dab in the middle of an earthy vineyard in southwest Germany. Ober-Hilbersheim, the bucolic Pfaltz town overflowing with gardens, unimaginably narrow cobble-stoned roads, and the most wholesome, genuine residents one could hope to meet, is surrounded by many kilometers of vineyards. Studded with enormous windmills (the archetypes of a modern future), the vineyards also hid 200 year old communication towers utilized by the French military elite–what a delicious juxtaposition!

Semaphore Telegraph Map of France. Picture from Wikipedia

These communication towers of rusticated masonry dotted the French, Italian, and German landscapes at one point in history, although many of them are now dismantled (by robbers) or eerily decayed (by the fickle fingers of weather). The official name for this rapid relay of messages was called Semaphore, and until it was booted out of fashion by the snazzy electronic telegraph, it was the premier means of contact for the French military. The towers in question looked like this: they featured a long, cylindrical base (usually made of stone) with a barred window resembling a jail, and were curiously topped by linear metal structures. These poles, with a thick one for the base and two smaller arms, could be adjusted into a series of angles and positions. For example, one arm up and one arm down could have meant “the army is invading” or “Napoleon’s wife just had a baby.” These imposing towers were then placed within sight of each other so that the message, usually coming from swanky military quarters in Paris, could be transmitted to as far as Germany in a matter of hours. What an ingenious solution! Instead of relying on Jacques, the local message boy with a floppy haircut and a questionable horse, a general could send his information quickly and accurately using metal sticks and angles. At its height, the Semaphore had 534 member towers that covered a dizzying distance of over 3,000 miles. Claude Chappe (along with his brother, Ignace, who is never mentioned) invented this breakthrough technology for its day in 1792. Hence, the whole system is named the Chappe Telegraph. The cryptic-like messages that fell through the towers like a sophisticated game of French dominos were only understood by a limited number of people. The mere laymen that changed the position of the metal rods didn’t even comprehend it themselves! Napoleon sent his iron words throughout France and also to his military in the North of Italy; interestingly, the artery of communiqué that passed through Germany ended at Mainz (an important Ancient Roman settlement).

When I was frolicking (more like sinking in a sea of culture and art) in Sprendlingen (next to Ober-Hilbersheim), I was given a breath-taking tour of the vineyards of my hotel owner, Arnold. Zum Kelterhaus, a truly beautiful place untainted by the complications of modernity, was the bed and breakfast I stayed at near the vineyards. All different types of juicy grapes were being cultivated, from Portuguesa to Dornfelder to Riesling. After jostling around of the back of Arnold’s SUV, we emerged from an ocean of tough leaves, sinuous vines, and plump grapes to see an enormous tower appear before us. This edifice of time and stone was once part of the snaking (and useful!) Semaphore line described above! Only in Europe would you be surrounded by the beauty of grape vines only to chance upon some giant, historical anachronism of ages past. Although the sign next to the Chappe Telegraph was in German, a diagram of the different combinations of arm positions was shown. What a unique and completely unexpected shard of history I stumbled upon…Especially with the chill of the morning seeping through my dress as well as the cloudy, threatening skies, Napoleon could well have just sent the message ordering his army to attack. Learn more about the Semaphore here. Look at the enchanting Zum Kelterhaus here.

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