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Avalon Waterways: Rhapsody on the Rhine

As a traveler, I’m typically less interested in what guides have to say than I am in what residents have to say, but on a trip last October down the Rhine River, I was so impressed with the local guides I decided to use their observations to frame this feature. We were traveling on Avalon Waterways’ MS Creativity from Strasbourg, France, to Amsterdam at the invitation of our friends at Globus Family of Brands.

“We don’t want to be German — but we want to keep our German heritage, our identity.”
— Guide in Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, like many cities in Europe, was the victim of torn allegiances during World War II. Situated on the Rhine between France and Germany, it had then and has today many residents of German heritage. Our local guide was one of them.

This graceful city was overrun by Hitler’s forces early in the war, and many of its sons were forced to fight for the Axis powers against France. It’s easy to imagine the emotional conflict that overwhelmed this town as French and German families came to grips with the realities of war.
Strasbourg is very much a river city. Not only the Rhine, but its tributary, the River Ill, gives Strasbourg its essence.

“We like to say that Strasbourg is an isle surrounded by an Ill,” said our guide on a morning canal cruise. “We are graced by a large collection of canals and rivers here. There are about 260,000 inhabitants in Strasbourg, some of whom live in houseboats that cost about 2,000 euros per year to dock. Strasbourg is also a very young city, home to many students and universities.”

We entered a lock built in the mid-19th century, one of many on these rivers
“This will take two minutes, or three, or five,” she said, laughing. “The water table is very high here, which affected all our architecture. The oldest houses here are half-timber with cement made of water, mud, wood, etc.  There is not much stone in this region. Back then (in the 17th and 18th centuries), they imposed window taxes. The more windows you had, the more taxes you paid.”

Strasbourg’s magnificent Gothic cathedral commands center stage in its old city. Built over several centuries, from 1180 to 1439, it is commonly referred to as the Notre Dame of Strasbourg.

Catholic windows in the cathedral date to the 12th century. Later, windows illustrated the history of the Bible for people who could not read.  The cathedral’s wonderful old mechanical clock, built in the 16th century, uses no electricity and each day at 12:30 p.m. depicts the apostles parading past Jesus. Our guide told us to keep an eye on the clock’s rooster, so we watched while it flapped its wings as the procession passed by.

The next day, we had the morning to ourselves in Speyer, Germany.  We walked with a few other passengers a half-mile or so into the town center. We were told we’d have no problem finding this city’s acclaimed cathedral.

“I must admit, it is my favorite,” our guide had told us, “the best Romanesque cathedral in all of Germany.”

Begun in the 11th century, this Roman Catholic cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site and was declared a minor basilica of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was commissioned by German emperor Conrad II in 1024 as his burial site and was built to be the largest church in the Western world.  It sits above the Rhine and is built primarily of red sandstone.

This cathedral’s imposing beauty contrasted with a very approachable group of parishioners we found gathered at its bulletin board. They greeted us warmly as we walked through. Upon leaving, my wife, Kim, and I walked through Speyer and found a cafe for some coffee and then managed to get a blog out at an Internet cafe.

The cafe was so inviting that we talked about leaving the ship that evening to come back up for dinner. And, in fact, we did.

“Why did the university have its own prison? They had their own jurisdiction, and if something was a crime, they could deal with it themselves. So, it was said that your studies were not really complete until you had spent two days in the prison.”
— Guide in Heidelberg

Our afternoon excursion was to Heidelberg, the kind of town your mind might conjure when contemplating a trip to Germany. It’s baroque architecture features square, clean lines, and red tile roofs fan out across the city, giving this printing center an orderly charm.

Spires and steeples prick the skyline, and we caught Heidelberg on a gorgeous fall day. Hilly knobs rise from the river there, many adorned by vineyards.

“The university was founded in 1366 — it’s the oldest in Germany,” said our guide as we drove through town into Heidelberg University toward the castle hill. “The town and university meld easily and have for more than six centuries.  There are many students of medicine here and many scholars of note. And watch for beautiful homes along the river; many are covered in flowers.”

University students were once jailed there for various offenses, some minor by today’s standards. A tradition abandoned in Germany around the beginning of the 20th century, these visits to “karzers,” as they were known, grew to become a rite of passage for many students, who scribbled graffiti or entertained guests while in “lockup.”

The town spreads beneath its beloved castle, which remains iconic and formidable even in partial ruin. Begun in the 13th century, its history includes centuries of construction and destruction, mostly by lightning strikes and wars.

“The castle was conquered twice in the 17th century,” said our guide.  “The French blew up much of the castle with gunpowder from its own stores. In this late Gothic building, they still perform the ‘Student Prince’ opera every year.

“And the castle chapel is still used for weddings. In 1548, they added this Renaissance building, built by Prince Otto Heinrich. Its gables were lost to the French cannons.

“And this is Frederick’s Palace. Notice the myriad faces and figures of his favorite relatives.”

A huge wine barrel remains that held 56,000 gallons of wine and was built in 1751-52.

“It takes the French to leave such lovely ruins,” said our guide as we departed.

I wondered if she was paraphrasing someone and how long that comment might have been kicking around.

We had some time on our own to walk through Heidelberg. Kim and I stopped at the Sum Weizzen Schwann cafe and had a wheat beer and potato cakes with bacon and kraut at a sidewalk table.

 “We are a wine region — so drink wine, not beer.”
—  Guide in Rudesheim

Built into the hillsides and framed in vineyards, Rudesheim is a picturesque little winemaking town known for Reislings. We toured its music museum, housed in a manor built between 1510 and 1561. Artwork on its ceiling dates to the 1550s; tiles from the 12th century adorn the floors.

The museum is a pretty amazing collection of mechanical music boxes; large piano players that are adorned in monkeys and such; and smaller boxes that  are intricate works of art.

Kim and I took the tram up the hill above the vineyards to see the memorial built to German unification in 1883. That was one place on the trip where I ached for more time. I could see people walking down the hillsides through the vineyards, and it would have been a great hike.
Workers in the vineyards paid no attention to the passersby as they kicked up dust on these ancient pathways in a gradual descent back toward town.

Back in town, we had a Rudesheim coffee, a real treat on a fall day. It was so good that we walked outside and up the street and sat down outdoors to have another. It’s made with brandy, coffee, whipped cream and cinnamon.

That evening, after dinner, we joined some friends and headed back into Rudesheim to a pub we’d noticed earlier. We drank German beer and watched rugby with the locals, all agreeing that we’d never tell our guide we had drunk beer in this wine region.

“The bridge here was built by absolution of sins by a priest. Then Martin Luther said ‘Confess from your heart, not from your pocketbook.’”
— Cruise director

On a very cold day, we cruised the Rhine from Rudesheim to Koblenz, a stretch of the river that is known for its castles and cathedrals.

“Every castle on the Rhine was a toll tax station, because every family that owned land on the Rhine felt entitled to tax anyone who passed their land,” our cruise director said as we surveyed castle after castle.

“Koblenz floods every December and every spring. The fortress high on that hill above the Rhine is the second largest in Europe after Gibraltar in Spain. Today it is used as a youth hostel, and operas take place up there.”

We were told to be at the Mittlerhein Museum at 3 p.m. sharp. We did so, to find a statue of a boy there who spits water at passersby. He was put there originally to expectorate on French revolutionary war soldiers.

That evening, after dinner, a classical trio consisting of a violinist, cellist and guitarist came aboard. The trio played for an hour or so, including selections by Liszt, one from the “Barber of Seville” and, my favorites, a few gypsy tunes from Hungary.

“You know that there are 20,000 visitors every day — more than 6 million each year.”
— Guide in Cologne

Cruising into Cologne, you know what you are looking for, and you are not disappointed. The skyline is dominated by the towering spires of its Gothic cathedral, the facade of which is the largest in Christianity.

“The old city of Cologne was 90 percent destroyed during the war,” said our guide, and we took a moment to digest what that meant. “So, now we do have lots of 1950s architecture — lots of terrible buildings.”

But, there is still a lot of beautiful old architecture in this city as well.

“Here are some houses from the 13th century that have had their facades restored,” she said. “They restored houses first, and churches had to wait.  Here is a well with a tired woman on top — these are the fish women. This is an honest farmer, and he loves beer. The other is a liar; don’t believe what he says.

“Our street carnival is very big,” she said. “It lasts one week in November. The first day, women do whatever they want, and the men cannot get angry.”

We stepped inside the immense cathedral and admired its huge stained-glass windows and resplendent choir. Begun in the 13th century, its twin spires were not completed until more than 600 years later.

Afterward, we had a couple of hours to knock around, so Kim and I had Berliners and coffee. A Berliner is a local pastry with jelly inside and cinnamon sprinkled on the outside.

“Handbags always fit. You don’t have to go on a diet to carry a nice handbag.”
— Guide in Amsterdam

Before we headed into Amsterdam for the day, our cruise director “got in our faces” about the bicycles.

“The bikes are everywhere, and the worst are the tourists,” he said. “If someone hits you in a bike lane, it’s your fault. Don’t let that happen.”

We began with a canal cruise and perhaps our best guide of the week.

“Why do we bicycle here?” she asked us. “Because parking is 6 euros per hour. Our bikes look like junk, but please don’t insult them. That’s how we travel.

“I will tell you all the lovely things about my city. Everything is connected but always locks. The canals are in concentric circles from the harbor. The innermost are the oldest. There’s a whole Russian spruce forest beneath our city. Half the country is below sea level.”

I watched as our canal boat pilot left the cabin, placed his foot against the lock wall and pushed the boat back into the channel.

“It’s very quiet on the canals on Saturday morning,” she said.  That’s why people like to live on the canal. You can get away from the noise of the city. But it’s about 300,000 euro to buy a houseboat. By the way, there are free public restrooms for men — it will cost you 65 euros if you go in the canal.”

As we passed certain landmarks, she offered a few memorable observations.

Artists: “Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mozart — they all died in poverty — not in the fashion they deserved.”

The Reformation: “Protestantism went over very well here. Protestantism, you could be the boss. Catholicism, the pope is always the boss.”

“On the queen’s birthday, we all go crazy. We dye our hair orange, wear orange shirts and party.”

And frugality: “Dutch treat, going Dutch — those things are not there for nothing. We like to save our money.”

Then she pointed out the Handbag Museum. I dare say some in the group made it back there, but we didn’t. Many went to the Anne Frank House, one of Amsterdam’s most visited sites.

We chose to go to the Van Gogh Museum. As much as I enjoyed his prolific art, I was equally touched by a final black-and-white photograph of his grave beside that of his beloved brother, Theo. It’s a starkly beautiful ending to a colorfully brilliant collection.

Globus Family of Brands
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For more on Avalon Waterways:

Rhapsody on the Rhine

This is the way to see Europe