I was born in a small town near the middle of Ohio along the I-75 corridor, north of Dayton, south of Toledo, called Piqua. My parents, and their parents, and grandparents, and further on back in their genealogy lived in Piqua. Most who immigrated here from Germany, or Ireland, or England, settled in Piqua and established homes and families. Many are buried in Forest Hill Cemetery along the river in the north section of town.
Even back in the 1950s, it wasn’t easy to find a job in a small town. When my dad returned from the service in the mid-1950s, he started working for NCR in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour’s drive away. In the 60’s my parents packed up our bags and moved us there. Neither my mom or dad really wanted to go. My mom didn’t work outside the home. All her family and friends were in Piqua. Over the years, my dad made no secret of the fact that he always missed Piqua. My parents had conversations about moving back “home” during their retirement years. They finally made it back in January of 2013, when they were both buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
I understand the allure of small town life.
So, this morning, as I watched a CNN report on Beattyville, a small town in Kentucky where people are struggling to get by, it brought me to tears. I am a small-town girl at heart.
But sometimes you have to move. Times change. Opportunities shift. Throughout history we can find example after example of towns and cities that once prospered but then failed. The Dust Bowl comes to mind (probably because I just watched the documentary on Netflix). Sometimes we see cities that came through a rough patch and are beginning to thrive again. Buffalo, NY, is a good example. Buffalo was a rich city at one point during the height of waterway commerce. Then other forms of transportation developed and Buffalo was left with empty grain silos decomposing along its riverfront. The good news is that Buffalo is finding a way to reinvent itself. It is finding a way to thrive in the country and world as it is today.
My husband, Mark, and I visited Bakum, Germany last summer. It’s a small agricultural town in northern Germany about a half-hour’s drive south from Bremen. We’ve traced Mark’s ancestors back to Bakum from 1530 until 1850, when they emigrated to Amerika. In some ways, you could argue that Bakum is Mark’s family’s “hometown.” Certainly it was his great-grandfather’s.
In the early 1800s, the population in Bakum grew at a fast rate and the farming communities became over-crowded. People were living in barns, sheds, bake houses, in any available structure they could find. There was no food to eat. Parents struggled to provide shoes for their children. Poverty was rampant. Mark’s ancestor, Bernard Dominicus Grote, lived in the farming community of Elmelage and worked as a hired hand on land owned by the Knese family. Dominicus’ brothers all lived nearby on other farms. They all went to St. John the Baptist, the small church in town. I’m sure they did not wish to leave their family, their hometown and their homeland to come to a strange country with a language they couldn’t understand.
But they did. Like other ancestors of probably most, if not all of us.
I’m not talking about immigration right now. I’m talking about people following opportunity and doing what they need to do to survive. There is nothing new about this. It is the story of human survival from the beginning of time.
I truly hope our country can find a way to make things better for the folks in small towns who have lost their local industries and jobs. No one wants to see people suffer like that. But I also believe the way forward is exactly that, forward. Not back.
Overall, I have to give Viking high ratings for the Basel to Amsterdam cruise along the Rhine.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also say that Mark and I did not feel this level of enthusiasm the first day or two on the cruise. We got off to a slow start.
Arrangements: But let me start at the beginning. The Viking staff was very helpful and accommodating as we made our plans, and changed them, over phone calls in the weeks before our trip. The flights and trip were scheduled with no problems. Viking was also very efficient at providing us our luggage tags and itineraries before the trip. I was impressed by how they met us at the airport and whisked us away to the Viking Tor.
Our room was very nice. We had a veranda state room on the third deck. It was largely occupied by a king-sized bed, but we did have a large counter that ran the width of the room with dresser drawers underneath, a closet, and room for a chair between the bed and the sliding glass doors to the veranda. We enjoyed sitting on the veranda when we docked and had time off in our room, or were cruising. We had a small, but adequate bathroom. If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you understand the space limitations. Our room was equipped with a wall-mounted television. The room staff did a wonderful job of replacing towels and freshening up our room every day. They left candies on our bed at night.
The food was delicious and varied. There were a couple of dining options. The main dining room contained tables for six, eight, or ten people. Some of the tables lined the walls that were ceiling-to-floor windows. Unlike our ocean cruise many years ago, Viking did not assign seating at meal times. This was nice because Mark and I were able to meet a lot of interesting people as we shared a meal with them. It was also a little uncomfortable at times for two introverts like Mark and me when we had to find a place at a table or join another party. This was more of a perceived problem, however, than a real one. Everyone was friendly. Many people were traveling with another couple, other family members, or a group.
The second dining option was the Aquavit area on the front deck. This was a more casual, buffet-style meal, and there were options of a table-for-two. Mark and I enjoyed several meals, with others and by ourselves, in the Aquavit.
A coffee bar outside of the lounge was stocked with hot drinks and donuts in the morning followed by cookies or other treats throughout the day. Although the food wasn’t provided in the excess that we had on our ocean cruise, it was more than adequate. We enjoyed it. Our favorite meal was the Taste of Germany night where a buffet of Germany delicacies was set up in the main dining room. Among the variety of foods were amazing soft pretzels, sausages, sauer-kraut, sliced baked meats, German potato salad, and desserts. We also were invited to tour the galley where the food was prepared everyday and where more food was served as we walked through. I think I picked up a cream-filled pastry or two and luscious strawberries on my way through. The kitchen staff prepared special foods from the local area throughout the week. One thing that stands out in my mind was a white cheese soup with grapes and walnuts from the Netherlands.
The food on the cruise met or exceeded our expectations.
The serving staff, however, on the first two evenings of the trip were a bit of a disappointment. We felt like we had to wait an excessive amount of time to be served, even simply to receive a glass of water before the meal. There were problems with things. The salt shaker was clogged and didn’t work. We had to ask several times for something we had ordered. The staff was even a bit rude, or at least not pleasant. I felt like for the amount of money we had paid for the cruise, we should be at least able to get a glass of water when we sat down. So we were disappointed at first, and we were not alone in this. I’m happy to say that the problems with the serving staff got sorted out and the remainder of the cruise we found no fault with anything.
The other problem with the cruise the first day was the excursion. I was disappointed with the Black Forest excursion, and I felt like the excursion and, at this point in the trip, perhaps even the entire cruise had been oversold by the commercials I had seen of couples leisurely enjoying a glass of wine on a scenic hillside vineyard. We were moved onto a bus, driven through countryside, and deposited at what I could only think was a tourist trap. My expectations for what I thought we would see and do on this excursion were not met. But as I mentioned in my Journey into the Black Forest post the Black Forest cake that Mark and I shared somewhat redeemed the excursion.
Now, even though I spoke a bit disparagingly about being moved onto a bus, one of the things I liked very much about the Viking cruise was the way they managed moving the tour groups. They were extremely well organized. We stopped at the front desk every morning and received our group assignment and our on-board cards. The group assignment identified which bus we were to get on. At times they had up to four buses taking groups from our ship. On smaller optional excursions they had only a single bus or two. The on-board cards were to be turned in upon our return to the ship. They were filed under our names and used as a sort of roll-call so the staff could quickly check to see if everyone had returned to the ship. They actually did check this. One day Mark forgot to turn his card in and the staff phoned our room looking for him.
The other problem with the excursions in the first couple of days was that Mark and I felt we didn’t have enough time to explore our surroundings. This was frustrating initially. But as the trip progressed things improved. Some excursions had more built-in free time to explore on your own. Also, as we started adding up our experiences, we came to grips with our expectations and really enjoyed the convenience and ease of travel provided by Viking.
In addition to the excursions, the program director, who I thought did an excellent job, presented programs in the lounge throughout the week that included a Flammkuchen, Rudesheimer Kaffee, and glassblowing demonstrations, to mention a few. Typically there was entertainment in the lounge in the evenings from musical ensembles to quiz games.
One of the reasons I really liked the Viking Cruise was all the small details or special touches they put into each cruise. They provided a bottle of water to each guest whenever we left the ship for excursions. Umbrellas were available and within grasp. Each night in our room we were provided with a Viking Daily, a four-page publication with information about the next day’s activities including a detailed itinerary and helpful and interesting information about the location. A convenient hand sanitizer station outside the dining room door to use before entering, not very glamorous but a definite must in light of the potential problems cruises can encounter.
Overall I have to give Viking River Cruise from Basel to Amsterdam a big thumb’s up. It was an expensive trip, but I think it was worth it. And you don’t have to take my word for it. Mark feels the same. We saw a lot of amazing things in a short period of time and came to understand that area of the world that the Rhine runs through much better than we would have likely been able to do on our own. It was a relaxing way to travel with everything taken care of for us. All we had to do was show up. Viking knows its stuff and is a pro at conducting these cruises. I would absolutely do another Viking River Cruise.
Now I’ve got to go find my piggy bank and start saving up.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who have stayed with me through this lengthy discourse of Viking Cruise posts. And to my fellow bloggers, I hope to get back to reading about what you’ve been up to soon.
The Viking Tor cast off from Cologne for Kinderdijk, Netherlands at 11:00 Thursday night. In the morning we were cruising through the beautiful and peaceful landscape of the Netherlands.
Mark and I bundled up in towels that doubled as blankets on the top deck
as we sailed through pastoral scenes with cows grazing or
sunbathing on the sandy beaches beside the river.
Sheep relaxed and fed on the verdant river banks while farmers worked in the distance.
We passed by cities where the river provides recreation for the human species.
It wasn’t long before we spotted our first real-life Netherlands windmill in a rural area
and then another near a residential area.
All that sitting, cruising, and watching the world go by generated a healthy appetite, and a bit of a thirst. It really doesn’t get a lot better than this—lunch on the top deck of the Viking Tor.
We floated past a miniature replica of Noah’s Ark, complete with a giraffe look-out.
At 3:45 we arrived in Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for our 4:30 tour.
Kinderdijk is a village that has 19 windmills dating from the 1500s. (http://www.kinderdijk.org/ ) They were built to help with water control in this peat region of Holland. The cultivation of peat changed the drainage of the region and resulted in the farmlands lying below the level of the streams that had previously drained the peat. Dikes were built and canals were dug to prevent flooding of the land. The windmills were added a few centuries later as the drained soil settled and the river rose due to sand deposits. The windmills pumped water into a reservoir where it could eventually be pumped out into the river whenever the level was low enough due to seasonal and tidal variations. Today most of the work is done by diesel pumping stations. (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/818 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinderdijk)
Our tour included an inside look at an operating windmill. This is a view out of a window on an upper floor.
We climbed a narrow, winding stairway to the very top where we were able to see the massive gears that basically turn the wind into energy.
The windmills were not rotating during our visit. I don’t know if that was due to lack of wind, or the fact that they were anchored or tied in place. They can be dangerous, and have been responsible for injury and even deaths for the unwary adult, child, or perhaps unsuspecting tourist who wandered into their path when they were fast at work. They are powerful and, like lighthouses, are the stuff of legends. You can feel it in their presence.
On this, our last evening of the cruise, we joined the ship’s captain and crew in the lounge for the Captain’s Cocktail followed by the Farewell Reception and Dinner. In the morning we would be in Amsterdam. Although we could have arranged an extension of the cruise in Amsterdam through Viking, Mark and I decided to stay in Amsterdam a couple of nights, but made the arrangements on our own.
The Viking Tor left Koblenz for Cologne at 4:00 a.m., or so we were told, being fast asleep at the time. We arrived in Cologne, locally known as Koln, at 9:00 a.m.
We left the ship and walked along the river to where buses were waiting to take us the short distance to the cathedral that you can see in the skyline above.
The cathedral is situated right smack in the middle of a downtown business district where the nonstop daily loading and unloading of tour buses created a bit of confusion with their traffic disturbance.
Construction on the Cologne cathedral began in 1248 and took over seven centuries to complete in 1880. It is a symbol of the city and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. During WWII 95% of Cologne was destroyed by allied bombs, but the cathedral survived. According to our guide, bombardiers were prohibited from hitting the church’s spires as they were a clear landmark by which to navigate. Many people were gathered on the cobblestones surrounding the massive structure.
Our tour guide, who accompanied us on the bus, explained what he could about the exterior of the cathedral. Then a deep, loud, gonging started erupting from the bell tower of the cathedral as believers were called to Mass. As luck would have it, we were visiting on a high holy day and the church was closed to tour groups as masses were being celebrated all day. Our guide suggested we come back after the tour and try to gain entrance between the masses.
The bell continued to gong, reverberating through my body. I’d never heard anything like it. And it lasted for what seemed like a half hour, calling all to Mass. Although I was sorry not to be able to visit the inside of the church, I felt lucky that we were able to experience this amazing sound. The bell we heard only rings on the few high holy days in a year, so it is a special occurrence.
As we left the cathedral, we passed a construction crew erecting what looked like a stage for an entertainment of some sort. The ancient cathedral rising behind the modern-day band shell made an interesting juxtaposition of styles.
We continued on a walking tour of the old city. A Roman-Germanic museum is just across the walk from the cathedral. Inside are Roman artifacts and archaeological finds from Koln and the Rhine Valley.
The fine mosaic floor can be viewed from outside the museum. According to Rick Steve’s Germany 2009, this was once the floor of a rich Roman merchant in its original location. The museum was built around it.
Nearby is a section of a Roman stone road beside a Roman fountain.
Our guide took us into the Jewish section of the old town that was under construction as an archaeological zone and Jewish museum.
In all honesty, I was having trouble paying attention at this point because we had not yet had a toilet break and I was beginning to wonder if our guide was ever going to realize we needed one.
I had pretty much given up on the guide to solve this personal problem and started looking around for an open restaurant where I might find a public toilet.
Since it was a high holy day, most places of business were closed. And although I had finally asked the guide if he planned on giving us a comfort break, he was not having any luck finding an open business with a public toilet. Finally, another tourist in our group pointed me to a building where I and several others took advantage of the kindness of the proprietor to allow us use of their facilities.
Too much information? I just want to say, travelers beware of holy days.
We passed by several inviting restaurants near the waterfront or on Fischmarkt.
These seats come with warm blankets for the brisk weather.
The colorful houses on Fischmarkt are picturesque, although I don’t know what the numbers mean.
Our guide left us with about an hour to spare before the first bus returned to the ship. Mark and I walked back to the cathedral with the hope of seeing inside.
A street artist was busy at work on the cathedral plaza.
We entered the cathedral as the earlier mass let people out. A rope was set up to keep tourists at the back of the church, so we were not free to walk around.
But I managed to see enough to realize that the Cologne cathedral was equally impressive on the interior as on the exterior.
Viking had a shuttle running from our ship to the downtown area of Cologne leaving at 2:00, 3:00, and 4:00 p.m. and returning at 2:30, 3:30, 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. giving us ample opportunity to shop in or further explore Cologne. Had Mark and I been thirty years younger, we might have spent the afternoon there, but we were tired, and walking on the cobblestones of Cologne had worn out my knees for the day. We returned to the ship and relaxed.
Marksburg is the only castle on the Middle Rhine to remain intact and undamaged during the years of wars and conflicts the area suffered. It maintains much of its medieval character. Buses are not able to navigate all the way to the top of the hill where the castle stands. Our bus dropped us off at the point where I took this picture.
Then we had to walk a zig-zag uphill path to the castle.
Once inside, we met up with our tour guide. Visitors are not allowed to wander about on their own and are required to go on a guided tour.
Although many of the Rhine castles have been rebuilt, according to Rick Steve’s (Germany 2009), Marksburg remains nearly completely the original structure.
At various places you can see where a doorway or window was made smaller and therefore safer from enemies, or easier to defend.
We were told that knights rode their horses over these stone walkways just inside the walled entrance to the castle.
You can’t walk within these walls and not have your imagination fly to tales of the past about kings, knights, and princesses.
I don’t know what the reality was for people who lived and worked within these walls from 1283 to the late 1800s, but I believe that at their core people have not changed all that much through the years. Young men and women fell in love and felt passion, parents found joy in their children, and people lived with heartbreak and loss. A lot of living occurred through the years in this place.
These canons date to about 1640. According to Rick Steve’s, they could hit targets across the river,
which was quite a distance away. From their location on the hilltop, the canons were largely aided by gravity I suspect.
Another view of the river from the castle, and what must have been a look-out point on a lower level.
If you walk along an outer wall of the castle that overlooks the river, you arrive in a garden where plants used for cooking and medicine were cultivated.
It is a gardener’s delight. The wall to the left of the photo overlooks the river from a great heights.
One of the halls is set up as a kitchen and supplied with artifacts from the time period.
The walls in the master bedroom are covered in wood paneling. Tapestries decorate several of the walls in the castle. I don’t know whether they are original to the castle, or have been provided to furnish the rooms for tour groups.
The dining hall was not as large as I might have imagined it should be, although the number of people in our tour group appear to fit nicely in the space.
The far wall of the dining hall is decorated with paint or frescoes.
Windowed alcoves branch off of the dining hall’s main room. Perhaps they provided extra seating.
I thought the iron work on this door’s hinges was interesting. It is also a very small door. What it’s purpose was, I cannot say.
The ceiling of the dining hall is paneled and painted with detail.
Our guide explained the function of this small door in the dining room, and I truly wish I could remember what he said. I do remember that the small door in the chapel was made that way to limit the ability of heavily armored knights to gain access from below during an attack. This door in the dining hall may have served the same purpose, although something in my memory leads me to believe it may have had more to do with accessing necessary facilities. Perhaps you can enlighten me.
This is the dining hall table that I managed to snatch a photo of sans people, which was no small task. The table top is an unattached plank. After each course the servants could pick up the entire thing, and replace it with another plank, pre-set with the next course. I’m still having trouble visualizing how they actually accomplished that while large men were seated there.
This is the chapel, and you can just make out the small, rather narrow doorway in the corner behind our tour guide. Although you can’t tell it from this photo, the chapel was actually a very small room that we crowded into, but it was beautifully decorated.
A good castle was never without a dungeon or torture chamber, although truthfully, we did not see anything that remotely resembled a dungeon.
But we did see a room where instruments of torture were on display. I always find this unsettling as they bring to life the horrific things portrayed in Hollywood movies.
Marksburg has a fascinating collection of armor from 2000 years beginning in the days of the Celts.
Along with the suits of armor and collection of pointed weapons, this room contained an example of a medieval lady’s armor and a chastity belt. Contrary to popular belief, chastity belts were used by women when traveling as protection against rape. Talk about making an uncomfortable trip, in a stuffy carriage bumping over rough terrain, worse.
The keep, which served as an observation tower with a dungeon below, was also a last resort refuge. The only access to the keep was across a wooden bridge. When all was nearly lost, defenders would go into the keep and burn the bridge denying their enemies entrance. I don’t know what happened after that.
When the bus returned us to Koblenz after the tour of Marksburg, we had free time to enjoy the 2,000-year-old city. Once again, Mark and I opted for a liquid refreshment before we started wandering. It’s really hard to resist all the outdoor cafes.
Originally an outpost of the Roman Empire, Koblenz became a city in the 13th century. It was a safe haven for French refugees during the French Revolution. I really like this architectural feature of building an alcove, or little bay-type area at the corner of a building. If you look closely, you will see that all four buildings at this intersection have this feature.
You’re probably starting to think that all Mark and I did on this trip was eat and drink. But I say, how can you truly appreciate a city, location, or culture without sampling their food and drink? We stopped here in the town square to sample gelato, or some kind of fancy banana ice cream dessert. Truly authentic I’m sure.
Koblenz is located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. There is a nice riverside walk that Mark and I took advantage of on our way back to the Viking Tor which was docked just around the corner where the Moselle River spills into the Rhine.
We made it back to our boat before the late afternoon briefing by our program director, cocktail hour, and dinner, ending what was my favorite day on the cruise.
After our morning in Heidelberg, we returned to the Viking Tor in time for a late lunch at 1:00, which Mark and I enjoyed on the Aquavit Terrace. Our ship was sailing, for four hours this afternoon, to Rudesheim.
We had been given the option to extend our stay in Heidelberg for a few hours and then take a two-hour bus ride to meet the Tor in Rudesheim. Mark and I opted for the boat ride.
During the afternoon we had the opportunity to visit the wheelhouse to see how the ship navigated Europe’s rivers. Mark and I didn’t choose to do that, but we heard from other travelers, especially the grandparents accompanied by a young granddaughter and grandson, that it was an interesting thing to do. We also had the opportunity to see a presentation on Rudesheimer Kaffee made with coffee, brandy, sugar, whipped cream and dark chocolate.
Mark and I preferred our seats on the top deck, chilly though they were. The staff of the Tor were kind enough to deliver us samples from the Kaffee presentation which warmed us up nicely.
The Viking Daily newsletter provided us with information about the views along the river, which I am sorry to say I cannot match to the photographs I took. Perhaps you can. We passed by the former Platinate residential town of Mannheim; the junction of the Neckar River; Lamperheim, most likely founded during the Frankish settlement and first mentioned officially in the year 832; Nibelungen-Bridge connecting Rosental and Worms; Worms, among the oldest cities in Germany where the Liebfrauenmilch grape is grown; Mainz, where the Romans had a military encampment as early as 38 BC because of its strategic location at the junction of the Rhine and Main; Schierstein Bridge; Winkel, an old winegrowing village; and Rudesheim, whose excellent wines and varied landscape have turned it into one of the most lively tourism centers of the Middle Rhine (from the Viking Daily, Viking River Cruises).
Shortly after our 5:00 arrival in Rudesheim, Mark and I left on an evening excursion where we took a motorized mini-train ride into town and enjoyed dinner and lively entertainment in a restaurant along Rudesheim’s Drosselgasse.
Mark and I did not participate in the shot-drinking game, where shot glasses are attached to a board and participants have to lift it and drink together. I’ve been told you don’t want to be one of the shorter people in the group. But after the wine with dinner, no one seemed to mind if they literally got dumped on in this game.
Mark and I did, however, join the dancers snaking their way through the restaurant.
This excursion cost us 59 euros each. I thought it was enjoyable, and gave us an opportunity to experience a local meal.
Although we had taken the mini-train to the restaurant, we really weren’t all that far away from our dock. The way back was all downhill, so Mark and I opted to walk back to the Tor, past the small shops and restaurants that make up Rudesheim. We were at liberty to stay in town as late as we liked since our ship wasn’t sailing until 9:00 a.m., but Mark and I are not as young as we used to be. We opted for our comfy bed back in our cabin and a good night’s rest. We were going to do what I had most looked forward to in the morning – cruise past the castles of the Middle Rhine and repeat the trip my father had made.
We arrived in Worms, Germany at 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday to take an excursion to Heidelberg, one of Germany’s oldest cities.
Our main destination was the castle Schloss that overlooks the old town or Altstadt.
Fortunately, for me and my arthritic joints, the Viking tour bus drove us to the top of the hill.
Heidelberg castle was abandoned over 300 years ago and is partly, maybe even largely, in ruins. It was the residence of the Palatinate monarchy.
While we stood and enjoyed a panoramic view of the Altstadt and Neckar Valley from the castle grounds,
our tour guide, who was a native German, explained the history of the Schloss and surrounding area. He explained how much of Germany was damaged during WWII. One of the most touching moments of the trip, for me, was when he specifically addressed the Americans and Canadians. He looked us in the eyes and very sincerely thanked us for getting involved in the war and for our help in bringing Hitler’s reign to an end.
The Heidelberg Schloss is surrounded by a moat that was used as a hunting grounds for guests. Animals would be brought in and basically slaughtered. Not such a great sporting event if you ask me.
This is a very large tower that provides entrance to the castle. In the late 17th century, French incursions totally destroyed medieval Heidelberg, including the castle. The ornate sculpture was one casualty. The family shield, made of some kind of valuable metals, was removed from its prominent place between the two lions.
We walked through the arched entryway. I suspect in days gone by, this arch was equipped with a heavy door of some kind.
Through the arch, the courtyard is enclosed by beautiful buildings that comprised the vast residential complex that was built and repeatedly extended from 13th to 17th centuries.
Like most of the sites we toured, Heidelberg also had a nice crowd of people. You can see Mark in the foreground. I think he may be snapping a photo of the architecture
which was varied, interesting, and quite beautiful.
This is a closer view of some kind of time or season dial. I really need to look it up and find out what it’s all about.
And this little window really appeals to my romantic sensibilities. Who might have stood there? What were they watching? What was the idea behind building this onto the side of the castle? So many things to wonder about.
This may have been the newest section of the castle, although don’t quote me on that. You can’t see very clearly from here, but the wall is very ornate with lots of sculptures.
Here’s a close-up view.
We left the castle on top of the hill and took a short ride down into the old town. The city was left in ruins by French troops in the 1600s under Louis XIV. It was rebuilt during the 18th century.
Heidelberg is the home to Germany’s first university that was established in 1386.
Today it’s something of a tourist attraction with its shops and restaurants. Rick Steve, author of many travel books, does not recommend it in his Germany guide book. We thought it was charming and might have enjoyed wandering around a bit longer. We had less than an hour to spend before we had to meet the bus to take us to our ship.
So we decided to take the advice of our tour guide who recommended this coffee shop
and used our short time in Heidelberg enjoying a sweet treat with coffee and hot tea.
Mark and I were still waking up early in the morning on the Viking Tor, allowing us to see the sun rise in Germany over the Rhine River.
We arrived in Kehl, Germany, across the river from Strasbourg, Alsace, France at 8:00 a.m. and we were on our buses, headed across the Rhine by 8:30.
Our shore excursion in Strasbourg consisted of a guided bus tour of the European Parliament and a walking tour of the old town that included the Petite France area and the Strasbourg Cathedral. But first we drove down a street to see the storks.
The storks return to Alsace each year to nest and have done so for many centuries. They are a large presence in Alsatian folklore.
This was actually my second trip to Strasbourg. We stopped there for a couple of nights on the WWII tour I took with my daughter and her high school in 2004. On that trip we stayed in a bed and breakfast near Petite France and were able to explore the old town’s canals, shops, and cafes at our leisure for a few days. Anna and I rented bikes one morning and rode around the old town, stopping for a memorable breakfast croissant in Petite France. It was my favorite place we visited on that trip.
This time around we had a tour guide on our bus who explained the European Council to us. Our guide was a French woman from Strasbourg which made the whole tour more interesting as she spoke in English, but with a French accent or cadence, yes? She explained to us how the council worked and it felt a little bit like a lesson in American democracy. It was fascinating to hear the pride and enthusiasm in her voice as she spoke about how all the different countries came together to work on common issues through the council, that was located in her hometown of Strasbourg.
In some ways, I suppose, this is the Washington D.C. of Europe.
Because of its central location on the Rhine between France and Germany, Strasbourg and Alsace in general have had a rocky past. Initially settled by Rome in 12 B.C., Strasbourg was bounced back and forth between Germany and France many times through the years primarily as a result of the wars that intervened. As our guide explained, because of this the Alsatians have their own language that incorporates both French and German words.
It always feels a bit incongruous to me to see a modern streetcar zooming past historic buildings. But it’s a regular site in many parts of Europe where the citizens keep up with the modern world against a backdrop of medieval structures and fascinating architecture.
After our tour of the European Quarter we got off the bus and walked a short distance to get to the canal district near the old town.
Like Colmar, Strasbourg is a town made up of many half-timbered buildings, and looks a little like it belongs on a giant Christmas Village display.
A remnant from an embattled medieval past, this square tower is one of over 80 towers that used to form a chain of fortifications. Four towers remain today. Using a guidebook Mark bought in the afternoon, I think we must have been at Pont Couverts where the river Ill branches into an oval that surrounds the center of Strasbourg before joining back together on the other side. This might make more sense to you if you take a minute to view the map of Strasbourg I found online. I’m now wishing I had studied the map of Strasbourg before we began our tour. It might have all made more sense to me too.
Right after the Ill splits, it further branches into four (if I can trust my map) smaller canals that run through Petite France. (More on Petite France later.)
Canal boat tours are a good way to see the town. On my first trip to Strasbourg, we took a ride on one. This time we didn’t. We were going to spend a couple nights in Amsterdam at the end of our trip and decided to ride in a canal boat there. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the canals in Strasbourg were a lot less crowded and more amenable to sightseeing than those in Amsterdam. But we missed the boat on that opportunity.
We stopped at a park across the canal from Petite France, formerly the tanner’s quarter, and a place in the town interwoven with canals. The area was named Petite France because of a hospital located there that treated patients who had syphilis or the “French disease.”
If you click to enlarge the above photo you can see the large opening in the roof of the pink building. Rooftops such as this in the tanning quarter, aided the airing of the attics or the drying-out of the skins.
You can see a very old lock, still in use with modern renovations (hydraulic arms perhaps?).
The canal water had a lot of power at this point, which I apparently did not capture very well. I think it is interesting how the buildings are built right up to the canal.
If I recall correctly, we traveled across a series of walkways over the canal and into Petite France.
When Anna and I visited Strasbourg, we spent a lot of time in Petite France with its shops, cafes, and general charm. But on this tour, we continued forward. We would have time afterwards to wander around on our own if we desired.
Our ultimate destination was the Strasbourg Cathedral, but we passed through the Place Kleber to get there. The square at Place Kleber is a main public entertainment location. The building you see above is the Aubette originally designed to house the Corps de Garde. It was later converted into an academy of music.
Medallions commemorating famouse musicians decorate the exterior walls. This is Mozart’s. I also got quick photos of Beethoven’s and Haendel’s as we passed by.
I regret that you can’t see this very well, although clicking to enlarge helps. I was trying to show you how narrow some of the buildings are. The third building from the left that is a darker pink or peach is only two narrow windows wide. The variation in width is just one of the features of Strasbourg’s buildings that make it such a beautiful and charming town.
Then all of a sudden the narrow walkway opened into a wider path or square and the cathedral rose in majesty above the shops and homes.
Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral stands on the foundations of a Romanesque basilica built in 1015 by a member of the Hapsburg family. When it was destroyed by fire, the new cathedral was built in its place in 1176, taking nearly four centuries to complete. The height of the spire made it the highest building in Christendom until the 19th century.
We entered the cathedral just in time to witness the famous astronomical clock‘s automated figures parade before Christ.
I can’t recall why we weren’t able to see more of the interior at the time. I don’t remember if there was a Mass being celebrated, or whether we were just running out of time on our tour. I thought perhaps Mark and I might be able to return during the afternoon that we planned to spend in Strasbourg, but that never happened.
The first time I went to Strasbourg we visited the Musee de l’ Oeuvre Notre Dame that housed statues from the cathedral as well as all types of art. That was a highlight of my first trip and I highly recommend it if you find yourself in Strasbourg with a few hours to spend. Mark and I had neither the time nor the energy to do so.
I just wanted to show you one of the bustling streets with the many signs and banners, again reminding me of medieval towns in Italy. Our tour guide walked us to a main street with lots of shops and then directed us to where our bus would be waiting for us at the predesignated times between 2:00 and 5:30. Following that, we gave her a Euro or two for a tip, as we had been advised by our Viking Tour materials, and wandered off alone to enjoy the sights and tastes of Strasbourg.
Our first order of business was food, drink, and rest for my weary legs. We stopped at a restaurant or cafe in Petite France beside a canal. And I am not, as you might suspect, checking my email while we sat in this enchanting place. I was frantically trying to find my camera’s manual that I had uploaded to my phone. Here’s a word to the wise—don’t buy a new camera shortly before a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I had inadvertently flipped one of many dials and switches on my new Olympus OMD Em-1, a mirrorless digital camera. The camera was changing the ISO every time I tried to change the f-stop, which I use often. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it with the camera alone, and then I remembered I had the manual on my phone. Isn’t technology grand? I fixed the problem, breathed a big sigh of relief, and proceeded to enjoy the meat, cheese, bread and wine we had ordered for lunch. A perfect French picnic.
After lunch we walked around without any particular goal or destination in mind, which might have been our shortcoming. We came upon this carousel, which I remembered from not only photographs, but from my previous visit. I can’t tell you of its significance or lack thereof. Update—One of my kind readers named Rob has left the following comment below: “Strasbourg is my home town. The carrousel is on Place Gutenberg, and the guy on the statue is Gutenberg, aka Johann Gensfleisch. He invented printing in Strasbourg.” Thanks, Rob, for clearing that up for us.
I had to put this picture in here because I absolutely love this feature of architecture where a bay window of sorts juts out from the upper floors of the corner of a building. We would see a lot more of this later in Cologne.
We found our way back to the cathedral,
and stopped at a restaurant for a bit of something sweet. And this is one of the disadvantages of going it alone. Sometimes you just don’t know where to find what it is you want. We sat for a few minutes, looked at the menu and decided this particular cafe wasn’t what we had in mind, so we left. It happens.
Mark and I headed to where we could catch our bus back to the boat some time in the middle of the afternoon.
The optional excursions for this day that we did not take advantage of were a wine-tasting tour and Mercedes factory visit. We had no regrets. We wanted to be able to experience Strasbourg a little longer. I suppose my criticism would be that with only an extra couple of hours, there’s really not a lot you can do, especially if you are not well prepared like us.
Back on board the Viking Tor, live music was scheduled for the cocktail hour in the lounge from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. and a demonstration of how to make the flammkuchen was presented on the Aquavit Terrace at 5:30. I don’t remember exactly how Mark and I spent our time, but I suspect we retired to our cabin for a nap as we were still adjusting to the time change and were both rather exhausted from the touring.
That evening in lieu of entertainment, at 9:15 p.m. the program director Sharon talked about different Viking cruises. I suspect she had a lovely slide show. We didn’t choose to go to that. We may have called it an early night. We cast off at 11:00 p.m. for Worms.
Although Mark and I could have spent Sunday afternoon, after our Black Forest tour, walking around Breisach, we decided to go on the optional Colmar tour. Although many excursions are included in the package price of the Viking River Cruise, one or two optional excursions are offered most days. On our cruise, the optional excursions ranged in cost from 29 to 59 euros per person.
Colmar is in Alsace, France and across the Rhine from Breisach, Germany. It is a beautiful, restored medieval village with pedestrian-friendly streets and canals. It is known for its half-timbered houses. Colmar is also the birthplace and hometown of Frederic Augusta Bartholdi, famous sculptor and designer of the Statue of Liberty.
Some number (and I think it might be about 19 if memory serves, but don’t hold me to it) of small copies of the Statue of Liberty exist throughout the world. Of course one would be located in the hometown of its designer.
We exited the bus with our tour guide and walked to a town square where the famous Unterlinden museum is located. (As an aside, I found out at the end of the tour, through idle small talk with him, that our tour guide was Andy Locke, once member of Edison Lighthouse, the band who wrote and sang Love Grows Where my Rosemary Goes. As that was one of my favorites from back in the day, I thought it was kind of interesting.)
The Unterlinden museum is housed in a 13th-century Dominican religious sisters’ convent, according to Wikipedia. And I believe it judging by how it looked. It was a beautiful building, but sadly for us, was under renovation at the time of our visit. We did not go inside.
We continued on our walking tour of Colmar with Bertholdi’s home and museum as our final destination. You don’t have to be very far into the town to understand why it is known for its half-timber homes. I believe our guide Andy explained why the bottom floors were built out of brick or stone and the upper floors out of timber, although I can’t recall the details. I think it had something to do with fires and the ease of rebuilding the upper levels. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now, but it did at the time. Unfortunately I haven’t mastered the art of simultaneously taking photographs and making notes. And my memory in these situations is next to useless.
Here is a close-up of the timber detail.
This was also interesting, yet remains a bit foggy in my mind. The second or upper floor of some of the buildings in Colmar was built to jut out over the wall of the lower floor. Andy explained this to us. Mark remembers it had something to do with individuals who wanted to pray at home. The Catholic church was upset that people were not coming to church to pray, so they made a rule that you cannot pray if you are above another room that may not be holy. Homeowners got around this problem by building little corners on the second floor that had no room below them for their home chapel. I looked it up online with no success. If you know something about this I hope you’ll let me know.
The architectural detail in Colmar really is beautiful and interesting.
We gathered on the cobblestone walk in the business district of Colmar while Andy talked. I strayed to the edge of the group and tried to shoot photos.
Around the corner, Andy stopped at this bakery to show us the Kougelhopf, a traditional Brioche bread or cake from Alsace. My google search returned primarily French sites that I couldn’t read, but I did find this English recipe on a blog. Our mouths were watering as we stood outside the bakery looking in the window. Shortly after, a young woman came out carrying a tray of coconut macaroons for us. Prearranged, I’ve not doubt, but a nice touch.
Originally constructed for a college in 1234 – 1365, St. Martin’s is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. The patterned, colorful roof tiles are striking, and can be seen in one of the below photos. If you click on the above picture and look up at the top right of the church, you will be able to see a stork’s nest, also more clearly visible below.
You can see the colorful roof tiles more clearly in this photo, as well as some of the gargoyle-type sculptures on the church. If you think these storks are cool, wait until you see what we saw in Strasbourg.
The flying buttresses, visible in the second photo of the montage above, are important structural supports found in Gothic architecture.
I was glad Mark and I had opted in for this tour. The architecture was beautiful and interesting.
Our final destination on our tour was the courtyard of the home of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, now a museum.
This is a view of one of the pillars beside the front door taken from my seat on the step. We had been walking for a while and it was time for a break.
I can’t really say for certain, but I think this may be one of the last sculptures Bertholdi created. Again, no luck with Google. Our guide Andy left us here for free time to explore or shop on our own until we rejoined the group and returned to the bus about an hour later.
Mark and I used the time to take more photographs. Isn’t this building with its decoration amazing? I think those might be frescoes.
We also stumbled upon a memorial to those who died serving the Resistance during WWII. Evidence and stories of destruction from WWII accompanied us through the entire trip.
This canal ran past our tour’s meeting place by the Unterlinden. We would have the opportunity to see more canals in Strasbourg and then Amsterdam later in our trip, as well as many more bicycles.
I’m pretty sure we stopped at an outdoor cafe for a glass of wine before meeting our group, but I can’t recall where. It might have been here. Then we loaded back on the buses and returned to the Viking Tor for cocktail hour followed by dinner. The evening entertainment was a visiting ensemble with a mixture of music from ‘From Rhine to Seine’ in the lounge. Mark and I were too tired to enjoy it so we went to bed early.
The Viking Tor set sail for Kehl, Germany across from Strasbourg, Alsace, France at 11:00 p.m.
I’ll leave you with a slide show of photographs that Mark took in Colmar of the many, varied signs we saw.
On Sunday morning we woke up at Breisach, Germany. We had arrived there at 1:00 a.m., unbeknownst to us as we were sound asleep.
We had a pretty view of a park across the river where the swans were gathered.
Mark and I hadn’t fully adjusted to the six-hour time shift in Germany from our home in the Midwest USA. We woke up in plenty of time for the 7:00 a.m. breakfast. With time to spare before our 8:15 departure time, we climbed to the top deck to view our surroundings.
St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Breisach perched on the hilltop beside our dock.. Had we not elected to go on the optional afternoon excursion to Colmar, we might have spent our time touring Breisach and St. Stephen’s Cathedral on our own.
We boarded our motor coaches at 8:15 and headed out for the Black Forest. I think overall, Viking did a good job with people management. In the morning, sometime after breakfast, we went to the reception desk where we were given our group number and our personal cruise passes. Our individual cruise passes were to be turned in upon our return to the boat so that Viking staff could make sure everyone was aboard before we left a port. They did, in fact, check. One day Mark neglected to turn his card back in and they called our room looking for him.
On excursions, we were typically divided into four groups that each went on its own tour bus with its own tour guide.
On this particular day, Mark and I were in tour group 14B. We, and most of the other tour groups we crossed paths with along the way, had what they called quiet boxes. You can see our tour guide’s red quiet box hanging around her neck. She also had a full head piece with a microphone and earpiece. We each had a quiet box with an earpiece only. At the beginning of each tour we tuned our quiet box to the same number or channel as our tour guide. That way we could be near other tour groups with quiet boxes on other channels and still hear only our own guide. The quiet boxes eliminated the loud chattering of tour guides at points of interest. I thought they worked quite well.
After a short drive we stopped to visit what I think was a medieval church. This was also a restroom pit stop. I’m sorry to say I don’t recall the name of this church, but I wasn’t paying as much attention as perhaps I might have been at this point of my jet-lagged journey. And quite frankly, I was more interested in finding the toilet. (In Europe they don’t put a fancy name on it like restroom or ladies’ room. If it’s a toilet you want, it’s a toilet you ask for.)
I did manage to get inside the church briefly where I took pictures of the church and of Mark taking pictures of the church. (If you click on the first one you can see a larger view and then use the right arrow to scan through all three photos.)
Then we were back on the bus and riding through Germany’s Black Forest, or Schuarzwald, the mountainous region in south-eastern Germany with dense forests.
This region is known for its cuckoo clocks, schnaps or Kirschwasser, Black Forest Gateau or Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, and local springs. It is the setting for many of the Grimms’ fairy tales.
The Viking tour literature promoted the excursion into the Black Forest with phrases like “quaint half-timbered farmhouses in a quiet countryside peppered with fat, contented cows.” I was trying to snap photographs through the window of the bus as we drove on. I did manage to grab a blurry shot of cows by the side of the road. Since the center of the village is in focus, this makes me wonder why the cows are blurry. I suspect it may have more to do with the f-stop I was using than the speed at which we were traveling.
The Viking literature went on to say, “You’ll encounter numerous hills thick with fir trees, dramatic gorges, tumbling, misty waterfalls and winding rivers. . .” which was a bit of an oversell, in my opinion. Maybe my expectations were a little unrealistic and were based on a motor coach tour we once took through Yosemite in California where we actually did ride through the forest, and up into the hills. And where we did stop and see dramatic gorges and waterfalls.
I found out fairly early in the trip that I needed to adjust my expectations. That being said, the country side we rode through was beautiful.
Towards the end of the excursion, we made a stop at a small place where there was a Best Western, a glass-blowing shop, cuckoo-clock shop and a couple of restaurants. There was also a paved path into the Black Forest. It felt a little bit like a tourist stop. In fact, it felt a lot like a tourist stop.We had the opportunity to hike a short ways into the woods with a tour guide, and/or to watch a clock-making demonstration.
Instead of trooping through the forest with a crowd, Mark and I decided to experience the Black Forest gateau first hand and take a short hike later by ourselves if time permitted. The cake was made of layers of chocolate sponge cake, whipped cream, sour cherries and a drizzle of Kirsch, a locally produced cherry liquor. And the cake, I might add was as good as it was touted to be.
At the base of the hiking trail we saw this antique logging equipment. The Black Forest, as you might expect, was a major logging location.
The bridge is a railroad bridge and it really does shoot up high into the sky. I tried to photograph the sign on the base of the bridge so that I might be able to figure out where we were exactly, but the picture didn’t come out clear enough to read. And it was in German to boot.
Gosh, I hope you weren’t expecting this to be some kind of informational or educational post. Were you?
This paved path led into the forest. I understand there were waterfalls ahead if you walked a little ways.
We saw this little gurgling creek near the trail’s end.
But we didn’t venture into the woods any further. At that early stage of the tour we did not want to risk being left behind. Had we not squandered our time on the Black Forest Cake we might have been able to hike a bit further into the woods,
or watched a glass-blowing demonstration, or cuckoo-clock making demonstration. No regrets here.
This early on the trip, I was still disgruntled with the crowds and wondering how I ever thought it was a good idea to join a large tour group. I did that with my daughter’s high school trip to Europe where I quickly found out how frustrating it can be. At the points of interest we were always with crowds. And we were limited to a tight schedule that someone else set for us with not a lot of wiggle room to stop and look at something a bit longer. After a day or two I adjusted my expectations to the limitations inherent in touring with a large group and came to appreciate the advantages of traveling this way.
In the above photo we are all waiting for the large (I think the largest anywhere) clock to chime.
It did. The wait was short and the little figures dancing around the circle were rather charming. Don’t you think?
We all loaded back onto our respective buses and left, driving down out of the mountainous area, through the college town of Freiberg, and back to the Viking Tor for a quick lunch before our optional excursion to the medieval town of Colmar.