Cruises are not a great way to get to know places in any depth. At most, guests have a few hours in each destination. But they are a good way to sample a variety of destinations, in order to know which places might be worth a return visit, and this is exactly what happened in Germany during my Grand European Tour with Viking River. I liked Miltenberg, Rothenburg, Bamberg, Nuremberg, and Passau, but I loved Regensburg.
It’s hard to say exactly why Regensburg made such an impression on me. The woman who conducted our walking tour was an impressive guide – among the best so far on our cruise. Certainly, the extra free time we had in this town had a lot to do with my experience. But I think the fact that the new Auxiliary Bishop for the region, Josef Graf, was being installed at the St. Peter Cathedral that very morning, had much to do with my experience in Regensburg.
The cathedral was off limits to tourists during the ceremony, so I used the extra free time to wander around town, poking into narrow cobblestone alleyways and wandering through archways that framed colorful streetscapes. I concentrated on the Old Town area, which UNESCO describes as “the only authentically preserved large medieval city in Germany.” Since it escaped unscathed during World War II, its medieval structures are original rather than reproductions, including numerous square towers built by wealthy merchants who competed to see who could build the tallest. Several of them punctuated the city landscape: a serious looking gray tower, the lavish banana-colored Town Hall, the peach-toned tower that tops the city’s entrance arch, and my particular favorite, a salmon tower tucked into the corner of an L-shaped cobblestone lane. Read More
Sometime during the night my Viking River cruise ship left the castles of the Middle Rhine behind and turned left onto the Main River. Just east of Frankfurt we crossed over into Bavaria, an area of Germany that most associate with snow-capped alps, giant mugs of beer, alpine meadows, and Lederhosen. I was quickly disavowed of any such notions, however, upon arrival in Miltenberg, which is located in the Lower Franconia district of Bavaria.
“We are Franconians, not Bavarians,” our tour guide said emphatically and with a little laugh.
Although Upper Franconia, Lower Franconia, and Middle Franconia constitute the three northernmost districts of Bavaria, they have a much different history than the rest of the State. They take their name from the Franks, a Germanic tribe that had conquered most of western Europe by the mid-8th century. After Napoleon defeated the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Bavaria became a kingdom and the Franconian districts were subsequently annexed to Bavaria in 1815.
Our tour guide’s comment was partly tongue-in-cheek, but also underscored the cultural differences between the two regions. Straddling the serpentine Main River, the landscape of Franconia is predominantly rolling hills. While never rising to the height of what might be called mountains, the hillsides are the perfect climate for vineyards which produce high quality dry red wines, rather than the beers for which Bavaria is known. Weißwurst, a white sausage made from minced veal and pork back bacon, may be haute cuisine in Bavaria, but Franconians prefer Bratwurst and Sauerbraten. Though Bavaria is overwhelmingly Catholic, the population of Franconia is a mixture of Protestant and Catholic. Even the German dialect is different; Franconians speak East Franconian German, rather than the Austro-Bavarian dialect spoken in the rest of Bavaria.
I threw open the drapes of my stateroom and gasped. Gone were the gray skies of Amsterdam and Cologne. Brilliant sunshine promised a perfect day of sailing through the Middle Rhine Valley, a fairy tale landscape of glittering green hillsides, where near-vertical vineyards tumbled down toward the emerald river.
Since prehistoric times, the Rhine has been one of the world’s most important trade routes, and the 40 castles and forts found in the UNESCO World Heritage area between Koblenz and Bingen are testament to how much these lands have always been coveted. The castles, mostly constructed between the 12th century and the first half of the 14th century, were built by the princes of the empire to protect their land holdings and mineral rights from political rivals. Toward the end of the 13th century, however, they seized upon an even more important source of revenue: collecting tolls from ships using the Rhine to transport goods. Chains were strung across the river and lowered only when the toll had been paid. Read More
More than once I’ve been told by fellow travelers not to bother visiting the city of Cologne, Germany. “Don’t waste your time,” they said. “The only thing to see is the cathedral.” So when I realized that Cologne was the first German city to be visited on my Viking River Grand European Tour, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.
We began our walking tour in front of the Kölner Dom, as the cathedral is known in German, a UNESCO World Heritage Site said to be the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. My first impression was disappointment at the sooty facade, which has been blackened by a combination of natural oxidation and the smoke from steam locomotives that used to pull into the train station next door. But soon, details began to emerge: pointed arches dressed with elaborate geometric decorations, twin towers that soar to a height of 515 feet, an entrance lavish with 19th century statuary, and the flying buttresses that allowed medieval builders to build such a cavernous structure. Read More
Not two minutes after I stepped off the bus from the airport, my girlfriend yanked me back up onto a curb. Before I had time to be startled, a bike whizzed past in a blur, missing me by less than an inch. “You have to be careful of the bicycles in Amsterdam. We cycle everywhere.” She pointed out dedicated lanes paved with red brick in the streets and on the sidewalks, cautioning me to look both ways for bikes, even before considering motor vehicle traffic.
Indeed, everywhere I went for the next ten days I was surrounded by two-wheeled demons. Men in suits, strangled by wind-driven skinny ties, pedaled furiously to offices with messenger bags strapped across their chests. Businesswomen cycled in skirts and spiked heels. Workmen carried supplies in wheelbarrow-shaped bins mounted to the front of the bicycles and, sometimes, benches added inside these same bins were used by mothers to deliver children to school. Lovers cycled to parks, grandmas and grandpas cycled to the market, brave tourists wobbled around on tandem bikes, and everyone cycled to the bars for a beer at the end of the day. Read More
The moment I stepped inside the Anne Frank House, a shiver shot up my spine and my hair stood on end. As I climbed into the rafters where eight Jews were secreted during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II, a lump rose in my throat and I fought back emotions that threatened to bring on tears. By the time I left the place where Anne Frank hid – the place where her family was betrayed by an unknown collaborator – I was devastated. Questions swirled in my head. How can human beings be so evil, so hateful? How they can so easily decide that a life is not valid because of a chosen religion or an ethnicity? Outside once more, I sat on a curb, unable to move for the longest time.
Later, despair became sadness. I turned down a narrow side street in Amsterdam’s city center. Buildings of nondescript red brick were punctuated by windows, like an endless row of phone booth cubicles. A rat-tat-tat on a window pane made me stop. I peered into the dark interior from where the knock came. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a man, wearing a wig, black bra, and nylon stockings held up by a black garter belt. His thick body hair curled over the top of his stockings and his cherry lipstick was askew. Our eyes met and before I could avert mine, his huge hands beckoned me inside. I have wandered into Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. Read More