Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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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.

Half-timbered houses in Miltenberg, Germany, our first stop in the Franconia districts of Bavaria

Half-timbered houses in Miltenberg, Germany, our first stop in the Franconia districts of Bavaria

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.
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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.

Near vertical vineyards cover the hillsides of the Middle Rhine, as they have done since the 11th century

Near vertical vineyards cover the hillsides of the Middle Rhine, as they have done since the 11th century. Due to their steepness, the grapes are still picked by hand.

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

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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.

Exterior of Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe

Exterior of Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest Gothic Cathedral in Northern Europe

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

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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.

Bicycles in Amsterdam coming out of the tunnel at the Rijksmuseum nearly run me over

Bicycles in Amsterdam coming out of the tunnel at the Rijksmuseum nearly run me over

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

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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.

The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam

The blacked out windows of the two medium brown brick buildings are the telltale sign of the house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden from the Nazis, until betrayed by an unknown person or persons.

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

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There are many criteria by which the greatness of a city might be judged, but the height of its skyscrapers and the number of residents are not among them. For me, the nobleness of a city is measured by its devotion to the arts, so when I read about Amsterdam’s ARTZUID 2015, the biennial display of outdoor sculptures from some of the world’s greatest artists, I knew that this Dutch city had to be on my travel itinerary.

My timing could not have been better. I had booked a Viking River cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, so I tacked a few days onto my trip to attend the event’s opening press conference and have an early peek at the sculptures. As the only person at the press gathering who didn’t speak Dutch, I was shepherded to the head table by Maarten Bertheux, who kindly translated snatches of the presentation by his fellow co-curator, Rudi Fuchs.

Co-curator Rudi Fuchs explains his vision for ARTZUID 2015

Co-curator Rudi Fuchs explains his vision for ARTZUID 2015

Now in its fourth iteration, ARTZUID is unique among outdoor sculpture shows in that it invited 21 of the world’s finest sculptors to display multiple works, something normally only done in a museum setting. Fuchs imagined sculptures promenading along the broad, leafy medians of Apollolaan and Minervalaan boulevards. “As the greenery of the trees was so high up, the sculptures would need to be majestic and epic. I envisaged people wandering among them and looking up at these robust figures. I could also see tall sculptures moving amongst the people. But perhaps my imagination was getting the better of me.” Read More