Lake Lucerne to Lake Windermere

Our room is right above the beige colored glass atrium
Our room is right above the beige colored glass atrium in the center

 

LONG day yesterday – but all went very smoothly and we got to see a lot of countryside in the process.  Started at 7:00 AM in Lucerne at the train station adjacent to our hotel.  Made our connection in Geneva and saw a lot of lovely countryside along the way, included beautiful views of Lake Geneva.

Lake Geneva from the train
Lake Geneva from the train
From the train coming into Geneva
From the train coming into Geneva

 

Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to get any kind of decent pictures from the trains as, in general, they are really moving fast.  We changed over from Switzerland to France in the Geneva train station and took off on the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse or Very Fast Train in English) and met a really nice English couple who were also changing over to the Eurostar in Lille and had done it before, so we asked if we could follow them and we did.

French countryside from the TGV train
French countryside from the TGV train

 

 

They stayed in first on the Eurostar, we went back to standard class – we should have ponied up the extra, as standard on the Eurostar is pretty crowded and not very comfortable, but it is only about 90 minutes and I couldn’t talk myself into the extra charge. Next time…At any rate, Rob and Roz helped us navigate the Lille change (follow the Union Jack signs!) and also Rob volunteered to walk us to Euston Station when we arrived at St. Pancras, which he did!  Way above and beyond for chance met strangers!  We just wanted to be sent to the right exit, but Rob insisted, and, frankly, I’m really glad he did, as it was a bit further and less obvious than my ‘Maps.com’ print out looked.

 

We then made our connection to Virgin Trains from London to Oxenholme.  We were standard class there as well but they offered a 15 pound each upgrade to first and we took it.  Much nicer carriage and more comfortable seats, and hardly anyone else in the carriage with us, plus wifi and a place to charge up our devices.  We were able to confirm our taxi pick up in Oxenholme and were checking in at our hotel by around 10 PM – tired but happy that none of the things I was worrying over – immigrants storming trains, strikes on the French and British rail systems and so on happened.  We did see what appeared to be new fencing and razor wire around the facilities in both Lille and, particularly, in Calais and there was a decided increase in the police and military presence in the port areas over what we remembered from other Eurostar crossings.

After a good night’s sleep in our new digs – much nice than our last hotel and about six times bigger than our ship cabin – it would fit into the (very nice!) bathroom here.  We have a gorgeous lake view room at the Laura Ashley Belsfield hotel in Bowness-on-Windermere.  Bowness is, by the way pronounced like ‘bonus’ not like bow of a ship with the w articulated. Keswick, which is a nearby town is Kes-ick- not large on articulated ‘Ws’ here.   The hotel was constructed in the Victorian period for a Baroness as a private home and it has a real “Upstairs Downstairs” atmosphere, and the included breakfast was nice although not terribly well-organized.  We had been seated at a lovely table for two in the corner by the windows, went to the buffet to get our breakfast and came back to find someone else had been seated at ‘our’ table.  She was NOT moving, either, so we ended up at a rapidly cleaned and reset table adjacent but not as desirable in terms of view.  It almost ended as ‘turn about is fair play’ when the lady left to get her food and someone else tried to sit there as well.  The public rooms are lovely and the whole place has just been renovated by the Laura Ashley folks.  I had expected a lot of little flower prints everywhere, but was happily surprised by the muted colors and mix of geometric patterns.  It is really very pretty and in keeping with the architecture as well.

View from the hotel to Lake Windermere
View from the hotel to Lake Windermere
Interior of hotel
Interior of hotel
The Laura Ashley Belsfield Hotel
The Laura Ashley Belsfield Hotel
Gardens on the hotel grounds
Gardens on the hotel grounds

 

 

Having been completely unsuccessful in finding a coin laundry in Lucerne and unwilling to pay the extortion that they called laundry charges either there or here, we went off in search of a laundromat in the Lakes today.  Turns out (Bank Holiday here) the nearest open one was in an adjacent town about 30 minutes away by bus, so we took our stuff and bought a three-day bus pass and went to Ambleside to do laundry.  It was a lovely morning and a very nice drive on the bus, and now we have clean clothes again and that will do us until the Princess cruise and on board laundry is available.  By the time we returned to Bowness it was starting to cloud up and all the predictions are for worsening weather by the afternoon. What happens with that will determine what we do for dinner – if it is okay, we’ll probably walk into the town.  If it is raining, we’ll hit one of the hotel restaurants, but in any event, this afternoon is a rest up time.  Tomorrow we will start to explore in earnest with our bus pass.

Some general thoughts on the Viking Experience

Our experience with Viking was a little odd. It was sort of like a sandwich with really good filling and moldy bread.  The middle part – the on board experience – was really really good, but the beginning and end, not so much.

We had handled our own pre-cruise arrangements, and had informed Viking of what those were, flights, hotel, etc. as is required in their registration process.  Everything seemed to be going along fine, we had received our pre-cruise documents just when they said we would and everything seemed complete.  Then, much to our surprise, we ran into people who were also on the same cruise while on a canal boat ride in Amsterdam, and found out from them that the whole embarkation process was going to be totally changed.  We went immediately back to the hotel, contacted both our travel agent and the online ‘chat’ help service on Viking’s website.  Neither my travel agent nor, initially, the chat desk guy, had heard anything about this change.  After prompting, the chat desk guy finally contacted someone who DID know what was going on, but even then, the initial information we were given by him was in error, and it took quite a while to get everything squared away and to get the right procedure for our embarkation.

Once at the rendezvous point, there were two ships impacted and somewhere around 400 people to get fed lunch and put on buses to go to Rotterdam to meet their ships.  Everything was chaos – no one was directing people to the lunch location – guests were informing each other.  No one was sorting people out by ship, assigning spaces on the buses, or in any way turning this into anything approaching an orderly process.  When we lined up for the bus, it was a shoving match as people tried to get on the first bus out.  I got separated from Dennis and we very nearly ended up on different buses until the driver intervened for me.  After arriving, it turned out that there were several cabins other than ours that had not been informed of the changes, and the Program Director did question us about our experience and seemed to genuinely be working on figuring out what had gone wrong, but at no time was there any real apology, not even a complimentary glass of wine.  Everyone on the boat was comped for one extra cost excursion for the inconvenience, but those of us who had never even been told about the change got nothing extra, or even a ‘sorry about that’ which didn’t seem like good business practice to me, particularly with first timers like we, and several others, were.

From that point, though, things went very well.  The complimentary excursions – while having a certain sameness – were well-organized.  The use of the Quiet Vox (a first for us) was a great improvement over the usual ‘herd’ tour where you follow along behind the flag, umbrella, or, in Viking’s case, the ‘lollipop’ sign with your tour number on it, and if you are close to the tour leader you hear and if you are not, you don’t.  With this head set, you can hear the tour leader up to a half a kilometer away, and the tour leader can comment all along the walk, not just when s/he can gather the group together so everyone can hear.

The accommodations, while cozy, were well designed and had ample storage, particularly for a 7 day itinerary with no real ‘dress up’ requirements – a big difference between river and ocean cruising.  Public spaces were light and airy and decorated in a spare and very Scandinavian style that I really liked.  The Lounge was the heart of the ship, where everyone gathered for the ‘social’ time and also for any lectures, port talks, entertainment, etc.  Meals were in the restaurant or, if you wanted lighter fare,  at the Aquavit Terrace – an indoor/outdoor space at the bow of the ship.  Food was ample and generally of good quality – a couple of notable exceptions with really tough steaks, but overall, tasty and well prepared.  The included house wines and beers were more than adequate.  Premium wines and liquors are also available in both packages and by the glass.  Viking controls most of the variables, at least on the Rhine, from owning or leasing the dock facilities to maintaining their own fleet of (very nice Mercedes-Benz) buses.  The guides are free lancers however and the quality was a little uneven, both from day-to-day and among group assignments.  Nonetheless there were certain standards and procedures that they all followed and that were clearly part of the Viking requirements and counts were taken religiously of all the tour participants at beginning and end and at key points along the way as well.

Fast forward to the closing days of the cruise and the transition to the post-cruise land portion.  Our Program Director announces in his daily briefing that everyone who is going on the Lucerne extension should have received various materials in their cabin the night before and to fill out X Y and Z forms and get them back to reception.  We are not on the manifest, nor are some of our new friends.  Turns out that there are a number of cabins who are not showing up even though we have all booked, paid and been confirmed.  Much scrambling ensues.  Calls and emails go out to travel agents, papers are copied and taken to the desk, finally, we all receive our paperwork for the extension, board our buses, and arrive at the Radisson Blu to discover that, once again, we are not on the list, although we are assured that we will, indeed, have rooms for the two nights.  Once again, like with the embarkation mess at the hotel in Amsterdam, and in spite of having hundreds of Viking guests coming and going daily from this hotel, no one seems quite prepared for the arrival.  Our luggage sits on a sidewalk beside a busy road, with no one in attendance.  I realize that Switzerland is supposed to have a low crime rate, but this seems a little risky to me, so I set myself to watch over our luggage until it is moved into the hotel, a process that takes some little while as there was, initially, one person assigned to do this and he was managing about two to three cases per trip.  Finally some other folks, including some management types, showed up to help, but in the mean time, the luggage is sitting on the street unattended.  My worries were not assuaged when somewhere in the evening around 10 PM someone from the hotel came knocking on the door to see if we had picked up an extra bag as someone’s had gone missing.  Add to this, our walking tour in the afternoon with the local land based guide.  After our first stop where people were trying to access ATMs to get some local cash, we kept on walking, until the guide realized we were a few people short. How many?  she wasn’t sure.  So, we were told to walk ahead, she went back looking and found some but not, evidently, all.  How many did we lose? She wasn’t sure – hadn’t counted when we started…

So, bread not so great, filling quite tasty, but it could have been a much better sandwich with more attention to detail on the land bits and better handling of paperwork all around.

Some pictures of the ship and our cabin:

Atrium stair with picture of Eir - goddess of healing who decided the fate of wounded soldiers
Atrium stair with picture of Eir – goddess of healing who decided the fate of wounded soldiers at the head of the stair case.  Each Longship is named for a Norse deity and there is a similar portrait in the same position.
very awkward chair - didn't fit anywhere and easy to stumble over at night if you had to get up
very awkward chair – didn’t fit anywhere and easy to stumble over at night if you had to get up
Cozy but well organized
Cozy but well organized
As much of the ship as I could fit in - they are called Longships for a reason!
As much of the ship as I could fit in – they are called Longships for a reason!
Open airy atrium
Open airy atrium
Another angle on the atrium
Another angle on the atrium
The Lounge - heart of all the action
The Lounge – heart of all the action

Leaving the Rhine for the Lake

Disembarkation from the Eir was as efficiently handled as the embarkation was botched.  Everyone was sorted and on their various ways – some of our new-found friends were headed to Paris on the train, others to Zurich to fly home, and a goodly number with us to Lucerne for a post cruise visit to the lake and town.

The bus trip from Basel to Lucerne through the foothills to the Alps was picture postcard pretty – Switzerland is a clean and tidy country, and Lucerne is likewise very picturesque and has been a tourist town since the 1800s. Our bus stopped at the Wounded Lion memorial – a memorial to the Swiss guards who lost their lives in defense of the French royal family during the French Revolution, and then we made our way into the town of Lucerne.

 

The Wounded Lion memorial to the Swiss Guards who lost their lives in defense of the French Royal Family
The Wounded Lion memorial to the Swiss Guards who lost their lives in defense of the French Royal Family

 

 

Vintage 5 Star Hotels along the lake front
Vintage 5 Star Hotels along the lake front
Paddlewheel lake tour boat
Paddlewheel lake tour boat

Home to a number of lake side 5 star hotels, as well as some more modest establishments like the Radisson Blu that is our home base for the stay here, Lucerne offers lake cruises on paddlewheel boats of the same vintage as the lakeside hotels and mansions, opportunities for hiking, visits up the local mountain – a ‘pre-alp’ according to our guide – called Mount Pilatus.  The story goes that Pontius Pilate was buried there and that the presence of his body created a region of perpetual bad storms and in the 16th century climbing Mt. Pilatus was forbidden for fear that the curse of bad weather would be brought down to the town.  This prohibition has long since fallen and it is one of the most popular excursions now.  Others of our group signed up to take a full day excursion to Mt. Titlus, a true Alp, with a glacier, located some 90 minutes away.

Mount Pilatus
Mount Pilatus

 

 

On arrival, we dropped our luggage and checked our hand baggage and took off on a walking tour of the town and a boat tour of the lake while our rooms were readied. The old town here is authentically old and Lucerne has the first Baroque cathedral of our trip – dominated to date by Romanesque and Gothic.  I have to admit, I prefer the Gothic ones.  Romanesque ones are dark and the Baroque was a bit over the top.

 

 

Detail, Lucerne Cathedral
Detail, Lucerne Cathedral
Side chapel, Lucerne's Cathedral
Side chapel, Lucerne’s Cathedral

 

 

Lucerne's Baroque Cathedral
Lucerne’s Baroque Cathedral

 

 

Summer homes and mansions along the lake
Summer homes and mansions along the lake
Mount Pilatus from our lake cruise
Mount Pilatus from our lake cruise
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Outlet from the lake to the Rhine River
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Portion of the Old Town

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Then we joined some of our shipmates for dinner in a traditional Swiss style restaurant recommended by our guide. We shared two kinds of cheese fondue and three typical entrees – one chicken, one sausage, and one veal in various sauces, followed up by apple strudel.  As we strolled back along the waterfront, the full moon was rising over the mountains as the colors of the sunset remained in the sky – really spectacular!

Fritschi Restaurant
Fritschi Restaurant
Sunset/Moonrise over Lake Lucerne
Sunset/Moonrise over Lake Lucerne

 

 

Unlike our friends, we decided to take it easy today – we checked out our platform at the train station to see where we need to go tomorrow.  Then we walked into the town, being treated to impromptu musical entertainment at various points in town and then we walked through the weekly farmers market along the river and walked through the iconic covered wooden Chapel Bridge.

Wooden Chapel Bridge
Wooden Chapel Bridge
Saturday Market
Saturday Market

 

Saturday market
Saturday market

 

Some things we’ve learned about, at least this town, life in Switzerland.  Pretty much everything is charged for – water at restaurants (even tap water), ice brought to your room at the hotel (free if you pick it up yourself from the bar, 5 swiss francs if they bring it to you), 2 swiss francs for the ‘public’ restrooms. A couple of sandwiches, salads and 1 coke from a local deli-type chain called Bachman’s was over 30 Swiss Francs.  Our share of the bill for dinner with 2 appetizers, three entrees and three desserts and drinks shared by three couples was 82 Swiss Francs.  Small apartments in the center of Lucerne run around 4,000 Swiss Francs per month, not including utilities, around 2,000 if you are fifteen or twenty minutes outside of town.  It is VERY expensive to live here, even more expensive to be a tourist.  Unlike their European neighbors, there is no public health care.  Everyone must carry private health insurance, otherwise you can not be hired to work.  Education is quite unique.  Only approximately 20% of young people go on to a university education.  The typical pattern is for the students to undergo a pretty rigorous evaluation somewhere in what would be middle school in the US and then they are tracked into various types of apprenticeship programs, getting paid internships while studying part-time, and when they graduate from the equivalent of high school, they have work experience as well as specific education in their field. Pretty much everyone here also speaks between four and five languages.  Impressive.  Something about the system seems to work well, as unemployment here is around 2%.

 

 

Freiburg – Gateway to the Black Forest

Hard as it is to imagine, we are already coming to the end of our first ever river cruise. Today’s excursion was back to Germany – after the hour-long ride along the Alsace Wine Road yesterday, we elected to take the shorter drive today and visited the ‘Gateway to the Black Forest’ Freiburg, from our port stop in Breisach.

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Small part of the market around the cathedral
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Freiburg’s cathedral – partly Romanesque, party Gothic
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Typical street in Old Town – all reconstructed after being bombed out during World War II
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Fountain, Freiburg

The centerpiece was yet another cathedral and reconstructed ‘old town.’ So many of the villages and cities were bombed in World War II, but most have chosen to, at least in some limited area, rebuild in the old style. We have not, of course, been able to go into many of these structures, so it is hard to say how closely they followed original designs, and how many are merely medieval facades on very up to date interiors, but in any event it makes for a more ‘tourist friendly’ exterior impression and Freiburg was no exception. We have noted throughout the trip the numerous and lovely window boxes and I have been meaning to mention what we were told about why everyone who can, has them. Most of the windows do not have any way of being screened, and the window boxes are planted with flowering plants that tend to repel insects – marigolds and geraniums are very popular. So, you plant your window boxes so that you can open your windows to the breeze and not be annoyed by flies and mosquitos. Very clever and also very picturesque.

 

Insect repelling window box plantings
Insect repelling window box plantings

One of the more interesting tidbits about Freiburg – the shop keepers are encouraged to maintain an old practice of putting a mosaic in the sidewalk in front of their shops that indicates what they are selling or providing – a flower for a florist, a shoe for a cobbler, a caduceus for a pharmacy or physician and so on. This was a tradition during the medieval period and the town has continued it into the present. Likewise the old style of putting a name and symbol on buildings or on a pictorial sign hung out above the door is also continued even though they now have numbers and addresses as well. It makes for a colorful and unique streetscape.

 

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Florist shop mosaic in sidewalk
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Freiburg coat of arms in sidewalk in front of the city hall
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Pre-street numbered address system – this one is The House of the Red Lion
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Coat of Arms for the local bishop – found above his front door
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Another pictograph – this one is a wine maker
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This one was more difficult to figure out – it was the house of the town executioner – the black cat was his symbol.

Freiburg is obviously a prosperous place with many high end shops, but we observed and our guide pointed out a growing number of homeless people and, as with a lot of the other tourist areas we have visited, particularly around the churches there are a lot of beggars that our guides in general have characterized as “gypsies” with varying levels of sympathy or antipathy about their situation. Evidently because of the gypsy lifestyle, they often fall through the holes of the social safety nets. Our French guide was the most sympathetic but even she suggested we keep away from the gypsies and really strongly advised against giving them anything. Most of our German guides were more hostile and seemed to feel that by not following the rules the gypsies were bringing their misfortunes on themselves.

 

 

We opted out of the afternoon excursion, electing to spend the time getting packed for the next phase of our trip – two nights in Lucerne – also under the aegis of Viking. We will arrive in Basel around 9 PM tonight, and then will be bused to Lucerne tomorrow morning after breakfast. Meanwhile, we have been on board for the experience of going through some of the locks on the Rhine – a very interesting experience of its own. The clearance for the lock gates is pretty low, and we got to watch as the sun shades on the top deck were lowered to just above head height and then, when we were approaching the lock gate, the whole wheelhouse is dropped down bay about 5 or 6 feet and the captain steers from an auxiliary control stand on the deck. Our side clearance was a few inches from the wall on one side and about 18 inches from another ship in the lock on the other.

Cathedral in the Morning, Wine in the Afternoon

Another active day on the Rhine.  We visited beautiful Strasbourg – I was for some reason surprised that there were so many canals throughout the city, even more surprised to find out that they connect up the Rhine and the Rhone and could still be used commercially, as the Rhine is, but really are not, according to our guide, in part because of opposition by the truck drivers’ union.  These days the canal system in France is mostly used recreationally.

 

 

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Strasbourg, and the associated Alsace region, has had a schizophrenic history, particularly in the last couple of centuries.  Our guide referred to her grandmother, who had never left her village, but had her nationality changed four times in her lifetime between Germany and France, and her mother had her’s changed three times.  At most of those changes, the inhabitants were forbidden from speaking either French or German, and over time, most of the residents rebelled against both sides and at home, at least, speak a dialect called Alsatian that looks vaguely Germanish but isn’t intelligible to a native speaker of German.  Street signs in Strasbourg are printed in French (the official language) and Alsatian.  In schools, most students now learn both French and German, as well as English and sometimes Italian or Spanish as well, and the residents refer to and think of themselves as “European” more than belonging to any one nationality, which, given their history is pretty easy to understand.  Adding to this identification as European, Strasbourg is home to the European Council and the Commission for Human Rights.

Strasbourg is also home to a magnificent Gothic Cathedral, which houses an amazing astronomical clock.  You can get into the cathedral for free until just before noon, when they shoo everyone out and then charge admission to get in and watch the operation of the clock as it chimes at noon.  There are a number of automaton parts in the very elaborate clock and even just watching the show for the quarter-hour is interesting.

Detail, Strasbourg Cathedral
Detail, Strasbourg Cathedral

 

 

 

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Strasbourg Cathedral
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Astronomical Clock
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One of the automaton figures on the clock

 

 

After our tour of Strasbourg, it was on to the Alsace Wine Road and vineyard and winery tour followed by a wine tasting.  This was what we picked for our ‘compensation’ tour that Viking offered for all the confusion at the embarkation.  The region mostly produces white wines, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Gewürztraminer  and a little bit of red using the Pinot Noir, but the red is very light and unlike the style of Pinot Noir wines elsewhere in France and in the US.

The vineyards are beautiful and the winery houses a small museum as well as a huge wine storage area with holdings going back into the early 1920s.  IMG_1141 IMG_1133 IMG_1147 IMG_1130

 

Bismark’s Alma Mater and the Setting for The Student Prince

Not sure how to read it, but this is supposed to be a clock
Not sure how to read it, but this is supposed to be a clock

Today’s stop was in Heidelberg – the university town that has figured largely in history and drama.  Bismarck was a graduate of Heidelberg University, coincidentally setting a fashion trend for facial scars and dueling.  The Student Prince operetta and film were set there and some of the earliest supporters of  Adolph Hitler were found among the fraternities there as well.  According to our tour guide, there are continuing very conservative and nationalist tendencies among some of the fraternal orders at Heidelberg but today they are counterbalanced by the ultra liberal ones.

Heidelberg from the Castle
Heidelberg from the Castle

 

 

Heidelberg has a long history, enmeshed in the history of the Holy Roman Empire (famously said to be neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire) and the various Electors, Emperors, and ruling families.  The ruins of the castle inspired and was a symbol for the Romantic Movement and also the German unification and nationalist movements.  It remains a ruin and much is invested annually in keeping the ruin in its current state.  Our guide pointed out that it was far more costly to maintain a ruin at a particular stage of ruin than to maintain an intact building.

Portion of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, destroyed by Louis XIV.
Portion of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, destroyed by Louis XIV.

 

 

As with several of our stops, Louis XIV gets a lot of blame for the state of ruin of the assorted castles and cities that he laid waste to in the 18th Century.  In the case of the Heidelberg Castle, he conquered it twice – the first time leaving it intact with a small occupying garrison, the second time, after the garrison was overwhelmed by the local populace, he largely destroyed it.

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More of the ruins that inspired the Romantic Movement
More of the ruins that inspired the Romantic Movement

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The afternoon stop was in Speyer, a charming small town which was once a center for Jewish culture in the Holy Roman Empire.  Important in the 11 century as a center for learning and culture, it was the home of the fabled Wise Brothers of Speyer who were renown throughout the medieval world for their learning and wisdom.  It remains a UNESCO world heritage site for the huge (at one time larger than St. Peter’s) Romanesque cathedral.  Much less ‘touristy’ and far more low-key, Speyer has a nice atmosphere, and is IMG_1070quite picturesque.

 

Busy Day on the Rhine

Marksburg Castle
Marksburg Castle

 

We started the day with a tour of Marksburg Castle, and ended it with an evening glass blowing demonstration, with a day of scenic cruising of the ‘castle country’ on the Rhine and a visit to the town of Rudesheim in between. We arrived in Koblenz early and were bused to Marksburg Castle, some 700 years old, for a walking tour.

Exterior of Chapel Tower, Marksburg Castle
Exterior of Chapel Tower, Marksburg Castle
Marksburg Castle
Marksburg Castle
Medieval kitchen equipment, Marksburg Castle
Medieval kitchen equipment, Marksburg Castle
Marks burg Castle kitchen cooking fireplace
Marks burg Castle kitchen cooking fireplace
Illuminated manuscript - Marksburg Castle
Illuminated manuscript – Marksburg Castle
Tower Chapel ceiling, Marksburg Castle
Tower Chapel ceiling, Marksburg Castle
Detail, Chapel, Marksburg Castle
Detail, Chapel, Marksburg Castle
View from Castle Wall
View from Castle Wall

 

 

We rejoined the ship in Braubach, and commenced the scenic cruising along the Middle Rhine, famed for its castles and the Lorelei (or Loreley) Rock. Weather was a little mixed – rain and wind alternating with periods of partly cloudy and relatively warm weather, ending in quite a nice evening in Rudesheim.

Middle Rhine - castle country
Middle Rhine – castle country

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Many of our fellow cruisers took this opportunity to take advantage of the ‘free’ optional excursion and went into Rudesheim for dinner and an ‘oompah’ band concert. We chose to stay on the ship for dinner, and receive extraordinary service (only about 60 of us had dinner on the ship) and were treated to a glass of champagne by the maitre d’ for being loyal to our dining room and staff! We are ‘doubled up’ with another Viking ship and were invited to join the travelers on our sister ship Mani, for a glass blowing exhibition. Busy busy day!

 

Portable Glass Blowing
Portable Glass Blowing

 

Cologne

Cologne, or Koln as it is called in German, originated as a Roman outpost on the Rhine – a colonia or city.  It was the birthplace of Emperor Claudius’ wife (and niece) Agrippina, and the full name in Roman times was Colonia Claudia Agrippina.  Fans of the old PBS series I, Claudius will recall that Agrippina returned the favor of having a city name for her by Claudius by poisoning him in favor of her son, Nero.  He, in turn, had her killed, so what goes around comes around.

Roman Mosaic discovered when excavating for air raid shelter
Roman Mosaic discovered when excavating for air raid shelter
Carved head - Roman Germanic Museum
Carved head – Roman Germanic Museum
Golden crown - Roman Germanic Museum
Golden crown – Roman Germanic Museum

 

 

In any case, that was too much of a mouthful to last as a city name, and it was shortened to Colonia, and then Koln or Cologne.  Situated at the border of the Roman territories, Cologne thrived as a center of trade into the Christian era, and the Bishops of Cologne wielded great authority both within the church hierarchy and secularly.  In the 12th century, a particularly war-like bishop participated in a campaign against Milan, and as his reward for contributing both troops and treasure to the effort, he claimed as his booty the purported bones of the three wise men, which he brought home to Cologne in 1164.  A fabulous reliquary was created for the remains and Cologne became one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe.  In 1248, a great Gothic cathedral was started to house the relics. With the rises and falls in fortunes of the Catholic Church over the next centuries, the cathedral was added to in fits and starts, finally achieving the current construction, still using the medieval blueprints, in 1880.  With the exception of some relatively minor damages in World War II, the cathedral survived, although much of Cologne was destroyed by Allied bombing.  The priceless stained glass had been removed and stored in air raid shelters for safe keeping.  Interestingly, it was the construction of those air raid shelters near the cathedral that unearthed the wonderfully preserved Roman mosaics that now are displayed in the wonderful Roman Germanic Museum together with one of the largest extant collections of Roman glass found anywhere in the world.

Cologne Old Town
Cologne Old Town
Fountain, Old Town Cologne
Fountain, Old Town Cologne

Our walking tour of Cologne included both the Cathedral and the museum as well as a partially reconstructed ‘Old Town’ – contemporary buildings made in the traditional style to provide a reminder of medieval Cologne in the district around the Cathedral and the waterfront area, a wonderful pedestrian and bike friendly park and walking trail area that stretches for miles along both sides of the Rhine in Cologne.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Detail Cologne Cathedral
Detail Cologne Cathedral
Detail Cologne Cathedral Choir entry
Detail Cologne Cathedral Choir entry

 

 

In addition to the Roman Germanic Museum, Cologne is also home to a Chocolate Museum, several art museums, a couple of small museums devoted to the development of Eau de Cologne, and a Biermuseum – actually not a beer museum, but a two story brew house, serving 50 different brands of beers from around the world, 18 of them on draught.

Cologne also serves as home to one of the great Mardi Gras Festivals, on a plane with New Orleans or Rio, with festivities beginning on the Thursday prior to Fat Tuesday and drawing celebrants in the hundreds of thousands, with parades, music, and the rather odd practice of “Lady’s Day” where women go through the town with scissors cutting men’s ties off.  Later in the week, men can claim a kiss from the lady/s who chop of their neckwear.

Statue to founder of Mardi Gras celebrations in Cologne
Statue to founder of Mardi Gras celebrations in Cologne

 

Viking River Cruises

After our rather inauspicious start, and a very disorganized scramble to get two ships worth of folks from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, things evened out and our first evening on board the Viking Eir was very pleasant, with very nice dining companions and a good, if not great, dinner.  We stayed overnight in Rotterdam, as our first port of call was at Kinderdijk – Children’s Dike – which is quite close to Rotterdam.  We are getting accustomed to the routine on Viking – breakfast is followed by an introduction to the location to be visited, then the passengers are divided into smaller groups and assigned to guides and start times are staggered so it never seems really crowded.  At least one excursion per day is complimentary, and on several days there are also optional extra cost ones as well, mostly in the evenings and involving some sort of meal, entertainment or drinks.  We were given our choice of one free optional excursion as compensation for the change from embarkation in Amsterdam to embarkation in Rotterdam, which was a nice gesture on Viking’s part.

 

 

Viking Eir Longship
Viking Eir Longship

The Eir is a new ship, being christened in March of this year and the design and decor is very Scandinavian, with light woods and muted colors predominating, and lots of light throughout the ship.  It is very attractive and the cabin space, while not large, is very efficiently designed.  The bathroom, which is quite small, still has a lot of storage, and, most innovative, has a heated floor.

The staff, thus far, have been very attentive, efficient, and seem to be quite well trained and everything since we boarded has been quite well handled, in significant contrast to the corporate staff and shore staff handling the change in embarkation.

 

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Some of the 19 operating windmills at Kinderdijk

 

 

Our visit to Kinderdijk was quite informative and the talk on water management prior to our arrival gave a good context for the tour.  All of the various techniques for pumping water and keeping the lands from flooding happen to have been used in this fairly small area, so in around two hours, you are able to see water management techniques that span several centuries, from the mid-1600s to the present.

Diesel Pump using Archimedes Screw
Diesel Pump using Archimedes Screw

 

 

The 19 remaining windmills, the largest collection of operational windmills left in the Netherlands, remain as a deep back up to the current electric motor pump, the diesel pump using an Archimedes screw technology that preceded the electric pump, and the steam powered pump that it replaced in turn.  Today, although the windmills are still functional, they are rented as housing to families who want to keep the old traditions alive. One of the 19 serves as a historical museum and demonstration model for education and tourism.

 

Kinderdijk Museum Windmill
Kinderdijk Museum Windmill

 

The guide offered two different accounts of why the area was called Kinderdijk – the first and more fanciful one was that there was a great flood and all of the people were believed to have been drowned.  When the rescuers were able to get back into the area, however, a baby’s cry was heard and they found a child in a cradle, accompanied by a cat that was moving from one side to the other to keep the floating cradle from tipping over, and the area was named for this miraculous event.  The other, and according to our guide, more likely explanation was that typical miller families in the area had from 10 to 12 children each and, with the original 20 windmills (one had subsequently burned down leaving the current 19) that would have been some 200 plus children in this relative compact area, and from that it became known as the Children’s Dike or Kinderdijk.  There is a huge cradle crafted of reeds, however, just for atmosphere.

The fabled cradle of Kinderdijk
The fabled cradle of Kinderdijk

 

A few days in Amsterdam

After smooth but LONG flights and layovers, starting on Sunday afternoon and ending in Schipol Airport on Tuesday morning, we arrived in Amsterdam, a first time visit for me, a return for Dennis. He first visited back in the 1960s on his way home from his stint in the Peace Corps.

Our home for our stay in Amsterdam is the Hilton Amsterdam, located about 15 minutes walk from the Museum District in a quiet, largely residential neighborhood. Amsterdam is a great city for art, rich in both museums and public art installations. After our room was ready and we had a shower and a nap, we spent our late afternoon wandering through one of the sculpture exhibits currently on in front of the hotel. Over 70 large scale sculptures are spread over green spaces and park lands.

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Our first full day here we walked to the Rijks Museum – famed as the home of some of Rembrandt’s most famous works, including the Night Watch, as well as works by Vermeer, Franz Hals, and Van Gogh, and fabulous artifacts as well – hundreds of ship models, huge collections of pottery and china, glassware and silver, and fascinating doll houses that were not really made for dolls, but rather as salemen’s samples for silversmiths, furniture makers, and pottery makers.

After a couple of hours in the museum, we walked through the old town, saw the floating flower market and made our way to the waterfront area where the once every five year “Sail Amsterdam” event is on in full swing. There are numerous tall ships and the harbor is hugely crowded with all kinds of vessels. After all that walking we decided to take the tram home. The trams are part of a public transit network that includes a metro and a bus system as well as the trams and it all seems to work most efficiently as the in city traffic is really pretty minimal – of course, almost everyone here seems to get around by bike. There are even old barges along the canals that seem to have been converted to bike parking lots and it seems in places that the bike lanes are wider than the lanes for motor traffic.

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This morning we ventured out again to visit the Van Gogh museum. This museum is incredibly busy and even with the pre-purchased tickets, we waited for nearly an hour to get admitted. The collection is largely built around the paintings and drawings left in Vincent Van Gogh’s estate to his brother Theo, with some works from contemporaries of Van Gogh’s such as Manet, Pissaro, and Gaugin.

After the museum, we took a canal boat tour, and, as it happened, ended up sitting with some people who will be on our river cruise. This turned out to be a very fortunate thing, as they told us that the ship would not be leaving from Amsterdam, but rather from Rotterdam! We had heard nothing about this from our travel agent or from Viking and were happily planning to go down to the cruise port tomorrow in the early afternoon. Instead, we found out that we were supposed to go to the Renaissance Hotel and would be bused to Rotterdam to pick up our ship. We verified this with Viking when we got back to our hotel. It surely was fortunate that we ran into these folks!

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Amsterdam is a pleasant city, easily walkable, with good public transportation, hundreds of museums devoted to all kinds of things from fine art to purses to diamonds to prostitution, a laid-back attitude and at least as many bicycles as people. It has been as good start to our adventure.