This morning we awoke in the medieval port of Regensburg. Although the snow stopped yesterday sometime, it is still cold and windy here (just slightly above freezing). The town actually dates back to Roman times where it was a garrison outpost for the Roman Empire. We’re met at the dock by our local guide who has lived in Regensburg most of her life. Just steps from where our ship is moored, we step into the twisted cobblestone streets of the old town, and see the remains of the fortress walls for the Roman garrison.
However, the town really gained true prominence during the medieval period when it was an important trading town along the Danube. The merchants in town were so wealthy for the age that instead of building half-timbered homes, they built entirely from stone, which probably explains how Regensburg has been able to escape destruction by fire. Instead, the entire medieval city core remains fairly intact, which is why the entire town is UNESCO World Heritage site. All buildings in town center are preserved inside and out, down to the color they are painted. Today, the town is home to three different universities with a total student population of about 30,000, which is pretty huge considering that the town’s total population is just 140,000 people. It also prides itself on being a cultural center for Germany and is home to numerous art collections and music celebrations throughout the year.
However, because it is such a huge university town, students are frequently housed in apartments in old town in the old medieval buildings. Here is one such building being used for student housing.
By this time, we had mostly seen the old town, so we had some free time to see the Christmas markets. However, it was pretty bitterly cold this morning, so Jim opted to go back to the ship. I made a quick reconnoiter in town, but then dashed back to the ship to pick up my computer and go grab a coffee in a WIFi friendly café and post a blog.
This afternoon, we had a special treat in store; a visit to a private Christmas market located in town at the site of the former St. Emmeram’s Abbey, now know as Schloss Thurn und Taxis-huge castle owned by Thurn and Taxis royal family-scene of private Christmas market.
Entrance to the Thurn and Taxis Palace
What was different about this market is that it is all laid out with a mindset of making your visit a really enjoyable experience. Towards that end, there were countless seating areas with firepots (and glühwein drinking stands) scattered throughout the grounds of the castle. There were also much nicer food stands than those at the majority of the markets we’ve seen, and there were local artisans demonstrating their artistry in media such as wood, blown glass, and ornamental iron. It was fun just to watch them, but there were also some higher end craft items on offer here, too. In sum, this may have been our best Christmas market yet!
So, dear Readers, yesterday was a travel day for us so not much to report, except that we finally had our first day of snow all day. Yippee! Jim figured out how we could take the high-speed train from Cologne, where our last tour ended, to Nuremberg, where our new tour is starting today. It really was super easy, with a couple of caveats … 1. There are two train stations in Cologne, one of which is the super nice terminal which is think is for short hops intercity, and then ours, which was the Deutz station. The bummer about that is that there is virtually no seating in the terminal, and limited retail opportunities (read: 1 option for coffee, and it was bad). 2. Even with “first class” tickets, there is no place to store larger bags so it is some what of a logistical challenge to get all your stuff on the train and stored somewhere in the train in the few minutes the train is in the station. Even so, we had comfortable seats and good WiFi on the train, so our 3 hour trip to Nuremberg was pretty easy. Here’s some pictures of the countryside as we bombed along at 120 miles per hour.
This morning, we had several options for our sightseeing explorations. Jim and I opted for the WWII tour. It snowed all night, so that presented us with a lovely change of pace.
There are many reasons why Nuremberg is a good place to learn about the Nazi history of the War, but first let me give you a little history of the area. I don’t know about you, but I still have painful memories of learning about the Holy Roman Empire, and then I promptly forgot it all. Let me try to dumb it down a little for you. In general terms, Charlemagne was responsible for forming the Holy Roman Empire in the year 800 AD under a grant of divine power from Pope Leo III, which purported to reach back to the Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist over 300 years before.
Nuremberg itself was established 950 AD, and gained in importance when it became a Free Imperial City of the HRE. The city was the home of Emperor Charles IV, author of the Golden Bull, which established the Imperial Diet (parliament) of the HRE. Charles IV is buried in Nuremberg Cathedral. Geographically, Nuremberg is located in Germany’s largest state of Bavaria. The area surrounding Nuremberg had become an industrial power in the years leading up to WWI. However, with the loss of that war, and the imposition of heavy war reparations against Germany, many Germans were angry and under some severe economic stress caused by both rampant inflation and the Great Depression.
Enter Adolph Hitler, who was born in Austria to a family of modest means. He dropped out of school at age 16, and for a while, lived in a workhouse for the poor. Hitler immigrated to Germany, and by 1925, had already led the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in which he tried to take over control of the government. Instead of being sentenced to death for treason, a tribunal of conservative judges, who supported the aims of his party, merely sentenced him to a few years in jail. That sentence was ultimately commuted, and he served only a few years of his sentence. By 1933, Hitler was a German citizen. In that same year, the German President, Hindenberg, named him as Chancellor of Germany, and he was already in charge of the Workers Party, which became the Nazi Party. In short order, Hitler made his own laws, started by getting rid of all other parties; Germany became a police state with no freedom of press or speech, and lots of spying. 1st concentration camp was opened in Nuremberg. Jewish businesses boycotted, trade unions banned and books banned shortly thereafter. Also, physically and mentally handicapped adults and children sterilized. By 1934, Hitler had assumed all state powers.
In part for its historical significance as the former seat of the Imperial Diet, and in large part because of its deep support for the Nazi Party, Hitler chose Nuremberg as the site of the annual Nazi Party rallies which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the city. In furtherance of this, Hitler based a huge Zeppelin field in the center of town, surrounded by stadium seating and viewing boxes for Nazi officials. We visited the Zeppelin field as our first stop. Somehow, the snow covering it all really added to the feeling of alieness of it all. Hitler also built a huge parade grounds for showcasing Nazi troops on parade and youth Hitler squads performing nearby.
Another reason Hitler chose to focus the Nazi Party here was he had a close friendship with the local police chief, Julius Streicher, who was extremely anti Semitic. Streicher also founded a newspaper, Der Sturmer, full of lies about Jews, and was very responsible for many of the war crimes carried out against local Jews. He was convicted of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to die.
Our next stop was at the Documentation Hall. The building was constructed by Hitler as a huge Nazi Party Congress Hall based on the design of the Coliseum in Rome. It was never finished, and the building has now become the site of a comprehensive museum exploring the causes and phenomenon of the rise of the Nazi Party, with a whole exhibit dedicated to artifacts from the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.
Finally, our tour of WWII history ended with a visit to the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials were held. In addition to being able to see a film of the actual trial, it was cool to be able to see the courthouse. From the exterior, we could see the windows of Room 600 where the trials were conducted.
The building in which the trials were held;
Finally, it was off to the old town. The entire old town area was a walled city, and unlike a lot of European towns, many sections of the old wall are still standing.
We also could see the Imperial Palace, but we did not get close enough to take any photos. However, we were bound for the center of the old town Nuremberg Cathedral is located and the Christmas market spreads out in the square in front of the church.
The old town was really charming with all the snow all over the Christmas decorations and the Cathedral. The Cathedral houses the grave of Charles IV, so it remained a fairly important pilgrimage site all through the Middle Ages.
Now that we’re in Germany, we’re interested in seeing how the Christmas markets differ here in Bavaria. One thing we learn right away is that this part of Germany is really big on gingerbread, which is known as lebkuchen. There are all sorts of different types, and one of the vendors let us sample his traditional style lebkuchen. Another thing that is very popular here are little thin grilled sausages, which are served three in a bun with mustard. You know we had to try those! We didn’t notice too much different in terms of the types of handicrafts sold in the market here with one main exception; the famous Nürnberg prune people! These little dolls are made of prunes and other dried fruits with a walnut for a head, and are decorated as all different types of townspeople. Cute but kind of creepy!
I did buy the obligatory Christmas ornament. Then it was time to return to the bus, because we have an early departure this afternoon.
We are travelling on a tributary canal called the Mainz-Donau (Danube) Canal which ultimately will connect us to the Danube. Because this canal actually crosses the continental divide in Europe, it has to first go up and then come down which requires a crazy number of locks to accommodate the elevation differentials. Jim and spent the afternoon in the observation lounge in the front of the ship so we could watch our navigation. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that the canal actually crosses over a couple of highways, so a bunch of us raced upstairs to be able to snap pictures as we sailed over the road. Tomorrow we will dock in the university town of Regensberg, and we look forward to learning more about it.
Jeez, it’s cold this morning! When we could finally see outside (after 8 in the morning this far north), the day is grey and misty and about 29 degrees. Overnight, it snowed, so it is beginning “to feel a lot like Christmas”! Every once in a while, I venture outside to the top deck to snap some pictures and then rush back inside to get warm. Finally, about noon, we come into the city of Cologne. From the river, we can see the back of the Cathedral of Cologne with its soaring crenellated towers. What a sight!
Once our ship docked, right next to the Cathedral, we join a walking tour of the city. Our first stop is at the Cathedral, or more properly, Hohe Domkirche Sankt Petrus, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter. In medieval times, there were three holy cities to which religious people made a pilgrimage: Jerusalem, the Vatican, and the Cathedral of Cologne. The reason this church became such a holy site is that the holy relics of the three Magi who witnessed Christ’s birth are enshrined here.
We took a fairly brief walking tour in the old town area. Had we had more time to spend here, I would definitely have gone to the German Roman Museum which has some amazing excavated Roman ruins, including a huge mosaic floor and the remains of parts of the aqueduct system that served the city.
However, it’s already late in the day by the time we dock and do the tour, so Jim and I had to prioritize. Thus, we visited the Cathedral and saw the golden cask holding the holy relics and admired the stained glass windows, and then we ventured into the HUGE Christmas market spread out all around the church.
This is the first Saturday we’ve ventured into the markets in a large city, and OMG; it’s packed! Because its such a cold grey day, the Christmas decorations in the market really pop, and they have another Christmas pyramid here.
Jim and I imitated salmon swimming upstream for a while, and then he peeled off to go back to the ship. I didn’t last much longer, and then I found a nice coffee shop in a hotel nearby where I could sit in peace for a bit and use their WiFi to upload another blog post. Then I also headed back to enjoy our last night aboard the MS Inspire. Tomorrow, Jim and I take the train from here to Nuremberg, and start our exploration of the Christmas markets along the Danube River. Stay tuned!
Today our schedule was a little different as we are actually doing our traveling along this middle section of the Rhine by daylight. We haven’t found the Rhine nearly as scenic as we found the Rhône in France, but finally we are occasionally able to see a castle or two. There are something like 40,000 castles in Germany from tiny houses with turrets up to giant Schlosses. In any event, we will be pullng into our next mooring in Rüdesheim about 2:00 this afternoon.
This is a fairly small town, but really cute deep in the heart of wine-growing country in Germany. In fact, as we docked, our ship was met with a huge delivery which appears to mostly consist of cases of local Riesling wine, all marked “Drink Riesling; Not Water!”.
This was also the first town we were able to walk right off board and into town. Jim and I really like the freedom this gives us. So we walked into town, with our first activity being a visit to the music box museum, which has everything from what we think of as music boxes to huge cabinets of mechanized instruments which can replicate the sounds of an entire orchestra popular around the turn of the last century.
Right after that visit, we headed to a local hotel, with a cozy restaurant called Rüdesheim Schloss, where we had a lesson in baking the local type of Christmas cookies, Christmas Coffee, and glühwein. After the lesson, Jim headed off to explore, while I sat out in the patio to try to upload photos for the blog.
Mission accomplished, we walked back together through the many Christmas market stalls to the ship. Tomorrow is also a later sail to our final destination for this part of the trip, Cologne (Köln).
This morning we docked in Speyer, Germany, and then made a shorter drive to the university town of Heidelberg. We’re still in the southwestern part of Germany, in the state of Baden Württemberg. The town is located on the River Neckar, with a population of about 150,000 people; about a quarter of who are students.
Heidelberg is also home to a giant ruined castle that is just charming. We parked right by the river and then walked uphill through the crooked medieval streets to a funicular, which would take us up to the Castle. From where we’re parked, you can see across the river to a beautiful twisting path that goes up into the tree-studded hills called the Philosophers’ Path. However, since it’s still raining, there was little chance we were going to go exploring over there.
Our local guide was an expat American (married to a German man), who first took us up the funicular (about a 90 second ride), and then walked us around the Castle grounds. Our first stop was in front of a 19th Century former mansion, which has become a fraternity house for one of the Heidelberg fraternities. Those fraternities are somewhat controversial because they were originally only open to students from wealthy/noble families, and there was also a tradition of those students engaging in duels with rapiers. Even today, about 6 of those fraternities remain on campus, and it is still considered a badge of honor to have your cheek sliced open by your dueling partner. Notwithstanding this barbaric tradition, the Heidelberg University is one of the oldest (established in 1386) and most respected universities in Europe. Today, it is world-renowned for several research facilities, including four of the Max Planck Institutes. The operetta The Student Prince is set in Heidelberg. The university is also a birthplace of the German Romanticism movement, which grew out of the ideals of the French Revolution.
Heidelberg was also a favorite place to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), located as it is on a powerful river like the Mississippi. Mark Twain liked it so much that he and his wife and their kids lived in the town for quite some time, and he was able to overcome his writer’s block by talking to the university students. He was even allowed to join one of the fraternities. There are several notable quotes attributed to Twain from this time. Two of my favorites are: when asked about how difficult it is to learn German, Twain said, “ It takes 30 hours to learn English, 30 days to learn French, and 30 years to learn German.”; and “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” While he was here, he wrote his book “A Tramp Abroad”.
The ruined Heidelberg Castle is a major draw for many. It sits atop a hill overlooking the town, and has been built and destroyed almost more times than you can count.
Our guide shared with us quite a bit of the history of the Castle, including its various periods of construction and destruction. The Castle was built on the remains of a monastery starting in the 1200s. One part of that history involves the period in the early 1600s when the Castle was owned by Prince Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate, who married Princess Elizabeth Stuart of England and Scotland (daughter of King James I, and VI, respectively). Both were teenagers when married, and apparently, it was quite the love match. He even constructed a gate within the Castle grounds for her to see on her daily walks engraved with all sorts of fantastical birds and animals. He died tragically in war just a few years after they were married, but he still managed to father a bunch of kids before he lost his life.
There was also a portion of the Castle constructed by another Prince Elector known as Ottheinrich, who was one of the most-beloved of the Electors because he was very progressive and open-minded. I particularly enjoyed walking around the grounds to be able to photograph them with the small dusting of snow that fell last night. Finally, we also saw the largest wooden wine cask in world which is inside the Castle. It holds 58,000 gallons, and took 15 years to build. From the area where the wine cask is stored, you can wander out on the Castle ramparts for some really awesome views of the town below.
We then had a brief introduction tour of the main town, which includes one of the longest shopping streets in Europe. Scattered along that street, we see some small brass plaques set in the cobblestones outside some of the homes and businesses. Our guide explained to us that they were Stolpestein (stomping stones) engraved with the names and date of birth of the person who lived or worked at that place, along was the dates they were captured and executed by the Nazis.
Out tour over, we met for lunch at a brewery called Vetter, and had a traditional German lunch, including soft pretzels, pork specialties and spaetzle mixed with Gruyere cheese.
Then it’s off to shop at the 7 (count them) Christmas markets in Heidelberg.
Good morning! We are moored in the commercial port of Karlsruhe, Germany, and it’s a balmy 37 degrees. Today’s exploration takes us to the resort town of Baden Baden in the foothills of the Black Forest. Baden Baden is world-renowned as a spa resort town, and has been for centuries. Today, wealthy Germans retire here for the therapeutic effects of the hot springs, and Russian oligarchs vacation here. Even though the town also dates back to the Roman Empire, only remnants of the baths exist from that time (and those remnants are pretty sparse compared to Bath Spa in England). It didn’t help that the whole town burned to the ground in 1689 after the area passed back into French reign, but the architecture is still charming. There are no half-timbered buildings here, but you get some classical French elements here, along with some of the best of neoclassical German architecture.
It’s pretty drizzly here today, and we had a walking tour of the town as soon as we got here. One of the highlights of the town is the Casino, which is decorated in a style reminiscent of Versailles. Baden Baden is a noted cultural hub, with a Faberge Museum, and Kulturhaus, and a noted art museum designed by American architect, Richard Meier. We got to go in to the Casino before it opened for the day’s gambling, and it’s a pretty glitzy affair. We were also treated to a concert by a local middle school choir of German Christmas music. This is the first Christmas music we’ve heard in a language other than English, and the kids were darling.
Then we were free to shop or to visit the spas. There are two really famous spas in town. The first is the Friedrichsbad. It has a total of 16 very regulated steps in the bathing spa ritual such as being rubbed with rough cloths and having a mud bath, but then everyone ends up in the final coed communal bathing pool together in their birthday suits. Apparently, Jim and I are a little more modest than your average German, so we declined that opportunity. There is also another spa called the Caracalla, which is a bathing suit mandatory spa, and does not have all the ritual steps. However, with the temperature hovering about freezing, and the constant rain, we couldn’t see our way clear to trying that either.
This morning we are again docked on the German side of the Rhine (Rhein) river, at the port of Kehl, Germany. Our day started with a briefing on the local Christmas customs. The most notable of which is that there are two Christmas spirits here; a young woman called Christkind who delivers presents to the good children, and her counterpart is called Hans Trapp, an ogre-like man wearing a bearskin with a sooty face, who has been known to kidnap bad children. We boarded busses, however, as soon as we crossed the river from our mooring, we were back in France. This time we are actually docked right next to the town of Strasbourg, and my multi-modal sweetheart, Jim, immediately figured out that we could take a tram directly back from the city center to the boat.
As we drove through the town, we saw the buildings of the Council of Europe dedicated to the unification and peace of the 47 countries that are part of the Council. The constitutional court for the Council is also located here. Like Colmar, Strasbourg was originally founded as a Roman town, and it, too, also changed hands between France and Germany numerous times over the centuries. However, beginning in the 10th Century, it became a very important religious center in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Bishop of the area started building a grand cathedral here in 1176, and was not finished until 1439. For a time it was the tallest building in the world.
Just a word about safety at these markets … the Europeans have taken the tragedies in Europe last year in public spaces very seriously, and have implemented very strict security protocols as a result. For example, yesterday, even in the small town of Riquewihr, there were French soldiers patrolling four at a time with machine guns. In the larger cities, they have instituted vehicle-free zones, and erected concrete traffic barriers. In Strasbourg, because it is so large, in addition to these measures, the tram which runs through the old town, has closed down the two tram stops in the city center, and also had soldiers doing bag and body searches at the perimeter of the old town, and all of the Christmas markets are located in the old town within this protected zone. Now that you’re not worrying about us any longer, I’ll get back to our day in Strasbourg.
As we drove toward the old city, we had the good fortune to spot a giant stork on the roof of one of the buildings. The storks are indigenous to this area, but almost stopped coming here as the area became more populated. Since the storks are a big part of the local history here (you see stork images on almost every tourist trinket you can imagine), the locals started feeding them to lure them back, and now they are so contented, they rarely ever migrate to Africa in the winter any more. I counted us lucky to have seen even one, though, because it is rare to see them once the weather gets cold.
As usual, when our busses reached the old town, we were met by our local guides, and then did a walking tour of the town. Today is fairly rainy, so I can tell I’m going to have to up my gluhwein purchases for Jim to keep him pliable and patient while I shop! Anyway, our sightseeing tour began again in the old part of town on a stream where the tanners plied their trade called Little France. Like in Colmar, this section started as one of the poorer sections of town, but I wouldn’t want to guess how much this real estate costs today. It was incredibly charming!
But first, we made a stop at the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Strasbourg. The exterior really is an architectural work of art! It is so ornate that it looks like a gingerbread confection.
We were fortunate to arrive early enough that we could actually see the inside of the Cathedral, which closes to the public so they can conduct paid tours later in the day. In addition to the soaring architecture, there are really spectacular stained glass windows in this church. An interesting story about those windows; as World War II approached, the parishioners of the Cathedral removed the windows to safeguard them. However, the Nazis found them and stole them. But in a scene straight out of the movies (The Monument Men, to be exact), the Americans located them in a salt mine in Germany and repatriated them so we could see them today. The other great feature about this church is that it has an astronomical clock, dating 1843, and not only has perpetual calendar, but also automata (mechanized characters), which strike the hours. We got to see it strike 11:00. Candidly, I thought this was going to be more noticeable, but it was fairly imperceptible. But now, let us shop!
There are not less than 11 separate Christmas markets here in Strasbourg! Our mission is to see each and every one of them. After walking through at least 4 or 5 of them, we were ready for some lunch (and to get out of the rain. We wandered down to Gutenberg Square where they have one of the lovely Christmas pyramids (the tall wooden mechanical displays), and we had lunch at the Gutenberg Haus restaurant right on the square, which was great!.