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!
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!.
Weirdly, as we are moving to the end of this fabulous voyage of discovery, we find ourselves in Poland, of all places. Today is our last port of call before our voyage ends in Stockholm on the 14th. This morning, though, as we pulled aside the dock in Szczecin, Poland, we are met by a very enthusiastic all female brass band playing a rousing rendition of “Smoke on the Water”. Wow!
We don’t technically have any activities scheduled until late this afternoon, when we have a tour of the town, followed by a visit to one of the local breweries. So Jim and I ate breakfast after the impromptu concert was over, and then took a shuttle bus to the center of town in order to walk around and explore on our own.
Upon arrival in the city center, we received a great map of the chief historical and architectural sites with numbers corresponding to numbers painted on the sidewalk in front of each site, all linked by a painted path to follow. Easy Peasy! However, after we saw two or three stops, it appeared they were ALL churches. But being the mission-oriented Gringos that we are (and since Jim was equipped with a map) we continued to finish all the stops. The final count was something like 14 churches, 1 brewery, a lone palace, and a partial relic of the city wall.
The town of Szczecin was originally founded in the 8th Century as a Slavic Pomeranian outpost, but control over the area shifted many times over the years. It’s position near the Baltic Sea and the border of Germany on the River Oder meant it developed early on a trading center. In fact, sometime in the 13th Century, the town became part of the powerful Hanseatic League of Germanic traders. In the 1600s, control of the state passed to Sweden from Germany. In 1720, control of the region fell into the hands of the Kingdom of Prussia, and became known as the Province of Pomerania. During the late 19th Century, the city became a major industrial town and port for the city of Berlin. It wasn’t until 1945 that control of the area was returned to Poland. From the docks in the port, we can see that Szczecin is still a major industrial port with blocks of raw aluminum lining the docks.
While it was good to have accomplished our mission, we also decided that we had seen enough of Szczecin and returned to the ship for our final sail away.
In two days, we will be docking in Stockholm, which is where Jim and I will leave the ship. Although our journey will continue by train to Gothenburg to see our many cousins there, I’m not planning to blog any more on the trip because we’ll be having too much fun with family. Until our next adventure, we wish you all the best!
After a very rough and windy sail last night, we made in port this morning in Helsingborg, Sweden. The winds are still so strong that the Captain had a very big struggle just to get the ship docked! Helsingborg lies just two miles across the Øresund strait from Denmark. When the weather is clear, you can actually see Hamlet’s castle, Kronborg, across the strait.
Our explorations of the day will take us out into the Swedish countryside. We plan to take in morning coffee (the Swedish call this custom fika), and then we will drive out to a coastal area called Kullaberg to see a natural preserve in that area.
As we drive along, we are still dodging rain as we take to the country roads. We can immediately see some differences from the Norwegian architecture. For one thing, many of the older buildings are made out of stone. Further, instead of being painted white, most of the wooden houses were painted yellow, blue or red, which was a cheery relief on a drizzly day like today!
Our first stop was about 45 minutes outside of the Helsingborg city center (which is the fourth largest metropolitan area in Sweden), at the farm converted into a coffee shop and bakery called Flickorna Lundberg. The current owner and operator of the farm met us at the bus, and he had a charming story to tell once he guided us into the greenhouse coffee room. Apparently, early in the last century, his mother was one of six daughters in her family when their father, who owned the farm, and told them that he was in danger of losing the farm because he couldn’t make the payments on it. The girls got together and came up with a plan to save the farm. Since all the girls were very good pastry chefs and since the farm grew many wonderful fruits and dairy products that could be showcased if they ran a bakery coffee shop, the sisters proposed starting that business. Now, nearly a century later, our host is running the business with his daughters, and his mother still lives in a charming cottage on the farm. Along the way, the coffee shop became semi-famous, as Crown Prince Gustav Adolf (who later became King) discovered their wonderful pastries and patronized their shop regularly. History lesson over, we tucked into some really fabulous flaky pasties and cookies, and then wandered outside to explore the gardens.
Our next stop was at the Brunnby Kyrka (Brunnby Church), which was originally built in 12th Century, and then reconstructed in the 15th Century. Like most Swedish country churches, it has a very plain white exterior, but inside it features a barrel stave ceiling. Also of note is that walls of the church were painted with frescoes painted by the “Helsingborg Master” (please don’t ask me who that was!) in about 1450 A.D.
Sadly, the frescoes were whitewashed after Reformation, but they were later uncovered in the 20th Century.
From Brunnby, we drove on to the coastal area of Kullaberg. This seaside community is a favorite vacation spot for the local Swedes, and many from the Helsingborg area own summer houses here. By this time, however, summer is officially over, and the town looked pretty sleepy and deserted.
The main object of our visit, however, is the Kyllaberg National Preserve, a wild cliff side area just outside of the town. We were happy to see that the rain had passed on by this time and we got out of the bus to explore the preserve. We climbed up to the light house to take advantage of the great views, and to visit the the small museum there. Frankly, the wind was so chill out on this rocky peninsula (which lies to the northwest of Helsingborg) that we were happy to go into the museum just to warm up.
Another cup of kaffe would have been great right about this time, but the café at the Reserve was closed for the winter. Oh, well, back to the ship!
Possibly the best part of the day was our passage down the Øresund Strait. We joined our new friends Marty and Bob up on the aft deck fortunately equipped with heat lamps, comfy chairs and wool blankets for the sail away. Not only were we able to see the Kronborg Castle across the Strait (at least with my telephoto lens), but as we drew near to Copenhagen, we could see the city clearly. Jim and I will return here next week when we visit our cousins in Gothenburg. Probably the coolest thing we saw, though, were the wind turbines situated in the shallow waters of the Strait. From the location of our ship, you could see the cars driving on the bridge connecting Malmo, Sweden to Copenhagen, including the place where the bridge becomes a tunnel and dives under the sea. From where we were standing on deck, it looked like the cars were just disappearing under the waves! If that weren’t exciting enough, the flight path for the Copenhagen airport had one plane after another flying right over us as they came in on final approach. Wow!
With that, we went down to dinner. Tomorrow we will land in Szczecin. Poland. Sweet Dreams!
Today we continued our journey down the west coast of Norway with a stop in Stavanger, located on the southwest coast of Norway. Stavanger is the third largest town in Norway, and is the center of the Norwegian oil production industry. In fact, there is even a museum all about the Norwegian petroleum industry right in the middle of town. Stavanger is also a university town and home to numerous artists and cultural events.
Our excursion today will take us outside the town a few miles to visit an Iron Age Farm, which has been excavated, and then on to the Ullanhaug viewpoint, before returning to town to walk among the picturesque 18th century wooden homes in the old city core. The Nordic Iron Age lasted from about 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. However, a huge plague hit southern Norway about 600 A.D, and vastly depopulated the farms in southern Norway. This left those areas open to resettlement by the Vikings. In fact, on the way to visit the farm, we passed by the huge Hafrsfjord, which was the site of the Hafrsfjord battle of 872 A.D. where Harald the Fair Haired prevailed. This was a big historical moment for Norway because it was the first time that Norway had been unified under one leader. There is a monument on the shore of the fjord commemorating Harald’s victory called the Statue of Three Swords (Sverd I fjell). Harald is also celebrated for winning the hand of Princess Gyda, who was notoriously picky. These stories are celebrated in the Icelandic Sagas.
The farm we visited was believed to have been used from about 350-550 AD. The farmers who lived there grew barley, sheep, cattle and chickens. Our guide for the tour was dressed in period costume and was very into her part, even though she was from Ireland! We went inside a long house and then walked around the farmlands. The farm burned down somewhere around 550 A.D., but was later inhabited by Vikings came, who arrived probably in the 8th or 9th Century. All that is left of their occupation is “long boat” graves they erected on the site of the previous farm buildings.
Next, we made a stop at the Ullanhaug viewpoint, which offers terrific views of both sides of the Stavanger peninsula, and all the way out to the North Sea.
Finally, we spent some time exploring the old historic core of Stavanger, where we admired the lovely old wooden homes, all painted white. Then we had an early sail away because we have to get all the way around the tip of Norway, past the west coast of Sweden and up to Oslo for our stop tomorrow. Once again, it was a lovely afternoon for a sail away!