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!
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.
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!.
Today we’re doing a deep dive into the Alsatian region of France. Our explorations today will take us both to the small town of Riquewihr, and to the third largest town in Alsace, Colmar. Both are deep in the heart of the Alsatian wine growing region, which is France’s third largest.
Our boat is docked on the German side of the Rhine, in the German port of Breisach. However, shortly after boarding our busses, we are in France, and headed to Riquewihr. I’d like to tell you there’s a bunch of historical significance to this stop, but the main purpose of this trip is to experience the Christmas markets that fill these small towns.
From a historical perspective, it’s probably enough that you know that this region has a dual identity, due in large part to this area trading ownership between Germany and France for about the last thousand years. Many of the inhabitants speak both French and German fluently, and most of the menus and and many street signs are in both French and German. The culinary tradition is also a happy mixture between both countries. In addition to the viniculture, local farms raise pigs, sheep, cows and goats, with the expected abundance of meat and dairy offerings. One of the best local dishes is a very thin Alsatian flatbread pizza called tarte de flambé which features crème fraiche, sautéed onion, bacon tidbits and grated Emmenthaler cheese. The local wine varietals tend toward more Germanic grapes such as Riesling (which is very dry), Gerwertztraminer, Müller Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner.
After a brief orientation walk through the very small town, we were turned loose to shop. Knowing I had to keep Jim in a good mood, I made sure that our first stop was at a stall selling hot mulled wine. His mood was further improved by all the free samples of cookies and gingerbread (pain d’epice) on offer.
The town was really cute with all these half-timbered houses dating back to the medieval period. Also, the little stands for the Christmas market were stashed in alleyways and along the main street, with everything being decorated to the Nth degree. The Christmas stalls are about divided in half between those selling foodstuffs and drinks, and those selling Christmas crafts. In this region, some of the most popular crafts are blown glass Christmas ornaments, carved wooden ornaments and nativity scenes, leather goods, and pottery.
After we covered about half the market, Jim and I had a very good lunch in a traditional Alsatian restaurant or (Vin Stube). I tried the tarte de flambé, while Jim and a meal with Pork sausages and ham paired with sauerkraut (choucroute), and we both had the local Riesling wine, which is very crisp and dry. Thus fortified, we finished shopping the market (and drinking gluhwein) and then loaded the bus for our next destination, Colmar.
Colmar is a much larger town than Riquewihr, but it also is predominantly a medieval town, although it was first established during the Roman empire. Many travel resources consider Colmar the most beautiful medieval town in France, and some would say, in Europe. By the time we arrived, it had gotten quite a bit colder, and we met our local guide for a walking tour of the town. Colmar is also famous as being the birthplace of Auguste Bartoldi, the man which designed the Statue of Liberty. In fact, The town has its own Bartoldi museum, and smaller scale model of the Statue of Liberty, and historical monument markers on the sidewalks imprinted with the head of the Statue of Liberty.
Scattered all over the old section of town, starting in the riverfront area known as Little Venice where the tanners originally plied their trade, there are multiple different Christmas market areas. A couple of these areas even have merry-go-rounds and little rides for the kids. One thing Jim and I have noticed is that these markets exist largely to cater to local families, and French and German tourists. You do not hear hardly any English spoken here, to the point that most of the shop keepers in the markets have very limited English skills, although they are friendly. Nonetheless, it does not seem to be impairing Jim’s ability to order Gluhwein!
The buildings in this town are just crazy cute on their own, and over the top cute, decorated as they are for Christmas! One other funny thing that strikes us is that there are Christmas carols playing almost everywhere, but they are all in English. Go figure! The old customs house is an especially handsome building, and there is a large local specialty artisans’ market located inside and next door in a church. There is even a nativity scene with live farm animals outside. I had shopped Jim into the ground by this time, so we trooped back to the bus for the ride home. Tomorrow, we visit the capital of the Alsace region, Strasbourg.
Jim and I landed in Zurich late yesterday afternoon, and arrived in Basel after dark. The city sits on the River Rhine, and our hotel, Les Troix Roi, is right on the water. It was spitting rain as we arrived and a lovely 57 degrees! Gosh, I’m so happy to be somewhere cool after all our Southern California heat! It was 94 degrees in Long Beach on Thanksgiving Day, and that’s just too hot to tolerate, particularly when we drove to the airport lugging my down coat!
Our hotel is one of those lovely old European institutions (nicely upgraded) which was built about 300 years ago. They had just finished decorating for Christmas when we arrived, and there were Christmas trees and evergreen swags everywhere. By today, the whole place is smelling like a forest. Yum!
We took a brief walk around our hotel and up to the Münsterplatz in the old part of town to see our first Christmas market. There are all these cute little stands that look like Alpine warming huts, and every third stand is selling glühwein, the quintessential holiday drink of hot mulled wine. It comes in a cute little decorated ceramic boot, which you can keep or turn back in for your deposit. We let them warm our hands (and our tummies) while we wandered around the market, but since it was really too wet for pictures, we wandered back to the hotel.
It’s raining again here today, but the Gringos were not deterred. Jim had planned a walking tour for us of most of the older part of town, including the other Christmas market we missed last night at Barfüsserplatz. On the way, we walked through the Marktplatz (market square) with its highly decorated Rathaus (town hall), and there was a farmers’ market going at full tilt.
Everywhere we walk, the streets are hung with holiday lights, which add a certain cheer to this gray day.
Soon we arrived at the Barfüsserplatz (named after bare-footed Franciscan monks) where the largest of Basel’s Christmas markets is located. The first thing we noticed was the huge wooden Christmas sculpture which looked like the little mechanical Christmas lights powered by candles(which we used to have until they caught the wood on fire one year). There were lots more stalls here than the market at Münsterplatz, selling everything from sausages to snowglobes. It smells marvelous here, with a mixture of Christmas greens, homemade candles, and melting cheese! Art glass, wood carvings and woven woolen products seem to be the most popular, but there were many other arts and crafts and millions of Christmas ornaments.
Jim and I then spent some time wandering around, and watched the river-powered ferry making its crossing, before we walked back to the hotel. We stopped back by the Christmas Market at the Münsterplatz now that we could see what we were doing, sampled some more glühwein, and ate a sausage.
Tomorrow, we board our ship, the MS Inspire, for our cruise up the Rhine, but tonight we’re going to hunt for an authentic fondue restaurant. Stay tuned for our next port of call in Strasbourg, France!