Category Archives: Local Customs

Hooray for Regensburg!

December 5, 2017:

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.

Medieval stone bridge, built from 1135-46
Remains of Roman fort
The gate into the old Roman fort- the Porta Praetoria

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.


Gothic Cathedral of St. Peter built in 1275-1634


Narrow alleys in the old town
Example of a merchant’s tower
View of the Rathaus (City Hall)


City Hall, which was also the seat of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire from 1663-1806

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.

University student rooms above the courtyardDuring medieval times, wealthy families competed with each other to build tallest tower. Often, the towers were left empty; their sole function being the visual statement of the family’s wealth. In 1260, the Goldener Turm (golden tower) was built on Wahlenstraße. Old Town dates back to 13th Century. The old town is still a crazy warren of little tiny streets, often accessed by alleyways snaking underneath the buildings. But the interesting thing is that many of these old mansion houses have immense interior courtyards. A couple of them are in buildings now owned by the government and they have been turned into public spaces, so you can actually see the courtyards, and imagine how these wealthy merchants must have lived! Town Hall (Rathaus) was the site of the Imperial Diet from 1663 to 1806


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. Regensberg-161

Entrance to the Thurn and Taxis Palace

Christmas market on the grounds

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!



I really wanted this reindeer hat, but Jim talked me out of it!


Ode to Cologne

Dec. 2, 2017:


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!


First views of the Cologne Cathedral

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.

Cologne-46We 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.

View of the the Great Church of St. Martin from the waterfront area near the Cathedral
Young men dressed for the season ready to experience the Christmas markets
Church of St.Martin’s, a soldier saint who shared his cloak with a poor beggar
Church of St. Martin


Entrance to one of the many Christmas markets in Cologne
Random rude architecture-the “rain shitter”


The Town Hall (Rathaus)

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.

One entrance to the the Christmas market surrounding the Cathedral


Front entrance of the Cathedral


Cathedral Great Hall


The golden cask holding the relics of the three Magi


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!


Ringing In Rüdesheim

Dec. 1, 2017:

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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.

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Coming into Rudesheim

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.

The building housing Siegfried’s Musical Cabinet Museum and its merry-go-round
Our Tour Directors
The petting zoo at Sigfried’s

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.



FF Finnish Sami man in traditional dress– they had a sale pavilion selling Finnish products

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).

Baden Baden

November 29, 2017:

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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.

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Friedrichsbad Spa

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.

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The Casino

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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.

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Superlative Strasbourg

November 28, 2017:


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.

The medieval siege towers at the center of town
Little France

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.Strasbourg-22

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!


The Little France Christmas market
Kleber Square
Notre Dame Cathedral and the Christmas market surrounding it

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.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Strasbourg

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!



The astronomical clock


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!.



The Christmas market by Little France


Gutenberg Square
The Christmas Pyramid near Gutenberg Square
and another Christmas Market-Christkindelsmarkt



Insatiable for Alsace

Nov. 27, 2017:

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.Riquewihr-4

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.

Glass Ornaments


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.

Buche de Noel (Christmas cakes)
Vin Chaud (or Glühwein)

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.

Colored marzipan and other candies and fruits




Gingerbreadmen-shaped chocolates


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.



The Little France area of 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.



The Customs House Building (in the back)

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 Living Nativity Scene waiting for baby Jesus to be born


The Cathedral


All gingerbread, all the time

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.

Welcome to Basel!

Nov. 25, 2017:

Dear Peeps:

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.

The bridge next to our hotel over the Rhine
Christmas lights


The Christmas market at the Münsterplatz by night

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.


Jay: This is for you!


The Rathaus
Roasted chestnuts for sale

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.

The Münster (Cathedral)
The cloister in the Münster


Back at the Christmas Market at the Münsterplatz


Jim sampling a gluhwein


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!