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Cruising from Vienna to Amsterdam

Author: Bob W. (More Trip Reviews by Bob W.)
Date of Trip: June 2007

In Bierberbach, which we judged to be a middle to upper-middle income community, we observed many houses with solar panels. Most vehicles we saw appeared to be fuel-efficient models. Notably absent were SUV-sized vehicles, although larger BMW and Mercedes sedans were common. Germans appear to be environmentally aware - prompted by numerous government laws and regulations. We were told spraying lawns with insecticides is forbidden. Instead, natural fertilizer and hand weeding are used to achieve the beautiful lawns we observed. Even the riverside industrial areas we passed appeared to be clean, neat and carefully separated from housing.

Our next destination was Nuremberg. En route, on the Main-Danube Canal, around midnight, we reached the highest elevation on our trip. A marker beside the river identified the dividing point from which waters flow east to the Black Sea and West to the Atlantic Ocean. We celebrated with a champagne toast, made more memorable by lightning-lit skies in the distance. Our top deck had been lowered to accommodate low bridges, sometimes within a foot of the lowered deck. Even the captain's pilot room was lowered. It was fascinating to see a hatch open on the roof of the pilot room and to see the captain's head emerge for a visual sighting. As we cruised through the night, we would periodically hear the throbbing of the engines as we entered locks of the Main-Danube Canal. In all, we passed through 66 locks on this trip.

Most Americans know Nuremberg as the place where Nazi war criminals were tried by the allies. The city was heavily industrialized during WW II and was repeatedly and extensively bombed during World War II. In fact, 95% of the city was destroyed. Much of its historic areas have been carefully restored, including blocks of the 13th century city with its arched gates, towers and half-timbered houses. The city still contains reminders of Adolph Hitler's dreams of glory. We visited the Nazi party rally grounds and drove into the assembly area of the Nazi party hall that was modeled after the Roman Coliseum but on a 50% larger scale. Its granite façade and brick interior were designed to hold 50,000 people. In the face of wartime manpower shortages, the hall was never completed.

Near the Nazi party hall is Zeppelin Field, the location of Germanic Stadium, a place where massive rallies and torchlight parades were held. The stadium served as an Olympic site in 1936. 60,000 slabs of granite lined the "great road" into the Stadium to magnify the cadence of goose-stepping soldiers. The massive stone reviewing stand, with a dominant speaker's platform, still stands. In 1945, U.S. military forces blew up the huge Nazi swastika located above the stadium. The once flag-topped pillars around the field's perimeter were removed twenty years later. The area has now become a recreational area, including a lake with boats, skating ponds and biking paths. Nonetheless, this part of the city has the look of an older industrial and commercial area and appears poorer and less attractive than the wealthy river towns we had visited.

From Zeppelin Field we drove to the Palace of Justice, still a working courthouse, where top Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity. [The outset of the cold war ruled out Berlin as the trial site.] Courtroom 600, where the war crimes trials were held, is still in daily use. Pictures of the trials line the walls of nearby hallways and staircases. Courtroom 600 appears much different now. For the war trials, the back wall had been removed and a balcony built to accommodate great numbers of reporters, lawyers and witnesses. The docks for prisoners were then accessed directly from a secure bank of elevators. Bulletproof glass had been installed in the windows and sharpshooters had been positioned around the facility.

Sitting in courtroom 600, we were given an informative lecture on the war crimes trials and their outcomes. This was the first time individuals had been tried for crimes sanctioned by a state. Incredibly, despite having four very different legal systems, the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union were able to agree to establish the primacy of the rule of law. Winston Churchill is said to have wanted the immediate execution of the top Nazi leaders. Stalin favored a quick show trial followed by executions. It was U.S. efforts that succeeded in transplanting American legal standards to the trials.

We drove by, but hadn't time to stop at, the old quarter of Nuremberg with its medieval half-timbered houses, steep slate roofs and cobblestone streets. When we stopped it was to explore the central market square. This attractive hotel and shopping area contains cobblestone streets, rivers, pedestrian bridges, gardens, sculptures and historic gothic churches. Fresh vegetables, fruits and food stands were lined up on the square under colorful red-and-white-striped tarps. Exploring the narrow streets, we located a shop that made lace items and purchased small gifts for family members and friends. At the 62-foot-high Schoner Brunnen fountain, a filigree masterpiece on the square, we followed the local custom and turned the fountain's brass ring for good luck. At noon, we stopped in front of the large church on the square to hear the bells and watch the moving figures of the glockenspiel located high on the steeple. [Wish I could remember the name of the church!]

The next morning, we went ashore in Bamburg for a walking tour. This city, one of Germany's most beautiful, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 2,000 buildings listed as historical monuments. Its old city center is said to have Europe's largest existing group of historical buildings. Unlike Nuremberg, Bamberg was largely intact at war's end. Its architecture reflects 1,000 years of building, including Romanesque, gothic, Renaissance, baroque and more modern designs. Ornate mansions, palaces and churches line its narrow cobblestone streets.

Although it certainly is not the grandest cathedral in the city and lacks a steeple or dome, we liked the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. George with its Romanesque stone-arched exterior and bright white interior embellished in gold gild, pink marble and elaborate statuary. The cathedral sits on a busy market square filled with commercial stands under colorful tarps. Nearby, situated on a bridge that straddles the River Stegnitz, is the city hall, which is timbered on one end and painted with colorful murals on the other. In the middle is a stone archway that permits pedestrian travel across the bridge. The day we were there, a flea market was spread the length of the bridge. Atop a nearby hill, in the shadow of the twin towers of the city's largest cathedral and the new and old Prince-Bishop residences, we stopped to admire a large rose garden adorned with statues, then quenched our thirst with Rauchbier (a local smoked beer) at a street side pub. We returned to our ship for lunch and a leisurely cruise to Wurzburg.

We arrived in Wurzburg, on the Main River, at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, greeted by a breath-taking view of the five onion-domes of the Kappele chapel on Nikolausberg Hill, the fortress-like Marienberg castle, and hillside grape vineyards -- all on the hill across from our dock. After breakfast, we were bused to Wurzburg's massive Prince-Bishop's Residenz -- said to be the finest baroque palace built in Bavaria. Everything about this building is grand in scale. The entry hall and grand staircase, sheltered by a soaring, unsupported vault, withstood the allied bombing that destroyed much of Wurzburg. Huge entry doors permitted guests' horses and carriages to be driven directly into the entry hall through one door and to exit through another. Everything about the Residenz is elaborate and bespeaks the power and wealth of one who served as both ruler and top ecclesiastic official. The interior is impressive in its size and embellishment. The exterior bespeaks power and wealth but is not particularly beautiful except for the park-like gardens, fountain and sculptures behind the building.

Wurzburg is festooned with impressive churches. In fact, there are 14 churches and cathedrals in the center of this city of 130,000. The Romanesque cathedral and basilica, built between the 12th and 14th centuries is filled with elaborate 17th century baroque stucco and ornamentation, and contains 35 tombs of the prince bishops. We wandered down a commercial street, nearly deserted on this Sunday morning, to walk over the Old Bridge, decorated with statues. Next stop was an outdoor café that seemed an ideal place to rest and enjoy some coffee. We passed interesting shops (closed on Sunday) as we walked back to our ship. Only after our lunch en board did we realize that one of our waterproof jackets had been left behind, either at the café or Prince-Bishop's Residenz. We walked back to the café and contacted the Residenz, but the jacket was never recovered. C'est la vie!

We took an optional afternoon tour of Rothenburg, a charming and beautifully preserved medieval town on the Tauber River. Its intact defensive towers, gateways and walls date from the 14th century. Many of its buildings and half-timbered residences are said to date from the 12th century. Wooden stairs to the top of the walls permitted us to walk along the fortifications for an elevated look at the town. For the most commanding views, we climbed the tower atop the massive city hall, located on the main square. The lookout at the top - a great place for photographs -- is reached by ascending 215 steep and narrow steps.

Despite crowds of tourists in the main squares and thoroughfares, Rothenburg was a very special place. In addition to the picturesque architecture, historic buildings and cobblestone streets, we especially enjoyed wandering through the Christmas market and museum - Kaethe Wolfahrt - on the main square. The museum displays holiday decoration themes from the 17th century on. For sale there are the world's largest selection of German Christmas decorations. Away from the busier areas, we discovered more lightly traveled streets with bell towers, historic buildings and a mix of modern shops. We ended our visit with a horse and carriage ride that took us through the old town and a nearby residential area. Fun, but you can quickly and easily see all of the same sights on foot. There was a little added excitement when an impatient auto driver decided to pass us, narrowly missing a collision with our horse, as our driver began a left turn.

En route to our next port, Wertheim, we had a demonstration of glass blowing by a local artisan. Glasswork from this region, including crystal, is highly acclaimed. We arrived in Wertheim mid-day and enjoyed a walking tour of this attractive 16th century market town situated at the meeting of the Main and Tauber rivers. The market square included all kinds of shops, including glass shops and clothing stores. During one brief downpour, we stepped into a shoe store where my wife was happy to spot and purchase an attractive and supportive pair of shoes. [That's why we always have a trip expense category labeled "miscellaneous."]

In Wertheim, there are some spots you shouldn't miss. A short climb up a roadway and pathway takes you to the castle ruins that overlook the town. The ruins are extensive and interesting. Anywhere on the site will provide a nice view of the town and the Main River. You can also climb the castle's tower for an even higher vantage point. We were reminded of illustrations from a children's fairytale with views of tall towers, church spires, cobblestone and brick streets and squares, castle ruins and slate roof houses hundreds of years old. In town, we visited a sizeable and attractive Lutheran church. Inside, a large and elaborate tomb in front of the altar held the remains of the local Duke and Dutchess. We regretted not having an opportunity to hear the large and powerful pipe organ in the rear of the church.

We were docked in Wertheim overnight, giving us the chance to wander through the town after hours when all was quiet. We crossed a walk bridge over the Tauber River and followed a path along the river. Housing on the far side of the river was more modern than that within the old market area - less historic but still attractive. We crossed a second bridge to return to the old town. The pathway from the bridge continued behind the town hall where we discovered a large and magnificent rose garden with dozens of varieties and colors of roses. Wertheim, like Passau, has had a history of major floods. A wall by the town hall bears markings of past flood levels. The highest mark (10' to 12' above ground level) represents a flood in 1509. The most recent high water mark was dated 2002. Back on the ship, we were delighted when a convoy of swans glided past our cabin window. They were among dozens along the shore near our ship and appear to be a familiar sight in Germany.

The next morning, after a few hours of early cruising, we disembarked in Miltenberg to join a full-day excursion to Heidelberg. Buses took us through magnificent forested areas. Our tour of Heidelberg began with a stop at the ruins of the city's 15th century Hohenburg castle, which has commanding views of the city straddling the River Neckar. The castle, the largest castle ruin in Germany, was the setting for the opera The Student Prince. Initial construction at its location dated to 1275; but, the current structure was built and rebuilt through the 17th century and is a mixture of architectural styles. Within the intact portions of the ruins are housed an extensive apothecary museum and the great Heidelberg Tun - a wine barrel with a 58,124 gallon capacity! Not far from the castle is the turreted hillside home once owned by Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect.

After our visit to the castle, we drove into town for a walking tour and lunch at the Schnookelach Restaurant, said to be the oldest haunt of Heidelberg University students. During lunch, we were royally entertained by piano and accordion players and with a brief skit based on The Student Prince. After lunch, we continued a walking tour, then wandered off on our own to explore the city. Our scheduled stops include the old university assembly hall, once used for classes at Heidelberg University. Most of the campus has been relocated out of the city center. We also climbed up several flights to the student prison, used between 1712 and 1914 to house students being held for a few days for offenses such as fencing duels, drunkenness, brawling and practical jokes. Imprisoned students used candles and watercolors on the walls to draw pictures of themselves in profile wearing their fraternity uniforms. The graffiti has been well preserved.

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