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Cruising from Vienna to Amsterdam

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

Students crowd every street in Heidelberg. Of the 140,000 population of the city, 30,000 are students. Bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional car, all compete for space in the narrow cobblestone streets. Temperatures were high the day we visited. We looked over the rows of umbrella-shaded tables in the attractive main squares and along most streets, many of which afforded excellent views of the castle, but decided to settle for the shaded interior of a pub where we could settle down with a cold local brew. Afterwards, we located our bus and drove to Offenbach to await our ship. It was a thrill to see River Melody approach and gave us our first opportunity to photograph our ship as it sailed.

We docked in Mainz across from the Electoral Palace where seven electors once governed the city. Nearby, was the starkly modern city hall, designed by a Danish architect and built with Danish marble. In the front is a modern stainless steel sculpture (a bit reminiscent of a slinky toy) designed by a Spaniard. The city may be ancient, but it is part of the new Germany and a major participant in the European Common Market. The day we visited, the whole of the waterfront area was being set up for a community fair. Had we arrived a few days later, we might have been lost in the crowds.

Somehow, Mainz appeared more ornate than other towns. Its buildings appeared to have more elaborate timber patterns on their walls. The Mainz cathedral (Dom), most of which was completed in 1239, has an impressive size and stateliness that surpassed other cathedrals we had seen. The cathedral surrounds a peaceful central fountain and garden.

You wouldn't want to visit Mainz without walking to two other very special sites. The first is the Gutenberg Museum that displays printing presses and printed bibles made by Johannes Gutenberg. His invention of uniform metal molds for letters made it possible to produce error-free repeatable text and made printed Bibles and other texts available to the general public.

Mainz also takes pride in St, Stephan's Church. Russian artist Marc Chagall created the beautiful, luminous stained glass windows over the chancel. He was 90 years old when he accomplished these depictions of old testament stories.

In the evening, we joined an optional excursion to Rudesheim, the center of Germany's Rhine Valley wine production. En route we stopped at a park high above the Rhine river where we had a magnificent view of Rudeshein and Bingen, the town opposite on this wide mid-point in the river. Both towns were the anchorage for many ships. Our tour of Rudeshein included a stop at a winery as well as dinner and dancing at a local restaurant. Sadly, we lacked time for the Wine Museum in Bromserburg Castle, the Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments or the Museum of Torture - all interesting attractions in the town.

We were bused first to the Peter Ohlig winery where we toured the winery and enjoyed some fine white Riesling. Of course, Herr Ohlig was more than pleased to sell some of his fine wines. My wife and I selected a bottle of very pleasant Pinot Noir, two wine glasses with the Peter Ohlig imprimatur and an ornate corkscrew for use on River Melody. We were then bused to the main street of Rudesheim, which featured old stone towers, ornate buildings and a long view of the Rhine River, although partially blocked by a rail line. We briefly explored some stores on the main street, then wandered up the Drosselgasse, Rudesheim's most famous street (actually a narrow lane packed with wine bars, cafes and restaurants). Before entering the Lindewirt restaurant, we stopped at the Rudesheimer Hofengarten, a motel whose most popular units are converted wine barrels with single beds on either side of a center door and a bathroom to the rear. Fascinating. These cramped units rent for more than the larger standard motel rooms but are very popular. Our restaurant served more wine (a bit more than we needed for one evening) and typical German food. A band entertained us and encouraged us to the dance floor with polkas and other tunes. Towards the end of the dinner we darted out to the street to witness the Glockenspiel and carillon bells as they performed on the hour.

Our ship departed Mainz at 6 a.m. and cruised towards Koblenz. We passed Lorelei, a large rock rising 440 feet above the river. As in Greek mythology, the German's have a legend of Lorelei, a siren who sang sweet songs to entice sailors to their death against the reef below the rock. As we neared the rock, a crew member, wearing a shabby blonde wig, entertained us by playing the role of Lorelei. Happily, his less than alluring appearance and the crystal clear weather kept us from colliding with the reef. All along this stretch of the river we saw castles and towers, some of incredible beauty. There were so many to photograph that I began to be choosy about which were worth a picture.

Koblenz, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, became a city in the 13th century and later became a refuge during the French revolution. As we entered the harbor, mid-morning, to dock on the Moselle side, we viewed the German Corner that features a huge statue of William I on horseback. We began with a walking tour of the old city. Across from our dock site was the Elector's Palace built in 1786 as a residence for the Archbishop of Trier.

Center city is dominated by the spires of the Church of Our Lady. We chose to view only the outside of the church, having already seen so many grand churches and cathedrals on this trip. Instead, we headed for the pedestrian zone of the old city. The colorful old buildings and residences of Koblenz proved equal in beauty to any we had seen previously. We were especially amused by the humor shown in many of the statues (a short, stubby policeman standing by a woman selling cabbages and fruit; a girl chasing geese through a fountain; a young drummer boy; and a boy on a pedestal who would periodically surprise and dampen tourists by shooting a spray of water from his mouth). One colorful three-story building had a beautiful painted clock high in a tower. Beneath the clock was a face whose eyes shifted from side to side at regular intervals. In one busy intersection in the pedestrian zone, the four corners are dominated by historic residences that have elaborate overhanging oriel windows - each worth a photograph. At the end of our walking tour, my wife and I toured the Ludwig Museum of modern art -- worth a stop.

Months before our trip, at a memorial service for a friend, we met our friend's brother, Dieter, who had flown in from Koblenz. When he learned that we would be stopping in Koblenz, he handed us his card and invited us to give him a call before we arrived. Fortunately, he was available. Dieter worked for many years as an attorney in the German defense department's military procurement section. After reaching the compulsory retirement age, he "retired" to a legal practice. Dieter picked us up by our ship in his new BMW 5 series sedan, informing us that it had a twin turbine diesel rated at 300 horsepower and demonstrating its incredible acceleration with pedal-to-the-metal bursts of speed. "My wife doesn't like it when I do that" he said, with a broad smile.

Dieter's wife, Marianne, greeted us at their home with coffee and an irresistible homemade cheesecake. Their beautifully furnished home appeared to have been converted from apartments. Its four stories contained no less than three kitchens and decks on each floor looking out over well-tended gardens in the back yard. After we visited for a while, they invited us to join them for a drive. We drove first to the Old Fortress perched high above the south bank of the Moselle river and offering a full view of Koblenz. The fortress, begun in the 13th century, is massive. Within the fortress is a simple memorial (a white arched doorway with iron cross above and flower garden in front) memorializing German soldiers lost in WWI and WWII. We finished the drive with a stop at a small white stucco church in the outskirts of Koblenz where Dieter's cousin had been wed. Its interior featured incredibly beautiful wood arches and paintings. The well-preserved beauty of Germany's churches and cathedrals is owed in no small part to a national tax that funds their maintenance.

The next morning, as we sailed towards Cologne, we were treated to a slide show and discussion of the famous Cologne Cathedral. There is evidence that allied forces had orders to avoid damaging this beautiful structure, which was spared, although bombs leveled most of the city. It is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and the most visited building in Germany, boasting beautiful stained glass windows, an ornate gold shrine on its elaborate altar, and intricate detail common to 14th century Gothic churches. Two large spires and elaborate stone carvings of gargoyles, wild animals and saints dominate its exterior. Scaffolding covered major parts of the exterior. We were told that every piece of the spires has had to be replaced within the last 100 years.

As we walked towards the cathedral, up long stone walkways, we were amused to see a large skin-tone statue of David prominently displayed in the midst of our view of the cathedral. The statue belonged to the Ludwig Museum of modern art. Both the Ludwig Museum and Roman-German Museum are adjacent to the Cologne Cathedral. All three structures are within a short distance of the Cologne railroad station. After viewing the cathedral, we visited the Roman-German Museum's extensive display of well-preserved Roman artifacts and statues and a magnificent mosaic floor transported from the ruins of a Roman villa. Adjacent to the museum is part of an old Roman road once located outside a 42,000 square foot Roman house. A few blocks away, on Kleine Budengasse, is a vaulted sewer system that served the city in Roman times. The now dry and clean subterranean system can be toured for 2.5 euros. Also nearby are the new and old city halls, the newer building having been located on the former site of the Roman Praetorium (seat of the imperial governor). Not far from the old city hall is the ruin of an old synagogue and the remains of a Jewish ritual bath (now preserved under a glass pyramid).

Next, we viewed the four floors of modern art displayed in the Ludwig Museum On the lower floor was an extensive collection of American abstract artists, possibly on loan. Other floors contained paintings by Picasso, Kirschner, Dali, and others. Our visit to the museums had eaten up much of our day. Although there was much more to see in Cologne, we had to return to the ship to continue on to Amsterdam.

Our ship docked three blocks from Amsterdam's rail station and close to the replicated three-masted sailing ship, the "Amsterdam." The nearby shipping museum was closed for two years of renovation. Our first impression of the city was the sea of steeples and a single windmill. We walked a short distance to board a canal boat for a delightful tour of the city's canals. With 1281 bridges connecting 90 islands, it is easy to see why Amsterdam is referred to as "the Venice of the north." Having visited Amsterdam many years ago, my first surprise was the number of houseboats anchored in the canals. The city's housing shortage has greatly increased their number! The many bridges over the canals, and bikes lined up on the bridges and along the parallel streets, please the eye. The tall, narrow, wall-to-wall houses have a beauty and fascination all their own. I only wish we had happened upon someone delivering furniture into a house by means of the loading hooks atop each house. The narrowness of the houses makes it impossible to move large items of furniture to upper floors by way of the narrow staircases.

After our canal boat tour, we were provided with bus transportation to the vicinity of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Having time for one, not both, we chose the smaller Van Gogh Museum. I had been in the Rijksmuseum many years ago but had never seen the Van Gogh Museum. We also had been informed that the display at the Rijksmuseum had been reduced because of remodeling; however, friends who attended the Rijksmuseum were very pleased with the display. Because it was a Saturday in June, the Van Gogh Museum was extremely crowded. The individual paintings and sketches were pleasing once we found a vantage point from which to view them. Among the Van Gogh masterpieces on display were Wheatfields with Crows, Irises, and numerous self-portraits. Also exhibited were works by Gaugin, Toulouse-Latrec and Millet. Our return bus trip took us past the National Palace -- a rather unspectacular structure - and a shopping center with spires, looking every bit like a palace. Go figure!

After lunch on the River Melody we walked to the rail station where we boarded a streetcar and headed to the Anne Frank house and museum. The crowd lined up to enter was at least a block long; but, the line moved fairly quickly. One thing we learned in line was the importance of watching for bike riders rushing down the sidewalk with little regard for the safety of pedestrians. We saw many near misses. The Anne Frank house and museum was impressive and saddening, reminding us of the best and worst extremes of humanity. We climbed through four stories of narrow rooms that had hidden the Franks and another family behind what had been a warehouse. The displays included pictures of the era, including the roundup of Jewish families and quotes from Anne Frank's diaries. The diaries were also on display in glass cases. Being there was an emotional experience.

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