Thursday, May 29, 2014

Romantic Rhine

Last weekend, my husband and I got home from a week-long cruise down the Rhine from Basel (Switzerland) to Amsterdam. I had mild apprehensions about motion sickness, but the river was so smooth and the vessel so large that we couldn’t even tell when we were moving without looking out a window. The cabin, food, and service were excellent. I would happily take another trip like this if we could.

Some sights we experienced:

The Mouse Tower of Bingen, a toll collection structure on an island in the river, where, according to legend, hordes of mice devoured Bishop Hatto in retaliation for his cruelty to the starving poor.

The Lorelei rock, which sits above the deepest, most narrow section of the Rhine. As we passed it, the riverboat’s PA system played a German song about Lorelei, the maiden who lures sailors onto the rocks. The nearest bend in the river is called the Cat’s Elbow, so the adjacent castle is nicknamed Cat’s Castle. The next one over is called the Mouse Castle, since their two lords were rivals.

Many “robber baron” castles can be seen from the river. They got that name by demanding tolls from passing ships and sometimes stretched chains across the water to force crafts to stop. The typical Rhine castle was built in the Middle Ages and destroyed by French monarch Louis XIV in 1689. The ruins of many such castles have been restored as historical monuments, museums, or hotels. We toured several castles and ate dinner in one.

We found the sheer age of so many buildings in this region mind-boggling. We grew up in a state where our alma mater, the College of William and Mary, founded in the late seventeenth century, counts as “old.” In Europe it would hardly rate a second glance in terms of antiquity.

Alsace, a prime wine-producing area, has shifted back and forth between France and Germany several times during its history, as our guides described on the bus excursions. We enjoyed a couple of wine tastings. One of them took place at a winery that sells its entire output in and around the town where it’s made. So no matter how much we liked those wines, we couldn’t get them back home!

During our cruise we passed a tiny village, comprising only a few houses, where the church and the tavern are attached to each other, with the church accessible only by walking through the tavern. The mayor also serves as both tavern-keeper and minister.

In Amsterdam we took a canal boat tour. Houseboats, once a cheap alternative to very expensive real estate, have become so fashionable that they’re now fabulously expensive, too. Bicycles dominate the streets there. In the Netherlands, bikes far outnumber cars, and in fact Amsterdam has more bikes than people. Our guide warned us to take care when walking in or near bike lanes, because the cyclists stop for nothing.

From our canal boat we glimpsed the Anne Frank house but had no opportunity to visit it. The guide mentioned that the queue to enter looked rather short—only about an hour’s wait. And this was on a weekday morning.

A museum tour exposed us to works of Renaissance Dutch artists such as Rembrandt, including his masterpiece “The Night Watch.” Modern-day cleaning of that painting has revealed that it doesn’t portray a night scene after all—it was just dark from age! Since I’ve never studied art history, everything the guide told us was new to me, and I wish we could have stayed longer.

We had the opportunity to hear two lectures with slides on the ship, one on German composers associated with the river and the other on World War I. One night a performance of instrumental music was presented, and at the conclusion of the cruise the staff put on a variety show with funny skits and songs.

I found it interesting that every city we visited had numerous signs in English as well as the local languages. Moreover, because Europeans regularly learn multiple languages, everyone seemed to speak at least a little English. Our monolingual American culture is an oddity in that respect.

We also saw many examples of what we might call cultural or economic imperialism, Starbucks and McDonald’s everywhere. Author Anne Tyler’s “Accidental Tourist,” who wrote travel books for people who hate to leave home, would have been quite comfortable in the major cities of Germany. And the stereotype of order and tidiness contains truth: Germany and Holland impressed me as the Land of Clean Restrooms.

This was my first trip to Germany. My husband had visited before, but in different regions of the country (way back when it was two countries). Both of us had German ancestors in the nineteenth century. We’d love to return someday for an exploration of the parts we missed.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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