Sunday, May 29, 2011

Regensburg - and Low Water!

On Friday May 27, 2011, we docked in Regensburg (pronounced “Ragensburg”), Germany, along the Main River. This day was interesting, and also eventful in the life of our cruise.

As we made our way down the Rhine River a few days before, we knew that low river levels might cause delays. We had spectacular weather up through May 26, the day we arrived in Regensburg. However, our cruise director warned us that water levels were low in this area of the Main, and we expected that things might change.

I started the day joining an optional tour to the Danube Gorge and Weltenburg Abbey, about 30 minutes from where the boat stopped to let us off. The boat then went on down the river a short way and docked a few hundred feet from the center of the old part of town. Brian slept in this morning.

Our trip to the Abbey took us through beautiful countryside, and along a part of the Danube where we visited a small abbey located on the edge of the river. Historically, this part of the river has flooded, and we could see height marks along the few structures, the stone mountainside, and the abbey, as we took a short walk up the road from our bus. Some of these buildings were flooded well past the level of their doors and first floors, as recently as 1999. On our walk to the Abbey, we passed a monument in commemoration of American soldiers who drowned in the river when their pulley used for transporting supplies from one side of the river to the other broke. Although the residents in the area were able to save most of the soldiers, three perished, and this monument honors them.

This abbey is known for its brewery. The dozen or so Benedictine monks that still live there run the brewery and also raise pigs (no where within our sight!) to eat the leftover hops from the beer. The small church was beautiful inside, with frescoes, carved statuary, gold leaf decorations, and a massive altar depicting a horseman and saints.


From there we walked along the river a few hundred meters and caught a ferry boat which traveled down the Danube Gorge. This area was beautiful, but because the water was relatively low, probably not as impressive as it might have been. Nevertheless, the high mountains bordering this narrow portion of the river were impressive, and the weather was warm and perfect for a 25 minute trip back to where our bus was waiting.

We returned to the ship for lunch, which today was on the deck – a grill of traditional Bavarian sausages, cabbage salad, and, of course, ice cream for dessert. The weather was perfect for lunch on the deck.

Before leaving for our afternoon city walk, we were all called into the large lounge, were our cruise director Andreijz had an important announcement. The water level between Regensburg and our next stop, on the Danube, was too low for our ship to pass. We had been ordered not to leave the town until at least 8 a.m. the next morning. We all prayed for rain, because if the ship could not get past the next stretch, we would have to continue our trip by bus.

We all collected our radio receivers, and left the ship to go on a walking tour of Regensburg. Many of the buildings in this historic city are registered as historic sites, and the entirety of the Old City has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By having this label, these historic sites must remain true to their original character and cannot be changed, only maintained.

This city is in the heart of Bavaria, and was, until 1992 when the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal was opened to connect the three rivers, the terminus for large commercial ships on the Danube. The old city is charming, and we walked along the streets enjoying the historic buildings that have been maintained to their original look.

At the end of the guided walk, Brian and I continued to walk along the little streets, and then stopped at the old sausage house and ate our “complimentary” sausages, kraut and beer. We returned to the boat, did not eat dinner, and sat in the back lounge with Deb and Doug and other passengers speculating on what might happen the next day if it did not rain. Although clouds rolled in and we had a light rain, that would not have been enough to get us out of the town.

We went to sleep in the evening hoping that the next few days would not cause havoc with our leisurely vacation.

Nuremberg - Nazi Past

The Parade Grounds in Nuremberg

We docked in Nuremberg early in the morning on Wednesday May 25, 2011. Nuremberg was located in early days along historic trade routes. It was a prosperous medieval city where German emperors held their first imperial assemblies. Ironically, a millennium later, Hitler cynically exploited Nuremburg’s history by holding Nazi party rallies here. However, this also became a major target bombing by Allied forces, and the site of the trials of Nazi war criminals. Today, the historical medieval sites have been restored, and one can see remnants of old Roman walls, one of the arched gateways, and the old market square area seems to be in decent shape.

Brian and I decide to take the optional tour offered by Avalon Cruises that took us to Nazi war sites. It was well worth the money and time spent.

We started our visit to the Zeppelinfeld. As we approached, we saw what are now huge green public parks on our left that were originally the staging area for the thousands of SS troops that organized themselves for the famous annual marches before the Fuhrer – Adolf Hitler. We then drove a few hundred meters to the actual parade grounds. Hitler built this stadium area as a memorial to fallen soldiers and for purposes of showing off his troops in massive parades each year. Today, the Germans use part of it for their racecar competitions, and the remainder is a football stadium.

A Swastika once stood at the top center of this structure,
with columns lining the viewing stands to the left and right

Most of the original construction has been destroyed, except for the viewing stand and adjacent seats. A large Nazi swastika once stood at the top of the structure behind the viewing stand, but the Allies destroyed it when they took Nuremberg. The columns behind and above have been removed because they were in danger of falling. We got there early in the morning and were the only group there. How odd it felt to be walking across that large roadway, below where Hitler once stood, looking up to where this maniacal ruler once viewed his thousands of submissive converts.

Where Hitler Stood During Annual Parades of SS Soldiers

We then got back on the bus and took a short ride back to the Nazi Documentation Center. This building was originally a coliseum built by Hitler for meetings of the Nazi party leaders. However, because the war escalated in 1936, Hitler never finished construction on this – the workers were instead required to join the army.

The Documentation Center today

Today, this structure holds a The Documentation Center of the Nazi Party - a wonderful museum of the history of Hitler and his Nazi party. One walks from room to room looking at propaganda (including a copy of Hitler’s Main Kampf). We saw original movies of the soldiers marching, of Hitler speaking to the crowds and patting the heads of children, and pictures of the soldiers and their various “activities.” As we approached the end, we viewed pictures of the concentration camps, the victims, and, finally, a video of the Nuremberg Trials. The chart on the wall of that room also showed the outcome of all of the trials, and the resulting judgments.

The visit to this museum was a highlight of our trip, which has seemed to encompass a lot of the history of World War II.

We then rode around the city, stopped briefly at the courthouse where, in Room 600, the Nuremberg trials took place from 1945 to 1946. We could not go inside because this courthouse and Room 600 are functioning today.

The Courthouse in the 1940's

The Courthouse of the Nuremberg Trials as it looks today

Our bus then drove us around the old city walls, and dropped us in the center of the old city, where we had thirty minutes to walk around the market square, and buy some of Nuremberg’s famous “gingerbread.”

Today’s visit was, for me, a little emotional, and a little overwhelming. One realizes the impact a young man born in Austria, who wanted to study art, had on the world as he managed to use his scary narcissistic personality to cause one of the most devastating genocides and wars in world history. Millions of people were killed, both soldiers and civilians, throughout Europe. In partnership with the Japanese, Hitler caused devastation not only in Europe but in Southeast Asia, and on the western shores of the United States.

Hitler is well-known for his saying: “Who remembers the Armenians?” – derived from the time during the First World War when the Germans were allies with the Turks. Hitler masterminded the genocide of millions of people in World War II knowing that the Turks got away with a similar genocide three decades before – fortunately for those victims of WWII, Germany recognized that travesty. The Armenians, Cypriots and Greeks did not enjoy the same result, even to this day.

Sadly, Hitler deprived the Allied countries of the pleasure of bringing him to justice. He committed suicide in 1945 at the end of the war, one day after he married his long-time mistress Eva Braun, who died alongside him.

Cruisin' on Down the Main

Leaving Nuremberg we passed through one of the largest locks of the trip. The lock was 82 feet high. It was a modern lock, in that once we were inside and the gates were closed, three water tanks (massive in size) built along side the lock (one next to the other) filled the lock sequentially one after the other. A large group of fellow passengers came up to the sky deck to watch as we entered We rose to the top of the lock in about 10-12 minutes. As we moved into the lock we saw people up at the top, on the bridge, watching us come in. It is really hard to tell from pictures how massive this lock was and what an amazing fete of engineering it was. Between Amsterdam and Budapest we will eventually pass through 46 locks.

Eighty Foot High Lock
A low bridge
The three water tanks

At the top of the water level

A family of swans cruising along the entrance to the lock

* For more pictures of our journey, click on Brian's Gallery at the top right of the blog.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cruising to Bamberg

The Cruising Experience

As we cruised the Rhine, particularly in the evenings during dinner, we would see people sitting alongside the banks of the river, fishing, having a glass of wine, or riding along the bike paths that run parallel to the river. Occasionally a small village would peek out from among the tall pine trees lining the river. Often we would see a family of geese, or swans, in the water along the water’s edge. It was so peaceful.

Unfortunately, because most of the bridges we had to pass under were relatively low, except for the short stretch of the Rhine gorge on that 2nd day of cruising, we have not been permitted to go up to the sun deck as we sailed along the river. All of the deck chairs are stored, the sunshades and railings along the edges lowered flat, and often the captain’s cubicle is lowered flat. That is one downside of being on one of the largest of the river cruise ships now sailing.


Our visit to Bamburg started with a walking tour, as we do each day, with a local guide. We break into groups with colored radio receivers. Our guides also have a receiver and microphone, and this way we can wander along as they talk about the history and architecture of their city. The tour guides in each city are from the local tourist office, and most of them have been very pleasant and knowledgeable.

We walked through the winding streets lined with renaissance and baroque buildings, now occupied by little shops. We visited the large prince-bishop's residence, with its rose garden that is not quite ready to bloom. This town is known for its very dark beer, which we passed on.

Typically, after we return from our 80 minute walking tour, which is either in the morning or afternoon depending on when we get to the port, we then have a short time for rest before we have our lunch (which seems to be not long after we have had breakfast!) or afternoon coffee and cake (not long after lunch). Often, we will go to the back lounge which has a very efficient espresso machine, as well as fresh fruit, small sugar cookies (not home made) and fruit juices. A large screen TV usually shows the nautical map that we are following, or occasionally a local soccer or sports game if we have reception.

Next stop: Nuremberg - worth it's own page!

Miltenburg and Wurzburg

Next Stop: Miltenburg and Wurzburg

Over the next two days, Sunday and Monday (May 22 and May 23) we continued our leisurely cruise down the Rhine, switching over to the Main River, and stopping at the little town of Miltenburg, and then Wurzburg. Our routine has usually been a ½ day tour and walking around the town, and then half of day cruising. But, this will end on Wednesday when we reach Nuremburg. At that point, in addition to our morning tours, we will be taking some “optional” side trips.

The nice thing about sailing along the river is that you always see people, walkers, bikers, children playing, fishermen, campers (hundreds of them!), and town life. Being on the river is so much nicer than an ocean cruise! The shores are lush with green trees, heavy with pollen (and causing a LOT OF HAY FEVER!). The townspeople are often standing at the shore, waving at us as we slowly pass by. I think part of the reason is that this is a new, and slightly larger, ship and people are curious. As we sit in the dining room on the lower level, we often see castles on the hills, people on the shores – it is really a relaxing and beautiful site.

Miltenburg, in Bavaria, was not particularly notable other than being a town dating back to the 16th Century. The guide assigned to us was not very interesting, and because it was Sunday the little shops were closed. The town was notable in WWII when the Germans decided to bomb their own bridge in that town to prevent General Patton from advancing across the river into Miltenburg, and that area of Germany. Unfortunately for the Germans, the next day Patton nevertheless had his troops build pontoons, and they crossed the river, eventually defeating the Germans in that area. The fountain in the market square is several hundred years old. Because the ruler of the city at that time was unable to secure money from the larger region to fund his fountain, he left a "mark" on the fountain statue that has sent a message in perpetuity of what he thought of those who denied him the funds!

Fountain in Miltenburg - notice the behind of the little cherub on the left

We reached Wurzburg, in Franconia, in the early morning, and greeted our next set of guides around 8:30 a.m. Our cruise director Andrei delivered his typical announcement: “Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, please collect a radio receiver and shore pass, bring your earpiece, and join your tour guides for your daily program.” We were bussed to the center of town from our ship, where we toured a palace called The Residence. This was built by the local Bishop/Prince with frescoes by the Venetian painter Tiepolo.

As we walked up the massive staircase to see the entry ceiling fresco, I was SHOCKED to see one of its panels depicting portions of the ARMENIAN ALPHABET! The fresco was designed to show the then-recognized four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and America. The panel showing the Armenian Alphabet was put their by Tiepolo to demonstrate that alphabets and letters were originally created in Asia in the early centuries. Armenian Saints Sahag and Mesrop created Armenian Alphabet in the mid-5th Century. Notably, when we visited Saniurfa in Turkey in 2009, we visited the remains of the castle, where some believe St. Sahag stayed while working on the alphabet.

Large portions of the Wurzburg palace, which suffered extensive fire damage during WWII, have been restored to its original beauty, with ornate plaster decorative pieces, reverse-painted glass and mirror wall coverings, chandeliers, and some tapestries. Most of the original art and furniture was removed from the Palace before the bombing because the towns people expected that the Allied Forces would be coming to that area. Some of the Palace was constructed of wood (floors and roofs) and those burned when the city was fire-bombed.

The remainder of our visit consisted of a stroll along the river through the town back to our ship. We saw a palace on the opposite side of the river as we briefly crossed over the old bridge.

We had lunch, and then returned to our rooms. Brian took his usual nap (3 times a day where possible) (*Brian—they would be shorter if the AUTHOR didn’t snore all night!) and then we then continued our cruise down the Main river, towards the Danube. One lock after another took us upriver – the locks can sometimes take thirty minutes or more, by the time we slowly enter the narrow locks, hook up with ropes, watch the rear gate close, and the front gate slowly allow water into the lock to raise the level of our ship to the next portion of the river.

Our Captain - as we reached the top of a lock

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


First Stop: Cologne

Our first stop, in Cologne, Germany, lasted about ½ a day. Five guides met us at the boat. Each held a color-coded radio receiver that matched the ones we received as we got off the boat. After we put on our personal earphones, our guide turned on his receiver and we were able to hear him clearly as we walked along the Rhine for a short city tour before reaching the magnificent Gothic style Cologne Cathedral, now a UNESCO protected World Heritage Site. Our walk took us by an architectural excavation of a Roman site recently discovered, and the original building where “Eau du Cologne” was created – the 4711 House.

Cologne was heavily bombed during World War II, the train station directly adjacent to the Cathedral being a main target of the Allied Forces. As a result, the Cathedral took some damage. The rest of the city was heavily damaged. We could see bullet holes in the side of the Cathedral.

Bullet Damage to Cologne Cathedral

Although some of its roof was damaged, the beautiful centuries old spires survived. The Cathedral is built in soft sandstone and for that reason it has not been cleaned, showing hundreds of years of soot and coal damage. The sandstone is too soft and the end result looks artificial. However, the city is working on reinforcing the spires, which were originally constructed with iron nails, which have rusted. They are being replaced methodically by stainless steel bolts, which should last far longer.

The architecture inside of the Cathedral is like most Gothic cathedrals, with vaulted ceilings, beautiful stained glass windows, side altars and monuments to dead political and religious leaders. However, this Cathedral also has what most believe are the relics of The Three Wise Men (The Three Magii), in a gold “tomb” at the front of the main altar. People make pilgrimages here to pray in front of the relics, which were blocked off on our visit by scaffolding and a heavy iron gate.

After our visit to the Cathedral, we took a “choo-choo train” to the nearby Lindt chocolate museum, where we opted to pass on the factor tour and just browse the massive shop with hundreds of types of chocolate candies. Of course, we bought some to munch on when we got hungry (not!!) on the cruise.

That night we had dinner and sailed on south overnight, waking early on Saturday to enjoy the most beautiful stretch of the Rhine Gorge, with its many castles and vineyards dotting the landscape on both sides of the River. We passed by Dusseldorf (and its huge Bayer factory), Bonn (where Beethoven was born), and Koblenz, the point where the Moselle river flows into the Rhine, called the “German Corner.”

One of the most beautiful parts of the night cruise was passing by Frankfurt. The buildings and bridges of the town are lit up and night. The crew had prepared the ship for the many low bridges to come in the next few days, lowering all of the sun deck coverings, removing chairs, and lowering the captain’s cabin. At one point, we could see the captain’s head sticking out the top of the cabin, as the ship passed under a low bridge, clearing just a few feet above us.

The night lights of Frankfurt

The vineyards along the rivers are planted on the steep slopes of the high hillsides, making harvesting the grape other than by hand impossible. They get plenty of sun that way, but one marvels at how humans manage to get up the slopes to start the harvest, which starts from the top, and works its way down the mountain. These vineyards produce white wines, somewhat mild, but pleasant.

The Lorelei Statue

We passed the famous “Lorelei” rock rising 430 feet above the river, where the river narrows down to not much more than 30 feet wide. Because of tricky currents, ships often did not make it around the curved area here. As a result, poets wrote the legend of the Lorelei, which is memorialized by a statue of a beautiful woman at the narrowest point. As we passed by, our cruise ship played the traditional song of Lorelei.

We docked in Rudesheim for the afternoon, where we visited the Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments. The Museum was originally the home of nobility. Each room contained antique musical instruments such as player pianos equipped with violins, drums, horns, etc., as well as the instruments used by vendors (hand cranked), etc. We were amazed at how creative and talented the inventors of these instruments were back in the 1800’s and 1900’s, and how they managed to create the rolls and discs of music with such precision that you could listen to the sounds of a full blown 30-piece orchestra coming from what looked like a music box, victorola, or piano.

We then strolled down through the tiny streets of the city, had a coffee with the local “Aspach” brandy, and made our way back to the ship. The weather was perfect – sunny, a little breeze, and not too hot.

Doug and Deb from Australia

Speaking of weather, except for the dampness of Amsterdam, and chilly wind in France, we have been very lucky. A few drizzles and overcast in the morning during our cruise down the upper and middle Rhine did not detract from what has otherwise been almost perfect weather.