River Cruise – WEEK 2
Today we woke up in Hassfurt, and after breakfast took a bus for the 45 minute trip to Bamberg. Bamberg is a cultural and architectural site that UNESCO has granted heritage status. In the 10th century it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1460 it became the second place in the world to print books, and is credited with highest beer consumption per head in Germany (it has 10 micro-breweries). There is new town Bamberg, which has old style buildings and cobblestone streets but modern shops. Then there is old town Bamberg, which is a medieval town looking just as it did in the 1600s. The cathedral here is beautiful and has the tomb on King Henry II and his wife, who were both ordained as saints. The legend goes that King Henry returned from his travels and was told the rumour that his wife has been unfaithful to him. She denied this and said she would walk across burning hot, sharp cleavers to prove her love and fidelity to him. She did this, and did not suffer any injury, so this was considered a miracle.
We returned to the ship for lunch and afterwards attended the apple strudel making demonstration. We were given the recipe and were shown how to make the dough and assemble the strudel, after which they asked for a volunteer to make a second one. Everyone was being very shy, so Ian put his hand up. He had a go at throwing the dough and in the end did a good job of putting an apple strudel together.
The next morning we travelled to the Zeppelin Fields, the site of the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, where Hitler made his stirring speeches to the troops and citizens of Germany. The area is quite dilapidated now, as following the end of WWII, the Germans were ashamed of this vicinity and did not want to attract any attention to it. More modern generations of Germans are more open about their history, and while certainly not proud of the Hitler period, are now ready to acknowledge it. We were taken to the court building and to Room 600 where the Nuremberg Trials were held. Our guide gave us a lecture on the trials which was fascinating. We then took an audio tour of the Museum at the Document Centre where they laid bare all the horrific details of Hitler’s reign, and they should be applauded for their openness. It explained about German’s vulnerability after the WWI defeat when the population’s esteem was very low, and they had a huge reparation bill and therefore huge taxes in a time of high unemployment. Hitler did not win power outright and had to form a coalition but he made sure his co-leader was not around for long. Hitler somehow managed to get himself appointed Emperor and Chancellor as well as President which gave him the power to overrule the constitution and do whatever he wanted, which was a Dictatorship. He kept the German population in a bubble of selected reality, where they were given information only approved by the Third Reich. There was no influence from the outside world, and although they had radios, they could only access approved frequencies. The Reich organized big exciting rallies, there was full employment and the people began to believe Hitler’s spin that they were the master race. They refused to believe the rumours of genocide, and when the war was lost, the population was in shock, never believing defeat was possible and very ashamed of the conduct of their leaders. The exhibition was a bit harrowing to see and hear, but it was excellently done, and I am glad I saw it. Back on the ship, we went through the biggest lock on our trip that afternoon, 85 feet, which was spectacular.
The next day we visited Regensburg, one the best preserved medieval cities in Germany, which did not receive much damage in WWII, and has an unusually large number of churches. It was from here that Christianity was spread across central Europe during the 7th and 8th centuries. Regensburg was settled by the Celts in 500BC, the Romans in 179AD and from the Middle Ages was an important political and intellectual centre. We did a walking tour in the morning and our guide pointed out that Regensburg’s architecture is a little different from the other towns we have visited in that they were not built in the half-timber fashion. It also has the longest standing stone bridge in all of Europe, and it quite long too, with 13 arches in total. There is a huge cathedral in town with beautiful stained glass windows and wood carved pews. Regensburg likes to think of itself as an old town with a young heart, and I think that suited the feeling around there. This is the first day of rain we have experienced in Europe, so we took a covered bus tour around the town, which took us to areas we did not visit on the walking tour. We had lunch in a lovely café and walked through the parks around the castle. We then made our way back to the ship as there was a thunderstorm brewing. That evening after dinner we were entertained by a singer/guitarist who sang traditional German folksongs and popular English songs. He was good fun and we all had a good time.
The next day we took a bus from Passau for a 2.5 hour drive to the Czech Republic to visit the UNESCO heritage town of Cesky-Krumlov. It was a superb little walled town where most of the houses have been restored with UNESCO money. It had a lovely town square which branched off into cobblestone streets and crooked laneways filled with quirky little shops. The only difficulty here was the currency. We all have Euros, but the vendors in this village prefer Czech currency. The Czech Republic is now part of the EU, but has kept its own currency. We did make a couple of purchases, but negotiated with the shopkeepers to take our Euros, as we did not want to be left with a pocket full of Czech money. We noticed the difference when we left Germany and arrived in the Czech Republic. While things are slowly improving for the Czech people, they do not have enough money yet for house repairs, road maintenance etc. so it looked rundown, especially in comparison to Germany. We left the Czech Republic and made our way to Linz in Austria, where the ship was waiting for us. Again, we could tell when we were in Austria as the road surface changed to very smooth, it was very clean and the houses and landscape were beautiful. Austria is the second wealthiest country in the world after Sweden, so there is money for infrastructure spending, and the people earn good wages so can purchase and maintain their homes. After dinner tonight we were entertained by a very good jazz quintet, and there was lots of toe-tapping going on.
The next morning we woke up on the Danube River travelling to Vienna and passed through the Wachau Valley, one the most picturesque stretches of river in Europe. We slowly glided by beautiful little townships with wonderful churches, beautiful houses and old, and sometimes ruined castles, above them. Between the little towns were rows and rows of grapevines, some on very, very steep hills. One particular little village, Durnstein, had a castle where Richard the Lionheart was kept prisoner, and it also had a beautiful luxury hotel where Lady Di spent her last night before she died in a car accident. Once we arrived in the Vienna city centre we did a guided walking tour. Vienna is a superb, vibrant city with lots of great old buildings in numbers we have not seen elsewhere. The interior of the library was especially lovely, with wall and ceiling murals, wonderful woodwork and hundreds of rows of antique books. Unfortunately, we did not get much free time in Vienna, and what we did get was marred by heavy rain. Nevertheless, it is a lovely city, rain or shine, and a place I could visit again to explore more thoroughly.
Sadly, we had come to the end of our cruise so we spent our last night on the ship doing laundry and packing our cases. The whole river cruise experience was wonderful. The staff on the ship were extremely friendly, fun and skilled in their jobs. We had a fairly good group of fellow-travelers and had some interesting conversations. There were some characters as well, such as the 90-year old American gentleman who looked like Colonel Sanders who peed in a workman’s wheelbarrow in a graveyard; the huge Texan man who fitted the loud American stereotype exactly; the nice, rich, ex-army, American man, Jerry, from a small town in Ohio, who had his watch fitted on both sides of the dial with gold eagles with a diamond embedded in its claws, and his unassuming wife Shirley; a Canadian mother and daughter who were the loudest people on the ship and always sought to be the centre of attention; and many others. The favourite serving staff member was Vio, a Romanian, who would joke with the passengers. He kept calling us New Zealanders, and telling us we were getting the best sauerkraut from New Zealand, the best schnitzel from New Zealand, etc. A lot of the staff were from the Eastern Bloc countries, were very pleased to have their jobs and to be paid well (in Swiss Francs). We went through many, many locks on the rivers, so became pretty blasé about them. The Rhine, Main and Danube Rivers were much narrower than I expected and it was surprising how busy the waterways were with working barges. A lot of these barges were also homes, with a little house set up in an area near the wheelhouse, with frilly curtains in the windows and pretty window boxes of flowers. They also had a car on board, to use when in port, as well as a little row boat and bicycles. A lot of the land along the rivers in Germany and Austria was dedicated to grape growing and these vineyards were situated on extraordinarily steep hills and we wondered how on earth the grapes were tended and harvested by the workers without falling. Another very obvious feature of Holland, Germany and Austria was the abundance of bicycles. These countries have dedicated bicycle lanes everywhere, huge bicycle parking stations, and it didn’t take us long to realize that we get in their way at our own peril. Perhaps all this cycling is the reason that the people, and especially young people in these areas of Europe look so healthy and attractive. Of course there were some people who were not so fit and a bit overweight, but nowhere near as many as I saw in the USA, UK and Australia. It was not unusual to see 60+ year old people cycling around, and we even saw a nun on a bicycle. The nuns over here also have part time jobs in shops and factories for half the day, and dedicate the rest of their day to nun-ly duties. We have loved our cruise, and although suffering from church/cathedral/castle fatigue, we will have wonderful memories of our travels into historic Europe.