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Saturday, September 30, 2017

cruising down the rhine...castles, history and oh-so-lovely architecture!

There is much to see along a river as historic as the Rhine River. Father Rhine flows from Switzerland, through the entire length of Germany and ends in the North Sea close to Amsterdam.

For a few days at the beginning of September, I floated from Strasbourg to Düsseldorf as part of a mini family reunion, and of course, to experience some incredible cities and sights from the water.

Strasbourg (Kehl)


The Rhine River doesn't technically flow through Strasbourg, more like Strasbourg on the French side and Kehl on the German side straddle the river. Through a series of canals and waterways, Strasbourg is connected to this vital waterway. Our river cruise ship docked on the German side so my aunt to a taxi and my cousin and I walked the couple of kilometres through through the port, over to Strasbourg.

I suggested to the group that we make our way directly to my favourite part of this interesting mixture of French & German, past the impressive Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg and into the most-quaint-of-all-quaint old towns, La Petite France.

Walking across the moat-covered canal bridges and into Petite France you are transported into another time - of simple structures, narrow cobblestoned streets lined with tiny waterfront bistros and dark taverns, and the most gorgeous windows (I have a thing for windows!). In the heart of the Alsace, I half expected Asterix or Obelix to turn a corner, or to see milkmaids and horse-drawn carts loaded down with vegetables or know, from yesteryear.

Back in the day, this small island was a rougher place, home to tanners, artisans and tradespeople. Most of the windowsills and outer walls of the half-timbered houses would be draped in hides and skins waiting to dry, offering up a distinct stench throughout this eccentric neighbourhood.

Strasbourg has a tumultuous history, flipping sides between Germany and France approximately seven times since 362, and the influences of both countries have made the region extremely unique. The city is now, and has been for decades, a wonderful example of peaceful coexistence, amalgamating influences, people, cultures, and languages of two very strong, tradition-rich countries. And Strasbourg leads by example, specifically to 510 million Europeans, by being home to the European Parliament.

Heidelberg (Mannheim)


Heidelberg, a city cherished by poets and king's, including Elvis, lies in the Rhine Rift Valley, on the Neckar River which flows into the Rhine just 22 kms away at the city of Mannheim. Mannheim was where our ship docked for the morning, and we piled into a bus and drove the short distance to this castle-topped, university-focused, fought-over and much-beloved gem of a city.

To get to the Heidelberg Castle, which unless you are a student or researcher of some kind is most likely your target when visiting, you can either walk/hike the many stairs or take the funicular Berg Bahn ('mountain' train). This time I took the train along with the rest of the group and in a jiffy we were at the edge of the huge castle grounds, walking through the Elizabeth arch entrance, named for Elizabeth Stuart. She arrived in 1613 to great fanfare, and lived in the castle for a short but transformative time, as the wife of Prince Frederick V. The future grandparents to King George I of Britain, Elizabeth and Frederick expanded the castle gardens into an Italian Renaissance masterpiece, adding a menagerie, a grotto, exotic plants and intricate mazes. Of course, none of that exists anymore, except for the legend of it...and the drawings.

The castle has now long been mostly in ruins, destroyed several times in various wars and calamities over the centuries; the last attempt at rebuilding the castle ending by lightning strike in 1764. But, a part of the castle, the King's Hall, was built in the early 1930's and is used for special events.

One 'special' element of the castle, which draws lots of tourists, is the Heidelberg Tun, commissioned by Prince Theoder in 1751, and is apparently the world's largest wine barrel. It holds 220 000 litres of wine, has a dance floor on the top of it, and had pipes running from it up the walls and through the floor, to pump the wine into the Prince's rooms above. Ah handy.

One story about the castle really moved me - the story about this stone sculpture hanging above one of the large doors in the castle square.

In 1408, the architect of the castle, who mostly worked on-site with his young twin sons, was almost finished the castle, which was commissioned by Kaiser Ruprecht. In a tragic accident both boys were killed when one took a misstep off of the scaffolding and the other tried to catch him.

The father, too distraught to work, braided a new wreath of white roses every morning and laid it on his sons' grave and went to the grave again each evening to say goodnight. Eventually the Kaiser got so fed up that his castle wasn't finished yet, he made the pastor give the architect a final warning. That night, the man had a dream in which his sons appeared as two angels, returning the wreath to him which he had laid at their grave that day.

In the morning, he awoke to the heavy scent of roses in his room, and found the wreath laying on the table, but instead of white roses, they were now red. The architect took this as a powerful sign that he had to finish his work, and with the last piece laid, he designed a sculpture of two angels holding a wreath with a drawing compass at its heart - the symbol of his life's work, and hung it above the entrance. The man then traveled into the hills on the far side of the Neckar and became a monk.

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

Burg Rheinstein

Onward we cruised past Worms and Mainz to one of the most romantic places in Germany. This is where I have lived for the past six years (not exactly in this castle, but just around the corner from it), moving away just last April. I still visit the area often, because it is, well, just incredibly beautiful. I always say to friends who are planning to visit, 'only come if you like lots of wine and lots of castles!'

The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which begins at Bingen and Rüdesheim as the Rhine flows downwards through steep, narrow, cliff-lined, wine-covered hills, is dotted with gorgeous towns and castles on both sides. My favourite, the Rheinstein Castle, hangs on the slate rocks as if carved right out of them, sits at the beginning of the Binger Loch (Bingen hole). At this point, the river makes a tight turn, and up until the 19th century was very dangerous for ships to pass because of the rocky reef lying below the current.

Burg Reichenstein

Next comes the impressive Reichenstein Castle, once owned by Philipp von Hohenfels (funnily enough his name translates into 'high cliffs'), a knight best-known for his robbing prowess. After centuries of destruction and reconstruction, the castle is now a hotel and museum which can be toured.

Can I just say how much I love that in Germany the most prime real-estate is very often campgrounds?! In North America, a beautiful stretch of river like this one would be plastered with private houses.

Niederheimbach - Burg Hoheneck

In Niederheimbach, a small wine village lined with rows of pastel coloured houses, you'll find the Heimburg (house castle), also called Burg Hoheneck, which has been a private family-home since the late 1800s. How cool (and cold) it would be to grow up in a castle!

Burg Pfalzgrafenstein - Kaub - Burg Gutenfels

One of the neatest castles I've ever seen and visited (and which I've written about before) is the one you find smack dab in the middle of the Rhine - Pfalzgrafenstein Castle. Built in 1327 as the perfectly located toll castle, it is currently a museum which you can reach by small ferryboat from the town of Kaub. Anyone who couldn't pay the toll was threatened with a stay in a 9m deep well shaft! 

The castle feels more like a ship when you're in it. It is mostly open in the middle, with a large keep in the centre of it, but all around the edges are small rooms for the toll captain and staff. Out of every window you just see water flowing by as if out of portholes, and even the toilet, from times of yore, hangs over the water with a hole in the middle. 

On the right-hand shore of the Rhine lies the town of Kaub, dotted with half-timbered houses, striking towers and ruins of the town wall. Looming over the valley and the town below is the Gutenfels Castle, built in the year 1200 and now a hotel.

Ehrenbreitstein Fortress at Koblenz
Past the Loreley cliffs (which are just cliffs so I haven't included a pic here) and too many gorgeous little towns to count (you'll just have to come and see for yourself - like my favourites Oberwesel and Boppard) we docked in Koblenz. This city sits firmly at the end of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, but at the historically-important intersection of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers - called the Deutsches Eck (German Corner).

This part of the Rhine was already during Roman times a strategically important place, and the first fortress was built to protect the Mosel entrance, the Rhine upwards, and the Limes (the border of the Roman Empire) on the right side of the Rhine.

After the French Revolution, where Napoleon had held the left side of the Rhine, the Prussian emperor built up the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress into one of the largest bastions in Europe, in order to protect the region from another such attack. The fortress is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We took the spectacular, 5-minute-long gondola ride from the Deutsche Eck up to the fortress and walked through the park and to the most unique-looking outlook platform I've ever seen. The platform was built for the 2011 national garden show, which takes place every two years in a different city in Germany, and had over 3.5 million visitors that summer. From that vantage point you have uninterrupted views of the two rivers and their vineyard-covered valleys, going on for miles.

Back at our boat, which was conveniently parked directly at the entrance to Koblenz's old town, we got ready for dinner and nighttime shipping onwards.



Düsseldorf is often referred to as the 'garden city'. We had docked in a perfect location, directly in front of the old town, the heart of this elegant metropolis. With many wide boulevards and green spaces, Düsseldorf can also boast having one of the nicest Rhine promenades.

On the day we were in Düsseldorf, the weather was wet and grey-coloured so we stuck to shopping...and shopping you can do really well here! The Königsallee or the 'Kö' (Kings Alley) is a mini, less sparkly version of the Champs d'Elysee (German-style), lined with all the fashion, jewellery and rich folk to go with it (German-style), you ever wanted to see.

Along with the Kö, possibly a bit more exclusive, with small boutiques, art galleries and plastic surgeons, is the old town district of Carlstadt. Neat and orderly, with grid-style streets, here you will find the finest fabric stores, cute bistros, and high-end vintage shops.

Spools of wrapping paper at Manufactum

Germans really do gift-giving well. Small presents are always given to the host or hostess when accepting an invitation, no matter how informal the gathering is. When you're in a store and have bought a gift for someone, the item is always wrapped in beautifully simple paper, with embellishments like ribbons, greenery or blooms, or all three.

And that is why I love German wrapping paper and gift boxes, and even cards. They are interesting, but simple, and not too flowery. Wrapping paper is often either coloured tissue paper or actual heavy paper, not the cheesy, glossy stuff that we, in North America, mostly use. And one of my favourite stores is called Manufactum, which has all of the useful and not-so-useful, gorgeous decorative items one might think they need. The wares at Manufactum are mostly sustainable items (environmentally-friendly, can be repaired/reused) made with traditional manufacturing methods, using traditional materials, like metal, glass, and wood.

I just couldn't resist these spools of wrapping paper and stacks of gift boxes - so pretty!

But if you're in Düsseldorf, even more important than shopping, is drinking! I'm kidding, of course, but you should definitely check out the old taverns close to the river, deep in the old town. My favourite one is call 'Zum Ürige' (kind of translated as 'to the quaint or rustic') - a very old, very traditional, and very popular brewery. The place is so steeped in history, no one is really sure when it was built, but it was sometime before 1650.

Here, on most evenings of the week, young and old, after-work or after-dinner, the small Stuben (cozy rooms) or the large, open hall with wine barrels for tables and a cement floor, or the standing-room-only high wooden tables lined up outside, are packed full. The crusty older waiters (who I love!) fly around with tablets of home-made Alt Bier in small glasses, which trust me, you need to drink a few of. Just because. The waiters set down a fresh full glass every time they come around, whether you've asked for it or not, clearing the empty one, and jotting a quick mark on the coaster in front of you with the pencil they've pulled from behind their ear. These dudes are just so chill.

This tavern oozes tradition and coolness from every wooden chair and beam. So if you want something local, where actual locals head to in droves, then this is your place! I can't wait to go back!


Kölner Dom

One very important tip that I learned about cruising from this, my first cruise, is to check before you book where and when the ship is actually going to dock. Apparently, it's perfectly legal to promote a Rhine River cruise as 'Basel to Amsterdam' as long as a bus is provided to take passengers to some of the destinations. It doesn't have to be by ship! Many of us were not aware that on this particular cruise a bus trip of 3.5 hours each way would be provided to Amsterdam, for anyone wanting to pay an extra 60 Euros. 

Therefore, Cologne was our last city, and Düsseldorf the furthest down the Rhine....which is no where near Amsterdam.

And another very disappointing factor of this cruise, was that we didn't have any time in the most-incredible city of Cologne. We arrived in the evening, as it was getting dark and supper was being served, docking far away from the centre of town, and we left early the next morning.

Luckily, I have been to Cologne a few times, but since it's the city where my mother and my aunt grew up, it was on our list of highlights to explore together. One redeeming quality of the trip was that the food was excellent, and so this our last evening, we hunkered down and enjoyed each other's company, with new friends we had made and thankful for the mighty Rhine to take us here.

My aunt, my cousin, and I above Koblenz

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