Beauty on the Rhine – Conclusion

DSC05999 (3)I knew it would come – the final day of exploring and cruising the Rhine! At 8:00 AM we arrived in Breisach, Germany; a town known for its sweeping views of the Rhine valley. It was a difficult decision, but rather than tour Breisach in depth, we took an optional trip to the Medieval village of Colmar instead. Turns out Colmar was one of my favorites!

IMG_3925 (2)The Viking brochure calls Colmar, France “a canal-lined Medieval gem”, and rightly so. With its 9th-century streets, 13th-century churches and original Old Town, it’s a storybook come to life. I’ve never seen such a colorful and charming place! In every direction was a photo waiting to be taken. My camera and I were very busy!

Our Viking guide led us through town, a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys and flower-laden canals with 1000 years of history mingled in. We walked through the tanner’s district, passed the Pfister House built in 1537, and on to the Schwendi Fountain, sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, was born in Colmar in 1834. The house where he was born is now a museum dedicated to presenting and preserving his work.

We walked to St. Martin’s, the largest church in Colmar. Construction of the church originally began in 1237, but it has been restored many times since then. It retains its honey-colored exterior and single bell tower. As in Strasbourg, storks seem to flock to Colmar in the Spring. We could see a large stork nest on the roof of St. Martin’s, complete with a momma stork and her babies (see right corner of roof)!

With instructions on where to meet later, our guide left us with free time in the “Little Venice” quarter. The neighborhood was once a rural area, so the canals here are bordered by original houses formerly owned by wine producers, boatmen, and flower and produce merchants. The bright colored houses are now restaurants, wine bars and specialty shops with the most unique little store fronts you’ll ever find.

We successfully met up with our tour group at the intersection of Colmar’s two major roads from back in the medieval days, now a popular square with quaint surroundings.

Our guide led us to the bus, which then delivered us to the Lofn, where a flock of swans joined us for lunch. It was our last lunch of the trip and I remember it well. Why? Black Forest Cake for dessert! How appropriate, since our afternoon excursion was to the Black Forest!

Thick woods, grassy meadows and misty waterfalls shadowed by a canopy of evergreens… that pretty much describes the Black Forest! Our bus tour took us through several wine-producing villages on our way to the deep, dark woods. At the visitors center we were invited to attend a cuckoo clock demonstration, watch a pastry chef make Black Forest Cake, and take a little stroll into the forest. We couldn’t go far since Hansel and Gretel weren’t with us and we didn’t bring breadcrumbs to mark the way! We returned to the ship via Freiburg, a major university city where we got stuck in late rush hour traffic.

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IMG_3939 (2)The ship cast-off from Breisach at 6:00 PM and headed for our final port of Basel. The evening was filled with celebration, starting with the Captain’s Cocktail Party and a final farewell from our Program Director, Emilie. Emilie was wonderful… always a smile, always a kind word, and always THERE! Dinner was also a celebration. It was a chance to say goodbye to the staff and crew, and to the friends we had made on our shared journey. After a final walk around the upper deck at sunset, we headed to our room to pack for home.

The Viking Lofn arrived in Basel, Switzerland at 2:00 AM, and by 8:20 AM we were on a bus to the airport. Sadly, our flight schedule did not allow us time to visit Basel, nor did we take the optional extension to Lucerne like so many of our fellow travelers. But that’s OK, we hope to make another trip to the region someday. We also hope to travel with Viking again!

I looked back towards our ship as the bus pulled away. Who did I see? Program Director Emilie was standing there waving goodbye! Like I said, she was ALWAYS there!

Beauty on the Rhine Day Five – Strasbourg

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I’d never been to France before our Rhine River cruise, and if Strasbourg is any indication, I believe I’ll need to go again!

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It was an early morning aboard the Viking Lofn. By 8:30, our shore excursion for the day was underway. In the heart of the Alsace region is Strasbourg, the largest port on the Upper Rhine. Because it sits on the border between Germany and France, Strasbourg is a cultural mix – a pleasant blend of old and new, beer and wine, cheese and chocolate. The border is in the middle of the river so in the photo below, the ship where I’m standing is in Germany and the other is in France.

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Our bus tour included a drive through the German Imperial District and the European Quarter, but what I found most interesting was the hundreds of stork nests we saw in the trees on our way to the historic district. Storks migrate here in the spring from as far away as Africa. Storks are said to bring good luck, fertility… and babies! Symbols of them are prevalent throughout the city.

The bus dropped us off in the enchanting neighborhood of Petite France, my favorite part of Strasbourg. Charming on a beautiful day were the scenic canals displaying the reflection of colorful, timber-framed houses and flower-boxed windows. In the Middle Ages this area was home to the tanners, millers and fishermen.

Over cobblestone streets and pretty little bridges, we crossed the Ill River which surrounds the old town and forms an island. The entire “island” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame, Rohan Palace and Museums, courtyards, squares, shopping and the popular Christmas market.

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Strasbourg’s soaring cathedral is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. It sits on the sight of an old Roman basilica destroyed by fire 100 years after it was built in 1176. Construction of the current cathedral began at the end of the 12th century.

The stunning pink sandstone makes it one of the most magnificent examples of Gothic architecture in the world, featuring a remarkable Rosette and stained-glass windows. The interior includes a suspended pipe organ, intricate carvings and an original astronomical clock built in 1842.

We went back to the ship after the walking tour and stayed for lunch (because lunch on the ship was ALWAYS so good). Viking provided shuttle bus services all afternoon long, so of course we went back to see more of amazing Strasbourg on our own.

We were treated to a “Taste of Germany” that evening… a hearty German buffet and rousing music; and as always, a nice assortment of wine and beer from the region. And for dessert – on this night, anyway – a rainbow!

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During and after dinner, the Viking Lofn navigated through the Grand Canal d’Alsace, a system of locks necessary to ensure ship safety on the river. There is a total of 12 locks on the Rhine upstream from Basel. We went through most of them at night, but not this one. I found it an interesting process to watch. Because river cruise ships utilize as much square footage as possible, there is about a one foot gap between the width of the lock and most ships. I could reach out and touch the cold, damp lock walls from the balcony of our room.

Watching the progression of the sunset was fascinating as well! I had worried that sunsets on a river cruise would not compare in beauty to those on an ocean cruise. Fortunately, I was wrong!

Coming up, the final post! Beauty on the Rhine Conclusion – Breisach, Colmar, and the Black Forest.

Beauty on the Rhine Day Four – Heidelberg & Speyer

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A ruined castle intrigues me. History can tell us when it was built, how it was used, and by what means it was destroyed, but its mysteries will never  be fully known. What stories lie buried in the rubble? What scandal? What heartbreak? My imagination was working overtime as I regarded the red sandstone ruins of Heidelberg Castle.

We had a leisurely morning on day four of our Rhine River cruise, but by 10:00 AM we were traveling by bus along the Neckar River to romantic Heidelberg… and to the skeleton of Heidelberg Castle! The amazing thing about Heidelberg is this: the view of the castle from the city is as breathtaking as the city is from the castle! American forces thought the city was so beautiful they chose not to bomb it during WWII.

Our Viking tour guide was a student of European History at Heidelberg University, so he was knowledgeable and passionate about our tour. We started at the castle, originally built in the early 13th century as home to the Palatinate monarchy. By 1294, it had expanded into two castles. A lightning bolt destroyed the upper castle in 1537, while the remaining structure was later damaged by wars and fires. In 1764, another lightning bolt left the castle permanently uninhabitable. For me, the castle was a highlight of the trip!

The City of Heidelberg was totally rebuilt during the 18th century after the French troops of Louis XIV left it in ruin. The result is an interesting combination of baroque buildings and half-timbered houses mixed together with the towering turrets of Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest university.

In the heart of Old Town is Market Square, the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Friedrich Memorial, the Palatinate Museum, the Statue of Madonna at Kornmarkt and the Old Bridge, along with shops, bars and restaurants. Our serious, scholarly, college-student-tour-guide had a grin on his face as we passed a well-known pub. Turns out he is also a DJ and bartender there. Oh, the versatile lives of college kids!

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We spent our free time visiting the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store and enjoying a handcrafted beer at Vetter’s brewery – popular with university students and tourists alike. We walked across the Old Bridge for a dramatic view of the castle before heading back to the bus.

At 2:00 PM, our ship arrived in Speyer, one of the oldest towns in Germany, where we were free to explore on our own.

Attractions include a 12th– century subterranean bath, a 13th-century tower gate, a Baroque Trinity Church, and a Romanesque imperial cathedral. The Speyer Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains the remains of eight Holy Roman Emperors, German kings and empresses. The town was once a major Celtic hub, but now has approximately 50,000 inhabitants.

Onboard the Lofn, a relaxing dinner and entertainment rounded out our day. Only two more left!  Next up: Beauty on the Rhine Day Five: Strasbourg, France.