By Louise Phillips
Full disclosure: I was fed up with big cruise ships, bored by their ballroom-sized dining rooms and sick of their canned air. Most of all, I was overcome with ennui, not to mention mal de mer, from long days on choppy seas.
So I booked a week’s journey on the Rhine, on a long, low riverboat carrying 138 passengers between Switzerland and Holland. Morning tours from the ship, tied up at a quiet quay, led guests on foot around historic city quarters. Roman settlement along the Rhine is evident in bridge locations and old city walls; the Renaissance lingers in the delicate spires of centuries-old cathedrals. For less active passengers, the cruise director provided shuttle service. Guests could dine in the towns and set their own shore programs, but I doubt they could improve on the cuisine and tour services included in our cruise fare.
Between Basel and Strasbourg we passed through eight locks the first night, beginning a descent to the North Sea of about 300 metres. I stood at the bow end of the top deck, watching the ship clear lock walls by a few centimetres. As dawn broke, industrial development on the east bank hid the fabled Black Forest from view. Soon the cruise began providing the romance it had promised.
In Strasbourg we toured La Petite France, named for French soldiers in the hospital there during one of many wars. Strasbourg is a wondrous assortment of architecture: half-timbered corbelled buildings leaning at gravity-defying angles over narrow laneways; fin-de-siècle French follies of wrought-iron railings and wedding-cake decoration; sturdy, German barn-like edifices with scalloped rooflines; and dour 13th-century brick towers, which guarded the town from the constant invasions that explain the city’s many architectural styles and languages.
Heidelberg | Roman Kraft
The Alsatians in Strasbourg speak a dialect close to German, and like the Germans who share the river, Alsatians make excellent, cheap Riesling and Gewurztraminer. We tasted some in a cafe fronting the mighty Notre Dame Cathedral, similar to the Paris version, but with only one tower: its weight proved too great for a second one to be added. In the rain, in the cathedral square, a countertenor sang medieval music.
Heidelberg, too, is relentlessly historic, full of 17th-century houses even in the main shopping platzen (squares). Tourists and students crowd into old pubs and drink enough weak wheat beer to bellow legendary drinking songs. The most impressive single attraction there is the castle and its Heidelberg Tun, a 220,000-litre wine barrel occupying its own a cellar. Local wine growers were once obliged to donate 10 per cent of their annual yield to the ruling prince. To make the wine more palatable, one celebrated castle winemaker – an Italian dwarf who was also court jester – would add sugar and straw.
Near Heidelberg the Rhine and Neckar rivers meet, bordered by deciduous forest that thins out near the waterfront apartment blocks of Mainz, our stop that night. I slept late the following morning and missed the tour of the Gutenberg Museum, which contains an original Gutenberg 42-line Bible. I just had time to find the lovely old open-air marketplace and buy some of the famous Mainz flowers.
In the narrow, cobbled main street of old Rüdesheim, young women offered glasses of cloudy neuwein for one euro. Our tour took in a museum devoted to mechanical musical instruments, then repaired to a wine garden in the courtyard of a vine-draped hotel. Here we were treated to a Riesling tasting; 20 survivors returned there for more wine and a German dinner. A tireless three-piece orchestra roped some of us into playing musical cowbells.
Chimes were still ringing in my head the next morning when I opened the stateroom verandah doors to the postcard view I’d been waiting for: a fairytale castle on a cliff. Then another, and another – over 40 in all line the Rhine Gorge between Bingen and Koblenz, the 65-kilometre stretch known as “The Romantic Rhine.” It takes a mere morning to navigate. Most castles were glorified tollbooths for the local princelings to control traffic and trade, set back from the river on hilltops to command the best view. The Lorelei Rock of Heine, Schiller and Wagner fame is a cliff that masks a nasty corner for navigation; hence the face-saving legends of mermaids and sirens luring sailors to disaster there.
We docked at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel in Koblenz. Most of this north German city, like Köln, was bombed in the Second World War, but a small area around the Church of Our Lady survived because Allied bomber pilots needed the spires as a point of reference and left churches standing, though damaged. The contemporary stained-glass windows incorporate modern themes such as Judaism and resistance fighters. A statue of Joseph, not Mary, carries the Christ child.
En route to Köln, we passed the spot where the famous Bridge at Remagen turned the tide for the Allied advance. For reasons unknown, Hitler’s troops failed to blow it up before the Allies crossed. In 1976 a mayor of Remagen sold off the remaining bridge pilings, in pieces enclosed in synthetic resin as small mementos, and used the profit to create a peace museum inside the surviving bridge towers.
We toured what little remains of old Köln, generally a clever reconstruction of old merchants’ houses. A huge bierhaus takes up an entire city block – order something other than bier at your peril. The vast and sooty 600-year-old exterior of the famous cathedral is in a state of constant repair and the interior gloomy. I preferred the serenity of the adjacent Romano-Germanic Museum, with its perfectly preserved Roman mosaic floor.
The ship left the Rhine proper and followed the canal into Amsterdam for our final day. Canal boats took us along Amsterdam’s waterways, where houseboats grow tiny deck gardens and guides point out major landmarks from the city’s long history.
I can never disembark from oceangoing leviathans soon enough, but on this trip, I would have happily headed back up the mighty Rhine for more romance…and Riesling.