A Wonderful Day in Heidelberg

After an overnight sail to our dock at Frankfurt, the Rambler was ready to head out on an all-day trip to Heidelberg. The Senior Rambler was not sure he wanted to go, but while he was making up his mind, we stopped to watch the docking process .

It is amazing how fast this is accomplished with the sailors moving very quickly, sometimes scrambling over rocks to pull the heavy lines they wrapped around the bollards. When the ship was secure, the gangplank was extended to shore and anyone could disembark if they chose.

Swans heading for the Maria Thresa
Swans heading for the Maria Theresa, they are grey before they turn white.

The Maria Theresa’s gangplank is quite sturdy and has a series of metal cleats along its length. They are to prevent one from slipping while ascending or descending but one does have to be careful not to trip on them. Of course, there is a handrail along both sides, available for grabbing of one does mis-step. The gangplank is rarely level so you are either walking up or down, sometimes at a fairly steep angle.

On the river side, we stopped for a few minutes to admire the swans which had cruised up to the ship.

Are you sure you don't have anything for us?
Are you sure you don’t have anything for us?

No doubt they were looking for hand-outs but they didn’t get any as we were going, not coming to breakfast. They were still hopefully swimming around the ship when we headed to the dining room for breakfast. Since we boarded the MT on Sunday near Amsterdam, we had followed the Rhine to the place where we had landed on our flight from Atlanta.

Glad we didn't have to walk up castle hill.
Glad we didn’t have to walk up castle hill, This part of Heidelberg is not modern!.

Frankfurt is a modern city which has one of the few skylines in Europe that could be mistaken for one in a city of similar size in the US. It is also the financial center of the EU, the home of the European Central Bank and the Bundesbank. Those who had already been to Heidelberg could take a walking tour of Frankfurt which included a culinary treasure hunt. I am not sure what entailed was but I’m sure it was fun. I also heard later that the shopping in Frankfurt was excellent, but since I’m not much of a shopper anymore, this had little appeal. The Maria Theresa would leave the Frankfurt dock at 3:30 on its way to Miltenburg, Because the Heidelberg tour lasted all day, the MT would make an extra stop (they call it a technical stop) in Offenbach to pick up the passengers who had chosen to go to Heidelberg.

Thus I headed off the the Heidelberg bus with the gentle walker group, leaving the Senior Rambler to his own devices. I have learned that when he doesn’t want to do something, it’s better to leave him behind. The gentle walkers were a congenial group and I would have plenty of company during the day. It was not a long trip to Heidelberg by bus, and soon our bus driver was carefully steering our large bus up castle hill around many obstacles.

Obviously the hillside around the castle is a prime real estate location.
Obviously the hillside around the castle is a prime real estate location.

Viewing castles always involves an  upward hike, and Heidelberg was no exception. The castle area was also very crowded. As we learned later, the 16 German Federal States agree on a staggered vacation schedule ahead of time, so that all of Germany is not on vacation at the same time. Evidently August is a popular month for local touring; although Germans love to travel the world, they also enjoy their own heritage. Plus Heidelberg is also a popular stop for river cruises, so our Uniworld groups had to be careful or they might end up on another company’s boat!

By the 1300’s, Heidelberg was large enough to support a university and had become the political center of the Rhineland.. Heidelberg University, founded in 1386 soon became one of the greatest in medieval Europe.

The first part of the castle you see; ruins are being stabilized
The first part of the castle you see; ruins are being stabilized

Today the university has perhaps 30,000 students, large by European standards and one in 5 people currently living in Heidelberg (population, 139,000) likely attends either the University, the Teacher’s College or the Academy of Music.

view from river
View from the river.
ruin for centuries
A ruin for centuries

Heidelberg did not suffer much damage from WWII bombing raids as the US Army planned to place its European Headquarters there and bombed the citizens with leaflets instead.; 20,000 or so American service-people and their families live there today.. Although Heidelberg Castle is a ruin, it was partially destroyed a long time ago, and was not a casualty of WWII. The Castle and attached palace were built of reddish sandstone, and stood out beautifully against a background of blue sky and deep green vegetation.

ruin and palace
See the blue sky through the windows of the top two floors.

Sandstone is not the most durable of stones and erodes over time. Currently there is much evidence of attempts to stabilize the existing ruins, rather than restoring the buildings to their original form. The castle and palace obviously suffered periods of neglect but now the German government is working hard to preserve what they have. It is startling to see that the windows of the upper floors of one building are open to the sky beyond, while the lower floors house museums and meeting spaces. The Castle is a popular wedding venue and we saw several bridal parties on the grounds.

Our guide in cellar
You can just see the end of the giant barrel in back of our guide Sonia.

We ended our tour of the Castle with a view of the biggest wine cask ever,in the cellars. It really is big but not very exciting  for me, as it has been empty for quite a while. However it is significant because the area still produces some of Germany’s finest wine. We stopped  briefly in the cellars, enjoying a pit stop while our guide gave us more information on the history of the Castle and the area.

From the castle hill, we found our Uniworld bus which next stopped at Heidelberg’s old bridge where we  enjoyed a beautiful view of the vineyards marching up the hills surrounding the Neckar River valley.

Bird's eye view
Bird’s eye view

We looked down on a multitude of red roofed buildings and far below, the Neckar River itself, winding slowly through the valley.

Our final stop was the Hauptstrasse in the old town which runs parallel to the river. It is a crowded but wide, pedestrian walkway, paved with the usual lumpy cobblestones. Before we were turned loose to have lunch on our own,for which we all got lunch money, we were treated to a culinary treasure hunt of local specialties. Our guide led us to two shops and a restaurant where sampled gummi candies, evidently invented in Heidelberg, pflammenkuchen, a kind of a pizza like thin  flat bread topped with ham and onions and Student Kisses, another candy invented in Heidelberg.

I am not a big fan of gummi bears, but the Flammkuchen was delicious. This is similar to a similar dish popular in Alsace-Lorraine made with ham onions and sour cream. Germans also prepare a sweet, rather than savory, made with plums rather than ham, but it is probably too messy to hand out as samples. As for the Student Kiss( Studentenkuss.) I loved the combination of wafer, nougat and dark chocolate, so I enjoyed my sample very much. I learned that the kisses were first developed and sold in 1863 by Fridolin Knosel, to provide a chaste way for students to exchange hopeful messages with kisses. We also tried Schlosskugeln (cannon balls) a dangerous to the hips, Heidelberger treat.

Pretty sure the saleslady dresses to match the product.
Pretty sure the saleslady dresses to match the product.

They are still made  by his descendants  and sold in the same shop. Today you can purchase kisses with a message of your choosing in a variety of languages. It is a very popular tourist spot in the romantic Heidelberg tradition, perhaps because it sells delicious candy!

Lunching in Heidelberg was fun. My companions were determined to have schnitzel, so we checked the menus of a number of cafes for this regional specialty. Since I expected that the schnitzels would be large and I had been well fed on the MT, I chose the liver dumpling soup. Ah, my German/Hungarian heritage drew me to it. This was a soup my mother made often, when I was growing up and I was eager to try the Heidelberg version. I was not disappointed. Both dumplings and broth were excellent and filling. And I was right, the schnitzels Jenn and Karen ordered were gigantic!

After lunch we split off to wander Heidelberg’s Alstadt. Many people were out on such a nice day, but the Rambler was running out of gas. I thought I’d seek out a church and sit down for a while in relative solitude. Saying a few prayers wouldn’t hurt either. Luckily I ran into Chad, our cruise manager who knew the area well.  Because this is a more Protestant area , I was looking for a Catholic Church.

A quiet moment
A quiet moment

They are had to tell apart sometimes because in Lutheran areas, the Lutherans simply took over many of the existing Catholic Churches. He pointed me to one, although I’m still not sure it was Catholic. I liked it though, as it was quite plain and  a change from the over-the-top baroque churches so common in Bavaria and Austria.

After a brief bus ride, we saw the Maria Theresa waiting for us. We quickly boarded, the gangplank was hauled up and we were on our way to Miltenberg.  Before I forget, I must mention a Rudesheim product that I have enjoyed for a long time. I didn’t realize until it was too late, that the Ramblers probably could have visited the Asbach Uralt Visitor Center in Rudesheim where they produce Asbach Uralt Brandy.

Asbach Uralt Brandy
Asbach Uralt Brandy

Asbach was my Dad’s favorite after dinner drink, although he wasn’t much of a drinker. I saw it on the shelf in a local liquor store some years ago, bought a bottle and realized I enjoyed it too. Asbach was readily available on the Maria Theresa , and particularly delicious in a German coffee with a little sugar and whipped cream. A similar drink is a Rudesheim specialty and some of our fellow cruisers enjoyed on the previous day.

An afternoon in the country, after a morning on the Rhine

On our second day of sailing  there was much to see all morning as we cruised past a stretch of the Rhine, where castles, ruined or occupied, perch on almost every hill. Some make you wish you could stop and explore, but after a while, it’s almost, ho hum, another castle.

An impressive castle ruin on the hilltop above
An impressive castle ruin on the hilltop above

I had purchased a map which showed the castles along this part of the Rhine, but it really difficult to determine just what you were seeing. The Ramblers decided to sit back and just enjoy the scenery. This part of the Rhine can be quite narrow, rocky, and dangerous. En route we passed through the Lorelei; not a person, but the spot where the Rhine flows through a narrow rocky gorge. In the days before Germany was united, local barons often collected toll from passing boats in this area. They actually constructed small fortifications which doubled as toll plazas.

Looking back at the passage through the Lorelei
Looking back at the passage through the Lorelei
An old fashioned toll both in the Rhine
An old fashioned toll both in the Rhine

We sailed past several more campgrounds along the banks of the Rhine. This is obviously a popular tourist area for Germans and Austrians who live in the area.

Crowded campground along side the Rhine. It was vacation time in this part of Germany
Crowded campground along side the Rhine. It was vacation time in this part of Germany

Local residents enjoy traveling around to the quaint villages, and tasting wine at the many wineries and tasting rooms in the area, just as much as tourists from other parts of the world. Some even bring their boats along, and launch them on the Rhine, as there are many places to dock. Crossing the Rhine in this part of Germany involves taking a ferry ride, as there are very  few bridges to be seen, but ferries in almost every town.

The Drosselgasse
The Drosselgasse or strangle lane, one of the reconstructed old streets in Rudesheim, little more than 6 feet wide

Our stop today was the small city of Rudesheim, within the Valley of the Lorelei and the center of the Rhine River valley wine industry. Two millenniums ago, it was a Roman settlement as were most of the cities along the Rhine. Today it appears to be a quaint, almost medieval place; the reality is that most of the original buildings were destroyed during WWII. Rudesheim is actually a tribute to the skill and determination of its citizens to restore their city. They have been so successful that close to 3 million people visit Rudesheim annually, about half from abroad.

After another delicious lunch( the MT’s kitchen served the most wonderful soups at lunchtime, with a different selection every day)our ship docked alongside a riverside park in Rudesheim.

Thousands of grapevines, with Rudesheim in the background
Thousands of grapevines, with Rudesheim in the background

At this stop we experienced RAFTING for the first time. Because of the growing popularity of river cruising, sometimes there isn’t enough dock space available close to town during the peak cruise months. Consequently, the second river boat to arrive has to tie up to the boat that is already docked. The Ramblers are surprised this doesn’t happen even  more often than it does, as most cruises seem to start on Sunday and end on Saturday. At any rate, the Maria Theresa was the second ship in Rudesheim, so in order to disembark, we had to walk through the first ship to reach the shore. Luckily the dock was fairly level so it didn’t involve much stair climbing. Viking seems to have its own dock space, but because there are so many Viking ships on the river, they are almost always rafted two or three together.

This is one reality of river cruising which will cause problems for people who can’t walk or climb steps on their own. There simply isn’t another way to get off the ship except by going through another ship when they are rafted together. In this case, the Ramblers suggest cruising at a less popular time, early spring or late fall, when there are fewer ships on the rivers and rafting is unlikely.  Otherwise, if you can’t make it up and down sometimes steep steps, you may be trapped on the boat at some stops. Although most river boats have elevators, none of them go up to the sun deck, which is often accessed only by a set of steep stairs. However, rafting sometimes involves climbing up to the top deck in order to disembark,

After getting off the MT in Rudesheim, we boarded a mini-tram (it really was mini–generous sized passengers had to squeeze in. The tram took us to the center of the Alstadt, where we climbed a series of steps to the catch the gondola which would take us to the top of the Niederwald Monument. The best way to get to the Gondola is to ride the mini-tram; it takes you around the Alstadt and you get off near the Kathe Wolfhart store.

The senior Rambler in the gondola heading up the hill
The senior Rambler in the gondola heading up the hill

Although the Rambler is an historian, she has never been very fond of monuments, however visiting this one had several benefits. You got to ride in an open gondola, and the view from the top was magnificent. What I didn’t find out until too late, was that we weren’t far from the cloister of Hildegarde of Bingen, the famous (to me anyway) medieval mystic, musician and physician. I wish Uniworld would include tours of her cloister along with the monument.

Built in the 1880’s to celebrate the unification of Germany as a nation state in 1871,The monument the monument is impressive. It is crowned with a statue of Germania and features bas-reliefs of Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals on the base. There was a good  crowd of river cruisers and local tourists  milling around base of the monument and taking photos. There was also an opportunity to try out the local wines at the top of the hill. There were several booths set up by the local wineries offering tastings but the Ramblers found the view much more interesting. After wandering around for a while and admiring the views, we headed back to the gondola house and literally hopped back on for a ride back down to the town.

View from the top of monument hill
View from the top of monument hill

No mini-tram awaited us, so we slowly strolled back to the river, admiring the quaint buildings and people watching along the way. This had been a very nice stop, with a little of everything, tram and gondola rides, a good walk, sunshine and moderate temperatures. Some fellow cruisers raved about the Kathie Wohlfart Christmas shop in town and came back toting serious purchases. Since the Ramblers have 60 plus years of somewhat battered but beloved Christmas memorabilia, we weren’t even tempted to go inside. But evidently it is a good place to stop if you are interested in such things.

Rudesheim from the gondola
Rudesheim from the gondola

Luckily, it is very hard to get lost in Rudesheim as everything runs down to the river. Once you see the river, you can head for your dock. We had to walk through another ship on the way, and thought it not nearly as nice as the MT. Some of the folks on the other ship evidently thought so too, and we felt rather smug  when they made admiring comments about the Maria Theresa. It would not be hard to get to sleep tonight as we sailed to Wurzburg.

Cruising to Koln(Cologne) and its amazing Kolner Dom ( Cologne Cathedral)

Our first day of cruising down the Rhine would take us to the city of Koln, which had been leveled during WWII and somewhat hastily rebuilt afterwards. First, however, we enjoyed the scenery that unfolded as we made our stately progress downriver. I think most of the passengers were startled, as we were, to see a number of  families, children and young people, swimming or splashing around in the Rhine. There were also many Germans on holiday , camping, fishing and boating. During our cruise,  we would pass a number of large campgrounds filled with the smaller European trailers on the river banks. Perhaps the water quality is better than it looked, as I know the European Union has strict rules about water pollution in Western Europe.

Today we would enjoy our first tour to the Kolner Dom but because the Maria Teresa wouldn’t arrive there until 4:30, the ship made a technical stop right after lunch, at 1;45.todays destination In other words, the MT stopped, lines were secured, the gangplank was set up, and those who wanted to tour Koln, disembarked and walked to our busses at the town of Zons,Germany It seemed like a pleasant place, but some of the gentle walkers were taken aback to find we had a long, mostly uphill walk to our bus. Uniworld always makes provision for cruisers who have trouble walking but in this case, we had no choice but to suck it up if we wanted to go on the tour. The Senior Rambler was having trouble with his back, and it took him a while to get to the bus, but several passengers kindly made sure they didn’t leave without us.

The ride to Koln was a relatively brief one, as the roads were straight while the Rhine made a serious of twisty bends on its way to Koln. Our destination was the very heart and soul of the city, the magnificent Dom or cathedral which is the largest and one of the most beautiful in Germany.

The beating heart of Koln tourism, the Cathedral square
The beating heart of Koln tourism, the Cathedral square

Although building started in the 13th century the Gothic cathedral was not finished until 1880. Until the 19th century, Koln was Germany’s largest city and is still the center of Germany’s Catholic population. After the creation of the German nation state, with its capital in the Protestant north,

Details of the 19th century entrance
Details of the 19th century entrance

Bismarck’s government provided funds to complete the building, using the medieval plans but with 19th century materials to gain the loyalty of the Catholic south.

One of the reasons it was originally built was to house the relics of the Magi, the Three Kings who came to pay homage to Jesus.The Archbishop of Koln acquired their relics in the 12th century from the Holy Roman Emperor  Plans were made to build a cathedral to house these precious relics and the cornerstone was laid in 1248. Even though the church was not completed, it became an important place of pilgrimage. As the centuries passed, the Dom was visited by hundreds of  thousands of pilgrims who came to venerate the relics of the MagiThe Golden box. It was second only to Rome in popularity as a place of pilgrimage  for hundreds of years. It  still attracts thousands of visitors every day although not all are believers or even Christian.

There are many reasons to visit the Dom; its architecture is magnificent, its interior is beautiful and it is filled with medieval and modern stained glass, art and sculpture. The building is so large that it swallows up the hundreds of pilgrims wandering the interior at any given timeceiling and organ. Of course the main attraction is the large gold casket which serves as a reliquary for the bones of the Magi. No matter the authenticity of the relics, the casket is a magnificent work of gold-plated silver over wood. Of course, it is incredibly valuable and consequently protected by iron bars and no doubt several hidden alarms. This made it very difficult to take a decent photo but I tried.

The Dom has a very high vaulted ceiling which is beautiful in its simplicity.staained glass On the left side, a swallow’s nest organ juts out from the side wall. It was added to celebrate the 700th anniversary in 1998. It does look like a precarious perch for the organist.

One of the oldest artifacts in the Dom found near the main altar is the Gero cross, a large crucifix carved in oak  with some paint and gilding.crucifix It was thought to be have been commissioned around 960 AD, for Gero, the Archbishop at that time. It is the oldest known free standing crucifix still extant in Northern Europe and was moved from the earlier Romanesque church which stood on the site.

There are many sculptures both old and new, both beautiful and grotesque but my favorite was the effigy of a long dead Archbishop. His likeness reclines somewhat nonchalantly on top of his tomb, attended by a cherub, waiting for the last judgment.Prince archbishop tomb

As you may have guessed there was much to see in the Kolner Dom and the Rambler suggests strongly that you visit if you have a chance, . It is as you might expect, a UNESCO World Heritage site. One caveat, because it is so popular, pickpockets lurk in the crowds, hoping to relieve the unwary of their valuables. Ironically, although Koln was flattened during WWII, the Dom itself received little damage. It seems that its towering spires were an excellent landmark for the pilots.

The cathedral dominates the skyline
The cathedral dominates the skyline

Today athletic and determined tourists can climb 500 plus steps to the top of one spire, where I’m sure you can see for miles. The Ramblers did not avail themselves of this pleasure.

After our tour, we had a choice of going back to the MT or strolling around the Alstadt (a short distance away) . Uniworld thoughtfully provided shuttle busses for those who wanted to stay later. Most decided to return to the ship, as many were still adjusting to the time change and working off their jet-lag.

For those who go, there is a tourist information center across from the Dom and a McDonald’s’ around the corner. The most famous local product is the Eau de Cologne. Only in Koln can you find the original , but elsewhere you will see the 4711 Eau de Cologne, which is similar. This cologne has been around for a long time; I remember seeing it around our house when I was growing up, but it is not a scent the Rambler enjoys.

Tomorrow more cruising along the Rhine!

At last, our August 24th Cruise is a go!

After checking the water levels on the Danube religiously (still low) and expecting to hear that our August 24th cruise on the Maria Theresa was cancelled yet again. we heard from our travel agent that the cruise was a go.

My thoughts on this were that our large ship, the Maria Theresa is as big as they can build for European rivers, was stuck on the Amsterdam side of the voyage. The Danube low spot seemed to be between Regensburg and Passau in Bavaria, close to the Austrian border. When the MT got to Regensburg towards the end of the cruise, Uniworld was hoping that the water level would be deep enough to let them through.

The August 24th cruise would start in Amsterdam and our flight details had changed. This time we were flying out from Atlanta to Frankfort with a connector to Amsterdam and home from Budapest, with a connecting flight to Frankfort again and then home to Atlanta. All the flights were on Lufthansa and  a  much better route than we had had before. That is the one problem with getting your airfare from the cruise company; you have no choice over the airline or the connecting flights, if any. We had no complaints with what we got, as we enjoyed our travel on Lufthansa.

Again we hoped to add premium economy seats to our long flights as we had last December. However, when I checked on the Lufthansa website a few days before we were to leave, there seemed to be no Premium Economy seats available on our plane. Undaunted, I called Lufthansa and explained what I was trying to do. What I found out was that Lufthansa was adding Premium Economy seats to all its big Airbus long-haul planes, but there was a caveat. The upgrade would not be completed on all of their planes until October and until then, the seats were blacked out  on the computer. The agent suggested that we get to the airport early and try to book the upgrade there. That was disappointing, but these days, one has to get to the airport early for international flights, so there was still a chance we could get them. However, we resigned ourselves to being crammed into the regular economy seats for 9 hours.

AS it turned out, we got through security quite easily and arrived at our gate with plenty of time to spare. There we found a very helpful Lufthansa agent who knew all about the upgraded economy seats. She praised them highly saying they were almost like business class, and yes, they were available for our flight.


Here is a link to Lufthansa’s snappy new commercial promoting Premium Economy.  Kind of cute.

our sirplane
Our Lufthansa ride to Amsterdam, fortunately the crying baby stayed in Frankfort

Lufthansa Premium Economy is more expensive, around $300 per person, as compared to Delta and United, but to us it was well worth it. The seats were larger, new and quite comfortable, the meals were quite good, and bottled water was waiting for us by our seats. There was only one fly in our ointment, a poorly behaved toddler who fussed and cried loudly a good bit of the time.  Of course he and his mother were also in Premium Economy and even in our row, but thankfully on the other side of the plane.

After an uneventful flight across the Atlantic, our gate wasn’t ready. We had to get out of the plane in the runway and board busses which took us to the Frankfort terminal.  There wasn’t a lot of time between flights and  we were worried that if our trans-Atlantic flight was late, we might miss the connector. No worries though, our flight was early, and even with the hassle of getting bussed to the terminal, we were fine.

After another uneventful flight, we again found ourselves in the extremely long corridors of Schipol. There were no little carts to lug senior citizens across its vast expanse, and this time we had our luggage. Naturally we were at the opposite end from where we were to meet the Uniworld representative. It was a warm afternoon and by the time we got to the exit we were hot and sweaty.  We finally spotted a Viking representative waving her characteristic red sign near the exit, but not the blue and white of Uniworld. I asked the Viking lady if she had seen the Uniworld folks and she replied that they usually waited outside for their people. The Ramblers hesitated for a moment, because it was an exit only and we wouldn’t be able to get back if she was wrong. Fortunately, she was right. We finally located our guide and were directed to the bus, which, of course, was a fair distance away. We were very glad to clamber aboard and were handed bottles of water by the driver. By this time, we really needed them.

After all the Uniworld passengers had been collected, our guide told us that we would be traveling to Utrecht, where the Maria Teresa was docked. Evidently because of the  Amsterdam Sail 2015  festival, traffic was so bad in the city, that they had decided to tie up in Utrecht instead. Otherwise it might have taken us quite a while to get to the ship.

The Maria Theresa, stern view.
The Maria Theresa, stern view.


This part of the Rhine is fairly commercial and there is much barge traffic, and no so much quaint scenery, so according to our Captain, we weren’t missing much, scenery wise. However, we were docked alongside a paved walkway with

Our cabin had opening windows with a screen to keep the bugs out. Makes an interesting pattern in this photo.
Our cabin had opening windows with a screen to keep the bugs out. Makes an interesting pattern in this photo.

apartments in the background. Those who wanted, could stretch their legs walking along the Rhine. Carla, the hotel manager and Captain Richard Martin graciously welcomed us aboard. We were happy to get to our  beautiful and comfortable cabin, and wash up before we began our exploration of this amazing ship.