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The Romans, wineries and medieval history intertwine in Provence

Thinking back about our time spend in sunny Provence during August 2016 is a pleasant way to escape from chilly Georgia in January 2018. Provence was a place the Rambler had wanted to visit for a long time and when we finally got to stay there for a few days, it did not disappoint. After touring the region on the Uniworld SS Catherine, for a week, we had two days to explore on our own and two we would travel around the area with a  Viator guide.

I had booked two tours from Avignon before we left Georgia through Viator, a subsidiary of Trip Adviser.  Viator works with local tour companies all over the world and lists many tour options on their website for almost everywhere. The best thing about using Viator is that they have vetted the local tours and if something goes wrong, they will make it right. Our first tour was to be an overview of Provence in one day; obviously we wouldn’t see everything but this seemed to be a great way to get a feel for the area. On the second day we would do a wine tasting tour; a little selfish on my part as the senior Rambler doesn’t drink, but we would also enjoy the varied scenery of Provence as well as the wine tasting.

Although our guide for the first day, JB (Jean Baptiste) was not our favorite, he did take us to some amazing places ranging from ancient towns and monasteries to Roman ruins. Unfortunately although the trip was supposed to be English language, we found that a small French woman was already seated in the tour van when we boarded. JB announced casually that he had another passenger and she did not speak English, so he would conduct the tour in both English and French. I am pretty sure that the woman spoke English, he said she was a teacher, but for whatever reason, she did not want to speak English or French for that matter, to us. In fact, she totally ignored us for the whole tour. In fact, she was the only French person we encountered who was not friendly and willing to speak to us. To make matters worse, as the day went on JB, spent much more time speaking French to the French teacher than he did in English to us. This was very frustrating but there wasn’t much we could do about it except complain to Viator when we got home (We did and they were very good about refunding half our expense.)

The other problem we had  was that except for three stops, JB dropped us off and stayed with the van so we didn’t learn as much about the area as we would have liked. We were used to having a guide along with us when we toured but evidently on this tour, because of crowds of tourists and minuscule parking, the guide was supposed to drop off the tourists  and pick them up at an agreed upon time.

Dropped off on the village square in a Provence hill town.

Admittedly parking was very tight in those small villages built way before the advent of the auto, and it did save us some walking but the negative was we got no information on what we were seeing as we strolled around the towns.

It was also un-nerving to be sitting in the middle seat of his small van where we had an excellent view of his no hands style of driving on the narrow roads of Provence. As we headed away from the busy city of Avignon, and into the countryside, JB told us the legend of the Mistral.  This strong and often unpleasant wind  which often blows tiles off roofs and branches from trees, also dries  out the air in the region saving millions of grapes from mildew. For an excellent re-telling of the legend click here.

We found that the lingering presence of the Roman empire is never far away in Provence. One of the first sites JB pointed out was the oldest bridge in Provence, Le Pont Julien which dates back to the beginning of the first century. It was built of interlocking stones without mortar by Roman engineers over the Cavalon River, circa 3 BC, as part of a much longer Roman road.

The bridge is in amazing shape considering that it is more than 2000 years old. I am sure it will last longer than the one built to replace it.

The river was dry on this August day, but the Cavalon is a rushing torrent in the springtime.   Unfortunately there is absolutely no information about the bridge at the site which is a shame. I later learned that only a few years ago cars drove over the ancient structure but now theRoman bridge is restricted to pedestrians and bicyclists.

JB  then parked on the shoulder of a hill so that we could look down at the Cistercian monastery of Senanque near Gordes.

Looking down at Senanque from the road above.

While we were stopped, he picked some thyme and other herbs (the Herbes de Provence)  to show us how they grew wild by the roadside.  Although Senanque was abandoned during the French revolution, in the 20th century a small group of monks returned and Senanque is now flourishing.

a close-up of the Abbey church.

When the lavender is in bloom, the monastery is bordered by fields of scented purple flowers. Unfortunately, Senanque was not our list of stops as I would have really enjoyed walking through the 12th century Romanesque church of Notre Dame.

From Senanque we traveled to Gordes, a town built up a hill for protection in the Middle Ages. All of its buildings are made of pale, white-gold limestone, durable and readily available. Tourists from all over come to the beautiful hill-top towns of Provence and Gordes was no exception, almost all built of the pale white-gold stone.

The soldier on the monument is wearing the  French infantry uniform of the WWI era. Many of the men and boys from the town were killed at Verdun and the Marne.

We were dropped off at the village square and given a chance to explore on our own. The first thing I noticed was the town’s WWI memorial, standing somewhat forlornly and un-noticed in the town square. These monuments are found in most French villages but this was the only one I saw that featured a soldier. Most are usually much larger and impressive.

The area around Gordes has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Tourists come to walk and marvel at the almost perpendicular streets of Gordes and its ancient Church and castle ruins.

The hilltop village of Gordes

However, on the outskirts of the town is another village dating to prehistoric times. Much of it has been restored, and like the Romans, these early inhabitants built their houses, called borries,  out of stacked stone, without mortar.

The entrance to the prehistoric village; several borries are visible as is a no parking sign!.This road was a busy one and the two tourists are cautiously waiting to cross.

It is possible to walk through the rebuilt town but we just took a peek inside because  our time in Gordes was limited.

Our next stop after Gordes was an ancient farmhouse, part of a working farm, and not much changed for several centuries.

The farmhouse, much changed for centuries and built to last even longer.

The family who lived there raised chickens, rabbits and a few other animals for their own use but also maintained bees which produced lavender honey.

A side view of the building; small windows and thick walls aided heating and cooling. NO dryer in this home.

They had a small home business selling home packed lavender honey and other lavender products. Alas, the honey I bought there never made it back to Georgia because I forgot to pack it in my checked bag; unfortunately honey is considered a liquid, Who knew? I am sure the pleasant farm  family was happy to have groups stop there as it is increasingly difficult to make a living farming because of European Union regulations. Their honey was delicious and I only wish it had made it home.

JB at the rabbit hutch, built into the wall, these bunnies were probably raised for food.

We were on our own for lunch on this tour but JB picked a beautiful spot: Le Fontaine de Vaucluse. This was a small town of 500 which revolves around an amazing natural wonder, a fontaine or spring. It is, in fact, the largest spring in France and the 5th largest in the world. Vaucluse comes from the Latin for closed village and indeed it huddles close beside the spring which is surrounded by limestone cliffs.

One of the popular hotels in Vaucluse, and our view from La Terrasses of the flowing spring and encircling cliffs..

Our uncommunicative French lady quickly marched off on her own without even a nod. The Ramblers shrugged and strolled alongside the river that flows from the spring, evaluating the various restaurants for their potential. We finally settled on Les Terrasses, mainly because it had some tables available with a water view. Since we had eaten excellent cuisine for two weeks, we enjoyed a simple snack of pinions de poulet (chicken legs); the senior Rambler had an Orangina, while I settled on a pichet of rose wine, what else, in Provence.

After a leisurely lunch and stroll along the flowing spring, we would spend the rest of a long day, about 9 hours in total, seeing even more of beautiful Provence.  To be continued…


Avignon, a historic walled city

Unlike many places we docked on this trip, Avignon had an extensive quay, which allowed many ships to dock at one time.  Since it is a very popular stop in the summer, this is a good thing.Most of the dock space was occupied by ships from many  different cruise lines. From the  Catherine’s spot on the quay, we had an excellent view of the medieval walled city and could check out the other ships docked nearby.

A view of the historic area of Avignon from the sundeck of the Catherine.

The historic area itself is surrounded by boulevards and green space, but. not far away, a wholly different modern Avignon city exists, not much different than any other French provincial city. This we would learn later as the Ramblers planned to stay on in Avignon for 4 nights at the end of our cruise.  Although we did not have to share our dock, two ships from different cruise lines did raft together in front of us. Rafting is no big deal, but sometimes the ships don’t match up well, and the passengers in the rafted ship may have to walk up and down stairs to disembark. On a positive note, it gives you a chance to check out ships owned by other lines. The most humorous experience we had with rafting was two years ago, on the Maria Theresa. The MT is one of Uniworld’s super ships, which means it is as big as you can get through the locks. As a result, she did not always match well with the  smaller ships. At one stop, we had to climb the steps to the sun deck and then down again to disembark. When we returned, the kitchen staff was loading foodstuff and we got caught up in a procession of kitchen staff  and some crew, each toting boxes filled with produce. Although it looked like a scene from Disney, I am sure it was not much fun for the hardworking staff.

Although the Catherine has her spot on the quay to herself, two river cruisers had rafted in front of us, the Swiss Emerald with a home port in Basel and the Amadagio based in Hamburg

In Avignon, it was pleasant to walk down an almost level gangplank and stroll along the quay. This had been laid out as a wide and pleasant promenade with benches along the way. It was possible to walk for several miles along the river in both directions. The massive Palace of the Popes was clearly visible in the distance and lighted at night. We would dock here for one night and move to Arles/Tarascon during the  day,. Tarascon was the farthest we traveled on the Rhone. However we would dock there only briefly. The  Catherine would turn around after we toured the city and return to Avignon for the last night of the cruise.

An aerial view of the Palace. You can see the river on the left. The Palace wall forms part of the city wall.

Today Uniworld offered three options. The first, and the most logical choice for the Ramblers was a tour of Avignon including  the Palace of the Popes. However, the  gentle walkers could ride a little tourist train around the historic area inside the walls instead. This choice was a no-brainer for the Ramblers. We decided on the train. The Palace of the Popes tour involves lots of walking and steps as it is huge and unfortunately  largely empty.

The Ramblers weren’t attracted by the other choices either. The first was a Kayak ride on the Gardon River scheduled for the afternoon. If we Ramblers got into a Kayak, we would have to be hoisted out, not a pretty sight. However a number of the younger passengers signed up for kayaking on the river. Those who went really enjoyed it, although they returned looking very hot and sweaty. Fortunately they would have plenty of time to relax before tonight’s gala farewell dinner. Kayaking on a French river was one of the go-active tours available during every cruise. Some are strenuous hikes, others involve bike rides and all are very popular with the less sedentary passengers.

The third choice was a tour to the Pont du Gard Aqueduct. It was scheduled for the same time as the tour of Avignon, providing an interesting option for those passengers who had already visited Avignon.

Our approach to the nearest gate in the wall gives an even better idea of how massive it is.

As you can see from the aerial view, the palace is immense, the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.  Constructed as both fortress and palace it was briefly the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palace is actually two buildings joined together. If considered as one, they form the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages. Although construction began in 1252 AD as a Bishop’s palace, the first Pope, a Frenchman, Clement V moved to Avignon in 1309 AD because of chaotic religious and military issues in Rome. The following 70 years, when the principal see of the Catholic Church was in Avignon, is often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. This was one of the low points in Catholic history as for a time there were two Popes, and then a third until Urban V and Gregory XI returned to Rome, convinced that the seat of the papacy could only be the by the tomb of St. Peter. Despite its brief role as the center of Western Christianity, the Avignon papal library  of over 2,000 volumes drew clerical scholars, including the founder of Humanism, Petrarch. Composers, singers and musicians came to compose and perform in the Great Chapel of the Palace. Because it was so huge, 118,403 sq ft,  the Palace forced the centralization of services, creating the first central administrative system for the Church. It also required a large staff of both religious and lay persons unusual for the time.

Unfortunately, although the return of the Pope to
Rome was good for the Catholic Church, it resulted in the deterioration of the Palace. Such a large space simply wasn’t needed in Avignon. Consequently it was in bad shape by the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789.The Palace was stripped of its remaining furnishings and artwork during and after the French Revolution and these items were never restored

As you can see, this petit train is similar to the one we rode  thru the vineyards..


We gentle walkers assembled for the relatively short walk to the square where we would board the little train. Unfortunately we didn’t realize that  was more than one train in service . It probably wouldn’t have mattered as we boarded the one that was there. However, one of the trains is quite new, and seems to have had a more careful driver while the one which we boarded was ramshackle and  as we soon  found out, with a  driver to match.

Unfortunately this battered contraption was the one that showed up when we waited at the stop.

I wanted to sit in the last car again  so as to have better photo opps. This was a mistake.  Riding in the last car, the Ramblers thought our driver was playing crack the whip as we bounced along the cobblestones and whipped around the corners of the narrow streets. To make matters worse, the narrative that accompanied the tour was impossible to understand.  I am sure the gentle walkers with back problems were only too happy to disembark at the end of this tour although the children probably enjoyed it.

Not sure whether the nun was a tourist or a resident of a nearby convent.

Our ride ended  in the square,  a relatively short walk back to the closest city gate and then not far to the Catherine. We took our time as we knew that if we missed lunch in the dining room, we could always order a sandwich in the Leopard Lounge. While we were in the square, I took perhaps my best photo of the trip. It was a hot day, and the noon sun was very warm.  I noticed an elderly nun, resting in the shade, not far from the Palace.  I don’t usually take photos of people without their permission, but in this case I couldn’t resist.

A cruise in France would not be complete without a lesson in crepe making by our chefs. I am really not sure just day we had this but it was fun to watch.

Margery and the chefs quaffing the cognac. It was to give her courage to flip the crepe, and it worked!

Although the chef prepared the crepe batter, he was looking for some one from the audience to make a crepe. First they asked innocently if anyone made crepes at home, When I mentioned that I had, many times, they tried to coax me into coming forward and being their guinea pig. The Rambler politely refused, suggesting that someone else have the honor. Eventually, Margery the daughter of my South African friend, volunteered. She was quite the sport and actually managed to flip her crepe after toasting her attempt with a glass of cognac.

That night we had  our “Gala Farewell Dinner.”  I put the title in italics because every night, we had an excellent 5 course meal with several choices. Fortunately the portions are small, otherwise many passengers wouldn’t be able to buckle their seat belts on the plane going home. One of the appetizer choices for the Gala was foie gras which neither of the Ramblers enjoy. But I guess it was good, as our waitress told us folks at another table had asked for, and received 2nds and 3rds.

The Senior Rambler enjoying a special meal in the Leopard Lounge.

All the courses had accompanying wines which were excellent, while the senior Rambler had his customary orange juice or coke. One thing we enjoy about river cruising is the open seating. We tried hard to sit with different people at every meal but eventually, especially for the Farewell Gala, you gravitate towards the friends you made on the voyage.

For dessert, what else but Baked Alaska, on the Catherine’s special china.

Ironically, the Gala is not usually on the last night of the cruise but the preceding night. I am sure this is because the crew has to get ready for the next group of passengers who will be arriving as we disembark. Clearing up for such an elaborate meal obviously would take longer. Plus, some passengers had very early flights home. At end of one cruise, European Jewels in 2015,  we had to leave for the airport at 3:30 AM, so obviously  not a good idea to eat a rich meal only a few hours earlier.

On our last day of this cruise, the Catherine would set sail tomorrow for Tarascon at 9 AM. The Captain isn’t kidding. if the schedule says 9, the ship leaves at 9. This was not a problem for anyone on this trip nor should it be, as the next day’s schedule appears in your cabin the night before.

A step back in time at Viviers where the Rambler is schooled in petanque

From Lyon, a  modern city built over and around its historic past, the Catherine would take us to Viviers, a smallish place  with perhaps 3,900 inhabitants and few elements of modernization. Vivers is in the Ardeche or Rhone-Alpes region and lies at the confluence of the Rhone and the Escoutay Rivers.

View of the hilly terrain around Viviers. The Rhone is in the distance.

Viviers was founded before the fall of the Roman Empire. Then it was called Vivarium and supplied the nearby Gallo- Roman city with vegetables and wine. Viviers was also a Christian center and in the 5th century, the Bishop of Alba decided establish his episcopal see there.

The tower of St. Michael is the oldest part of the cathedral structure, dating to the 11th century.

If you have a bishop, you have to have a cathedral, and so it was. Not too much later the first church was built on a high rocky hill, called the Chateauvieux Rock  which overlooks the town and the rivers. The foundation  of the current Cathedral of St Vincent date to the 12th century

. At first, part of the Holy Roman Empire, Viviers’ citizens later were incorporated into the Kingdom of France and thus were endangered by the Hundred Years War fought between the French and the English. They also suffered from the bubonic plague or the Black Death in the 14th century. Unfortunately Viviers has endured more than its share of war and suffering but has survived. It is no surprise that its citizens tried to protect themselves from conflict and disease. In the oldest part of town one sees homes with few windows and no doors facing the street as if to keep trouble out.

All the houses in the hsitoric center of Viviers are made of stone, even the roofs because of the powerful winds common to the area.

Today we would first go to the Cathedral of St. Vincent at the top of Chateauvieux. Despite the bus ride to our destination, the senior Rambler decided there would be too much walking for him and he opted for a leisurely day on the Catherine. As it was a fairly steep climb, the gentle walkers happily rode the bus to the top of the rocky hill. There we had a chance to stroll around and admire the view before the scheduled organ concert in the cathedral. The organist was talented and played  a spirited program of sacred and classical music

Our organist waves to acknowledge our applause after a spirited concert.

. Before the concert,  I wanted to light a candle as I usually do when I visit a church but there were no lighters. A German tourist from another group tried to help but succeeded only in snuffing out 5 or 6 candles. Fortunately yet another tourist sprang into action with his lighter and lit my candles as well as those that had been put out prematurely.

St. Vincent’s before the tourists flocked in, a beautiful and peaceful place and also quite small as Cathedrals go.

The cathedral is a popular stop for travelers and river cruisers so we were joined inside by several other groups. St Vincent’s is the smallest cathedral in France and the oldest still in use, a historic and beautiful place. However most guidebooks and the guide in the Cathedral didn’t mention that It was also the scene of a daring art theft in 1974. Instead of the more common wall frescoes, carvings or statues, the altar of St. Vincent’s is surrounded by beautiful Gobelin tapestries woven in France at the end of the 18th century. Unfortunately 43 years ago, daring thieves cut down three of the six tapestries from the wall at night.  This was not an easy task as they weighed more than 100 pounds a piece and had become somewhat fragile.

The Cathedral was the absolute worst place to take photographs on the trip. Too much light or no light. Here you can see two of the tapestries; all feature scenes from the New Testament. Not sure which ones were stolen.

Each tapestry is considered priceless today  and although stolen art recovery specialists searched diligently for the missing Gobelin’s only two have been recovered to date. It is said the parishioners of St. Vincent’s pray for the return of the missing tapestry every Sunday.

After the concert, we wandered around the top of the rock for a while enjoying the views on a beautiful day. Then  our guides gathered us in to walk down the hill into the town.

Our guide for the second part of our tour. She was delightful, Unfortunately I forgot to write down her name.

We had divided into smaller groups, each of which would visit a shop or a home in the historic part of Viviers. Our group went to visit the Poterie, where we got a chance to see the owner at work making his wares.

Our potter at work. What a pleasant workplace it was.

We also learned about the business The owners lived upstairs; the shop was on the ground floor in an ancient building. It was a pleasant place to work as pedestrians wandered in or walked by, through the sun-dappled,  cobble stone streets,  It is the custom to offer visitors some kind of snack in this part of France. The people are very hospitable and friendly and so we sipped some local wine and munched on local cheese and home-made appetizers in their showroom/ home. It was a pleasant time.

All too soon it was time to straggle back to the ship and I took my time, enjoying the walled gardens, narrow byways and ancient buildings.

Must admit I peeked into one of the walled gardens.

I wondered  as I walked along what it might be like to live in Viviers where everyone had their place. My thoughts were interrupted by Yann our hotel manager and Martin our concierge who called me over to a dusty field where they were playing some sort of ball game.  Yann and Martin coaxed me into trying my hand at game of what I learned was petanque. My partner would be another  crew member who didn’t know much about the game. I am the sports loving Rambler and am always eager to try some new game but I had never seen petanque played so I didn’t know what I was getting into. I also didn’t know then that it was practically the national game of Provence and the Ardeche.

This narrow passageway is actually a street.

Yann kindly instructed us two newbies in the rules of the game and allowed us a few practice  throws. The rules and equipment are simple. Each player has 3 steel balls which they are supposed to try to land in a circle drawn in the dust, about 15 ft away.

Here are the three innocent looking steel balls…

Inside the circle was a little wooden ball. The idea was to land the steel balls as close to the little wooden ball as possible. Seems simple, right? Not… What they didn’t tell us was that another part of the game was to knock the opponent’s ball out of the circle. When they graciously let us go first, they were actually setting us up. Through sheer luck, my partner and I managed to score one point. Fortunately more of our group were strolling back to the ship and some took up Yann’s friendly offer  to enter the shark tank as we escaped.

After tramping around in that sandy field, my sandals were truly full of sand, and I was glad to get back to the Catherine where I could shake them out. Then it was time to relax and enjoy the scenery on the river. Our next stop would be Avignon.

Moored across from us were three barges that had been converted into houseboats.

Conflans, both mariner’s retirement home and medieval town

At breakfast this morning, we watched the Baroness make a technical stop at Mantes la Jolie,

The Baroness making a technical stop.

although our destination was Conflans Ste. Honorine.  On a river cruise, a technical stop occurs when some of the passengers are going on a special tour and it is more convenient for them to board their busses before we got to the days destination.  In this case some of our friends were going on an optional excursion to the Palace of Versailles. Since the Ramblers had already been to Versailles, we were happy to stay on board. Especially since the busses left at 8:15 AM,on the first cloudy morning of our trip.

At 6 PM, the Baroness would set sail for Paris. where we would spend our last full day on board.

The church in Auvers through the eyes of Vincent Van Gogh

The week in Normandy had gone by all too quickly. Today’s excursion was a walking tour in Auvers-sur -Oise, the village where Vincent Van Gogh spent the last two months of his life, killed himself and was buried.

Although we decided to stay in Conflans and walk along the river, we learned that Van Gogh went to Auvers because it was a place beloved of many impressionists who had lived there. There Van Gogh was treated by a doctor whom he liked, but felt wasn’t doing him much good.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Van Gogh’s doctor. The painting sold for 82.5 million plus 10% buyers’ commission.  Van Gogh painted Dr. Gachet, his therapist shortly before his death. There is another version of this image which varies in color at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There is some debate that the second painting is a counterfeit as Van Gogh never mentioned it.

In fact, he committed suicide two months after his move to Auvers. After hearing more about the village, I was sorry that we didn’t go on the tour but we did enjoy our time in Conflans.

Conflans is an ancient place and got its name originally because it is at the confluence of the Seine and Ouse rivers. You can see the divide from the boat if you look for it. At Conflans we were moored at a quay right in the center of the historic area of Conflans. We learned later that Conflans was considered a far suburb of Paris and was only 15 miles by road or train from the center of the city near where we would dock that night. Consequently when we set sail at 6 PM, we would see the outskirts of Paris as we enjoyed the gala farewell dinner later. On this cruise, because  our ports were close together, we never cruised very long on any day, even at our speed of about 6 knots per hour. (A knot is slightly longer than a mile.) The distance between some ports on the Rhine, Danube and Main rivers can be much farther. Spending a lazy afternoon cruising is a very relaxing experience.

Ariel view of Conflans at the point where the two rivers come together. There is a monument at the spot. Photo from Conflans St. Honorine tourism brochure.

However, now we were in Conflans and determined to take a look at the dozens of barges converted to houseboats that lined the bank. It is said that Conflans has become the final docking spot for many retired mariners who spent their lives on the rivers of Europe. It seems like a good choice because while they are moored in a relatively small town of 30,000 plus inhabitants, they are only a short train ride from the center of Paris.

One of the many docks with barges moored on both sides.

Around 370 barges make their home at Conflans including the Chapelle Je Sers, a barge built in 1911 that had been converted into a floating church and pastoral center for the maritime community. We were unable to visit the chapel on board because a funeral was in progress. Many cars and taxis lined the quay and while groups of somberly clad  people talked quietly outside. What a wonderful idea it was to convert a barge into a floating church. Of course it was named for St. Nicholas, the patron saint of boatmen and women.

Funeral held on Je Sers the afternoon we were in Conflans. You can see the entrance to Je Sers in the middle of the photo.

Conflans also boasts a number of interesting buildings both along the river and at the top of a high bluff. We were not ambitious enough to climb to the top that afternoon but now wish we had. The historic center of Conflans has not lost its medieval roots. Because of our laziness, we missed the maritime museum, the Church of St. Maclou, with its relic of St. Honorine. St. Honorina, a 10th century Christian martyr, lent her name to the town. She is also considered the patroness of mariners. Conflans also boasts one of the last remaining stone towers in France, the Tour de Montjoie.

The historic center of Conflans,with the Tour Montjoie on the left. Wiki had one taken from a river vantage point.

The tower can easily be seen from the river. Unfortunately it is only an imposing shell, as the interior is an unsafe ruin. It is surrounded by a beautiful medieval garden and worth a look

We strolled the bank of the Seine from one end to the other, taking a good look at the interesting buildings that lined the quay. Several of the most imposing looked unkempt as though they were no longer occupied or had fallen on hard times.

A beautiful home but it looked very neglected. Lots of weeds in the planter.

One of the oldest was the Chateau de Themericourt built by a secretary of Louis 14th in 1667. It changed hands many times, and was sometime a hospital and a school. Although it belongs to the state, the chateau seems to be waiting for a new purpose. Unfortunately, it is not a very interesting building, just a large, square box with two rows of windows, totally bereft of landscaping or ornamentation. Some of the windows on the second floor were covered and the others allowed a look into a mostly empty building. Hopefully the government will find a new use for the chateau.

The chateau looking lonely, waiting for the next stage of its long life.

Our time in Conflans was low-key but enjoyable as we had a chance to spend some time in a very pleasant spot. We stopped at the tourist office to pick up one of their brochures, in French, but this allowed us to identify what we were looking at.

The Baroness sailed promptly at 6 PM on the last leg of our journey. We would be back in Paris at the Quay Andre Citroen by 11 PM at the latest. It is the Uniworld custom for the Tour Director to have a talk about the next day’s activities before dinner.

Our tres chic cruise director Emmanuelle explaining our next day’s activities.

Tonight was especially important because many of the passengers would be off the ship at the Moulin Rouge tomorrow night.  One of the few optional tours on this cruise was a  chance to attend a dinner show at the Moulin Rouge, our last night in Paris. The Ramblers decided not to attend. The senior Rambler in particular, does not care to be in large rooms full of people nor is he a great fan of most music. Although I enjoy music, I don’t like large crowds either and the Moulin Rouge is in a very large room indeed so it was not difficult to miss it. Friends that went said it was an excellent show, worth the high price (195 Euros per person.) If you would like to see a little of what we missed, click here.

Thus our delightful Cruise Manager, Emmanuelle Bonneau gave the disembarkation talk one night early. Many of the guests would be going with Emmanuelle to the Gare  de Lyon where we would catch the TGV to Lyon. There we would board the SS Antoinette for the second week  of our Grand France cruise on the Rhone and Saone rivers in Provence.

Heading back to the Quay Andre Citroen on the banks of the Seine

A Morning in Bayeux, to see the story of another invasion

Unlike some of our other cruises, the Grand France cruise was packed with activity from the beginning. The Baroness had sailed at 6:30 PM on the day we embarked, unusually early. Even then, we had taken a brief cruise of the Seine before we headed to Normandy. The second day was action packed with two separate stops, one for Giverney and the second for The Lion Hearts castle. In between, we had the traditional welcome dinner and were introduced to the staff and crew.

Most of the Baroness' staff and crew are in this photo.
Most of the Baroness’ staff and crew are in this photo. Celina is wearing a white jacket in the photo middle left.

We were fortunate indeed to have an excellent hotel manager in Celina Sousa, one of the kindest and most caring we had encountered. She was very concerned by the Senior Rambler’s missing luggage, and lack of spare clothes and so we worked out a plan so that he could change into his robe and pajamas while the staff washed and ironed his one outfit. After wearing the same clothing two days in a row, he was very happy to have something clean to wear.

Emmanuelle Bonnier, our cruise director, was equally proactive in trying to wrest the missing bag from the clutches of Air France. She called them several times a day, getting the run-around each time, until finally they admitted, that the luggage had been at Charles de Gaulle all along. On the 9th day it would be delivered to Lyon after we had transferred to the SS Catherine. So even though we had a few problems on the cruise to Normandy, the kindness of the staff more than made up for our inconvenience.

The staff’s incredible service   would continue on the second half of the cruise when we transferred to the SS Catherine. I will never forget the quick action of the Baroness’ lady butler, Valentina. The Senior Rambler takes a blood thinner and what would be a bruise on me, is a bleeding cut for him. He had evidently banged his arm somewhere on board and  his arm was bleeding. She noticed it even before we did and appeared wearing plastic gloves and armed with peroxide and a band-aid. She quickly cleaned the cut, used the antiseptic and put on a band-aid with practiced skill. We were not in a suite and so technically, we shouldn’t even have been helped by a butler, but this was just a small example of their concern.

The action-packed schedule on the Baroness continued on our second full day of the cruise. This was the day we would visit the Normandy beaches which turned out to be the high point of the cruise for the Senior Rambler.

Map of Normandy with D-Day beaches, we would see them all.
Map of Normandy with D-Day beaches, we would see them all.

Again we  had two options. The first was an all day tour of the Normandy beaches with stops at Arromanche and Juno and  Sword Beaches. Naturally the British and Canadian cruisers joined this group. They would stop at Arromanche for lunch on their own after viewing a film of the landing in its 360 degree cinema. Arromanche also had many shops where they had an opportunity to buy souvenirs if they chose, as there would be no chance to do this at the beaches. We were surprised to find that these once bloody battlefields now served both an outdoor museum and a  seaside vacation spot for the local residents.

A tank we passed on the way to Bayeux
A tank we passed on the way to Bayeux

The Ramblers on the other hand, decided to take the second option. This was first a stop at Bayeux to see the famous tapestry with time on our own for lunch in the pretty little town. We would then re- board our bus for the journey to Omaha Beach where the D-Day landing of the American troops was so graphically shown in Saving Private Ryan. Our guide Irene, however, made sure our bus driver took a route that went past Sword, Gold and Juno beaches on the way to Omaha beach and American cemetery there.

But first Bayeux. Our bus ride took us mainly through rural Normandy where many contented cows grazed. Irene proudly stated that they were a special breed, Norman (Normande) cows.

These Normande cows looked much like the ones we saw on our trip.
These Normande cows looked much like the ones we saw on our trip.

Those of us who are familiar with the Holsteins of Chic-Fil-A fame, thought they looked just like them until Irene pointed out that Norman cows, unlike Holsteins wear the marks of spectacles around their eyes. And so they did. I didn’t get a photo of any Norman cows wearing their glasses from our moving bus but here is one from the web. The breed had been around since Viking times and give rich milk that is well suited for the making of the many cheeses produced in Normandy.  We did pass by an American tank en route, painted a bright green, and evidently a war memorial.

This majestic cathedral dates to the time the tapestry was completed and may have been displayed inside. It was not damaged during WWII.
This majestic cathedral dates to the time the tapestry was completed and may have been displayed inside. It was not damaged during WWII.

Bayeux, like many towns in Normandy, dates back to Roman times and is only 4 miles from the sea.  Duke William of Normandy, later William the First, King of England set sail from the nearby shore  on his successful invasion of England in 1066. The magnificent Bayeux cathedral of Notre Dame also dates from the 11th century, as does the Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England.

Model of one of William the Conqueror's knights outside the tapestry display.
Model of one of William the Conqueror’s knights outside the tapestry display.

It is displayed in a stone building in Bayeux that once housed a seminary. Legend says that it was embroidered by Queen Matilda and her ladies as they waited for the successful warriors to return. Like many legends, it probably isn’t true but it makes a nice story.Even today, historians are not sure of the exact origin of the tapestry. It may have been commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux,

to commemorate the successful invasion as he played a prominent role in the event as William’s half-brother. It may even have been embroidered by English monks.

No photos inside, bu this is the way it is displayed from their brochure.
No photos inside, bu this is the way it is displayed from their brochure.

Wherever it came from , it provides crewel-work time capsule of life in Normandy in the 11th century. As a retired history professor, I was very familiar with the tapestry and was anxious to see it for myself. When I did, I have to say that I was disappointed. It looks just like it does in the pictures. The tapestry is displayed behind glass in a darkened room, and one shuffles slowly past its 60 ft. length as one of many listening to their audiovox players. Photos do not do justice to many things, the Grand Canyon comes to mind, but the Bayeux Tapestry was not one of them.

As you can see, Bayeux has a medieval feel but and is close to many ports.
As you can see, Bayeux has a medieval feel but and is close to many ports.

Fortunately the town of Bayeux was a great place to have a relaxing stroll. Since we were on our own, for lunch, we hoped to enjoy a snack at one of the many sidewalk cafes near the cathedral. Unlike the nearby town of Caen, Bayeux had suffered little damage in WWII as the Germans had concentrated their defenses in Caen. In fact, it was the first town liberated after the Allied landing.

The local specialty is a Galette or buckwheat crepe with various savory fillings. However we Ramblers are not fond of savory crepes, having grown up with their jelly or apple sauce filled cousins, so we did not try them. I know, no sense of adventure. We strolled down one of the main streets that leads to the cathedral although we didn’t go in.

You can't miss the old mill ias you stroll the streets of Bayeux.
You can’t miss the old mill ias you stroll the streets of Bayeux.

After all the activity of the last two days, it was pleasant to just take a leisurely stroll. Some of our fellow passengers had already chosen a place to eat, but nothing looked just right. We went into the courtyard of one of the larger restaurants but it was jam-packed with families on holiday and we quickly left. The Ramblers finally settled on a tiny place, staffed solely by a friendly and attractive young woman. After looking at her tiny menu we settled on something very ordinary, deciding to share an order of fish sticks and chicken  fingers. I know what you are thinking, you are in France and you order fish sticks!!! Well yes, and as it turned out it was an excellent choice.

Everything prepared to order by the smiling proprietress. You can see the crepe maker on the counter. Highly recommended.
Everything prepared to order by the smiling proprietress. You can see the crepe maker on the counter. Highly recommended. She was pleased when I told her she would end up in my blog eventually.

Neither the fish nor the chicken were pre-packaged, they were cooked beautifully and came with two different and tasty sauces. It was a very pleasant  lunch, just enough to fortify us for the rest of our trip.

We took our time walking back to our meeting place, noting the  old mill as well and a more up-scale restaurant on the other side of the  lazy river.

We might have tried this upscale restaurant if we had been there for the day. Glad we didn't.
We might have tried this upscale restaurant if we had been there for the day. Glad we didn’t.

But we had no regrets. We were well fortified for our visit to Omaha Beach. We later learned that there was yet another WWII cemetery in Bayeux, this one for British troops who died at Normandy

The Ramblers decide to travel to France

Having once spent 5 weeks in France teaching in a study abroad program, the Ramblers had often thought of a return trip. However, the years have flown by and we never did go back. Now, after river cruising on the Rhine and Danube, we considered a cruise on French rivers, the Seine and the Rhone.

The morning sun sparkles on the Seine as we boarded the River Baroness Sunday morning.
The morning sun sparkles on the Seine as we boarded the River Baroness Sunday morning.

Since we had great times on our Uniworld cruises, we decided to book a trip they called Grand France. This was a double cruise on two different boats. The River Baroness would sail from Paris to Normandy and back. Then we would transfer to the SS Catherine, based in Lyon, for a cruise through Provence which ended in Avignon.The two cruises were linked for the Grand France tour by a TGV ride from Paris to Lyon. Although we have often ridden on trains in Europe, we had never been on the TGV and this sounded interesting as well.

Although I would book the Grand France cruise through AAA as before, this time I decided not to get our air fare through Uniworld, but instead book it myself. The main reason was that the Ramblers wanted some control over the times and dates of our flights. Cruise companies often put their customers on flights with arrivals that suit them rather than the passengers, especially for departures. All cruise companies need to get passengers off their boats quickly on the last morning of the cruise so that the cabins can be cleaned and readied for the next group of cruisers. Often it leads, as it did for us, to being driven to the airport at 3:30 AM for an early flight out. This had not been very pleasant, so I decided to see what I could do myself.

The internet has made booking air fare both easy and confusing. Once you investigate flights, you are bombarded with teaser ads or email promoting really cheap prices. Of course, the airlines all have their own websites as well, and most of these are fairly easy to navigate. Michelle Shirley, my AAA agent told me that generally the airlines have taken most of the insider perks away from travel agents and anyone looking to fly can book just as good a deal as they could get from a travel agency. Plus the airlines offer just as good prices although they may not last long, as the websites promoting cheap air deals.

We were amazed by the number of construction cranes we saw en route to the River Baroness from Charles De Gaulle airport. There must have been dozens.

Armed with this information I began my search for flights from Atlanta to Paris, round-trip. Before I go any further, it is really important to know exactly when your river cruise is going to depart on the first day of the cruise. Really important…  Most cruises stay overnight that first day or sail later in the evening, but not all, as the Rambler found to her dismay. Right after booking a flight that got to Paris at 2 in the afternoon, I realized that our ship would leave at 5:30 that same afternoon! I had thought, without checking, that the River Baroness would sail later in the evening, so always check this first. Arriving at 2 in the afternoon was definitely not a good thing as Paris-Charles de Gaulle is a big airport and there would be little time to make our cruise. AAARGH  This meant that I had to change our booking, a $300 per person charge which negated the pretty good deal I had found. So please do check. It might not even be a bad idea to arrive the day before, which would have saved us $600 minus the cost of our airport hotel.

Well, back to my booking experience. For those of you who don’t live in New York or Boston, there are often not many choices for a non-stop flight to Europe, depending on the city. One would think that Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, one of the busiest in the world, would have many choices for getting to Paris non-stop, but this was not the case. Atlanta is a Delta hub and for some strange reason, all the non-stop flights to Paris were either on Delta or one of its partners, Air France. If we had wanted to go to Amsterdam, we could have chosen KLM, another Delta partner, which would have been our first choice. Air France was not recommended by our travel agent, and the Ramblers followed her advice, and booked Delta, tho it surprised us. Unfortunately, we would later learn just how Air France got its bad reputation.

Before we set sail, we had a view of pricey Paris real estate from our ship's sundeck.
Before we set sail, we had a view of pricey Paris real estate from our ship’s sundeck.

Since we were booking our own air fare, I had the bright idea of staying a few extra days in Avignon at the end of our cruise, to see more of Provence. Then we could travel back to Paris by TGV and catch our flight home the next day. Having talked the senior Rambler into this new plan, I booked the air, adding extra comfort seats, and began the search for a place to stay in Avignon. This would be moving out of our comfort zone, as we would no longer have Uniworld to move us around.

Again, the internet makes this both easy and difficult. There are so many choices and so many reviews on Trip Adviser and similar sites that don’t necessarily tell you what you want to know.  Fortunately, a friend who had stayed in Avignon before, stressed the importance of staying inside the walls in the historic center of the city. This was really good advice, although I didn’t realize it until we got there. This decision narrowed our choices somewhat, but I had now to chose between a chain hotel and a small inn or B&B. Both had pluses and minuses. If you stay at a chain hotel and there is a problem, you can usually get it solved in your favor. However, if you stay at a B&B, once you pay, it’s hard to change things. Having read reviews for days, I finally decided on Le Limas, a B&B with a view of the Papal Palace from its 4th floor terrace. Le Limas turned out to be an excellent choice, but the Ramblers wouldn’t be sure of this until we arrived.

River traffic on the Seine is fascinating, lots of barges, houseboats docked along the way and other cruise boats were fun to watch.
River traffic on the Seine is fascinating, lots of barges, houseboats docked along the way and other cruise boats were fun to watch.

Next, was the task of signing up for several day-long tours of the Provence countryside that we wouldn’t be able to see from the boat. Again, after much reading of reviews, I decided to go with two tours advertised by Viator, a company my world traveling daughter recommended. The first was a day long highlights of Provence tour that would take  us all over the Provence countryside, featuring both medieval and Roman highlights. The second was a day long tour of the wine regions of Provence which included tastings and lunch. The senior Rambler doesn’t drink, so this tour was definitely more for me, but as it turned out, he would enjoy it very much.

That done, all we had to do was think about what we might pack, and how to make sure our plants got watered until the terrorist attacks in France , which occurred, as it turned out, in places we were to visit. Soon people began to ask if we were still going, or “weren’t we afraid to travel to France?” Honestly, the Ramblers didn’t think about cancelling our trip. We both believe that when your number is up, it’s up, and still looked forward to the trip. After we arrived in France, we did notice, particularly in Paris and Avignon, a very visible police and military presence, but no violence.

Many people obviously were afraid, because both of our cruises were half full, even though they had been completely booked months ago. Giving in to fear, in our opinion, is playing into the hands of the terrorists. We were thanked many times during our trip by the French men and women we met for having the courage to travel to France at this time.

Before we left, we also applied and were approved for Global Entry cards, although we are not sure if they were worth the $100. fee. It certainly makes entering the US easy enough, but seems to do little when you are going through security before you board. Be aware that if you have some metal in your body, as I do with two artificial hips, you will be x-rayed and patted down. Very humiliating for the Rambler, especially since the senior Rambler walked right through. This time they even made me take my shoes off and x-rayed them.

So much for the Global Entry card at this point. However, we did board our flight, it was uneventful and smooth, and we landed in Paris on time, at 6:10 AM. A Uniworld representative would be waiting for us outside the door after we collected our baggage. Well, my bag was one of the first ones on the conveyor belt, but after 45 minutes, my husband’s still hadn’t shown up. Air France had somehow lost it. We filled out several lost baggage forms, one person said it had been put on a later plane and we could get it later. We did get it later….8 days later.

Tethered balloon in the distance from the top deck of the River Baroness.
Tethered balloon in the distance from the top deck of the River Baroness.

Somewhat flustered, after filling out the lost baggage forms, the Ramblers headed out the exit and were relieved to find a Uniworld Representative still waiting for us after the luggage hassle. We climbed aboard the van and relaxed, Surely we would get the lost bag later in the day. On our way to the River Baroness, we noticed many  cranes, high in the air, Paris was expanding its high-rise buildings. Our boat was moored withing sight of the Eiffel Tower and next to a park where a tethered hot-air balloon took crowds of people up to enjoy the view. We were not tempted to try it after our long flight, and spent the rest of the day relaxing until we left on the first leg of our cruise at 5:30 PM


The Old Meets the New in Regensburg

Today would be one of the most interesting but also  most confusing days we spent on the Maria Theresa. Little did we know that morning  we would spend  only two more nights on our lovely ship due to problems beyond the control of our Captain.

Fortunately, the day started out very well, with beautiful sunshine and warm but not hot temperatures. The ship made another technical stop at Kelheim,  to unload  the passengers who had chosen to tour the BMW plant. Because this option called for two separate tours, first briefly in historic Regensburg and than at the plant, it would last six hours. Thus those that selected this option  would go first to Regensburg  by bus while the Maria Theresa slowly sailed the final miles to the Regensburg quay with everyone else.

Here we are, heading off down a rural Bavarian road towards Regensburg.
Here we are, heading off down a rural Bavarian road towards Regensburg.

This was not in the original Uniworld plan, but we all could see that the water in the Danube was very low, and this forced Captain Martin to steer our very large boat slowly through the deepest channel available. Often times, we noticed the propeller churning up mud from the river bottom.

Our affable Captain Martin  had been a visible presence every day and always took time to explain what was going on to the passengers. Every evening before dinner, our tour director, Chad along with the Captain, would discuss what we would be doing the next day, but our biggest concern was the low water. By this time,  the passengers knew that we might not finish the cruise on the Maria Theresa and we had our fingers crossed. Obviously we hadn’t gotten a firm answer to our questions about the water level yet because at this point nobody knew for sure.

Uniworld had cancelled the sailing of the European Jewels cruise immediately before this one in hopes that the water levels would come up, but there had been little rain, and the lowest spot, between Regensburg and Passau, was still very low and still ahead of us. Passau would be our next stop on the Danube if we could get there on the Maria Theresa. Uniworld had gone ahead with our cruise because it started in Amsterdam, so most of the cruise would be completed even if the Maria Teresa couldn’t get through the low spot.

Endless bridge
Our goal was in sight but the bridge seemed endless.

There wasn’t much the passengers could do about the low water but hope for rain at night. So we climbed aboard the bus to Regensburg at 8:30 AM determined to enjoy our day. When we got to Regensburg, we could see that there was a considerable amount of construction going on which resulted in even more walking. As it turned out,  it was fairly fast walking  too. We  got the most exercise during  the whole cruise on our day in Regensburg.

Up til now,  the Ramblers had been with the Gentle Walker group which  moved at a fairly slow pace. Because of the change in plans due to the low water,  those who chose the BMW tour had to do them back to back, and there was no Gentle Walker option. After our first stop at the historic Roman center of Regensburg we would go directly to the BMW plant by bus.

We learned that those who chose not to tour the BMW facility, relaxed on the Maria Theresa  until it got to Regensburg around 1:30. Then they had the choice of either  “2000 years of Regensburg,” or a “Jewish Regensburg,” tour that lasted about two hours.

We had been warned that the visit to the BMW plant would involve lots of walking, so there weren’t many Gentle Walkers on our bus. The Senior Rambler wasn’t excited about all the walking, but I was determined to go on the plant tour. The only way we could do this was to take these tours back to back and so we did, though he was not a happy camper most of the time.

We couldn't see much of the Steinerne Brucke on this visit so I included a poster of what it will look like when finished.
We couldn’t see much of the Steinerne Brucke on this visit so I included a poster of what it will look like when finished.

Our original tour schedule had included  a leisurely lunch in Regensburg . However  the lunch break was eliminated from the town tour so we would get to the BMW factory in time. The Ramblers never managed even a snack in Regensburg  that day. There were some interesting looking sausage places in town, as Regensburg prides itself on its bratwurst. The Wurstkuchl, a tiny restaurant on the bank of the Danube is thought to be the oldest fast food restaurant as it dates to the middle ages.

First we had to cross the Danube to get to the medieval center as our bus had parked on the wrong side of the river.  Unfortunately the Steinerne Brucke  (old stone bridge) was being restored and this involved even more walking over a series of ramps and passages to get across the river. The bridge was built in the 12th century, an architectural wonder in its day, as it is over 1,000 feet long and well worth restoring.

Almost there, the scaffolding and temporary bridge allowed tourists and locals to cross the river while the bridge was repaired.
Almost there, the scaffolding and temporary bridge allowed tourists and locals to cross the river while the bridge was repaired.


Two couples enjoying brats and sauerkraut as the wurstkuchl
Two couples enjoying brats and sauerkraut as the Wurstkuchl

The Celts first came to  the area around 500 BC and by the second century it was a Roman military post in perfect position to protect river traffic on the Danube and unlike the Celts, left many relics of their stay. By the 7th century, Regensburg was a beehive of Christian activity, serving as a hub for missionaries who traveled into the countryside to convert the Germanic tribes. Thus it has been an episcopal center for more than a thousand years.

Regensburg was also a military post for hundreds of years because of its strategic location. During the middle ages,  Regensburg  was the most important city in southeastern Germany, both a political and intellectual center and for centuries, the capital of Bavaria.

the postman
Evidently Bavarian mailmen deliver their mail from a bright yellow stroller, probably works well on the cobblestones.


As you might expect, there was much to see, but mindful that our time was limited, our guide kept up a brisk pace as she herded us along the ubiquitous cobblestones of the old town.

Here is an example of how Roman stonework was utilized by the early residents of Regensburg.
Here is an example of how Roman stonework was utilized by the early residents of Regensburg.

The historic center of the city is a UNESCO designated World-Heritage medieval city center and the Ramblers would have liked more time to enjoy it.

Once in the alstadt, it was easy to see the remains of Roman construction. The Germanic people who followed them, had incorporated the Roman stonework into their buildings.

St. Peter’s Cathedral dominated the medieval center of Regensburg as its builders had intended when the edifice that stands today was finished ca. 1520.

They were working on the spires; the little gondola carried workers up to the site.
They were working on the spires; the little gondola carried workers up to the site.

A church had first been built near the area of the Porta Pretoria (the north gate of the Roman fort) in 739, and rebuilt many times before this date. The bell towers stand 105 meters (344 ft 6 inches)above the city. We were not surprised to see scaffolding on the building because these ancient structures need constant looking after. The state has an organization, the  Dombauhutte (Cathedral building workshop) that supervises the ongoing maintenance, restoration and even archaeological exploration of the cathedral.

They are also working on the stonework of the front facade. We would have enjoyed going inside.
They are also working on the stonework of the front facade. We would have enjoyed going inside.

The last complete restoration of the Regensburger Dom took place in the 2000’s.

Unfortunately because we were on the quick city tour, we didn’t have time to go inside but mainly walked around the narrow streets.  Along the way we admired the medieval Rathaus, the Roman gate and other interesting buildings. There were many photo ops but photos had to be taken quickly if at all. I did manage a good photo of a striking mural of David and Goliath, in Renaissance style, only to learn later that it was not a Renaissance era painting but a recent one. Oskar Schindler had once lived briefly in the building that it decorated.

I didn't realize until later the significance of this wall painting, but I am glad I took the photo.
I didn’t realize until later the significance of this wall painting, but I am glad I took the photo,

Although most of us would have liked to stay longer, our guide soon rounded us up for the hike back to the bus. Our day was only starting! At least we got to relax on our bus ride.

Rathaus tower, build in the middle ages.
Rathaus tower, build in the middle ages.
Interesting detail on the Rathaus or city hall. Built in the middle ages, it is still used today.
Interesting detail on the Rathaus or city hall. Built in the middle ages, it is still used today.

Nuremberg, a city that rose from the ashes after WWII

I always mean to research the cities we will visit before the Ramblers leave on their trip. This sounds good, and would be very good, but usually it never happens. Life intervenes and instead I find myself knowing only what we have learned from our guides and the handouts provided by Uniworld. Obviously the quality of the information on our tours,depends on the knowledge of the guide, and while most are at least good, some could be better at their jobs.

The first part of our tour, which had featured a drive through the ruins of Hitler’s grandiose rally grounds, really was almost self explanatory. And the rally grounds were still there, in pretty bad shape to be sure, but recognizable. The second part of our day featured a walking tour of the historic old town of Nuremberg , and it looked looked amazing. Looking around as we walked on the cobblestone streets, the Ramblers could imagine that nothing much had changed since the middle ages. Our guide mentioned that the whole area had been heavily bombed during WWII, but it wasn’t until I got home and did some research, that I realized the extent of the damage. Those same beautiful medieval buildings, not to mention the castle, had been reduced to rubble, or in the case of the Frauenkirche, merely a shell of their former selves. However, the people of Nuremberg were determined to rebuild them and rebuild they did, using bricks from the debris, although half of the old imperial city was lost forever.

A photo taken in 1945 of the historic center of Nuremberg reduced to rubble after several bombing raids.
A photo taken in 1945 of the historic center of Nuremberg reduced to rubble after several bombing raids.

For the sake of accuracy, I must mention that the castle was crumbling in the 19th century, and they had already done some restoration work before WWII. However afterwards, the buildings were almost flattened.

On 2 January 1945, the medieval alstadt was systematically bombed by the RAF and the USAF and about ninety percent of it was destroyed in only one hour; 1,800 residents were killed and roughly 100,000 displaced. In February 1945, additional attacks followed. By the end of the war, about 6,000 Nuremberg residents are estimated to have been killed in air raids. Why did the allies rain terror and destruction on the heart of this beautiful city known mainly for its manufacture of toys before the war? Of course, the fact that Hitler had chosen it as his special city didn’t help. In addition, during a bombing raid in 1944, the allies suffered their heaviest losses to date, losing a hundred planes to the defenders of the city. Six months later, the Germans had run out of fuel and were only able to offer a token resistance. Thus the allies could bomb the city almost unopposed.

A view of the Frauenkirche's shell , still standing in 1945.
A view of the Frauenkirche’s shell , still standing in 1945.

Obviously, the historic center was not a military target, and so the raid did not have a military purpose.

We were glad that the Nurembergers had worked so hard to restore their city as it provided us with an enjoyable visit to the past. Our bus dropped off the Gentle Walkers at the entrance to the Nuremberg castle grounds. This was one stop where it was impossible to get out very close to our tourist target. As we know, castles are almost always built on the highest ground for strategic reasons, and the  sandstone Nuremberg castle, first built in the 13th century, was no exception.

A long trek up the path towards the castle couryard...
A long trek up the path towards the castle courtyard…

We followed a long, winding, uphill path, which led past the moat, now dry, and seemed almost endless to this Rambler as I started to puff and wheeze. Determined not to give up, I finally made it, at the very tail end of the Gentle Walker group, but it was worth it. The view of the alstadt from the castle walls was beautiful!

Everything visible from the castle ramparts had been destroyed in 1945.
Everything visible from the castle ramparts had been destroyed in 1945.

We did not go inside, the castle  but instead enjoyed walking around the grounds on a beautiful day with not a cloud in the sky.

From the castle, we had a long stroll downhill on lumpy cobblestones, but now we were on our own. The Ramblers could take our time, and even stop, although there were no places to sit down. I eventually regained my lost breath, and began to enjoy our surroundings. We walked down a maze of cobblestone streets past the four story Albrecht Durer house, which is now the home of an interactive museum on his life. Most people have seen his etching of the”praying hands,” but his work is much more complex and interesting.

The Albrecht Durer House, a popular tourist site.
The Albrecht Durer House, a popular tourist site.

Our downward stroll eventually led us to the market square which was  faced with shops and restaurants on three sides and the Frauenkirche which took up the fourth. The market square is also the location of the “beautiful fountain” but unfortunately we were unable to appreciate it as it was under reconstruction and hidden from view.

A small sampling of the beautiful fruit on display.

In the square, market vendors had on display a beautiful, multi-colored selection of fruits, vegetables and flowers which were tempting. However, since we were very well fed on the Maria Theresa, it did seem silly to purchase any, especially since our room didn’t have a refrigerator. I couldn’t help myself though and eventually selected some giant fragrant raspberries.  Unfortunately the pricing was somewhat mis-leading and I ended up buying the most expensive berries I have ever eaten. The cost was 7 Euros a box,holding less than a pound. Ouch! Not wanting to say that they were too expensive, I paid up. Oh well, next time I will ask about the cost before I buy. At least they were delicious.

Our final stop was the Frauenkirche, built in the 14th century as a Catholic church and still Catholic church today, unlike many medieval churches in Germany which  converted to Lutheran during the Reformation.

Simple statue of Our Lady next to the candle stand.
Simple statue of Our Lady next to the candle stand.
Welcome to the Frauenkirche!
Welcome to the Frauenkirche!

.  Unlike the larger, highly decorated baroque churches, the Frauenkirche is quite simply adorned on the interior. Many of the statues looked like they dated to medieval times, and had probably been restored after WWII along with the church itself. Tired from our long walk, the Ramblers took advantage of the seats available inside the church, enjoying a rest after our long ramble down from the castle.

Our candle lit here, you can see the edge of the marble table at the right.
Our candle lit here, you can see the edge of the marble table of Our Lady’s Altar at the right.

I took the opportunity to light a candle for travelers and those at home while we were there.

The Frauenkirche is famous for a large mechanical clock, the Mannlienlaufen which springs into action once everyday at noon. It is supposed to have done so every day for centuries without fail, but I doubt it was operating in the days after the horrific bombing in 1945.

You can see the circle of the clock but not much else, and of course it was in the shade.
You can see the circle of the clock but not much else, and of course it was in the shade.

Although the Ramblers were still in the square at noon, when the bell began to toll, we were at the far end, so we really didn’t see much of the medieval figures who came out, paraded around and rolled back inside the clock. It would have taken very good eyesight to see them without binoculars from our location. And because my excellent camera has a fixed lens, I was unable to zoom in on the clock.

Here is a video from You Tube that shows the Mannlienlaufen in action complete with the ding dong of the church bell that accompanies it. Just highlight the link and it will play. The entire sequence takes 5 1/2 minutes, as the Frauenkirchen Bell chimes first then the trumpeters and drummers spring to life and finally the electors parade.  

As it was, we were supposed to meet our bus at noon, and Chad, our program director, busily rounded us up for the buss ride back to the Main Canal and the Maria Theresa. Nuremberg was a wonderful stop, truly  a city of contrasts.

Finally, I have included a photo of the Frauenkirchen from the preceding post which shows the church in 1946, one year after the bombing. Some vendors have already set up shop in the central market.

The ancient frauenkirche in the main market platz in 1946. Most of the surrounding area is rubble. Photo credit Scrapbookpage
The ancient frauenkirche in the main market platz in 1946. Most of the surrounding area is rubble but the plaza has been cleared and the vendors are back. Photo credit Scrapbookpage


The Two Sides of Nuremberg – Part 1, Hitler’s City

Our next stop was the city of Nuremberg, both famous and infamous  at the same time. Nuremberg had  a glorious past and was once the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It is still considered one of Germany’s most historic cities with written records that date back to the 11th century. As Germany moved into the 20th century, Nuremberg still enjoyed a wonderful collection of medieval buildings in its old town. However, this beautiful city would pay dearly for Hitler’s interest in its connection to the Holy Roman Empire. Nuremberg was very heavily bombed during WWII and almost 90 % of its historic city center was destroyed in a single raid by the British Air Force on January 2, 1945. Nuremberg was noted for the production of toys and gingerbread not war material but because Hitler had made it a Germanic symbol, the British deliberately set out to destroy mainly civilian targets in the medieval heart of the city.

The ancient frauenkirche in the main market platz in 1946. Most of the surrounding area is rubble. Photo credit Scrapbookpage
The ancient frauenkirche in the main market platz in 1946. Most of the surrounding area is rubble. Photo credit Scrapbookpage

Two ancient churches were heavily damaged as most of the buildings were turned into rubble. It did not help Nuremberg’s fate that the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were announced there nor that Leni Riefenstahl used it as the site for her iconic Nazi film, Triumph of the Will.

We were scheduled to arrive at our city dock around 8 AM, which unfortunately was not in walking distance of the city center. After breakfast, we would have the choice of two tours, both of which would take about 3 hours. The first was dedicated to WWII,, which included touring the decaying buildings of Hitler’s rally center and Zeppelin field, followed by a visit to the  Nazi Documentation Center. This did sound interesting but the Ramblers decided to take option 2. This was  a relatively brief drive-thru tour of the Nazi Parade Grounds followed by a Nuremberg city walking tour of the castle and the heart of medieval Nuremberg.

Walking towards the reviewing stands in the Rally Grounds
Walking towards the reviewing stands in the Rally Grounds

We later heard that  the folks who took the Documentation Center tour enjoyed it very much  and would have liked to stay longer but we also enjoyed our tour and felt the same about the medieval alstadt.

Boarding our bus with the rest of the Gentle Walkers, we headed into Nuremberg, a city of about 500,000 people, today, the 14th largest in Germany. If Hitler had been successful it might well be much larger now, since he considered Nuremberg the most authentically “German” city with its ties to the ancient Holy Roman Empire. Thus he had the grounds that we were soon to visit constructed on a giant scale for massive Nazi rallies.

Hitler's crumbling coliseum
Hitler’s crumbling coliseum

Like many grandiose plans, they never entirely came to completion.

The Zeppelin Field and Rally Grounds have become a major tourist attraction, and although we approached them quite early on a week-day morning there were already a number of busses parked in several areas as well as another string of  busses whose passengers were doing only the drive through tour. At least 250,000 people visit the grounds every year.

The decaying grandeur of Hitler’s red brick coliseum ruins were matched by the over-grown expanses of the rally grounds.

About to fall down
About to fall down

The Ramblers along with the rest of the Gentle Walkers were quiet as we viewed the expansive area from where Hitler briefly had Germany mesmerized. It is a somber setting and made one think about the twists of fate that caused the eventual destruction of the Thousand Year Reich.

It may be that in twenty years or so, the place will be well on its way to total decay. However, the Ramblers are not so sure this is a good thing.

Surreal ruins. Taking this photo from the bus window, it looks like ghostly images of the Hitler's Reich are swirling in the air.
Surreal ruins. Taking this photo from the bus window, it looks like ghostly images of the Hitler’s Reich are swirling in the air.

We have added a link that provides a good argument for rebuilding the grounds so that people will not forget happened here not so long ago. Yes, it will be expensive, but again it will be money well spent.