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Xmas on the Rhine: Heidelberg

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

Today had to be our dreariest day. Originally we were going to take a bus from Speyer to Heidelberg, but the low water levels have resulted in the need for a longer trip (2 hours) and later, another 2 hour trip to Strasbourg and our new home, the River Princess. It has rained all day.

Heidelberg is a beautiful city, much of it untouched during the war. It was terrific to see the Heidelberg Castle and reacquaint myself with the fascinating and complex history of the German/English royal family. Fortunately, the rain broke for a few minutes and we were able to see the beautiful views from the Castle looking across the rooftops of the city and across the Neckar River. It reminded me of the views in Florence.

We lunched at the historic (1592) Ritter Hotel and then checked out a few of the central markets, and watched the kids skating on the ice rink. The little ones were so cute pushing around their little ‘training penguins’!

The Christmas markets here are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. Due to time and weather conditions, hard to know if we found them all, but we sure tried.

I would’ve loved to have more time to discover (and photograph) this charming spot on a better day. While at the castle, I did partake of the local legend and placed my foot in the impression of the knight’s footstep left in the stone of the terrace. It is said if you do this you will return to Heidelberg and also live a happy life. So, here’s to returning!

Finally, into France and back on board ship – this time the Uniworld River Princess. The ship is decorated in a beautiful Art Deco style and is very nice. Our room is a bit smaller on this ship – but we managed to efficiently stow everything and were soon off to a wonderful dinner.

PS – News Bulletin: we hear the big bomb of Koblenz has been successfully defused and removed!

Xmas on the Rhine: Rudesheim

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.

Rudesheim was my favorite spot so far. A small medieval town, our visit was enhanced by the fact we were there on a Saturday and stayed after dark so we got the full effect of a festive, very crowded scene with a lively street-fair ambiance. It must be the custom for groups to all wear matching hats and it was fun to see the different types of Christmas-themed hats including: cowgirl, Christmas trees and, of course, funky elf caps.

We had lunch at the Schloss Restaurant located on the famous Drosselgasse, a very narrow alley with dozens of shops, restaurants and wine bars. During lunch we had some local beer and Riesling and listened as a band played a wide variety of international music – oddly enough, even Hava Nagila (Rudesheim is known for a very international Xmas Market). Once out in the street our group made a quick visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum. We almost didn’t go, but it was worth the short investment in time to see the incredible mechanical instruments in action, all housed in the 16th century home of a medieval knight. Then we were back out with the crowds to visit the shops and market stalls including the well-known Kathe Wohlfahrt store (one of several throughout Germany) to do some serious shopping for German-made Christmas items. Entertainers were singing Christmas music from a stage set up near the chairlift and even the weather cooperated by giving up a reprieve from the rain.

Eventually we had to get back to the bus and travel a bit more up the Rhine, crossing by ferry to return to our ship.

I think Uniworld has done a good job under the circumstances getting us to all our planned markets. Tomorrow we will change ships to finish the trip. Even though we will have to pack and move, and have had to use a bus to get around today, they’ve also done a great job of getting us down the Rhine to see the castles on a smaller boat, as well as given us complementary lunches, drinks and cash credits. I have been impressed by the calm, thoughtful and efficient staff. A few people did take the pre-cruise option to cancel – and as a result the two of us are traveling with 118 very nice people!

Xmas on the Rhine: Mainz

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Mainz Market in the center of town.

Another re-built city on the Rhine, Mainz is most famous as the home of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the movable-type printing press in 1456. We started our brief time here with a visit to the Gutenberg Museum. We watched a demonstration of the printing process on a replica of the early hand press. Most significantly, we saw one the few remaining (maybe there are 46 of 180)original Gutenberg Bibles – simply beautiful. We learned that the Bibles were all customized at the direction of their owners and so no two are alike.

The ride to Mainz from Boppard was beautiful along the Rhine, even thought it was still raining. On the way, we drove along the river and saw more castles and many slopes with vineyards, mostly for Riesling in this region.

Dodging rain showers, we checked out the colorful Xmas Market held in the town’s main market square in front of the thousand-year-old cathedral. I would’ve loved to see it fully lit up, since there were lights strung everywhere. Two features were the large ‘Pyramid’ on one side of the square and the life-sized manger on another.

We are getting to these towns by bus, since the low water has made the Rhine unnavigable for riverboats. Barges are only able the get down the river with about ¼ of their normal load. From our bus, we could see the exposed rocks and sandbars in this section of the river. When we left Mainz we crossed the Rhine by bridge and continued our trip back in the direction of Boppard, to Rudesheim.


Xmas on the Rhine: Koblenz

Just before the heavens opened up . . . .

Just before the heavens opened up . . . .

From our riverboat, now docked on the Mosel River, we ventured out on a dark and dreary morning to see the sights of Koblenz. Any city more than 2,000 years old has a lot of history to cover and we just scratched the surface with our guide who conducted a brief tour concentrating on giving us a quick overview of how the city developed. She also showed us the core of the city, founded by the Romans. Most of Koblenz has been beautifully reconstructed since WWII, much of it since the mid-80s. They have very successfully mixed old and new with reconstructed and managed not to lose the threads of their interesting history.

I loved the whimsy of the city – including the Napoleonic-era Schangelbrunnen, “The Spitting Boy” mascot who statue adorns a local fountain (and whose likeness is on the manhole covers). Another favorite was the comical face on the clock in the main square, whose eyes move constantly back & forth and whose tongue sticks out, four times a day, to mark the time.

We saw the small Christmas markets scattered around town, but did not get to linger since the rain began to come down really hard. They need the rain desperately in this region, so it really doesn’t seem justified to complain too much. We did get to see Koblenz’s large Christmas “pyramid” constructed of wood, fan blades and lights. Another Koblenz Xmas tradition is to open the windows of a local government building on the main square – one each day of Advent – today is day 2.

Even in the rain it was a really charming experience.

After lunch on board the S.S. Antoinette, we sailed on a smaller ship down the Rhine to St. Goar to see . We saw the castles of Marksburg, Stolzenfels, Sterrenburg & Liebenstein, Rheinfels and Maus & ‘Katz’. At the cliffs of Lorelei the captain played the sailor’s ballad lamenting the siren’s call to destruction on the rocky shores.  on a week like this, the sailors would have no trouble seeing even the gravel, not just rocks on the shores of the Rhine.

Castles in the rain.

Castles in the rain.

While we were on the Rhine, our ship repositioned to Boppard the better to avoid the Koblenz evacuation and bomb disarmament scheduled for this weekend. We did get to see the area where the 1.8 ton bomb, and its smaller companions, are buried in the shallow water and mud.

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.  What a Blast!

Xmas on the Rhine: Bon Voyage!

Gingerbread. Christmas Cookies. Hot Chocolate.  That’s what we had for lunch today . . . snacks . . . and tea.

It’s late afternoon and rapidly getting dark. Now we are watching the pastry chefs demonstrate cookie-making techniques and share their recipes. We are also learning how to make the aforementioned gluhwein – but I am not paying attention. I have decided I don’t even like the smell of the gluhwein.

Goodies galore.

Goodies galore.

We deserve all these treats after walking around Cologne all day. It stayed cloudy, but only drizzled a bit midday (during which we hid out in a cafe with a luscious hot chocolate), so we were very lucky. This morning’s walking tour took us through Altstadt (Old Town), and by some excavations of the old Roman city and original synagogue, as well as the Cathedral. A major port in Roman days, this is now the fourth largest city in Germany and the capital of the Rhineland. Almost all of the city was destroyed in WWII, but the cathedral was spared and survived largely intact. To preserve the beautiful glass windows, they were all removed at the start of the war and stored underground.

Koln was one of the primary destinations for religious pilgrims; the relics of the three Magi put the city on the map along with Jerusalem and Santiago de Compestela. The Cathedral was built over centuries (a la the one in Pillars of the Earth) from 1248 until completion in 1880, specifically to house the famous relics. They are in a solid gold, three-part coffin still on prominent display today.

Those of us who speak English call the city Cologne, which is actually the French name for Koln; this is indeed where the term cologne comes from. A wonderful example of re-branding occurred when a liquor-maker found his product outlawed and decided to turn it into a perfume. One can only imagine what the odors in the city were like when wearing liquor was a good thing.

We found our way back to our favorite market – the Alter Markt and saw another portion in Heumarkt, geared towards children, with an ice rink and small Ferris wheel. There must be some sort of school holiday in Europe because there were many groups of young children around today, including groups speaking French and English.

We circled back to the Rhine and made a brief visit to the newest market, which is by the chocolate Museum along the Harbour. Hafen Markt has replaced the Medieval Market of years past and may not have been the best business decision; it was certainly not very Christmassy. We then made the lengthy walk along the Rhine back to our ship. I popped back out to see the last of the Cologne Xmas Markets – the Floating Christmas Market on the MS Wappen von Koln. An odd combination of vintage, Christmas and craft items, it is the only market that charges admission (€2 for UNICEF) and the first time I fell victim to the claustrophobic feeling when you enter a way-too-warm enclosure wearing a lot of clothing. I didn’t stay long.

Off to hear some more lovely piano melodies, hear a port talk about Koblenz and dinner. We
actually sail tonight – a rare occurrence on this voyage!