Home :: The trip of a Lifetime

The trip of a Lifetime

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2014

She needed this trip. Ever since my Dad passed away, I knew she needed something to look forward to. She had spent so many of her retirement years dutifully nursing him. It was a twenty-four-seven job, without a real break of any kind. Now it was past time for her to finally enjoy her retirement years.

It had to be carefully planned. I couldn’t wing it like I usually do. I decided to opt for structure and for a stress-free environment. The best part: a hotel that would travel with us from place to place, with experienced people around us, who could assist me in case of a health emergency. A Viking River Cruise fit the bill perfectly. Last Spring, I went home, prepared to talk her into taking a trip. To my surprise, she had already had the same idea! We decided to take the big one: a two week cruise, all the way from the Danube to the Main and along the Rhine. All the way from Budapest to Amsterdam.

We were a tired pair by the time we reached Budapest, after about seventeen hours of transit time. Mom said she didn’t sleep at all on the plane. We got to the ship with barely enough time to change clothes before the orientation meeting, followed by the opening night dinner. It was supposed to be a fancy dress-up affair, but the crowd on this ship was clearly determined to remain casual. Dinner was really elegant and beautifully prepared, and the red wine was first rate. We went to bed right after dinner, in order to be on the tour bus early in the morning. We were already making friends on board. Our fellow tourists were all English speakers, coming mostly from the U.S., Canada, and England. This made conversation easy.

DAY ONE: BUDAPEST We woke up to cloudy skies, grabbed breakfast, and barely made it to the bus in time to take the city tour. Mom really enjoyed seeing the old city. The Matthias cathedral in Buda made quite an impression on her, as did the view from Fisherman’s Bastion.

Mom went to bed early. I went down to the bar and watched the party get started. The shipboard solo pianist tried to rock out as best he could. Luckily, his crowd was primed with plenty of alcohol, and they were ready to dance. I always thought that it was such a pity that my generation never really bothered to really learn how to dance. These folks might be older than I was, but they were much better dancers than kids in the sixties and seventies. Some of the songs were pretty hokey (Hey mister tally man tally me bananas) but the pianist did his best to please everybody.

DAY TWO: BRATISLAVA SLOVAKIA What a wakeup call! We had been warned that we would be getting a mandatory emergency evacuation drill, but it never occurred to me that we would sleep in late enough to be awakened by it. Mom and I stumbled out of bed and really had to dress in a hurry! We wandered dazedly down to the lounge, lifejackets in hand, looking like two wastrels who’ve just been kicked off of park benches by the early morning cops. It turned out that the town of Bratislava was colorful, and so was its castle, but these tourist attractions were not half as appealing as the annual downtown beer festival. I dragged mother right into the thick of it, and soon, we were swilling micro-brews with a tableful of nice young locals. Their English was really pretty good, and we were able to converse quite well. The postcards of Vermont were a big hit with the Bratislava girls. One of the young women was considering coming to America on her honeymoon, so she was quite interested.

That evening, when we returned to the ship, we found ourselves in for a rare treat. An ensemble of folk musicians and dancers entertained us in the lounge. They were really good. All of the musicians were incredible, from the bass player to the viola player to the lead violinist/fiddler. They also had a unique hammered instrument, played like a dulcimer, with tiny felt covered hammers, called a Cymbal or Cimbalom. The Cimbalist played a lightning fast solo that blew everybody away. The violinist not only played the violin beautifully, but he also played two unique Slovakian wind instruments. One was a pipe with a single hole, which he managed to play melodic strains on. The second was akin to a diggeree-doo, but it had a second pipe on which to play melodies. Folk singers and dancers joined the group at times, and it was a wonderful show. I discovered, much to my surprise, that three of the folk melodies they played were familiar to me. In my college years, I used to play fiddle with the Champlain Valley Fiddle Club, and the old timers in the Middlebury area knew songs that had been played for generations. The songs were mostly from the British Isles, or of American origin, but they also knew folk songs that had been passed down from other countries as well. There were plenty of German folk tunes and polkas that they taught me how to play. Prior to the Second World War, the polka was quite popular as dance music in Vermont. There must have been immigrants from Slovakia in the area as well, because I remembered having played those tunes with the old timers in about 1975, and some of the fiddlers in the club at that time were in their eighties. I wish I knew how those tunes got to Vermont!

DAY THREE: VIENNA The ship motored all night down the Danube to get to the beautiful city of Vienna. We docked in the morning, and we boarded the tour buses to take a ride into the city center for sightseeing. There were many grandiose palaces, concerthalls, magnificent museums, parks, fountains and squares, all over the historic district of the city. This was the home of the Hapsburgs, and the royal family had graced the city with many magnificent architectural works of art. We got to peek into the stables of the famous Lippizaner stallions, and see the beautiful horses at rest in their stalls, in between shows. Our tour ended at the cathedral in the central square. Mom and I were pleased that we were able to find our own way back to the ship (which was docked at the edge of the city) by negotiating our own way back via the city subway.

In the evening, we were lucky enough to enjoy another blessing from their royal patronage: a concert celebrating the classical compositions of Mozart, Strauss and other composers of the classical and baroque periods. There were operatic selections, violin solos and even dancers performing the great waltzes. The concert took place in a period palace, in a lovely ballroom. It was divine. The icing on the layer cake that is Vienna! Tomorrow: the magnificent Baroque Abbey of Melk!!


They advertised a morning of scenic cruising, but, sadly, it was fairly difficult to see a lot, because we were in thick soup all morning. I got a few pictures of foggy castles and mysterious villages half-hidden in the swirling mists as we passed through the heart of the Wachau Valley in Austria.

We did not let the lack of scenery deter us from ravaging the morning buffet. What a spread! They had everything you might expect from a traditional buffet breakfast, plus such delicacies as fresh squeezed juices, homemade yogurt with homemade preserves, fabulous homemade breads, pastries and croissants, fresh local cheeses, and even smoked salmon and prosciutto. It was very hard not to pig out!

In the afternoon, under clearing skies, the ship docked at the town of Melk. A bus picked us up and drove us up the back of the cliffs to just above the Abbey. There, we divided up into smaller tour groups and walked down into the first of the Abbey's many impressive courtyards. We all got out our quietbox radio devices and put on our earpieces. The great benefit of these boxes is that the tour guide can speak in a perfectly normal tone of voice, but once you get tuned into their frequency, you can hear them from a hundred feet away. I found this feature quite marvelous, because I could get some distance away from the rest of the group, and this would give me a clean shot for my photos. It meant that we could move as we liked, but, as long as we stayed within radio range, we could still enjoy the educational commentary from the local guide.

MELK ABBEY is a masterwork of the Baroque period, but its roots go back much further than that. It was founded in 1089, when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, donated one of his castles to the Benedictine Brotherhood. The Benedictines were well known as scholars, and the school and library soon became an important seat of learning. In the early eighteen century, the entire abbey underwent a massive renovation, and the architecture took on the Baroque style that can be visited today. It is still a working abbey, with resident monks, and it houses a (now co-ed) Catholic school, with about nine hundred students, inside the old monastery.

I was very impressed by the size of the Abbey's big courtyard - until I realized that this was only one of seven courtyards! The place was gigantic. It has almost five hundred rooms, and most of them are probably huge, judging by the size of the windows.

THE TREASURES OF MELK: Normally, the treasures of Melk are locked away, hidden in a secret Treasure Room. They are kept in a great medieval treasure chest, under triple lock and key, No one gets to see them, unless they are brought out into the cathedral during special religious services. But this year was a special anniversary year for the Abbey, so they put on a special exhibition, and we got to see some amazing artifacts of the Catholic faith. The famous gold cross of Melk, a stunningly heavy golden cross encrusted with precious gems, supposedly contains a relic of the True Cross inside. Another smaller cross supposedly holds a relic of St. Peter. There were fabulous bibles, bejeweled golden chalices that were masterpieces of the goldsmith's art, and an incredibly ornate Bishop's crozier with a solid gold curved top at least twenty inches high. (a crozier is a shepherd's crook carried by the bishop, because he is the shepherd of his flock). The Bishop's robes were also on display. The heavy velvet capes were hand embroidered with thread of gold and silver. He must have cut quite a royal figure parading down the aisle with his golden crozier in hand. The message was clear: Church officials were the real power behind the throne in those days.

After the exhibition, we continued into a splendid reception hall that was once used by dignitaries and visiting Royals like the Hapsburgs. Long windows were flanked by large columns of pink marble surmounted by plaster figures. This palatial room had a ceiling that was an excellent example of the trompe l'oeil style (it means: to fool the eye). The ceiling was almost flat, but the effect was that of big curves. Not only that, but the landscapes painted around the edges created a remarkable series of false perspectives and three dimensional effects. (FYI: if you ever need twenty minutes of quick entertainment, google trompe l'oeil. I did, to check the spelling, and I spent quite a bit of time looking at pictures of famous trompe l'oeil artworks).

The reception halls' balcony doors opened up onto a great outdoor balcony, overlooking the town of Melk and the surrounding countryside. The last of the mists had finally cleared away, and the sun was shining brightly at last. What a perfect moment for that to happen!

THE LIBRARY! Oh, what a library! Melk has between 80,000 and 90,000 volumes in its library, plus over 2,000 manuscripts and 800 incunabula. (What's an incunabula, you may ask? No, it's not something out of Harry Potter. Coming from the Latin word for cradle, it refers to books produced during the infancy of printing, made before the moveable press was invented. There's one for you Scrabble fans.) The library of medieval manuscripts is renowned, and scholars can get permission to visit the library and read original manuscripts here. We saw some famous texts, including one of the oldest copies of the Nibelungenleid Saga (the Song of the Nibelungs - a pre-Christian Germanic heroic tale.) We also saw a tiny, handwritten copy of the Bible, no larger than 3" x 4". The monk who made that must have had a sure hand and really keen eyesight. When you think of how often those old crow quill pens used to fail and blot the ink, ruining the whole page, and how often that must have tested his faith....

The library itself is splendidly Baroque, yet still warm and inviting, The rooms are masterpieces of sumptuously polished hardwoods. One of the earliest known globes in the world is here, on display.

THE CATHEDRAL The Cathedral was the crown jewel of the monastery. The interior was resplendent in pink marble and gold leaf, with intricate Baroque paintings on the ceilings. Ornate gilded VIP balconies on the second floor were intended for visiting royals and other dignitaries. This cathedral had a lot of windows, high up at ceiling level, and the slanting rays of sunlight pouring in added much to the sanctity of the place.

I missed one sight, however. I didn't realize that the foppishly dressed and bejeweled skeleton of St Coloman was jauntily posed in a glass sarcophagus on one side of the alter. Too bad I missed him! He would have made a great picture.

( Passau, Germany, day six of the trip)

You can't enter a European cathedral as a tourist on a package tour and fully appreciate the impact that these magnificent churches had on Medieval society. For us, these places hold no great mysteries. We've seen them on TV, we've seen plenty of photos of them in books, and we've been familiar with organ music all of our lives. Most of us regard organ music as hopelessly old fashioned. We overdose on church interiors, and we think we've all seen enough angel statues and stained glass windows to last a lifetime.

Despite our familiarity with classical organ music, the concert was still extraordinarily inspirational, especially because it was played on the largest pipe organ in a cathedral in Europe. Five sets of pipes (over seventeen thousand of them!)were situated around the cathedral, creating the world's first "surround sound." The quality of the acoustics, mingled with the genius of composers like Bach, still had the ability to impress us deeply.

But try, just for the moment, to imagine what it would be like to be a simple farmer, who might have lived when this cathedral was new. He has a little subsistence farm in a mountain valley. He's lived there all his life, in a tiny community. His parish church is a little wooden building that also doubles as a town hall. Nobody in his valley knows how to read or write, and the nearest town is twenty miles away. In his area, there are several people who know a few simple folk songs and dances. The shepherds all play little reed pipes that they've made themselves. One of the farmers has a drum, made from a cured goatskin. That is the only music he's ever heard in his entire life, except for once a year, when there is a festival in the nearby town, and people from the valley make the trip to see traveling minstrels from far away, The only priest he's ever met personally is a monk, who travels to his isolated community once a month, to hear confessions, baptize babies, and perform marriages.

So now, for one reason or another, our farmer finds himself making a trip to the city. For him, the city of Passau is the most amazing place in the world. He is overwhelmed by the markets, the multi-story houses, the river Danube, the boats, and the towers of the cathedral. On Sunday, he dutifully makes his way into the back of the cathedral. Once inside, he gawks at the height of the room he is in. He has never seen such a huge manmade structure in his entire life, and certainly nothing as fine as this. He cranes his neck, gazing up at the statues and the depictions of heaven above, marveling at the sheer size of the vaulted ceilings and the splendor of the artwork. The white plaster angels, cherubim and seraphim seem to come alive as they look down from on high. The stained glass windows are like magic pictures, telling the stories of the Bible in brilliant, glowing, colored light.

As the service begins, he sees the Bishop, resplendent in his embroidered robes, carrying his magnificent jewel-encrusted golden croizier, and our peasant is awed by the pageantry of the procession of priests. He has never seen the King, or any of the great noble lords, so the Bishop represents absolute Divine power and authority to him. Our peasant is suddenly uncomfortable, aware of his own unwashed appearance. Kneeling comes naturally, in the face of all the splendor around him. And then, suddenly, and without any warning, he is engulfed in sound. The great organ roars to life. It starts softly enough, but the melody builds until our peasant trembles at its tremendous power. His ears have never heard anything like it before. He marvels at the depth of it, at the intricacy of the interweaving melodies, the different tones, the majesty of the bass, the tension and release of each competing voice within the rich tapestry of harmonies. Tears spring unbidden to his eyes as the music washes over him. He struggles with his emotions, not wishing the cityfolk around him to look down on him and scorn him for his naivité. And then, just as he gets over the initial wave of amazement, the organist pulls out all the stops and the deep bass pipes come to life. He can feel the vibration all the way through his chest wall. It takes his breath away. He glances upwards, worried that the monstrous roar might shake down delicate bits of the sculpted ceiling. He listens in awe as the last powerful notes of the final Amen reverberate and echo through the apse of the great cathedral, bouncing off the dome, and gradually fading away into the most profound silence he has ever heard. In the sudden stillness, like a calm after a storm, he hears the voices of the priests, rising and falling in Latin cadences. He has no idea what the words mean, but they don't really matter. He needs no call to prayer. He has just heard the voice of God.

When you think of the effect that this must have had on the local population, like our farmer, then you can begin to understand why the Catholic Church had so much influence over life in Europe at the height of its power. This is why the Bishops were really Prince-Bishops. They controlled everything, and their palaces were splendid places that were the true seats of power in each Bishopric.

Even for us, despite our prior experiences with digitally recorded organ music, it was still pretty overwhelming. You can see this on TV, or hear it on a fine stereo system, but nothing beats the live sound of a huge pipe organ, in a room that was built especially for it. This marvel of Medieval technology can actually compete, in my memory, with modern rock concerts I have been to.


(Day 7) REGENSBURG: Our river cruise ship docked within walking distance of the medieval section of the town of Regensburg. Not far away was the famous stone bridge, built in the twelfth century, and still in use today, and Germany's oldest restaurant. The Old Sausage Kitchen has been serving up its own signature "hot dogs" with beer for over eight hundred years! The unassuming little shack had a pretty good crowd queuing up for late lunch as we arrived. Regensburg's architecture mirrored German history in its entirety; all the way from Roman arches, still holding up the weight of the old city wall, to stone towers built during the Medieval period, to the Gothic cathedral, to modern shops and office buildings, all within a couple of blocks of each other.

Mom and I did a little shopping. Being people who know how to set priorities for ourselves, we headed straight for a gelato shop and got ourselves something sweet. I chose to visit Zara's, one of Europe's leading boutique clothing chains. Mom wanted to check out the souvenir store near the Sausage Kitchen. They had a very large collection of Black Forest cuckoo clocks with some very ingenious moving parts. As we watched, clock after clock chimed the hour (I think they were all set about two minutes apart) and all of the little nostalgic characters would start to move. The farmers milked their cows and split wood, and their wives churned butter and served tankards of beer. The inevitable cuckoos popped triumphantly out of their little holes, right on schedule. It was quite a noisy store! I wondered how long the employees might last there, before going "cuckoo." I wondered if anybody in Germany ever made "black humor" cuckoo clocks, where the figurines are all gangsters with guns, or tattooed bikers on Harleys, or burlesque characters...

(Day 8) NUREMBURG: Nuremburg was another German town that has been cut into pieces by its history. We started our tour in the modern city. This area had been entirely rebuilt after World War Two. Then, we entered the huge "Zeppelin Field" of the Nazis; the open park where Hitler held his monumental televised rallies of the Nazi party. It was eerie to think of all those mesmerized, screaming people, eager to follow him into the hell of World War Two, even willing to look the other way when his mental illness led to death camps and genocide. The weirdest part of this vast park/complex was Hitler's vast "Congress Hall." The front of this massive stadium looked like the Roman Colosseum. This grotesque ruin was never completed. The facade was finished, but the interior was barely begun when the Nazis abandoned the project, at the beginning of the war. What a monument to human folly! (for photos: google Nazi party rally grounds)

The afternoon was spent touring a more pleasant side of the city - the Medieval section. The historic city of Nuremburg was surrounded by high walls and a moat. At the heart of the old section sat Nuremburg castle. Quite a bit of this old castle survived the bombing, and other parts were rebuilt. From the castle's hill, we could look out over the charming old neighborhood below, and beyond into the new city. The tour guide showed us a picture of the same scene, taken in 1945. The picture showed a scene of utter desolation. Today, Nuremburg has rebuilt itself, and it is a beautiful city. The guide's picture was an excellent example of the wisdom of the Marshall Plan. (The Mashall Plan was an American plan that donated the German people enough money to rebuild their shattered cities after World War Two. The plan gave them enough money to pay for real restoration of their historic districts, as well as money to restore their urban infastructure. I believe that American generosity gave the German people a sense of hope for the future after World War Two, which resulted in Germany's peaceful transition into modern Europe and the EU).

After the castle, we spent a pleasant time walking around the "Christmas Market". This was a little outdoor central market, offering many traditional handcrafted items for sale. We decided to try a very unique snack. It was a ribbon of sweet dough, wrapped like a corkscrew curl around a wooden stick and "baked" over a flame. Afterwards, the lady coated our curled snacks in cinnamon, sugar and spices. Delicious!

(Day 9) BAMBERG: What a charmer! Bamberg survived the war with its historic district mostly intact. We started our walking tour in the city center, and then we wandered through the winding, narrow streets in the historic district. Bamberg had a stunning collection of historic houses, many of which were truly memorable. I loved the medieval town hall, with its castle-like structure and its elaborate wall paintings. One house was blue with ornate white raised designs, making it look like a three story high piece of Wedgewood Pottery. My favorite (because of its interesting history) was the Schlenkerla (trans: "Wobbly Walk") Brewery. This famous establishment was once owned by a fellow who had had an unfortunate accident with a beer barrel, and he walked with a wobbly walk ever since. Schlenkerla beer has a distinctive smoked taste. It is said that this was the result of yet another accident. Legend has it that somebody once burnt a batch of hops, and the owner was too cheap to throw them away. He brewed them into beer, resulting in a distinctive beer that tastes like smoked bacon.

Already, there was a merry crowd gathering outside the open brewery, hoisting beers and making toasts. Mom and I wanted to try it, but it was only ten A.M. on a Sunday morning, and we had had too much wine the night before. One has to draw the line somewhere...

We went up the hill to see the Bishop's Residence castles. Luckily, when they decided to upgrade to a Baroque building, they didn't demolish the old Medieval castle, so, today, we get to enjoy both. The Baroque palace had a lovely rose garden behind it, and we could view the entire city from its petal-strewn walkways. It was lovely in the sunshine!

After the tour, we went back down to the central market. We were very lucky- it was a weekend, and Bamberg was holding a special event - an antiques road show. Dealers from all over Germany had come to sell antiques in a outdoorsy flea-market atmosphere. Mom and I went from booth to booth, admiring the treasures. I bought an antique wooden tool for my sister's husband - he does fine woodworking, and I thought he might appreciate it.


I felt that I had traveled back in time, or that somehow I had entered the enchanted world of the Brothers' Grimm. Rothenburg's medieval, half-timbered beauty simply took my breath away. It is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, and it is simply dripping with charm. This, for me, was a real highpoint of our trip. It also didn't hurt that we were blessed with lovely weather. It was one of those ideal, sunny, cerulean blue Fall days that are picture-postcard perfect.

Mom and I visited there, as part of our river cruise through Europe. They docked the ship in Wurzburg (right across the river from another dramatic Bavarian castle). After yet another sumptuous breakfast, we boarded a bus for the hour-long journey along the so-called "Romantic Road" to Rothenburg. As we got closer to our destination it did become quite scenic.

When we reached the top of the hill, we got our first glimpses of the town. High stone city walls and guard towers surrounded it, lending it an added air of mystery and romance. Once through the walls, the true nature of the town revealed itself to us. Half timbered townhouses were adorned with flowerboxes, decorative stepped roofs, and leaded glass windows. Crooked little gingerbread houses had beautiful gardens, or front porches adorned with morning glories and nasturtiums. Businesses still had their traditional medieval signs made of scrolled cast iron, with pictograms of the business inside. Sometimes, these signs even told the history of the business, or they displayed pictures with a wry sense of humor (the local winery had an image of the Devil on its sign). Downtown, the town square lay in front of the elaborately decorated Town Hall building, and its cobblestoned expanse held a thriving local market, with farmers selling produce, handicraft and homemade foods.

We were given a tour around the town, going briefly outside the walls to see the southern view of the surrounding countryside. The vista below could have been the subject matter for an antique painting. The guard tower above that gate had an unusual decoration - a stone carving of a masked face. It was part of the towns' ancient defense system: boiling oil would come out of its mouth in times of attack.

Our tour guide pointed out one notable sign. It said: "This building was renovated in 1568." Not built, - renovated. I guess that the owners had not bothered to renovate since then...

We were treated to a traditional German lunch (potato soup, hearty bread, sausages, and, of course, sauerkraut) at a very old traditional restaurant, and then we were given free time to explore on our own.

Mom and I did make an appearance at the town's big commercial enterprise. Kathe Wohlfahrt's Christmas Store and Christmas Museum was certainly an eyeful! The kid in me liked it, I suppose, but the adult in me found it overwhelming. Roomfuls of ormanents, roomfuls of nutcrackers, roomfuls of Nativities, and so on, and so on, ... all housed in a glittery fake Christmas-village atmosphere. Once we got in there, we had to go all the way through the entire thing in order to reach the exit. It became a kind of "Christmas Clockwork Orange" experience after a while. And it was so crowded that we couldn't escape. Trapped! When we finally exited, twenty minutes later, I was relieved to get back outside, back to the real-life Christmas snow-globe village. I just can't take that much "cuteness" all at once!

It is the town's unique history that has preserved this lovely place for us to enjoy today. Rothenburg was attacked in the 1630's, and the fighting devastated the town's population. Then, the Black Death took many more lives. The town became desperately poor and it was nearly emptied of population. The town stagnated in this state for centuries, until the Romantic artist Carl Sptizweg and fellow artists "rediscovered" the place in the 1880's. They immediately recognized the value of this pristine environment, and they got the town to pass draconian preservation laws. Their interest drew others, and today, Rothenburg is a prime tourist town - so busy that I was very glad we weren't there during high tourist season!

One other note: we can also thank thoughtfulness on the part of the American military for Rothenburg's existence. During World War Two, we did drop a few bombs on Rothenburg, but orders soon went out to hold the artillery fire, and a dangerous secret mission was successfully undertaken, in German, to beg the local townsfolk to surrender, so that the beautiful town and its people could be spared. In they end, the people of the town disobeyed a direct order from Hitler, and voted to save their town.


Wertheim Germany was a charming small town, situated right on the river. Luckily, when the American tanks surrounded the city in WWII, they decided not to bomb it, so they left most of the medieval houses intact. They did bomb the castle though, leaving only the outer ramparts and a couple of towers still standing.

Our guide on the city tour that morning was hilarious. She was a stolid, horsefaced sixty-five year old hausfrau with a very dry sense of humor. She pointed out one wall, which showed some very impressive historic flood levels -up to fifteen feet above the level of the town streets. She then walked us past a nearby underground parking garage, saying that, during the biggest flood of her lifetime, as the waters gradually receded over a six week period, the parking lot became known as the best fishing spot in the entire area. All of the biggest salmon and trout were hanging out in the "cavern" of the parking garage, Our guide also stopped us at the Bavarian version of "Victoria's Secret" where she gestured disapprovingly at the racy lingerie in the window. She said that over four thousand Russians emigrated to this area after WWII, and they like to shop here. She mentioned wryly that extra large sizes were very popular with the Russian crowd.

She also told us how, in Medieval times, since there was no TV or Internet, people were very interested in what their neighbors were doing. Like small towns everywhere, people loved to stick their noses in everybody else's business. Many houses installed extra odd angled windows so that they could see out in all directions. She even showed us the modern version - there was a motorcycle sidemirror mounted outside one set of windows, so that the inhabitants could see right into their neighbors' windows.

At one end of the town, there stood a Medieval watchtower that served a triple function. The door to the tower was built about thirty feet up. The top half of the tower was both a watchtower for the town, and a place of refuge during attack. The bottom half was the jail. People would climb up on a ladder, and then the prisoners would be lowered down inside by ropes. The bottom half of the tower was a windowless pit. It was pitch black and it had no bathroom. In busy times, people doing penance would have no choice but to sit or stand in their own excrement. Our Guide speculated that the tower thirty foot section was probably half full after five hundred years of occupancy.

Our tour continued up to the old town hall. One section of the building looked very forbidding, with bars on the windows. Our guide asked us if we had any idea what kind of terrible things we thought might go on in there? "A torture chamber?" one person guessed. (After seeing the other tower we had torture on our minds) "Worse," she said grimly, shaking her head,” People go there to get married.” This earned her a huge laugh. Our guide had already told us that her husband was an ex Colonel in the German Army. I think maybe he was not that easy to live with…

After the tour, Mom and I decided to brave the walk up the steep hill to the ruined castle. Mom really was impressive, for an eighty-nine nine year old, climbing about 250 feet of stairs and steep road. I kept offering to stop and let her rest, but she kept a slow and steady pace all the way up, and I was very impressed with her ability. When we reached the drawbridge of the castle, we were about parallel with the weathervane on the tallest spire of the city’s cathedral. The view of the town and the surrounding bills was very picturesque.

Wertheim is famous for blown glass. Ever since the Middle Ages, glass has been a local specialty. After the war, Corning Glass established a large plant there, tapping right into the local talent pool. Viking River Cruises invited one local glassblower on board the ship to demonstrate his skills. His glassblowing shop was located in one of the most enchanting old half-timbered buildings in town. Mom and I went in, and she bought some handmade Christmas ornaments. There was some exquisite glass artwork in that shop! I loved the paperweights with delicate patterns and bubbles inside, which were placed on LED lights that gradually changed color, lighting up the interiors. They were very beautiful, but way out of reach for a whimsical item -120 euros!

The next day, we took the cruise that would have been the highlight of our river trip, if only the weather had cooperated. We went down the Rhine River, admiring all of the romantic castles, hillsides and vinyards along the way. For me, it was a bit of a tease, since I would have liked to explore each and every one of those misty ruins, despite the chill, the fog, and the steady drizzling rain that made us shiver as we stood on deck. Lovely little towns emerged from the brume beside the river, all preserved UNESCO world heritage sites. I wanted to spend time in them all. From a distance, each one looked like an illustration from a Grimm fairy tale.

Mom and I stuck it out on deck the whole way, because the scenery was too good to miss, although the pictures were going to look terrible, thanks to the gloom. We passed the Lorelei, a rugged escarpment, where legend has it that a beautiful Rhine maiden would sit on the rocks and sing her siren song, luring sailors to their deaths. Nowadays, the river is tamer, thanks to all the locks and dams upstream, but, in the old days, the water must have roared around that twisted gorge. Right below the Lorelei cliff, a sand bar juts out into the Rhine. I’m sure that there were plenty of ships that got snagged on it, unable to turn in time… Were the sailors’ last thoughts of blonde water witches, drowning them with watery kisses?

As we got closer to Koblentz, the castles got even better. One beauty was built right in the middle of the river, on a tiny island. This way, the castles’ owners were guaranteed to collect tolls from all the vessels who passed by. This distinctive landmark was even shaped like a boat, giving it the best chance of surviving floods, floating tree limbs, and other river debris.

Other castles were still inhabited. Some had been turned into hotels or hostels. My favorite of them all turned out to be the one we would be fortunate enough to visit the next day. Marksburg Castle was a frosted vanilla layer cake of high crenellated towers and jaunty banners bravely flapping in the breeze, perched on what looked like an impossibly steep precipice high above the Rhine. Of all the castles we saw, this one had the most ethereal, storybook quality to it. This castle had been continuously inhabited for centuries, and it was the best preserved. I couldn’t wait for a look inside.

MARKSBURG CASTLE: The ship docked at Koblentz, and the docking site was quite unusual, in that a cable car system passed right over our ship as it crossed the Rhine. On the other side, a fortress loomed high on the cliff face. That evening, the Viking River Cruise people gave us quite a stern lecture about the difficulties of going up to the castle. They warned everybody about the number of steps and about the difficult and uneven footing around the old place. They were, after all, catering almost exclusively to the osteoporosis crowd, and they didn’t want any tragedies marring our tour. One lady, who was a nurse, didn’t approve of Mom going up to the castle, but I knew that, as long as nobody rushed her, she’d be fine. She just had to keep her own pace. She’d proved it, the day before, going on a far more challenging hike than the one at the castle.

In reality, it wasn’t that bad. We climbed slowly and carefully, arm in arm. There were quite a few tricky spots on the splintered rock steps inside the castle walls. Once inside, we entered the winery and the castle kitchen. This was a large, homey room with a gigantic hearth bristling with iron spits and cauldrons. Upstairs, we visited the lord’s dining room. A magnificent dining table, polished with centuries of use, was placed close to the wide kitchen chimney, in an effort to take advantage of its warmth in wintertime. A more casual table was placed in front of the room’s only window. The castle’s “safe” was built into the wall, and its fanciful hinges and handwrought locking systems were reminiscent of a “Lord of The Rings”movie set. They let us tour the private chapel, a very small shrine room with an arched Gothic ceiling. Religious paintings covered the walls and the ceiling.

To my disappointment, we were not allowed upstairs. The castle is still privately owned, and the upper floors were not open to the public. The towers were off-limits too. Too bad! I would have loved to climb up to the top. We did get to see some “dungeons” and one lower wing, which was probably a barracks for soldiers in its day. These rooms were full of weaponry, suits of armor, and spinning and weaving equipment, including a very old floor loom. In the end, the old castle was way less romantic from the inside than from the outside. It’s no fairy tale living in a drafty, dark, cold, stone environment like a real medieval castle.

Mom returned triumphantly to the ship, having impressed absolutely everyone with her hiking ability. She was definitely the oldest person on the cruise to attempt the castle tour.

Thanks for reading! Diana

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