Monday, July 27, 2015

Going a'viking-with a twist of lemon

This version repeats some of what I shared earlier.

The whole trip experience is becoming a bit surreal; I know we did it, my wife Cheryl, and I, but the warm fog of remembering is already stealing in…

After days of packing and weighing suitcases and deciding on clothes (the weather had been frightful, for Europe, in the days previous), The Day arrived. It was a 1st Class experience from the beginning when the limo pulled up out front to take us to the airport. Check in was relatively smooth and off we went for our requisite dehumanization by the friendly folks at TSA. Even that was not awful, but then came the pat-down. It seems that something about me set off the something-or-other and I got a bit-too-familiar pat down. Nothing discovered, off we went to await our departure to Philly..

Then we landed at the most awful airport on the East Coast, in my experience—PHL. What is the story with this place? Every single time I have had to fly into Philly’s airport, whether stopping or connecting, there have been delays. We sat in that plane for almost 90 minutes waiting to take off! I pity anyone trying to make a connection in Amsterdam, our destination and the embarkation point of our Viking River Cruise to Basel, Switzerland.

In Tim’s World™, children over 15 months and less than 10 years old would not be allowed on flights lasting more than 3 hours. Imagine sitting in one of those super-expensive massage chairs that run up and down your spine. Now imagine sitting in that chair while it experiences electrical shorts at irregular intervals in random spots up and down your spine. Got the picture? Doze..JOLT!...doze…doze…JOLT! That was the kid behind me kicking my seat. And this a trans-Atlantic flight lasting forever. If the seat-kicker behind me was not enough, we had a drunken bimbo. I had noticed when we first took off that she seemed to be sort of high-maintenance with her imperious demand/requests. She got so drunk that she caused an incident back in the plane not once but several times near the restrooms. At one point two attendants, one male, escorted her back to her seat and forbade her to have contact whatsoever with any other passenger, on pain of arrest upon landing. I honestly think that if we had been over land, and not the Atlantic, that they would have put down and had her carted off. Needless to say, it was not a restful night.

At last, we land in Amsterdam, breeze through the airport and are met by a Viking person and whisked off to a bus and thence to the boat, Cheryl somewhat fresh, having grabbed few hours sleep, and me feeling like I have been dragged behind a bus for 6 or 7 blocks.

The boat is really nice and we are in luck as our stateroom is ready. The word “stateroom” is somewhat misleading, unless you think of Rhode Island every time you hear the word “state”. Still and all, it was very nice and no bigger than it needed to be. Believe me, it was far finer digs than ever I had in the good old USN. For one thing, we had a really nice shower and all the hot water we could want. If only, back then…

We crashed for a nap of a few hours and then found out we had 3 or 4 more hours before Departure, so we walked into Amsterdam; we were there three years ago and feeling confident. What a city! We wandered here and there, never once feeling anything but safe, no matter the width of the alley. I discovered a lovely little establishment, a coffee house, by the name of The Jolly Joker. I found it following my nose. It is both disconcerting and amazing in Amsterdam for the lovely odors wafting on the breeze. When I glanced at the menu, I got no farther than the eponymously-named Jack Herer. It did not disappoint. Not a teeny bit. Back to the boat for dinner.

The first dinner was a harbinger of good times to come; three courses, side dishes, cheese plates, fruit plates and all the beer, wine or soft drinks you could hold. (Sidebar: Cheryl and I are not heavy, or even frequent drinkers, so we got the regular deal which consists of unlimited “house wine”, “house beer” and Coke products, not to mention lemonade and tea or coffee during all meal times. The beer was Bitburger—a mighty tasty brew. There were various wines, both red and white and they kept giving you more if you weren’t attentive, along with fresh glasses of beer every time you looked away. There was a premium perk called the “Silver Package”; that cost $65 per person and was unlimited booze all over the boat. I met not a few that were punishing Viking on that deal. We had interesting table mates every night, some more interesting than others, one obnoxious, but more about him later. Next day was the first stop on our tour, to look at working windmills at a place called Kinderdijk.

Weather-watching in Europe

Europe was experiencing some abnormally hot weather in the weeks leading up to our departure. One day one of the places on our itinerary was 88° F, then two days later 73°, so guessing how to pack was chancy, at best. The one constant was Amsterdam; never really hot, but always raining. Our guide for the windmills told us (as we were huddled like forlorn ducks under umbrellas that did nothing to stop the horizontal rain), that The Netherlands gets 200+ days per year when it rains.

That sort of explains why they are so good at managing water, not to mention that over 40% of The Netherlands is below sea level. The place we visited, Kinderdijk, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation shared by dozens of other sites around the world that represent in a meaningful way important aspects of a culture or society. Without windmills and they water-engineering they embody, there would be no “Low Countries” as we know them. Entire families live inside a great many of these windmills, some of which are more than 200 years old and still fully functional. One rather grand specimen had housed a family containing 13 kids! The “Old Woman” of nursery-rhyme fame didn’t live in a shoe, she lived in a windmill.

Sadly, the weather was miserable the whole time: no sun, cool temperatures and rain. Cheryl schlepped out to climb up into the mill; I chose to dry off and warm up. The ingenuity of the cog, or gear, assemblies that transfer the wind power to the pumps is quite fascinating.

Later that afternoon, as we resumed our cruise upriver, I got a chance to visit the pilothouse. Samuel Clemens (he rode the Rhine when he visited in the late 1870’s) would think he was on board a spaceship, and his first question would probably be “What happened to the wheel?”

About the boat

My ancestors never had it so good on their longships. We sailed on Viking Kara, a one year-old engineering marvel. The bridge is a mechanical marvel in itself; it sits on a giant scissors jack so it can be lowered to get under low bridges. It is so long that it has a video camera aft so that the fantail is visible to the skipper at all times. It has four propulsion units, each with two smallish props, that can rotate 360° as well as two thrusters. There is no sense of getting underway, so smooth and vibration-free are the props. No rowing in fierce winds, bailing all the while for this crew.

I jokingly remarked that we were in steerage, the lowest deck. There was virtually no difference in cabin sizes that I could detect; same number of cabin doors on both lowest and middle deck; there might have been a couple bigger ones on the top deck. The top two decks had tiny balconies outside their cabins, but they were virtually worthless on this trip, as several that had them stated.

The whole boat shined and sparkled. The crew was magnificent and the service was almost eerie; every time you turned around someone was asking if there was anything they could get you. If you did not cover your wine or beer glass, they were bringing another before you could ask. The food was absolutely first rate. Each morning there was a continental breakfast in the lounge and a full breakfast in the dining room with eggs, waffles and omelet’s to order, five kinds of juice, gallons of coffee, fresh fruit in abundance. Lunch was served on board every day for those that came back for it; many opted to eat wherever we were that day. Every night was a three course dinner and featured an a la carte menu if you did not care for any of the choices (there were always three entrees offered) that included steak.

Two members of the crew stood out, in my opinion. The first is Ria (I have forgotten her last name), who was the Program Director. Where she gets all of her energy must be a closely held secret. She was funny, knowledgeable and tireless. The other is Peter Burkhard, the Hotel Manager. When I asked about going through locks he took me into his cabin/office and provided me with a complete list of all the locks we would traverse and the approximate time we would go through; there were quite a lot. (More about Rhine locks later.) He really blew me away when, on the last night aboard, they got him to sit down at the baby grand and play. Boy, could he play! He was exceedingly gracious and a great asset to Viking.

There was music for every dinner; usually local musicians or music students and it never failed to shine. It was quite a boat.

The Itinerary

The plan called for us to visit a different city each day; on one day we stopped at two. I’ll be brutally honest and admit that they sort of blurred together after a bit, but I’ll do my best to sort them out for you.

Amsterdam-I have already commented on our brief stay here, not much to add.

Day 2: Kinderdijk- I talked about this earlier; nothing to add here.

Day 3: Cologne- We have all seen the iconic pictures of the great Gothic cathedral of Cologne that somehow survived the Allied bombings. Hit by eight bombs of various size, it stood at war’s end, damaged but resolute. The cathedral, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is awe-inspiring up close. To stand in front of it, neck craned to see the spires so far overhead, and to think that it is over 750 years old was a profound experience for this retired history teacher. The inside of the cathedral is equally impressive, as it was meant to be when built, proclaiming and testifying to God’s greatness and intimidating the flock into being good sheep. (As a historical backdrop and background, every place we would be visiting in Germany and France was originally a Roman outpost on the edge of their civilization.)

No trip to Cologne (Köln in German) would be complete without a trip to the 4711 company, home to THE “scent of Cologne. This perfume lent its name to all good-smelling things with “eau de cologne” being lifted from their name. My Mom loved the stuff and one of her first gifts to my then-fiancé was some 4711 soap.

Just as the city of Pilsener, in Czechoslovakia, lent its name to a type and style of beer, so has Köln, as we learned on our Brauhaus tour that night. They are justly proud of their local brew “kölsch”. We visited 4 different brauhauses that night and I can report that they were all quite good and two were excellent. I also learned that a one-inch head on a beer is a good thing for two reasons: it insulates the beer from the air and it also keeps it colder, longer. Who am I to argue with some of the best beer brewers on the planet? German beer is a far cry from the pale, watery stuff that often poses as beer here in the States.

Cheryl and I just had to visit the Schokoladenmuseum Köln, now owned by Lindt Chocolates. It was not just exhibits of old wrappers from around the world, but also all the areas it is grown now and many historic tools and molds. They explained how hollow bunnies are made and we got to watch machines making little chocolate squares from molding to wrapping. The very interesting afternoon ended in the Chocolate shop, where chocolates from dozens of European makers were on sale.

One strange, but most pleasant, sight was the four young German men busking on the edge of the Dom square; they were playing Mozart, and playing it very well for a very appreciative audience gathered to watch.

Cologne also has a very moving tribute to the victims of “the brown time” (what several of the guides called the Third Reich). Besides a piece of rather abstract sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust and commissioned by the city from an Israeli artist, there are over a thousand small brass inscribed squares scattered around the city. The first we saw of these “Stumbling Stones” (the name our guide gave them) was one dedicated to 200 Romany who were rounded up and sent to the death camps. The rest are placed in the cobblestones in front of every house that held a Jewish family that was rounded up and sent to the ovens.

Day 4: Köblenz, Scenic Cruising, and Rudesheim- Marksburpg Castle lay upon the crest of a mighty hill under which we had moored. To get there we had to take a gondola/cable car across the Rhine and up the hill. The sky was shining blue and the river busy, which made just this little jaunt exotic and entertaining. Of all the forts and fortresses I have seen in various places around the world, this was by far the most imposing and impressive. Built in 1836, it was so formidable that no one ever tried to attack it, a fact that potentially thousands of foes no doubt endorsed. I could see no way that an army of that time could have possibly taken that fort with the weaponry in use then. Our tour guide was dressed in period costume and assumed the persona of a gentleman officer of the Royal Engineers sent in mufti to spy it out. He was very, very good. One need only walk to the edge of the parade grounds overlooking the Rhine to note its strategic importance as it broods on the hill overlooking the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.

We boarded a bus to rejoin the boat which had moved on to Braubach, and then set sail for lunch on the Rhine as we made for Rudesheim. We’ve all heard of Irish Coffee, right? How many have heard of Rudesheim Kaffe? Even I, who do not normally drink coffee, could grow to like it the way they make it. Probably something to do with the brandy in it, I would guess.

In the interim, we sailed the part of the Rhine known for the castles. It was a gloriously clear and pleasant day and some of the castles are quite impressive. We sailed around the fabled Lorelei Rock at the Rhine’s narrowest point, less than 100 yards wide.

A Note on the Rhine River: While I fully understand the importance of the Rhine to all the countries through which it flows, it does not impress this boy, born in a Mississippi River town in Illinois and having lived along the Ohio for over 30 years now in SW Ohio. Naively, growing up I thought when someone referenced an important or mighty river, the Muddy Miss was my point of reference and I thought all really important rivers must be that big and wide. When I read in the war histories what a formidable defense line the Rhine would be, I envisioned trying to cross the Mississippi somewhere along where I lived and shuddered, little knowing that the widest spot I would later see was about the width of the Rock River where it emptied into the Mississippi.

Make no mistake, the Rhine is busy with all sorts of commercial barge traffic. The barges on the Rhine are nothing like those on our major rivers. For one thing, they are considerably smaller and shorter, owing to the confines of the river. For another, whole families live aboard what we would call “the tug” or “the tow”, that part of the barge that provides the motive power. They have the family car parked on the aft deck, or their motorcycle or fishing boat or jet-ski. One even had a swingset on the bow for the kids. I wonder what they do for school?

Day 5: Heidelberg and Speyer-Heidelberg was spared bombing in WWII. There was no industry and old, moneyed American families had an interest in the University. For whatever the reason, the city maintains its medieval charm and dimensions. We had the most amazing bus driver I have ever seen. How he managed to navigate some of those cobblestoned streets was nothing less than magical. The locals were coming out to watch and would often give him a hand when he did it.

Perhaps the most disconcerting sight of our trip happened in Heidelberg. As we were walking towards the famed ruins of Heidelberg Castle, setting of the opera The Student Prince, we walked along a familiar-looking street of bookstores full of texts, bookbags, T-shirts and the like. What I did not expect to see was Mark Twain’s visage gracing T-shirts, book bags and posters. It seem that Heidelberg is mad for Samuel Clemens who famously resided there for some months in the late 1870’s and then went on to write a much-beloved, and totally fictional, account of his summer in Germany.

Heidelberg Castle still enchants as it did 150 years ago. Even in ruins it is still magnificent. It seems that Louis XIV of France was not comfortable with all the castles along the Rhine. Being the grandiose frog that he was, he proceeded to destroy every one during the War of Palatine Succession, between 1594 and 1603. Thanks, Louis.

Speyer is a sleepy little town with the largest Romanesque cathedral, the Kaiserdom, in Europe. It’s a huge church, and imposing. Speyer was once a cultural center for Jews and has the oldest existing example of a ritual underground Jewish bath house in all of Europe.

Day 6: Strasbourg, France- Welcome to the Alsace. The first you see are the street signs; every street has three names, one in French, one in German and one in Alsatian. Makes for some big signs. Strasbourg is mad for storks. Every chimney has a nest, or so it seems. Storks on your chimneys are considered good luck. The slate roofs look like they have been iced (frosted) in stork droppings stretching six and eight feet down the roof. I’m not sure where that part figures into the luck bit; must be an Alsace thing.

The streets in Strasbourg are a most delightful jumble of architecture; an obviously German building nestled cheek-by-jowl with a patently French building, one side of the block French, the other German. The Strasbourg Cathedral is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. Sadly, it was a Sunday and most of the shops were closed, although we did score some outstanding macaroons.

Day 7; Breisach and the Black Forest- All my life I have heard of The Black Forest of Germany, home to cuckoo clock makers and woodcarvers carving wondrous things. We decided to take the bus tour to the Kaiserschtule in the Black Forest.

The countryside was gorgeous as we wound our way up in elevation in our Mercedes tour buses. Along the way we were lucky enough to see some really rare (like only a couple of hundred left rare) horses native to the area. They were some plug-ugly horses but had a certain so-ugly-your-heart-goes-out quality to them. We also passed enormous farmhouse that were centuries old; one magnificent structure was 1000 years old and still being lived in. The thatch roofs were unique.

Another of the great ironies presented itself with this tour. Dressed in traditional Black Forest garb, our lady guide was a Guatemalan-American who’d come to Germany 8 years ago to study the language and had found a husband and stayed; charming lady who knew her stuff.

We drove up into the mountains and stopped at an inn that had been there since Marie Antoinette made her Grand Procession to France to become Queen. The main commercial building was shaped like a giant clock but we did not wait to strike the hour and see what happened. Instead of watching the clock/building, we were watching an incredible young male chef make Black Forest Cake. Oh my god, I gained half a pound just watching him drench it in schnapps and ladle layer after layer of whipped, unsweetened cream, then showering it with chocolate shavings and topping each piece with a rosette containing a cherry. It was a profound gustatory experience without any calories.

When we came back from the Forest, we walked into Breisach, a very pretty city with a most impressive Basilika, and about a dozen ice cream (Eis) stores. The Germans are heavily into what they call ice cream but we would call gelato. Every city we visited had Eis stores; the range of flavors staggers the imagination. Liking ice cream myself, and married to a ice cream junkie, we had several tasty treats. I had a lime gelato that was sublime before we returned to the boat for the night.

That last night was the Farewell Dinner and it was grand.

Day 7: Basel, Switzerland and the endless trip home- We departed the boat at 4:30 AM for the airport in Basel, I have no idea what Basel looks like outside of what we could see in the bus headlights. The airport was very busy and there came an end to our up-to-now idyllic trip. We could not get boarding passes because our tickets were in the system twice. I give kudos to the gentleman at the British Airways who took such extraordinary measures to get it cleared up. It took him 20 minutes, but when he finished he handed me boarding passes for the whole flight, including each connection. Then through Customs, which was mercifully perfunctory.

Next came Heathrow, where it seemed we went through twice as many lines and got questioned by twice as many guys at desks. At least the European versions of TSA are a hell of a lot more civil and sensible; no removing belts and stripping off your shoes.

The flight from Heathrow to Philly seemed to take two lifetimes. By then my circadian rhythms were so screwed up that my body felt like I needed to be awake. Cheryl was blissfully sleeping while I watched two whole movies: The Agony and The Ecstasy (an old, familiar favorite) and Chappie, which I highly recommend to all fans of mild science fiction. I thought it was a very thoughtful film while still very entertaining. Then I read some.

Customs at Philly was surprisingly easy and efficient, but that was just another tease, and Philly would preserve its perfect record of never, not even once, allowing me to make a connection on time. This time, it was not the airports fault, but rather, the result of asinine rules instituted by the FAA and the Secret Service. Air Force One was landing at Philly, so the entire side of the massive airport that AF One taxied across was frozen in place; all boarding stopped cold, all planes were halted and forbidden to taxi or take off for 40 minutes, until the motorcade took off. Thanks, Prez. Sort of smacks of the imperial, doesn’t it?

It was a grand excursion and far exceeded our wildest expectations, and provided more memories than one mind can possibly hold for long. Luckily for us, Cheryl has made up an enormous loose-leaf binder for the 150+ photos we printed that will serve as a memory-jogger for years to come.

Rhine locks
All of the locks I am familiar with on US rivers operate pretty much the same way as locks have worked since the days of the Erie Canal; two large gates/doors that swing open and closed from the sides. The bottom is usually the river bottom. Germany did it a different way when they had to replace all the bombed out locks and dams. Their locks are like a concrete trough with one-piece gates that raise and lower. Tow boats/barges fit side by side with about one foot clearance on both sides. Some had as much as a 20’ difference; they filled quite quickly due to the fast flow of the Rhine.

Rhineland vineyards
German vintners grow vines along the Rhine on hills so steep goats avoid them. Seriously though, the hillsides they cultivate are too steep for any machinery; all the growing, tending and harvesting is done by hand. Virtually every scrap of land that will hold a vine has one all along the wine area. I had some great Reislings on the Kara.

130 Strangers on a boat for a week

(I promised several people that I told I would be writing this that no real names would be used.)

Sailing on a small-ish boat like this means no escaping people you’d rather not choose to spend time with, as well as providing opportunities to meet really nice people. As the Kara was a non-smoking vessel, including my e-cig; so, as is often the case nowadays, we social pariahs who gathered “at the ashtrays” each evening soon got to know each other. (At one point I overheard someone referring to us as “the Knitting Club”; I corrected her and told her we preferred to refer to ourselves as “the cool kids”.) I met a mother and daughter, from Arkansas and Texas, respectively, that were very fine ladies to chat with. Mom did very specialized educational testing and daughter flew all over selling medical instruments; we each had areas of common interests.

One night, we cool kids were sharing pot stories, most of which centered on recent experiences in Amsterdam. One couple related a hilarious tale of going into one of the coffee houses and getting a couple of joints. It seems that they had both dabbled with pot 15 or 20 years ago and were interested in doing it again somewhere where they would not be hassled for it, sort of a brief trip down Memory Lane. They told how they sat down on a bench together and smoked one joint. Upon finishing they confided to one another that they were suddenly too stoned to stand up and walk back a few blocks to the ship, so they sat there for half an hour until they felt up to the task. They had us all in stitches.

Another night when we were all sitting topside admiring the late sunset and the myriad stars soon visible in the clear skies, I caught a whiff of a lovely odor and thought I was imagining it. Nope, such was not the case. I was sitting next to “the couple” when she reached over and asked if I would care for a toke. I did, and we did, and we sailed up the Rhine digging the moon and stars with a most righteous buzz on. It does NOT get any better than that.

We met a couple a few years older than us from England that we hope to stay in touch with. We exchanged addresses and ate dinner together several nights. She is six and a half stone of grit and spunk; he is an artist if considerable skill. His sketching on the day we were traversing castle country led to introductions and the rest. They are truly lovely people and our having met them and possibly formed a friendship is one of the very high points of the whole trip.

The low point, in regard to becoming acquainted with our fellow passengers, has to be The Aussie. If I believed that he adequately represented the people of Australia, I would kiss off the whole damned continent and let the Chinese have it some day in the future. My first meeting came when we were unfortunate enough to sit down at the same table for dinner one night. The gist of his lecture that night, delivered in a booming voice (yeah, me calling someone else booming, I know) was that anyone that did not understand all the nuances of two versions of cricket were poor, benighted fools; football(soccer) was a boring, sissy game and anyone and anything not Australian was somehow lacking. I figured that he had had a snoot-full and was just an obnoxious tippler. Unfortunately, I was wrong on that score.

The next night, having escaped dining at the same table again, I was more than a little dismayed to find that he had taken up residence in our smoking area, and he did not even smoke. By now, we cool kids knew some about each other. The Aussie started off expounding about the metric system vs. Imperial/American. In his ranting, he asked something about why we had not adopted it, historically. Someone there identified me as a History teacher, so he directed his question somewhat smugly at me. When I got about half way into the historical reasons Americans were never going to adopt anything proposed by Napoleon, he most rudely cut me off and said we were all “SHTEW-PUD” (hard to nuance his pronunciation is print). Twice more he asked me questions as a History teacher and twice more he cut me off mid-answer and declared we were all SHTEW-PUD! I got up and walked away, thinking to myself that yes, it was easy to tell that he was an engineer—he thought he knew everything. Too bad he doesn’t know what an ass-hat he is, and the disservice he does his country.

The people we interacted with in Germany were very friendly, as were the people in Strasbourg. Virtually everywhere we went we ran into a persistent annoyance. Every time I tried to get a picture, there were oblivious Asians ruining the shot. I have no idea how they got there or what tour groups they were with; we had no Asians on our boat. Some were Japanese, some Chinese and some Korean; lots I have no idea. It simply seemed that every time you tried to shoot a castle, there was an Asian with a camera on the damned balcony! How the hell did they get up there in the first place? Nice shot along a canal? Forget it as there are half a dozen girls striking poses, or else an enormous cluster gathered under a selfie-stick. I really hate to say this, but it seemed they just did not give a damn for anyone around them. It was really frustrating, but the only even slightly negative thing to happen. More of an observation, really; is it a cultural thing?

What a trip it was; even after waiting 15 months to take it our expectations were exceeded. I wish we could afford to do something like it every year, but unless I buy a winning lottery ticket that is not likely to happen. If ever you get the chance, the Rhine is well worth seeing.

I am off to GenCon in two days. I will have another Tales of the Red Road about mid-August.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Tim for sharing your experiences with those of us who will probably never get to go there. :)