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Our Masterpiece Theatre River Cruise Part 2: Germany The Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers, and the Main-Danube Canal.

August 31, 2016

castles on the rhine

I had been looking forward to this part of the journey because I am thinking of setting a future novel in WWII Germany. It was all I had hoped it would be. Not only did I get a marvelous history lesson that I would have not have gotten if I had not come here, but it was also a feast for the senses. The stretch of Germany we saw along the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers is breathtaking, the towns are straight out of fairy tales, and the people are beautiful and kind.

halftimbered

One of many half-timbered wonders

 

Cologne was our first German town, home of the world’s first eau de Cologne, Roman ruins that have been beautifully preserved and restored, Northern Europe’s largest cathedral (a Gothic wonder that was mercifully spared by Allied bombers), plenty of brauhauses, and best of all, a chocolate museum (a living museum, of course, with plenty of samples!).

After that, we were treated to Koblenz, a veritable fairy tale, and nearby, in Marksburg there is a well-preserved castle high on a hill, complete with a torture chamber and an array of well-dressed knights representing the styles of that brotherhood from the 11th century through the age of chivalry. It also has a view to die for.

my favorite guy

One of my favorite knights in shining armor

chastity belt

This was not one of the torture devices, although  it should have been. It is a medieval chastity belt. Yep. They really existed!

We had lunch in the market square, where they show us what a European farmer’s market is like.  The 12 varieties of  mushrooms alone made me stand and drool for several minutes, and within 10 minutes, my hands were pleasantly sticky with the juice of gorgeous cherries.

After that I walked up a very big hill to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress with some newfound friends for another fantastic view of the day. When we were walking back down, we came across a group of young people from Madrid, singing and  dancing with Spanish flags in front of a church. When I stopped to admire them, they drew me into the dance and showered me with happiness. One of the boys, who must have been about 14 or 15 spoke to me in very broken English that I could not really decipher, and gave me a gift–a leather bracelet with a dangling cross that looked like a rosary, except instead of beads, there were knots tied along the length. You are, according to them, as they ticked off the knots, to say, “Ave Maria, Ave Maria, Ave Maria, pray for the war.” I had no idea which war they were referring to, but they were so precious and so eager to share with me, I was beguiled by them. The boy who had given me the bracelet looked at me like he missed his mama, and I so wanted to gather him in my arms and cuddle for a minute, but I was afraid that might seem weird, so I held back.

Now I am sorry, I did. All of these babies and their desire to connect made me realize that this is why we travel. They were away from home, probably for the first time, on their way to see the Pope in Budapest, and they were a shining example of tomorrow’s hope. My arms still ache for the memory of the hugs I did not hand out.

By now, we passengers were getting to know each other pretty well. Meals and afternoon happy hours were spent in easy conversation as we floated along past castles, cathedrals, and vineyards, while sipping the excellent local wines. Most of the people on the trip were, like us, experiencing their first river cruise, and considered it the trip of a lifetime. Most were Americans and Canadians, but we also met some darlings from Australia, Barbados, and Norway. One Australian friend was a musician, and in the evenings, he and the ship musician treated us to impromptu, rousing rock and roll concerts. Of course, we all joined in the chorus.  As good as the trip was, the experience was made better by these delightful people. All of the crew were from exotic countries, and they vied among themselves to give every passenger the best experience imaginable. The young woman who cleaned the cabins on our deck played practical jokes on me and laughed at me when I fell for them. I miss her.

dinner

Just your typical supper on the boat

 

Sailing through the Rhine Valley, chock full of castles and more fairy tale scenery, we stopped at the charming medieval town of Miltenburg, full of crooked, cobblestone lanes and half-timbered houses, most of them sagging in the middle or leaning at interesting angles. That was followed by Wurzburg, famed for its Baroque masterpiece, the Bishop’s Residence palace, which is about the biggest box of eye candy I have ever seen.

 

The intimate chapel at The Prince Bishop’s Palace

Next came Bamberg, another medieval charmer, which features an old town hall built on a tiny island in the middle of the Regnitz River. In the cathedral, there is a mysterious statue of a man on horseback. He’s very old, perhaps from the early 13th century, and time has worn off all his paint. Nobody knows who it is, but the Nazis thought he was so magnificent they used him as an emblem of Nazism, floating his image on banners all over Germany. They painted him blonde and blue-eyed because, of course, he had to be representative of the great Aryan race. The beautiful irony here is that recently, new technology has been able to deduce the color of pigment that had been on the stature originally. He was swarthy.

Because of my interest in Hitler’s regime, I was anxious to get to Nuremburg to see the where the infamous Nazi rallies took place and the site of the war crimes trials at the Palace of Justice. It was fascinating, not just because of its historical significance, but also because of the role the place has played and is still playing in the lives of Germans. You have seen pictures of the Zeppelin Field where Hitler (and Charlie Chaplin doing his famous imitation) held forth. In these pictures, it looks spiffy, with roaring crowds, manicured grounds and soaring monuments. Today, it is a sad, derelict place, ignored and shamed.  As soon as the war ended and war crimes came to light, the German people were deeply disturbed at what had happened right under their noses, and wanting to distance themselves from the events of the 30s and 40s,  they just walked away, locked up their memories and their parade grounds, and tried their best to rebuild their lives. They were so closed to the idea of reliving the history of the war that they would not even speak to their children about it. The Nazi Regime was not written about in the history books. A whole generation of children grew up, unable to even ask questions about what happened in the years between 1930 and 1945.

I understand why this happened. Although many Germans did not know what was happening to the Jews, communists, homosexuals, and outspoken opponents of Nazi crimes, they surely had more than an inkling that the regime was not as glorious as it pretended to be. Most were terrified of what might happen to them if they did not bow to the rules of the times, and even though they were aware that their friends were disappearing, most of them hoped that officials were beingn truthful when they told them those friends were just being relocated to safer, or more industrial areas where they could find jobs. As Albert Speers confessed in his book, Inside the Third Reich, he didn’t want to know what was happening, so he made every effort not to know. He ignored the signs. He turned his eyes when he was confronted by a horrible truth. He “knew” even though that “knowledge” was not confirmed until he saw the evidence in the Nuremburg trials.

What would you do if you were living through a repressive regime, with the fear that government agents might come banging on your door in the middle of the night if you aided and abetted “terrorists?” In the airport, I see signs posted, “If you see something suspicious, report it!” We do what we think is patriotic and right if we see someone who looks like a bad guy. How do we know who is bad? The media tells us. We rely on honest reporting to tell us whom we should and should not trust. In Nazi Germany, the only information broadcast was written by Nazis strictly to advance the Nazi cause. It was fed to the people in carefully controlled ways that did not allow them to form opinions on their own. I can see why the people buried their heads, and I can understand why they were so horrified when the truth came out. The mayor of a town near one of the Jewish death camps and his wife went to tour the camps shortly after the liberation, and afterwards, they came home and hanged themselves. It is understandable that the whole nation did not want their children to be exposed to their shame.

parade grounds

Hitler’s beloved Zeppelin Field, now with weeds growing in the stands. The huge  Eagles are gone, the concrete is cracked.

Now, things are changing. The Germans are requiring that all schoolchildren visit sites connected with the war, that they understand why it is so important to keep their democracy robust and vital. I wish we Americans were so in love with liberty that we required our own schoolchildren to understand how precious it is, how important truth, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of the mind are.

Leaving Nuremburg sobered and a bit frightened, we came on to Regensburg, where we were plunged back into the beauty of Medieval Europe. The oldest city along the Danube, Regensburg boasts a gorgeous old Stone Bridge, constructed in the 12th century, and now a place to buy a glass of their famous Riesling wine to sip above the beautiful old arches. Regensburg also is the major site of Nazi book burnings. It’s hard to imagine pogroms and book burnings in this sleepy, friendly little village.

One of the surprising things about Germany was the number of locks we had to go through. I think there was something like 69 of them. Fortunately, we went through most of them at night, and sometimes we were dropped off at one location where we spent the morning, then drove on to meet the ship at another town, which had gone through a few locks without us. Since the ship traveled at only about 8 miles per hour, we were able to zip around to a lot of different places on comfortable buses, then return to the ship a few miles upriver in time for lunch or dinner.

Finally, we came to Passau, where we got to spend a little extra time because the ship needed some unexpected repairs, and would that all of my days dedicated to vehicle repairs were like this! We were treated to the most fabulous organ concert in a church with no few than 7 sets of organ pipes, all played at once. You could feel the music in your bones, literally. I can see why Medieval Europeans thought that the cathedrals were the closest thing they could see of heaven. Between the music, the soaring architecture, and the art, there were moments when I thought I was there. What a magnificent end to our cruise through Germany! I now am officially in love with this beautiful country.

organs

The music from these babies will rattle your bones and send your spirit soaring

In my next blog post, we will move on to Austria and jump into the history of the Hapsburgs, the most influential family of Europe’s history. They were rock stars, so stay tuned for Part 3 and beautiful Bavarian Austria.

 

 

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