By Marilyn Heimburger
Photos by Don Heimburger
Are you are looking for a vacation that combines relaxation, a bit of history, romantic castles, charming medieval villages, and excellent cuisine? This week-long river cruise on the Moselle, Rhine and Main rivers in Germany, offered by Avalon Waterways, may be the perfect choice for you.
The MS Avalon Luminary, our ship for this cruise, was just recently added to Avalon’s fleet. Its 69 staterooms and suites are designed for efficiency, with plenty of space to stow personal items and luggage. Each room had a small bathroom with shower, comfortable memory foam mattress, a desk, lamp, mirror, fresh flowers, mini bar, and a safe for valuables. A television provided satellite programming and broadcast the view from a camera at the front of the ship. Floor-to-ceiling windows open to a private balcony in most rooms. It’s a luxury of river cruising to just unpack once and let the ship transport you with ease to each destination.
Another luxury on a cruise such as this is the excellent cuisine. The sumptuous breakfast buffet included breads, pastries and cereals, fruits, eggs, potatoes, sausages and bacon, and made-to-order entrees. The full lunch buffet served each day in the main dining room offered soups, salads, choice of main course and desserts. A lighter lunch option was also available in the lounge one deck above. Five-course dinners included an appetizer, choice of soups, salad, choice of meat, fish or vegetarian main course, and several dessert options. The well-trained staff served red, rose, or white wine or beer upon request.
BOARD IN LUXEMBOURG
Boarding the Luminary in Remich, Luxembourg, we were welcomed by cruise director Jean Loup Domart. Entertaining, energetic, and extremely organized, Jean excelled at keeping everything running smoothly.
Although we set sail while dinner was being served, we missed none of the excitement, since the dining room was designed for maximum viewing, with panoramic windows on both sides. A sense of intimacy was provided with fresh orchids in lighted open rectangles dividing the large space without interrupting with the view. The lounge on the level directly above the dining room was also designed for watching Germany glide by in the most comfortable of settings.
Our first stop was Trier, Germany, which boasts amazingly intact structures from the Roman Empire, including imperial baths, an amphitheater, and Constantine’s reception hall, which now serves as a protestant church. Did you ever wonder why Roman ruins always seem to be discovered 6 feet underground? We learned from our local guide that after Roman towns were abandoned, local residents built homes by taking usable stones from the old Roman buildings. Over the course of 600 years, this practice left a 6-foot-deep base of rubble, upon which the medieval towns were built. Trier’s Porta Nigra (black gate) is black from wood fire smoke from Roman times, and was left standing because it was a site that attracted pilgrims, who brought money to the church.
As our trip continued down the Moselle, we passed vineyard after vineyard and peaceful patchwork slopes, dotted with small villages and church steeples. The southern facing slopes provide the perfect environment for catching warm sunlight needed to grow grapes for Germany’s famous Riesling wines. And the ship’s outdoor decks were perfect for relaxing with a cup of coffee or listening to birds along the shore as the ship glided quietly along.
Our late afternoon arrival in Bernkastel-Kues allowed just enough time to explore the Old Town around the quaint market square. This town hosts the biggest Weinfest on the Moselle in September. One vineyard overlooking the town is the source of their “Doktor” wine. Legend has it that drinking some of the wine from this vineyard cured an archbishop of an ailment, so the wine became known as the “Doktor.”
The next day brought us to the wine town of Cochem and a tour of Reichsburg Castle. The interior of the castle highlights not only only medieval artifacts, but Renaissance and Baroque furnishings selected by the 19th century restorers. The tour was informative and the view from the castle — spectacular.
Passengers tour the castle
The Moselle joins the Rhine at Koblenz, an important center of trade during the Middle Ages. An imposing statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I mounted on a horse dominates the Deutches Eck (German Corner) where the two rivers meet. We arrived just before dinner, with enough time for a short walk into the square to see the many shops and restaurants. The fortress Ehrenbreitstein stands on the opposite bank of the river and provides a beautiful panoramic view of the area.
To begin our cruise down the Rhine Gorge (some say the most beautiful part of the Rhine) first thing in the morning, we docked overnight at Koblenz, and were entertained on board after dinner by a small ensemble of classical musicians.
THE MIDDLE RHINE
The next morning was filled with the history, legends and romance of the Middle Rhine. Cruise Director Jean Loup provided informative narration as the ship glided along, with passengers enjoying the view while relaxing on the sundeck. We learned that during the Middle Ages the Rhine River Gorge posed many hazards for travelers, and provided many opportunities for powerful kings to levy tolls for safe passage. They built castles and fortresses in the 12th and 13th centuries along the banks to collect tolls, make money, and enlarge territories.
The castles were usually built high on hills, close to a spring, and often on a curve with a view of the river. Stones for the castles were lifted with wheels and ropes, and the building projects provided work and security for locals, whose lifespan at the time was only about 40 years. Most castles were built with limestone, which was easier to work with than granite. Later palaces were built with marble, as techniques improved. To attack a fortress, enemies could try to break down a wall or door with a battering ram on wheels with a roof as protection from arrows shot from the castle. Or a catapult could throw fire over the castle walls. Castles residents used beehives, hot tar or hot water to fend off attackers. Some fortresses housed armies of 600.
In the town of Boppard we saw Sterrenberg and Liebenstein, known as the castles of the enemy brothers, and heard the legend: Two brothers both fell in love with their adopted sister. She wanted none of this, and entered a monastery in town to live as a nun. The brothers fought and finally built two castles next to each other with a wall in between.
The 430-foot-high Lorelei rock is located where the river narrows, creating treacherous currents dangerous to ships. The famous legend of the beautiful maiden who sat on the rock luring sailors to their destruction with her singing is commemorated with a bronze statue.
The town of Oberwesel, below Schoenburg Castle, still has many fortification walls and towers still standing. When the river water is low, travelers can see the “rocks of the seven virgins.” Legend has it that a lord with seven sons wanted to arrange marriages for them. The seven chosen virgins didn’t want to marry, and threw themselves into the Rhine, where, because they were so hardhearted, they turned to stone.
Pfalz Castle (whose gold lion was to symbolize strength and power) was built in the 16-17th century as a customs tollhouse on a little island in the middle of the river. Gutenfels Fortress was built on the bank opposite Oberwesel to protect the tollhouse.
Sooneck Castle, a toll-enforcing castle from the 11th century, also housed pirates. It is one of the oldest along the Rhine and is restored as a cafe.
In an attempt to preserve the beauty and tranquility of the shoreline, many of the houses along the shore are painted in soft pastels, often pale yellow, a color made popular by Maria Theresa. Train tunnel entrances on this stretch of the river are built to look like castles, in order to blend in with the style of the area.
(left to right) Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum; Drosselgasse, a lively street in Rudesheim.
DROSSELGASSE A FAVORITE
Our last stop on the Rhine River was in Rudesheim, where we enjoyed a guided tour of the Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments (some imitating entire orchestras in one huge contraption!), and a local winery. Be sure to take time to explore the exciting main street, the Drosselgasse, with its many restaurants and shops.
Navigating the Main River is a slow process because of the many locks needed to raise or lower the ship along the route. So our ever resourceful cruise director kept passengers busy on board with an entertaining German lesson, and a cookie-baking demonstration by an “almost nun” from Miltenberg, our next port of call on the Main.
Miltenberg was built against a hill at a curve in the river, a perfect place to collect tolls for the archbishop of Mainz. Many half-timbered houses are still preserved because the people here were too poor to tear them down and rebuild. If a floor sagged and sank, it was filled with sand and covered with another floor. In some recently renovated buildings, 30 centimeters of sand/wood layers were discovered beneath the floor. The original red “paint” on the houses was a mixture containing, among other things, oxblood and cattle dung, which provided the desired red color and also killed worms that might live in the wood. A unique naturally cool icehouse is located in the hill at the rear of the town.
While the ship slowly navigated through more locks, passengers rode by bus to Wurzburg, and met the ship when it finally docked after our tour. Wurzburg is the site of the Prince Bishop’s Residenz, which is one of the finest examples of a baroque palace, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built to rival Versailles in France and the Schoenbrunn in Vienna. The unique mirrored room features the difficult technique of reverse painting. The famous ceiling fresco by Tiepolo miraculously survived bombing, and the original marble floor is still in the main reception hall. The “marble” pillars are actually a stone core with a ground marble coating so that colors could be controlled, a technique that was more expensive than using solid marble.
WURZBURG AND X-RAYS
Wurzburg was also the home of Professor William Conrad Rundkin, winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of X-rays. Residents in Wurzburg are not x-rayed; they are “Rundkined.”
The terrain along the river from Wurzburg to Bamberg changes and becomes flatter, with fewer vineyards, more trees and shrubs, and more locks. This quiet time was perfect for relaxing with a book from the ship’s library, located in the small lounge at the rear of the ship. There passengers found English language books of all genres, games, and the most wonderful coffee machine which dispensed espresso drinks that rivaled any coffee shop. Iced tea, shortbread cookies and other snacks were available 24/7. The ship also had an exercise room with a treadmill, two types of exercycles and flat screen TV, and a small beauty salon.
Busses again transported us to meet local tour guides in Bamberg, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There we learned the local history of the cathedral, the Old Town Hall, which straddles the River Regnitz, had an opportunity to taste the local specialty, “Rauchbier” (smoked beer), and had time for browsing in the main pedestrian shopping area.
Our cruise ended the next morning upon arrival in Nuremberg, from which some passengers continued by bus to Prague, and others to charming Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
IF YOU GO..
Avalon Waterways, which has been in business for 80 years, has a number of different river cruises available in Europe. Their river cruise ships are small compared to ocean liners, which makes the service and trip more personal. They also have Europe’s youngest fleet of ships, with their fleet averaging just two years old, compared to seven years for other cruise companies.
There are full floor to ceiling sliding glass doors in 85% of the deluxe staterooms on Avalon’s fleet. Also, the Luminary had lots of space in the central passenger areas such as the dining room, lounge and library.
The Luminary offered five categories of rooms including Royal Deck suites; Royal Deck Category P; Sapphire Deck Forward, Category A; Sapphire Deck Aft, Category B; and Indigo Deck, Category E.
For more information, go to www.avalonwaterways.com or call 877-797-8791.