When Brian Spencer went on a Rhine cruise, little did he realise that the high point of the trip was, for more than one reason, several thousand feet above the level of the river.
A mere four hours after leaving Matlock, we emerged care of Eurostar into bright sunshine on the French side of the Channel Tunnel. Somewhere near Lille the line branched left and in no time at all we were in Brussels. Here a coach whisked us away over the border to Cologne and our first view of the busy River Rhine.
Our home for the next week was the MS George Eliot, one of the luxury river cruisers which tour the major European rivers. These rivers, especially the Rhine, are wide and deep enough to carry huge commercial barges, everyone loaded with anything from liquid gas to sand and gravel. Many of those we saw had comfortable living accommodation above the stern, and some even had a small car perched on top of the wheelhouse.
Settled in our cosy cabin and fed like royalty, we could sit back and enjoy the gentle pace of our cruise up Father Rhine. In this lower part of the river, the scenery was of gentle farmland, but as the valley sides steepened, castles and vineyards began to make an appearance. Twin riverside towers are the poignant remains of the Remagen Bridge, the site of the famous battle during World War 2.
It must be hard deciding where and when to stop and explore the multitude of interesting places along the river. Our first port of call was the ancient wine centre of Koblenz, standing at the junction of the Moselle and Rhine. Narrow cobbled streets and tiny pedestrianised squares seem timeless, places where there is something new round every corner. In one of the squares, the statue of a boy spits water at irregular intervals, much to the surprise of unwary tourists. The point where the two rivers meet is called the ‘German Corner’ (Deutsches Eck). Above it is the massive equestrian statue of Kaiser William 1st, the first emperor of Unified Germany in 1897. Just a stride or two beyond it is the ground station of a cable car service to the 16th century Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. Meant to guard the river approaches to central Germany, it fell to the French during one of the Franco-Prussian wars in 1799.
Entering the Middle Rhine above Koblenz, hillsides above both banks are lined with vineyards, they seem to cling at impossibly steep angles to catch the warm sunlight. Dotted at regular intervals are castles of all shapes and sizes, many no longer the home of some wine growing baron, they now find a modern use as hotels, or schools.
Around a point about half way along the 1,000 kilometre length of the Rhine, the 393 metre high Lorelei rock confines the river into a narrow, fast flowing channel. Today’s traffic operates on a one-way system, but in times gone by many ships came to their doom on the treacherous rocks. Romantic German poets founded the legend of a beautiful girl, who lured unsuspecting sailors to their fate. If you look carefully, you should be able to see her riverside statue low down on the riverbank.
This is the main German wine country where all the finest vintages are on offer in bars and restaurants. Tiny historic Drosselgasse lies at the heart of Rüdesheim, and attracts visitors from all over the world. Not content with producing fine local wines, the Asbach GMBH distillery produces German brandy (‘weinbrand’). This premium spirit is not made from German wine, but French for some unknown reason.
Speyer is a busy place dating from Roman times and whose medieval city centre is built around a cathedral, the largest Romanesque church still in existence in the world. Medieval emperors are buried here, but it is the church’s links with formation of Protestantism when it broke away from the Holy Roman Empire. Speyer cathedral was one of the places where in 1521 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and, much to the delight of today’s schoolboys, the Diet of Worms.
Down a side street off the cathedral square stand the ruins of the ‘Judenhof’, Jews’ town. Many of its original features can still be found, either as artefacts in the small museum, or within the ancient walls. Steps lead down to the ritual baths that have an uncanny similarity to the gas chambers of Auswitz where the horror of holocaust were played out.
Alternating with Brussels, Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace is the meeting place of the Council of Europe. The city has changed hands many times during wars involving France and Germany and, as a result, the architecture is a delightful mix of both styles. Half-timbered buildings hundreds of years old line streets and squares surrounding a 13th century cathedral; its Gothic spire built in 1500 was once the tallest building in the world. Hundreds of biblical figures decorate the west façade, but it is the interior which takes the breath away. Much of the medieval stained glass has a luminous effect in almost any light and in the south transept, the Renaissance astronomical clock and the 13th century Angel Column are special highlights.
Still moving upstream, our cruise entered the region of the Black Forest. Mooring at Breisach an attractive little town perched high above the east bank of the river, coaches took us to Titisee, a smart little town built on the north bank of its lake. A base for walkers since Chancellor Otto von Bismarck escaping the rigours of high office, spent many happy hours exploring the Black Forest. Meet and greet ladies dressed in what can be described as a female version of a Yeoman Warder’s uniform were there to answer questions, but not why a man passed us with a pig on a lead! Titisee is famous for its cuckoo clocks, no longer are they assembled by farmers trapped by the deep snow in their remote farms, but the skills needed to make the intricate clock parts, led to the creation of the model engineering company Märklin.
The last day of the cruise was the high point in more ways than one sense. As a change from being a little more than a few feet above sea level, on this our last full day we reached 6,762 feet to experience the first taste of winter’s snow. It was a long, but rewarding day; at first we were driven to Lucerne, one of Switzerland’s medieval cities. Most visitors are attracted to the ancient roofed-in timber bridge over the river draining the nearby lake. From the numbers taking their inevitable ‘selfies’, Lucerne is high on the must-see agenda for Japanese tourists.
A short mid-day drive into the Bernese Oberland and a ride on a rack and pinion train climbed steeply Schynige Platte, a mountain look out at over 6,000 feet – much higher than the Rhine, but what a view. Standing in a line directly opposite were three alpine giants each over 13,000 feet, the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch, making the perfect end to our holiday.