Welcome to My Daily Cruise Blog!

June 4, 2010

 

Romantic Rhine Map

My Itinerary

I’m excited to have you follow me along my journey.  This daily cruise blog is authored by me, Tony Perrottet.  Above is a map of my itinerary which shows the places I’ll stop along the way.  I look forward to bringing you along on my discovery of the Romantic Rhine.

Romantic Rhine Cruise Overview
One of Europe’s most legendary rivers awaits me on this fascinating Rhine River journey. I will enjoy guided sightseeing in Cologne, Koblenz, and Strasbourg, a visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum in Rüdesheim, as well as an excursion to majestic Heidelberg and a canal cruise in picturesque Amsterdam. Also, I will sail through the dramatic Rhine Gorge and see the legendary Lorelei rock.


Farewell to the Felicity

July 5, 2010

We arrived in Basel during the night – the end of the line for all river cruises, the point where the Rhine no longer becomes navigable. After the relaxing schedule of the last week, life is moving quickly now – the passengers are all up early, having their last onboard breakfast, downing one last cappuccino, swapping emails and addresses with on-board friends, then heading off on their various paths around the globe (San Francisco, New Orleans, Sydney and New Zealand…) I’ll keep in touch with some very cool people. Tim Woods, a blues musician we met from Philadelphia, gave me a copy of his new CD, The Blues Sessions, where he recorded with music legends around the US, including Memphis and Mississippi; I’ll send him a copy of one of my books…

We could easily have kept sailing for a few more days – but we’ve run out of Rhine. For us, it’s off to the train station and the next step of the trip – we’ll stay in Switzerland for a week or so before heading back to NYC.

I’ll miss a lot of things about being on the river, but particularly the feeling of cruising at night, leaning out the cabin balcony on the warm nights and watching the shore drift past in the moonlight, with strange distant lights and the lights of passing villages…

I’ve never been to the Alps, so I’m looking forward to it… and as the English romantics would have said in the 19th century, riverboat is the only way to arrive.


July 4 in France: from Colmar with love

July 4, 2010

The dreamy canals of Colmar.

The giant plaster model ear of the Statue of Liberty, about four feet tall, which Bartholdi kept as a personal souvenir of his famous work!

I was wandering about Colmar in a daze this afternoon – it’s one of the most beautiful towns in France, with whole streets of perfectly preserved half-timber houses from the 1700s and quiet canals adorned by bouquets of wild flowers – when I stumbled across a classic July 4th connection to my home town, New York City.

Hidden away in a back laneway in Colmar is a museum to Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, who had been born in here in 1834 and did many of his designs in the town. A sign promised that the museum even had early models of Lady Liberty rescued from his workshop…

It turned out that the lovely museum building was, in fact, Bartholdi’s family home when he was young, and where he retired to in his later years. After his death in 1904, his wife ensured that the museum would be maintained in perpetuity, along with all his furniture and much of his work. As a result, the museum is surprisingly huge. I wandered through three floors before finding the US connection…

Bartholdi's models for Lady Liberty, showing various proposals

Several rooms told the story of the Statue of Liberty – how the idea of a giant statue of Liberty as a gift from France to the US had been conceived here in a Colmar cafe in 1870, and a site selected the year after, when Bartholdi visited New York. The initial idea was for Lady Liberty to be unveiled in NYC on the 100th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1876, but the creative process – and funding – proved far slower. Various prototypes and construction plans were proposed (with Gustav Eiffel, visionary architect of the Eiffel Tower, offering crucial advice), before work finally began in the 1880s in Bartholdi’s Parisian workshops. The whole 151-feet high sculpture was first built in Paris, then dismantled into 300 pieces and shipped to New York’s Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island). There was a major glitch with the statue’s vast stone base – the Americans hadn’t managed to get enough money to build it. But a vocal fund-raising push led by newspaperman Joseph Pulitzer got the job done, and the Statue of Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886, to massive fireworks displays.

The Bartholdi Museum, former home of the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty

Today, the Bartholdi museum is a moving tribute to the obsessive genius behind what may be the world’s most famous statue. In the very last room of his sprawling family house is a selection of his models for the figure, which went through various incarnations, along with photos of its construction. (The giant torch was put on display in Paris and admission charged to enter, to defray costs). Bartholdi’s sculptures, I learned, can be found all over the world; in Colmar, five of them can be visited in Ladhof Cemetary.

In one last surreal touch, I was lounging in the Jacuzzi on the Felicity’s upper deck as we left Colmar, when I saw a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty looming over the Rhine River – apparently a version was erected in 2004, the centenary of Bartholdi’s death… He’s still this city’s favorite creative genius, and a paragon of US-French relations.


Into France: the Maginot Line

July 3, 2010

The troops' entrance to the giant underground fortress, which the French hoped would save them before the Second World War

We’ve crossed into France now, mooring at Strassbourg. The French and Germans have fought over this part of the world ever since Louis XIV’s day. I’ve just returned from the starkest memorial to the Second World War – a vast underground fortress system that riddles the picturesque countryside here, called the Maginot Line.

In 1930, the French realized that war was coming again – a grim prospect since they’d been invaded by Germany twice in the last 60 years. So they decided to build the world’s longest defensive line over their entire western border, to stop the enemy in its tracks. It was named after the foreign minister who dreamed it up, Maginot, and nothing like it had ever been seen; it was longer than the Great Wall of China.

Part of the underground railroad system, in this case carrying an all-important vat of wine for the French soldiers...

This afternoon, we went to a section called Four à Chaux, ‘Limekiln,’ in northern Alsace, and for an hour and a half wandered enormous concrete corridors and gun emplacements in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. For years, 580 men lived and slept like moles in this self-contained subterranean world, with their own hospital, dentist, cinema and mess hall (the food was apparently excellent, and a quarter of a liter of wine was included in the rations – this was France, after all). There were trains to transport ammunition around, and a complicated pulley system to get the shells up to the gun emplacements.

The underground kitchen, serving 580 men -- apparently, the food was excellent.

It’s all still there, and much of it in working order, which makes for a fascinating visit. The guide was able to use to original levers to lift the 80-ton turret protruding from a hillside with two enormous guns, which had the power to shoot 60 shells a minute for 6 miles distance. In June, 1940, the Nazis did attack the Maginot line here, and were driven back. They then bombed it for days, and tried again – failing dismally.

But on a larger level, the Maginot Line was a colossal failure for the French. Military historians often say that a generals plan for the last war – and in this case, the French had planned for a rematch of the First World War, where armies camped for years in trenches shelling one another. But the Nazis had developed tank warfare to a new level, calling it blitzkrieg, “lightning war.’ They didn’t concentrate their attacks on the Maginot Line but an area of the frontier that the line didn’t cover at all – along the Belgian frontier. With terrifying speed, the German panzers swept through northern France and arrived in Paris.

France surrendered, and most of the soldiers in the Maginot Line gave up without firing a shot.

Today, it’s an eerie afternoon trip into a wierd lost world. Even though there was a heat wave this afternoon, it was quite freezing and damp within the underground tunnels, a steady 50 degrees winter or summer. I went with Henry, my eleven year old, who repeated found the whole experience “awesome.” I couldn’t have put it better…


My first sauerkraut orgy

July 2, 2010

The shadow of the castle hovers over Heidelberg.

Well, I had my first sauerkraut orgy today, in Heidelberg. After visiting the castle, which is one of the most dramatic in Germany, we were strolling around the Old Town down “Fish Street,” when we spotted a small traditional restaurant. The special of the day was the Sauerkraut-Orgia, literally an “orgy” of local culinary specialties – sauerkraut, dumplings, two kinds of sausage and fresh-picked field mushrooms. We took a table outside in the shade, and washed it down with some of the dry red wine of the area. It’s the ideal way to while away a hot summer’s afternoon, sitting back and watching the world go by, then finishing up the meal with some apple strudel and a couple of “student kisses.” These praline-like chocolates were invented in the 1880s by a chocalatier who had the idea that students could offer these to local girls as symbols of their affection…

The world's largest wine vat, inside Heidelberg Castle -- it's about 25 ft high -- you can stand on top of it.

Heidelberg has long had a reputation for romantic appeal. It escaped the bombing that ruined so many other German cities during the Second World War, and is now a bustling student town, much as it was when Mark Twain visited during the mid-19th century. He meant to stay only one day but he liked it so much he stayed six months…

The Heidelbergers are nothing if not proud of their past – in fact, they claim almost every world event somehow comes back to their town. Our guide rattled off a few of them. In 1518, the religious rebel Martin Luther held his first public debate here about his attacks on the Church, provoking the Reformation that would tear Europe apart with wars – and soon drive

Outdoor dining...

Puritans to leave Europe and settle the United States. The prehistoric “Heidelberg jaw” is the oldest human remains ever found in Europe. Mark Twain (my guide swore) was even inspired to write Huckleberry Finn while floating down the Necker River…

The strangest claim? The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1961 was apparently defused in a Heidelberg restaurant called the Red Ox, where US and Russian military intelligence officers met over beer.

The record is silent on whether a Sauerkraut orgy was on the menu…


Siegfried’s magical music museum

July 2, 2010

We docked tonight at Rüdesheim, a gorgeous German riverside town filled with timber-house cottages and leafy beer gardens with classic live oom-pa-pah bands – like something out of the a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I dropped into one garden to try the local specialty, Rüdesheimer coffee, which is brewed with a powerful local liqueur (burned to caramelize the flavor), thick cream and chocolate sprinkles, and served in delicate porcelain cups. Delicious stuff…!

Thus fortified, I headed around the corner into one of Europe’s most bizarre little museums – Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet, set in a gorgeous 14th century mansion. It’s the brainchild of a certain Siegfried Wendel, who celebrated his 75th birthday yesterday. In the 1960s, Herr Wendel’s hobby was to find and repair ‘automatic musical instruments,’ from tiny music boxes to monstrous machines called Orchestrions that were the rage in the 19th century. It turned out that his eccentric pastime created a lot of interest. He soon had over 350 music machines, and he opened a private museum to show them off.

Visiting the “Musik-Kabinett” is absolutely fascinating today. The old machines are all in working order, so a guide in period dress takes you from room to room, showing them off. There are prototype juke boxes from Budapest circuses, ancient Edison gramaphones that used wax barrels to capture opera legends like Enrico Caruso in 1890, and classic pianolas. But the most marvelous by far are the so-called Orchestrions from the 1910s and 1920s in Germany – huge and ornate wooden devices, as big as minibuses, that play automatically all the instruments of an orchestra, including tubas, drums and trumpets.

My favorite was one that actually play six violins perfectly… a Chopin concerto!

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Audiences at the time apparently regarded these musical machines as either unholy creations of the devil or ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World. I went with my five year old, Sam, and he was transfixed…

It’s one of the highlights of the trip so far, all the more so for being so unexpected.


Castle central

July 1, 2010

Cruising past Loreley, a rock where a lovely blonde mermaid would lure sailors to their deaths...

This is like a fantasy of the Middle Ages. We’ve just passed through the world’s densest concentration of castles – there are over 40 of them in a 25-mile long stretch of the Rhine, so they seem to be on every mountain top and promontory. It’s also the most visually stunning stretch of the river, with sheer cliffs and wild green mountains pressing down to the river banks. (The flanks of the hills are covered with vineyards to grow the local Riesling, with vertiginous stone terraces first carved by the ancient Romans and still in use). Every dark cranny has its dramatic legend involving knights, monsters and maidens, leading to it being dubbed ‘the Romantic Rhine’ by the English travelers of the 19th century, who were fascinated by haunted ruins and ancient Germanic sagas. Passing through this stretch is still the highlight of the cruise today, with everyone crowding on the upper deck, letting out gasps and aaahs as if they were watching a fireworks display.

Real estate has changed dramatically here over the centuries. Back in the early Middle Ages, these picturesque castles were anything but romantic to live in. Their interiors were small, fetid and dark, with piles of food scraps and animal bones in corners, and reeking straw on the floor; the narrow windows had no glass to keep out the cold, but were protected by oil-soaked rags, leaving the rooms in gloom even at noon. The denizens, meanwhile, subsisted on a scurvy diet of meat and vegetable roots.

Life started to improve in the 12th century, when Crusaders returned from the East with an array of new design ideas, perfumes and exotic foodstuffs. But wars took their toll. The castles were sacked and destroyed by the French king Louis XIV in 1689 and then again by Napoleon in the early 1800s, until they were abandoned and desolate.

It was in the mid-1800s, however, that the Rhine castles came back into fashion – partly thanks to the tourist boom begun by the English. Wealthy German aristocrats and industrialists became fascinated by the ancient legends surrounding the area. They renovated the ruined castles, sometimes building brand new fortresses around the ancient towers that had held sway over the river since the Dark Ages.

The gentrification process has never looked back: Today, many of the stunning castles are upscale restaurants and hotels catering to travelers… one is even a youth hostel.


PS on Cologne — the joys of antique guide books

June 30, 2010

My favorite guide book for this trip is a little dated – it’s called (not very catchily) ‘the Rhine: Its Scenery and Historical and Legendary Associations,’ and it was written in 1845 by a dotty English traveler named Frederick Knight Hunt. I always like to travel with an antique guide book, it gives a whole fresh view of a country. For this trip, Knight’s book makes sense – it was the English who really popularized Rhine river cruising in the 19th century. Hunt goes down the river by cruiser, stopping at the same key points we visit today, and he offers all sorts of odd advice on how to book a cabin in 1845 and hire a horse and carriage in port for touring… He also has lots of myths and legends that have mostly faded from knowledge.

In Cologne, for example, he tells a traditional story about the medieval architect of the cathedral. According to legend, the grandiose design was too beautiful to have been made by a mortal hand – it had actually been drawn up by the devil, who offered his plans to the architect in exchange for his soul. The architect was a vain man, but not so vain that he wanted to spend eternity in hell. Instead, he tricked Satan and got a hold of the plans, using a sacred religious relic that banished all evil. But as the devil disappeared, he cursed the architect: “Your cathedral will never be finished and you name will never be known…”

As we know, the cathedral was finally finished after Hunt’s book was published (see my last blog… it was completed 700 years late!) But to this day, we still don’t know the architect’s name…