Tri-City Herald, Sunday, March 17, 2002

Rolling Along the Rhine

©2002 Valerie Kreutzer

Heidelberg, GermanyMy sister Claudia wondered how to celebrate her upcoming 70th birthday.  Not with a big bash, thank you, but perhaps with her children and grandchildren in a picturesque setting in Europe, so her offspring could learn more about their heritage and roots.  When she saw an advertisement for a Rhine River cruise, she decided to scramble part of her nest egg and take us all along for the ride.

“Yippee!”  Brittany, Claudia’s ten-year-old granddaughter, almost jumped to the ceiling.  She envisioned her budding body in a bikini stretched out on the sun deck of the boat--not realizing that June in Germany isn’t exactly bikini weather. 
A river cruise? wondered her father, Claudia’s son-in-law.  On his first trip to Europe he had envisioned seeing London, Paris, Rome, and the Riviera.  Spending a week on the Rhine?

Yes, the mighty Rhine, Europe’s most important inland waterway.  It rises in Switzerland’s mountains and flows for 800 miles through Germany, France, and the Netherlands to the North Sea.  The source of great legends, the Rhine has also been the subject of fierce battles and territorial disputes. 

Two thousand years ago, the Romans defined the Rhine as boundary between their powerful empire and the barbaric Germanic tribes.  The Romans also introduced the art of wine-growing to the region and founded the first cities, such as Cologne, Strasbourg, and Basel.  During the Middle Ages, the Rhine was under German rule from Basel to the Netherlands.  But during the 17th century, France gained a foothold on its western shore.  The struggle between France and Germany over domination of the river lasted until the end of World War II.

Today, 80 percent of the Rhine’s ship-carrying waters flow through or along the border of Germany. 

Recently, the river made headlines because a massive international cleanup has regenerated the Rhine to the point that salmon have returned to the once dead waters.  As one of the world’s busiest waterways, the Rhine carries 184 million tons of shipping cargo annually.  Among its barges our Viking River Cruise would take us on a seven-day trip from Amsterdam, Holland, through some of the most picturesque landscapes of Germany to Basel, Switzerland.

At the beginning of June, eight members of the North American Kreutzer clan arrived in Amsterdam from four different locations.  We explored Amsterdam by tram and boat, and walked along the narrow brick houses that line the many canals, taking a peek at housekeeping on the permanently moored boats. Watch out for the bicyclists!  They rule the road on rusty bikes without helmets, often with a friend draped over their carriers.

Amsterdam boasts more museums per square mile than any other city in the world.  My favorite, the Van Gogh Museum, houses the largest collection of the Dutch painter’s work.  What a pleasure to see the originals of the colorful images so familiar from post cards and calendars, the sunflowers, wheat fields, and cherry blossoms!

Amsterdam’s cultural landscape includes the notorious red-light district, the oldest part of town.  The air of tolerance that pervades the city thickens with clouds of marijuana hanging over the district’s cafes.  Soft drugs are available.  “If you feel sick after smoking or eating space cake, drink lots of water with sugar,” advises the official Visitors Guide.  “Something sweet will put you right again.”  As for the houses of prostitution, the guidebook cautions:  “If you visit one of the women, we would like to remind you, they are not always women.”  Not to worry.  We were, after all, on a family outing.

Our cruise began with a four-course dinner, followed by a mandatory briefing for the 150 passengers.
“What is the greatest danger on board?” asked the captain.  “Drowning,” volunteered Claudia’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter Danielle, steeped in Titanic disasters.  “No,” said the captain, “fire,” and advised us not to smoke in bed.  As for drowning, “if we should take on water, just go upstairs to the bar and have a drink while we get you safely to the next sand bank,” he advised.  At a depth of nine feet, there was little chance of drowning, and the ship wasn’t even equipped with lifeboats or vests.

And so we meandered up-river at eight miles per hour, past tall poplar trees, flocks of sheep, and towns dominated by church steeples.  Nijmegen, on the border to Germany, was our first stop.  While the adults looked for the town’s medieval roots, the girls splurged their pocket money on roller coasters at a fair, right next to the dock.  There were no other children on board and the cruise offered little entertainment--except for an apple strudel demonstration, and a session in the art of napkin folding.  And so my dear sister charged me with furthering her grand children’s education.

For half an hour each morning, we practiced Guten Tag, wie geht’s?  Danke gut.  (Hello, how are you?  Fine, thank you.)  We talked about the Rhine and why we had to pass through 11 locks to ascend from sea level to an elevation of 810 ft.  And we read some of the famous legends that dot the landscape: How Siegfried slew the dragon and became almost invulnerable by bathing in its blood; and how the Lorelei lured fishermen into treacherous waters by combing her golden hair and singing ever so sweetly.  Being nice girls, Danielle and Brittany said that they liked the stories and lessons.

Cologne was our first major city.  Its famous landmark, the cathedral, greeted us from afar.  It took 600 years to complete this gothic masterpiece, and like the rest of the city, it was heavily bombed during World War II.  It was during reconstruction that Roman remnants were found, identifying Cologne as the first Roman settlement along the Rhine.  As we left the city in bright sunshine, we were served a typical Fruehschoppen (pre-lunch), consisting of Bavarian sausage, pretzels with mustard, and a Koelsch, the favorite local beer.  (Don’t count calories on a cruise!) 

Passing through Bonn, Ludwig van Beethoven’s hometown, we couldn’t quite see the “for sale” signs but knew that many of the government buildings and diplomatic compounds have been vacant since Berlin became Germany’s new capital two years ago.  “The Brits must have left in a hurry,” said Dick, my Irish brother-in-law, pointing to a villa with a fluttering Union Jack.  

South of Bonn begins the wine-growing country along slopes with gradients of more than 50 percent.  On an excursion along the Moselle, a tributary of the Rhine, our tour guide explained that tending the vines on the terraced slopes is tough labor, and young vintners have a hard time finding wives willing to share this backbreaking handiwork.  On the market, a liter of wine fetches only one mark (two pints for 50 cents), but many small vintners continue the family business rather than sell out to big corporations.  In this part of the world, wine is a way of life and consumption is high.  “A bottle a day keeps the doctor away,” promises a popular jingle.

Add to the green slopes of terraced vineyards hundreds of castles and fortresses in various stages of charming dilapidation, and you get the picture of the landscape that stretches between Koblenz and Mainz.  During the Middle Ages right up to the 19th century, every duke and robber baron built his own castle to defend his territory or grab some bounty from the waters below.  In the 14th century, for example, the Rhine had 62 customs stations, and the cute towns of half-timbered houses that line the river had the right to force any and all boats to unload and offer their cargo for sale.  There was no central government and everyone seemed to fend for himself.

“Look, Mildred,” said the women next to me, “that’s Katz (Cat) and that’s Maus (Mouse).”  She pointed to a pair of fortresses clinging to the hillside.  Her lounge chair was covered with maps and guidebooks, and she proceeded to read to her neighbor the long tale of belligerence that linked Katz with Maus.  The women were part of a group of Baptists who were traveling with their retired pastor and his wife, according to my nephew Mark, a charming bachelor who enjoyed conversation and soon knew everybody’s bio.  Mark also briefed the captain on his mom’s upcoming birthday, and the captain came through with a big hug and a bottle of champagne.

We celebrated Claudia’s birthday in Heidelberg on the Neckar, a tributary of the Rhine.  Luckily, the romantic university town of Student Prince fame had been spared Allied bombing.  Among the decision makers, it is said, had been a number of Heidelberg alumni who didn’t want to see the 500-year-old university destroyed.  We had Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake, an afternoon meal) on a hill with Heidelberg, built in pink sandstone, sprawled at our feet.  We roamed the quaint old town and ate supper looking at the romantic ruin of the castle.  The evening sun cast a golden glow on a memorable day.

Strasbourg, France, was our next-to-last stop.  It is the seat of the European Council and the capital of modern Europe.  Its history is a rich mix of German and French culture, reflecting its varied allegiances since the Middle Ages.  The old town, ringed by a river, clusters around the majestic Muenster (Cathedral) with its great gothic rosette window and an astronomic clock that has kept time for 150 years.

In Basel we said a fond farewell to the Rhine and lined our pockets with Swiss chocolate.  We had come to the end of our journey and took the train to the Black Forest for a family reunion.  Danielle and Brittany were ready to greet second and third cousins.  They had their Guten Tag, wie geht’s? down pat.