Franconia. Have you ever heard of it? Could you point it out on a map? My answers before this trip would have been “no” and “no”. The name started coming up all the way back in Cologne when the tour guide mentioned it in passing….and we have since heard it again and again. So where is Franconia? Let me tell you what I have learned.
Franconia, or as the Germans call it “Franken”, is located in southern Germany. Today it is part of the German state of Bavaria (which I’m sure you’ve heard of) thanks to Napoleon, who lumped it together with Bavaria in 1806. However, Franconians are proud of their history and don’t like to be thought of as Bavarians…culturally, they are a distinct region. I can understand that. In the US, we have the North, the South, the Midwest, etc., but then there are subcultures within those broad regions where the natives show pride in their distinct heritage: the Cajuns of Louisiana, the people of Appalachia and the Gullah of South Carolina.
Franconia has a very long (and complicated) history going back nearly 2,000 years. The region was occupied by different peoples over time…the Celts made it their home for a while and the southern part of the region (Middle Franconia) was part of the Roman Empire. However, around 500AD, the Franks took the area by force and settled down. For the lack of a better word, the Franks were an ancient “tribe”, and besides Franconia, they went on to settle what is now Belgium and northern France (The franks called it Francia–which is where “France” came from).
Franconia is known for its beauty…its lush forests, hilly slopes along the Main River valley (pronounced “mine”) lined with vineyards, picture book towns with half-timbered buildings, loads of family owned breweries and they even have their own German dialect and pronounce certain letters differently than elsewhere in Germany.
Franconia is definitely the land of beer, but it’s also wine country! So many vineyards everywhere you look! I have to admit that despite being a wine lover, I was really not in touch with the German wine scene before this trip. Of course I was aware of Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, but those were never my “go to” wines…the former being too sweet and the latter too spicy for me. On this trip, I have been schooled on Rieslings….onboard the Viking ship, they serve a delicious, dry Riesling that we’ve really enjoyed. When I get back to New York, I will definitely have to start to shop for Rieslings, making sure to look for the dry version, which are labeled “troken”.
Franconia is all about white wine….80% of the grapes planted will go on to become a white wine, the most notable varieties being Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Bacchus. For the most part, these white wines are very dry, more full-bodied and less aromatic than other German white wines (although Franconians say that Bacchus is a wine for the ladies because it is a bit more floral). I read somewhere that Franconian wines are the “most masculine” of the German wines. I didn’t realize wines had genders, but I will agree that I felt very manly drinking the wines we bought…and their distinctly shaped green bottle, called the Bocksbeutel, which is short and stout, is definitely lacking in femininity.
Like myself, you might be thinking that you have never seen one of these wines at your local wine vendor and that is probably true. It’s not that they are not imported to the US, it’s just they are rarely stocked as they are little-known. And most Franconian wine doesn’t even make it out of Franconia! Statistically, 4 out of 5 bottles of these wines are consumed in Franconia.
And for the beer lovers….there is plenty of that to find in Franconia. In fact, there is a little section of Franconia called Fränkische Schweiz, or “Franconian Switzerland” that has 71 individual breweries….we will be visiting Bamberg in a few days, which is supposed to boast loads of breweries. I hear that they have a “smoked” beer that sounds
And that, in a nutshell, is Franconia. The next few stops on our cruise are all in Franconia…so I’m excited to enjoy the distinct culture of the area now that I know where we are!
Back onboard the Viking Mimir…today is one of those days…we sailed all night and we will be sailing until about 2:30 today. So much sailing! The Roof Deck is closed for now (I mentioned earlier that due to upcoming low bridges, it has to remain closed on this portion of the cruise for safety reasons) so we really only have our private balcony to lessen the claustrophobia. I don’t want to be overly dramatic. We are on a two-week vacation, staying in a lovely room on a handsome ship and we are sailing through the green and gorgeous Franconian river valley, so no need for a sympathy card. But these are the days that I feel like we are wasting valuable sight-seeing by being trapped on the ship. So, I just remind myself that if we were not on a river cruise, we would probably be behind the wheel of our rental car, driving down narrow country roads all morning to get to wherever we were going for the morning. There is always going to be down time when you are traveling.
I should also mention that we are no longer on the Rhine River. I guess that happened overnight….I don’t recall taking the turn off, but we are now on the Main River (pronounced “mine”). We were sailing from north to south on the Rhine and now we are sailing west to east on the Main. It’s a more narrow river, but has the same picturesque setting as on the Rhine….forests, cute towns, ancient castles on hilltops. And there will be many locks in this portion.
Back to complaining… cruising days also mean the growing monotony of eating in the same place for three meals a day. If you are off ship for the day, you can at least eat out at a local restaurant with a little ambiance, but on these cruising days, there is no option…if you want food, you have to eat onboard. Today, we ate lunch in the Dining Room where they offer a menu or the buffet. The menu is pretty limited and straight forward… they have grilled salmon, burgers, a turkey sandwich, soup, etc. Or you can go to the buffet where the have a little bit of everything and thankfully, it is not always the local cuisine…so no Bratwurst and Sauerkraut for me today! Today, they had an Asian style beef stir fry and some sort of artichoke/basil salad which was pretty tasty.
After lunch, I was chomping at the bit to get off the ship. We were supposed to make a three-hour visit to a little town called Miltenberg which sits right on the Main River. There was a guided tour through town, but just looking at the map that we picked up from the concierge desk, I could tell Miltenberg was super tiny and a tour guide wasn’t really necessary. Besides, I needed some time away from the cruise and my fellow passengers.
Not to take anything from Miltenberg, but the visit here was more of a mini visit than an official port of call. There was only one option here–the guided tour. No separate excursions to book….no beer tastings or visits to a castle. The touristy area is very small and basically consists of the Hauptstraße (which means “Main Road”) that runs straight through town like a spine. We docked at one end of town, so when it was (finally) time, we got off the ship and just started walking into town. You would have to be a gifted with a negative sense of direction to get lost here.
One of the first shops we came across was a wine vendor, and with the owner’s help, we picked up a few bottles of that aforementioned Franconian white wine in the Bocksbeutel bottles….they were only about €8 ($9)…so very reasonably priced, which is pretty true of wine everywhere in Europe. It probably wasn’t the best idea to drag around 2 bottles of wine at the start of our self-guided walking tour, but I’m glad that we did since we met the tour buses at the other end of town and wouldn’t have passed by the shop again.
Miltenberg grew wealthy in the Middle Ages as it became a commercial powerhouse being situated right along the river. Most of the buildings that we were “ooohing” and “aaaahing” at were built in the 1600’s, but the oldest standing building is from 1339. In terms of what to see as a tourist, there is no Great Cathedral or Grand City Hall, but it is certainly a picturesque little town and easily walkable. Even with all 180 of us from our ship, plus the passengers from another Viking ship, as well as other non-cruising tourists, the town wasn’t crowded. There were still more locals than tourists going about their daily business, including groups of school children going on field trips.
We came to the Alter Marktplatz (“Old Marketplace”), an oddly shaped open plaza sloping upwards on one side and lined with half-timbered buildings with steep roofs.
In the center of the Alter Marktplatz was a lovely red sandstone fountain carved by a local artist in 1583. As this was the heart of the town in the Middle Ages (prior to the fountain being erected) this is also the spot where people were hanged and where witches were burned at the stake.
I’m sure that had we joined Viking’s walking tour with the guide, we would know what we were looking at…I suppose it would nice to know what some of the buildings were once used for and also to gather a few little historical nuggets of information. But I knew that I could always look up info when we were back on the ship. We were enjoying exploring the unknown…turning down quiet back alleys and climbing stairs but not knowing where they led to.
There are many examples throughout history of architecture being shaped (literally) by laws, and the half-timbered buildings of Miltenberg are a prime example. Many of them appear to be top heavy…a smaller base and then upper stories that are fatter and stick out several feet over the bottom of the building. When they were built (allegedly) the town tax was based on the footprint of the building….so they would construct the building with a compact base (which meant a lower tax) and then expand out on the second and third stories.
Walking along the Hauptstraße, there were lots of little shops, but surprisingly not really geared towards tourists. There were hotels, but I mostly saw clothing stores (but practical clothing–not fashionable), a few pharmacies, a store selling walkers and canes, quite a few optometry shops, a post office and a wedding photographer’s shop, along with some beer halls and cafes. But not a lot of shops selling souvenirs and t-shirts and all of the other tchotchkes that you would typically find in a touristy part of town. What I was looking for on this day was a pretzel. Thus far while in Germany, I have not seen any pretzels! I would like to taste an authentic German pretzel and compare them to the ones they sell on the streets of New York. Eventually, we did find 2 bakeries, but they only had sweets– no pretzels. But the search is on!
As impressive as it looked from the outside, the St. Jakobus church was not much of a “looker” on the inside. It was originally built in the 13th century, but was completely remodeled in the late 1700’s in a more neo-classical style. We stepped inside to take a look, but honestly, I didn’t even bother to take any pictures. Just down the road a bit was the opposite situation….a church with a boring exterior, but a lovely, simple, bright interior. It was the Franziskanerkirch, originally a Franciscan monastery church built in 1660’s and designed by an Italian architect.
I suppose if there is a famous building in Miltenberg, it would be Gasthaus Zum Riesen (which I think translates into The Giant Inn), which has been in operation since 1411! The structure standing today has had this appearance for over 400 years…when it was given some renaissance embellishments in 1590. In the US, old hotels or inns love to boast that George Washington or Princess Grace or JFK slept there…as if that puts THE stamp of approval on the place. Well, there is no exception here in Franconia. The Gasthaus Zum Riesen has hosted Holy Roman Emporer Frederick I and Charles IV, Empress Maria Theresa, Napoleon Bonaparte, the composer Richard Strauss…and of all people…Elvis Presely. Yes, during the two years he was stationed in Germany, apparently he spent an evening at this hotel.
For me, the thing(s) I most enjoyed seeing in Miltenberg were the (3) remaining towers that once acted as gates for the walled town in Medieval times. In order to enter the town, you would have had to pass through one of these heavily armed gates. The Würzburger Tor, built in the 1370’s, guarded the eastern edge of town. In the photo below, you can see six stones on each side of the gate. These were part of the mechanism for the portcullis (heavy gate), allowing it to be raised or lowered, as needed.
The Mainzer Tor, seen in the photo below, was built in 1379 and guarded the western entry to Miltenberg.
But my favorite tower, which stands at the end of the Mainbrücke Bridge, isn’t an authentic medieval tower at all…it was actually constructed in 1900 when the bridge was built. Miltenberg didn’t have a bridge until 1900, only a ferry, and they chose to design the tower in a medieval style, using red sandstone. In 1945, the tower was the only part of the bridge left standing after the Germans blew it up as they retreated from the Allies.
As 5:30 approached, we met up with the other passengers, boarded the buses and drove a very short distance to our ship. And the rest of the evening was a typical evening onboard the ship. Cocktail hour/Update from Cruise Director/Dinner at 7PM. Rinse and repeat. But as always, we had good company at dinner and the food was delicious.
After dinner, we returned to our room and to our private deck to enjoy the sunset along the Main. As long as it is light out, which it is until after 10:30, Josette is happy to join me outside on the deck for a drink. But when darkness falls on the ship, that’s when they start to join our little party…the spiders! Our 8-legged neighbors crawl out of crevices and glide down from the roof on their silk threads. It’s literally like the nursery rhyme, “Along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Josette away.” That’s when I have to go to work…as the Spider Hunter. I actually like spiders, and I do my best to relocate them (into the river) but thus far, they are outnumbering me and winning the battle.
And with that, another great day in Germany. Tomorrow, we visit another fairy tale town and visit a palace in Wurzburg.