On our 2 week journey from Amsterdam to Budapest, we will travel through 5 countries, sail on 4 different rivers, and be raised or lowered in 68 different river locks! Before 1992, our Viking “Grand European Tour” cruise wouldn’t have been possible…it was with the completion of the Rhine-Main-Danube (RMD) Canal that makes our cruise (and commercial river traffic) possible. With the RMD Canal, ships can sail continuously from the North Sea at Amsterdam all the way to the Black Sea in Ukraine!
The ins and outs of how the lock system works, the mechanics of it all, is pretty interesting and there was even an optional lecture about the topic on our ship a few days ago (we did not attend, but my Josette wanted to). Josette is quite interested in the subject of locks and I may have her do a future post to share her thoughts on the matter.
For me, the locks were a means to an end, and this is proven by my small collection of photographs documenting the locks….so to give you a more complete idea of what they are like, I borrowed from the generous Wikicommons collection.
In general, as a passenger on the ship, you don’t really notice being inside a lock except for the fact that you are no longer sailing down the river (duh!), and then, after a long wait to get inside the lock, the lock fills up or empties out and the ship moves vertically up or down. If it is daylight, it will get darker, as there are two concrete walls on each side of the ship. Sometimes, the ship jerks a bit to correct its position, but otherwise you don’t feel the lock process, or hear anything. And for the most part, we passed through many of the locks overnight…so we were asleep through the process. Some locks are small and there is little vertical change, and others are very tall/deep and result in a massive vertical change. We have woken up a few times and pulled back the shades only to find a concrete wall only a few inches from our deck.
The Viking ship has a camera mounted on the bow, so you can actually sit in your room and watch the lock experience on TV. I was never really interested enough to actually do this….but for the purposes of sharing with you, I snapped a photo of the bow cam on our TV on the morning we were heading into Würzburg.
For me, the locks went from being unique and interesting at the beginning of the trip to a bit of an annoyance after about the tenth one. It’s much like being on a trip and riding down the interstate….you are making good time, and traffic is moving along nicely… and then you approach a toll booth….traffic slows down and eventually comes to a halt…you slowly make your way through the toll booth and then you are back on the road. The locks, while necessary, just halt the smooth journey down river.
The Lovley Docks
Before we journey to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, my other river cruise comment for this post relates to the docking locations. It’s not really anything that you would ever think about before taking a river cruise, but thus far, when we’ve pulled into the docking areas of our destinations, they are not exactly picturesque or quaint. They tend to be located in the rusted out industrial zones of the towns and cities that we have visited. Sort of weed-filled, concrete, desolate areas where there is nothing around except an old warehouse or factory. Somewhere one might find an old hobo living in a box or see a stray cat looking for something to eat. I don’t really have an idea of what the dock should look like, I’m just surprised that given the number of river cruise companies operating on this route, you would think the town/city would have a “Welcome to Würzburg” sign and maybe spruce up the docking area up a little. However, to be fair to Viking, I don’t think they have any choice in where they dock, and as soon as you get off the ship, there are buses just a few feet away….so it’s not like you are hanging out for any length of time. But I’m just putting it out there the docking locations aren’t necessarily something that Viking would ever include in their sleek advertisements and commercials.
We arrived at Würzburg in the early morning. Just after breakfast, there was the “included tour” which consisted of a walking tour of town, or there was an optional excursion, which is what we booked…a bus trip to the nearby town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (which is a mouthful, but just means Red Fortress above the Tauber River). There is another Rothenburg in Germany, so the “ob der Tauber” is very important if you are planning to go there via car or train–you don’t want to get off the train and find yourself in some random non-touristy German town. However, for the purposes of writing about it, I will just call it “Rothenburg” for short.
Rothenburg is one of those towns that is almost obligatory to visit if you are in this part of Franconia. We had seen it on a Rick Steve’s travel show and read about it in guidebooks. It is considered one of the best preserved medieval walled cities in Germany. In my last post, we visited Miltenberg, which no longer has its town wall. There were the three towers from the 15th century that are still standing, but the wall that surrounded the city is long gone. This is typical of the vast majority of medieval towns in Europe. In many cases, the town walls were removed over time as the town grew in size, many fell into ruin from neglect….or they were destroyed in wars or other disasters. But Rothenberg still has its wall and most of the towers, which is just one reason it is so special. It is also über quaint and almost cater-made for tourists. It’s compact, very walkable and has plenty to see and do. It’s a popular spot for individual/family tourists, organized tour groups, and river cruising groups, so guide books warn that it can get crowded during peak season–we will have to see about that.
Our tour guide for the day, Sonia (once again, I’m terrible with names and don’t remember her real name) joined us in Würzburg and rode the bus to Rothenburg. She was born in Romania, but had lived in the Würzburg area for 15 years. Often, the tour guide will ride the bus to or from the tour they are giving and point out things along the ride, which is not only interesting, but passes the time quite well. When we got to Würzburg, it was a bit overcast and chilly for a July day, but thankfully not raining. Our first stop were the bathrooms where it felt like we stayed for several hours. I realize that people have their needs, but waiting for large tour groups to do their business can be aggravating.
Eventually, we began the tour and as we walked, Sonia pointed out interesting facts about the town wall, important sights, and told the typical tour guide (somtimes exaggerated) tales of the town. We mentally added what we wanted to come back to on our “to-do” list for our free time. She also introduced us to Schneeballen (snowballs) which are a famous tennis ball-sized pastry that Rothenburg is known for. There were lots of little Schneeballen shops selling these things…they proudly display them in the storefront window, but Sonia said that they were dry and tasteless–just rounded pie crust that are messy and hard to eat. They are fried up and sprinkled with powdered sugar or cinnamon, or dipped in chocolate. I happen to love pie crust and they sounded kind of delicious to me…. I was even hoping Sonia was going to take us into a shop and let us try one for ourselves, but she was adamantly anti-schneeballen and just moved on. That’s about when we decided to ditch the tour and go out on our own.
One of our first stops was St. Jakobs Church (St. James in English), Rothenburg’s largest and most important church, built between 1311 and 1484. The church was dedicated to the Apostle James and was a stop on the pilgrimage route to the burial-place of St. James in Spain. The exterior of the church is impressive and its two towers dominate the skyline of town, but the treasures on the inside are what it is primarily known for.
The high altar contains the Twelve Apostles Altarpiece, considered by many to be the finest in Germany (see photo below). The painted side panels were done by Friedrich Herlin in 1446 and the wood pieces carved by master artisans. Behind the altar piece are the magnificent stained glass windows from 1400 depicting the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Another famous piece in the church is the Altar of the Virgin Mary from 1520 that depicts Mary being crowned in the center panel and her death scene on the lower panel.
But the most famous piece in the church is located up a flight of stairs in the West Gallery, where you will find Tilman Riemenschneider’s breathtaking masterpiece carved between 1499 and 1505. Also known as the Altar of the Holy Blood, the Altar contains a crystal with a drop of the blood of Christ (or not). If you visit Rothenburg, it is definitely worth adding this church and this altar piece to your itinerary….it is massive and one of the most impressive wood carvings I’ve ever seen.
I have to say that despite my earlier declaration that Rothenburg is a popular tourist spot, the crowds were not so bad and mainly concentrated around the Marktplatz (Market Place) where you find most of the shops catering to tourists (like ourselves and we shopped at several of them). But if you walk off the Market Place on to side streets and back alleys, there are no crowds, and we found ourselves alone with quaint little picturesque offerings around each corner.
In the photo above and the two below you will see the Röder Arch and the Markus Tower which were built in the 12th century and were part of the original fortifications of Rothenburg.
We’ve got many more towns to visit on our cruise itinerary, but thus far, in terms of shopping, Rothenburg has stood out for the abundance of little shops to pick up all of the most “German” things you can think of: beer steins, nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, sausages, medieval trinkets, etc. I picked up a locally made pocket knife to add to my collection, and it was fun window shopping in town, but we still have a famous Christmas shop to visit and hopefully do some retail damage.
Dark Days In Rothenburg ob der Tauber
I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer or take anything away from our lovely visit to the town of Rothenburg, but despite looking like a town out of a Disney movie, things weren’t always a fairy tale around here. Beginning in the 1930’s, just prior to WWII, the Nazi party started to gain strength in Germany, particularly in Southern Germany, which included Rothenburg ob der Tauer.
Rothenburg literally became the poster child of the perfect German “home town”. The Nazi party organized day trips from all across the country to visit Rothenburg to show followers and supporters how they should aim to live and to inspire them to cultivate a similar ideal town with a strong sense of family and community. The Nazi party referred to Rothenburg as the “most German of German towns” and when Hitler visited the town 1935 he was welcomed with massive crowds, hearty cheers and “Heil Hitler” salutes.
Sadly, the citizens of Rothenburg strongly embraced the Nazi ideology and were only too happy to implement the party’s beliefs and doctrines. In 1938, the Jewish community was kicked out-of-town. Rothenburg was the host to several Nazi rallies and the town’s young sons were raised in the Hitler Youth program where they were taught military/survival skills (like Boy Scouts) and encouraged to eventually join the German army. But the program also fed racist and anti-semantic propaganda and encouraged the young men to protect and propagate the ideals of the Nazi party and ultimately those of the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.
To end this dark portion of Rothenburg’s history… towards the end of World War II, in March of 1945, the town was being guarded by Germans troops. Rothenburg was not strategically located, but it merited German military protection due to its importance as the perfect “hometown” in Nazi ideology. The Allies took to the skies on March 31, 1945 and with 16 planes they bombed the town destroying several public buildings, over 300 houses, 2000 feet of the town wall along with 9 of the watchtowers and 37 people.
The US Assistant Sec. of War, John McCloy, took some pity on the town (for whatever reason) and organized to have a 6 man team from the US Army march into town and offer terms of surrender to the small German force protecting the town. One of the team members, Private Herman Lichey from California, spoke fluent German and explained to the Germans that they had until 6PM (18:00) to surrender the town or the face a crushing air raid by Allied forces that would bomb Rothenburg into oblivion. As we have seen from previous posts, the German forces were given a never surrender order from Hitler. They would blow up their own bridges, and allow cities and towns to be brought to ruins before they would surrender to the Allies. But in this rare case, the Germans handed Rothenburg over to the Americans. And surprisingly (at least to me), just 3 years after the war, the townsfolk of Rothenburg repaired most of the damaged buildings and town wall, and made American Secretary McCloy an honorary citizen for not destroying their town.
Final thought….these more serious historical rehases are not pleasant, but history isn’t always a feel good read. Facts are facts, and after all, those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Rothenburg was a hotbed of the Nazi party, and it has to be woven into the fairytale fabric of the town. Interestingly, in 2018, the US is seeing Nazis take to the streets and the country is dealing with its own questions of how to honor its past while also admitting that much of our history is stained by slavery, racism, and inequality.
Back to our tour! After a little shopping detour, Josette and I both wanted to take the opportunity to climb up to the top of the Town Hall (Rathaus) seen in the photo just below. The yellowish half of the Town Hall, with the two towers and triangular roof, is from 1578 and this is where you enter to climb the tower (which is the taller white building to the left). The climb up was quite easy compared to most towers that we’ve climbed. The stairs had been modernized, they were not narrow or slippery (most had rubber on the treads), they were well-lit and wide enough for people to pass (although there were only a few people there). Oddly, when we got to the top of the stairs, there was a woman sitting at a desk selling tickets to go up the last little ladder and out to the observation area. I’m not sure why she wouldn’t be down at the bottom of the stairs to answer questions, etc. Anyway, the last part was a doosey…it was a straight vertical ladder climb, maybe 7 feet up and out a hatch door and then on to the small, very narrow tower deck. But the 360 degree views from 200 feet up were amazing.
After finishing the tower climb, it was time to find that famous Christmas store…Käthe Wohlfahrt, which is headquartered in Rothenburg, but with stores all over Germany and a few other places in Europe and America. Anyone who knows me (and my whole family for that matter) knows that I love Christmas. Despite our New York Apartment’s lack of square footage, we do it up big at Christmas and we had to rent a storage room just for all of our Christmas decorations. Käthe Wohlfahrt has a strict “NO PHOTOS” policy and I didn’t want to get kicked out before I made any purchases, so I stuck to the rules and found some photos of the inside from their website.
It really is a Christmas wonderland inside…some would say it was like Christmas threw up on itself…every square inch is covered in lights, snow, greenery, Christmas trees and overgrown Nutcrackers. The sales ladies walk around dressed like Ms. Claus and there is christmas music piped in to add to the ambiance. My favorite was the bigger than life-size wood Christmas pyramid ( called a Weihnachtspyramide in German and in the photo below). I picked up a little shopping basket and made a pact to myself that I would only buy as much as would fit inside the basket, knowing the size of our luggage. But FYI, they will ship anything you buy to the US for very a reasonable fee (but we didn’t know that at the time). We walked out with a beautiful Nutcracker, some miniature cuckoo clocks, a tiny Christmas pyramid, advent calendars, lots of tree ornaments, and some other trinkets.
It was time to meet back up with our tour group for the included lunch at Glocke Weingut und Hotel. Located in a former hospital, and built in 1227, the building is now an inn and restaurant. The restaurant was expecting our Viking group, so we were seated without a wait, and as soon as we sat down, we were offered beer or the local Franconian white wine. And after a basket of bread, they came around with what else……plates of bratwurst and sauerkraut! And dessert was an apple strudel-type of dish. There were no menus or options for us….but if traveling sans tour group, I’m sure the menu offers a hearty selection of meats and carbs. I have to say that the bratwurst was pretty tasty….I’m still not keen on saukeraut….and the wine was dry and delicious.
After lunch, Sonia ended this portion of the tour with a walk past the Holy Ghost Church and former hospital (seen in the two photos below). The former hospital built in the 13th century (the white building with the black trim), was located just outside the original town walls and was used to care for the sick, elderly and poor. It was open all night and was a resting place for travelers who had arrived after the town gates were locked up for the night. The adjacent Holy Ghost Church, with it spiraling tower, was built in 1390.
And just as we had passed through Rothenburg’s formidable wall to enter the city, that is how we left this idyllic little town. With all of the history, the beauty and the intact architecture, I think it is definitely a must see if you are in this part of Franconia.
For us, it was time to get on the bus and head back to Würzburg where we had more touring to do! Our next sop was a visit to the Bishop’s Residence, the Würzburger Residenz. Sonia, our tour guide was on board the bus, but thankfully, she took a break from narrating the scenery let us relax/nap on the ride.
Unfortunately, we were not going to have any time to explore the town of Würzburg because we would be brought right back to the ship after the tour of the Residence. So, what little we were to see of Würzburg had to be done from the bus. One of the more important landmarks that we passed is the Old Bridge (Alte Mainbrücke) which was constructed over the Main River between 1473 and 1543.
We were dropped off right in front of the Residence in what looked like a massive cobble-stone parking lot. We walked with Sonia up to the entry area, but were given a chance to take in all of the grandeur. I have to say that I was not 100% sure what the “Residence” was actually used for….it looks like a palace but is not called a palace. And at the time I didn’t entirely understand the concept of a prince-bishop…the person that built and lived at this Residence. Was a Prince Bishop a religious leader? A secular leader with a religious-sounding name? Well, I later found out that a Prince Bishop is a bit of both. Basically, they are a bishop…an ordained member of the clergy, but they are also a civil ruler of a secular principality. So at the most basic level, the Prince Bishop a local ruler…and important and wealthy person who lives in a palace and hangs out with other royals, emporers, and aristocrats.
We’ve been to the Palace of Versailles and I have to say that the Würzburg Residence entry court was pretty darn impressive. The scale, the stateliness, the rich yellow stone and lovely baroque lines…it was a show piece, for sure.
The Würzburg Residence was built for Prince Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn, who like his predecessors, had lived in the nearby Marienberg Fortress–the home of Wurzburg Prince Bishops for over 500 years. But as you can see from the photo below, the Fortress was a total dump…I mean, how could they possibly expect Prince Johann von Fancy Pants to live in that old thing??? The Prince Bishop decided that he would take on a massive construction project and create a home (palace) worthy of his greatness.
Prince Johann hired Balthasar Neumann, a young and upcoming architect, to design and build a grand Baroque/Rococo palace that was to be on par with Louis XIV’s Palace of Versaille or the Hapsburg’s Schönbrunn Palace outside of Vienna. Neumann wasn’t alone, he worked with a handful of other architects, and a team of artists, artisans, and sculptors. The Wurzburg Residence construction began in 1720 and was mostly completed by 1740, but interior changes and improvements went on for another 40 years. Over those sixty years of construction, the architect’s client changed several times as each successive Bishop came to power on the death of his predecessor.
In the end, what was created for the Prince Bishops of Würzburg was a grand palace that blends German Baroque with a dash of French château architecture and two scoops of the Imperial Baroque style of Vienna. And the interior of the Würzburg Residence was spared no expense…three different generations of artists from all over Europe created a true masterpiece of the rococo style.
In terms of our Viking tour of the Residence, we had our tour guide Sonia to show us around the place. So I am not 100% certain about the experience for other tourists not in a group. I do know they have about 4 English language tours in the high season and maybe 2 a day in the off-season. I am also not sure exactly which parts of the palace are open to tour… Sonia was specific in only taking us to the original core of the Residence. Like pretty much everything in Germany, the town of Wurzburg was heavily bombed in World War II, and the Residence suffered major damage. Only the central core of the building survived (but with damage). Therefore, our tour was only of a few specific rooms: the Vestibule, the Grand Stair, the White Room and the Imperial Room.
We began in the Vestibule with its forest of columns, arches and domed ceilings…the first interior room you would have entered in your carriage. There was room for the horse and carriage to enter and turn around. This is also where visitors would step out of their carriage and begin the slow walk up the Grand Staircase.
Just to the side of the Vestibule is the Garden Room where the marble columns seem to sprout a fanciful frescoed ceiling. The plaster work around the fresco is quite intricate but is simple compared to what is in the White Room.
After entering the palace and fixing their dress and our coat tails, visitors would begin the slow climb up the Grand Stair. It was literally and purposefully slowed down by design….the steps are deep, but quite short, so a normal gait is not possible or comfortable. You are almost forced to take one step at a time, and this would have allowed one to look up at the fresco ceiling above, and admire the intricate plaster work and figurative sculptures looking down.
Prince Bishop Karl Philip von Greiffenklau hired the famous venetian painter, Giambattista Tiepolo to come to Wurzburg and decorate the ceilings of several rooms in the Residence. Over the span of some three years, 1750-1753, Tiepolo created some of the greatest and largest rococo frescoes in the world. The largest being the “Allegory of the Planets and Continents” which floats over the Grand Stair.
The 7200 square foot art work was installed on a barrel vault that spans over the entire stair with no intruding support columns. The work has the Four Continents around the perimeter with a rose-colored heaven above.
Tiepolo took a bit of artistic license in his depictions of the Continents. America, which was an established English colony in 1750, but admittedly still largely unexplored, was represented with alligators and cannibals. Then there are the camel and traders of Africa and the obelisk and slaves of Asia. Of course, Europe received a very noble depiction, showing off all of the arts of Europe and even included a cameo of the Prince-Bishop patron, the artist and architect themselves, Tiepolo and Neumann.
Up next was the White Hall, which was completed in 1745 by Italian artist Antonio Bossi. The White Hall has a specific simple color scheme….the white plaster, the gold fixtures and the pale blueish purple wall color to contrast the white plaster. The plaster work is impossibly intricate and three-dimensional–it seems to be coming to life in the room.
And lastly, is the Imperial Hall, part of Tiepolo’s 1750 fresco work. This room is the ultimate culmination of all of the previous rooms that a visitor would have seen. Here the doors open to a 20 foot tall room that reminds me of being inside a Fabergé egg. Gilded and plastered columns made to look like red marble, an undulating oval dome, and fanciful egg-shaped dormer windows connecting the vertical and horizontal planes of the room. It’s definitely the most over the top piece of rococo madness I’ve ever seen and the highlight of the palace tour. Tiepolo even pulled in his son Giovanni to assist in creating this fresco on steroids. Most of the imagery is about the lives of the emporers of the ancient world as well as some Roman gods like Neptune, Juno, and Apollo.
And with that, our tour of the interior was complete. Unfortunately, we only had a mere 15 minutes to see the extensive gardens, AND it had started to drizzle. But I was bound and determined to see as much of the Residence as possible, so I along with Josette and a handful of other ambitious fellow Viking group members did a quick survey of the gardens.
The gardens are actually quite large, and we missed the terraced portion, but we had to be back on the ship before it left Wurzburg for our next stop. We said our goodbyes to Sonia, got on the bus, and headed back to the ship.
The day in Rothenburg and Wurzburg was actually a great. A full day of touring and sightseeing and we were ready to sit down for a nice dinner. We have been hearing reports since the start of the cruise that our ship, the Mimir, might not be able to continue down river as the Danube is too low at certain key points. This means, of course, we will have to pack up our room and switch ships so that we can continue our journey. I am fairly certain that we will switch, but we will found out tonight at our 6:45 update from the Tour Director. Stay tuned!