Monday, April 3, 2017


Karen and I just returned from ten days in Europe, including an eight-day Viking Cruise up the Rhine River, and I'm not going to tell you all about it.

It's hard to report on your international travels without being obnoxious. Bragging is kind of built in. Not everyone can do it (or wants to), and we're grateful we have the resources to take a trip like that. I also know that spending one day somewhere doesn't make me an expert on it, so I'm not inclined to deliver a travel lecture.

Still, I noticed what I noticed. A few observations:

Our voyage began in Amsterdam. We arrived a couple of days early to enjoy the city on our own, then cruised upstream with stops in Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, and various German and French landmarks as we made our way south. It rained our first day in Amsterdam; after that, the weather couldn't have been better.

Just another perfect day in Amsterdam.

I liked Viking and its river "longship" (sized just right to fit through the Rhine's network of locks) very much. That said, it wouldn't be for everyone. The entire ship consisted of cabins, restaurant, lounge and sundeck. That's it. If your ideal cruise experience includes a casino, Broadway-style entertainment and water slides, you'd be disappointed and bored. I found the scale just right. On the other hand, if your ideal tour experience leans more toward do-it-yourself backpacks and hostels, Viking would be too structured and touristy. We basically looked at it as a mobile hotel so we didn't have to schlep our stuff around.

Our ship, the "Idi," docked on the bank of the Rhine.

The smartest advertising campaign of the decade was Viking sponsoring "Downton Abbey" on PBS.

Around the towns, Karen and I noticed a distinct lack of accommodation for the disabled--treacherous stairs, steps, thresholds, curbs and cobblestones that would never fly in the States. On the other hand, governments appear to trust adults to behave like adults and not do stupid things to hurt themselves. People seem to respond in kind.

On the left, an Amsterdam canal. On the right, a row of parked cars. There's no rail or curb between them. In the United States they'd be fishing a hundred cars a day out of the water.

I could have taken a thousand photos of nothing but cockeyed 500-year-old brick buildings leaning precariously into the street.

We walked past, but did not stand in a long line to tour, Anne Frank's house. I was still moved. It's hard to describe, but one of the great benefits I get out of travel is remapping my mental geography. Like, the first time I visited Manhattan, I knew about the Empire State Building and the New York Public Library and Times Square and all the other famous landmarks, but didn't know how they fit together until I walked them. Same with Anne Frank. Until I visited, I couldn't imagine Nazis dragging a girl out of this house overlooking this lovely canal down this street I was walking on. It became real. Stunning.

For a people who appear to subsist on pickled herring, brown gravy, cheese and cigarettes, Amsterdamers look remarkably fit.

There are a lot of very tall women in the Netherlands.

After decades living in a dry land of low-flow plumbing, it's wonderful to be in a country whose very existence is defined by having too much water. Amsterdam gave me the best shower I've had in years, with enough pressure to generate a kilowatt of electricity if I'd blasted it through a generator.

We saw many "coffee houses" that served more pot than coffee and a bit of Amsterdam's legal red-light district. Neither were intrusive. The working ladies in the windows just looked sad; also, all the women we saw were black, which raised many red flags about who's exploiting whom for what. There was nothing sexy about it.

Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum is truly one of the world's great museums, and our time spent with Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh was transcendent. Still, there comes a point when you feel like once you've seen 400 paintings of rosy-cheeked local politicians dressed in black satin suits with frilly lace collars, you've seen then all.

Me and this guy.
Also those guys.

The delicious cheese called Gouda is apparently pronounced "gow-da," not "goo-da." I've been doing it wrong. But if you can't trust a teenage girl earning minimum wage at the Cheese Museum, who can you?

Hot chocolate = tall mug of steamed milk + a little bowl of chocolate chips you melt into the hot milk. It works!

I think it's a universal law: wherever you go in the world--from the highest peak to the deepest jungle--you'll run into someone from home. When Karen and I travel, we tell people we're from California. If they want more, we say San Francisco. It's close enough and everyone's heard of it. We got to talking with another couple on the cruise and drilled down to discover we live about six miles from each other. It's a small big world.

There aren't many old, authentic windmills left anymore, but the Dutch cherish those that remain at Kinderdijk.

The floor of a building you walk into from the street is numbered "0." The floor above that is "1," and so on. There's a certain number-line logic to it, but the number of times I ended up on the wrong floor due to this convention was non-zero.

The exchange rate was good: 1.08 dollars per euro. Nothing seemed too expensive.

Most popular street food: french fries in a paper cone topped with one of various sauces, most of them mayonnaise-based. We put satay sauce on ours. Pretty good!

Queued up for fries. The chart at right lists the 20 or 30 sauces you can put on them.

I was delighted to exercise my two years of high school German on shopkeepers even when it wasn't necessary. Karen is skeptical, but I remembered more than I expected to and believe I could actually survive in Germany if I had to. "Ein Bier, bitte." I'm good.

That said, English is the lingua franca that worked everywhere.

Nearly everyone we encountered in the Netherlands was fully bilingual. What surprised me was how often English was their first go-to greeting rather than their follow-up, even to their fellow Dutch. I've been in parts of the United States (ahem Miami) where that's not true. Germans tended to try German first, then switch to English. The French knew English but didn't give a damn.

German villages on the Rhine look like model train layouts.

Toot toot.

More than one guide made a big deal of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church's corruption and greed without acknowledging that their jobs depended on giving tours of the architecture and art it produced. Not that they're wrong, but there's an irony there.

St. Peter's Cathedral in Cologne was breathtaking. Its twin spires rise up from the horizon miles away, and as impressive as it is in the 21st century, imagine how much moreso it must have been in the Middle Ages. Begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880, it's a Gothic wonder. Probably the single most spectacular, awesome thing I saw on the trip.

We lit a couple of candles to remember those to whom it would have meant a lot, including my Mom.

This may lose me some friends, but I wasn't impressed with German beer. I was really looking forward to sampling beers made under the country's centuries-old Reinheitsgebot purity laws, and asking for "something local and good" usually turns up some gems for me. Maybe I went to the wrong places, got the wrong stuff, or have had my palate ruined by hoppy West Coast brews, but to me it all seemed pale and bland, like people accuse American beers of being. Further research may be required.

In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain called Heidelberg Castle a perfect wreck, writing that "a ruin must be rightly situated to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods . . . and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reins."

"One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside . . . The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths." Mark Twain, 1880.

There's a lot of commercial river traffic on the Rhine. About half the barges have a single car on deck beside their cargo--I imagine so the owner can drive around once he gets to where he's going.

In my very limited experience, the best traveling companions are elderly Scots with endless reservoirs of great stories who can dance and drink you under the table.

For example, our friends Wilson and Iris. Wilson will kick your ass while Iris rolls her eyes at him.

Man, did we bomb the hell out of Germany during World War II. I'm not saying they didn't have it coming, but the history of every town we visited was told in two chapters: Before the War, and After the War.

For the village of Rüdesheim, that page turned on Saturday, November 25, 1944. Every significant building in town had a little plaque that read (in German) something like "Built 1362. Destroyed 25 November 1944. Rebuilt 1956."

I felt some cognitive dissonance while listening to a guide describe how bullets gouged holes into a cathedral facade during the war when those holes were directly above a woman begging for coins.

You haven't really heard the songs "Margaritaville" or "Sweet Caroline" until you've heard them in the original German.

Karen showed previously untapped musical talent.

 Troupes of little streamer-twirling girls dancing in village spring festivals know "Let It Go" as well as little girls anywhere else.

When the sun comes out, Germans flock to the river by the thousands to sit and talk and play. Docked one afternoon, we saw a mob of people a quarter mile down the bank and walked over to see what was going on. Turned out it was called "Sunday."

In France, posted hours of operation seem to be more casual suggestions than reliable business commitments.

How one nation can support 837 patisseries per square block is beyond me, but all seem to survive. If France's incidence of celiac disease is lower than average, I suspect it's because all the delicious breads and pastries killed off anyone carrying the gluten-intolerance gene centuries ago.

However, macarons are gluten-free.

Karen and I discovered that we were unable to walk through a French town without singing the "Little town, it's a quiet village" song from "Beauty and the Beast," especially when there actually was a baker with his tray like always, the same old bread and rolls to sell. "Bonjour!" "Bonjour!" "Bonjour bonjour bonjour!"

Similarly, it turns out it's impossible for me to be on a ship passing through a lock without humming the music from this scene in my head, and sometimes aloud:


European cooks should probably not attempt to make fried chicken and waffles, a quintessentially American (and, more, a rural black American) dish. Our ship chef's version came off like someone trying to kiss a girl after only reading about it in books. It had no soul.

My great-grandmother came from Alsace-Lorraine. I didn't know her, she died when I was a baby, but I was touched to see the landscape where one-eighth of my DNA came from, and easily imagined her walking the ancient streets of Strasbourg or Colmar.

Speaking of Strasbourg:

Sat down on a patio in Strasbourg and ordered a tarte flambée with gruyere, onions and lardons, not really sure what to expect. Based on my zero understanding of French and the list of ingredients, I thought maybe something like a little quiche. Imagine my surprise and delight when a flatbread pizza showed up. Even better, it was one of the best I've ever had.

Random photos of things I found interesting:

Beautiful dial indicating wind direction at Amsterdam's central train station. I like that its southeast point reads "Oz" (because in Dutch east is "oosten" and south is "zuiden").

Official metric weights and measurement standards from 1820, at the Rijksmuseum. 
A very rich girl's giant dollhouse, followed below by a painting of that very same dollhouse done in 1710, at the Rijksmuseum.

The Tulip Museum next to the Cheese Museum, Amsterdam. 

Amsterdam is a cyclist's town. Didn't see very many nice bikes, mostly old, heavy clunkers that people left unlocked. Don't get in their way, they'll run you down.

At Kinderdijk.

Marksburg Castle . . .

. . . and the Rhine from Marksburg Castle, whose cannons could hit the far bank.

Medieval toilet at Marksburg Castle. The business end naturally opens onto a pathway below.

Coming from California's Wine Country, we were interested to see vineyards along the Rhine planted in rows that run up and down the hillsides, perpendicular to the way it's done back home. Don't know why.
Noah's ark, near Rotterdam. I have no idea.

We could get used to this lifestyle. Heidelberg.

Cool museum in Speyer, Germany, dedicated to transportation technologies, especially aircraft . . .

. . . including an actual 747, mounted on pillars, that visitors can walk through.

Half-timber construction from the 15th century in old Strasbourg.

A terrific astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral that marks time, Moon phase, and positions of the planets.

In the Black Forest, which is not as foreboding as you might think. 

Storks nesting (at upper right) atop a cathedral in Colmar. We saw many stork nests bringing their hosts lots of good luck and fertility.

We were a few weeks early for prime tulip season but still caught them here and there.
And somewhere in there, we celebrated our anniversary, too.

We managed to cram a lot of action into a week and half, and came home pretty tired but refreshed, the way you're supposed to be.

Finally, pull out your red-blue 3-D glasses and enjoy this mind-blowing view of the soaring towers and flying buttresses of Strasbourg Cathedral. You're welcome.


Mike Peterson said...

Good Old River Traveling Brian. Well done.

Bookworm said...

Loved this -- what a wonderful break in my day. We did a day-long boat trip down the Rhine in Germany 15 years ago and have been on the mailing list for Viking Cruises ever since. Somehow life keeps getting in the way.

I do have a question about the boat itself. Does "restaurant" mean choices of foods, or is there a set menu served at each meal? Thank you for sharing your trip!

Brian Fies said...

Thanks, Mike, and thanks for the mention on CSOTD.

Becky, life has a way of taking every spare second if you let it, doesn't it? Dining was pretty flexible but it's not a full-service restaurant. Each meal's menu had several items that were available every day--I don't remember all of them, but if you wanted, say, pasta or Caesar salad or a steak every day, you could have that. On top of those offerings, there were a few daily specials to choose from. So at any given meal you might get to choose from two or three soup/salads, two or three entrees, and two or three desserts, plus any of the everyday items. There were also a couple of theme nights: a Taste of Germany, for example, with schnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut. Seating wasn't assigned so you could sit where you wanted. Casual buffet-style food was also available in the lounge. No formal night or "captain's table" nonsense. It was all pretty low key and the food was mostly good to very good.

Bookworm said...

Thanks, Brian, just what I needed to know. I'm ready to go, even with a picky eater of a husband who hates to dress up!

Unknown said...

I did not remember that Next Generation stole its theme song from the movie. Mind blown.

Unknown said...

Nice write up. I have to agree with you re: the beer. I expected better. Ready to go back for some extended research.

Brian Fies said...

Professor Liz: And yet the irony is that, when Shatner took the theme back to use for Star Trek V, Next Generation had been on the air long enough that it seemed like a cost-saving ripoff the other way. I'm sure Shatner and Paramount said to themselves, "Hey, it was our theme music in the first place!" but that's not how it felt to viewers and fans.

R Picard, definitely. Further research is recommended.

Anonymous said...

The best bier is Belgian trappiste. Everyone knows that.

Brian Fies said...

Ah. I did not know that.