Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 1 of the story covered our pre-cruise activities in Switzerland. I’ll pick up the narrative where I left off last time, having just completed a walking tour of Basel, Switzerland.
Sep 19 (Monday): After reboarding our bus in Basel, we were transported to our Viking ship, the Herja. The ship, built in 2017, accommodates 190 passengers and a crew of 50. There were only about 160 passengers on our cruise, and it didn’t feel cramped or crowded at all. As I mentioned in Part 1, we had upgraded to a fancier stateroom with a little balcony as part of our 25% rebooking bonus when we had to cancel the first time. As you can see in the photos below, the ship is very long (443 feet) but fairly narrow (38 feet) and floats only about 20 feet above the water at its highest point. Shortly after casting off from Basel, the reason for these particular dimensions became quite obvious as we passed through the first of many locks we would encounter along the river. The ship was just narrow enough to pass through the lock gates and just low enough to pass underneath when the exit gate was raised. While this first lock was much longer than the ship, others we encountered later left only a few feet of length to spare fore and aft. In other words, the ship’s dimensions were specifically tailored to fit the river locks.
Monday afternoon and evening were spent sailing peacefully down the Rhine River. During this first sailing segment, we unpacked our luggage into the stateroom drawers and closets, toured the ship, were pampered at lunch and dinner by the friendly servers in the elegant dining room, and had a restful night’s sleep in the large bed. By the time we docked in Strasbourg, France, at 8 AM Tuesday, we had passed through another four or five locks, but the ship was so stable and the lock process was so smooth we were barely aware of any motion unless we were looking out the windows, sitting outside on our balcony, or up on the deck.
Sep 20 (Tuesday): After breakfast, we boarded a bus for a brief tour of Strasbourg, passing by a very large park (Parc de l’Orangerie) and the extensive campuses of the Strasbourg University and half a dozen other colleges; our guide explained that the city is a worldwide center for research in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and other major fields. It is also home to the European Parliament as well as multiple European and international agencies. In this region, the Rhine is the border between France and Germany, so anything on the west side is part of the French province of Alsace. After the bus tour, we disembarked in the old city for a walking tour.
The centerpiece of the old city is the Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg, built between 1015 and 1439. The spire is 466 feet tall and was the tallest building in the world until 1874. The building is so enormous I couldn’t get a picture of the whole thing, so you’ll just have to infer its size from the photos below. The interior is magnificent, with a domed ceiling and enormous stained-glass windows. (During World War II, Hitler wanted to convert the place into a monument to the German people. In preparation for this eventuality, the stained-glass windows were removed and hidden in a salt mine in Germany, where they were later found by the famed “Monuments Men” of the US Army and returned to the cathedral.) Another amazing thing in the cathedral is the Astronomical Clock, with sculptures – the 12 apostles, figures representing the stages of life, angels, and more – many of which move about at various times of each day. The clock was originally built in 1352, but has been updated over the years, most recently from 1838 to 1842, and now shows the official and solar time, equinoxes, the date and day of the week, Zodiac signs, and the phase of the moon, among other astronomical data.
After the tour, we wandered about the old city. It is very picturesque, with modern buildings that blend seamlessly with the old. Eventually, we found a place for lunch – the Restaurant au Sanglier, known especially for its wild boar dishes. Pat had some sort of vegetarian dish, but I had to try one of the house specialties, a wild boar ham hock (while quite tasty, it turned out to be so enormous I could only manage to eat about two thirds of it). After lunch, we returned to Gutenberg Square to catch a shuttle bus back to the boat.
Before dinner, we donned our life vests for a mandatory safety drill, which went off very smoothly. I wondered if everyone would be so calm if a real emergency arose, but luckily, we never had to find out. At 9:45, the ship set sail down the Rhine again, but not before there was a page requesting the passengers in one of the staterooms to check in – they had apparently failed to scan their keys when reboarding the ship, and Viking didn’t want to leave anyone behind.
Sep 21 (Wednesday): When we awoke, the ship was docked in the German town of Germersheim, on the east bank of the Rhine. After breakfast, we boarded a bus for a tour of nearby Speyer, Germany. One fun thing we learned along the way – the US Army sponsored a music festival known as the British Rock Meeting in Speyer in 1971 and again in Germersheim in 1972, primarily for the entertainment of the US troops. However, the organizers failed to mention the plan to the city fathers of Germersheim, who were horrified by the prospect of 70,000 Woodstock-style revelers over three days, causing a mad scramble for police and security coverage. According to our guide, the Hells Angels also stepped in to provide security, and although the event went off with no serious incidents, the Army quietly dropped plans for future such festivals in the area.
Our first stop in Speyer was at the Imperial Cathedral of Speyer, a Romanesque design built between 1030 and 1061 by Holy Roman Emperors Konrad II, Henry III, and Henry IV. Originally built with a flat roof, Henry IV upgraded the building to include a vaulted ceiling, adding external flying buttresses to mimic the then-emerging Gothic style. (To me, these looked entirely ornamental, with no actual structural function. Also, I should actually say that Italian masons did the work – the emperor only gave orders, after all – and these masons travelled on to other towns for Cathedral projects once the Speyer work was done. One might say they were among the earliest migrant workers.) The purpose of the Cathedral was, through its size and beauty, to project the power of the emperor to its westernmost edges. Its four towers represent the four seasons and the idea that the power of the emperor extended in all directions. The interior of the building, though vast and impressive, is quite plain compared to the Cathedral in Strasbourg.
We also learned that the upper Rhine River no longer follows the precise route that it did up until the early 19th century – it was straightened by Swiss Engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla beginning in 1817 to improve navigability and reduce the distance by river between Basel and Worms by 50 miles. The work was completed in 1876, after Tulla’s death of malaria. As a result, the remains of the Speyer city wall no longer abut the river but are several hundred yards away from it. After touring the Cathedral, we walked to the market square, dominated by 19th century administrative buildings constructed under Otto von Bismarck after establishment of the second German Reich by Kaiser Wilhelm I. We strolled the length of the square (actually a very long rectangle) to one of the remaining gates of the old city wall, then back toward the cathedral again, stopping along the way at a small bakery for a sandwich lunch.
We had been surprised to learn that Speyer is home to a large Technical Museum which houses an enormous, eclectic collection of automobiles, aircraft, and space-related items, and that it was located only a short walk from the Viking bus rendezvous point. So, we went there and spent about two hours wandering about. Most of our time was spent in the space hall, which had extensive details of the major worldwide space programs, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and others. I was extremely surprised to learn that the Soviets were developing a space shuttle which actually orbited the earth before the program was abandoned when the USSR was dissolved in 1991. The most visible attraction at the museum is a Boeing 747 airplane mounted high above the ground and accessible by a very long staircase. The interior is populated by dummies of passengers and crew, with large sections of the fuselage opened up to reveal the construction details. There is a large chute, like a waterslide without the water, to get down more quickly, but I opted for the long journey down with my aching knees, fearing a worse outcome if I tried the quick method.
At 6:15 PM, the ship again cast off and we sailed peacefully into the night, arriving in the early morning hours in Mainz, Germany.
Sep 22 (Thursday): When we awoke, the ship was docked in Mainz, again on the east bank of the Rhine. After breakfast, we went on a walking tour of Mainz – no need for a bus since the city is so close at hand. Mainz is just downstream of the confluence of the Rhine and the Main River, and was first established as a port by the Romans in 13-12 BCE. During our tour, we strolled along lovely, tree-lined streets to the central city, where the first highlight was – no surprise – another beautiful church (ABC), in this case St. Martin’s Cathedral. This one was begun in 975 by the Archbishop of Mainz in the Romanesque style, intended to establish Mainz as the second Rome, and completed in 1009. However, on the day of its inauguration it was badly damaged by fire, and was then rebuilt and mostly completed a second time by 1037. It has subsequently been modified several times, adding elements of various architectural styles.
After visiting the Cathedral, we proceeded to the nearby Gutenberg Museum, where we saw not only replicas of Gutenberg’s history-making movable-type printing press but also exhibits providing a comprehensive history of printing up to the modern age. Below you’ll see photos of a recreation of Gutenberg’s printing shop, including the case containing pieces of movable type. Since there were fewer capital letters and they were used less frequently, these were stored in the top part of the case. The non-capital letters were used more frequently and were thus placed within easier reach in the bottom part of the case. Hence, we still refer to them as “upper case” and “lower case” letters. The most special exhibit was in the so-called “strong room,” which contained several original copies of the famous Gutenberg bible – we were not allowed to photograph those, but I did take a ton of pictures of the other exhibits and have included a few samples below. (One thing I did not photograph – much to Pat’s surprise – was a large wall containing Tabloid newspaper front pages including many pictures of topless women. Gutenberg might have been shocked by what his invention has wrought.)
After the tour, we strolled through the town, finding a sandwich for lunch at a nice Boulangerie, and then went to visit the world-famous Chagall windows at St. Stephan’s church. The church was heavily damaged in World War II, and its restoration was completed in the 1970s. The pastor wanted to include symbols for peace in the reconstructed church, and decided to hire Marc Chagall, a Russian Jewish artist, to create new stained-glass windows, thus symbolizing reconciliation between Germany and its wartime victims and international peace among the former combatants. In the design of his windows, Chagall drew inspiration from the Old Testament, evoking the common ground between Judaism and Christianity. From the outside, the windows don’t look like much of anything, but inside they emit a beautiful blue light – the photos do not capture their ethereal beauty.
After returning to the ship, we attended an interesting lecture by a history professor, learning a bit about the long, difficult relationship of the French and German people. This region has been especially volatile, with Alsace and its cities being conquered and re-conquered over the centuries by French and German rulers, somewhat like pawns in a massive chess game.
OK, that’s enough for now. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland and along the Upper Rhine.
In Part 3, the ship will continue down the Rhine before take a big turn in Koblenz and heading up the Mosel River. Stay tuned …