Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 2 of the story concluded with a shipboard lecture about the relationship between Germany and France, after which we spent a quiet night while still docked in Mainz, Germany. Then we were ready to once again sail downriver on the Rhine.
Sep 23 (Friday): The ship departed Mainz at 8:45 AM to begin a four-hour trip through a region that I can only describe as a fairy tale land, with some thirty medieval castles dotting the hills on both sides of the river. The cruise itinerary was structured for this sailing to be done during the day precisely for this reason. The only problem was the weather – it started out chilly and foggy, and while the fog dissipated fairly quickly it never warmed up to the comfort level we had previously enjoyed throughout the entire trip. Despite the chill, I spent the morning up on the sun deck of the ship, gawking and snapping photos as we went along and listening to the commentary by our Viking cruise director. Virtually all of the castles were sacked and destroyed by French forces in the early 1690s as Louis XIV made war against the Holy Roman Empire. Most have been rebuilt at least to some degree, but some remain as mere ruins. Today, the castles make for picturesque backdrops to the quaint villages and steep vineyards lining the banks of the Rhine.
As we approached the famous Lorelei rock (spelled “Lorely” by the locals) we were told that the river was very shallow, with only 0.7 meters (27 inches) clearance below the ship’s keel. Luckily, this was sufficient for sailing; earlier in the season the river had been closed to cruise ships in this region, so we were very grateful for recent rainfall that had restored the water level and allowed our cruise to proceed. As we passed around a bend in the river, revealing the large rock formation on the east bank, I thought I could hear the siren song of the Lorelei enticing the captain, but he remained steadfast as we passed by. Imagining an earlier time in history without engines or navigation aids, before the modern road was built along the river bank, perhaps with a fog like we had in the morning, I could easily imagine ships crashing into the rock and spawning the legend I first learned of in German class as a teenager.
My last photo during the morning sail was of the Rheinfels Castle, just past the Lorelei rock in the town of Sankt Goar, which was built in 1245 by the local Count for his personal residence and tax collection headquarters – and incidentally was the only castle in this region of the Rhine able to defend itself against Louis XIV’s troops. As I was snapping away at the castle, my phone gave up the ghost – dead as a doornail. Was it the magic of the nearby, seductive siren that crashed the phone? Nope, I had simply taken so many pictures that it needed a recharge. So, I had to settle for a mere 150 photos during the morning sail, rather than the 300 I probably would have had if I’d fully charged the phone ahead of time. (Just be thankful I’m not putting them all in this post!)
By the time we reached Koblenz, the phone was back in business again, just in time for a walking tour of the city after lunch. Located at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers, Koblenz was first established as an encampment for Julius Caesar’s troops in 55 BCE and became an important trading settlement. Naturally, our walking tour stopped first at an ancient church, the Basilica of St. Castor, first established in 836. It was redone in the Romanesque style in 1208, and a gothic vaulted roof added in 1498.
Near the Basilica is a public square with some modernistic sculptures, including this one which the guide told us was a human thumb representing something or other that I can’t recall, but which Freudian types seem to think is actually representing another part of the human anatomy.
We then saw an enormous statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, located at the confluence point of the rivers. Wilhelm was crowned as the first Emperor of Germany (beginning the so-called Second Reich after the Holy Roman Empire, or First Reich) upon conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. We learned that the Emperor was actually crowned at the Palace of Versailles in France, apparently as an act of humiliation for the defeated French. The statue was destroyed by bombing during World War II, but was later rebuilt and dedicated to German unity.
We then walked through the more modern section of the city, where we passed by a protest march led by young climate activists, which is apparently a fairly regular occurrence in many German cities. For some reason, the march seemed to stir some anger in at least one of our fellow Viking tourists; I wanted to ask him if he was a former oil company executive, but decided to bite my tongue instead. We also saw what has become the symbol of Koblenz, the “spitting boy,” officially known as the Schängelbrunnen fountain, so named for the Schängellied, the city anthem. It symbolizes the fun-loving, quick, and clever nature of Koblenz residents. The boy’s image even adorns manhole covers throughout the city.
After the official tour, Pat and I took a gondola ride across the river to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a huge structure overlooking the city from the east side of the Rhine. The fortress sits on the site of a castle built in about 1000 before being expanded and improved many times over the centuries. Especially fortified against gunpowder weapons during the 16th century, the castle was successfully defended against sieges by Louis XIV and Napoleon’s armies until finally surrendering to French forces in 1799. The French then destroyed the castle in 1801 when forced to withdraw from the region. The current fortress was built by Prussia from 1817 to 1828 and has never been attacked. It was occupied for a time by American troops after World War I and used as a place of safekeeping for archives and cultural objects during Word War II. Since then, it has been used at various times as a refugee camp, a residential housing site, and a youth hostel, and now is a major tourist attraction offering historical displays and spectacular views of Koblenz and the two rivers.
Once we were back on board the Herja, the ship set sail again at 5:45, heading up the Mosel River a very short ways to Winningen, where we docked for the night.
Sep 24 (Saturday): The ship departed Winningen at 6 AM, winding its way up the Mosel River through the steepest vineyards in the world. We learned that the Mosel River Valley is lined with slate, which retains heat and acts as a natural tempering system to create a perfect grape-growing climate. Even in wintertime, when the regions outside the valley are covered with snow, the valley itself remains temperate and snow-free. Many of the vineyards are planted on slopes at angles of 60 degrees or more, making for very challenging, hand picking by skilled workers (many of them migrants) during harvesting season.
After lunch, the ship docked in Cochem, Germany, and we departed by bus for a shore excursion. We drove along the south bank of the Mosel past picturesque villages and lush vineyards. Along the way, we saw that a large cargo ship was essentially stuck downstream of a sharp bend in the river as a result of a collision with another ship, and we were informed that this may well require a change to our cruise itinerary. Eventually we reached the town of Senheim, Germany, where we visited the Schlagkamp Winery. The winery shop was extravagantly decorated with an eclectic collection of winemaking implements and other assorted stuff. We were entertained by the winery owner, who could easily have a second career as a standup comedian. He talked about how the family-owned winery has evolved over the centuries to incorporate new technologies with the old methods while we tasted three wines: an Elbling, a Riesling Secco, and a Red Vineyard Peach Liqueur. (He also told us the secret to a good marriage in the Mosel Valley. When courting, ask your prospective mate three questions: 1) what is your name, 2) who is your family, and 3) how many acres do you own.) We enjoyed the wine very much and bought a bottle of the unusual peach liqueur as a memento (which probably won’t last long).
After the winery tour, we boarded the bus again and drove back to Cochem, this time along the north bank of the river. As we drove by, I was able to get another view of the ship that was blocking the river, and I could see that it had rammed into the concrete barrier alongside the river.
Once back in Cochem, we exited the bus for a walking tour of the town, during which we saw two of the old city wall gates and something I’ve never heard of before – a wine vending machine. Our guide also showed us high-water marks from past river flooding events and explained how the residents and business owners near the river periodically have to deal with the impacts from serious flooding, including twice in a month during 2021 in nearby areas. So, even though the town appears idyllic, there are difficulties, the same as anywhere in the world.
The highlight of the tour was a visit to Cochem Castle, an imposing structure built high on the steep bluff overlooking the town. Luckily for us old farts, the tour included a bus ride up the hill (masks mandatory on the bus). The original structure dates back to the 11th century, but the castle was razed by Luis XIV’s troops in 1689 and lay in ruins until it was restored in 1866 by a wealthy private owner whose eclectic tastes resulted in a fascinating mixture of styles. Our guide entertained us with tales of secret passages, castle romances, and other tales as we strolled through dozens of rooms filled with beautiful furnishings and historical artifacts. (Tour group sizes were limited and masks required inside the castle.)
After the castle tour, the bus deposited us by the western city gate before strolling back through the town and across a bridge to our ship. Once back on board, we were informed of a change in the cruise itinerary as a result of the upstream ship accident – instead of setting sail at 7 PM for Bernkastel, we would spend another night docked in Cochem and travel to the German cities of Bernkastel and Trier by bus on Sunday before returning to the ship in Cochem.
Sep 25 (Sunday): So, off we went after breakfast on the bus. The extra time needed to drive to Bernkastel and from Trier back to Cochem made for a somewhat strenuous day, but we enjoyed the chance to see some of the countryside that wouldn’t have been visible had we sailed to Bernkastel during the night as originally planned. Bernkastel is a charming little town known as the “Pearl of the Mosel,” with medieval squares, narrow lanes, and half-timbered houses galore. Unfortunately, it was raining during much of our walking tour and the multitude of umbrellas prevented me from getting pictures of some of the best sights, but I did my best to capture the spirit of the place. We again saw high-water marks from the periodic floods and heard of the resilience of the local people who accept and respond to the challenges of mother nature. We also saw several statues of bears (Bern, in German) which particularly tickled my fancy.
Along the way, our guide told us of the famous “Bernkastel Doctor,” which is actually the name of a wine from one of the local wineries. According to the story, the Elector of Trier, was staying at a nearby castle in 1360 when he became seriously ill. The Elector’s celebrated doctors prescribed all kinds of medicines and remedies for his fever, but to no effect. In desperation, apothecaries and herb women from near and far were brought in to give the Elector their potions, but nothing worked. Eventually, a local winegrower brought the Elector a keg of his finest wine, declaring it to be the best medicine. The now-desperate Elector took the wine and his fever was miraculously cured. As a reward, the Elector issued a certificate awarding the vineyard the prestigious honor of “Bernkastel Doctor” from then on.
We also stopped into St. Michael’s church, a beautiful Catholic church near the river. It was much smaller than the giant “ABCs” we had been seeing in other places, and it was completely empty. Our guide explained that attendance at churches has dwindled to practically nothing, in large part to the “bad things that some priests have done,” as he euphemistically put it.
After the Bernkastel tour, we reboarded the bus and drove to Trier, where we were set free in the main market square to find ourselves a spot for lunch. Due to the inconvenience of missing lunch on the ship, which we would have done had it actually been docked in Bernkastel per the original itinerary, Viking provided each passenger with a credit of 30 Euros. Pat and I strolled through the square looking over the various delicatessens and restaurants. We passed by one called the Brgrhouse, which had as its number one burger choice the “Juicy Lucy.” (Did they copy this from the world famous Minneapolis burger?) Eventually we settled on one called Brasserie ZUR SIM, where we enjoyed some delicious Flammkuchen, which is essentially the German version of pizza. Unfortunately, we had to abandon our outdoor table for one inside when the Flammkuchen were swarmed by bees – I guess they found them as delicious as we did.
The restaurant was located adjacent to the Porta Nigra, the “Black Gate” of Trier, built in the winter of 169-170 by the Romans, who first established an encampment at Trier circa 16 BCE. The gate was damaged when Trier was sacked multiple times by various Germanic, Hun, and Frankish tribes, and eventually a hermit monk named St. Simeon took up residence inside, in 1028. He was later buried in the gate and beatified, and two adjacent churches erected in his honor. However, when Napoleon came to Trier in 1804, he ordered the churches and monasteries closed and the gate restored to its Roman form.
After lunch, we had a walking tour of Trier, starting at the immense Aula Palatina, or Basilica of Constantine, constructed between 300 and 310 entirely of brick. The bricks look very different from modern ones, being very wide but not thick, and the layers of mortar are essentially as thick as the bricks themselves, but they must be very strong to still be standing nearly 2000 years later. The building incorporates a natural circulation heating system built into the floor and the exterior walls, which seems extremely advanced for such an ancient building. This system provided a comfortable setting for the Romans in their togas even in the cold, northern climate. The interior is sparse, a far cry from the opulence we saw in our previous visits to cathedrals and churches, though it does have a nice, modern organ (it now serves as the Church of the Redeemer and is owned by a congregation within the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland).
We then walked past the Palace of the Electors with its beautiful Garden, residence of the Archbishops and Electors of Trier from the 16th to the 18th centuries, then on to the Trier Cathedral. The Cathedral was originally commissioned by bishop Maximin in the fourth century, following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The original building was sacked by the Franks before being rebuilt, destroyed again by the Vikings in 882, then restarted and completed around 1066. Over the centuries the church continued to be rebuilt and embellished, according to the fashions of the moment with Gothic vaults, Renaissance sculptures, and Baroque chapels, but the overall style of the building remains Romanesque with a Roman core.
Then it was back to the market square and the Porta Nigra, with a stop at an interesting model of the old city, before reboarding the bus and beading back to the ship.
As we drove, I was struck by something our guide had said during the walking tour. While relating some of the more modern history of Trier, she was speaking of the aftermath of World War II. “After the war we were lying low,” she said, looking directly into my eyes, “but you held out a hand and lifted us up.” She was obviously referring to the Marshall Plan and the US’s role in restoring Europe from the devastation. I thought back to some of the other things we had learned on the trip – Louis XIV’s utter destruction of the Rhineland, coronation of the German Emperor at Versailles after the Franco-Prussian War, the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. In these cases, victory on the battlefield wasn’t enough – total humiliation of the enemy seemed to be required. But then, after Hitler fell, the victorious side took a different approach. It wasn’t done simply out of altruism, of course, but to restore economies and promote strong trade, and to create an alliance against the feared Soviets – but nonetheless it was the right thing to do, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride for one of the best things my country has done in its history.
We arrived back at the ship in Cochem in time for dinner. The river now having been cleared for ship travel again after the accident, the ship sailed off toward Bernkastel at 5:30 PM. Here are a few pictures of Bernkastel and the scenery along the Mosel during the final sailing portion of the trip before docking in Bernkastel. On Monday, we would be departing from there by bus for Paris, rather than sailing all the way to Trier per the original itinerary.
OK, that’s enough for now. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland, down the Rhine, and up the Mosel.
In Part 4, we’ll be off to Paris for the grand finale of our trip. Stay tuned …