Happily filled to the gills with Dutch cheese and Jenever (gin), my friend Susan and I laid the gauntlet down as our Viking longship Rhine Getaway cruise crossed from The Netherlands into Germany – Bring it! Could the country meet up to The Netherland’s windmills? Amsterdam’s idyllic canals?
As if heeding our dare, the Viking Jarl docked in Cologne, Germany. Inclement weather called for bundling up. Inwardly, I grumbled. During my last visit to Cologne, it was summertime, when the banks of The Rhine were buzzing with revelers frequenting biergartens. Surely, on a rainy Sunday, the energy would be at a lull.
There were a few hints littering the cobblestone streets that we’d just missed several weddings at City Hall and a rowdy Saturday night. The locals, however, didn’t appear to be sleeping it off. Instead, coffee houses were packed, cyclists whizzed through the rain, and impatient holiday market shoppers watched as a Zamboni smoothed a skating rink beside a sawdust-laden Brauhaus, where the taps were set to flow the following day.
Groups of Viking passengers trekked different routes through the city. The main target for everyone – Kölner Dom, or Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site that began construction in 1248, reaching completion in 1880. Our guide filled us in on an element missing outside of the cathedral, the living statues. These street performers, many of whom silently stand on milk crates in angel-esque costumes, had been shooed away for overcharging photo-happy tourists. I was a little sad not to spy them. After witnessing Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk about her stint as such, a Euro or two of mine would definitely have made it into their coffers.
The High Gothic Dom was off-limits for the day, as it was, after all, the Sabbath. Still, the cathedral’s towers impressed, standing stalwart after many centuries and 14 World War II bombings. With no access to the Dom’s Shrine of the Three Kings, Susan and I made our way to another place promising incense and gold — Weihnactsmarkt, one of Cologne’s seven Christmas markets. As if a tease, the kiosks being stocked were set to open the next day. I suddenly regretted my dare to Germany, for I was seeing withheld promises served up as a lesson.
Not as hardy as the locals, we escaped the rain and ducked into the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. The coat-check line was an exhibit in people-watching. Once across the threshold, the works of masters from Cézanne to Gauguin took over our attention. Also a pleasant surprise, window views above Cologne, including one overlooking construction of a forthcoming museum on medieval archaeological digs of a Jewish quarter.
Art led to hunger. We popped into the museum’s coffee shop, which was decked out for the holidays. More people-watching ensued, as did sampling from the pastry case. A parade of shopping bags from the gift shop gave us the itch to continue exploring Cologne.
What’s a girl to purchase in Cologne? Why “Eau de Cologne,” of course. Sadly, it was Sunday, so the original fragrance houses of Farina and 4711 were closed. The next best thing – Chocolate via The Schokoladen, or Chocolate Museum. From there we visited a local Brauhaus’ to sample some Kölsch, Cologne’s signature drink. Deliberations began about where to indulge, including the Früh am Dom, where we’d heard waiters responded to requests for water with “Would you like soap and a towel with that?” A smaller pub where we could rub elbows with the locals won out. The same rules for ordering Kölsch applied here: covering the specially-sized glass with a coaster means “no refills.” Ticks on said coasters were a tally of the refills ordered and a way to monitor inebriation.
Back onboard the Jarl, we said our goodbyes to Cologne. Yes, Germany had exceeded our expectations, and there were still stops to be made, including the 800-year-old UNESCO World Heritage Site the next morning, Marksburg Castle.
Okay, admission here – Susan and I played hooky on the Marksburg outing in lieu of exploring Koblenz, the quaint hometown of the Jarl’s Captain Eddy. Located at Deutsches Eck, or the German Corner, where the Middle Rhine meets the Moselle River, Koblenz is heralded by a statue of Wilhelm I. Festung Ehrenbreitstein. Most of the town was still asleep as we roamed the streets, so our noses led us to the venues that were open early – bakeries, one from which a hockey-playing dough person was purchased. Other discoveries were made off this beaten path, including a rude statue and unidentifiable vegetables in a market. Perhaps most intriguing was the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn. Had we turned left when disembarking the Jarl that morning, we would certainly have boarded this gondola that flies above the Rhine and to the top of Ehrenbreitstein Mountain, where the gardens from the 2011 Budesgartenshau, Germany’s national horticulture show, still bloom today. Hot tip on gondolas: Word is, #17 has a glass-bottom.
Jarl passengers boarded buses in Heidelberg, traveling up, up, up to the castle. En route, we passed the Old Bridge known for its monkey statue where, if tourists touch the mirror held by the monkey, they gain wealth. Touching the primate’s outstretched fingers ensures a return visit to Heidelberg. As for the mice, feeling them up apparently bolsters fertility.
The bus passed the 315 stairs leading up to Schloss Heidelberg. Another Heidelberg urban legend – taking said stairs versus a vehicle cures knee ailments. Built in 1294, the castle has seen its share of damage from both wars and nature, including a fire caused by lightning. A history of romance can be found within the structure’s red sandstone walls. It was here, in 1614, that Frederick V built the Garden of the Palatinate. The garden’s landscape and horticulture was considered by many at the time to be the Eighth Wonder of the World. As for Frederick V, it was an expression of love for his wife.
Within Schloss Heidelberg’s ruins is the world’s largest wine barrel. More impressive – the expansive views of the baroque city with the Neckar River adding ambiance. Calling out for exploration – the tent tops of five annual Christmas Markets in Alstadt, or Old Town.
From the mountaintop, an army of ants was already invading these kiosks with their trinkets, gifts and ideal lunch fare – German specialties including lebkuchen and zweibel kuchen and pommes frites. To wash it all down – steaming, collectors’ mugs of Gluhwein, a mulled alcoholic mixture that takes away the winter chill. And greeting returning passengers on the Jarl – more steaming cups of Gluhwein for toasting Heidelburg goodbye.
Next stop – ooo la la — Strasbourg, France.
More Rhine River Cruise Stories
The last stop on Bekah Wright’s Viking Jarl cruise continues tomorrow on First to Know.
Travel writer Bekah Wright spans the globe experiencing everything from fly fishing to sheep herding. She recently wrote about traveling to Zambia for First to Know, and upcoming articles include a journey to Edinburgh with Sir Richard Branson, spending a night at an observatory, and night finds in Carmel, CA. Her writing has been featured in GOOD, Bon Appetit, National Geographic Kids, Los Angeles magazine and TV Guide.