Day 7: The Unbearable Cuteness of Wertheim

This morning, we were moored at Wertheim, a village on the Main that had not been destroyed in WWII and still has its 16th Century buildings intact. The temperature was supposed to be in the high 80s, which sounded dreadful, but wasn’t too bad. For one thing, the town was right there, a few minutes’ walk from the river. For another, the excursion was shorter. For another, there was always shade somewhere, and there were an abundance of chairs for the footsore—something other towns were distinctly short of.

There was an enormous castle on the hill above the town—second only to Heidelberg in size according to our guide, Elke. There were two guides, but I gravitated to Elke because she was wearing a pretty dirndl. Why not? I learned later that her “real” job is as a nurse, and she does guiding as a refreshing change.

The leaning tower of Wertheim. We resisted any urge to pose with it as though we were holding it up.

There was a strange leaning tower at the entrance to the town. It had once been part of the town ramparts, but stands by itself now. The lower half was built of stone with 7-foot-thick walls, and this is the leaning part. The top, a later addition, attempted to correct the leaning. it was once called “the hall of fear” because it was used as a jail. The interior was cramped because of the thick walls. It was completely dark, cold, and damp. They would lower prisoners into the tower on a rope, and that was that, I guess.

The old town is very quaint, with narrow, tall, half-timbered buildings. The bakery was built in the 1600s and is still a bakery. The baker is the 13th generation of bakers. He gave us a pretzel demonstration as part of the excursion . More on that later. It seemed many of the buildings still serve their original purposes, judging by the symbols on the fronts of the buildings. It’s a very pretty place, with flower boxes and cafes, and ancient buildings.

There are still remnants of the old town ramparts. This gate to the old town is now part of a hotel.

Elke gave us a brief history of the town, including the sending of Jews to concentration camps. One of the houses now memorializes the Jews, and is decorated with suns, stars, the Star of David, a cross, and the word shalom. In the cobbles in front of the house are some brass stumblestones with the names of the residents. Elke told us that in 1972, the town’s mayor tracked down as many of the surviving Jewish residents as he could and invited them back for a reconciliation ceremony and apology from what was done to them.

The memorial to Wertheim’s vanished Jewish population.
The “stumblestones” memorializing the Jews who lived in the house above.

The town’s church started as a Catholic Church, but was later converted to Lutheran. Because it was the only church in town, Catholic residents also attended, and they and the the Lutherans had separate entrances for a while until it became just Lutheran again, presumably because there weren’t enough Catholics left.

Outside a striking blue and white half-timbered house stands a fairly appalling— but large—bright blue plastic statue of a dwarf, intended to symbolize the optimism of Wertheim. Um, OK.

The optimistic, if ugly, dwarf statue in front of the beautiful blue and White House where glassmakers lived. Maybe they still do—there’s a glass blower’s shop a few yards away.
Two houses in Wertheim leaning toward each other like old friends.
My beloved.

One group went off to walk in the vineyards while the rest of us wandered around town. Then we met up by bus for a wine tasting and pretzel making demonstration. The wine tasting was more like four large glasses of different wines. I liked the sparkling wine and the Riesling the best.

The baker of 13 generations gave a pretzel demonstration. He had a lot of mildly naughty jokes—quite the fellow. If anyone asked a question he liked, they were gifted with many pretzels. I asked why they were dipped in lye before being salted and baked. He said he asked his father, who had asked his father, and no one knew. Then he said he discovered that 200 years ago, a pretzel accidentally fell into a cleaning bucket with lye water in it, and the baker used it anyway. It turned out crisp, brown, and different from the others and has been the custom ever since. I am not sure I believe this tale, but I got four enormous pretzels for asking. We headed back to the boat full of wine and pretzels and ate lunch as the boat took off again.

At the winery, which has a long and complicated German name that I didn’t record. On the left, in the white coat, our merry pretzel-maker. On the left in the pretty dirndl, our guide, Elke.
Me with my prize pretzels for asking about why food might be dipped in poison to make it delicious.

Back at the River Duchess, Captain Ronny gave a presentation on nautical matters, starting with how he became a captain. I found his story really different and fascinating. He was born on a cargo boat that his parents operated out of Rotterdam. At the age of five, he attended floating kindergartens that were set up for the children of such maritime families. But he had to attend boarding schools as an older child. At the age of 16 he returned home (his parents had a larger cargo boat by that time) and worked with his parents until he attended navigational school. After graduating, he worked on different cargo ships but basically had no social life until he married a Swedish woman and moved to Sweden to start a family.

He started a ship maintenance businessin Sweden, but apparently neither the business nor the marriage prospered, so he went back to cargo boats, first hauling fuels, then chemicals. One day he was docked somewhere and the cargo exploded while he was in the wheelhouse. He took this as a sign to do something different, and started working for Uniworld. It took him some time to learn how to maneuver the river boats because instead of the standard propellers and tiller, they have propellers and bow thrusters, which allow for the precise navigation that makes for a trip that doesn’t spill the guests’ drinks. It is a very smooth trip, I must say.

He also presented a lot of info about the River Duchess (where he has worked for seven years). I will skip over the tonnage and draft and so forth. From the appearance of the boat, we thought it was pretty new, but it was built in 2003. Turns out they spend the winter months refurbishing the boat, which accounts for its pristine appearance. Uniworld didn’t lay off any staff during the pandemic, accounting for very low turnover. Respect!

Susan’s birthday dinner. Lovely food and wine! The best company.
Alex (left, in the butler gear) and Todor, the dining room manager, served our private dinner.

This evening, we had a private dinner for Susan’s birthday, and I wish I could have eaten it all, but I couldn’t. There’s a Roaring Twenties party in the lounge tonight, and Susan and David dressed for it. Don’t they look wonderful?

Susan and David!

Day 6: Frankfort

When we awoke today, we were in Frankfort, and traveling on the Main River ( pronounced “mine”). This morning at breakfast, we were observing some sort of waterfowl that lives in abundance by the side of the river. We couldn’t decide if they were ducks or geese. They seemed too big to be ducks, but their necks weren’t as long as the Canada geese we are accustomed to seeing, and they are on the small side for geese. After we returned, I compared some photos Tom took to an online cache of German waterfowl and solved the mystery. They are greylag geese, a species I have read about but never seen before. They seem largely unperturbed by humans.

Graylag goose, apparently conducting an invisible orchestra.

The majority of the passengers opted for a tour of Heidelberg Castle, which involved an hour-long bus ride. I am looking forward to hearing about their adventures, but Tom and I opted for a walking tour of Frankfort. All of us were elderly and in terrible shape except for Tom, who viewed the excursion as barely a short walk.

It was 80 degrees or so, but Tom tells me he barely broke a sweat. Annoying, of course, but I am glad he’s in such good shape. I left my hiking sticks behind and I was glad I did. I had no problem with the terrain, and they are such a nuisance. When I use them, if I want to take a photo, I have to put the sticks aside, find my phone, take the picture (assuming whatever it wasI wanted to photograph is still there by that time), replace the phone, pick up the sticks, and hope I haven’t tangled the earphone cord that attaches to the receiver we wear so we can hear the guide. But I was extremely glad I used them yesterday in hilly Rudesheim!

Our guide, whose name sounded like Shannon, so I will call her Shannon, took us along the river front for a while, explaining the history. Then we visited the old town. Apparently, all the ancient half-timbered buildings were flattened during WWII, with the exception of a single house. The others were lovingly restored and look exactly the same, but presumably with better plumbing.

The sole remaining original half-timbered house in Frankfurt’s old town.Shannon told us a rather confusing story about its role in WWII, involving tanks in this building, tunnels underneath the street, and rich people escaping from the other houses on the square, but I found the story somewhat dubious.

Shannon took us to a place that served the local specialty—frankfurter sausages, of course, with potatoes and green sauce. I liked the green sauce, which uses local herbs that differ depending on where you are. The frankfurter tasted exactly like a hot dog to me, despite Shannon’s protestations that they were much more flavorful and juicier. Not impressed.

I love the way they fit the slate tiles together. It looks like dragon skin.
The square where we ate frankfurters.

We ate on a square that included the Streuwelpeter (Slovenly Peter) Museum and store. Streuwelpeter was an illustrated book written during the 19th Century to instruct and entertain children. Shannon says they still teach this and it tells children how to behave properly. I have read it, and it includes:

• A story about a little boy who sucked his thumbs until the great, long-legged scissor-man came and cut them off.

• A story about a boy who ate too many sweets, went out in the rain and melted.

• A story about a little girl who played with matches and burned herself up, making her two kittens weep.

• A story about a little boy who was always looking up at the sky and fell into the water and drowned.

You get the idea. Shannon seemed to feel these were instructive and positive guidelines for the children of today.

However, she was most solicitous of her ancient followers and allowed us time to sit and rest, for which I was grateful. Tom, of course, did not take advantage of these rest breaks.

After a few more visits to quaint things our guide liked, she bade us farewell and several of us visited a nearby toilet. Half a Euro to pee.

Then Tom and I took off to find an ATM and a SIM card. It turned out that the phone store didn’t take credit cards, unlike every other store in Europe, so it was a good thing we found the ATM first. Tom is happy with his new, strong connectivity. My goal was to visit the Steiff store I spotted back at the square where we sampled the frankfurters. I wanted to buy a tiny mouse I saw at the famous Christmas store in Rudesheim. I had faint hope that it would be less expensive, and sure enough, it was the exact same price. But I bought it for our new little granddaughter Mirabel. Because.

Shannon was upset because the construction spoiled the beauty of the old square. We still enjoyed it.

Then we went back to the boat, had lovely broiled salmon for lunch, and we are sitting in the lounge watching the boat go through a lock. It’s a lengthy process, and I have never seen it before. We have gone through locks on this trip, but I am usually sound asleep.

Tonight, we are celebrating Susan’s birthday with a private dinner in the Captain’s dining room. (He doesn’t actually eat there, of course.) I hope it will be a very special occasion!

Day 5: The Rhône River Valley and Rudesheim

There are two castles in this photo. Can you find them?

This morning, we woke to the picturesque Rhine Valley, dotted with ancient castles that look like movie sets or etchings from some other century. It was cold on the sun deck, but we didn’t want to miss the beauty of this area.

A castle on the Rhine. It looks well-restored and lived in.

The sandy shores and flatter lands of yesterday have given way to rocks and steep cliffs. In many places, vineyards cling to the cliff sides at an angle that defies belief. The vineyards are all worked by hand and I do not know how they do it. Vineyard work is hard enough on level ground. We were told that the Rhîne reflects light onto the vines,which increases their sweetness. The wine is the famous Riesling produced here. Beer is less favored than wine in this region. We passed by tiny town after tiny town, most with half-timbered buildings, a castle or two, and churches ringing the hour—we could hear the bells clearly from the boat.

Alex, our butler, performed a sabering ceremony. He took a pretty but dull saber and uncorked it by swiftly hitting the rim of the bottle with it. The cork had been tied to his wrist so that it didn’t fly into the river. Then we all had champagne and watched the castles go by. Many were ruined, but some have been at least partially restored. Apparently, there was a Bavarian king whose hobby was collecting and restoring medieval castles. Nice hobby if you can afford it.

Our destination today was Rudesheim, a small town that had been half destroyed by accident during WWII. They rebuilt the ruined church from the rubble, replicating the original exactly. In the US, it would have been bulldozed and a modern church would have been built in its stead. Rudesheim has some cute, narrow, cobbled streets, wine gardens, a famous Christmas shop, and a lot of tourist traps. We took a cable car (or suspended gondola) up to the Niederwald Monument above the town. Tom elected to walk, but he wasn’t waiting for us this time. It took him another ten minutes or so after we arrived. The monument has amazing views of the river valley and the vineyards that march up the hills in back of town. The monument itself is a typical piece of nationalistic art celebrating the unification of Germany after the Franco-Prussian War.

Niederwald Monument.
The view from the Niederwald Monument. The island or sandbanks in the river are bird sanctuaries.
Cute half-timbered building in Rudesheim.

In the river below, we could see long sand banks with trees growing on them. These are now bird sanctuaries. They are a fair distance from the boat, but I could see a lot of birds from our stateroom. The swans were big enough that I could identify them.

I can’t get rid of this photo so you get to enjoy it twice.

As Tom began walking back from the monument, the rest of us took the cable car down. It was a quiet, peaceful experience, passing over the vineyards. We went into the famous Christmas store, but as we already have more Christmas decorations than we actually put up and the prices were astronomical, I opted to go back to the boat. On the way, I found an inexpensive, warm wrap to supplement my wardrobe, which was entirely inadequate for the chilly mornings around here. Now watch it never get cold again on this trip!

Tom’s route up from the town to the monument through the vineyards.

Day 4: Farewell, Amsterdam—Hello, River Rhine

Sailing out of Amsterdam along a canal, once we left the city, the countryside looked exactly like Dutch landscape paintings. The canals are lined with poplar trees. Beyond the trees, there were rich pastures with happy-looking cows and sheep, and small towns with pretty houses.

Before long, we entered the Rhine River through a lock. The artificial banks disappeared to be replaced by sandy beaches, most of which were unoccupied in the bright evening light. Mile upon mile of empty beaches, punctuated occasionally by a small town. I did see one fellow fishing from the beach, and later spotted a family picnicking on the sand.

We sailed all night. This is a lovely way to travel. The boat is quiet and remarkably stable. The slight rocking is soothing, and I slept through the night without waking.

In the morning, we were in Germany. No muss. No fuss. No dragging my bags across an airport. No customs or lines to wait in. No security demanding that we take our shoes off.

We had no excursions until we reached our destination for today, Cologne (Köln). So breakfast was leisurely. I went to the lounge afterwards and was greeted by Tobor (yes, that is his name) with a cup of hot chocolate with brandy in it. This seemed very civilized, so I accepted it. The buffet for breakfast and lunch offers everything anyone could possibly want, and then some, all well-prepared—even the steam table dishes. But you can get custom omelets and eggs.

We watched them dock the boat in Cologne—a lengthy process. The sailors didn’t wear gloves to handle the long cables and ropes involved. They must have palms of steel by this time.

Our guide, who was quite funny, walked us to the cathedral, talking about the local history, the beer, the town’s rivalry with Dusseldorf, the local goodies, etc. He spent far more time talking about how the town recognizes its role in the Holocaust and the demise of the town’s Jewish population. There are brass markers called stumblestones fixed in the street outside houses where on e lived people who were taken away by the Nazis, with the names of the deceased. The brick plaza outside and above the philharmonic hall is paved with 6 million bricks in remembrance of the Jews, and through it runs a single rail headed east, the direction of the concentration camps, which ends at a sculpture of a smokestack. They have guards to keep people from walking over the bricks during performances because the architect designed it such that people in the hall below can hear footsteps above—because the dead can still hear us. I am impressed that Germany doesn’t whitewash its past, but instead has tried to remind us so that it will never happen again.

The plaza of 6 million bricks of remembrance.

The cathedral at Cologne is amazing. It was built of white limestone. Industrial pollution has chemically changed it so that it appears covered in soot. Our guide explained that it cannot be cleaned. They have stonemasons working full time replicating every inch in new white limestone to replace the old. Some parts gleam white in contrast to the filthy-looking old stone. I am amazed that they are doing this, and I think being a stonemason here is a job guaranteed for life.

The rail leading to the east and the smokestacks of the concentration camps.

The carvings and traceries of the cathedral are breathtakingly delicate and intricate. You could look at it for a lifetime and never run out of something new to see. Taking photos was kind of useless—there is too much to see and most of it too far away to photograph with a phone camera. The interior is classically gothic, with soaring arches and brilliant stained glass windows.

Cathedral of Cologne main aisle.
Cologne Cathedral stained glass.

We were in the area once occupied by the ancient Romans. Unfortunately the Roman-Germanic museum was closed, but you can look through a window and see a gorgeous, perfectly preserved Roman mosaic tile floor that was discovered during WWII and hidden until the end of the war. There is a portion of Roman road preserved nearby that you can walk on. Sort of like walking on a stony riverbed—very rough. I skipped it, being somewhat unsteady.

Cologne Cathedral. You can see the lighter new stonework in places. It’s still pretty sooty overall.

We also saw the bridge with the famous love-locks. Thousands of padlocks of every size and description have been fastened by couples to cement their undying devotion. (I hear this doesn’t always work.) Some of the locks are painted with the lovers’ names, many are engraved. Some of the locks are very unusual. I saw two rusty, heart-shaped locks and a golden lion’s head with a keyhole for a mouth. I could have spent a lot more time looking at locks.


After visiting the cathedral, we went for some local beer, called Kölsch. Due to confusion, we ended up at a very touristy bar called Aloha. The beer was mediocre, so Susan and David went to find something better. The rest of us tried to go to the Chocolate Museum, which was closed for a private event. (😢) So back to our home away from home. There was a concert after dinner which the others said was quite good, but I wanted some quiet time. At 10:00 the boat set off again and I fell asleep to the almost imperceptible rocking to a night filled with adventurous dreams.

Day 3: In Which We Embark upon the River Duchess

This is the day! The day we actually move from the hotel to the boat. Or ship. We keep going back and forth—some of us insist that a ship can carry boats, but a boat can’t carry a ship. None of us are maritime experts, so I’m not sure.

Anyway, the main point of the day is checking out of the Conscious and checking into the River Duchess, a Uniworld tour boat/ship. Which is about all we got done today. We arrived at the docks, which we passed yesterday on the canal tour. River Duchess is a long, low ship (or boat), fairly new looking. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it met or exceeded every expectation. The staff is lovely. They greeted us and took us to the lounge and gave us champagne. There are mirrored surfaces everywhere, which I suppose makes the spaces look larger. (But I really don’t want to see the view of my backside looming unexpectedly at me. Too unnerving.)

Our party I. The lounge of the River Duchess. With champagne.

After a bit, they herded us into the restaurant for a buffet lunch. The dining room is at the stern of the boat/ship, with windows everywhere providing a panoramic view. We sat for a long time, eating and watching the busy boat traffic—river cruise ships, coal barges, pleasure boats, ferries, and other maritime vehicles made for a lively scene. Eventually, the staterooms were ready.

Random shot from the sun deck because I am having trouble uploading pictures. This is on the Rhine.

I have to tell you, we have never done this before. Not only have we never taken a cruise of any kind, we usually scrimp a little on accommodations. I guess they were seriously underbooked, because they offered us the opportunity to bid on a better stateroom. Tom made a lowball bid and secured a suite— the ritziest accommodation on the boat (or ship). It comes with a butler! Complimentary everything! More space! It has a marble bathroom, a large window that opens, king bed, drinks bar, live orchids, dressing table, etc, etc. I love it. The shower is a good size, which I did not expect.

Our butler’s name is Alexandru. (Call me Alex.) Alex is from Bucharest, Romania, as many of the crew are. He reassured us multiple times that we did not have to pay for laundry services (I wasn’t worried about it). He wears full butler regalia, tailcoat, vest and all. He is much better dressed than we will be at any time on this trip. Seems like a pleasant young man. We can call him if we need something—at any time, I gather, but I am sure we won’t be ringing him at 3 am to make us sandwiches.

The others walked back to the old town. I stayed to unpack. Also, my poor toe could use a break. I am wondering if I will be able to wear my sandals again on this trip. I hope so, because I only have one other pair of shoes with me.

A word about Amsterdam and its canals. They have hundreds of them, lined with trees, which makes the city parklike and beautiful. We learned that fresh water continually flushes through from the River Ij (pronounced “aye”), which means “”water.” This keeps the water clean, and indeed, we saw people swimming and fishing in the canals and the port. I investigated and found that the canals are literally teeming with more than 20 species of freshwater fish, so the water must indeed be clean. It also means that Amsterdam does not reek from filthy water, as does Venice. These are people who thoroughly understand water management, and we have a lot to learn from them as the world’s water levels rise from climate change.