Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Castles Along the Rhine

If there were ever a place where I could envision myself a princess, it would have to be the scenic 40-mile stretch of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley that features a stunning, castle-dotted landscape.

Early on the seventh day of our cruise aboard the River Empress, I parked myself in the glass-enclosed Sky Lounge where I could get a birds-eye view of the castles on both sides of the Rhine River. There was a bit of morning fog so we were initially concerned that we wouldn't be able to see anything but the sun quickly kissed the fog good-bye.

As we came upon a castle, our Cruise Director Rik Sprengers told us colorful stories about days gone by. Most of the castles were built during the 10th to 14th centuries from tolls collected by entrepreneurs who set up 15 toll booths along this 40-mile stretch of the Rhine on which we were now cruising without a care in the world. During that time, the river was the only way to traverse this area going north and south so these clever entrepreneurs had a monopoly on the trade route. Judging by the magnificent castles they built from the taxes they collected from the ships that passed through their toll booths, they surely did collect their pound of flesh!

According to legend, two feuding brothers built the Sterrenburg Castle and Liebenstein Castle in Boppard. One of the brothers fell in love with their nanny and married her. While the first brother was away at war, the second brother fell in love with his brother's wife. That's why there are two castles in Boppard with a wall of dispute built between them.

Not far upriver from St. Goarshausen, the fabled Lorelei rock rises 430 feet above the narrowest part of the river, which makes it very difficult to navigate. Rik referred to Lorelei as the Pamela Anderson of the Middle Ages because Lorelei's striking beauty would supposedly distract sailors from their navigation duties and cause them to crash their ships on the rocks at the foot of the cliff.

Rik also told us about the mysterious basket that hung outside Rheinstein Castle. In times of war, the residents of Rheinstein Castle started a fire in the basket to warn castles in the surrounding area of an impending invasion; during peace time, they supposedly put tax evaders in the basket until they starved to death.

And what about the Mäuseturm (Mouse Tower)? Legend has it that the Archbishop of Mainz was eaten alive by mice in this tower as his comeuppance for being a cruel ruler. This paints a really lovely visual, doesn't it?

I don't know how many of Rik's stories were even remotely close to the truth but the fanciful tales surely did complement our sublime surroundings.

Although many of these castles were damaged by either the army of King Louis XIV or Napoleon, several have been rebuilt and are now thriving hotels and museums.

See more pictures of the castles

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Day in Cologne

The most famous landmark in Cologne, Germany is the awe-inspiring Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kölner Dom is one of the most important Gothic churches in Europe and is the largest cathedral in Germany. Although construction began in 1248, the cathedral wasn't finished until 1880. Although the Allied bombings of World War II destroyed almost 90% of Cologne, Kölner Dom survived almost unscathed.

While we were in Cologne we also went on a guided tour of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Roman-Germanic Museum) which gave us an insight into the storied past of the Roman city of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (the Roman name of Cologne) and the history of the Romans along the Rhine. The museum was built on the walls of a Roman villa that was discovered in 1941 and contained the world-famous Dionysos mosaic.

Just so you don't think that all my time in Cologne was spent in cathedrals and museums ......while we were touring Cologne's Alstadt (Old Town), our guide, who had an amusing sense of humor, pointed out a statue of a man mooning. This statue was featured on private property so it is anyone's guess what the owner was trying to tell the world. "Kiss my ass" was the first thought that came to my colorful mind.

If you're in Cologne, you must try two distinctive local treats: Kölsch, a relatively light and bitter local beer which is brewed only in this area and Nougatbrezel, a mouth-watering pretzel-like treat covered in chocolate, nougat and nuts. Yum! By the way, I didn't indulge in the Kölsch and Nougatbrezel together so I really don't have any idea if they make a good culinary pair.

More photos of Cologne