In part two of her story, Bette shares more from her recent Castles of the Rhine river cruise including a tour of Strasbourg and a visit to the small village of Venningen to taste drinking vinegar.
The next day brought a tour of the city of Strasbourg, France in a glass covered canal boat. This city is similar to Amsterdam with the old part of the city an island encircled by canals. As in the other parts of Alsace, Strasbourg has been both German and French. In the afternoon, we traveled east to the Black Forest in Germany. Our first stop was at the House of Cuckoos where six generations of the same family have made clocks. The current 75 year old owner, Adolph Herr, greeted us with a shot of Cherry wine and then a huge slice of Black Forest Cake. The shop is located in Hornsberg, Germany which is a typical old Black Forest Village with houses of several stories with large overhangs. The typical women’s hats in this area are topped with huge black or red pompoms – black for married women and red for single. Another type is decorated with gems, beads, etc and is about 12” tall and can weigh up to 12 pounds.
Next was an open area museum called Vogtsbauernhof where 6 old farmhouses, storehouse, sawmill and other buildings from 200 – 600 years old have been located. All the houses are very large because they have under one roof, the living quarters, the stables and hay storage. One house was built in 1612 on its current location and lived in by the same family until 1964 when the 88 year woman had to move in with her son. These houses had the main living room, kitchen and animals on the ground floor. The only stoves were in the living room and kitchen. There were no chimneys to vent the smoke as they wanted to keep that in the house to help preserve the wood that the house was built of in addition to helping keep the bugs and other vermin from the thatched roof. They used the smoke in the kitchen to smoke the meats. This led to a lot of lung sickness in those days. On the second floor above the living room and kitchen, the bedrooms were located. On the second floor over the animals, the hay was stored. The house was built on a mountainside, so the doors on the third level could be used for sleighs and carriages and could be driven right out to the lane from that level.
The next morning brought a unique experience in the small village of Venningen – a tasting of DRINKING vinegars!! The family that produces these 40 different types of vinegars has done so for over 150 years but only for public sales since the 1980’s. The “Mother” (starter) for these vinegars is over 130 years old and is kept in a ceramic urn in a separate room in the estate. The entire process is done in-house and starts with the family making wine from the grapes on the 10 hectares around the farmhouse. They don’t harvest the grapes until they are shriveled and look like raisins. After the wine is made, it is aged from 4 – 6 years and then put in large oak barrels with a little bit of the Mother and left for 6 – 12 months. It is then put in small oak barrels to age at least 4 years and up to 30 years. During this time, the vinegar is infused with flavorings of fruits, spices or herbs. After a tour through the farm (while wearing a floor-length cape to protect our clothes from the smell and to protect the aging vinegar from our perfumes), we got to taste 5 different vinegars – one infused with figs, one with cherries & cinnamon, one with sage, one with a combination of several herbs and spices and the last was not a drinking vinegar but was for healthy life. Several were made especially to pour over ice cream!
In the afternoon we took a tour to Heidelberg to visit the ruins of a very large 16th century castle and to visit the old part of the city. The castle was destroyed by lightning in 1764 but an impressive part remains. We then explored old Heidelberg where we saw the University (home of the Student Prince movie) and the Holy Spirit Church. Heidelberg suffered no bombing from the war because the Americans decided to make their Headquarters there. They were going to destroy the city upon leaving but the commander really like the city and citizens and found a reason not to carry out those orders.
Overnight we sailed on up the Rhine and woke up this morning in one of the most famous wine towns in the world – Rudesheim. It is located at the southern end of the Valley of the Lorelei – the beginning of the Rhine River Gorge and the first of the castles. Rudesheim was established by the Romans about 2,000 years ago. A thousand years later, the Knights of Rudesheim built the castle Bromserburg.
We spent a short time in the town and went down the Drosselgasse (which roughly translates to Strangle Lane). This short shopping street is only 6 feet wide and 360 feet long and is crowded with shops. We went then to Schloss Vollrads for a wine tasting at a manor estate that has been in operation for over 800 years. The rooms are rarely open to the public, but we got to see quite a bit inside and saw how things were done in the past. In one room, the wallpaper is leather embossed with gold. There were 27 generations of the same family that lived there until 1997. The estate was then deep in debt and the owner committed suicide. The Bank took over and for the next couple of years updated the estate, set up a restaurant, catering and the continued the Riesling wine making.
In the afternoon we sailed about half way through the valley and saw castles on both sides. There was just breath-taking scenery on both sides with picturesque little villages dotting the sides of the valley. The vineyards are in rows up and down instead of terraced like other vineyards we have seen in Portugal and the Danube. The hillsides were deep, deep greens and very lush looking.
Koblenz sits at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers and celebrated its 2000th birthday in 1992. There is a point of land sticking out like a triangle between the two rivers that is called the German Corner and is dedicated to unity. Unfortunately 87% of the town was bombed out in WWII. To this day, there are still unexploded bombs all around. In 2011 which was a very dry summer, the river was low enough that they found two bombs and had to evacuate part of the city until the bomb squad could set them off.
Riding an aerial tram across the river to Festung Ehrenbreitstein (a massive fortress that was built in the 12th century and is Europe’s largest fortress), we could see the merging of the two rivers. The fortress has been home to many occupying forces, the largest of which was 40,000 Prussians. There is a 15-ton cannon from the 16th century that has been a “trophy” each time the French overran the area. After Napoleon’s forces destroyed a large part of the fortress in the early 1800’s, they took the cannon back to Paris when they left. When Germany entered Paris in 1940, they brought it back to the fortress only to lose it again to France in 1945. As a gesture of peace, the French President returned it in 1984.
Cologne is Germany’s 4th largest city and is the home of the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany. The cathedral was started in 1248 and completed 632 years later (1880). Although the Allied bombings destroyed 90% of the city, the massive Cathedral survived almost intact. The rest of the city had to be rebuilt from the ground up. The result is a mishmash of old and new. The old city has narrow streets with small shops and not much vehicle traffic but is surrounded by all sorts of expressways. We loved roaming these types of streets.
Our local guide took us winding through Altstadt (the old city) showing us quaint old houses dating from the 1600’s. All were tall and narrow because they had to pay tax based on the frontage. We went by the Town Hall where all marriages have to be performed (there can be a church ceremony too but the marriage is only legal if done at Town Hall) and there were several wedding parties there that day.
The Cologne Cathedral is breathtaking and dwarfs all buildings around it. It is possible to climb the 530 steps to the top of the tower but I chose to sit and drink wonderful hot chocolate and just be awed by the site of it. Over 50 types of stone were used in the building and there are soaring spires and flying buttresses outside. Inside are (supposedly) the remains of the Magi in a gold shrine that took 45 years to build. Cologne considers the Magi patron saints. One of the many stained glass windows contains over 11,000 pieces of glass and 72 different colors. When renovation has to be done on the outside, it takes over 2 years just to set up the scaffolding!
The next morning we started our journey home marveling again at all the ingenuity of early civilizations in erecting buildings that are still standing and used today. Another memorable trip, thanks to GET.
Did you miss part one of Bette’s story? Click here.