River Cruise plus a week on Germany's 'Romantic Road'
Saturday 26th July
Usually when we have a really early start like today's (taxi at 5.30am!) it means a long day's travelling. However, today's flight from Heathrow to Budapest was a mere two and a half hours – a short hop for us!
Budapest's airport seems to have only about thirty flights a day, but we got caught up in such a queue at Passport Control that maybe two planes had arrived at once. And because so many people were caught in the queue the bags couldn't be delivered to the belt because so many of them weren't being collected yet. However, we still arrived at the 'Viking Delling' at about 2pm local time, in time for lunch.
Our first impressions of the ship were very positive. The Delling hadn't even been launched when we booked this holiday before Christmas, so it's brand spanking new. It's very sleek and low in the water. It's an impressive 443 feet long and has 180 passengers, mainly from the USA and Canada, but with a contingent of Aussies and a dozen or so British passengers. Surprisingly, there are no other Europeans on board.
There are two decks with passenger cabins, with a sun deck above. There are crew quarters pretty much at the waterline, with windows set high in the walls above head height, and I think that the kitchen's down there too. Apart from chairs and recliners the sun deck also has a tiny four hole putting area for golf fanatics – more like crazy golf, really – as well as a herb garden that supplies the kitchen with fresh ingredients. But from Passau to the end of the cruise in Nuremberg the whole deck has to be levelled so that the Delling can pass under various bridges – even the ship's bridge can be lowered until very little of it protrudes above the deck.
At the bow of the ship there is an open air café where we had lunch, and immediately behind it is the main lounge where the talks and various other entertainments take place. The windows are glass from floor to ceiling and from end to end, so the views are wonderful. The main restaurant is on the deck below, and like the rest of the ships has a very modern, airy feel.
After lunch we went out for a walk across the chain bridge that links Buda and Pest. We only stayed out for about an hour and came back to unpack, set up WiFi access and generally settle in before Cocktails at 5.15pm. They do a mean Caipirinha that I'm sure I'll be having again, but couldn't come up with a Bellini for Gill because they didn't have any Peach Schnapps – she had to settle for a Kir Royale.
At 6pm we had a presentation from the Programme Director about life on the ship in general, and at 7pm we went to dinner. There is no fixed seating, so it's a bit of a lucky dip as far as table companions are concerned. We struck lucky when we completed at table of six with two American couples. They were good company and made very interesting conversation. The meal was really very good, but having had lunch yesterday with Carly in a new, leading edge restaurant in Bethnal Green, our expectations might have been a little high! What was really nice was having your wine glass topped up on a little-and-often basis with very nice, complimentary wine.
After dinner, there was local musical entertainment in the main lounge. There was a traditional Hungarian band - two violins, double bass and cimbalon (a sort of horizontal stringed instrument that is played like a xylophone) and half a dozen folk dancers in national costumes. They were very entertaining and went down well with the packed audience,
The Programme Director had said earlier that we should take our cameras up on deck after dark as so many of Budapest's beautiful buildings are illuminated at night, so that's what we did. We had a strong sense of déja vu as our mooring and the gorgeous night-time view around us is almost exactly the same as the view we've seen so often on Viking's TV adverts during the ITV Murder Mysteries series.
We're getting up early in the morning to have breakfast before a guided walk in Budapest. While we're away from the Delling it will sail further up the Danube and we''ll be taken by coach to meet up with it again at lunchtime.
Sunday 27th July
Budapest and Danube
Because the complimentary morning tour of Budapest was due to set off at 8.00am Gill arranged an early morning call (6.30am) so that we would have time for breakfast first.
Because neither of us is particularly keen on the prospect of earnest chats over breakfast with strangers she suggested that we went to the Aquavit Café on the upper deck where we knew we could find tables for two. The bad news, for me anyway, was that there were only continental breakfast items on offer – maybe tomorrow the lure of a nice cooked breakfast in the main restaurant will be irresistible!
Each cabin has a pair of radio headsets that you need to take with you on tours so that you can hear what the guides are telling you without having to cluster around them. So, we gathered ours up and made our way to one of four large coaches ashore. Ours was the second of two Viking Longships moored side by side by the Chain Bridge, and we had walk through the other one to reach the river bank.
Budapest consists of two cities, one on each side of the Danube. Pest is on the eastern, flatter side of the river, and most of the administrative functions of the city and the country are based there. Buda is on the western, hilly side and is home to the castle, the cathedral and the poshest neighbourhoods.
We were taken to Pest first, which seems to have been constructed mainly in the 19th century with Vienna and Paris as its model. Indeed, there's a boulevard that was allegedly based on the Champs Elysées. We had one stop, at Heroes Square, where we got out for a wander and to take photos. It's a very imposing open space with some historically significant statuary commemorating the founding of the nation by seven tribes of Magyars in 896AD.
The square was built in 1896 to commemorate the 'millennium' of this event. Since then it has featured in a number of important national events, the most recent being the reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution who was executed by the Russians. This took place in the momentous year of 1989, with Communism falling apart all over Europe.
Once back on the coach we set off to cross the Danube and see Buda, with its 14th century castle and 19th century citadel. It being Sunday we weren't able to visit the 14th century Matthias Church, but we admired its much-restored exterior and the nearby Fisherman's Bastion with its stunning views down over the capital. We thought we were given far too much time to wander around this area and wondered if this was in the expectation that we would spend money in the nearby souvenir shops!
We were back on the coach at 11.15am and set off for Visegrad higher up on the Danube where we re-joined the relocated Delling. We went straight to lunch where we had a choice of various hot and cold dishes. I had the Goulash, on the basis that we should eat local food whenever we can – I'm hoping for Sausage in Lentil Soup once we cross over into Germany! ;o)
We had the obligatory Emergency Drill at 2pm, which turned out to be one of the quickest and most unusual we've ever had. Having all gathered on the open Sun Deck and with most, but not all passengers checked off against lists, it suddenly began to rain and lightning started flashing all around. Without any permission to do so we all started heading back downstairs and the crew, recognising a dead cause, joined us!
At 3pm in the main lounge the ship's pastry chef demonstrated how to make Apfel Strudel – after all, we arrive in Vienna tomorrow. At 6.15pm it was the Captain's Cocktail Party – free Champagne! - and dinner was at 7.00pm.
We sat with the same four Americans that we were with last night and really enjoyed their company. The food was wonderful again, so this 'cruise' is meeting our admittedly high expectations already!
At 9pm the Delling entered the first lock that we've encountered so far, and we all went out on deck to enjoy the experience. Emerging on the Sun Deck we found that the sides of the lock were towering above us by at least 30 or 40 feet, but the speed with which the ship rose was incredible. This must have something to do with the very fast flow of the Danube itself.
I've come back to our cabin to write up these notes while Gill goes to a talk by the Programme Director who grew up in Czecholovakia under communist rule and who is sharing his experiences of what that was like.
Tomorrow we're in Vienna, having left Hungary and briefly crossed Slovakia.
Monday 28th July
Today we've been re-acquainting ourselves with Vienna, which we visited last year for the first time.
This morning we had breakfast in the restaurant and I treated myself to the cooked breakfast that I'd been waiting for. Gill isn't a huge fan of the sort of breakfast that I enjoy most (i.e. sausage, bacon, scrambled egg, beans, fried potato etc.) but when I came back from the buffet she agreed with me that it looked really nice. I have to say that the fresh cherries that were part of *her* selection also looked fabulous!
Our coach set off into the city at 8.45am and did an initial circuit of the main sights before dropping us in the centre with our guide. She had talked without a break for over 90 minutes from our departure from the ship until setting us loose for an hour's 'free time', and it was really interesting, even when she was pointing out places that we'd seen on our last visit.
Vienna is a very interesting place, in that it was developed as the capital city of a huge, militaristic empire of 50 million people that has shrunk to a country of ten million inhabitants with a capital of only two million. All around you see imposing buildings that ooze the feel of empire, including some very impressive private palaces built by incredibly wealthy families.
When we set off on our own we visited the Art Nouveau public conveniences that our guide had recommended, but they weren't all that impressive. Gill had suggested that I should take photos, but I thought that this could easily have been misinterpreted :o)
We headed for a shop that we had visited last time where Gill had bought a Gustav Klimt mug that she had been very fond of but which had since been irreparably damaged. Luckily, we found both shop and mug very quickly. We also treated ourselves to very nice ice creams that were surprisingly inexpensive.
We met the coach at the drop-off point and were back on board for lunch at 12.30pm. The food on board is truly excellent – it both looks and tastes wonderful, and the ship's clean, brand-new surroundings really enhance the experience.
Having been in Vienna so recently and also because we'd booked to go to a Mozart and Strauss concert tonight we spent the afternoon reading on board. For those attending the concert dinner was at 6pm, and at 7.30pm we boarded coaches to take us to the 'Palais Auersperg'.
This was one of those grand 18th century palaces built for a very wealthy individual, and it stayed in private hands right through to the end of the Second World War. Nowadays it is used for concerts.
The dozen musicians on stage were exceptionally good, especially the very young violin soloist who had been entrusted with a Stradivarius for the evening. She was clearly extremely talented and the sound that she conjured from the instrument was magical.
The first half of the concert was Mozart and included the first movement of the 40th Symphony and Rondo A La Turque – the other pieces were more obscure. The second was Strauss, including Wiener Blut, The Blue Danube and The Radetzky March. There was a free glass of champagne in the interval! Incidentally, as we discovered last year the Danube is quite definitely NOT blue, as it carries so much sediment with it.
We were back on board by 10.15pm for a very welcome cup of tea and a relatively early night. Tomorrow we arrive in Melk in the later morning and have been tipped off that the scenery that we'll be passing from 8am onwards is particularly lovely.
Tuesday 29th July
We had been told yesterday that at 8am this morning the Delling would be entering the Wachau Valley, a World Heritage area of great natural beauty, so we made sure that we had an early breakfast.
Unfortunately, the weather was dull and overcast although warm, so we didn't get to see everything in its best light. We took seats to the rear of the very long 'longship' on the Sun Deck in splendid isolation. Most other passengers were either crammed together at the bow end or stayed indoors in the lounge.
The valley was for the most part steep-sided, with many vineyards clinging to its northern side. The Programme Director provided a commentary at points of interest, the first of which was the town of Dürnstein. This was where Richard the Lionheart of England was said to have been imprisoned on his return from the Crusades until a huge ransom was paid for his release. The castle where he had been held, now a ruin, loomed over the town.
Various other towns along the way had interesting stories; Weissenkirchen suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Swedish army in the Thirty Years War, and Willendorf was where the famous 'Willendorf Venus' female figurine (estimated to be up to 30,000 years old) was found in 1908 at a nearby paleolithic site.
By lunchtime we had reached Melk and had tied up alongside another Viking longship. After lunch we were driven a short distance up above Melk Abbey where we disembarked and had the most spectacular views over the town and the valley, aided by bright sunshine that had finally appeared. We had a conducted tour of the Abbey that lasted nearly an hour.
As Gill commented afterwards, all we really needed to be told was that the Abbey was founded in the 800s and was later developed and protected by the Hapsburgs. Instead of this we had an unnecessarily lengthy explanation that focused too much on scarcely interesting relics that included 'a piece of the True Cross'.When the tour ended we went down into Melk for ice creams, a quick look around and a leisurely walk back to the ship.
The Delling set off again at 3pm and immediately went into another lock. This time we shared it with another ship and were amazed at the precision with which it was steered only a hand's breadth from the side wall. The second ship then snuggled up alongside with only a metre between us. These skippers know just what they're doing! The sun was still gorgeous, so we sat on deck reading for a couple of hours before getting ready for the evening.
Dinner this evening was a bit odd. It was Austrian-themed, and you could either eat from the grill on the upper deck or go to the restaurant or even visit the kitchen and help the chefs. We'd got to know an American couple over the past couple of days and were with with them again this evening. We found ourselves deciding, partly through inertia, to stick with the grill. That worked for me, because there was a fine selection of Austrian sausages, but Gill wasn't quite so satisfied – she hoped that we'd move on to the main restaurant for round 2, as it were.
Because we found ourselves deeply engrossed as a foursome in discussions about American politics we sort of forgot to move on to the restaurant, but we had a really nice evening. Tomorrow morning we cross into Germany and reach Passau.
Wednesday 30th July
Overnight we must have passed through a few locks, judging by the bumping and changes in engine noise that seem to have woken us briefly - we're right at the rear of the ship, close to the engines.
We arrived in Passau at breakfast-time, and, as usual, tied up against another Viking ship that was already moored. When this happens you have to exit and re-enter your ship across or through the other one. When we returned after our tour there was yet another Viking ship tied up to us on the other side – sort of a 'Delling sandwich'!
Five groups of 35-40 passengers set off into Passau, each with a guide. The little audio ear-pieces that we wear to hear what the guides are saying work really well once we've tuned into our guide and not a nearby one.
Passau sits at the confluence of three rivers; the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube. A couple of times each century or so Passau is flooded by rising river waters, and the last time was in June last year when the second highest water level in history was recorded. Buildings closest to the riverbank were flooded to the second floor as the combined water from the three rivers raced through the town.
The cause of the high water was partly rainfall but mainly the sudden melting of snow. The floodwaters remained for a week, and it then took another four days to clear up. Because all schools and offices in the town were closed there was quite a large volunteer workforce that was pressed into action to get the town back to something like normal. There was a lot of financial help from local government in Bavaria and also from the federal government in Berlin – 80% of the cost of repairing your property could be recovered. Unsurprisingly, house insurance is virtually unobtainable.
Our guide took us through the narrow streets, pointing out the various high water marks high on the walls until we reached the Cathedral. This is a really quite lovely (and very large) building that started life as a Gothic church but that was re-built from 1668 to 1693 in Baroque style.
It houses the largest cathedral organ in the world with 17,774 pipes, the smallest of which is the size of a pencil – in fact, it's five separate organs that can be played individually or together from a single console in the gallery over the entrance. At the end of the walking tour we came back for a 30 minute midday organ concert that we enjoyed enormously, hearing the organist let loose the full range of the organ from its quietest to chords that almost shook the building.
Passau is quite a small town of 50,000 people of whom 10,000 are students. The area around the cathedral is really quite picturesque, with narrow alleyways and cobbled streets, which I imagine will be typical of the towns we'll be visiting next week as we drive down The Romantic Road' from Wrzburg towards Munich.
Back on board for lunch we found that the view out of the restaurant windows wasn't great, with other Viking ships moored either side. When the time came to leave we simply sailed out from between the two of them.
After lunch we went up on to the Sun Deck to read as usual, interrupted only by mid-afternoon tea and German cakes. At around 4pm the crew started to dismantle all of the guard rails ready for the very low bridges that we'll have to negotiate before and after Regensburg. Eventually we ran out of space and had to retire to our cabin.
At dinner this evening we were joined by another interesting American couple. We now know what 'Grits' are, for the first time in our lives :o) The after dinner entertainment seemed likely to be pretty much a Karaoke session, so we opted out and went back to our cabin to read. Gill's pretty much at the end of Robert Galbraith's (J K Rowlings') 'Silkworm', and I'm racing through Ben MacIntyre's excellent, 'A Spy Among Friends', that investigates how Kim Philby's public school mates in MI6 doggedly refused to believe that he was a double agent.
Thursday 31st July
Today was probably our busiest day so far, with excursions both before and after lunch.
The morning walking tour in Regensburg started at 9am with a walk along the river. At this point it's still the Danube, but only just. At the edge of the city the Danube veers south-west and the Rhine/Main/Danube canal heads pretty much north-west towards Nuremberg, and that's where we're headed.
Regensburg was founded in Roman times, and the stone bridge that they built still stands. It's become weakened by traffic and erosion over recent years, and the floods of 2013 did further damage, so it's currently closed for vital maintenance. When it re-opens it will be for pedestrian use only.
There are also other Roman remains within the city, including a gate and quite a lot if the city walls. Regensburg is certainly the prettiest town that we've visited so far. Just like Bruges, it was once wealthy but fell into economic decline, which meant that its medieval structure has survived pretty much unscathed to the present day. Also, it wasn't bombed or shelled in WW2.
Before returning to the ship for lunch we both avoided avoided spending money unnecessarily, Gill on jewellery and me on Bratwurst! After lunch we were off again, this time for a visit to Kelheim and Weltenburg and, in between, a river trip through the Danube Gorge.
We boarded a bus for a 30 minute drive to Kelheim, whose main positive attribute was a very attractive Weissbier brewery where we all had a glass of their finest. Well, I had two because Gill wasn't keen and I nobly helped her out ;o)
We walked through the town to the Danube, which by now was no longer navigable for larger ships like the Delling, and boarded a river cruiser. We took a 40 minute trip through a steep-sided gorge that was heavily lined with trees and was peaceful and attractive. We disembarked near to the Weltenburg Abbey, which houses another good brewery – I'd tried a glass of their dark beer on the trip through the gorge.
The Abbey has only seven monks, including a novice, and works on the Benedictine principle that you should only consume what you can produce yourself. They therefore have gardens for fruit and vegetable, raise their own livestock for the table and brew their own beer. However, it was pretty clear that seven men couldn't possibly run the Abbey unaided, and it emerged that they have well over a hundred employees – maybe the monks also get others to pray for them as well!
The chapel was magnificently decorated, even it seemed to smell a little musty, and we had an excellent 15 minute talk on the interior decoration. The chapel was dedicated to St. George, and there was even a large silver statue behind the altar of him slaying the dragon and rescuing the maiden. Gill had already reminded me that it was twelve years ago today that George had died and said that she had been looking for a sign that he was still watching out for her – this was clearly it :o)
We left the Abbey and rejoined our coach for a ten minute drive to the canal where we were to meet the Delling that had been sailing towards us while we'd been away. Once aboard we had an hour until the Captain's Cocktail Party that signalled the beginning of the end of our cruise. This was followed by the Farewell Dinner, which consisted of many small dishes and was delicious.
We still have two nights on board before disembarking on Saturday. Tomorrow we'll spend our sixth wedding anniversary sailing up the Rhine/Main/Danube Canal to Nuremberg, followed by a WW2 walking tour that takes in the sights of the Nazi era, including the Zeppelin Field where the huge rallies were held and the courtroom where the surviving leaders of Hitler's regime were tried and sentenced.
Friday 1st August
So, the last full day of the cruise. It seems ages since beautiful Budapest and classy Vienna, as well as our departure from home only a week ago!
After a slow start it was a very busy day today. After breakfast we went back to our stateroom until lunchtime – the Sun Deck was closed because all of the guardrails had been removed so that the Delling could pass under the low bridges between Regensburg and Nuremberg. Gill read and I backed up all of my photos – I've taken SO many!
We had lunch at midday, which, to be honest, we didn't really need, before disembarking at 1pm. Our coach took us off to the enormous open area where the Nazi Party held its annual rallies from 1933 to 1938. It is still largely intact, with only the huge swastika and the colonnade removed. It was here that Leni Riefenstahl's 'Triumph Of The Will' was filmed in 1934. in which Hitler was carefully shown as the charismatic saviour of Germany, and where a huge number of searchlights, pointing vertically, created 'a cathedral of light' for his night-time appearance.
Sir Neville Henderson, the British Ambassador, said of the theatricality of this event that he 'became a Nazi'. He didn't mean this literally, merely that the whole occasion was so emotionally overwhelming that he found it hard to resist its emotional 'pull'.
We then went to the documentation centre where the role of Nuremberg in the Nazi period was examined. It's impossible to walk through the displays without feeling the thrill of horror at what we, with hindsight, know was the gathering storm and its aftermath.
The Germans have always found it hard to come to terms with their collective guilt for World War 2, and, having lived in Germany in 1970/71 and having known Germans of that generation reasonably well, I have a little sympathy with them. After all, faced with a regime of such pernicious evil, how many of us would have stood against it?
From what we saw and heard this afternoon it seems clear that the children of the last couple of decades have learned the lessons of the past, seeing Hitler as remote as Napoleon but having understood the nature of the evil perpetrated by their grandparents' generation.
Germans of my generation are caught in the middle. They weren't alive during the war, but feel the need to contribute to the national effort to apologise for what their parents did. My parents' generation in Germany just want to forget all about it all and pretend that it didn't happen – luckily they're dying out.
We then went to see the courtroom in which the Nazi leaderships was tried and subsequently condemned at the famous Nuremberg Trials. Twentyone of them were tried by a military tribunal – no jury. The Russian judges were under instructions from Stalin to condemn all defendants to death, come what may. Luckily, it had been agreed beforehand by the UK, USA, France at the Soviet Union that where the four judges couldn't agree the milder sentence would apply.
One bit of unnecessary nastiness introduced by the Russians was the attempt to add the massacre of Polish army officers at Katyn in Poland to the indictments even though it was the Russians themselves who had been responsible for this crime against humanity. Twelve of the defendants were found guilty and eleven of them were hanged the next morning. Goering cheated the hangman by taking cyanide smuggled to him by a gullible American guard.
This was a low-key and slightly depressing way to spend our anniversary, but we'll aim to make up for it in the coming week. In the morning we'll get a taxi from the ship to the car hire company where we've pre-booked a car. Then we'll drive the 70-odd miles to Würzburg which is at the start of the 'Romantic Road'.
Deutschland, here we come!
Saturday 2nd August
Nuremberg to Würzburg
Since we weren't scheduled to leave the ship until 9.30am we were able to have a leisurely breakfast.
We agreed after leaving the Delling that it had seemed that we had been aboard for much longer than a week. It's a lovely ship, and we can heartily recommend both the ship and Viking itself to others interested in river cruising. One thing that might not be apparent is that a river cruise can be quite tiring, in that you can be ashore in both the morning and the afternoon, with little time for relaxation. We've decided that, as we head southwards down the Romantic Road we'll plan in some quiet time every day where we can just sit and relax. We'll also plan for only two meals a day!
Our taxi took us to the car hire company where I'd booked us a car. We were 'upgraded' to a nice VW Golf that suits us really well in that it's not too big and yet can conceal all of our luggage out of sight in the boot. We left Nuremberg at 10am, took a leisurely saunter across to Würzburg, 115 kilometres away, took a quick 'comfort break' on the way and arrived at our destination at midday.
Before going to our hotel we visited the Prince Bishop's Residence on the edge of the Old Town. This had been built in the early 1700s, but had been very heavily damaged by Allied bombing in March 1945. The interior restoration has been magnificent, but there's a certain emptiness about the place that meant that after 90 minutes in both palace and garden we'd had enough and headed for our hotel on the river bank.
The 'Alter Kranen', named after a medieval crane that still stands by the river, is a comfy but not spectacular three star hotel. Mind you, after the tiny cabin that we've lived in for a week it feels palatial!
We went out to explore the Old Town, and found that whilst parts of it were really attractive quite a lot of new post-war buildings took the edge off it a little. We took a tour of the slightly disappointing Cathedral Museum that featured religious art through the centuries and then made our way to the Ludwigsbrücke bridge that spans the River Main.
Würzburg seems to be a bit of a party town, especially on the bridge where lots of people were drinking and celebrating. Even when it started to rain quite heavily they didn't run for shelter, but we did; we quickly returned to our hotel where we flopped on the bed and slept for an hour.
Using TripAdvisor Gill had tracked down a highly-recommended restaurant in a nearby street. We arrived to find it packed with only a table for two on the pavement. Having not eaten since breakfast we had no intention of looking elsewhere! . By now the sun had returned. We had a wonderful meal that we washed down with a superb local (Franconian) white wine. We walked back to our hotel in the balmy summer evening, re-taking the photos that hadn't looked nearly so nice in the rain.
Tomorrow we leave for Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, a small town whose sole industry seems to be the manufacture of wooden Christmas ornaments, where we're staying for two nights.
Sunday 3rd August
Würzburg to Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber
Yesterday had been quite humid and 'close', and when the sun came out in later afternoon our hotel room got quite hot. I found it quite hard to sleep, but Gill slept like a log for the first time in a week.
We had a light continental breakfast before checking out at 10am. My cunning plan was to let SatNav guide us southeastwards to the first town on the Romantic Road. This turned out to be less than cunning, since we ended up on an unromantic autobahn.
Tauberbischofsheim is a very pretty town, with mainly half-timbered buildings, and the succeeding towns that we visited were similarly attractive. In fact, they were what we'd hoped to see on the Viking cruise but maybe those towns (Melk, Passau, Regensburg and Nuremberg) were just a bit too big and had been too badly damaged in 1945.
After an hour we set of for Bad Mergentheim, and found it to be another very attractive town. It had an impressive Tourist Information Office where we laid our hands on an excellent map of the Romantic Road and the towns along the way. By now, we'd got the hang of finding and following the special road signs so that we kept on track without SatNav, but shortly after setting off we ran into a road closure and could find no way of skirting it. Eventually we stumbled into another road that had been blocked by the Fire Service and I was forced to ask for directions.
A really helpful young fireman explained that the road had been closed right the way down to Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber because of a bike race, and that we'd have to take a huge diversion. Luckily, he'd been issued with a rough map that he could hand out to drivers, and we used this for the rest of our journey.
We had to return to Bad Mergentheim and then set off in a completely different direction, skipping a couple of towns on the Romantic Road. Our next stop was in Creglingen where the offer of Bratwurst and Potato Salad at a nice inn was just too much to ignore.
It was then a short hop to Rothenburg. Wow! What an amazingly photogenic place! We went straight to the Burg-Hotel, where Gill had booked us in for two nights. The hotel is gorgeous and is set in the city walls. From our room we have wonderful views over the countryside. We went straight out for an orientation walk, and took advantage of the bright sunshine - earlier this morning we'd had heavy rain as we drove.
The town has the huge advantage of not having been damaged in the last war, and looks as if it's been transported to the present day from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. In every direction there are picturesque buildings and medieval vistas. However, we soon went back to our room to freshen up and get ready for the evening.
Every evening at 8pm there is a guided tour by the city's 'Night Watchman', and it seemed like a smart idea to tag along. The problem was that when we got there we found a huge crowd waiting for him to appear. He was dressed in a tricorn hat and a black cloak, and was carrying a halberd (a spike and an axe blade on a long pole) and a lantern with a lit candle in it.
He did a quite amusing introduction, but Gill and I were doubtfully eyeing up the crowd of at least 150 people. We decided that we'd try again tomorrow night in the hope of there being a smaller crowd. Later, when we got back to the hotel, we found out that the crowd can often be as many as 250 to 300 people, so maybe we'd made a wrong decision.
Instead we went for a meal in a restaurant close to our hotel, and at 8.30pm it started to rain really heavily, so by chance we'd dodged getting a real soaking! Tomorrow we'll investigate getting a proper guided tour with, we hope, a smaller audience!
Monday 4th August
We had a leisurely breakfast before setting off back into town on foot to explore the parts we hadn't seen yesterday. The weather stayed fine all day, with only occasional light cloud to take the edge off our photographs.
Our first stop was at St. Jakob's Church, just up the road from our hotel. This houses a remarkable carved wooden altar piece by the famous sculptor and woodcarver Tillman Riemanschneider (1460-1531). We knew as we entered that there was a €4 admission charge, but when it emerged that you still couldn't take photos of the interior we decided to carry on exploring the town.
All of the bakery shops sell 'Schneeballen' (snowballs) that on the face of it are quite enticing. We bought a large one yesterday that was coated with white chocolate. Gill hated it immediately, so I had to help out. When we discovered how they were made even I was unimpressed – they're 'fried egg dough, covered in sugar or chocolate'. Hmmm!
While Gill was exploring one of the shops I picked up a guide book to the town that was really an eye-opener, partly for what it didn't say. Firstly, I was wrong in assuming that the town had been unaffected by World War 2. In fact, on 31st March 1945 the Americans bombed the town because of the presence of a large unit of the Wehrmacht who had orders to fight to the last man. This assault destroyed 40% of the town, but further damage was avoided when negotiations led the German forces to leave the town without a fight.
After the war Rothenburg sent out international appeals for funds to re-build the town and restore it to its pre-war state. Arguably, to a large extent what we see today is an almost theatrical reconstruction. That feeling is added to when you find out that the town was the inspiration for Disney's 'Pinocchio', and was also a location in 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang', 'The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm' and, more recently, the last two Harry Potter films.
The guide book offered a detailed history of the town through the centuries, but then leapt from 1898 to 1945. Why the strange silence for the first half of the 20th Century? Well, a dig around in Wikipedia revealed that Rothenburg was an almost talismanic place to the Nazis. They praised it as 'the most German of German towns' and an ideal Nazi community. Regular day trips were organised to Rothenburg from all over the Reich, an initiative that was 'staunchly supported by Rothenburg's citizenry'. No wonder the guide book fell silent for this period.
Yesterday we'd been bold enough to climb up to the top of the city walls and follow them for some way. Today we had another go, but neither of us felt all that comfy with the height and the lack of safety measures, so we came down again sooner than we'd planned to.
As I've said before, Rothenburg appears to be the epicentre of Germany's (and even Europe's) Christmas industry, turning out a huge range of quality seasonal gifts and decorations. We treated ourselves to one of those little roundabout things with a propeller on the top that is turned by hot air rising from tealights. They can cost over €1,000 for the really elaborate ones, but we were much more restrained!
This afternoon we decided to award ourselves the relaxation that we hadn't had so far, and just sat in the hotel's garden, reading, from 2pm to 5pm. At 6pm we went out to dinner in a much-recommended, 'typically German' restaurant where I managed to pass myself off as a German again – well, for a while, anyway :o) We had an absolutely delicious starter that we spread on rye bread. It was like butter and onions mixed together into a sort of paté. Gill couldn't quite place it, so we asked the waiter what it was. He told us that it was lard!!
We really enjoyed our meal, though, and especially the wine that was recommended to us. We left in time to walk up to the main square and meet up again with the Night Watchman. Once again there was a large crowd, but probably only 100 tonight. We followed him round the town as he told stories of its history, including it falling to the Catholic army in 1631 during the terrifying Thirty Years War and its narrow escape at the end of the last war.
At the end of the tour we dutifully paid him €7 each, and noted with satisfaction that everybody else seemed keen to pay him rather than slink away. Then, pausing only for another ice cream, we headed back to the hotel.
Tomorrow we set off again on our journey down the Romantic Road.
Tuesday 5th August
Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber to Donauwörth
After a couple of glorious days in gorgeous Rothenburg it was time to move on. The hotel was as lovely as the town, even if its management had a touch of Basil Fawlty.
Our first point of interest along the road was the town of Feuchtwangen. Actually, we didn't intend to stop there because it didn't seem quite as attractive as the others that we've seen so far. No, I just wanted a photo of me standing by the town's sign at the roadside. 'Feucht Wangen' means 'damp cheeks', which the schoolboy in me finds amusing ;o)
From there we went on to Dinkelsbühl, which was much more attractive. It's yet another town that suffered greatly during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648). At one point the Swedish army besieged the town, and a young girl led a group of children out of the gates to plead with the Swedish commander to spare their lives and their town. The Swedish commander had recently lost a much-loved son, and by chance one of the boys in the group reminded him very much of his dead child, so he agreed to spare the town. Even today there's an annual celebration of this event where the town is dressed in the Swedish flag.
We took a look in the impressive gothic church – another that's dedicated to St. George – and even wallowed for a while in some glorious music as the organist practiced. We spent a couple of hours in Dinkelsbühl, which grew on us more the longer we spent there, and then set off again, this time for Nördlingen
Fifteen million years ago a meteor hit Bavaria and left a sizeable dent. A thousand years or so ago Nördlingen began to be developed in the crater, which is why the town even today is almost perfectly circular. It still has its entire city wall in place, and you can walk all around the town on it. As in Rothenburg we gave it a go and managed about a quarter circuit. The cathedral is yet another one that's dedicated to St. George!
By now (mid afternoon) we were getting weary, so we decided to make our way to Donauwörth, where Gill had booked a room for the night. Well, it was a suite, consisting of a living room and bathroom downstairs and an upstairs bedroom!
The town itself is a little bit nondescript. Gill chose the town as a staging post mainly because it was at a convenient distance between other places where she planned to break our journey. With hindsight we might have been better off stopping at Harburg, ten or so miles before Donauwörth, which seemed really attractive as we passed by. It did make me wonder if money changed hands to get Donauwörth listed officially as a Romantic Road town! However, we've probably been spoiled by some of the other towns we've seen, so maybe I'm being a bit unkind.
We decided to just have a gentle amble through the town before an early meal. Having humoured me by going along with German restaurants so far Gill suggested quite firmly that maybe we should have Italian tonight! Although we were really peckish as we sat down the Bruschetta, cooked vegetables, cold meat and seafood sharing plate that we ordered was as much as we could cope with!
We've now returned to the hotel and will shortly be going up to bed, quite literally!
Wednesday 6th August
Donauwörth to Landsberg am Lech
Another day, another road trip!
We had breakfast and set out really early. Having checked the map we'd decided that, on our way to Landsberg, we'd call in only at Augsburg and Friedberg. We had to stop and wait for 15-20 minutes on the way because the road ahead was closed while hundreds of cyclists rode past in no great hurry – quite irritating.
Another irritation is the surprisingly poor signage on the Romantic Road. In the days when this route was first conceived after WW2 it was probably reasonably easy to follow, but since then new autobahns and other major roads have been built that completely confuse SatNav.
So, for example, when setting out today from Donauwörth and putting in Landsberg as our destination, SatNav would have taken us between the two by the fastest route, i.e. major roads, when we just wanted to dawdle along the official (and quiet!) Romantic Road itself.
The trouble is that it's not a single road, and that the direction signs that are needed at each along the way aren't always there. The solution is to make a note of all the little settlements along the road and make sure that you hop from place to place without allowing SatNav to divert you.
We groped our way towards Augsburg as described above and saw some lovely countryside and villages. Augsburg has a population of over 270,000 and has been an important city ever since it was founded by the Romans. Mozart's father was born here, and Rococo architecture was so enthusiastically seized on here that it's known in Germany as 'Augsburg-style'.
That said, we parked and set off into the Old Town, found the Tourist Information Office and came to the conclusion that it wasn't nearly as magnetic an attraction as we'd expected. A subsequent check on Wikipedia showed that it'd been heavily damaged during 1944, with the city centre competely destroyed. Apparently it wasn't as carefully reconstructed as other towns and cities we've visited.
So, after little more than an hour we were back in our car and heading for Friedeberg. This was only a short drive away, and nowadays is almost a suburb of Augsburg. Once again, it's a pretty enough small town, but not attractive enough to qualify for the 'Romantic' tag, in our opinion. Again we drove on after an hour.
We arrived in Landsberg-am-Lech at 3pm and checked into our hotel straight away. Our room is OK, but nothing very special, but the town makes up for this. The good bit is that the hotel is right in the cente of this small town, and so walking anywhere takes less than ten minutes.
On first sight the place is very attractive, with the road running through an arch and into a cobbled square surrounded by attractive Middle Ages buildings and with the River Lech racing past over a fairly dramatic weir. For most of our time walking around the sky was bright blue and the sun was hot, so our photos should come out nicely.
The town was the site of the prison where Adolf Hitler was incarcerated in 1924 following the failed Nazi putsch in Munich in 1924, and was also strongly associated with The Hitler Youth movement. This makes it all the more clear why the Germans of my parents' generation wanted to forget all about the war and why we should applaud the efforts being made in Nuremberg to educate their children and grandchildren about what really happened in the 1930s and 1940s.
I remember that, back in the 1990s, when the German parents of the student with whom I'd done an exchange visit in Berlin in 1968 came to visit London, the Leni Riefenstahl film documentary about the 1934 Nazi Part Congress in Nuremberg (Triumph of the Will) was shown on the BBC. I'd seen it long before when doing my degree, but it had been banned in Germany after the war and neither Werner nor Gisela had ever seen it themselves. Maybe it was seen as such good propaganda that post-war transmission couldn't be risked.
So, in our journey southwards, deeper and deeper into Bavaria, we seem to have continually stumbled over the misery caused by warfare for at least 500 years, with various minor conflicts between rival towns and military leaders, the Catholic/Protestant Thirty Years War and the epicentre of the birth and rapid growth of Nazism. It's clearer now why accounts had to be settled in Nuremberg with the War Crimes trials and the execution of the Nazi leadership, and why the documentation centre that we saw last week is so important, even today.
Tomorrow we're off again, this time to Füssen, which is close to the Austrian border. We're staying there for two nights before flying home on Saturday afternoon. We really do seem to have been away for such a long time, are we're already forgetting the details of the early part of our holiday. That's why it's really good to have these notes to look back on later.
Thursday 7th August
Landsberg am Lech to Füssen
Gill reasoned that we should push on today in order to get to Neuschwanstein Castle as early as possible, so we had an early breakfast and set off southwards again.
This time we weren't quite so picky about leaving the official Romantic Road if the faster road was nearby. In fact, Gill's research on-line last night had revealed that some of the towns along the way were really not worth visiting, as they had only a nice church or even a spa to attract passing tourists. So, we stopped only at Steingaden, which was said to have a magnificent Rococo church.
We parked and entered the church grounds through its cemetery. A fresh grave was being dug by machine amongst other graves immediately around it, and the 94 year old who was to occupy it was waiting in her coffin in the open chapel nearby. We hurried by.
The church interior was amazing, even by the high standards we've seen during our trip. Rococo strikes me as 'Baroque with knobs on', because of its self-confident flourishes and - dare one say? - its artistic excesses. Maybe Rococo developed as an exuberant answer to the more staid and sombre architectural style that arrived with the Reformation.
We set off again, heading for Hohenschwangau which is where the ticket office for the two castles (Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein) is located. During our drive the roads had been quiet, empty even, but on the approach to Hohenschwangau it was as if a stone had been lifted and ants were milling about.
A huge number of cars were already parked and more were pouring in alongside us. When we found the end of the queue for the ticket office we were dismayed at how many people were in front of us. When we discovered that even when we reached the front of the queue (it was now 10.45am) the earliest we could expect to enter the castle was between 4pm and 5pm. We decided to leave and try again tomorrow.
We drove the five kilometers into Füssen and killed an hour or so before deciding that we should try checking in – it was still only about midday. Luckily, our room was ready and we could use the hotel car park.
'Hotel Sonne' is really nice. It's fairly modern and a very friendly place. The receptionist dealt with everything even before we could ask for it, which included free Wi-Fi for as many devices as we cared to connect – the previous two hotels insisted on an ID and password for each computer, phone, tablet etc. and even then the signal was so weak that we gave up and relied on the Wi-Fi signal from my phone.
The receptionist also arranged a massage for Gill tomorrow afternoon and even secured us a priority booking for Neuschwanstein Castle at 9.55am tomorrow – result! Another early breakfast, though.
We went for a wander around the town and found it a really nice place, even if it has very few genuinely old buildings. We made our way the the 'Hohes Schloss' that overlooks the town and visited the art gallery within. We even made our way up three steep flights of stairs to the top of the tower that looms over even the castle and that has fabulous views over the town, the River Lech and the lake beyond. We're really glad to be here for two nights as both the hotel and the town are lovely.
Once again, we're exhausted. We hadn't expected a river cruise and a driving holiday to be so arduous – maybe it's Anno Domini at work ;o)
Friday 8th August
By 8.30am we'd had breakfast, driven to Hohenschwangau, queued briefly at the ticket office and picked up our tickets. We then took a coach ride up to the drop-off point that is slightly higher than Neuschwanstein Castle.
High in the mountains behind the castle there is a wrought-iron bridge over a huge drop from which you get the most amazing view down over the castle and the lowlands beyond. This bridge was built in the 19th century and doesn't look altogether trustworthy – certainly not to Gill, anyway! The walking surface is wooden planking, and the gaps between the boards are a bit unsettling. I had to escort Gill back to safety, and I wasn'r exactly comfy myself – below the bridge there was a mountain torrent rushing downhill far below. But the discomfort was worth it for the utterly amazing view, especially with today's almost cloudless clear blue sky.
We then walked through the woods down to the castle where we had to wait for nearly an hour for our scheduled tour in English. The castle stands on a pinnacle of rock in a ravine in the mountains. It was commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1869 when he was only 24 years old. He is said to have seen Neuschwanstein as a romantic interpretation of the Middle Ages and also the musical mythology of his friend Richard Wagner.
The interior is full of references to Arthurian legend, with Parcifal, Lohengrin and the Holy Grail featuring prominently. There are allegorical wall and ceiling paintings throughout, and their style is a little reminiscent of England's Pre-Raphaelites. It really is an embodiment of an 'idée fixe' – apparently, Ludwig saw himself as Lohengrin and Wagner egged him on. In fact, set designers who had worked on the stage productions of Tannhauser and Lohengrin were invited to contribute to the design and decoration of the castle.
The building is a glorious obsession come to life. However, during the building of the castle there was constant 'scope creep', where Ludwig, expensively, kept changing his mind on detail. In 1886 he asked for credit to continue with the building work and this was denied. In fact, his relentless determination to carry on was judged to be madness and the government of Bavaria deposed him and put him under supervision. Only a few days later he and his doctor were found drowned in Lake Starnberg in highly suspicious circumstances that have never been clarified.
His 'madness' has been disputed by many ever since the 1880s. However, when we saw the very realistic 'grotto', complete with stalactites and stalagmites, that he'd had built in his private apartments Gill said, 'He was mad', and it seemed that this had to have been the case.
The tour took an hour and was thoroughly enjoyable. When we left the castle we took a horse-drawn carriage back down the mountain, then drove back into Füssen. We went to the nearby lake and took a one hour sightseeing trip by boat in glorious sunshine, then stopped at a lakeside restaurant for liquid refreshment.
This evening we went to the restaurant rated at No. 1 by TripAdvisor. The attraction was that it served a wider range of dishes than just traditional German ones. For the first time this holiday Gill didn't have fish – instead she had 'Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce, gratinated potatoes and vegetables'. I had a traditional Bavarian dish of 'Smoked Pork Chop, Sausage, Roast Meat, Sauerkraut, Cheese Dumplings, Meatloaf, Boiled Potatoes and Gravy' - very filling!
We'd just sat down and the waiter brought the menus to the table. He started to go through the day's specials, in German. I said to him, in German, that I was happy with speaking German but that my wife didn't speak it. 'What is your mother tongue?', he asked, in German. Result! He hadn't known that I was English!!
After desserts, for the second night in a row, we felt we'd eaten too much, so we walked around this lovely little town for a while before returning to our excellent hotel. Tomorrow we set out for Munich airport on the final leg of this wonderful holiday, perhaps calling somewhere on the way.
Saturday 9th August
Back home via Munich
Gill had booked herself into a local hairdresser's for 10am, which meant that we could afford ourselves a leisurely start to the day.
'Hotel Sonne' is really a nice place, and is situated right in the centre of Füssen. The staff are friendly and incredibly obliging, the restaurant is quite good for a hotel restaurant and our room is comfy. Possibly the best bit, at least for Gill, is that they have one of those automatic machines that make fresh orange juice before your very eyes.
There's a hopper of oranges on the top, and when you turn the tap it kicks into action, automatically halving the oranges and then squeezing the juice out. The empty skins are ejected into waste bins on either side. It was surprising how many oranges it took to fill a small glass, but the results were well worth it! Even I loved it, and I'm more of an apple juice person.
We checked out at about 11am and set off for Munich airport. We had a little time to spare, so allowed ourselves a slight diversion to Oberammergau. Having been mostly sunny for the past week today the weather turned rainy, and when we got out for a 30 minute look around it was raining gently the whole time.
Oberammergau is really a pretty little place, and perhaps if we'd known more about it we might have planned to spend a night there. In the event all we did was to spend a bit more money in one of those Christmas shops that seem so common in Bavaria.
As soon as we set out again the rain became torrential, which made half of the drive to Munich quite unpleasant. When we got to the airport I had to fill the tank before returning the car. Amazingly, the tank was still a quarter full even after having driven 676 kilometers, and it cost only a little over €60 to fill it up.
Our flight back to Heathrow took only 90 minutes, our taxi was waiting for us as we emerged into Arrivals and we were home just after 7pm. The automatic watering system that I'd put into the garden had kept nearly everything in good condition, but I think I'll turn the system down a bit before we go away again next weekend, as the soil looked really quite wet in places!
So, a great holiday spent in some wonderful towns and countryside. Architecture to boggle at, history that made us realise how much misery the English had been spared by not being as easily invaded and occupied as was the case through most of central Europe and food and culture that I, at least, feel so at home with. I've suggested to Gill that maybe next year we should fly to Dresden, hire a car and then drive westwards across the southern section of what used to be East Germany.
At any rate, I suspect that we'll go back one day to gorgeous Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber. Anyone fancy coming with us? :o)
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