Back in March, after yet another fabulous vacation tour was cancelled, to keep our sanity, Dave and I booked a trip to Europe to travel along the Rhine and visit Christmas Markets 2021, with a fair amount of history mixed in.
We left on Thanksgiving Day and landed in Zurich, Switzerland, then transferred to Interlaken for a couple days prior to joining the Christmas Markets river cruise.
We were pooped from travel, and immediately felt our spirits lifting with a light snowfall outside and a festive tree inside along with holiday decorations throughout the hotel.
The hotel was the Victoria Jungfrau which takes its name from Queen Victoria and the name of the mountain visible from the front of the hotel.
Interlaken means 'the land between lakes' and there are two large lakes on either side of the city, but running through the city is the Aare River
We experienced our first Christmas Market in the nearby town of Brienz, a 15 minute train ride away.
Switzerland has postcard-perfect scenery at every turn. Alpine villages with very old half-timbered houses in the smaller villages that are surrounded by mountains.
On the way to Basel where we would board the river cruise, we made a quick stop in Bern. Bern is the capital of Switzerland and its name means 'bear.'
If you look closely on the side of this building you can barely make out the word 'chocolate' and maybe the beginning of the word 'Lindt' - this the first Lindt Chocolate Factory!
If you're in a large European city, you're likely going to encounter a large Gothic cathedral, which, of course, was the case in Bern.
This is a detail of the tympanum. Our city guide pointed out that the figures in the inner-most triangle on the left are examples of the pious--those who will be rewarded with eternal life. On the right are the corrupt and evil people - or as Dave interjected, the 'fun' people - who, we are reminded by the display, will be condemned for eternity.
Since we are big about taking vacations where we learn stuff, we like to take organized tours that include a city guide at each location we visit. Jessica was our local expert for our too-short stay in Switzerland.
Most of the city guides are from the local area; Jessica is originally from California, which was really nice because, she 'gets' us!
After Bern, we went on to Basel where we boarded the river cruise ship and began our journey down the Rhine.
Our first stop was Freiburg. It seemed that looking down to the pavement was where some of the really interesting stuff was. Just look at this manhole cover!
The interior of the Gothic cathedral in Freiburg.
For this trip, we were prepared to expect adjustments to our schedule due to the pandemic. The night we boarded the ship, we learned the the Christmas Markets in Freiburg were closed.
Instead of visiting market booths, our city guide lead us to some tasty treats in the farmers markets which were, strangely enough, open!
We sampled cider, locally-made sausages, and güglehopf, a traditional sweet, bread-like cake made in the shape of a crown. All were delicious!
More looking down in Freiburg. Many of the sidewalks had elaborate mosaics, many much more elaborate than the one on the left, below. The symbols and shapes indicate the type of business found at this address.
The gold plates on the right are found throughout Europe. They are about 3-4" square and mark the residences from which Jewish people were removed to concentration camps. This couple who lived at this location in Freiburg were killed at Auschwitz in 1944.
On to Strasbourg, France. The photo below on the left was taken from the moving bus. A stork nest is at the top of the tree, one of many along this street. The legend says that if you leave a cube of sugar for the stork on your window sill, 9 months later the stork will return with the gift of a newborn baby (Is that how it works??)
Strasbourg is also the home of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament. The flags represent the member nations.
Because of its location along the Rhine, the city changed its national affiliation four times between French and German within the last century. Quite disruptive.
The entire city is decorated with festive lights along every street. Notice masks being worn, everywhere, even outdoors!
The buildings on the left below are among the oldest in the city, You can see the windows on the lower level of the tan-ish building are decorated with snowmen. Decorations like these were EVERYwhere in Strasbourg. In the background, you can see the Cathedral.
Inside the cathedral (photo on the right) is the elaborate astronomical clock. We stayed and watched as two quarter-hour progressions unfolded with activity in several different parts of the clock.
Moving on. Heidelberg Palace is a ruin above the city of Heidelberg.
Under normal circumstances, taking a photo like the one on the right would be unheard of! Normally the palace grounds are filled with visitors and tour groups.
From the Palace, the city of Heidelberg below. The Christmas Markets here were open, however, they would close the next day after our visit due to the pandemic. You could sense a feeling of sadness over the city.
Sweet shop in Heidelberg.
(How do I know? Well . . )
Rüdesheim's claim to fame is wine! We visited a Benedictine Monastery - wine production is their main source of income. Perhaps this is where I should mention that we needed to buy an extra suitcase for the trip home. A-hem! At the wine tasting that day, we bought a couple of bottles of Rhine wine to bring home with us - not enough room left to pack them!
Our river cruise ship.
The amazing city of Cologne (or Köln) with its massive Gothic cathedral. Once again, look down at the amazing mosaics on the floor inside the cathedral. I see all kinds of quilt patterns in there!
We had a full day in Cologne and took advantage of the local lunch options rather than returning to the ship. Cologne has its own brand of local beer that we had to try (normally I'm more of a wine drinker, but in Germany, ya gotta do what ya gotta do). I had the sausage with sauerkraut and mashed. Dave had the 'slaughter' plate. Let's just say it wasn't the vegetarian lunch option.
Perhaps our favorite stop was Aachen (pronounced ahh-KEN). This town dates to Charlemagne (the first Holy Roman Emperor), 8th/9th century. Whereas nearly every city we visited had some formula of gingerbread for the holiday season, Aachen's unique recipe (usually rectangular shaped), stacked below left, is produced year-round.
Once again, some of the most interesting stuff is in the pavement. On the right, below is Charlemagne's mark. He was not literate and would 'sign' his approval by striking through his mark on the page.
The center, or octagon shaped core of the Aachen Cathedral, dates to the 8th century. The additional structures on either side were added later.
Much of the cathedral, as is true of many German landmarks, was greatly damaged by allied bombing campaigns during WWII.
Inside, the rather plain chair is the Throne of Charlemagne, used for the coronation of German royalty from the 8th century all the way to 1531 (left below). The chapel on the right (below) whose design was inspired by St. Chapelle in Paris holds two reliquaries - one containing artifacts from Mary's life and the one shown at the bottom of the photo containing some of Charlemagne's remains.
After our excursion to Aachen, we left the Rhine behind us and traveled by train to Berlin. Below left, the iconic Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was severely damaged during WWII, but it was stabilized and preserved as a symbol of peace. A portion of the Berlin Wall (right) that remains standing as a symbol of Germany's reunification following the fall of Communism in Germany and much of Europe in the late 20th century.
The Brandenburg Gate, on the right in the photo on the right.
The US embassy is on the left, the whitish building facing the square (not the one straight on) - you can see the US flag at half-staff in front of the building, honoring the passing of Senator Bob Dole.
For our two days in Berlin, we benefitted from the assistance of a tour director (Anya, below left) and city guide (Karin, below right). Anya is from East Germany, and Karin is from West Germany. They shared fascinating perspectives of life before unification.
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.
As you walk toward the center of this huge memorial, the ground dips downward gradually and the blocks become larger. You feel as if you're being swallowed by your surroundings. As you ascend back up through the the memorial, you gain a feeling of freedom.
With the exception of the locations whose Christmas Markets were closed, all of our stops included festive markets mixed in with the city tours and historical anecdotes. The Markets are a bit like upscale craft shows, each with a huge variety of foods, drink, and gift items, all made locally. They are a uniquely Europe thing, I think, and quite fun.
On our final day of the trip, we visited one of the museums on Museum Island in Berlin. Then, after two weeks away, it was time to put Europe in the 'rear view' and head back home.
Some may say that we were foolish to travel to Europe with all the warnings and changing circumstances surrounding the pandemic. We had those thoughts, too, and we agonized over our final decision to go, made literally hours before take off.
In the end, I'm glad we decided to go. Many protocols were in place, and we felt safe. Everyone on the trip had to be tested multiple times as we arrived at various venues, and we were tested prior to returning home by plane. Medical (not cloth) masks and proof of vaccination were required (and enforced) at all indoor venues, restaurants, and in all public places on the ship and in transit, and in some cases outdoors as well.
A fair warning to anyone considering this kind of trip right now. Be flexible and be informed as circumstances and requirements change quickly. And be prepared to budget for tests - for us it was as much as $30-$35 for each test (per person).
We did and saw a LOT on this trip, but I'm not sure that the river cruise format is for us. The days when we had the option to spend the day and explore at one location were the absolute best. Many days we were tied to the ship's schedule and transfers by bus to and from the city centers.
I can't wait to go back to Europe again and spend more time exploring!
Cologne has a charming local story about elves that did all the work for the village crafts people while the crafts people could spend their time at leisure. Then the tailor's wife got curious about how all this work was getting done amidst all the sleeping. She set a trap and the elves were found out. After that, the elves, angry that their cover was blown, left the city of Cologne, and now all the crafts people have to work and can't spend their days at leisure.
As long as they're not in Cologne anymore, I sure wish those elves would come here and finish decorating my house for the holidays!
I hope you've enjoyed this little personal travel recap. Back to the business of stitching . . .