In the early 1980s I commanded a National Guard unit that was the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) company for the US VII Corps in Germany. Over the years I took several trips to Germany for conferences and war planning and participated in two Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) exercises. I loved traveling through the country and talking with the locals and always wanted to return. Finally, after over 35 years, we did it.
We traveled with Viking River Cruises from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. From there we traveled on our own to Fussen, Salzburg, Munich, Rothenburg ob de Tauber, and Berlin.
We had heard about the Ice Bar in Amsterdam from a friend and stumbled across a coupon for it, combined with a canal cruise and we jumped on it. The weather had not been nice, a lot of rain off and on throughout the day but fortunately it was clear while we took the cruise. Two things stood out as highlights of the cruise. The number of people that live in boats moored in the canals and that many of the buildings were leaning as their foundations settled into the marsh land that Amsterdam was built on.
The Ice Bar is literally the coolest bar in Amsterdam. When we entered the bar our virtual host “Willem Barentsz” welcomed us via a video into his world as a Dutch explorer. He invited us to experience the feeling of living on his ship, the Mercury, in 1596, survive the hardships of the extreme cold and be brave enough when the ship becomes stranded on the island of Nova Zembla.
Inside the Amsterdam Icebar we found two bars. In first, the lounge, we were given three coins, two gold and one silver. The gold coins were used inside the Ice Bar, and the silver one for a cocktail in the normal lounge to enjoy while we warmed up. At the back of the lounge was the entrance to the second bar, the Icebar. Here we were given a thermal coat and gloves to keep us warm at -10 degrees Celsius! Inside we were surrounded by a staggering 60 tons of natural ice, sculpted into the form of a real bar. The furniture, the walls, the art – everything was made of ice! State-of-the-art light effects gave the Icebar all the colors you can think of. Our drinks were served in a glass… made of ice, of course! It was certainly the most unique bar we have ever visited.
The next morning we walked to the Anne Frank House. If you do this make sure you get tickets online ahead of time as time slots fill quickly. While I had never read the “Diary of Anne Frank,” I was familiar with the story. Anne’s father, Otto, owned and operated a business in the front of the building and he turned the back of the building into the “secret annex.” I always imagined the family hiding in an attic, but it was actually three floors behind hidden doors. There were two families and one friend hidden in the annex and they lived there for two years before they were betrayed and captured by the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine how eight people could exist in such close quarters, not being able to walk around, use the toilets, or pour water down a drain during the day for fear of being heard.
No one knows who betrayed the families. With the exception of Otto Frank, all of them died in the concentration camps. After the war Otto was given Anne’s diary by a neighbor and he had it published. This was an amazing place to visit and one we will not soon forget.
Our stop in Cologne was a unique blending of new and old. First we saw the cathedral. It is a massive structure and the building of it spanned, not decades, but centuries. The cathedrals of Europe are so huge that it was not unusual to take hundreds of years for them to be built.
As in most of the cathedrals we visited there was a central aisle and naves on either side. The naves were typically decorated with paintings or wood carvings of the cruxification. The most unique thing about the Cologne cathedral is the ark that the church claims holds the remains of the three Wise Men (Magi). The church has performed DNA testing on the remains and believes they have sufficient proof to make this claim.
While touring another part of the city we found that the excavated remains of the residence of the Roman governor, the Praetorium, were discovered on the site of the current city hall. An earthquake had destroyed the residence and in digging the foundation for the city hall, it was uncovered. Archeologists excavated the site and once the archeological work was completed they put a roof on it and built the city hall on top of it. This is probably the most unique archeological site I have ever visited.
An interesting aside is that civil weddings are often conducted at city hall on Saturdays. We saw one wedding party after another come to the city hall for their wedding and then they would hold the reception in the square outside of city hall. Our guide told us that passersby are sometimes invited to join in the festivities. We stopped to listen to a wedding party sing to the new couple, but we weren’t invited to join them.
During our time in Europe we saw more cathedrals than ever before. Being an American gives one a rather limited view of history. Yes, we have studied it, but until you are looking at it you don’t have an appreciation for how young our own country is. For example, construction of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France was begun in 1015, almost 500 years before Columbus landed in America.
I struggled to comprehend the amount of time it took to construct these huge houses of worship. Using the cathedral in Strasbourg as an example, while construction began in 1015, it was not completed until 1439 – 424 years. Can you imagine being on the board of trustees for your church and trying to get approval for a building program that would last for more than 400 years?
After seeing so many cathedrals and churches they started looking very similar, but each had their own unique features. For example, the cathedral in Heidelberg was used by both Catholics and Protestants and each faith had their own entrance.
Also unique, in the Black Forest local farmers didn’t have the time to attend religious services at large central churches so they built their own small chapels on their land so they could worship whenever they had some time.
Near Koblenz we toured the Marksburg Castle. This was one of many castles we would see on the Middle Rhine. The Marksburg Castle was built to protect the silver mines in the area, but the royalty of the castle would also maintain the tow paths on the Rhine to pull boats upriver through the rapids and would collect tolls from boats traveling upriver.
The fortress was used for protection rather than as a residence for royal families. Consequently it is smaller than many of the other castles we saw and had, at the most 30-40 people living there. Of the forty hill castles between Mainz and Koblenz, the Marksburg was the only one which was never destroyed.
Our final stop before the cruise ended was the small town of Breisach. From here we took a bus ride into the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). The Black Forest is so named because it is so thickly forested that little light penetrates to the forest floor. Legend has it that the Romans called it the black forest because they were afraid of the monsters they thought lived in such a mysterious looking place. Maybe it’s true, but who knows?
We stopped at Hofgut Sternen, the Black Forest Village. I joined a group going on a short hike in the Ravenna Gorge and Pat watched Cuckoo Clock building and a glass blowing demonstration. I wouldn’t say that the Black Forest is any different from any other forest I have hiked in, but it was fun. The mountain streams were beautiful to see and it was interesting to see how the water power was harnessed to power a mill. I got back to Hofgut Sternen in time to watch a demonstration of how to make an authentic Black Forest cake. I swear the baker doing the demonstration must have been a comedian on the side.
We ended our cruise in Basal, Switzerland. The cruise was a great introduction to Europe and our Viking crew did an outstanding job. I’d be happy to recommend Viking Cruises to anyone who wants to do a river cruise.