Starting in the middle of the 1600’s, European families of wealth and status would send their sons on a tour of Europe. The objective was to expose their children to great works of art and architecture and other families of importance.
In many cases, it also exposed them to a wide selection of socially transmitted diseases, which made certain parts of the tour more exciting, and other parts um less enjoyable.
The tour could last for months or for years. And if you had the budget, you would commission a painting of yourself standing amid ancient works of art. It was an early form of “selfie”.
During the second half of the 1800s Americans started sending their kids. And when transatlantic ships and European railroads made the tour easier and less expensive the middle class joined in.
These days, the most convenient way to take the tour is on a river cruise.
Modern river cruising in Europe began in 1992, with the opening of the Main-Danube Canal. In terms of engineering it was an extraordinary achievement.
The canal itself runs for 106 miles, and connects to an additional 2,000 miles of river.
Suddenly, ships could travel from Amsterdam to Budapest from the North Sea to the Black Sea. And tourists could make those trips in the comfort of specially designed river cruisers.
Basically, a European river cruiser is a floating hotel. They usually have about 70 to 80 cabins. Some are more luxurious than others, but they all offer the convenience of getting on board, unpacking only once, and having your hotel travel from location to location.
That’s an important feature for me. For some reason, I have always disliked packing and unpacking. I know how to do it, and I do it well, but I don’t enjoy it. I feel the same way about flossing. To get on a river cruiser, unpack only once and not see my luggage until the trip is over is really cool.
I learned about river cruising in 2005, when the Public Television Station in New Jersey asked me to host a river cruise to help raise funds for the station. Since then I have hosted cruises for dozens of stations all across the United States. In order to learn as much as I can about river cruising, I’ve used a number of different cruise companies.
The cruise I’m testing this time was organized by Scenic.
Our cruise started in Basel, Switzerland and we sailed along the Rhine to Amsterdam. The town of Basel is at a point where Switzerland, Germany and France come together. It marks the spot were the Rhine becomes a navigable river.
Its citizens are polite, organized and efficient. They speak Swiss-German, have a deep respect for their history and tend to lead lives that are rather conservative.
But that’s only half the story. On the Monday morning after Ash Wednesday, tens of thousands of people gather in the streets. At exactly 4 AM, the lights of the city go out. And huge lanterns go on.
Basel's annual Fasnacht Festival has begun. Each lantern belongs to a group who built it in order to express their thoughts on a specific subject. Both positive and negative feelings are presented.
The festival continues for three days. Like all European festivals that mark the beginning of Lent, Basel's Fasnacht has its roots in ancient celebrations that gave people with less power the opportunity to comment on people with more power. Fasnacht is actually an excellent symbol for Basel, because along with it’s conservative Swiss German structure, it also has a long history of being intellectual, creative, and liberal.
This is Basel’s Town Hall, which was built in the early 1500s in a style that is known as late Burgundian Gothic. You can tell it's Gothic, because the arches are pointed at the top rather than round. You can tell it's Burgundian because it's like the buildings in the Burgundy area of France. They're brightly colored and covered with painted decoration.
It's late, because the guys who built it didn't get here until the Burgundian period was almost over.
Inside there is a courtyard with a statue of Plancus, a Roman general who got here early. He arrived in 44 BC and is given credit for founding the city.
Next to Plancus is a fresco that shows Basel's acceptance into the Swiss Confederation.
The stained glass windows in the council chamber represent the states that were part of Switzerland in 1501, which was the year that Basel joined the Confederation. Basel's window shows King Henry II who is always presented with the cathedral in his left hand because he put up the money to build it.
I was told that during the 1500’s, this room was Basel's divorce court and if you had a complaint about your spouse, you came here and registered it with the authorities.
What's your problem?
My spouse and I (sniffles) have irreconcilable differences!
Thats not gonna be a valid reason for over 500 years. Get over it.
The carvings on the walls were put there to remind everyone that people are not perfect, as if anyone needed reminding.
Just up the hill is Basel's cathedral. The oldest part of the building dates to the 900’s, but most of it was put up during the middle of the 14th century.
It's made of red stone and has two gothic towers. Near the entrance,are two statues designed to send a warning. One is the worldly prince, charming up front, but look behind and you will see that he is covered with evil serpents and symbols the of corruption. He was the prototype for some of our present day politicians.
Standing beside the worldly prince is the foolish virgin, unable to see the danger or resist the seducer, as valid a message today as it was 500 years ago.
The Rhine river divides the city of Basel into little Basel and Big Basel. You can go from one side to the other on one of the bridges, but the most interesting way to cross the Rhine is on a ferry. The idea of having a ferry service came from the chairman of the arts society, who thought it would be a good way to raise money for the group’s exhibition space. His first ferry went into operation in the middle of the 1800’s and was an immediate success, both in terms of public use and as a money maker for the society. Today there are four ferries crossing up and back, and they utilize the river itself as a source of power. The front of the boat has a rod that is connected to a cable, the cable runs across the river from one bank to the other. a lever can position the cable on one side of the boat, or the other. The ferry moves in relation to the cable. The force of the current pushes the boat in the direction it’s pointing, but the lines of the cable keep the boat from going down stream and redirects it’s force so the boat just goes across to the other side. It uses the natural energy of the river, which is perpetually available and free. When one of the large barges comes down the Rhine, the ferryman directs the boat into the current. which keeps it one place,or he can turn it backwards towards the other side. The ferryman has a role in the mythology in almost every society. He takes you from where you are to where you must go. both physically and mentally.
Ferryman: For 3 persons is 4.80
Burt: Will you settle for 5?
Ferryman: Thank You
Burt: I got a deal
It was a ferryman that took the ancient Greeks between life in this world and death in the underworld. It was a ferryman who took Buddha to the place of greater understanding. Ferryman often give travelers important advice.
Ferryman: Eat at the Saffron House, you will like it
Burt: Eat at the Saffron House huh? I wonder what he meant by that. was he using saffron as a symbol for self indulgence? It’s uh, it’s expensive stuff. Or was he telling me to work harder? Saffron’s very difficult to harvest. Or was he just telling me to have lunch in the saffron house? You’ll never know with ferrymen. The waters that give birth to the Rhine pour out of the Swiss Alps. They flow into Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands.
They run for over 800 miles and finally empty out into the North Sea.
The Rhine connects with dozens of other rivers and canals throughout Europe forming a giant network. You can get to Berlin, Paris even Provence in the south of France on these rivers.
For two thousand years, the Rhine has been a primary transportation route between southern and northern Europe. It was where people came together to trade their stuff. Eventually they started building settlements and became the small towns and villages that presently line the river.
Some of those villages became major cities like Amsterdam, Basel, Strasbourg, and Cologne.
During the 1st century BC, the Romans moved in and built military roads and fortresses. The ancient Romans understood the commercial value of the Rhine and maintained a military fleet to protect its trading boats.
The area became the frontier for the Roman Empire. They believed that the Rhine is where civilization ended and on the other side it was inhabited by wild Germanic tribes, mythical beasts, and the ancestors of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And to their credit, it was the Romans who introduced wine making to the area.
Traditionally Rhine ships are long and sit low in the water. They are long because they can’t be wide, the river’s too narrow. and the locks through which the ships pass are even narrower. Rhine ships sit low in the water because they are not worried about ocean waves and heavy seas. Sea sickness is not a concern on river cruises.
Burt: What makes river cruising so attractive these days?
Lucas: The first thing I would mention is the intimacy on board with only 169 guests and by the end of the 2nd or 3rd day you pretty much know everybody. It’s also very exciting because there is always something too see. It’s like a film without the cut.
Burt: Film without a cut.
Lucas: It’s very relaxing. It’s decelerating and you can almost communicate with people on shore when they see the ships passing by they are happy waving at you or maybe shouting something. It gives that kind of interaction that you know feeling makes you feel you are in a different country
When I first started to raise funds for our PBS stations by hosting river cruises, I was very focused on getting the lowest base price for all of us traveling together, but that turned out to not be a great idea because things were always aded on. I remember paying for wine at lunch, free at dinner but it cost at lunch. There were special excursions fees. Tips on the boat, tips off the boat. It really began to add up.
These days, I prefer cruises that are all inclusive. I find it extremely frustrating to budget a trip and then find that there are hundreds of dollars of additional expenses.
For the first time in many years I went bike riding, which was particularly significant to two of my children.
One of my older kids lives in Vietnam, grows a specific type of bamboo and uses it to make bikes
In fact my youngest son didn’t even know that I could ride a bike and when the ride was over, he called my wife to say “Hey! Dad can ride a bike.”
But out of respect, he didn’t mention that the bike was specially designed for this ship and contained an electric motor, which you can kick on if you needed it and I needed it.
The power is hidden, you don’t even know where it comes from and look it was designed in honor of Lance Armstrong.
The Rhine Gorge is the most picturesque part of the river. It runs for about forty miles and has been declared a World Heritage Site.
There are about 40 hilltop castles on this part of the Rhine, with some dating back to the 10th century. A well-placed castle was a great source of income because with the castle came a toll both.
For centuries the romantic castles belonged to a bunch of the nastiest guys in Europe. They were known as the Teutonic knights and they considered themselves independent rulers. You think the guys at the Internal Revenue Service can be frustrating, forget it. If you didn’t pay the tax that the Teutonic knights demanded they took your ship and tossed you into the river.
But wait, there’s more bad news. There’s a part of the river where the soft clay banks change to hard sandstone and that narrows the river to a maximum width of 100 yards and a maximum depth of 20 feet.
This is the home turf of the Lorelei. The legend of the Lorelei tells of a fantastically beautiful woman, with a great voice, and a considerable fortune, which was left to her by her dearly departed husband the Count de Monet.
As you may recall, the Count originated the risk management techniques and mortgage backed securities that led to the French Revolution.
Anyway, Lorelei would sit on top of a rock about 400 feet above the river and sing.
The song she sang sounded a lot like something from the Stones, not the river, the rock group.
The song was so enchanting, that it totally distracted the boatmen, they lost control of their craft and crashed into the stones.
The truth of the matter, is that part of the river was quite dangerous and not every boatman could handle it. They often lost control of their vessel and destroyed their boss’s cargo. Lorelei was a great excuse.
You know that the story of the Lorelei is just a legend, but our captain, being the great seaman that he is, takes no chances, and has tested a number of backup systems.
Burt: You protect yourself against the Lorelei?
Captain: Yes of course. we have protection always on.
Burt: That works?
That’s the kind of attention to detail I like. And it doesn’t hurt to have a captain with a good sense of humor.
These days, the castles just aren’t what they used to be. What with the increasing cost of liability insurance and the difficulty in getting good help, most of the castles have been abandoned and stand as picturesque ruins.
During the night we sailed to Koblenz, Germany. In the year 9 B.C. the ancient Romans set up a camp at the spot where the Rhine river meets the Mosel river. The point where two or more rivers meet is known as a confluence. In latin the word is confluentes, which is what the Romans called their settlement. Over the years the name got shortened to Kolbenz. Koblenz was the home of an archbishop and a prince elector who selected the emperor. As arch bishop he had to defend himself against the devil. And as prince elector he had defend himself against the princes who wanted his land. He had a lot of defending to do, and he made Koblenz his stronghold. Which is why the city has so many defensive castles. Today Koblenz is the cultural and economic center of Germany’s central Rhine valley. The city has a number of bizarre statues. This statue of a young boy looks perfectly normal; however, every two minutes a stream of water shoots from his mouth and drenches unsuspecting viewers. They also have a town clock with a face that sticks it’s tongue out on the hour. It’s all quite strange because the people of Koblenz are quite welcoming, must be a problem with their sculptors You may have noticed that this program has a number of great aerial shots. In the old days, we would have needed a helicopter to get that kind of footage. It was expensive, time consuming, not always dependable and on two occasions I thought I was going to die.
Right after our son Nicholas was born, my wife announced the end of my career as an assistant helicopter cameraman. She said, “No more of that helicopter expletive deleted.” She is a wonderful woman with a very precise way of expressing herself.
Andy: So this is a..DJI
Burt: a cuisinart Blender, I recognize a blender when I see one.
Andy: This is a Drone. And it’s got a little GoPro camera on the bottom. So we are going to sit it right here. Stand back a little bit.
Andy: Ready for lift off. Fly it up and over to the other side of the lock. Can you see?
Andy: Pretty cool huh?
Andy: Burt I want you to keep an eye on the drone for me please
Andy: You are my spotter. Cause we want to fly safe
Burt: Well it looks like it’s pretty safe. Not being in it of course is the safest part
Andy: now back it up so we can see the locks gate on the other side, now what I’ll do is fly it forward
Burt: Is it going to deliver the books that I ordered from Amazon or not?
Burt: The whole things is actually a lot easier then I thought.
Andy: Bring it down a little bit
Burt: Can we send that out for pizza?
Burt: and don’t forget the extra cheese. And land it on the green patch?
Andy: Gonna catch it.
Burt: Catch it?
Voice off camera: Come on Burt you catch it
Burt: (chuckles) Bye! Awesome
Many of the houses in the small towns along the Rhine are made by building a frame of wood and filling in the wood spaces between the wood beams with clay, brickwork or rubble. The exterior and interior surfaces were usually covered with plaster.
It’s one of the world’s most environmentally responsible, ecologically friendly and aesthetically pleasing architectural styles and it was developed about a thousand years ago in northern Europe.
England, Denmark, Germany, and parts of France and Switzerland had lots of forests. Timber was in good supply but there was a shortage of stone and the skilled workmen needed to cut the stone.
Face it, if you were a skilled stone cutter you had all the work you could handle building a cathedral. And besides if you worked on a cathedral you might get better accommodations in the after life. You didn’t want to waste your time building a farmers house.
A half-timbered house had many advantages. At the time the basic building material was a tree or a tree stump. All the work was done by hand. The tools were axes and knives and hand powered drills.
A farmer could gradually put the frame together, fill in the walls and end up with a structure capable of handling a great deal of weight with very little of the inside space squandered on internal supports.
And if you wanted to move the house, you could knock out the plaster between the wooden frame, move the beams to a new location, re-erect them, and fill in the space between the beams with new clay. It was a relatively easy process and if your home wasn’t subjected to a credit default swap, you could probably keep your original mortgage.
Well, that’s Cruising the Rhine Part One. I hope you’ll join us for Part Two.
For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.