Travels & Traditions: Cruising The Rhine - Part Two - #1404


In part one of this program, I pointed out that river cruising in Europe is becoming more and more popular and the reasons people like it. On a river cruise you get on board, unpack and don’t see your suitcases again until the cruise is over. Unpacking only once is very convenient. The ship sails from town to town; you get to see everything important without moving from hotel to hotel.

I started hosting European River Cruises to raise funds for our public television stations. I’ve hosted over 30 cruises. And I’m still hosting them. I think that anything that any of us can do to help raise funds for public television is a step in the right direction.

The cruise we’re on is run by Scenic, it started in Basel, Switzerland and sailed on the Rhine to Amsterdam. The stretch between Rudesheim and Koblenz is classic. It was the area that inspired the painters and poets of the Romantic period.

To a great extent the Romantic Period was a reaction against the industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. The Romantics were saying, enough with the science and technology, how about putting a little love in your life.

The Romantic Period was at its height during the first half of the 1800s. It was all about confronting nature and responding with intense emotion. It valued simple folk art and ancient customs. In Germany, nature was the thing and the Rhine Valley was the place. It was during this period that the Brothers Grimm wrote their Fairy Tales. And let me tell you, if you look at the original stories, they’re pretty grim. In the first edition of Snow White, it was the mother who was the evil one. Things only softened up later when the stepmother became the evil one. Same with Hansel and Gretel. And the visit by the Prince in Rapunsel, X rated.

As long as we are on the subject of updating things. Let’s talk about the Rhine itself. Originally, the Rhine was a very difficult river for sailors. Lots of shallow spots, tight turns, hidden rocks and long stretches between rest stops.
Nevertheless, the Rhine was an almost perfect natural highway for commercial and recreational traffic, so the authorities cleaned it up,and today it can handle more traffic than route 66.
Stop that.

For thousands of years, people have been using rivers as a primary means of transportation. It was usually easier and safer to move things on a river than on a road. But many rivers were too shallow or too narrow for anything but a small boat.
One way to solve that problem was to build a series of dams. The rivers got deeper and wider but then you had the problem of a river with different levels similar to a set of steps.

The invention that dealt with the steps is called a lock. And as we sailed up the Rhine we passed through a number of them.

There are two types of locks. One is called a caisson lock. A boat sails into a big box, the box is sealed and the box with the boat in it is moved up or down.
The other type of lock is the pound or fixed chambered lock. The ship sails in, the chamber is closed and water is pumped in or out to raise or lower the ship.
The Chinese invented an early form of lock but the system that we use today was developed by the Dutch in 1373.

It has a chamber with gates at both ends. A boat or boats go in, the gates are closed and the water is either pumped into the chamber to raise the boat or pumped out to lower the boat. When the water has reached the proper level one of the gates is opened and the boat sails out.

The earliest locks used in Europe were guillotine locks. The wall was held in a frame and raised or lowered like a guillotine. One day Leonardo da Vinci took a break from painting the Mona Lisa and invented a new and improved lock. Stop that.
The doors on Leonardo’s locks were shaped like a V so the pressure of the river actually helped keep them closed. In 1478 he built six of these locks and they were very successful.

When I started cruising the rivers, I began to understand how complex it is to design a hotel that floats and not only floats, but floats from city to city. Each of the suites has a butler, and these guys are constantly available to help you with stuff and to try and anticipate your needs.

Burt: Yes?
Butler: Good Evening Mr.Wolf
Burt: Good Evening
Butler: Would you like turn down service?
Burt: Oh thank you, but I’ve been turned down enough for one day. I’ve wanted to do that gag for twenty years and I really appreciate you bearing with me

One of our stops was Breisach at the edge of the Black Forest.
Until the 11th century, when monks began to set up isolated monasteries, nobody was interested in entering the Black Forest. It had a reputation for being filled with thieves, and wild-man-eating boars and life insurance salesmen. In the 1500s, farmers along the Rhine began to clear the land and move into the forest.

There's not much left to the thick pine forest and the thieves have gone into the mortgage and investment banking businesses. And as far as the wild boars are concerned most of them are working on television as political analysts. For me, the most important thing about the Black Forest is the Black Forest Cake. The Black Forest Cake is a big deal, but the areas most famous product is probably The Cuckoo Clock.

During the 1600s, Black Forest wood carvers started producing wooden clocks that were sold all over Europe, but there was nothing cuckoo about them. In the 1850s, a local artist designed a clock with a little house on the front. Shortly thereafter, some unknown mastermind placed a bird inside the house, and developed a mechanism that allowed the bird to come out and on the hour, announce its presence by yelling “cuckoo cuckoo”.

I wouldn’t say these clocks were cuckoo, but some of them appear to be a little neurotic.

There are about 160 guests on this ship and each day they are served breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon and evening snacks. Preparing those meals on a level that meets the gastronomic demands of the passengers is not an easy task.

Chef: You buy everything. When you start to buy we don’t stop anymore, as long as you have money you know?

Burt: What’s the biggest challenge of cooking on a ship?

Chef: The biggest challenge when cooking on a ship is actually the organizing before because you’re always traveling and never in the same place. Like at a hotel you’re always at the place, you go shopping and you have fresh stuff on board. There you need to organize ten days ahead, the loadings, how much you need, the freshness, to check to keep this and make sure everything is up to date. That’s the biggest challenge you know? Organizing before.

Burt: How often do you get to actually get off the boat and shop for local stuff?

Chef: For local stuff... As soon as we get the opportunity or we get the chance, we go. It’s like a market, because not every port has a market. But like here you have a market or when we go to Budapest or Vienna they have local markets.

Burt: Right.

Chef: Okay this is a wild asparagus, you can eat everything of it. Just blanche it for one minute and thats it. Mostly you can use it for salads, even for steaks it’s nice.

Burt: Do you put any sauce on it or just straight?

Chef: Sauce hollandaise sauce béarnaise.

Burt: Traditional asperges.

Chef: Traditional.

Chef: First we peel the asparagus because the skin is tough.
Then you put it in water, we salt the water.
We put the lemon in and the most important thing is white bread.
White bread is taking the bitter from the asparagus.
In the mean time we cook the asparagus around approximately five minutes, we make the sauce hollandaise.
Egg yolk.
We heat the egg yolk a little bit, give it some temperature and whisk it.
Butter, slowly. Drops by drops.
You see it’s going creamy now already.
Like a sauce you know.
Then we add some white wine reduction.
be very careful because if you are getting too high the temperature the egg and the butter separating again and then we need to start at zero you know.
A little salt and pepper. And the hollandaise should be done.
For that we melt the butter.
And to test if the asparagus is ready cooking we put the knife in, when it goes very easily through, it’s ready.
Take the asparagus out of the water and straight in here.
Again salt don’t forget and pepper.
One two three.
In the mean time we put wild asparagus just in the water for a few seconds.
Now the wild asparagus id ready just a few seconds.
We just melt it in the butter.
Here we go.
So here we go we have the white asparagus and the wild and the white asparagus, prosciutto ham and sauce hollandaise.

The cruise director told me that the ship offered six different ways of dining.
There’s the main dining room where you can sit up straight, at the bar you can lean forward. Thank You. Or you can have room service twenty four hours a day lying down. You can lounge on the sun deck and dine al fresco, whatever that means. Or you can stand up at the River Cafe which is an all day snack bar.
Thank you Peter. Porta Bello is the ships Italian restaurant so you can eat leaning to right like the Tower of Pisa.

Over night we sailed to Mannheim where we took a bus to Heidelberg. According to archeological research our European ancestors have been living in this neighborhood for over 6,000 years.

Heidelberg was a Celtic settlement, the site of a Roman fort, and for 500 years, starting in the early 1200s, the hometown of the mighty counts who elected the kings of Germany.

The counts were responsible for three of the most important things in Heidelberg. First is their castle, which they started building in the 1300s and finished about 400 years later. What slowed things down was an unending conflict between two factions of the family over window treatments.

The most interesting way to get to the castle is on the funicular. This section of track is the oldest funicular railway in Germany and considered to be a historic landmark. It uses the original wooden cars that were built in 1907. The ride up offers some fabulous views of the Rhine Valley.

The oldest part of the Heidelberg Castle complex is the Gothic House which was the home of the Elector Ruprecht III. The Friedrich Wing dates to the early 1600s and has a classic Renaissance façade decorated with statues of the kings of Germany.

The sculptural decorations in the Otto-Heinrich Wing include Biblical characters, Roman gods and the virtues.

The one thing in the castle that almost everybody feels the need to see is the Heidelberg Tun, a wine vat with a capacity that is given at something in the area of 50,000 gallons. The original vat on this site was built in 1591 and used to collect taxes that were paid in wine.

The one that’s here today was installed about 250 years ago and probably never held any wine at all. Its primary objective appears to be to enclose vast quantities of emptiness-- a concept that fascinates over three million people a year who actually pay to come and look at it.

Our ship also took us to Strasbourg. Strasbourg is the capital city of the Northeast region of France, known as Alsace, the city is crisscrossed by a network of canals that connect it to river systems that run throughout France.

One of my favorite spots in Strasbourg is its Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Construction got started in the 11th century and wasn’t completed until the 15th century. It took 400 years to finish the job.

I am thoroughly convinced that the guys who are presently working on my house are direct decedents of the guys who took 400 years to build this cathedral.

The Cathedral, not my house, is made of red sandstone and in spite of the many architectural styles that went into its construction, it holds together as a harmonious structure.

The cathedral also has an astronomical clock that was originally built in the 1300s and everyday at 12:30 it presents a group of allegorical and mythological figures.

The clock’s body has a planetarium based on the 17th century theories of Copernicus, many of which are similar to the theories used by some of our contemporary economists.

While we were in Cologne, I tested a GPS pocket guide made for the ship. Turn it on and it figures out where you are and what’s around you that is interesting and then it tells you about it. You can take your own GPS guided walking or biking tour. Or you can use it to listen to your guide.

However, it has failed to mention that I am a block away from the Haxenhause beer hall where they serve a great local beer known as Cologne Kolsch.

It comes in a small 8 ounce glass. The brewers in Cologne think that the small glass has a distinct advantage over their competitors in Bavaria who use big steins to serve their beer.

In the small glass the beer stays fresher longer. The waitresses keep bringing you glasses until you've had enough but they don’t always know when you've had enough so you put this little coaster on top of your glass, and that tells them that you’ve finished ---- for the time being.

Apparently, the Scenic GPS guides are designed to address the more uplifting cultural aspects of the area. But don’t worry; the bartender on the ship can fill you in on the finer points of the local gastronomy.

Our final port was Amsterdam.
If you consult the travel guides that include Amsterdam you will undoubtedly find a selection of the city’s great museum.
They’ll recommend the Van Gogh, which has the world’s largest collection of works by Van Gogh.
They’ll stress the contemporary museum which has 90,000 contemporary works.
They’ll suggest the Rijkesmuseum, which is the offical state museum and truly has one of the greatest museum collections in the world.
Every few years, I visit all of them. Usually on the internet.
They have amazing sites.
The site for the Rijkemuseum is outstanding.
However, my favorite museum in Amsterdam is the Museum of Handbags and Purses.
It has over 4,000 objects with some that date back to the 14th century.
The collection was started by Hendrikje Ivo. Today it’s run by her daughter Sigrid.
My mother, she was an antique dealer traveling through Europe to find her antiques, small silver items on the table. Cutlery and those kinds of things.
And then she saw a very beautiful bag made of tortoise shell inlaid with mother-of-pearl and she fell in love.
Her mother spent over 30 years collecting handbags and displaying them in her home on the outskirts of Amsterdam, but eventually she needed a bigger space.
And we spoke a lot with the local government but that didn't work out. And then she put a sign on the door ... and ... saying ... "S.O.S. Who can help us for a new location?" And she asked also a lot of people, "Can you help me with a new location.
Do you know a millionaire? I don't like to have them only for myself. But half of it maybe."
And then one Sunday afternoon a millionaire came along, visited the museum, read the sign, and bought them a building in the middle of Amsterdam. The museum illustrates the history of the handbag from the 14th century to the present. The earliest women’s handbags were worn under their dresses. They had a ribbon with two pockets hanging on it. And then you have two or three underskirts. Then this ribbon goes around your waist. And then your nice dress goes over it and there's an opening in the dress. So you could reach your pockets.
In the late 19thcentury it changed because the fashion got very slim. And we are looking back to the Greek and Roman periods and the waist goes up into the breast.
And then you get very slim tiny dresses. They have to look like a Greek dress.
Because that was fashionable in that period.
And they were made of fine muslin, a very fine material, sometimes very transparent.
So then you can't wear these pockets inside. Then you see that the ladies wear, for the first time the bag in the hand.
And what did they put in their bag?
A coin purse, you had a letter case for your letters. They were writing a lot. Maybe also the card, a calling card holder. Because when you went to visit somebody, you go there and then you say to the servant I would like to visit the lady of the house.
Then she's giving the calling card to the lady of the house. And she is deciding if she wants to see you.
I've always wondered about the Queen of England. What does she have in her handbag? Cab fare? A Swiss Army Knife? Keys to the Palace? A lottery ticket?
Enquiring minds need to know.
She has never money with her. No, she has a camera because she wants always to show where she is to her children and grandchildren. A lipstick. She has a powder compact because that was given by her husband 50 years ago, 60 years ago.
Sometimes for her dogs things because she likes her dogs.
I also noticed that in the last maybe ten or fifteen years handbags have become a symbol of status.
Until the 60s, you could show that you were rich or you're different by your clothing.
But in the last decades, it's getting more and more difficult. Because what we see in the fashion show in Paris or Milan or New York, you can buy it a little bit later in the shops and you can buy it expensive or cheap. It's copied all over. So it's very difficult to be different.
And that you see that these big brands, they come with handbags because that's something you can show that you can be different. Not everything that’s in fashion will be fit you very nice. But a handbag will always fit you. So the brands have more emphasis on the handbags because everybody can buy a handbag from a brand if you have the money, of course. But it's everybody will shoot a handbag. Everybody will fit a handbag.
I may not be able to get into that dress.
But I certainly can carry that handbag.
Yea. The handbag is the soul of women because all your personal items go into it.
And you don't want to show it to other people.
But there are an also lot of things people, ladies don't want to tell about.
For instance?
That I can't tell you, because that's a secret.
Quite honestly I think this is one of the most interesting museums I've ever seen and I strongly recommend it.

Well, that’s Cruising the Rhine Part Two
I’m Burt Wolf.