Origins: Cruising Alaska - #103

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these origins help us understand why we live the way we do.

It starts up at the top of the Alaskan panhandle and runs south along the coast of Alaska and the Canadian province of British Columbia. It covers a thousand miles and ends just below the U.S. border at Seattle, Washington.  It’s called the Inside Passage.

And that is precisely what it is:  a sea passage that runs along the northwest coast. But it runs between the coast and a series of islands that protect the route from the open sea. At its southernmost point the course is shielded for three hundred miles by Vancouver Island.  Then the Queen Charlotte Islands take over the defense. And finally the route is safeguarded by the more than one thousand islands that make up the Alexander Archipelago. It is a magnificent stretch of wilderness.

Much of the region is virtually inaccessible by road so the best way, and in some cases the only way, to really see the passage is by boat.

I started my journey from the Canadian city of Vancouver.

My chosen method of transportation for my passage through the Passage was a ship called the Legend Of The Seas. It was built in 1995 for the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.  It’s eight hundred and sixty-seven feet long... a hundred and five feet wide... there are eleven decks... nine hundred and two cabins... and it can maintain a speed of twenty-four knots.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   On land we measure speed in miles per hour or kilometers per hour. At sea it is measured in something called a knot. Historians believe that sailors started using the knot during the 1400’s. The technology was pretty primitive. They had a piece of wood, they had a rope tied to that piece of wood, every fifty feet there was a knot tied in the rope.  They also had an hourglass that measured 28 seconds with sand. They would throw the piece of wood over the side of the boat.  When it hit the water, they would start the hourglass.  When the 28 seconds of sand ran out, they counted the number of knots that had gone over the side, and that was the ship’s speed.

Eventually the knot became standardized as the nautical mile, which is 6,080 feet... about fifteen percent longer than a land mile. So when a ship is doing twenty knots, it’s the equivalent of about twenty-three miles per hour. When sailors talk about a ship’s speed they just say “twenty knots,” never “twenty knots per hour.” Both the distance and the time measurement are included in the idea of a knot.

And while The Legend Of The Seas is maintaining its speed of twenty-four knots, the passengers can maintain themselves in a number of ways. There’s a spa, a sauna, one outdoor pool, and one pool that is both outdoor and indoor. The outdoor/indoor pool was designed for people who can’t make up their mind what they want. There’s a library where you can maintain your intellect... and an 18-hole miniature golf course for maintaining your putting skill.  A miniature golf course  is quite appropriate for a ship. The first miniature golf course was actually designed for use on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner.

BURT WOLF:  The water hazards on this course are just murder.

And finally, there is a Stargazing Area...  “Look -- there’s Elvis!”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  When the Elvis years passed away, along with the original Elvis, he became a symbol.  A symbol of an easier time.  Less frightening, more understandable.  And when anyone or anything becomes a symbol it can be used to evoke a response in other people.  Psychologists have been studying this from a scientific point of view, but business people have been using the information for over a hundred years.   Let’s take a look at the case in point: the ocean liner or the cruise ship.

When luxury ocean liners first came on the scene at the beginning of the 20th century they wanted to market their first class services to upper-class families. One of the simplest ways to work toward that goal was to reproduce things on the ship that reminded the passengers of the good life on shore.

How about a grand ballroom with a majestic staircase -- a staircase that could be used by the female passengers to make a grand entrance in a magnificent new dress, a dress tastefully dusted in recently-acquired diamonds. And while you were at it, you could make the grand ballroom a replica of one of the famous hotel ballrooms in Paris or London. Then you could put in an orchestra that everyone was familiar with... one that was associated with good times.  And lots of food -- luxurious food that speaks of opulence and happiness.  Create a feeling that is somewhat like the important public events of a social season... or like an ongoing wedding party. You could also have a few rooms that reminded the male passengers of the private clubs that were popular at the time. And all of that is precisely what many of the original ocean liners did. And it worked. The passengers began to feel secure, even though they were hundreds of miles at sea.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  And it still works. Not quite as formal as it used to be. A seven day cruise on the Legend Of The Seas has three formal nights out of seven and black-tie is optional. In the old days it was black-tie every night. The dining rooms are no longer reproductions of the Dorchester or the Ritz, but they’re still pretty wonderful. And music that harkens back to an earlier time? It’s here. The cruise has a 50’s/60’s night which tries to reproduce the feeling of those two great decades. And Elvis is in the air again.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But I am not here to step on anybody’s blue suede shoes. I want to step on land, land that few people have stepped on before. I want to commune with nature. I want to be close to the wild. But not too close.

Glacier Bay National Park is close enough.  The ship slowly eases into the narrow passages that run between the mountains of ice that make up this 3.3 million acre national park.  Sixteen huge glaciers flow out of the Fairweather mountain range.  Their forward edges melt and break off into the icy waters of the fjords that cut their way in from the open sea.

When large hunks of ice rip away from the glacier, it is called “calving,” and the sound that they make as they pull away is called “white thunder.”

The crackling sound actually comes from the bursting of thousands of air bubbles that were trapped in the ice.

Archeologists believe that native tribes have been living in the Glacier Bay area for at least 10,000 years.  The first Europeans to explore the territory were the Russians, who sailed through during the 1740s.  About fifty years later the French stopped in to check things out.  By the 1880s, tour boats were coming in to take a look.  Glacier Bay is truly one of the fascinating places in Alaska.

This morning’s port of call is the town of Skagway. The name Skagway comes from a native American word meaning “the windy place.”  It’s located at the northernmost point on the Inside Passage. The area was never a permanent settlement for any of the tribes, but it had been used for hundreds of years as a seasonal ground for hunting and fishing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first European to take a serious interest in Skagway was a retired steamboat captain by the name of William Moore.  In 1887, he staked a claim for 160 acres of land and with the help of his son he built a small cabin. He knew the area so well that the Canadian government asked him to help their surveyors find a pass through the mountains.  He did, and it eventually became known as “The White Pass.”  Moore had been watching all of the mining activity going around in the territory and he firmly believed that it was just a question of time before there was a major gold strike. He also believed that when that strike came, Skagway would become the seaport for the gold rush.

And boy, was he right! When word of the Bonanza Creek gold strike got out, over 100,000 people set out to seek their fortune in the Yukon, and the route they took to get there started with a ship to Skagway.  In the end, only about 30,000 people got here but they turned the place into the classic gold rush boomtown.  In 1898 Skagway had almost one hundred saloons filled with gamblers, thieves and umm, ladies of perpetual availability.

These days Skagway has about 800 permanent residents, and a great nostalgia about its past.  Much of the original commercial district has managed to survive and the United States Park Service conducts guided walking tours through the historic areas of the town.  My guide today is Rick Fields.

RICK FIELDS:  Burt, this is The Red Onion Saloon, that actually was a saloon and bordello during the time of the Gold Rush.  Downstairs’s the saloon, upstairs the ladies of the evening. Uh, actually, during the time of the Gold Rush, if a gentleman wanted any kind of woman’s accompaniment, he could walk into that saloon and behind the bar was a display case with dolls dressed in like of the ladies that were working the floor that evening.  And so if a gentleman had any particular lady in mind, he could actually look behind the bar and if the doll was standing that she was very much available for your accompaniment.  If she was laying down, well... she was busy.

RICK FIELDS:  The AB Hall here, Burt, was also an original structure. It was a fraternal organization that was developed by the stampeders as a kind of social club, if you will.  There’s over 10,000 pieces of driftwood actually nailed onto the face of that building.  The last known member to ever join the Arctic Brotherhood here in Skagway was Warren G. Harding, our president.  In 1923 he came to visit us for three short hours. We then initiated him into our Arctic Brotherhood Lodge. 

BURT WOLF:  What goes on in the Arctic Brotherhood?

RICK FIELDS:  Today it’s actually our city museum.  Actually we have a fine arts museum of some of the old paraphernalia you might have found during the time of the Gold Rush all inside our museum and it’s set up as a display so that you can go in and spend a few minutes and enjoy.

BURT WOLF:  You know like little kids they like to take matchsticks and build things out of them and that’s what happens when those kids grow up.

RICK FIELDS:  That’s right.


RICK FIELDS:  They just make bigger piles, don’t they?

RICK FIELDS:  Well this is actually the Mascot Saloon, and the Mascot has  actually been set up as a display only by our National Parks Service, so the kind of saloon you’d actually see during the turn of the century here in Skagway; it’s got the old hardwood floors and the lighting as it was back in 1898.  Actually, the bar I could never seem to ever be served at here.  I keep trying, but it’s just not ever happened, but some of the old cigars that you might, would have found as you would have come here.  We’ve actually restored all of these buildings along this block back all to their original condition: wallpaper, paint, colors, everything is back to its original condition.  It’s really a pleasure to be in a community that had such community pride of their buildings.  I really do enjoy living here.

RICK FIELDS:  Well, Burt, this is Kirmse’s Curios.  Actually Herman Kirmse was one of the very first pioneers that came into Skagway when the words of the Klondike Gold Rush happened throughout the country.  And Herman, actually, instead of traveling over the pass and heading for the gold 600 miles away from here, he actually stopped here and established his jewelry business.  He was quite an entrepreneur, like many that had to travel the trail up here.

BURT WOLF:  I get the feeling that the real gold was in the retail business and not in the creeks.

RICK FIELDS:  I’m gonna have to agree with you, Burt.  It seems as though the guy that made a living and a good one up here was the packer, the storekeeper, the guy who sold you services.

When the prospectors headed out of Skagway they had to choose between two routes to the gold. One was the Chilkoot Trail.  That’s what it looked like during 1897 and ‘98 when some 30,000 prospectors made the six-hour climb up what came to be known as the “Golden Stairs.” And because each of them was transporting a minimum of 1,000 pounds of supplies, they made that trip at least twenty times. 

The other Skagway trail used by the gold seekers to get to a claim was the White Pass.  It was less steep than the Chilkoot but no less dangerous.

In 1900, things got a lot easier. That was the year that the White Pass and Yukon Railroad opened and connected Skagway to the town of Frazer in the Canadian Yukon.  The rails run through some of the most rugged terrain in North America.


The roadbeds were carved along sheer rock cliffs. Tunnels were hammered through solid granite. When it was completed, it was considered to be one of the engineering marvels of its time. Today it’s a marvelous guided tour for visitors to Skagway -- and the guide is Sharon Hannon.

SHARON HANNON:  Okay, we’re coming up now to the Denver Glacier Bridge.  This is mile-post 5.8 on your railmaps.  We’re going to be crossing over the east fork of the Skagway River.  As we make a real sharp left curve over the bridge, you’ll have a nice opportunity to view the train -- all fifteen parlor cars that we’re pulling.  It’s just amazing to think that this railroad that we’re traveling on this morning is nearly one hundred years old.  And how they built it back then is absolutely incredible.  What they did was, these workers were roped together while hanging on the slopes.  And the smooth granite obviously offered no footholds whatsoever.  So in hazardous winter weather, these men chipped all of this granite with hand tools in order to plant the 450 tons of blasting powder.  This was obviously extremely hard, very dangerous work, for thirty cents an hour.  And they say that this was a railroad that was impossible to build.  There is very little advanced planning involved.  Now there was no rolling stock, there was no construction materials or heavy-duty equipment.  There was no means of feeding or housing the work crews, and remember a total of 35,000 men worked on the line.  Also, the site was more than a thousand miles from the closest supply base which was in Seattle, Washington.  So the railroad had to compete for ship cargo space with the thousands of stampeders that were also headed up north.  And I mentioned earlier the workforce, highly educated professional men, but by no means skilled railroad laborers.  So this railroad was built against all odds and it was completed in only two years, two months, and one day -- all built by hand.  And it cost ten million dollars to build it, and then another two million dollars to outfit it for service.  And it’s an international railroad.  It was financed by the British, contracted by the Canadians, and engineered by the Americans.

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad certainly made the trip from Alaska to the Yukon easier.  What you’re looking at is the last remaining section of the original pass that the prospectors used.  Can you imagine hiking thirty-five miles, carrying hundreds of pounds of gear on your back, on a path that narrow?  And by the time the railroad was finished... the gold rush was over.

About an hour boat ride south of Skagway is the town of Haines.  It started out as settlement for the Native Alaskan Tlingit tribe, and they still play a very active role in the community.  A non-profit association called Alaska Indian Arts has dedicated itself to the revival and perpetuation of native craft and culture and in Haines they present the Chilkat Dancers,  a group whose authentic performances have given them a worldwide reputation.

While we were here, one of the dances told the story of a monster who had been eating the children of the tribe.  The chief decided to trap the monster by digging a deep hole, covering it with twigs, and sending a young girl to attract the monster over the hole.  As the monster chased the girl, she passed over the twigs; she was light.  When the monster ran over the twigs, his weight sent him to the bottom.

The tribe quickly gathered around, threw branches on top of the monster and set them on fire.  As the flames came up, the monster yelled that no matter what the tribe did, he would always drink their blood.  After thirty days, the tribe let the fire go out.  As they poked the ashes, they saw that the monster had been consumed, but out of the holes in the ashes a new creature appeared -- thousands of them.  They were mosquitoes.

The next day our crew was filming in an area filled with mosquitoes, mosquitoes who were feasting on us.  But somehow we all felt less aggravated by their presence, because we knew it was only the monster trying for his revenge.  The tribal dances connect the people with their heritage and to the environment in which they live -- and that makes life more understandable and easier.

The Haines area has always been important to the native tribes. It was the end point for the ancient trail into the interior, and it was also the site of the gathering of the eagles. Today the region covers 48,000 acres and is known as the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Each year some 4,000 bald eagles take up residence along a five-mile stretch of the Chilkat River. They’re attracted to the spot by an annual late run of spawning salmon. In addition, warm water upwellings in the river bottom keep parts of the river ice-free during the winter, providing even more fish for the eagles, at a time when many other food sources are exhausted. This is nature throwing an all-you-can-eat buffet for the eagle, and it’s been going on for thousands of years.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   But it almost came to an end in 1917 when someone in the government decided that the eagles were eating too many salmon and began to offer a bounty on them.  Over a hundred and twenty thousand eagles were shot for a dollar or two dollars each before someone realized that in fact the eagles were not doing any damage at all.  Just another episode in the endless saga of government stupidity.

Fortunately the eagle is now protected.  It is a federal crime to harm or possess a bald eagle and with any luck, the law is being enforced.

And if you’ve ever wanted to see Alaska from an eagle’s eye view, take a look at this.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the nice things about seeing southern Alaska from a cruise ship is than on certain days you can go ashore and pursue your own  individual interests.  Then in the evenings you come back to the ship and you get the feeling that you’re joining old friends.  And speaking of joining old friends, I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world, looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.

Burt Wolf's Menu: On the Royal Viking Sun - #118

They are the ultimate marriage of luxury, comfort and technology -- the great cruise ships of the sea.  And the Royal Viking Sun is a perfect example of the class.  It’s the place to look at the history of these magnificent vessels... to find out what great ocean passages are really all about... and to get the recipes that have made the Royal Viking chefs famous.  So join me on the Royal Viking Sun for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

The great oceanliner is the largest moving object on our planet. The old Queen Mary was almost as long as the Empire State Building is tall. They are an amazing display of artistic and technological skills.  The first ship that could really be called an oceanliner was named The City of New York and it was launched in 1893. The hull was made of steel instead of wood and complex steam engines provided the power instead of sails.  These turn-of-the-century ships had many of the comforts that we now associate with modern oceanliners... large public rooms for entertaining... electric power... elevators... and excellent food.  In 1907 the Mauritania came on line and set a new standard of luxury. The objective of the companies that built these ships was to create an environment of great opulence. To make the passenger feel that he or she was in the most elegant surroundings. They also did everything possible to keep their guests from remembering that they were on a ship.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of the ocean liner was the introduction of the oil-powered turbo engine. Before then, ships used coal.  And as they burned up coal on their voyage, they got lighter and lighter. By the time they reached their destination, they’d be bobbing around like a cork. Not too comfortable for the passengers.  With the oil burners, they were able to replace the burned oil with ocean water.  That kept the ship heavy and gave the passengers a much nicer ride.  When one of these ships did their job properly, the passengers felt that they had just spent a week or two at the home of an extremely wealthy nobleman.

NEWSREEL NARRATOR:  Its grand foyer and main dining hall rival the decorative splendor of a palace.  One thousand feet long, weighing eigthy thousand gross tons, the ship posted artistic murals created by France’s greatest painters.

By the early twenties, exercise had become an important part of the ships’ services. There was a Promenade Deck for long walks. A swimming pool. A fully equipped gym. Some ships had squash courts, steam baths and saunas. One vessel actually had a tennis court, and the game of miniature golf?  It was invented for oceanliners.  During the 1930's the Italian Line introduced the Lido Deck, an outdoor sports area with a swimming pool. The Italian ships used the southern route to cross the Atlantic and could take advantage of the warmer weather.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But of all of the comforts associated with the great oceanliners, the most important were those that dealt with eating and drinking. Food has always had the ability to be more than just physical nourishment for the body. Food can be a symbol of wealth. It can be a source of emotional comfort. It can be a distraction or an entertainment.  And there’s a considerable amount of scientific evidence that indicates that just eating can reduce fear. And the great oceanliners?  They used food and wine for all of the above.

The first liners had dining rooms with long tables and swivel chairs that were bolted to the floor. By the early 20's there were sumptuous dining salons with free-standing chairs and extraordinary staircases that gave guests the opportunity to make a grand entrance. ... The Hamburg-American Line even went so far as to reproduce London's chic Ritz-Carlton Hotel restaurant right on board their ships. Cunard introduced the Verandah Cafe, designed to look like the front porch of a great hotel.  It was located at the rear of the ship and had potted palms and wicker furniture. And almost anything that a guest might want to eat or drink was stocked onboard.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  However, by the 1950's, the airlines had pretty much taken over the passenger traffic and it looked like the oceanliner was about to become extinct... kind of a man-made dinosaur of the sea.  Ahhh, not so fast, sports-fans.  Once again, love conquers all. Only this time love came in the form of a television show, a television show called The Love Boat.  The Love Boat gave millions of people all over the world an opportunity to see how much fun they could have on a cruise.  There was also a change in the way people wanted to spend their leisure time. Lots of people had more time and more money, and wanted to take a few weeks in a more leisurely way. And so the oceanliner became transformed into the cruise ship.

These days, just about the most perfect example of what a cruise ship can really be is the Royal Viking Sun. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Royal Viking Line was formed in 1970 by three well-known Norwegian shipping companies. From the very beginning, it was conceived of as a cruise line, designed to bring people around the world in an state of extraordinary luxury. And to tell you the truth, they must be doing something very, very well, because on any Viking cruise, over half the passengers are repeat customers.

The ship that I am on today is the Royal Viking Sun. It's 673 feet long, 95 feet wide, and it was launched in 1988. It's interesting to see how the oceanliner standards for luxury have remained in place.  The ship has four elevators. Only these days they have glass walls so you can have a panormaic view during the ride.  There’s a casino...

BURT WOLF:   Wealth beyond my wildest dreams!

The spa has a lap pool, an exercise area, a massage room, and a beauty salon.

STYLIST:  ...and above the ears?

BURT WOLF:   It could be above the ears, below the ears; the beard is below the ears, I like that, that’s good hair, too...

STYLIST:  That’s good too.

There are two wind-sheltered pools with heated salt water, a pool with a swim-up bar, and a whirlpool.  Of course, there is a shuffleboard court, but there is also a croquet court and a spot for trapshooting.  The miniature golf course has given way to a practice area and a computerized golf simulator. And you can also play quoits and table tennis.  They even have a classic smoking room with a wood-burning fireplace, and a television camera so the captain can make sure the fire is burning properly.  In spite of the fact that the Coast Guard approved the fireplace in the plans, they later changed their mind, and these days the only thing that burns in here is a good cigar.  Every stateroom has a television set, a radio and a video cassette player. The captain has honored me during my visit by playing some of my old shows on the central system. Good man.  There are always seminars and lectures for the passengers to enjoy.  This one’s on wine tasting.

WINE EXPERT:  Is it sweet, is it not sweet?  When you see the color, very pale color, and when you see there is no viscosity by swirling the glass gently.  On the glass it has to be dry.  You know just by sight this is a white dry wine.  It’s a young vintage, yeah, it’s ‘89, I would have said ‘89 or ‘90.  It’s still a little bit oaky.  You don’t have to be very clever; you have to know a little bit about wine, but as I told you the other day, to have a good memory -- taste and taste and taste and remember.

When it comes to places to eat, the choice is awesome. The Royal Viking Dining Room can accommodate all 750 passengers at one seating. But I doubt whether that happens very often, because you can also dine at the Royal Grill.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Royal Grill has a program where they invite world-famous chefs to come onboard and prepare their signature dishes.  They also like to do recipes associated with the areas in which they’re sailing. When they are off the coast of Italy they do Italian food, when they’re off the coast of China, they do Chinese food. When they’re off the coast of California, near President Reagan’s house, ketchup becomes the vegetable of the day. Just joking.

There's a Garden Cafe for a luncheon buffet, which always includes a freshly baked pizza. Interesting... pizza has become a universal food... thanks to traveling Americans.

BURT WOLF:  Thousand Island Dressing.  I’m working on a new recipe for that; it only has five hundred islands and half the calories. 

There’s a Wine Bar that serves top wines by the glass.  The ship has more good places to eat than most cities... quite amazing. Each day, the chefs on the Royal Viking Sun whip up dinner for just over a thousand people. They also whip up the same number of breakfasts and lunches. Plus a midnight snack. For their annual 103-day around the world cruise they do some rather heavy shopping... 130,000 eggs... 15,000 pounds of beef... 3,300 pounds of shrimp... 600 tons of fruits and vegetables and get this... 900 pounds of chocolate. And since they must do their shopping every week in different cities all over the planet, they end up with some complex logistical problems. Everything that is dry is fairly easy. But fresh products are much more difficult to handle. They use a very sophisticated computer system to estimate their needs and plan the purchasing months ahead. And they try to take advantage of what is going to be in season when they eventually get to a particular port. Johannes Lindthaler was particularly impressive. He’s a Food and Beverage Manager, but his skills with a computer is right out of Star Wars. He and his associates have designed programs that bring in fresh fish from vendors, all over the world, just when the ship needs it.  They even control the flight of lobsters from Maine... and I thought they only swam.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   So next time I make dinner for my three sons and their girlfriends... no complaints.

The Royal Viking Sun, following the tradition of the great oceanliners, places considerable importance on the quality of its food. But they have also set up a program to take advantage of the fact that their kitchen travels around the world. When the ship gets to a port where there is a talented chef with a well-respected restaurant, that chef is invited on board to teach. An example of the program is this Chicken Cacciatore, prepared by the ship’s executive chef, Manfred Jaud.  A little oil and a little butter go into a saute pan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   There are lots of recipes that start off with the chef putting oil into the saute pan and then adding butter.  The reason for that is, the chef wants the flavor of the butter, but butter burns at a very low temperature.  So he adds the oil to raise the cooking temperature, and also the oil keeps things from sticking to the bottom of the pan. 

Two boneless, skinless, chicken breasts that have been cut up into half-inch wide strips go in, and saute for about three minutes.  At which point they are removed from the pan and strained of the cooking fat.  A little butter goes into the pan... some chopped onion... mushrooms... sliced stuffed olives, both green and black... a tomato... a few pickled onions... red wine and pre- prepared gravy.  Everything cooks down for about 5 minutes to thicken up... then the chicken goes back into the sauce, and it's ready to be plated. Strips of potato that have been cooked into a pancake go on first... then the chicken and finally a few vegetables.

The coastline of Portugal -- with a monument that celebrates this country’s historic relationship to the sea. For hundreds of years, the Portuguese have been some of the world’s greatest navigators and mapmakers.  They sailed around the globe and charted the oceans.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Even though Columbus set sail on Spanish ships with Spanish sponsorship, he got most of his navigational information in maps from the Portuguese. It also appears that the Portuguese knew about the New World long before Columbus. For decades, their boats had been crossing the Atlantic and fishing off the coast of Canada. They just never told anybody because they didn't want any competition in the business.  Basically they had a choice between  big reputation and big bucks.  And they went for the bucks.  In those days, navigation at sea was basically a hit or miss affair.  You usually missed what you were heading to and hit something you couldn't see.

These days, however, a oceanliner like this has state-of-the-art technology that tells the crew exactly where they are, literally minute to minute.

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  The navigation system on this ship works on satellite navigation which is so accurate and it gives such a good position that if you could move the antenna up on the top a foot, it shows up on the screen.

BURT WOLF:   GPS are satellites that are up there and our computer talks to their computer?

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  Yes, yes.  There is a communication between the ship and the satellite and they, and they give us the position.

BURT WOLF:   That’s the Global Positioning System?

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM: That’s the Global Positioning System, and you know, you can buy these small hand-held sets today and you can move around...

BURT WOLF:   (over)  Oh, that’s right!  And you know where you are.  I’m in the bedroom, I’m in the living room, I’m on my way to the shower now... it’s important to know these things.  If you get old, you get lost...

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  We’re right here. 

BURT WOLF:   Right...

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  And the screen on this radar is like a map; you have north, east, south and west.  And we’re heading almost due north.  These are ships.  As you can see, they have a line, and this line is made by the computer.  And the line tells me that these two ships are heading approximately in the same direction as we are, while these two ships up here are heading south.

BURT WOLF:   Oh, you really can see it visually very quickly.

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  You can see the speed, the course, where they’re heading. 

BURT WOLF:   And these little lines over here?

CAPTAIN OLA HERSHEIM:  These are rainclouds, and these small targets here in the center, they’re swells from the ocean.

BURT WOLF:   What a swell piece of equipment!

In 1991, the Royal Viking Line started an interesting program. They formed an association with Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and began to bring professors on board to speak to the passengers about the places that their ships were visiting.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  All of the Royal Viking Line cruises are now accompanied by one or two faculty members that have been appointed by Georgetown University. They are experts in various subjects that relate to the lands that the ship is heading to.  And in the days before the ship reaches port, they educate the passengers as to those subjects.  So when they head to land, they know what’s going on.

Today’s lecture is on geography... and the on-board expert for the subject is Professor Charles Sargent.

CHARLES SARGENT:  Geographers study today what they’ve always studied, but in a different way.  They study the relationship of man to land, of people to their, their landscape.  Today geography is a lot more involved than that.  We have geographers who study the physical environment itself, climate change, heat islands, environmental pollution; things of this nature are all parts of what the physical geographer deals with.  The other half of geography, the, sort of the man/land relationship, the “man” side of that relationship, looks at people themselves:  their institutions, their inventions, their customs.  The urban scene is a very major core of geography today.  So there are many geographers looking at various elements of, of the city around the world.

BURT WOLF:   You’ve also looked at geography in terms of food.

CHARLES SARGENT:  Yes, I used to teach a class, “The Geography of Food and Drink,” and it’s a marvelous way to teach students about simple principles of diffusion, movement and so on.  Fascinating story.

BURT WOLF:   As I look at the history of the way people eat, I see this trend toward isolation.  We get further and further away from each other and from our food.  We used to sit on long benches together.  Now we each sit on individual chairs.  It used to be that a big pot came to the table and we all reached in with our hands and ate it.  Now we each get our individual plates.  We don’t even have it come to the table in a big plate and serve it to our plates; we bring our individual plates from the kitchen.  We used to touch our food.  Now we have knives and forks and spoons between us and the food.  A real movement away, a kind of isolation from each other and from our food.

CHARLES SARGENT:  On the other hand, the food keeps coming to us from everywhere.  And so you can go to a place, any major metropolitan area and you have food from Place A, B, C country, from China, from, from Vietnam, from Italy.  The tomato, after all -- a New World domesticate.  It had to sort of make its way over to Italy before there could be pizza.  And then pizza had to make its way back here, and I think essentially since World War II when G.I.s brought it back.  So I guess my view would be, is that, while we may eat at separate tables, in fact, of course, the world of food is coming to us, and it’s much more a heaped table with a tremendous variety of things.  And that theme of food gets us into the whole basic story in human geography of plant and animal domestication.  And so that is an absolutely fantastic story that geographers deal with, too.

BURT WOLF:   We seem to be narrowing the number of foods we eat in terms of the variety within a particular type -- the number of potatoes, or the number of apples that are available.

CHARLES SARGENT:  But you know, if we go back, if we think back in time, in the Middle Ages, people living in a medieval village, the fields were one element of their food chain, the waters were another.  And those waters had frogs and snakes and eels and fish, and it was a tremendously broad bounty.  And I think you’re absolutely right -- we’re restricting ourselves very much, down from this breadth down to a very narrow range of foods.

BURT WOLF:   I think that’s going to change with young chefs.  They’re demanding greater and greater variety within any type of food.

CHARLES SARGENT:  Because they’re very tasty and very remarkable foods. ... This is a pretty nice campus.  You can’t walk very far across it, it’s a long, narrow campus, but a very nice one, this ship.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  These days we are sailing off the coast of Portugal, and it is Portugal that spread peanut cultivation around the world.

The peanut probably got its start in South America. Peanut seeds have been found in the ancient tribal tombs of Peru, and the Incas cultivated the plant as part of their regular diet.  The early European explorers first saw them in Haiti and Mexico, and Cortez and Columbus brought them back to Spain and Portugal. The peanuts that go to make things like peanut butter are actually not nuts like almonds or walnuts; they’re legumes like lentils and peas -- which is why we call it a “pea” nut.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  They’re very high in protein, they also contain thiamine, niacin, iron, magnesium and folic acid.  And they’re a great source of dietary fiber.

Almost every home in America has a jar of peanut butter, and the average American eats 3.3 pounds of peanut butter each year.  Today the pastry chef on board the Royal Viking Sun is making a batch of peanut butter cookies that are going to be served at afternoon tea.  That service, of course, is dependent on my camera crew leaving some for the passengers.  The batter is made by softening sixteen ounces of butter in a mixing bowl and then whisking in one and a half cups of sugar, one and a half cups of peanut butter (creamy or chunky, your call), and finally, three cups of flour.  When that is fully combined, the chef scoops out golfball-sized portions and puts them onto a parchment-covered baking sheet.  Then a sheet of parchment paper is placed on top, and the cookies are flattened out.  Into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes, and when they come out, they’re allowed to cool -- at which point they are ready to eat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the great joys of sailing around the world like this is you get to stop in cities all over the planet and shop.  But shopping may be more complicated than you expect.  So to make sure you get the most for your money, Royal Viking has a shopping expert who will teach you how to do this properly.  What do I need to know?

CAROLE KLEIN:  There are definite techniques for negotiating, when a price is not fixed.  And for a lot of us, the expression on our face gives ourselves away that you love something and can’t live without it.  So you have to use your best acting ability to conceal your true desire if there’s something that spots your eye right off the bat.  And for good negotiating, you should not have your eye draw attention to that item, but instead, look at something else.  Ask the price of that, then maybe of another item; then maybe the third item you ask the price of will be the one true thing you can’t live without.  And if you act like you don’t really want it, generally the price will come down in the negotiating process.  So there’s a whole psychology to, to bargain shopping here.

The Russian city of St. Petersbourg: a major port. Paintings from the 1700's show docks and trading houses along the waterfront. An interesting stop for the Royal Viking Sun during its round the world cruise. And an ideal spot for its chef, Manfred Jaud, to brush up on his Russian recipes... like Beef Stroganoff.  A little oil goes into a saute pan... a little butter... and a pound of tenderloin of beef cut into strips about a half inch thick. The beef cooks for about 5 minutes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  What the chef is doing is called sautéing.  It means to cook something in an open pan with a little bit of butter or oil.  It’s a French word, and it means “to jump.”  And when you’re sauteing a food properly, it’s jumpin’ in the pan. 

The cooked meat is removed from the pan and drained of the cooking oil.  A little butter goes into the pan... some chopped onion... a few sliced mushrooms... paprika... cognac... prepared gravy... a little mustard and some sour cream.  The beef is returned to the pan.  Everything heats up and it's ready to plate.  Noodles... a few steamed vegetables... the beef... and a little garnish.  A favorite of Chef Jaud, and of the passengers too, is this dish of baked fish with a tomato crust.  A little vegetable oil is heated in a frying pan.  Then in goes a fillet of fish.  That cooks on one side for two minutes, then flips over and cooks on the other side for two minutes more.  A mixture goes on top that is made by cooking together chopped tomato, onion, mushrooms and parsley.  A topping for the tomato layer is made by combining a few tablespoons of butter, an equal amount of bread crumbs, a little Gruyere cheese, thyme and chives.  That’s piped on top.  The crusted fish goes into a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven for fifteen minutes.  While the fish is cooking, a sauce is made.  Vegetable oil is heated in a frying pan, chopped onions are added, chopped tomato, a little of the tomato juices, salt, pepper, some fresh basil, and some fresh parsley.  That cooks for a few minutes and goes onto the serving plate.  The fish goes on top of the sauce, and then a garnish of grilled vegetables.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s the Royal Viking Sun.  Please join us next time as we wander around the world looking for good things to eat.  I’m Burt Wolf.

Travels & Traditions: Cruising France - #904

BURT WOLF: In 1991, a French archaeological team working on the banks of the Seine River in the middle of Paris discovered three dugout canoes that proved to be 6,500 years old.  The canoes belonged to a Neolithic tribe of hunter-gathers. So it seems that people have been hanging out in this neighborhood for at least 7,000 years. 

About a mile up stream from the spot where the canoes were found is an island in the middle of the river. Around 300 BC, a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii set up a trading post on this island. It was the perfect spot for a settlement. The river was used for east-west trade. And a north-south land route passed over the island. Once again, the spot where a land route crossed a river became the point of origin for a great European city. The ancient Romans saw the value of the location and developed the island into a typical Roman outpost. Today, it’s called the Ile De La Cite and it’s one of the best neighborhoods in Paris.

It is also the starting point for my tour and river cruise from Paris to Lyon in the middle of France.

The eastern half of the Ile De La Cite is home to the cathedral of Notre Dame. Construction on the cathedral started in 1163 and went on for almost 200 years. At the time, most people could not read, so the builders used the front of the cathedral as a giant billboard to illustrate stories from the bible. In the middle is the Last Judgment and the Resurrection. 

In the year 250, St. Denis, a Christian missionary and the first bishop of Paris, was beheaded on this hilltop.

Legend has it that he picked up his head, and took 6,000 steps to the spot where he wanted to be buried. The hill became know as Mons Martyrum, which means the martyr’s mound. These days the area is known as Montmartre and it’s the highest point in Paris. During the last decades of the 1800s and early 1900s, Montmartre was the favorite district for artists and the place where Impressionism and Cubism were born. This was the neighborhood of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Picasso. It was, and still is the home of the Moulin Rouge and its traditional Parisian cancan show.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1896, the Moulin hosted the annual Paris Arts Student’s Ball, during which the first all-nude striptease was presented. The model who unveiled this new art form was arrested and taken to jail at which point the citizens of Montmartre rioted. It appears that the right to undress completely in an appropriate public space is a basic French liberty and not to be interfered with.  And so she was released.

BURT WOLF: Another revolutionary triumph for French freedom that made my list of top ten tourist sites in Paris is The Arc De Triomphe. It was commissioned in 1809 by Napoleon in order to illustrate his most important military triumphs and its size was meant to match the dimensions of his ego. It lists 128 major battles which are richly illustrated, and the names of his 660 favorite generals who took part in those battles.

I hear that his personal recipe for the cream filling that goes into a Napoleon pastry is inscribed on the monument, but up to now, no one has been able to find it. Actually, it’s not so easy to find a Napoleon pastry in Paris.   However, right down the block from Napoleon’s Tomb is Le Boulanger– a pastry shop that opened in 1901 and has been making great cakes, pastries and breads ever since.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Now most pastry shops carry something called a millefeuille, it’s French for a thousand leaves. Same pastry cream as a Napoleon. Same pastry dough as a Napoleon. But on a millefeuille the top is powdered sugar.

BURT WOLF: The top of a Napoleon however has icing with a brown N on a white background. The N stands for Napoleon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But when Napoleon lost at Waterloo, the pastry chefs of Paris decided to keep the pastry but drop his initial from the top. You know this is a tough town and your pastry is only as good as your last battle.

BURT WOLF: The Eiffel Tower was built as the entrance way to the international exposition of 1889, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.  And its design was quite revolutionary.

The French government held a competition and over 100 plans were submitted to the committee. The government was looking for a monument that expressed their sense of achievement.

BURT WOLF: The winning design was presented by Gustave Eiffel, who until the time was considered to be a talented bridge engineer. His idea was to construct a 1,000 foot tower made of open-lattice wrought iron.

The plan was to keep it up for only a few years.  But with the high cost of taking it down, and the fun that everyone was having going up, it’s still here.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Until 1930 when it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building in New York City it was the tallest structure on earth.

BURT WOLF: These days, it’s the best place to get the ultimate view of Paris.

And there’s the Musee D’Orsay.

The Gare D’Orsay was a train station built for the 1900 World’s Fair. By the early 1950s, however, its platforms were too short for modern trains and the building was scheduled for demolition. But the President of France, Giscard d’ Estaing, understood the value of the structure and turned it into a national museum. A museum filled with works of the great French Impressionists.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: French Impressionism got started in the late 1800s and early 1900s when a group of painters in Paris got fed up with the traditional subjects of French painting. They’d had enough of religion and mythology and history, they wanted something new.

BURT WOLF: During the late 1860s, Claude Monet began concentrating on the effects of light and color. The subject matter of the painting, the depth and the perspective became less important. Surface pattern became more important. The Impressionists did all of their painting outside while looking at their subject as opposed to the conventional practice of painting in a studio.

Today the Musee D’ Orsay presents the works of the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists including Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh---artists who freed Western painting from thousands of years of tradition.

And then there’s the Louvre---the largest museum in the world and probably the most famous. You could easily spend five years working your way through the main collections.


BURT WOLF: The next day we headed south past the forests of Fontainebleau, which were the favorite hunting grounds of the French kings, and into the Burgundian city of Beaune.

People have been living in Beaune since prehistoric times. For centuries it belonged to the ancient Romans and was a center for cattle raising and the production of wine. For many years it was the home of the Dukes of Burgundy who were more powerful than the King of France, until 1478 when the King invaded and made it part of France. Today, Beaune is the wine capital of Burgundy and much of its economy is based on the production and sale of wine --- so you owe yourself a drink.

The most famous landmark in town is the Hotel-Dieu.

During the 1400s, Nicolas Rolin was the Chancellor to the Dukes of Burgundy and one of the most powerful men in Europe.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Things were good for Nicolas, but not for everybody.  The Hundred Year’s War had just ended, and there were bands of soldiers wandering around the countryside destroying everything and everybody they could get their hands on.  A plague had just begun and ninety percent of the people in Beaune were destitute.  Ah but Nicholas saw an opportunity in all of this, he thought he might be able to do well by doing good. He was a bit concerned about the things that he had done to become the great Lord of Burgundy and how they might look on his application to get into heaven.

BURT WOLF: So Nicholas built a great hospital.  A magnificent palace.  A place that has become famous throughout the world.  And that fame was central to his plan.  Rolin figured that if someone “upstairs” noticed what he had done it might reduce the impact of his sins and improve his overall standing with the Almighty. This was not an uncommon practice at the time.  Celestial favors were a big business and this arrangement in no way diminished the magnificence of his charity.

Much of the art created for the Hospices was commissioned by Rolin in order to distract the minds of the patients from their own condition and redirect their thoughts to prayer and requests for God’s forgiveness.  Well, let me tell you... lying in bed in a hospital and looking at the detail of the Last Judgment could certainly do that.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When the well-to-do were well enough to leave, they would make a generous gift.  Sometimes it was money.  Money was good. Sometimes it was land.  And in 1471, for the first time, it was a vineyard. 

BURT WOLF: Wine was thought of as a health-giving liquid. Water was often dangerously polluted and considered something that could kill you.  So donating a vineyard was a great step in the right direction.  The Hospices could use the grapes to make wine... give some of it to the patients... and sell the rest for money.  And they could do that year after year after year.  The gift of a vineyard was a gift that kept on giving.

Over the centuries many more vineyards were donated.  Today the Hospices has holdings on over 50 estates, and they are on some of Burgundy’s best land.  Each year grapes are gathered from the hillside and employees of the Hospices make the official Hospices wine.

On the third Sunday in November, the result of these winemaking activities are sold at the world’s largest charity wine auction.  Buyers come from all over the world to bid and many millions of dollars are raised to cover the upkeep of the Hospices.


BURT WOLF: The boat we sailed on was the Avalon Scenery which was launched about a month before we arrived. It’s a perfect example of a new approach to comfort and convenience.

The Cruise Director is Jean Loup Domart.

JEAN LOUP DOMART ON CAMERA: Traveling on the boat, making it easy, you’re going to spend seven nights on the ship.  You just park your suitcase; you don’t live out of a suitcase for a change.  We have among the largest state rooms on the river and the decoration is nice, soft and relaxing in terms of treating the wood colors and the textiles.  And most of the rooms that we have on this ship have got sliding doors with some of the most beautiful views of the rivers as we’re sailing.  You have plenty of sky deck, and it’s extremely relaxing on a nice sunny afternoon to just relax on the deck.  Even with a nice cocktail and sort of sip the glass and the scenery as you sail along.  You have on the top deck also a Jacuzzi; you have a gym as well on the lower level and the services of the hair dresser.  The food on the boat, we try to reflect as much as possible the different areas that we are crossing, there are three important meals on the ship.  Morning breakfast, which is a traditional American buffet breakfast.  Then we normally cater a buffet at lunch time and then dinner always with different themes.  Could be a Provencal dinner, could be any kind of dinner that has been planned by the kitchen.  One nice thing about this dinner is that every single dish that is presented at the table to the guest was actually paired with wine. 

We have evening’s entertainment at the ship at least three times a week.  Everybody knows a lot of these French songs so we have a singer coming from one of the cabarets in Lyon that actually sings for us and then as we get to the south there is an important culture that is extremely strongly Spanish influenced and we have the privilege of receive onboard, once a week, The Gypsy Kings.


BURT WOLF: The next morning we visited the Chateau De Cormatin.

It was built in the early 1600s as the private residence of the Marquis d’Huxells, who had the brilliant insight to marry the daughter of the Count de Monee who was the Finance Minister of King Louis the XIII.

Most of the Chateaux that were put up during this period were vacation homes for the Parisian nobility--- nice little places so you could get away from it all.

They had rustic fireplaces.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Chicken noodle…

BURT WOLF: Old fashioned wooden ceilings.

Lots of paintings --- probably done by the kids in school.

A country kitchen.

A place for the little things you collected as you traveled around.

A few extra bedrooms in case you wanted to invite two or three hundred of your closest friends for the weekend.

And pleasant little gardens where you could grow a few herbs or vegetables or flowers.

Or plant your own forest.

The simple life.

This place was built during the time of the Three Musketeers and I can definitely see them in the neighborhood.

That afternoon we arrived in Macon and took a walk around the town.

We also visited St. Vincent’s Cathedral which was built during the 6th century.

But about 1100 years later, during the French Revolution, local citizens decided that they had a better use for the stones than a church, so these days there isn’t much left of the old cathedral.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: That’s the oldest house in the city.  It was built in the 1400s.  And because there’s a row of figures on it that appear to be half man, half animal, it was thought to be owned by the devil and when you walked by it you weren’t supposed to look at it.  But recent research indicates that those are just naked guys hanging out in a bar.  So if you want to look at it you can.

BURT WOLF: Macon is the southernmost wine town in Burgundy. The wines that come from this area are usually light, uncomplicated, easy to drink and a good value for their price. Pouilly-Fuisse is the most famous and most expensive wine of Macon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But I’d just as soon drink the Macon-Village --- considerably less expensive. Great taste and because the wines of Macon are not aged in oak they are ready to drink when they are released.  And I’m ready.


BURT WOLF: The next morning we sailed to the city of Lyon which was founded by the ancient Romans in 43 BC. They developed their settlement on a peninsula formed by the meeting point of two great rivers --- the Rhone and the Saone.

The hill above the city is called the Fourviere --- probably a contraction of “Forum Vetus” which is Latin for Old Forum.

On the top is the church of Notre Dame. It was built in the 1870s.   It’s a little flashy for some of the local residents who refer to it as the upturned elephant because of the four short towers that stick up from the corners.

Even though the subject matter is the Virgin Mary, the mosaic-covered walls and floors give the inside of the building a Moorish quality. It has become a major pilgrimage site with over a million visitors each year.

Right down the street is the excavation of two ancient Roman theatres.

They were discovered during the 1930s by a group of nuns digging a garden.

The larger theater was constructed in 15BC and had over 10,000 seats. If you got to perform here, it was considered an important booking for your act and a tribute to your agent’s power and influence. It was like playing the big room in Vegas.

Even today, the theatres are used to present special events.

These giant Roman amphitheaters are the earliest Roman structures outside of Rome.

At the base of the amphitheater’s hill is Lyon’s Old Town. During the 1400s,

King Louis XI of France granted Lyon the right to hold commercial fairs that brought in buyers and sellers from all over Europe. Many of the merchants who took up residence in Lyon were from Italy and the buildings have a similar look to the buildings that were constructed during the same time in Florence. In fact, Lyon’s Old Town has one of the largest collections of Renaissance buildings and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

BURT WOLF: The word Renaissance literally mean rebirth and in the arts it’s reference to a period in European culture that followed the Middle Ages.  It was characterized by an interest in the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. In architecture the objective was to re-create the ancient classical structures of Rome. Harmony, balance and proportion were the essential elements.

At the beginning of the 1800s, Lyon was considered to be the silk capital of Europe. Over half the population of the city was involved in the weaving and dying of silk.  The weavers were known as canuts and today La Maison des Canuts is a museum dedicated to the history of Lyon’s silk industry.

A guided tour covers the history of the textile industry in Lyon, the invention of the jacquard loom which revolutionized textile weaving and how the industry is evolving in the 21st century. In addition, the museum has a gift shop with great silk scarves and fabulous ties.

Lyon also has a unique architectural feature --- known as traboules, they are narrow covered alleys that were designed as private connections between the great family mansions. They were originally used to transport the delicate fabrics between the different producers and the dyers, and to allow private visits between the families. During the Second World War they were conduits for the French resistance. The residents of Lyon knew the network --- the Nazi’s didn’t.

Today the traboules are still private but agreements between the owners and the Lyon Tourist Association make them available to visitors.

Many people say this is the town that invented modern French cuisine.  Chef Paul Bocuse reinvented it in the 1970s.  We sampled some of the signature dishes at Brassiere Le Nord.  For starters, a chicken liver and foie gras mousse, roasted beet salad and a puree of cod and potatoes.  The main courses were pan roasted chicken, steak in a pepper sauce and whatever the daily special is.  Today it’s saddle of lamb.  For dessert, a fresh fig and raspberry tart and a pineapple upside down cake with coconut ice cream.

That evening we returned to our boat for a private performance by The Gypsy Kings.  The Gypsy Kings are a musical group who perform Rumba Gitano music which is a blend of rumba, rhythms and flamenco.  Their first album was released in 1987 and since then they have sold over 18 million albums.  They’re the world’s best selling musical group from France.

It was a great concert and a perfect way to end our cruise.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.

Travels & Traditions: Cruising the Rhine - #903

BURT WOLF: The Rhine is one of the world’s great rivers. It starts in the Swiss Alps and flows for 865 miles through six European countries ending up in the Netherlands and the North Sea. It connects to dozens of other rivers and canals forming a vast inland waterway. Berlin, Paris even Provence on the Mediterranean is reachable on this freshwater highway.

Traditional Rhine ships are long and sit low in the water. They’re long because they can’t be wide—the river is too narrow and the locks are even narrower. They can sit low in the water because they’re not worried about ocean waves and heavy seas.

The ancient Romans understood the commercial value of the Rhine and maintained a Rhine fleet to protect its trading boats. Moving things on the Rhine was cheaper than moving things on land. As a result, the river is lined with some of Europe’s oldest and most famous cities --- Basel, Strasbourg, and Cologne are perfect examples.

The river has inspired paintings, operas, symphonies, and books—and in recent years, tourists. So I decided to take a cruise along the Rhine from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Basel in Switzerland.

We started out in Amsterdam and cruised its canals.

Then on to Cologne in Germany with its thousand year old cathedral.

The next stop was Koblenz to check out its castles.

We docked at Rudesheim, a classic wine village.

At Heidelberg for a drink at its 300 year old tavern. 

Strasbourg for some of the best food in Europe.

Then the medieval town of Breisach and finally the Black Forest.

We ended up in Basel, Switzerland and headed home.

We cruised aboard the Avalon Tapestry and Katalin Kovacs was our Cruise Director.

KATALIN KOVACS: This type of ship, the Tapestry, was the first twin cruiser, which means that the ship is in two parts.

KATALIN KOVACS ON CAMERA: We are now in the hotel part of the ship, and it is pushed by a second part of the ship.

KATALIN KOVACS: In the second part there is the wheel house and the engines and the second part is pushing the first one so that’s why we do not have vibration at all in the first part. And that’s fantastic, that’s a very nice experience for the passengers-- that they are just floating with their hotel, and watching the sight without feeling the vibration.

Wherever we go into each city, we try to let the people taste the local foods and we are enjoying many—of course we have all those wonderful sauerkraut and sausages. When we are in Switzerland or when we are in Holland we have also local foods and local food tastings in the restaurant. We try to satisfy everybody so that you have the best selection of food that you can get on the river cruise.

We have the biggest staterooms on the rivers in Europe so you have your proper twin or king-size beds. You have your own bathroom of course, and you have enough space to put all your clothes and all your suitcases into the stateroom. This is also the convenient part of river cruising, that you unpack once.


BURT WOLF: Our flight from the United States arrived in Amsterdam, which has always been one of my favorite cities. Great art. Great beer. Great architecture. Great beer. Great shopping. And,

of course, great beer.

CANAL TOUR GUIDE: The canals where we are sailing now, this is what is called the Prinsen Canal.

BURT WOLF: We started our tour of Amsterdam by cruising the canals, which is the best way to get a sense of the city. Most historians see the 1600s as Holland’s Golden Age because they dominated international trade---especially the spice trade from Indonesia.

The houses along the canals were built with the great wealth that came to Amsterdam as a result of its international trading.

Dutch ships owned by the people who lived in these houses carried many different things including wines and spirits. But besides carrying the wine, they also influenced the type of wines that were available.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Up until the 1600s, wine wouldn’t last very long. It was undrinkable within six months, and you couldn’t hold it from harvest to harvest. That was unacceptable to the Dutch, who wanted to ship wine all over the world. So they went to France and they actually taught the French how to make Cognac. They also helped them with their sweet wines and they introduced sulfites as a preservative. Here’s to the Dutch.

BURT WOLF: Amsterdam has a unique distilled spirit called Geneva. It’s a juniper-flavored liquor and was probably one of the precursors to early English Gin.

FENNY VAN WEES: This is Geneva, and Geneva is made from grains.

BURT WOLF: The van Wees family has been making it for over 150 years.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How did Amsterdam get started making Geneva?

FENNY VAN WEES ON CAMERA: Well, the Dutch went to the East Indies and the monks in Amsterdam—there were a lot of them during the 18th century—they started to experiment with all these herbs and they started to make Geneva in order to find medicine against the black disease. And they started to distill these herbs together with grains and that’s how Geneva got started.

BURT WOLF: It was a medicine. Ah, wonderful, I always drink for medicinal purposes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Let’s go have a drink.

BURT WOLF: Just across town you can visit the House of Bols which has a museum dedicated to the cocktail.

SANDIE VAN DOODOORNE ON CAMERA: This is the House of Bols, cocktail and Geneva experience. And we created this to allow people from all over the world to come and take a look at the world’s oldest distilled brand, Bols, and to find out throughout about the world of cocktails and bartending and liquors and Genevas.

All the five senses—what you touch, what you see, what you feel, what you smell—they are all influence how you experience taste. So if you see something red for example, you have a certain experience of what you’re gonna taste. But it could very well be a vanilla but if it’s red that’s really going to influence how you’re gonna taste that vanilla. And here at the House of Bols, you can experience the smelling and tasting and how all the senses influence what you taste.

BURT WOLF: Because the Dutch controlled the islands that now make up Indonesia, Indonesian food became a basic part of Dutch cuisine. Most locals go out for indo more often than they go out for traditional Dutch food. 

The signature Indonesian meal in Holland is called a Rijsttafel which means ‘rice table”. You start with a plate of rice. Then you add an assortment of accompaniments. Curried meats, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, nuts, eggs, sauces, pickles and fruit. The objective is to end up with a balance of dishes that are sour, sweet, salty and spicy, all held together by the blandness of the rice. This elaborate meal was developed in Indonesia during the years when it was being exploited as a Dutch colony. Accordingly, in some circles, Rijsttafel is not considered a politically correct event, and you don’t often see it in Indonesia. However, it’s still around in Holland and Indonesian restaurants in Europe and the Caribbean and it can be fantastic.


BURT WOLF: We sailed through the night and the next morning. That afternoon we arrived in Cologne Germany. Cologne was built by the ancient Romans in 38 AD at a point where the Rhine River crossed a major east-west trade route. It was an ideal spot for commercial development and by the Middle Ages it had become the largest and one of the richest cities in northern Europe. And once again it was a city’s position on a major river that made it rich.

But Cologne’s wealth and fame is also the result of its religious relics. In the middle of the 1100s, Emperor Barbarossa, who lived in Milan, gave the remains of the Three Kings to the Archbishop of Cologne who brought them home, and had them placed in a golden shrine and built a fantastic cathedral to hold that shrine. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to visit “Holy Cologne.” Even today, over five million visitors come here each year.

Just down the river from where we docked is The Chocolate Museum which is housed in a boat shaped structure on the bank of the Rhine. Inside the displays will take you on a journey through 3,000 years of chocolate history, from the Aztec’s to modern day industrial production. There’s a small working chocolate factory where you can see how the cacao bean is processed into chocolate and how the liquid is formed into finished products.


BURT WOLF: The factory produces about 1,000 pounds of chocolate a day and you can take part in the process.

That afternoon I brought everybody onboard over to Haxenhaus to meet my friend Willie and have a beer on me.

WILLIE ON CAMERA: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Haxenhaus. My name is Willie.

BURT WOLF: Drink up. Drink as much as you want. Not this table.

BURT WOLF: Cologne has its own beer called Kolsch. It’s a light colored, slightly bitter and hoppy ale and by law it must be brewed within the city limits. Kolch is served in a thin small glass that is marked to hold about seven ounces. It has no carbonation so it tastes best the moment it comes out of the keg. With a small glass you drink the beer quickly. Waiters come by and refill your glass until you put a coaster over the glass which signals that you’re finished.

That evening, there was a classical music concert by a trio called La Strada. 


BURT WOLF: During the night we sailed to Koblenz Germany.

In the year 9 BC, 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 Koblenz.

Koblenz was the home of an Archbishop and a Prince Elector who selected the Emperor. As Archbishop he had to defend himself against the devil and as Prince Elector he had to 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 2 minutes a stream of water shoots from his mouth and drenches unsuspecting viewers.

They also have a town clock with a face that sticks its tongue out on the hour. It’s all quite strange because the people of Koblenz are quite welcoming. It must be a problem with their sculptors.


BURT WOLF: At mid-day we headed up river to the Rhine Gorge.

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. For hundreds of years those romantic castles belonged to a bunch of the nastiest guys on the planet. Known as Teutonic knights they set themselves up as independent rulers, fortified the high points along the narrow gorge and charged a toll for every ship that came by. If you couldn’t pay the toll you lost your cargo and in many cases you lost your life. It wasn’t until the middle of the 1800s that these guys were finally subdued and a treaty was signed by all the countries along the Rhine making it a free and open highway to ships of all nations.

So they finally got rid of the Teutonic knights, but they still had the problem of the Lorelei. The story goes that a beautiful woman named Lorelei lived on a rock which towers some 400 feet above the river. Her thing was to sing an enchanted song which distracted the boatmen. They lost control of their craft, crashed into the rocks and drowned.


BURT WOLF: Later that afternoon we docked in Rüdesheim.

The Romans arrived in this neighborhood about 2,000 years ago and taught the local population to build more maneuverable ships and stone houses.

They also showed them the best techniques for cultivating vines and making wine. The Rüdesheim vineyards ended up providing wine for the Roman troops.

During the first half of the 1800s, Rüdesheim became a main stop for steamboats and railroads and suddenly it became a destination for tourists. Most of the sightseers came from England which was in its Romantic Period. Rüdesheim’s old courtyards and winding alleys lined with half-timbered houses were just what they were looking for.

We concluded our evening in Rüdesheim with a visit to the Rüdesheimer Schloss – or more appropriately – Rüdesheimer schloshed. Their specialty is a Rüdesheimer coffee which consists of sweet coffee, a substantial hit of the local brandy, and a topping of whipped cream with chocolate shavings. 


BURT WOLF: 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.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: 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.

BURT WOLF: That afternoon we visited the Church of the Holy Ghost which dates to 1398 and has a unique history of serving both Catholic and Protestant congregations at the same time.

We were treated to an organ concert. 


BURT WOLF: Strasbourg is the capital city in the Northeast region of France, known as Alsace, which has an unusual history.

Thousands of years ago, it started as a Celtic village. When the ancient Romans colonized the area it became a garrison town. In the 5th century it was taken by the Francs. During the Middle Ages Strasbourg became part of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1681, the king of France invaded and took control. Ten years later, it was given to back to the Germans. Then back to France at the end of the First World War. The Germans occupied it during the Second World War. At the end of which it was returned to France. 

Are you getting this down?!

Today, everyone in Strasbourg speaks French, but they also speak German as a second language—just in case.

The city is crisscrossed by a network of canals that connect it to river systems that run throughout France.

The Petit France District is the most picturesque part of the city. 

We also had a guided tour of Strasbourg’s Cathedral of Notre-Dame, which was started in the 11th century and completed in the 15th century. It was worth the wait. It’s 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 has an astronomical clock that was originally built during the 1300s and everyday at 12:30 it presents a group of allegorical and mythological creatures. The clock’s body has a planetarium based on the 17th century theories of Copernicus.


BURT WOLF: The next morning we docked in 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. But in the 1500s, farmers along the Rhine began to clear the land and move into the forest.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There isn’t much left to the thick pine forest and the thieves appear to have gone into the mortgage business or running offshore corporations. And the wild boars…they’re in television.

BURT WOLF: The area is famous for its Black Forest Cake. 

But its 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, developed a mechanism that allowed the bird to come out on the hour, and announced its presence by yelling “cuckoo”. 

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

Up river from Strasbourg, the Rhine becomes a stairway to paradise—a man-made canal with seven giant locks that raise the river to the height of the Swiss city of Basel.

Basel is the highest point on the Rhine and the city where our cruise ended.

As the boat pulled back out into the river the captain sounded three bells---the old Rhine custom that marks a prayer: “In God’s name, a good voyage”.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.

Travels & Traditions: Tulip Time Cruise - #901

BURT WOLF: For thousands of years the best way to get around Europe was on a river boat. The rivers were the great highways that moved people and goods. They were also the natural boundaries between cultures. As a result many of the great cities of Europe were built on the banks of rivers.

During the last few years cruising the rivers of Europe has become a major attraction for tourists. And for good reason --- the ship is your hotel and it takes you peacefully from city to city. Often you’ll dock in the oldest and most beautiful parts of a town. And one thing that is particularly dear to my heart --you only unpack once.

This cruise is called Tulip Time. It starts in Amsterdam, which is filled with art, architecture and places to shop. Next, Dordrecht to discover how windmills really work. Then Antwerp, which is the world epicenter for diamonds and Brussels for food, beer, lace, beer, unusual statues and beer. Ghent for its outstanding architecture and Bruges where the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


BURT WOLF: Towards the end of the 1100s, a group of herring fisherman decided to build a settlement at the mouth of the Amstel River. They drove wooden stakes into the mud, mounded some wet earth and seaweed around the stakes and patched together a few huts on top of the mounds. Nothing to brag about, but still something they could call home. There was, however, one serious problem -- at high tide, home was about three feet underwater.

So they built a dam to hold back the sea and the people called the place the dam on the Amstel. The dam worked and there was much rejoicing.

Today that same spot is Amsterdam’s town square and there is still much rejoicing.

The best way to get a quick look at why they are rejoicing is to take a canal tour. The canals were built by the city government during the 1600s. Each canal had four lanes of traffic. A ship could tie up in front of a warehouse, unload its cargo and not interfere with the ongoing traffic in the center lanes. Double parking was a capital crime. The three main canals could handle 4,000 ships at a time.

Real estate has always been tight in Amsterdam. As a result some people began living on canal boats. Eventually these floating apartments became some of the most desirable locations in the city. Captain Vincent is the curator of The Houseboat Museum and offers visitors a tour of life on a canal boat.



BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thank you very much.

CAPTAIN VINCENT van LOON ON CAMERA: Just come inside and I show you my boat.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I’m right behind you.

CAPTAIN VINCENT van LOON ON CAMERA: Welcome onboard, be careful with the steps.


CAPTAIN VINCENT van LOON ON CAMERA: This is the kitchen.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Pretty big kitchen.

CAPTAIN VINCENT van LOON ON CAMERA: Yeah, this is the living room, as you can see a lot of people think it’s quite small in a houseboat but it can be even bigger than some small apartments in Amsterdam. This is a model of ships like these which were converted into houseboats, they were former freighters, this one was built in 1914 and the deck house, the whole family lived in, four people or maybe ten square meters, so it’s quite small, and they could transport goods by opening these covers, coal and other grain and things like that could come in. This is the sitting room with nice chairs, enough height to stand, some old pictures of Amsterdam. For example this is a nice picture because you can see these ships which were transformed into house boats were freighters, you can see people loading stuff on the ships and transporting all over the Netherlands.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And you’re connected to electricity

CAPTAIN VINCENT van LOON ON CAMERA: Yeah, water; telephone, so it’s quite comfortable to live on a house boat in Amsterdam.

BURT WOLF: The net result of all these canals is a city built on 90 islands and connected by 500 bridges. Laws controlled the size of the houses that faced the canals, the bricks that could be used and what architectural embellishments were allowed. These buildings were constructed during the late 1500s and early 1600s. At the time, Amsterdam was the commercial and financial center of Europe and much of its wealth was created by the Dutch East India Company which controlled the spice trade with the islands of the South Pacific.

This was the business that Columbus was looking for when he bumped into the Bahamas. The Dutch East India Company was making big bucks. It was also one of the first companies to have a pubic offering of its stock. Investors could buy shares and share in the riches. This was Amsterdam’s Golden Age and much of that gold went into buying works of art.

As a result, Amsterdam has a half-dozen of the world’s great museums.

The Van Gogh Museum houses more Van Gogh paintings and drawings than any other museum in the world.

The Rijksmuseum is the official state museum and has the greatest collection of Dutch masters. They have Rembrandt’s Night Watch and the Jewish Bride. They have Vermeer’s Milkmaid and the Love Letters and Franz Hals Portrait of a Young Couple. They also have an awesome collection of Delftware porcelain and one of Europe’s largest collections of prints and drawings.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: For thousands of years, if you had big money you wanted to use some of that money to commission a work of art. Money could be in the hands of a rich family like the de Medicis of Italy or a King like Louis XVI of France or the Catholic Church. They liked mythological themes and religious elements. But here in Amsterdam the money was in the middle class.

BURT WOLF: Pictures from everyday life were in and everything had to look real---your uncle Franz --- the guys in your drinking club --- landscapes--- and seascapes.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Unfortunately, Amsterdam’s golden age was short lived. During the second half of the 1600s everybody ganged up on the Dutch. The English started a series of wars that took away their holdings in the East Indies and the Portuguese attacked and took away most of their holdings in Brazil. Even New Amsterdam became New York.

BURT WOLF: But much of what was created during Amsterdam’s Golden Age is still around and easily available to visitors and that is particularly true when it comes to eating and drinking.

Amsterdam has a unique type of establishment called a “tasting house” where you can taste the different liquors produced by a specific manufacturers. In this case the Van Wees Company. Their tasting house is called The Admiral it and offers 17 types of Geneva which is a kind of Gin. They also offer an assortment of special liqueurs with unusual flavors like cinnamon and ginger.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Here’s to the Dutch.

BURT WOLF: Pancakes are also a tradition in Amsterdam and a shop called Pancakes! is the place to try them. They have pancakes with ham. Pancakes with bacon and cheese and pancakes with raspberry sauce.

You’ll also see people eating raw herring. They buy one from a street vendor who serves it on a paper plate with a garnish of chopped onion. Correct form requires that you tilt your head back, hold the herring above you, slowly lower it into your mouth and bite off a piece. This is definitely an acquired taste, and an acquired skill.

If you’re interested in the traditional foods of Amsterdam but the flight of the raw herring is not your thing, may I suggest a visit to Haesje Claes. You can taste hotchpotch, which is a dish of meats, mashed potatoes, onions and carrots. Another favorite is red beans with potatoes and piccalilli. They also have an excellent Dutch pea soup.


BURT WOLF: Following our free time in Amsterdam, Avalon’s crew welcomed us onboard.

AVALON CREW ON CAMERA: Afternoon sir, welcome onboard.

Cheers enjoy the first evening on board. Cheers to everybody. Salute.

BURT WOLF: Andrezj Sanakiewicz was our Cruise Director.

ANDREZJ SANAKIEWICZ ON CAMERA: What’s special about cruising on the Artistry is very nice intimate atmosphere and a very dedicated crew. There is a ratio of about three and a half passengers for one crew member. We are very proud of our staterooms because they are the most special on the European Rivers, all the staterooms are equipped with minibar and a dryer, bathrobe and TV, ninety percent of all our staterooms have sliding glass doors, French balconies, we have of course, a special restaurant as well, for breakfast they have hot stations with omelets and eggs on request, they have all kinds of cold cuts, bagels and cream cheese, we have fresh fruits and a big selection of cereals. We try always to introduce some of the local products like cheese. We have a very special lounge which is a place for all kinds of social gatherings and lectures and we have a musician for evening entertainment. In addition a beautiful sky deck where passengers can enjoy the countryside passing by.


BURT WOLF: During our first morning on the river we docked in Schoonhoven.

All of Schoonhoven fits into three square miles and has a medieval feeling.

Little canals lined with row houses.

Narrow bridges crossing over the canals.

And ancient streets lined with jewelry shops and silver galleries.

For the past 700 years, Schoonhoven has been a center for the design and production of silver jewelry. During the 1300s Schoonhoven was the most important royal court in the Netherlands. Silversmiths came to the area to make things for the royal family. When the royal family began losing power and money during the 1400s the silver artists stayed on and sold their work to anyone who could afford it. And the number of people who could afford it was quickly increasing because of international trade. 

One of the most interesting workshops is the one in the old water tower which shows works by local and international silversmiths. These are active workshops where you can watch artisans shape their designs.

Paul de Vries is an artist who works in silver.

PAUL de VRIES ON CAMERA: I’ve been working for 25 years now and I still like it even better than gold. I find it very special. And you can make any shape of it. It’s very malleable and still it’s very strong.

BURT WOLF: In addition to silver jewelry, Schoonhoven is famous for Kok’s Bakery.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And Kok’s is famous for its Fonteyn Koek, which is made of gingerbread and honey and sugar and dried subtropical fruits. Ah, but I bet you knew that already.

They also make waffle-like wafer cookies that are held together by a layer of caramel syrup.


BURT WOLF: That afternoon we stopped in Dordrecht where we caught a bus to Kinderdijk and learned about windmills.

Kinderdijk means children’s dike and refers to a great flood on St. Elisabeth’s Day in 1421, when a crib with a crying baby was washed up on this dike. There are nineteen windmills in the area and until 1950 they were used to drain water from the land which is below sea level.

There are two major types of windmills. Polder mills and industrial mills. Polder mills are used to drain the land that was and still is below sea level. 

Industrial mills are used for a number of traditional purposes like milling wheat, extracting oil and sawing wood.

The earliest windmills built in the Netherlands date back to the 1200s and may have been inspired by the wind powered grain mills of Persia. The Low Countries of Europe have very few rivers that can power mills so the windmill became the most important source of energy. 

They were also used to send messages.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When the blades are in this position it means that the miller is on a short break.

When they are like that, he’s on a longer break.

When they are in this position it’s called the mourning position, something sad has happened, the market has gone down another 200 points.

This is the celebration position. That means there has been a birth or a wedding in the miller’s family or the government has decided to put a permanent end to earmarked legislation.

During the Second World War, windmills were used to send secret signals to the allied forces.


BURT WOLF: The next morning we arrived in Antwerp which is the center of the diamond trade.

More than seventy percent of the world’s annual diamond business, worth over 15 billion dollars, takes place in Antwerp. Its home to two thousand diamond companies, employing over thirty thousand people. 

Diamonds were first mined in India and until the 1700s India was their only source. They are the hardest naturally occurring substance and when properly cut they have the ability to separate white light into the colors of the spectrum which gives a diamond its extraordinary brilliance.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The weight of a diamond is measured in carats --- a food reference but probably not the one you are thinking about. The word ‘carat” when it’s used with diamonds is a reference to the carob bean. It’s based on an old Greek word and strangely enough carob beans have a uniform weight so they were used in Ancient times to measure the weight of precious stones and diamonds.


BURT WOLF: About mid-day we headed for Brussels.

Brussels got started as a fortified castle on a small island in a River. The island was important because it was the crossing point for two trade routes. The local Dukes saw it as a good spot to make a few bucks and set up a protected market around the fort. By the 12th century Brussels was a major commercial center producing luxury goods that were exported throughout Europe.

The most famous symbol of Brussels is the Manneken Pis --- a bronze fountain in the form of a naked boy. It was constructed in the early 1600s and there are a number of stories about its meaning. But all the stories make the same point; the people of Brussels are courageous, have stood up to opposition, and the statue expresses their attitude towards anyone who tries to oppress them.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1746, during a visit by the King of France to Belgium, a group of French soldiers stole this statue. The King was so annoyed and embarrassed that he had the soldiers thrown in prison and held there until the statue was returned. And then he passed a law that said that every French soldier who ever passed this statue had to salute.

BURT WOLF: The King also gave the statue a uniform of gold brocade. The idea of putting different uniforms on the statue for different occasions caught on. Today there is a museum with over six hundred costumes. Dracula --- Mozart --- and my personal favorite --- Elvis.

Brussels is a great town for food. Its quintessential dish is steamed mussels in an herb broth with a side of French fried potatoes and a beer. The shell of the first mussel is used to scoop out the meat on the other side. The French fries, which should really be called Belgian fries, because the Belgians fried them first, are dipped into mayonnaise.

And there’s a beer that is called gueuze. It’s often described as Belgian Champagne. It’s made from lambic beer which is itself rather special. Most brewers add commercial yeast to their beer, lambic brewers count on the yeasts that are floating wild in the air around Brussels. The process produces a dry and cider-like drink. Sometimes, one–year-old lambic is mixed with longer aged lambic and bottled for a second fermentation. The result is Gueuze.

If you are serious about beer you might want to stop in to one of the many beer shops. Belgium produces 400 artisanal beers and some excellent mass-produced stuff.

And you wouldn’t want to forget about Belgian chocolates. Many of the big Belgian chocolate makers have retail outlets around the world and there’s little point in tasting what you can get back home. You want to go where the locals go and for many Belgians that’s Wittamer. In addition to its chocolate counter it has a beautiful café that serves a selection of macaroons, pastries and ice creams. I’ve been a fan of Wittamer’s work for the last thirty years.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And I’ve been buying my cookies at a shop called Dandoy for just as long.

Every year on December 6th, which is St. Nicholas’ Day, children all over Northern Europe receive a cookie called a speculoos. It’s from a Latin word that means “mirror”. Let me show you why.

BURT WOLF: It’s a reference to the fact that the cookie is made in a hand carved wooden mold that produces a mirror image of St. Nicholas.

Their old molds go back for hundreds of years and represent many other images besides St. Nick --- and some of them are over three feet tall.


BURT WOLF: The next morning we arrived in Ghent. Ghent is one of the oldest cities in Belgium and during the 1200s it was second only to Paris as a focal point for commerce and culture. It had a monopoly on the English wool trade which made it the center for European textiles. It also made it rich and powerful enough to be an almost totally independent city for hundreds of years.

Fortunately, Ghent has been able to maintain much of its architectural and cultural past.

It still has its 14th century belfry with a 52-bell carillon which was originally built to show off the town’s independence.

The feudal castle of the Counts of Flanders that was built to intimidate their rivals.

The 7th century Abbey of St. Bavo with its Lapidary Museum. Lapidary is a reference to the art of cutting and polishing stones. The museum has a collection of stone fragments collected from various demolished buildings and monuments. There is also a collection of tombstones that date from the 13th to the 19th century. It appears that from time to time certain abbeys, monasteries and churches decided to sell off their old tombstones to make way for new tombstones.

And there’s an unusual type of retreat that was popular in the 1200s, called a Beguinages. They were developed for unmarried women and widows who were unable to pay the convent dowry that was required to enter an official nunnery. It was a place where women could live in their own society, insulated from a troubled world, and use their individual skills to develop a collective environment. The Beguinages were financed by wealthy patrons and are unique to Belgium and the Netherlands.


BURT WOLF: Ghent also has a famous shop devoted to Mustard. Catherine Caesens is the owner.

CATHERINE CAESENS ON CAMERA: The firm has been founded in 1790 and has always been around here in the area. The shop moved into this building in 1860. The mustard is made with mustard seeds, vinegar and very, very little salt. I don’t use any preservatives, no additives at all, no starches, no colorings, so it’s quite a natural product. I’ll give you some of the mustard to try here from the vat. Be careful it’s quite hot. And this is where we sell our mustard from as well.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, it’s very nice.


BURT WOLF: That afternoon we took a tour of Bruges. During the 1200s Bruges was a major port and home to the Dukes of Burgundy. The Dukes were as powerful as the King of France. But by the 1400s, the waterway silted up and Bruges went into an extended period of economic decline.

The fact that Bruges was pretty much broke for 500 years was bad for citizens but good for its architectural heritage. No one had enough money to update their buildings and so they remained pretty much intact. As a result Bruges is one of the most beautiful cities in Northern Europe and the historic center of the town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town hall dates to 1376 and it is the oldest town hall in Belgium. 

Avalon’s Tulip Time Cruise was a great experience and I hope to tip-toe through the tulips again.

For Travels and Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.

Travels & Traditions: Cruising the Danube - #801

BURT WOLF: The Danube River is the second longest river in Europe after the Volga. It rises in the Black Forest Mountains of western Germany and flows for over 1,700 miles until it empties into the Black Sea. It passes through ten countries: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia and Ukraine.

For centuries its banks formed the boundaries between the empires of Europe.

And the waterway itself served as the great commercial highway that made the empires rich.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 7th century BC, Greek ships were coming up the Danube and trading with the local tribes. And when the Romans replaced the Greeks, the Danube became the northern boundary for the Roman Empire.

BURT WOLF: The river was constantly patrolled by a Roman fleet. The Roman fortresses along the shores became major cities, including Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade.

For almost 3,000 years the Danube has been an important road for commerce.

But with so many hi-tech advances in modern transportation you would think that the Danube would lose its standing as a significant commercial route. But just the opposite is true. Since World War II, traffic on the Danube has been on the increase. Constant dredging and the construction of a series of canals and locks have made the river more popular than ever.

And since the mid-1990s, the Danube has become a major attraction for river cruises with people coming from all over the world to sail on it---including me.

CAPTAIN ON CAMERA: Good afternoon sir, welcome aboard.


CRUISE DIRECTOR ON CAMERA: Good afternoon, welcome aboard.

BURT WOLF: The cruise I chose started in the Hungarian capital of Budapest and returned back to Budapest eight days later. While the ship was on the river it made stops in Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, Vienna the capital of Austria, Dürnstein where Richard the Lionhearted was held for ransom, Melk, a one thousand year old Benedictine monastery, as well as Grein, Linz and Passau.

Boats that sail on rivers are different from those that sail on oceans and large lakes. River boats are designed with a shallow draft which means they don’t go down very deep into the water. Our boat has a draft of about six feet. Because a river boat is not subject to high waves and strong winds you end up with a much more comfortable ride.

This is the Avalon Poetry. It’s operated by Avalon Waterways which is part of a Swiss company that’s been taking people around the world for over 80 years.

Burghart Lell is the head of operations.

BURGHART LELL ON CAMERA: The boat itself is 127 meters long, 443 feet and the nice part is that it is on three decks and we have cabins on all three decks. The most important thing is that on the middle and the upper deck we have French balconies. The bridge itself is the heart of the ship. We have sometimes a bridge that we have to lower it so that we have just a flat sky deck and we can pass underneath some of the bridges. There’s always some passengers who would like to walk outside and just get a shot of the landscape. So what we did there in the lounge was that we just has an isle on the side and you have a space in the front where you could always be outside even when it’s raining. And then we have built the lounge in such a way that it is the social center of the ship.



BURGHART LELL ON CAMERA: We have the bar in there, you can play cards, meet friends, have a chat. We have as a policy to give you very good food. We have in the morning a breakfast buffet, we have a lunch buffet, there’s always a variety. I have to admit it’s terribly decadent. Then we have a dinner a sit down dinner with one seating. The ship itself is stopping once, twice, or even sometimes three times a day in different places. You can walk off your calories. But there’s always the possibility to go to the gym. In the gym we have some exercise equipment like bikes, like rowing machines, and for those of you who really like to get a little bit of a treat we just can get yourself in the whirlpool and watch the landscape outside.


BURT WOLF: One of the advantages of a river cruise is that most of the time the boat docks in what for centuries was a central part of the city. On our first morning we docked in Bratislava and went ashore for a tour of the old city.

Bratislava is the capital of the Slovak Republic and the historic center of the country.

Starting around 1500 BC a trading route known as the Amber Road linked the people of the Mediterranean with the population centers around the Baltic Sea. Bratislava was a major stop on the road.

The city’s most important church is St. Martin’s Cathedral. It opened in 1452 and was originally part of the city’s medieval fortifications. Accordingly, the entrances to the building were placed in the side walls – a safer spot.

The relic chapel is said to contain the bones of St. John the Evangelist. During the Middle Ages, no matter what else a church had going for it, it was important to have some relics.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Relics brought visitors, and visitors brought money, and money was essential for the maintenance and expansion of the church. And the bigger the relics the bigger the money and the bones of St. John the Evangelist were big.

BURT WOLF: For almost 300 years, St. Martin’s Cathedral was the site of the coronation of the kings of Hungary.

Next we visited the Castle. The high point of any tour of Bratislavia is always the castle. That’s because it’s on a hill that’s over 300 feet above the river. You know sometimes a high point is just a high point. Construction on the castle began in the 9th century when the Slavs built a fortress to protect a crossing point on the river.

When the Hungarians took over in 1526 they made it bigger. Then the Habsburgs of Austria improved it. The fortress was so impregnable that the Empress, Maria Theresa, had a special room where she kept the Hungarian crown jewels and, even more important, her collection of vintage baseball cards.

That evening we docked in Vienna and a group of us went ashore to attend a Classical Concert at the Kursalon.


BURT WOLF: About 50 miles west of Vienna the Danube joins up with the Melk River. This is the spot that became the cradle of Austrian history.

In the year 976, the Babenberg family took control of the neighborhood and built a series of fortified castles. The castle at Melk was their most important stronghold and the place where they decided to bury their ancestors.

To make sure that their family burial site was cared for properly they set up a monastery inside the castle. The Babenberg’s ruled for just over a hundred years, at which point the castle and the surrounding lands were turned into a Benedictine Abbey and the Benedictine monks have been living here ever since.

St. Benedict believed that nothing was more important than the worship service and the Melk Abbey church was built to honor that belief. The artwork inside the church is based on the theme that “without a just battle there is no victory”.

St. Peter and St. Paul in a farewell handshake as they set off to do battle with death.

Christ crowned with thorns, battles through suffering to glory.

The entire area around the altar represents people battling on the road to salvation.

Our next stop was the picturesque little town of Grein. The stretch of water in front of the town was once a very dangerous part of the river. It was filled with rapids and rocks and took the lives of many boatmen. It was known as the Greiner Strudel.

The word strudel originally referred to a whirlpool or an eddy. But over the years its meaning has changed to include not only rivers but strips of pastry swirling around slices of baked apple. Which is a considerable improvement.

The Greinburg castle that sits above the town is one of Austria’s oldest palaces. It was built in the 1400s. The courtyard is three stories high and was used as the setting for great feasts and receptions. The most unusual room in the palace is a small artificial grotto with walls that are covered with a mosaic of pebbles from the Danube River. The palace also houses a nautical museum with models that illustrate the different types of ships and the rafts that once traveled the Danube.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: There are tiny little lounge chairs in there.

BURT WOLF: The town of Grein and the family that originally built the palace got rich because they were granted the eternal right to collect tolls from boats traveling on the Danube. Apparently eternity took its toll – these guys are out of business.


BURT WOLF: Our destinations for the next day were Passau and Linz. The German town of Passau is located at the meeting point of three rivers, the Inn, the Ilz and the Danube.

The old town sits on a narrow strip of land between the Inn and the Danube, which makes Passau feel like parts of Venice.

And like Venice the streets are regularly flooded. The ground floors of many of the buildings have been given up and outdoor staircases built to lead up above the high water mark to the first floor.

The wall of the city hall has a series of markings that indicate the flood levels starting in the early 1500s.

Besides being one of the most beautiful towns in Germany, Passau is famous for its St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

After Passau we headed to Linz.

Linz is the third largest city in Austria and people have been living here for at least 3,000 years, though, most of them look considerably younger. The Old Town has preserved much of its baroque architecture.

The local café is the perfect spot for an after dinner coffee and a slice of Linzertorte which is one of the traditional pastries of Linz.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A Linzer Torte is an open pie that’s filled with raspberry or red current jam and a dough that’s made with ground nuts instead of flour. It’s been an Austrian specialty for at least 400 years and some people consider it the oldest pastry recipe in the western world. In the middle of the 1600s a cookbook was published with four different recipes for Linzer Torte. 


BURT WOLF: One of the most beautiful parts of the Danube River is the section that runs through the Wachau Valley---ancient castles, great vineyards and the town of Dürnstein.

The third crusades to the Holy Land took place at the end of the 12th Century and featured a guest appearance by Richard the Lionhearted ruler of England. During one of the battles Richard insulted Duke Leopold of Austria by insisting that the Duke take down his battle flag. Richard felt he was entitled to top billing. When the crusade was over and Richard was returning to England he had to pass through Leopold’s neighborhood which included Dürnstein. In order to avoid being recognized he disguised himself as a traveling tradesman. But he forgot to take off his royal ring. He was spotted, captured, and held in the castle of Dürnstein until he was ransomed for 100,000 marks.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It’s interesting to note that it took over two years to get the ransom money together Richard was not very popular with his family. As a matter of fact, his brother John and Philip the King of France put some big bucks together and offered it to Leopold if he would keep him here for another year. But Leopold went with the original deal and released him at which point King Philip sent a note to John saying: “Watch out; the devil is loose.”

BURT WOLF: Today, Dürnstein is at the center of one of the most important wine growing areas in Europe.

The ancient Celtic tribes that lived here 3,000 years ago were already growing grapes and making wine. But winemaking didn’t become a big business until the monasteries got into it during the Middle Ages. The monks would teach the local peasants how to cultivate a vineyard. Then they would take most of the grapes and make wine.

Monasteries throughout Europe were making and selling wine, it was a big business, and six of the major players were right here in Austria. 

The Wachau area is about 40 miles west of Vienna, at a spot where the Danube cuts through a range of hills.

For a few miles, the steep northern bank produces some of Austria’s most famous wines.

The hills are so steep that very little equipment can be used and there are places where the workers are roped together like mountain climbers. It’s not an easy place to make wine.


BURT WOLF: Our next stop was Vienna.

Vienna is the largest city in Austria, and the nation’s capital, it was home to the Hapsburg court, the imperial seat of the Holy Roman Empire, and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The best way to see Vienna is by driving the Ringstrasse - Vienna’s main boulevard. It circles the city center and is lined with museums, universities and public buildings. When the old city walls were taken down in the 1850’s, it was the Ringstrasse that took their place.

The Opera House was one of the first buildings to be reconstructed after World War II. Vienna is known for its musical big-shots, at one time, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss all lived and composed in Vienna.

Behind the Opera House is the Sacher Hotel, it’s the home of the Sachertorte, Vienna’s signature pastry.

And this the Albertina, an 18th century palace which now houses over 60,000 drawings and one million etchings. You should come up and see them sometime.

The main attraction on this boulevard is the Habsburg Imperial Palace. It was the residence of Austria’s rulers starting in the 1200s. Decorators loved it - it got remodeled every time a new ruler moved in.

The Graben was once part of the town moat into which the residents threw their enemies. Today it’s Vienna’s main shopping thoroughfare into which residents throw their money.

One of Vienna’s most popular attractions is the Schonbrunn Palace. The Hapsburg family came to power at the end of the 1200’s and hung onto it for almost 900 years. Schonbrunn was their summer place, and it was built to look like Versailles in France.


BURT WOLF:  The last day of the cruise was spent in Budapest, which is actually made up of three cities: Buda, Pest and Obuda.

These days Budapest is a peaceful, beautiful and culturally interesting city which has managed to hold on to much of its history while adapting to the needs of a modern capital.

This is the Castle Hill area. The capital of Hungary was originally a few miles up the river on a flat plain that was almost impossible to defend. During the middle of the 1200s, the Mongol Tartars, who had become wealthy as a result of their invention of tartar sauce, invaded the town and destroyed it. So the next time a town was built in the neighborhood it was put up on a steep hill. Good move---safer neighborhood.

The hill is about 200 feet high and about 5,000 feet long and it holds an entire city district filled with historic houses.

The district also contains the Mathias Church. The original church on this site was put up in 1255 for use by the German residents of Buda. At the time it was known as the Church of Our Lady but people started calling it the Mathias Church after it was used for the first wedding of King Mathias in 1463.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Mathias used it again for his second wedding to Beatrice of Naples. And I’m sure if he had a third wedding he would have been here too. He loved getting married in this Church and he was getting a fabulous deal from the florist.

BURT WOLF: Next to the church is an equestrian statue of St. Stephen who converted to Christianity in the year 1,000 and became the first king of Hungary. There is a story that the number of legs connected to the ground on an equestrian statue is related to the way in which the rider died: one hoof raised means the rider was wounded in battle; two hooves raised means death in battle; and all four hooves on the ground means the rider survived all battles unharmed. 

This is a popular story but not always true. It depends on when and where the statue was made and who made it.

Behind the statue is an area known as the Fishermen’s Bastion. During the 1200s each group of tradesmen were responsible for defending a part of the city wall and this was the part defended by the fishermen. 

The spot has a great view of the Danube and Pest. The building that dominates the Pest bank is the Parliament.

When we finished our tour of Budapest we headed back to our boat where we celebrated our last evening on board with a Gypsy Dinner. 

Well, that’s river cruising on the Danube. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.