Travels & Traditions: Cologne to Zell - #1203

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.


BURT WOLF: 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.

Since the Middle Ages Cologne has been a religious center and a destination for pilgrims. Pilgrims came from all over Europe to visit “Holy Cologne”. The city’s great pilgrimage site is its Gothic cathedral. Even today, over five million visitors come here each year, which has made the Cologne Cathedral Germany’s main tourist attraction.

These days, more and more people are using their vacation time to make a pilgrimage, but a pilgrimage is really designed for more than just holiday travel. A pilgrimage is also a sacred journey. It’s a way of healing yourself. Physically you travel to a new place, but the big voyage is the one you make inside, the one that might transform you. 

To understand the medieval cathedral, you need to understand what most people believed. Christianity had spread throughout Europe. And the medieval Christian had a very specific vision of life. Life was a journey, a pilgrimage to the Promised Land. 

The medieval Christian didn't look back to the golden age of the Garden of Eden, because he was moving forward. Heading to the new Jerusalem in heaven. And if you wanted to get a look at the coming attractions while you were still on earth you could stop into a cathedral.

The massive walls keep the outside world out and the heavenly and holy world in.

And the way to enter this sacred space was through the great western door. Which in fact was often called the Gate of Heaven. You could see images of the angels and saints over the doorway, and on the doors. You could see scenes from the life of Christ. This was the journey that the believer would follow. And eventually all the good people would come together in heaven.

DR. KLAUS HARDERING (ON CAMERA): Cologne Cathedral is the largest Gothic Cathedral we have in Europe. It's kind of a high point in the development of Gothic architecture.

BURT WOLF: Construction began during the 1200's and did not finish up until the 1880s. A time span of over 600 years.

DR. KLAUS HARDERING: The choir stalls are the largest in Germany we have of that Gothic period. And they are richly carved. There are more than 500 figures and reliefs. We made an examination of the wood material so we can say all those things must have been carved between 1308 and 1311, that means within 4 years.

In the mosaic floor there is a representation of the wheel of life. It's shown that a young man is going to move that wheel with all his power, he reaches the high point of his life as a rich man, he can give alms to the poor but the wheel moves on and he looses his hold so he falls down, all his money is lost, he wants to stop the movement of the wheel but he can't.

We have almost 10,000 square meters of stained glass windows inside Cologne Cathedral and about 1,300 are original Gothic. So that's a treasure because we don’t have so much medieval glass in Germany. In 1939, that means in the first year of the Second World War they were taken out. So they survived the Second World War.

We have several funeral monuments of tombs of Cologne archbishops and they are normally placed in the so-called choir chapels. One of the most important funeral monuments is the tomb of Archbishop Conrad von Hochstaden who laid the foundation stone in 1248 and he got a very beautiful bronze tomb. 

DR. KLAUS HARDERING (ON CAMERA): In the chapel of St. John's you find a monumental medieval drawing, the largest we have in the world, more than 4 meters high and representing the main facade of Cologne Cathedral with the two monumental towers as they were built in the 19th Century but as they must have been planned in the Middle Ages because that drawing was made before 1283.

BURT WOLF: The Cathedral's greatest attraction for pilgrims is the gold shrine said to contain the remains of the three kings. In the New Testament, the three kings are referred to as wise men who traveled from a distant land to bring gifts to the Baby Jesus at his birth.

In the Third Century, they were referred to as almost kings. And as time passed, the word "almost" disappeared and they settled in as the three kings.


BURT WOLF: Cologne’s great cathedral is not the only interesting church in town. During the 400s, the Emperor Charlemagne made Cologne an archbishopric and since then the city has built 12 Romanesque churches on the graves of martyrs and early bishops.

One of the most unusual is St. Ursula’s, which is under the care of Father Dominik Meiering.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING: Well this is the wonderful church St. Ursula here in Cologne one of the twelve Romanesque churches. One of the most wonderful and one of the most important because here is the place where the 11,000 virgin martyrs are buried as the legend of St. Ursula tells us.

BURT WOLF: The legend of St. Ursula goes like this. Ursula was a British princess who lived during the 4th century and with a group of her friends made a pilgrimage to Rome.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): On her way back, she passed through Cologne, where she and her companions were murdered by a group of nomadic tribesman and generally unpleasant people, known as the Huns. 

BURT WOLF: In 1155, an ancient Roman burial ground was discovered and designated as the spot that contained the relics of the legend. Ursula was elevated to sainthood and became the patron of the Ursulines, a congregation of nuns dedicated to educating young girls.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING: The Golden Chamber as we call it here is a wonderful place. It is absolutely unique, it's a reliquary but very special because you enter into a place where many busts of the virgin martyr's with the skulls inside look onto you.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING (ON CAMERA): That means you go into the place of holiness, you are surrounded by the holy spirit of all these people who are buried here. 

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING: In the upper part we've got a decoration for you made out of bones. And there are even inscriptions you can read for example, Saint Ursula ora pro nobis, that means holy Ursula, pray for us, and this is built out of bones.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING (ON CAMERA): You can find the relics, the bones not only here behind this Gothic architecture but you can find it also here in the hat, you can open the hat, and underneath this wooden plate, you find a skull of one of the virgins.

BURT WOLF: Wrapped in cloth.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING: Wrapped in cloth of the Middle Ages which is very precious. We have got in this church two old golden shrines. One is the relacory of St. Ursula and one is of Aetherius who was the man who should become the husband of St. Ursula.

FATHER DOMINIK MEIERING (ON CAMERA): The specialty of Cologne is also that you have the possibility to go under the shrines. So now we can go underneath the shrines as the pilgrims of the Middle Ages did and we can say our prayer and we can hope of the benediction of the saints and of God.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Very unusual to have it above you like that.



BURT WOLF: One of the nice things about the AMA Waterways ships is they often dock in the center of a city so you can just walk off the ship and you’re in town. 

Clearly, a visit to the bone room at St. Ursula’s calls for a drink and the drink of choice in Cologne is Kölsch. And the place to drink it is the Haxenhaus which was about 100 yards from where the AMA ship docked,

Cologne is famous for Kölsch which is the local beer. There are several different brands but they are always called Kölsch and it can only be produced within Cologne, even thought it’s shipped all over the world.

It comes in a small glass that holds about 8 ounces. The brewers in Cologne think that the small glass has a distinct advantage over their competitors in Bavaria who use big steins to serve their beer. In the small glass the beer stays fresher longer. The waitresses keep bringing you glasses until you've had enough but they don’t know when you've had enough so you put this little coaster on top of your glass, and that tells them that you’ve had enough.


BURT WOLF: The next day we passed through 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 that 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.

The truth, however, is that this was a very dangerous part of the river and not all the boatmen knew how to handle it. So if they smashed against the rocks and the ship and its cargo where lost, he could always blame it on Loreli


BURT WOLF: Upon our arrival in Rudesheim, we walked off the ship. And over to a beautiful old house that was built in the 1500s.

It’s home to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Museum. The museum has about 350 exhibits dating from 18th to 20th century.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): These days the definition of a musical mechanical device is one that plays music, selects the notes and does so without any human intervention once the on switch has been thrown. The earliest example of this kind of device that we know about goes back to the ancient Greeks about 300AD.

BURT WOLF: Dufner's band consists of 27 automated dolls with each one playing a different instrument. It is the largest automated doll calliope ever built.

Also, in the too big to fail category are the huge orchestrions that play virtually all the instruments found in an orchestra.

Guides, in period costumes, or their grandmothers dresses, I'm never quite sure which, take you on a tour.

There are prototype jukeboxes, hand-cranked carnival machines, gramophones that use wax barrel recording to play the voices of the great 19th opera singers like Enrico Caruso.

The museum is the creation of the slightly eccentric Siegfried Wendel. During the 1960s Siegfried became interested in rescuing and repairing automatic musical instruments of the 1800s that were about to be discarded for scrap metal.


Tell me about this piece.

SIEGFRIED WENDEL (ON CAMERA): That is a very unusual one. It was called the 8th wonder of the world because this instrument plays real wiring. 

BURT WOLF: The Hupfeld phono Liszt Violina is a group of six real violins set up to play music by the composer Franz Liszt. And they play in perfect harmony. Because the machine surpassed all expectations for the quality of its sound and accuracy it was promoted as the eighth wonder of the world.

SIEGFRIED WENDEL (ON CAMERA): That was a mixture of technique and music you see. And my way came from the technique, but I also like very much music.

BURT WOLF: In addition, there is outstanding collection of delicate music boxes. Of particular interest is series of snuffboxes with musical songbirds. They were produced during the first half of the 1800s by a craftsman in Geneva, Switzerland. When the mechanism is activated the lid opens and tiny birds appear. The smaller the bird, and the more realistic the sound, the higher the price.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): At present most people consider musical mechanical devices as a novelty. But for centuries they were a central part of the field of music. Great composers like Haydn, and Handel and Mozart wrote for them. And is a most recent development a company in Japan that makes music boxes is licensing their sounds to cell phones.

What do you think? Lady Gaga?

BURT WOLF: It's amazing to see what people did in their spare time before YouTube.

The Romans arrived in Rudesheim 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 also stopped into the Rüdesheimer Schloss – which more appropriately would be called 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. 

On this particular trip we sailed on a ship called the AMACELLO.

Basically, it is a small, well-appointed hotel that takes you from city to city along the Rhine. It was built under the direction of Rudi Schriener who was one of the pioneers of European river cruising.

BURT WOLF: One of my pet peeves about hotel design in general is the art. Most of the time it is terrible.

RUDI SCHRIENER (ON CAMERA): We have Klimt, Gustav Klimt the Austrian artist.

BURT WOLF: But Rudi has decorated his ships with reproduction of works by leading 20th Century European artists.

RUDI SCHRIENER (ON CAMERA): When a ship is getting close to being ready I select an artist a specific artist. And then the whole ship features his work or her work throughout the ship in the state rooms in the hallways in the dining area.


BURT WOLF: At one point, we took a right turn and headed down the Moselle. Germany’s Moselle River is a tributary of the Rhine. The valley that it created runs for over 100 miles and contains some of Germany’s oldest towns. The village of Zell is one of the oldest and famous throughout Germany for its Black Cat wine.

When our AMA ship docked at the edge of Zell, the mayor and his band came on board to serenade the passengers. Not bad for guys who only do this for a hobby. After their onboard performance they led us through the streets of the town to a wine cellar.

The cellar just happened to be underneath one of the government buildings. It’s nice to meet a mayor who has his priorities in order.

Well that’s it for today. Please join us next time when we continue sailing along the great rivers of Europe.