Archive for January 30th, 2009

1/29/09: Germany/Austria trip report, part 1: Danube river cruise

In December of 2008 we traveled to Europe for a Danube river cruise featuring Christmas markets. Kate spent a year in Munich in college and has long wanted to return to Germany for the holiday traditions, including Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and gebrannte Mandeln (sugar-coated roasted almonds). We had a great time on the trip, although traveling in winter weather has its downsides.

We flew Lufthansa direct from PDX to Frankfurt, then took a train to Nuremberg where the cruise started. After we’d booked the cruise, Kate was rather startled to look at a map and realize that Nuremberg is not actually on the Danube; however, it is on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. Arriving in Nuremberg and transferring to the U-Bahn (subway), we found that unlike NYC or London, where you have to pay or show payment to get in every time, in Germany and Austria there are no turnstiles in the subway station — just a small validator and a sign saying that you must have a valid ticket past this point. We hardly ever saw anyone buying or validating tickets (probably most locals have passes) and never saw a fare inspector. It was incredibly civilized.

We had booked one night in the Hotel Luga before the cruise, and found it pleasant and welcoming but slightly shabby. But there were Oblaten-Lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies) on the pillows, a Nuremberg specialty that turned out to be a bit of a theme for the trip. We napped a couple hours, on top of sleeping most of the way on the train… I’d forgotten how enervating and disorienting jet lag is.

After we’d napped and eaten our Lebkuchen, we bundled up and went out to see some sights. I hate the cold, but I had my down jacket, polar fleece scarf, Keen boots, and Tilley Winter Hat and was comfortable enough. (I love my fabulous Tilley Winter Hat. I bought it especially for this trip, and Kate was so impressed by it she bought one too.) “So this is what 7° C feels like,” we said to each other, and spent most of the rest of the trip using Celsius to plan our wardrobe for the day (even though much of the available information was in Fahrenheit as well). Even though my only German lessons had been a few night classes in about 1987 (when I worked for an Intel-Siemens joint venture), and I’d barely used the language since, I found that it all came back when I needed it. I wasn’t nearly as fluent as Kate, but I had enough of the language for basic touristing.

We took the Strassenbahn (tram) to the Museum Industrielkultur, where we saw lots of keen vehicles and machines including some very strange early bicycles, a miniature steam engine with little railings so your imaginary engineers don’t fall off, and two cars with front- and rear-facing bench seats and large doors in front and back (not on the sides). I kept thinking that Jay Lake would love this place.

From the museum we took another tram downtown and walked to the Christmas Market, finding it energetic and very crowded. Nuremberg’s Christkindelsmarkt fills the square in front of the cathedral, with neat rows of booths selling gingerbread, mulled wine, hot citrus punch, bratwurst, Christmas ornaments, handcrafts, and quite a bit of cheap manufactured tat. It was more commercial and uniform than many of the others we saw later, but a good introduction to the phenomenon. All of the mulled wine vendors used a system where you paid a deposit of 2 euros for the mug (a “souvenir” mug for this specific market and year, pink and incredibly ugly) and could refill it as many times, at as many different vendors, as you liked before returning it to any vendor for the deposit. The same system was used at all the other Christmas markets we visited.

We had dinner at Bratwurst Röslein, “the biggest bratwurst restaurant in the world,” sharing a table with a family who’d come into town to visit the market and do some shopping. Every town in Germany has its own characteristic sausage, which locals insist is the finest sausage in the world. The Nuremberger bratwurst is about the size of my index finger, and is generally served three in a bun (“drei in Weckla”), or six or eight or ten on a plate. I had a plate of six, with warm potato salad and Christkindelsuppe (a special Christmas soup with little strips of pancake in it). Yum. After dinner we stopped at the International Market, another Christmas market just around the corner from the main one, for mulled wine and gingerbread for dessert. Back at the hotel, I sat on the radiator for a while to warm up before going to bed.

The next day, after a very nice breakfast in the hotel, we visited the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände, a fascinating museum built inside the Nazi Congress Hall (an enormous arena and conference center built by the Nazis, incomplete at the war’s end but still standing in its unfinished state). Exhibits in the hall cover the period from the Beer Hall Putsch to the Nuremberg Trials, with an emphasis on the Party’s and Hitler’s rise to power and the huge annual Party rallies held here in Nuremberg. It’s appalling how quickly Hitler came to power, and interesting that the cult of personality was so consciously crafted. And I have to say that, bad as Bush and the Republicans were, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Nazis.

Returning downtown by tram, we had some difficulty getting past the old city wall even on foot. We had lunch at the Heilig Geist Spital Restaurant, all dark wood and animal heads on the wall, 600 years old… though it was competely destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in 1951. Lots of Germany is like that. It’s almost impossible to tell which buildings are really old and which are 50-year-old reconstructions. After lunch we returned to the Christkindlesmarkt, where we met the Christ Child herself.

Um, that may require some explanation. The Nuremberg Christmas Market is overseen by the Christ Child, who is for some reason portrayed by a young woman in a long blonde wig and a golden angel gown — kind of like the Dairy Princesses at the Wisconsin State Fair. She is selected for a two-year term and must be Nuremberger born, of good character, and free of vertigo. This last is necessary because one of her official duties is to proclaim the opening of the Christmas Market each year… from the cathedral’s balcony… standing on on a box that raises her up where everyone can see her… above the railing. Two strong guys are holding onto her belt when she does this, but I’ve stood on that balcony and I wouldn’t take the job even if I were eligible. Anyway, we saw her greeting the crowd and handing out autographed postcards.

Then we shifted our bags from the hotel to our cruise ship. The Viking Spirit is a long, narrow ship, small by ocean cruise standards –150 passengers on three decks — but as big as it can be and still fit through the canal’s locks. In fact, for the first part of the cruise, where there were some low bridges, the boat folded itself up like a Transformer, with the smokestacks, the radar mast, the railings on the top deck, and even the wheelhouse retracting to make a tidy little rectangular package. Our cabin was comfortable and well-equipped, and not the smallest hotel room we’ve ever had by any means. The one aggravation was the incessant Christmas muzak, which we could at least turn off in our own cabin.

That night we had a welcome and safety lecture, which was mostly about fire alarms and how to avoid plugging the toilets. There was no need for a lifeboat drill, as the ship is 6 meters tall and the river’s only 4 meters deep. This was followed by dinner, where both the food and our table companions were… well, perfectly nice, if a bit mundane. Our fellow travelers were generally only a little older than us, and tended to be very well traveled. They were almost all from the United States, and for some reason most of them were Southerners. (Kate speculated “Who else would choose to take a cruise in the snow?”) The crew, most of whom hailed from Eastern Europe, all spoke English.

Breakfast on the boat was a buffet with a nice variety of American-style and European- style foods. Then we all piled onto three buses for a bus tour of Nuremberg, with stops at the Zeppelin Field (Nazi rally grounds, named for a zeppelin that landed there during WWI), Nuremberg Trials courthouse, and of course the Christmas Market, where we were released on our own recognizance. Having already seen the market itself, we hit a local handicrafts market, cathedral, and bookstore before returning to the market to catch the bus back to the boat. Some of the other passengers were already getting into the Jaegermeister.

Between ongoing jet lag and a hard afternoon of touristing I fell asleep immediately, and when I awoke we’d already set sail. “Hey, our hotel’s moving!” But not all that fast… I noticed bicycles passing us on the canal-side bike trail. It was weird to be sleeping with the landscape going by outside, and the occasional BOOMP in the night as we lightly bumped the wall of a lock. (The ship fit in the locks with inches to spare, but was equipped with rubber baby buggy bumpers.)

We awoke as the boat was docking in Regensburg. We walked out on deck to watch the operation and — BRR! — immediately returned to our cabin for long underwear. I wore those damn long undies every remaining day of the trip. I’m glad I had them but I really got sick of them.

In the smaller towns we had walking tours rather than bus tours, using little radio gizmos so the guide (the boat hired enough local guides in each town that each walking group was only 10-15 people) could speak directly into each passenger’s ear without raising his or her voice. This meant that the tour group wasn’t obnoxious to other people nearby, and you could hear even if you weren’t right next to the guide; in fact, you could even wander off quite a ways. But I found the earpiece very uncomfortable, and many of the guides didn’t understand that the microphone was voice-activated… if they didn’t speak directly into the mike they couldn’t be heard at all.

Regensburg is a spiffy medieval town, featuring the first permanent bridge over the Danube (which, of course, has a story about it involving the Devil… every bridge, cathedral, and other major structure built during the Middle Ages has a story involving the Devil). We had lunch at the Historiches Wurstküche right next to the bridge… there’s been a fast-food joint on this spot ever since the first lunch break of the workmen who built the bridge in the 1100s. We also stopped for an afternoon snack and warm-up at a restaurant specializing in Dampfnudel (steamed dumplings, served with vanilla sauce) located in a tiny medieval chapel. In German, delicious is a verb.

Regensburg, despite its small size, has three Christmas Markets, the most interesting of which was the Romanticher Weinachtsmarket at the Schloss Thurn und Taxis (readers of Pynchon will recognize that name). This one was on the grounds of an actual castle, had strolling medieval musicians, the greatest quality and variety of handcrafts of any of the markets on our trip, and a huge variety of wonderful-smelling foods for sale (unfortunately we’d just had lunch). There were also campfires burning here and there around the grounds for the warming of hands and feet, which was very welcome because it was freaking cold! The only Christmas Market we visited with an admission charge, but well worth it.

When we went back into town after dinner to see the town’s third Christmas Market, we found that all of the booths had just closed except for those selling Glühwein, which were doing a brisk business. All of the town’s hip young people were standing around shoulder-to-shoulder in the cold, drinking mulled wine and “punsch” and having a grand time. It was a happenin’ outdoor singles bar, is what it was. Who knew?

The next day found us in the town of Passau, smaller and steeper than Regensburg. Passau is located at the intersection of three rivers, and many buildings had high-water marks on them. They have serious floods even today, and our guide (who reminded me of my mother) said that when the floods hit you just stay in your house for a few days. Our walking tour included an interesting demo of gingerbread making (three generations of gingerbread bakers) with samples of gingerbread and punsch. We also stopped into the local art museum (the castle on the hill and its museum were closed for the season, alas), which had a very nice exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec posters and Edo-period Japanese prints. It hurt my head to read about the Japanese “floating world” and how its posters influenced a French artist… all in German.

That night at dinner (on the boat en route from Passau to Linz), one of our female table companions reminded me of Lois Carmen d’Nominator. And if you don’t catch that reference, believe me, you’re happier that way.

Our first stop in Austria was the bustling town of Linz, which is very excited (and very much under construction) about being the European Capital of Culture for 2009, and as the boat was not departing until midnight we decided to take in an operetta. After obtaining tickets, and sampling Linzer Torte, Kate and I went our separate ways for the day. I was the only person in the Linz Genesis museum, and found it eerie that the display cases of skeletons and swords would illuminate themselves as I entered each room, and darken as I departed (an energy-saving measure, but disturbing). I was also the only one at the tiny, and rather scary, museum of dentistry. And then I went to the Schlossmuseum, the city’s main historical site, where I was not alone but the collection was even weirder. Mary Magdalene Bigfoot. A Victorian breast pump. Frightening “updated” loden outfits from the 50s. Disturbing saints. And one room, deep in the stone roots of the ancient castle, containing nothing but a skeleton in a glass case (unlabeled) in one corner. Brr.

Kate and I met up for a quick dinner of döner kebap (typical local fast food) before the operetta. Der Vögelhandler was basically Gilbert & Sullivan in German. I could hardly understand the singing at all, and Kate not much better, but through diligent perusal of the program book we managed to follow the plot, what there was of it. It was definitely extremely silly and lightweight. The weird thing was that, although the audience laughed a lot, we were the only ones laughing at the broadest physical comedy bits.

The next day at 10am we arrived at Melk, a tiny town with a famous abbey, notable for its library and amazing trompe l’oeil ceiling paintings. What would Jesus think of this opulence? The abbey also had an intriguing little modernistic museum about St. Benedict and the Benedictine monks, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Saint. (“We don’t know who this saint is; we call him Fred.”) The actual town of Melk was so small that its one tiny Christmas Market wasn’t even open on a weekday; we sailed for Vienna at 4pm.

Vienna was amazing, like Paris only unfamiliar. This city was the capital of the civilized world for the better part of a century, and was the highlight of the trip for me. And as this was where we departed the boat and took off on our own, I think I will stop this entry here. To be continued in part 2: Vienna and Munich.