Travel Classics home Travel Stories Library Travel Classics Writers Conferences Travel Classics Media Newsletter Contact Travel Classics

A Five-Day Watch On The Rhine
Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Basel
by Charles N. Barnard

I noticed him on the first day of our cruise on the Rhine. He was a balding, middle-aged German passenger who had taken possession of a small table at the front-&-center of the ship's lounge. From this commanding spot, one could observe the course of the whole broad river ahead through panoramic windows.

Each morning after breakfast, the brisk little man executed the same routine. First, he spread a large-scale map of the Rhine Valley on the table. Then he removed binoculars from a case and hung them around his neck. Next, a copy of Baedeker's Rhine guidebook was opened to its kilometer-by-kilometer description of the river. Finally, the man filled and lighted his pipe, located the ship's position on his chart, planted his index finger at that point and periodically announced the day's progress to his wife who sat next to him, knitting. "Dusseldorf . . .Cologne . . .Bonn . . . ."

I named him Herr Kapitan. I wondered if Frau Kapitan was knitting the names of the cities into her shawl.

The Rhine, from its mountainous source in Switzerland to its sprawling delta on the North Sea, is 1,320 kilometers (818 miles) in length. It is Europe's major river for both commerce and sightseeing. Tourists have been cruising between its castle-crested banks for a century and a half and in numbers as high as 3 million a year. No Grand Tour of Europe was complete in the period between the World Wars without a sojourn of a few days on the Rhine.

I had decided to take the full, five-day cruise offered by KD German Rhine Line — from Rotterdam in Holland to Basel in Switzerland. Let's have it all, I thought. I had seen sections of the river many times before, but only where it passed through European cities; I had never been a floating participant on its winding, uphill route from the sea to the Alps. Besides, pictures of the long, white cruise ships looked inviting — and their wine lists even more so!

So that's how I met Herr Kapitan. Also the "Anxious Architect" and "General DeGaulle" and Mr. & Mrs. Zoom and "The Bookies" and the two pretty nurses from Saudi Arabia — and the single lady from Zurich who smoked small cigars and sunbathed topless by the ship's pool. After five days, some of these, my fellow passengers, would be as much an element of the scenery as the Rhine's vineyards and castles. They became part of the experience, a cross-section of Europe in summer . . .but I'm getting ahead of the story.

I flew to Amsterdam, strolled about the canals for a few hours, browsed in some antique shops, listened to a group of street musicians, had a good Dutch lunch and caught a 6 p.m. bus to Rotterdam. I was aboard MS Deutschland at dockside by 7:30 p.m. Within minutes, it seemed, I was welcomed by the Zahlmeister [purser], a German; escorted to a compact cabin by a lass with a Cockney accent; assigned a table in the dining room by the maitre d'hotel, a rotund Egyptian; and attended through a fine buffet dinner by a smiling waiter from Tunisia. The adventure had begun. We would sail at 4 a.m.

The KD Line owns the Rhine . . .not literally, of course, but it has been the great river's dominant passenger and sightseeing fleet since its predecessor company began service between Mainz and Cologne in 1827. There are 27 vessels, 8 of which are 300-foot-long, 200-passenger ships (like my Deutschland); the others are day-trippers of various sizes and styles. The line has its own landing stages at 54 ports of call along the river. Indeed, the only major sightseeing boats which I would see in five days were other KD vessels — with much cheering and waving by all as we passed in opposite directions!

Day One began on time at 4 a.m. when a new feeling entered my slumber, a deep quivering that seemed to run through the ship. We had slipped our lines and moved silently away from Rotterdam, heading up-river. Pretty slick, I thought — and went back to sleep.

When daylight awakened me, I looked out the cabin windows to see gray-green river water rushing by at about the level of my waist! (KD boats draw only about four feet of water; cabins on the lower deck are half-submerged; preferred cabins on the deck above have bigger windows.) A heavy mist shrouded a flat shoreline that seemed fully a hundred yards distant. I dressed and went to breakfast. My Tunisian waiter passed every language test: "stewed prunes . . .eggs over easy . . .dry toast . . .café au lait . . . ." Outside the dining room windows, fog was lifting. I saw green meadows which came down to the river's edge, some clusters of cattle, looking like black and white dots on an impressionist painting, a few sand dunes and a number of windmills. In the towns, the churches were all massive stone constructions with squat towers and clocks with gilded hands and numerals. We were still in Holland.

One need never be in doubt about where he is on the Rhine. Every kilometer from 0 (on the shores of Lake Constance in Switzerland) to 1320 (at Hook of Holland on the North Sea), is marked by a large sign on the bank; tenths of a kilometer are indicated by smaller signs in between. I could almost hear our ship click-clicking as it ratcheted its way past this relentless parade of mileposts.

The American architect and his wife joined me at breakfast. He discussed the Dutch roofs, what style they were, how covered, how curved, how dormers were cut in. Then he turned his attention to the menu, about which he knew less. He made the mistake of ordering the German pancake. "This isn't a pancake!" Architect objected when the piece of moist, gray pastry arrived. Tunisia took the dish back with a smile. "Americans always do that," he told me later. "But, please, what are American pancakes like?"

At 11 a.m. on Day One, Deutschland's captain hosts a welcome reception in the observation lounge: champagne and introductions in German, English and French. The French contingent of passengers had preempted their own area of the lounge. They talked loudly among themselves while announcements were made in other languages, then shushed everyone when French was spoken. They were the best dressed passengers; they held their wine glasses by the stems.

More champagne was poured after the captain departed for the bridge; acquaintances were made. Americans talked about where they were from, other cruises they had been on, how they were coping with their jet-lag. There should be campaign ribbons for tourists, I thought. That way you could look at a fellow traveler and tell by a glance at his chest where he had been — with oak leaf clusters for repeated visits!

Deutschland has three decks, with a sun deck and pool on top. I went up. The sun was burning through the morning haze now and passengers were unfolding deck chairs; some of the German men were already down to their underwear for sunbathing. An American with many cameras complained that the scenery didn't look like the Rhine. (We were at Kilometer 933, the numbers descending as we moved upstream.) "Cows!" he said. "Where are the castles?" His wife read aloud to him from her Baedecker. "Zaltbommel, population 9,000 . . . the town was already fortified by the 13th Century . . . ." Her husband continued to complain; he had bought the new zoom lens for castles, not cows, he repeated. He became my Mr. Zoom.

Day One scenery is, admittedly, somnolent. It is a time for getting the feel of the ship (one continuous, 10 miles-per-hour glide upstream, without pitch or roll), for remembering the location of one's cabin, for taste-testing good German beers in the ship's bar (Konigsbacher, Wickuler, Gatzweilers, Lowenbrau) — and for learning that one need not eat absolutely everything offered at lunch — crayfish cocktail, fried tenderloin of pork coated with egg and cheese, an elaborate cheese board, Dutch orange cream in a chocolate cup, ice cream, coffee. (The menu says, "Diet dishes can be prepared on request." I saw none being served.)

Day One's suggested wines were a Walporzheimer Pfaffenberg, Portgieser und Spatburgunder Qualitatswein (just pretend you understand) or, a Binger Schlossberg-Schwatzerchen Kabinett haltrocken (but of course!) on which one could hardly go wrong for five bucks. Tunisia wrote my cabin number on the label; what I did not drink at lunch, I could finish at dinner. In five days, I never had a wine I knew — or one I didn't like.

I shared a table with an English couple. The wife was a polite complainer. The W.C. in their cabin smelled, she said. And there were no life jackets. And the German announcements on the public address system were too long. "They sound like the war films," she said. "Achtung!" Her husband paid no attention to anything his wife said, but hummed barely audible tunes while studying the wine list. "I wish I could drink them all," he murmured one evening wearily. I thought I understood his reasons. He said he worked for a "turf accountant firm" in London. I named them Mr. and Mrs. Bookie.

After dinner on Day One (Dover sole or beef with bread dumplings) Deutschland made port at Dusseldorf where a sightseeing excursion is offered. Busses were waiting on the embankment. Their drivers had produced small stepladders and busied themselves cleaning the windows of the coaches while waiting for us. Out of 160 passengers on the ship, about half took the evening tour of Dusseldorf. They came up the ramp from the boat, talking like old salts, remarking how good it felt to "stretch the legs." We had been on the Rhine about 24 hours.

We were driven around town for a brief tour, then taken to a 700-foot television tower with swift elevators and a revolving restaurant on top. The view was dizzying; some people bought souvenirs.

The most interesting time of the evening was after we were released to walk unescorted through the narrow streets of Dusseldorf's "old town" district. Mr. Zoom's wife continued to read aloud from her Baedecker for anyone near enough to listen. "It says this is called 'the longest bar-counter in Europe,'" she announced. "Not enough goddam light for pictures," her husband answered. He was right; it was a murky, restless, decadent scene: many noisy beer halls and sidewalk cafés, the aroma of chickens and sausages roasting. Hollow-eyed young women in tight, black leather skirts and punk kids with green and orange hair were roaring about on big, black BMW motorcycles that breathed fire into the night. The American tourists loved it.

I walked back to the ship with the two nurses. We talked about Saudi Arabia. The Rhine was a dark, glistening ribbon. Deutschland, in the distance, was lighted with strings of red and white harbor lights. She looked like an amusement park.

Day Two began at 5 a.m. when we sailed from Dusseldorf. (Kilometer 744.) The morning scenery was diffused by a scrim of mist; we sailed through a gray twilight along a water-track of smoggy, coppery sparkles. Tall, straight poplars stand on the banks like rows of black exclamation points against the fog. The horizon is flat, pierced here and there by a steeple or a smokestack. An encampment of house trailers hides in a grove of young trees. Three boys come down to a grassy point to wave at us. The hunched figures of bicyclists, looking very small in the distance, move slowly along a road. There is no sound, no advertising billboards, no litter, no graffiti. The Rhine may be polluted, but it doesn't look it.

By 9 in the morning we have reached Cologne (Km. 688). Again, there is an excursion. Mrs. Zoom reads from her book: famous cathedral city, site of trade fairs, a Roman settlement. "What is the difference between Baroque and Rococo?" she asks. "Howinhell would I know?" her spouse answers, "I don't speak German." He is focusing his camera on the distant spires already.

I skipped the bus tour and walked to the cathedral alone. It is a dark and massive pile of High Gothic architecture, "the most ambitious building project of the Middle Ages," my book said. It is surrounded by bookstalls, souvenir shops and other tourist traps and services. Food, balloons, color slides, soft drinks and cassettes are sold in the cathedral square.

Within the cool darkness of the church, I somehow failed to find any of the important attractions — not the Reliquary of the Three Kings, nor the Ambulatory nor the famous Triptych. Having thus flunked as a tourist, I returned to the sunlight — but ask me now if I have seen the great cathedral at Cologne and I will be able to reply, "Magnificent!" (Give me another campaign ribbon.)

Deutschland sailed before lunch (veal mit mushrooms and a few quaffs of a Riesling called Ockfener Scharezberg). The weather had improved, but there were still no castles in sight. A jogger on one of the towpaths of the river could almost keep up with our ship. We waved; he nodded. Three nuns in flowing black robes appear on the green grass of the right bank. One picks her steps carefully onto the large stones of the river's rip-rapped border and finds a place to sit as we pass.

The Anxious Architect is not soothed by the pastoral tranquility of our route. He says he will soon leave his fingernails in the walls of the lounge. His wife tells him he should never have come on the cruise if he didn't know how to relax.

A 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle which was spread out on a table in the lounge attracted several earnest workers on Day Two. The image began to coalesce: an oil painting of a Dutch windmill.

A very tall Frenchman with a small moustache — my General DeGaule — has made friends with Herr Kapitan. They sit together in the mornings now, trying to make conversation in fragments of their languages. They exchange use of the binoculars and seem to be remembering World War II. Their wives read well-worn paperbacks left on the ship by previous passengers. Love Story, Catch 22, Eye of the Needle are available in English.

At Konigswinter there is a brief stop so we may take a cog railway to the top of Drachenfels, the "dragon's crag" of the Siegfried legend. It is a 2-hour break in the afternoon; the view of the river from the summit is hazy but interesting. There is time for a beer in the sun at one of the riverside cafés. Some of the other drinkers are wearing knickers, heavy stockings and climbing boots. For the first time, I allow the slow pace of the river to regulate my mood. New, young leaves are just emerging on the heavily pruned sycamores. I try to remember the story of Seigfried which I read as a boy. Did I hear Wagnerian music?

Back on Deutschland in the afternoon, the blonde lady from Zurich goes topless by the pool, creating a pleasant tension on the sun deck. She appears to sleep, her sunglasses pushed up into her hair, her toes together and pointed like a diver. When the stewards brought 4 o'clock ice cream to everyone topside, they didn't wake those who were napping. I considered a number of names for this lovely woman. I decided on Miss Rheingold — and then tried to turn my attention to passing ships.

The shipping traffic on the Rhine is an integral part of the river's scenery, a great variety of barges, tugs, tankers, bulk carriers, container ships, all of them spotlessly maintained, many of them permanent homes for their owners and their families. Long strings of laundry often fly from their afterdecks, small sedans are parked amidships for use at the destination port, and children's play areas, complete with swings and sandboxes, are enclosed with protective fencing. Most of these vessels move more slowly than our cruise ship. In five days we must have passed several hundred of them traveling in both directions. As sightseers, we became aware that the Rhine is not just here for fun; that it is, most of all, a busy commercial waterway.

At Km. 633 there is an announcement: the shattered remains of a bridge abutment ahead is a historic site. It was at Remagen, on March 7, 1945, that U.S. forces first crossed the Rhine on their way to victory over Nazi Germany. The famous bridge collapsed ten days later and was never rebuilt. Only the two stone towers stand on each bank now, looking like an old man's blackened lower incisors. The American and German flags fly side by side on these battered relics. Many pictures were made and both Herr Kapitan and DeGaule were on deck to mark the important moment.

We docked at Koblenz (Km. 591) after dinner (sauerkraut with smoked sausages or baked turkey). No excursion was offered, but some of the more adventurous passengers sought advice from the purser's office on the whereabouts of beer halls and discos. A few of the French went ashore in a group, singing old songs; the two nurses found escorts; Herr Kapitan and his wife strolled off with guidebooks underarm. I did not see Miss Rheingold. Those of us who remained on board found company in the bar.

An American couple unrolled some Van Gogh prints they had bought in Amsterdam. Two other Americans appeared dutifully interested. "I love Van Gogh," the man said. "I think he's weird," the woman said. Another American was busy explaining to the barman how a Grasshopper is made. In the lounge, work continued on the jigsaw puzzle. Two elderly ladies announced a suspicion that some vital pieces were missing. Day Two was ending.

There is a magic moment in almost any trip, often unexpected. It came for us on Day Three. That's when the Rhine which most tourists imagine became a reality. The change began soon after breakfast with the announcement that the ship would pass Loreley Rock about 9 a.m. This landmark of the Middle Rhine (at Km. 554) is a craggy promontory which creates one of the narrowest points on the river. The legend of a beautiful but evil nymph and a sentimental ballad give the spot its name. Passengers scurried topside to witness our passage; suddenly, everyone was energized. The song of the Loreley was played on the ship's p.a. system. This was more like it! Camera shutters rattled like sudden hail.

For the next three hours there were more small towns and castles perched on hillsides than most passengers could keep up with in their guidebooks. Some of the castles are restored and occupied as hotels or museums, some are ruins. Deutschland's p.a. system tried to name them all: Gutenfels, Pfalzgrafenstein, Schonburg, Stahleck, Sooneck. From Koblenz to Weisbaden, from Loreley Rock to the beautiful vineyards of the Taunus slopes, Deutschland passed between mountains and valleys that resembled a stage set. Maps of this 50-kilometer stretch of the river mark 14 major castles and as many quaint towns. For travelers who are looking for travel-poster images, these hours are the Rhine.

By lunch time (sirloin steak or salad bowl) the excitement has subsided and there is much talk about running out of film and the need for telescopic lenses. Mr. & Mrs. Bookie agree it is a shame so much damage was done to the castles in the War, "but why haven't they been repaired by now?" We sip a chilled Bacharacher Hahn as we look out at the vineyards where it originated.

On the evening of Day Three there is an excursion to Heidelberg for sightseeing and dinner. We were caught in a crashing thunderstorm and heavy rain which limited the sightseeing to what could be surmised through the steamy windows of a Mercedes bus. Dinner at a large restaurant named Merian-Stuben did not improve the group's mood. This ornate old place on the banks of the Neckar River (heavy red drapes, gilded cherubs in the ceiling, brass and glass chandeliers) apparently specializes in feeding large groups of tourists who arrive by the busload and are treated accordingly. There was roll-out-the-barrel music on an accordion, group singing of Lili Marlene and a slice of dry ham. It was a relief to return "home" to my neat cabin on Deutschland.

Not to rush the story, but the single highlight of Day Four will be a pleasant afternoon shore excursion to the French city of Strasbourg (Km.293) in Alsace, this after passing through the first of several impressive locks which lift the ship 30 to 40 feet. There are fewer announcements on the p.a. system in the morning and the surrounding countryside has flattened out again. No more castles, less traffic on the river, more passengers playing cribbage. It now appears certain that the jigsaw puzzle is incomplete. A second woman joins Miss Rheingold in toplessness at the pool. Members of the crew are busy painting various parts of the ship. Black Forest trout or veal stew are served for lunch.

A farewell dance is held in the ship's lounge after dinner on Day Four. Local folk dancers come aboard to give a lively, colorful performance. Passengers who have made friendships sit together and begin to review the days. "Dusseldorf? Was that where all those kids were drinking beer? Was there a cathedral there? No, that was Cologne. Dusseldorf had the TV tower . . . ."

Day Five, Strasbourg to Basel (Km. 167), is a day for packing, for exchanging addresses with other passengers, for being elevated through more tomblike locks and traveling along a featureless canal that is totally tranquil. There is some last minute shopping done in the ship's boutique and a flurry of postcard writing. Conversation is no longer about wine and castles and World War II, but how to get home — and how to pack the Van Gogh prints.

At 11 a.m. there is another captain's reception in the lounge. Champagne and goodbye-songs in three languages: Yankee Doodle, Le Table Ronde and Auf Wiedersehen. The jigsaw puzzle has been completed. Two squiggly pieces of blue sky are missing just above the sails of the windmill. Then, for the last time, What's for lunch? Fried chicken, Alsatian style.

Near the entrance to the dining room, waiters are already setting up the long table for tomorrow's Welcome Aboard buffet. Deutschland sails downriver again in two days. Who will occupy Herr Kapitan's seat on the next voyage, I wondered?


copyright 2000-2017; all rights reserved.
web development: Dia Misuraca