Goodbye Czech Republic and on to Germany! Our first train is from Prague to Dresden Germany, approx. 2 hours. In Dresden we got off and grabbed lunch at a buffet restaurant, then got on our second train to Frankfurt. I have to admit, I expected the scenery to be more memorable – it was just a lot of fields and small towns, nothing more than I would see on a train in the US. It was a bit disappointing because our train tickets were about double the cost of flying from Prague to Frankfurt, and about four times the length of time for the trip.
Frankfurt has an Old Town Square, and it’s about a 35-minute walk from our hotel. We thought about going last night but didn’t feel like going that far and staying out that late. So, we decided to run it this morning! It’s fun to have a new way of touring – by running to places of interest!
We ran to the square, then to the river and along the water for a little bit, and then headed back - 4.2 miles total. We showered, had breakfast on the first floor, and then took a cab back to the train station. I have to say, experiencing this myself once again is invaluable education. I am adding so many tips to my European Travel booklet! I truly cannot imagine how an agent who has never been to Europe can truly sell it and help their clients properly.
We arrived in Mainz, went to the ship and left our bags in the lobby (with the dozens of other bags), changed into clothes more fitting for the warmer temperatures, checked in, had a snack and drink in the lounge, and talked to the local host about the excursions for the next couple days. There was an opportunity for a 1.75-hour walking tour of Mainz this afternoon with a guide for 36 Euro each, but we decided to explore on our own.
The ship is only a few blocks from the Old Town Square, so we walked there and went first to the Gutenberg Museum. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s revolutionized the written word. This museum has books “printed” prior to the press – they were copied and illustrated by hand. It also has books printed by the press dating back hundreds of years, not long after it was invented. There were also samples of the movable type that was used in Asia – China had moving type back in the 700s, but not a printing press. We left there and walked to the St. Martin’s Cathedral – beautiful 1000-year old Roman Catholic cathedral. Then we walked around the streets a bit, and then back to the ship.
We are on the Avalon Felicity. It is Avalon Waterways’ oldest ship, and the only one that is not a “suite ship,” so the rooms are smaller and the beds do not face the window/sliding door/balcony like the suite ships. They are retiring this ship next year, and then all Avalon ships will be suite ships.
At 5:30pm, anyone with dietary restrictions was invited to meet with Chef Daniela (the only female chef in the Avalon fleet) and maître d’ Mihai in the Panorama Lounge. They were very helpful and said they were happy to help me with my restrictions. At 5:45pm, everyone had to meet in the Panorama Lounge for a safety briefing and exercise (life jackets demonstrated by two crew members), then to stay for the Captain’s Welcome Reception and Port Talk. We met Captain Manfred Mertens, Hotel Manager Adrienn Bicsak, and Cruise Director Roos Wilmer.
Monday, August 13 Breakfast at 8am was great! This morning we chose the “Hit the Trail: Hike Through the Rheingau.” This is an active option, as it included a steep climb. Since it was raining, we debated not going but decided to grin and bear it. The ship provides very nice umbrellas for use, but we used our raincoats and carried umbrellas. We climbed up through the forest and to the hilltop where the view is usually remarkable but today was just clouds. We were very impressed with how well the trails are marked here in Germany – not like the trails at home. We hiked up into the vineyard, where the weather cleared just enough to have a very nice view down to the Rhine river.
We returned to the ship in time for lunch at noon. At 1:45pm the ship departed Mainz and sailed to Rüdesheim. The ship had made arrangements with two sightseeing trains (like the Conch train in Key West) to take us around and into town, then we were left to explore on our own. Vic and I had actually been here once before, during a trip we took to Europe in 1988.
Then we took cable car sky ride, and since the sun had come out we were rewarded with beautiful views of the Rhine valley below. We then went to the iconic small street that we both remembered from our previous trip.
There was little shop on the street that was selling small glasses of strawberry wine for 1 Euro, so I tried it and loved it! Vic bought me a bottle – 10 Euro and it didn’t even have a label on it. We got back to the ship at the same time as the train. While we were at dinner, the ship left and sailed to Bingen, which was kind of almost right across the river.
Next on the itinerary was a very special event – our ship had been invited to attend a private reception at Rheinstein Castle. It was essentially a chance to explore the castle at night with just the passengers from our ship there! We were warned there would be a steep walk up to the castle, because the buses had to stop on the road below. We went up and were guided into the courtyard where they greeted us with sparkling wine, and our hosts introduced themselves. Then we were entertained by a jester and told we could wander the castle on our own in the next half hour. Vic and I first went into the knights’ hall where we had our picture taken while sitting in thrones with the “mistress” of the castle (the daughter-in-law of the owner). We wandered through the living quarters, where the nighttime lighting made it feel likes the residents had just left the room. The stairs were very windy – they just went around and around and around without any landings between floors.
Then we came back down into the courtyard and went up into the tower. The stairs were on the outside and we had to wait until everyone came down before we could go up (because the stairs are so narrow). We looked out over the edge and could see the cage where lawbreakers would be put to think about their crime. Then we met near the exit and the jester entertained us a little more, and we headed out. Overall it was an excellent surprise!
Tuesday, August 14 We had originally signed up for a bike tour this morning that would have us biking for 8 miles along the Rhine (additional cost excursion option). However, the water level on the Rhine is very low, which means we have to travel much slower than usual. That means we have to leave Bingen at 10:15am instead of 11am, so we don’t have enough time to do the bike tour, and it was cancelled.
Considering we didn’t get back to the ship until well after 11pm last night, and since our morning excursion was cancelled, we decided to sleep in. Breakfast is from 7-9am, but they have a “late risers” light breakfast from 9am to 10am. Vic ran down to get some food while I jumped in the shower, but they evidently don’t really have much there to eat at all.
There were many castles along both sides of the Rhein, and our cruise director narrated for the next couple hours. Some of the most memorable were the Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, which actually sits down in the river, with the Gutenfels Castle on the hill overhead. We also saw the Rheinfels Castle – this is one that Vic and I visited in 1988. It was built in 1245 but was blown up in 1796-97. Parts have been rebuilt, and the remains of some of the older pieces are there as well.
We also sailed past the Loreley Rock – this was once a treacherous part of the river, with many rocks below the water that were not easily visible, causing many shipwrecks. The captains, rather than admit that their sailing skills might be lacking, instead chose to claim that the shipwrecks were caused by a (fictitious) a beautiful woman who was at the top of the rock, calling to them, named Loreley. The river has since been cleared of the dangerous rocks, but the legend remains. Our ship docked at Boppard at 1:30pm, and those that were doing the included excursions disembarked. Those that were not could explore for a short visit, as the ship sailed at 2pm for Koblenz, arriving there at 3:30pm. Those on the tours would end their tour by rejoining the ship in Koblenz.
We had chosen the Marvelous Medieval Marksburg with Wurst-Tasting excursion. This is actually one of Germany’s most beautiful castles, and the only intact hilltop castle on the Central Rhine. It was built around 1100 and passed through many owners and nationalities as this area changed hands after wars and battles. We walked up to the castle from the road, and our Avalon guide gave us over to a castle tour guide. We saw the kitchen, knights’ hall, chapel, armory, and the torture chamber. Because these castles were the homes of the noblemen of the area, they were responsible for enforcing the law. If someone broke the law, they would decide on the punishment. The “torture chamber” contained items for punishment – various masks and devices they would have to wear to show their crime and dishonor them. It also contained methods of torturing people to tell the truth about their crimes. And it had a painting to show the various means of death, if the crime merited that punishment as well.
We also saw their “out houses” – we had seen this in Rheinstein as well. There was a small area that extended out of the side of the castle, and they sat in it and let their “waste” fall below. There it was either washed away by rain or taken away by servants. In this castle it was right off the dining room so that the person using it wouldn’t miss any of the conversation (and yes the door was left open).
In the bedroom, someone marked about the length of the bed – it seems so short. We were told that they actually slept sitting up, as there was a fear that if they were laying down spirits would enter their body, or they were told that if they slept laying down their blood would go to their head and it would kill them, or they were afraid people would think they were dead. After the castle tour, we were led to the restaurant on site where we had the opportunity to try Currywurst (wurst cut into slices and seasoned with ketchup and curry powder), Weisswurst (White Sausage), and Bockwurst (reminded us of Ball Park hot dogs). They also had large pretzels with a couple kinds of mustard. We got back on our buses and went back to the ship. We were double-docked with a Viking ship – the Viking ship was tied to the dock, and our ship was tied to theirs, so we had to go through their ship to get to ours. This is not uncommon on the crowded European river cruises.
I went to the front desk and showed my business card and asked to see the ship, and he gave us Visitor pins and we were able to look around. The ship is a little longer than ours, but it holds 190 passengers (ours holds 140). The dining room looked so much bigger (and would feel so much more crowded). They had an area outside where you could choose to have your meals – a lighter lunch, or the same menu as the dining room for dinner. 16 We arrived back on the ship just before 5:30pm, and we left at 6:15pm, so no time to see Koblenz. The ship moved to Engers while we were eating dinner. After dinner, another treat – we were invited to a Classical Concert (piano & violin) in the Engers Schloss (palace). It was beautiful and the music was wonderful! Some people walked into town after the concert.
Wednesday, August 15 We woke up in Bonn this morning. There were no included tours, and only one optional at an additional cost. They extended breakfast to 10am this morning in the dining room, so we took our time and enjoyed breakfast there before it closed. Let me share a little about life on board our river cruise. There are 120 passengers, and it feels like a small group because almost every face is familiar after 3 days together. Each morning there has been an early power walk or yoga with Vanessa, the onboard Adventure Host.
Each day there is one group of excursions that are included, and if we stop at more than one port then excursions in the other port are optional and at an additional cost. On this itinerary, morning excursions often leave around 8:30am, the ship often moves to another port during lunch, and then we have afternoon excursions. When you leave the ship, either for a tour or to go on your own, you are asked to take your “shore pass” – a little card with your room number on it. That way when it’s time to leave a port, they can easily see who has not returned to the ship. In your stateroom when you arrive is a lanyard and earphone that you use throughout the week for your tours. There are also large umbrellas you can borrow at any time in the lobby. For the excursions, the lobby is set up with a table that has the receivers for your tour, and bottled water. The receivers are color coded and marked for each tour, so you take the one that corresponds to your group.
Getting back on the ship is as easy as walking down the gangway and going through the door. The front desk is right inside the door and is always staffed, and they recognize whether you are a passenger or not. It’s also a good time to return your shore pass to the front desk staff person. If you are coming back with a group, there is often a tray of beverages and sometimes a snack on the table – a fruit infused water or flavored iced tea. There are also always two carafes of infused water on the bar just inside the entrance to the lounge. Tea Time is late afternoon, a port talk is given before dinner, and dinner is 7pm-9pm, with some type of entertainment in the lounge after (sometimes just someone playing the piano and maybe singing).
There is also a lounge at the back of the ship that has coffee and tea and cookies (and sometimes donuts or pastries) 24 hours a day. There are also books and games to borrow and use. They clean our stateroom each morning and each evening. Each night a Daily Newsletter is left on our bed, listing all the activities and schedule for the following day. They close the curtains and turn the TV to one of the 5 channels that features videos of fireplaces with different music playing in the background. We left Bonn to sail to Cologne. The port talk today was at 2:45pm because the afternoon excursions would be getting back just in time for dinner. They also said that you could show up as late at 7:30pm for dinner if you wished, or you might want to enjoy dinner at a German restaurant onshore, because the ship wouldn’t leave until 10:45pm.
The ship arrived in Cologne around 3pm and signed up for the “Hit the Ground Running: Cologne Guided Running Tour” and were told that it was a full 10K (approx. 6.2 miles). We were concerned about the heat, but luckily the sun went behind the clouds and it was actually a little cooler by the time we were running. I was also worried that I would slow the others in the group down, but luckily there were only two other guys and they were very gracious in agreeing to run a little slower. The guide (Chris) took us down to a bridge that had been literally in the water during the war. We crossed the bridge and run along the opposite shore past factories and other commercial locations. We got a great photo of our ship in front of the Cologne Cathedral. Then we crossed another bridge with gates that were covered with padlocks (left by people as a statement of love – couples place the locks on the bridge to ensure everlasting love and then throw the key into the Rhine river below) and ran to the Cathedral, then back to the ship. It turned out to be 8K (5 miles), and it was a good run. The guide stopped periodically to talk about the history or points of interest.
The Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most-visited building and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1248, and in fact the first stone was laid on August 15, 1248 so today is its birthday! It is 515 feet high, which when it was actually completed in 1880 made it the tallest building in the world (for 4 years). It was actually built to house what is claimed to be the bones of the Three Magi (who visited Jesus after his birth). During World War II, the city of Cologne was bombed in 262 different air raids. Fourteen times bombed were dropped that hit the Cathedral, and yet it remained standing. Some of the glass windows were blown out, and the areas around it were decimated but the cathedral building had only minor damage.
The Cologne Cathedral is Germany’s most-visited building and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1248, and in fact the first stone was laid on August 15, 1248 so today is its birthday! It is 515 feet high, which when it was actually completed in 1880 made it the tallest building in the world (for 4 years). It was actually built to house what is claimed to be the bones of the Three Magi (who visited Jesus after his birth). During World War II, the city of Cologne was bombed in 262 different air raids. Fourteen times bombed were dropped that hit the Cathedral, and yet it remained standing. Some of the glass windows were blown out, and the areas around it were decimated, but the cathedral building had only minor damage.
The bridge we crossed with the love locks is called the Hohenzollernbrücke (brücke mean bridge). It was built in the early 1900s and was blown up by the Germans in March 1945 to keep the Allies from crossing. There are photographs of this bridge sitting on the bottom of the river with its arches showing above the water. It is now just a train and pedestrian bridge.Our guide also had us look into the windows of the Rőmisch Germanische Museum – we could easily see a tiled floor through the window. This is actually a tiled floor that was in a Roman villa at this exact location around 220-230 AD and was discovered during construction. The entire museum, which is right next to the Cathedral, was built to cover and include the Roman floor. We ran back to the ship, showered and changed, and then walked back to the Cathedral.
As we approached the courtyard, I could hear music – “Hallelujah” (the version that Pentatonix sings). We came around the corner and realized it was live musicians just as they finished the song. We walked inside, but they only let you past the entrance if you said you were praying not touring. It was beautiful, amazing and huge and truly remarkable. It was hard to get up to the Shrine of the Three Kings at the very front of the church, or to see the oldest windows also in the front (original stained glass), and even harder to take pictures. But we definitely said some prayers while we were there.
Thursday, August 16 This morning we are in Düsseldorf and doing our own bike tour. We rode along the river for a little bit, then over to a small park, then down to the Old Town (which was very small), and back to the ship. We rode 3.25 miles and enjoyed the ride, even through the city streets. The older, more “charming” cities are evidently behind us now. As we have gotten to the bigger cities of the north, while there is such a long history in Germany, so much of the historic buildings and areas was destroyed in World War 2 bombings that little of the old remains in many of the cities. In Cologne, just about the only thing left standing was the Cathedral. In Dusseldorf, there were a few buildings and a small square, some of which was recreated. Back on the ship for lunch as the ship sailed from Düsseldorf to Duisburg. We had originally signed up for a guided hiking tour through the Six Lakes Park, but after hearing about it at the port talk, we realized it was just a walk through a large park.
The ship was docked 4km from the town, so we used Google maps to guide us to the Altstadt (old city). Along the way, we passed over quite a few bridges to get to the main town area. When we got to the city, we saw a nice old church (Salvator Church), but it didn’t look like you could go inside. We kept going to Google Map’s “Old City,” but all that was left was a medieval city wall. We were looking for the archaeological site of the old market, so we changed our Google maps destination… and it led us to the right site this time – right across the street from the Salvator Church! We were so busy looking at the church on the right, we didn’t even look across to the left to see the AltMarkt site! The city market was once a bustling site with people from afar and all over the region coming to trade. It dates back to the 900s, and around 1300 they built a Market Hall Complex, which was in existence until the 1600s. There are white walls erected to show the outline of the building as it was in 1566 when there were extensive drawings and plans made of the area.
Duisburg is actually the largest inland harbor in the world (hosting over 20,000 ships every year), and Europe’s number 1 steel producer. It is because of the steel manufacturing capabilities that the city was heavily bombed in World War 2. At the archaeological site, there was another Avalon passenger and he said he went into the Salvator church, so we went around the other side and found the door. The organist was practicing, and the sound resounded through the cathedral. There was a woman working there who told us some of the history and showed us some photos of what it used to look like before the war – there used to be a steeple at the top of the tall tower of the church. It was directly hit by a bomb that came down into the church and took out the top part but not the tower. That piece was never replaced, and the restoration work began in the 50s. We found our way back to the ship, over the bridges, through small streets and large ones. There were bike lanes on all the big streets, even traffic signals just for the bikes, so it wasn’t as difficult as I feared it might be. The excursions ran a little late coming back to the ship, so it was a perfect time to take photos and videos of the ship without so many people there.
It is funny how the people dynamics have changed since the beginning of the cruise. The first night or two, people were hesitant about where to sit, and who to sit with. There was conversation, but it was on the quieter side. Last night, we saw many people walk in and wave to people or heard people calling out to those coming in to sit with them. And the conversation level was much louder!
Friday, August 17 I can’t believe tomorrow is our last full day on the ship – it has flown by! We left Duisburg early this morning and sailed to Xanten. Rose told us last night that it would be a rainy morning (100% chance), so they extended breakfast to 9:30am or you could just wait for lunch at noon. We caught up on sleep and at about 10:30am we went to the aft lounge and grabbed tea and coffee and muffins and, since every seat was taken (still raining) we brought it to the Panorama Lounge at the front. A large fruit display was on the bar, and the chef said it was actually there every morning (we hadn’t noticed it before, but good to know!)
There were four excursion options later on – one was a bike tour and the other three included a visit to the Archaeological Park at Xanten and then a choice of activity after. We are docked about 1.5 miles from Xanten, so buses would take us to the park, and then leave at 4pm to go back to the ship.
The town of Xanten started in 100A.D. as a Roman town by the name of Colonia Ulpia Traiana. It was an important trade hub and had about 15,000 inhabitants. The name came from Saint Victor, the martyr – after his death his followers built a small chapel in his honor which later expanded into a monastery. The settlement was named “Ad sanctos,” (saints), later shortened to Xanten. It is a very significant town because the ruins of the Roman town are located beneath fields that were used for farming. In most locations, ruins are located beneath cities that were built on top of them. There is nothing on top of these but dirt, so they have the time to dig it up and research slowly and accurately. The archaeological park has just a few buildings, all of which have been rebuilt according to the exact plans of the Roman city, and often using the rocks that were brought to this area to build the original buildings. There is also a rebuilt portion of the harbor temple, and the amphitheater.
At 4:45pm the ship left to sail to Amsterdam (upcoming blog post). At 6:30pm we had a Disembarkation briefing and Port Talk. Unlike the large cruise ships, you put your bags in the hall a half hour before you are scheduled to leave, and they either bring them to the lobby or put them on the transportation (if you purchase their transfers) or move them to the hotel (if you book your post-cruise hotel through them). You have to be out of your stateroom by 9am, so our bags will be picked up at 8:30am, and we will take an Uber to our hotel. Part of the disembarkation talk about was gratuities – you can prepay them, or they recommend 12 Euros per person per day for the crew tip pool, and 3 Euro per person per day for the cruise director (who isn’t one of the crew – she bounces from ship to ship). Tonight’s dinner was the “Farewell Gala Dinner” so Vic and I dressed up a little. All the crew were honored as they were introduced and paraded around the dining room. It’s amazing that there are so many on the cooking staff, with the kitchen as small as it is. Dinner was once again delicious, and dessert was a special chocolate cake, and the chef personally brought over a special dessert for Bonnie and I, as we both have dietary restrictions.
Vic looked out our window at one point and saw that we were passing what almost looked like a castle. He slid open the door and looked ahead, and we were going through a lock. Well, what used to be a lock and is now just left open as the water levels don’t change anymore. Jacob, who was in the next cabin, was also peaking out.
Thanks for reading my Germany travel diary and I hope you enjoyed this recap of my cruise experience. For questions regarding your own vacation planning, please feel free to write me at my contact page!