Long long ago when you wore white gloves and nylons and your handbag matched your shoes, you walked up the long diagonal gangplank and boarded Cunard’s Elizabeth, Mary or Mauretania to cross the Atlantic in five vertiginous days. (I use the smokestack from my luggage tag as a logo.) In Cabin class, a deck up from Tourist, you dressed for dinner and if you caught the eye of the chief bursar you might be asked to join the captain’s table in First where I spotted a rueful Cary Grant just divorced from Betsy Drake.
A thousand years later in another world I took my next watery vacation, Viking’s Rhine Getaway cruise featured in Kodachrome- alluring ads on PBS before and after Downton Abbey
. I was hooked and we arrived in Basel, stepped onto the longboat (not a ship, carrying boats) Kara with 170 other passengers and 48 staff eager to serve. To a man everyone was over 65, white, married, retired middle management, with enviable appetites for information and food.
Sailing north on the Rhine, which started its 776 mile journey to the North Sea in the Oberalps, the Kara cruised for the first three nights while we were asleep and I wondered if this was just a floating hotel docking at different ports. Every morning passengers were divided into three or four groups and off we went on a caravan of buses. First stop Breisach, the warmest place in Germany, in hilly wine country, up tp 6,100 feet, with a Romanesque cathedral and Schongauer murals which survived the war. In Germany every monument is preceded by this lugubrious reminder, was it or was it not bombed by the Allies.
The Black Forest, impenetrable in thick fog, defied the bus driver so we stopped at a cuckoo clock shop in Hofgut Sternen next to the very hotel where Marie Antoinette stayed in 1770 en route from Vienna to Paris to marry Louis. (This is why you go to Europe!).The next day, the mist folllowed us into the old town of Strasbourg, all cobblestones, canals, half timbered houses, a medieval guild city circling a suave Gothic catheral . The multicultural new city with its unfortunate modern architecture is the seat of the 28 member European Parliament, which Britain will leave in 2020 and perhaps Italy, the Council of Europe and the Council on Human Rights.
Viking packs a full basket of Optional Excursions, “Making the MOST of every stop” but after a morning of sightseeing we skipped the Alsatian feast (food on the Kara was, fresh, simple and healthy) , the wine and beer nights in monasteries and fortresses, the cheesemaking demos, stunning Colmar, the Bruhl princely palaces, E-biking here and there. Jack did take the tour of Mercedes Benz where robots assembled cars overseen by workers rotating jobs every hour and never working more than 30 hours a week.
Heidelberg was still Edmund Purdum (with Mario Lanza’s tenor) in The Student Prince, singing DrinkDrinkDrink to Eyes to that are Bright and…. in the oldest university in Europe (1386), summertime, linden trees,bells chiming, lover’s promenade. Ah! The pink sandstone castle 330 ft high above the lovely Neckar, home of the Palatinate princes was so beautiful the Allies spared it. It is sans doute the most Romantic place on the Continent, and you have to hand it to the Germans, no folderol, no commercialism, no glassed in forced fed education, no Frenchified son et lumiere as in Lex Baux, just the empty melancholy divinity of castle ruins, yes in a thunderstorm, that enchanted Turner, Goethe and Mark Twain.
Finally finally daylight cruising in the choppy Rhine Gorge between Rudesheim and Koblenz the 25 mile stretch a UNESCO World Heritage site with 20 hilltop castles where robber barons exacted tolls from river traffic and where at the treacherous bend in the river stands the Lorelei rock of the Niebelungen. I longed to hear Siegfried but the musak offered All You Need is Love, a nod to the “Royal” wedding that day. The Kara docked in Koblenz, home of the Teutonic knights, where the Rhine and Moselle meet at a massive equestrian statue of Prince Willliam I and off to Marksburg Castle, the only castle untouched by the war, high up on the gorge. At this age having explored a lifetime of ruins, castles, monasteries and cathedrals I didn’t need to see another medieval kitchen and great hall so stayed outside, had a grand local beer, and admired the view.
During the night cruising and day cruising through lock after lock one noted that not a centimeter of space was left on the banks of the Rhine with heavy industry, factory after factory, plants after plant,many pharmas, smokestack after smokestack, shipping port after shipping port. In a country the size of Montana with 83 million souls( 10% have foreign passports), from cradle to grave everything is be organized in a quasi socialistic system where engineers earn more than lawyers and a super skilled workforce offers America, so profligate with our treasures, a valuable lesson.
Then Cologne, 90% flattened in the war, the old town rebuilt as a perfect copy of the original thanks to city planner Klement Eul the godfther of our guide Irwin. The biggest cathedral in Europe, built from the 14th through the 19th centuries, was as black as coal sadly unable to be cleaned so far has grime penetrated into the stone. The fourth country of the tour, the Netherlands and Kinderdjik another UNESCO site with 19 eighteenth century windmills, the largest concentration in the country, still fully functional, amidst the polders or grasslands five feet below sea level .Massive pumps from 1740 still keeping the sea at bay. Forgoing the tour of Amsterdam, which after all never changes, we were corraled onto a very old KLM 747 for the long painful flight home. The next time I cross the Atlantic I’ll try one of those new Cunards.