Postcard from Paris and the Rhine

Postcard from Paris and the Rhine River – 2015

One doesn’t need a reason to visit Paris, arguably the most beautiful city on the world. However, the fact that my son and one year old granddaughter live there provides added inducement. Despite the fact that we never set foot in a single museum, climbed up the Montmartre nor the Eifel Tower, and did none of the activities tourist typically do, this was probably our most enjoyable visit to the City of Light. One reason was my son and his wife’s gracious hospitality. They cooked for us, shared with us, and made us feel incredibly welcome. Seeing them happy together and functioning so well as a unit gave me, as it would to any parent, a great deal of comfort. Another reason for our enjoyment was granddaughter Tessa. Though we had seen her at Christmas, she had developed so many new skills and had transformed from a baby to a gorgeous little girl that we never tired of watching her, as she continued to melt our hearts.
One day we had the opportunity to have lunch with Jason and Leslie, two of Peter’s friends who had recently returned from Cairo, where they had received a grant to spend some time pursuing their art. Jason had written an insightful book of their experiences as Anglophones living in an Egyptian community, and Leslie created a multimedia presentation of art work she created while there, along with photos and interviews she did of women runners throughout the city. (She most generously presented us with a limited edition copy of her work.) We were fascinated by their stories, and admired their courage in undertaking this project. Our lunch took place at Le Paprika, an excellent Hungarian restaurant near the center of Paris, serving outstanding food at very reasonable prices. I highly recommend it on your next visit to France.
While in the city, we were also treated to dinner by Nil, Miki’s charming Algerian colleague from her days in the ortho program at Harvard. He lives not far from Peter in Montparnasse, and continues to practice in Chartres. We had a most memorable meal at Je the…me, the small, classic French restaurant we had discovered in the 15th on a prior visit, courtesy of Anthony Bourdain.
Peter’s wife, Stephanie, had recently bought a car, which she needs in order to commute to work, but which sits unused on the street on weekends and holidays. While visiting with them, we saw a system in action that is ingenious, whereby she could rent her car to someone during periods it’s not in use. It appears to be a well-developed program, with insurance, a Pay-pal type transaction, and other safeguards in place to ensure the satisfaction of both the owner and the renter.
All too quickly, our Paris days flew by, and soon we had to make our way to the Gare de Lyon to catch the bullet train to Zurich, and from there to Lucerne, Switzerland for the start of our Rhine River holiday. We had already fortified ourselves with tasty baguette sandwiches for the journey, and were waiting for the taxi that Peter had secured for us via the Internet. When the car didn’t show at the appointed time, Peter called the service, which apparently had no record of the reservation. Fortunately, they were able to get a cab to us in 15 minutes, so we caught our train without problem. Knowing we had to navigate trains and steps, we were travelling light, which is something I recommend for everyone. (Miki’s Latvian cousin, Sandra, is an expert in this art; she and her husband spent two weeks in South Africa with us with nothing by carry-ons) Though you may notice in travel photos we always seem to be wearing the same clothes, the advantages of not being weighed down by too much luggage cannot be overstated. Much as on airplanes, the TGV (the French rapid train system) assigns you a specific seat in a specific car. Unlike our Amtrak, these trains are ultramodern, extremely comfortable, and without the noise and the lurching we associate with rail travel in our country, though they fly along at speeds in excess of 100-120 mph. When we arrived in Zurich, we had 9 minutes to catch the next train to Lucerne. We originally thought we’d never make that tight a connection, but amazingly, we did, with a minute to spare. (There was another train in a half hour.)
Switzerland, unlike most of Europe, has not converted to the Euro, so I had to get some Swiss francs from the ATM. To give you an idea of how expensive Switzerland is, Miki had to pay 2 Euros or 2 Swiss francs (about $2.20 US) to use the bathroom! (If you come without money, I guess you just have to hold it.) Everything in Switzerland is clean and orderly, toilets being no exception. Our hotel was less than a mile from the train station, and normally we would have walked, but as it was raining, Miki opted we should take a cab. This cost just over $25 US dollars for the short ride. You get the picture.
Lucerne is Switzerland because it encompasses all the merits of the country: The City; The Lake; The snow covered Alps. Whatever you expect from a unique city, Lucerne offers it all to you with outstanding diversity. There is the avant-garde KKL Luzern (culture and convention center) of the Parisian architect Jean Nouvel alongside the historic sights which have survived for centuries, such as the covered Chapel Bridge with its gabled paintings of old battles, leading to quaint quarters with little streets, promenades, and plazas dominated by countless historical towers, fountains, and frescoed buildings.
The day after we arrived was Good Friday, so after taking a walking tour along Lake Lucerne dotted with numerous majestic swans haughtily swimming about, and having the various architectural highlights explained to us, we headed over to the large Baroque Jesuit Church built in 1666 for the afternoon services, held in German. A young soprano with an exquisite voice brought a special air to the mass. After the service, we climbed up to the Lion monument dedicated to the 800 Swiss soldiers who died in Paris trying to protect Louis the XVI during the French Revolution, and which, according to Mark Twain, “is the saddest sculpture I have ever seen.”
As expensive as Switzerland is, we can recommend two eateries we found that provided good value: one is the Weisse Kreuz, offering very good Italian food, and the other is Beuscher bakery, that in addition to great pastries, provides a delicious schnitzel baguette (Wiener schnitzel on crunchy French bread with a tangy dressing – yumm.)
Having met up with Fran, our friend and local travel agent, as well as the rest of the group, we headed out the next day to Basel, where we boarded our river ship, the Emerald Sky, which was to be our home for the next week. Holding 180 passengers, providing spacious accommodations with large picture windows that can be lowered for fresh air, and even a small swimming pool, this brand new ship (launched in 2014) was marvelously comfortable, and provided delicious food in great abundance throughout our trip. Half the crew is Hungarian, and being the only passenger who could speak to them in their native language, we were accorded royal service. The chef, Andras, even fixed Miki and I Wiener Schnitzel one evening after I had informed him it was her favorite, and she felt deprived not having any at our prior stops. (Le Paprika in Paris had just served their last portion when she ordered it.)
Miki, who is prone to sea sickness, was more than a bit apprehensive about being on a ship for a week. Her fears, however, were soon allayed, as the decks were as steady as rocks, even when large barges creating wakes passed close by. The only time you felt any motion was when we went through one of the 15 locks between Basel and Amsterdam (some with water level drops of more than 20 feet) and the ship, that had a clearance of literally a couple of inches on each side, would bump against the walls.
We arrived in Strasbourg, France on the morning of Easter Sunday. Originally established as a Roman outpost, the city is on the banks of the Ill River just where it flows into the Rhine on the border of Germany. Capital of the Alsace region, the city has passed back and forth between German and French control over the centuries, which is reflected both in its food as well as architecture. The historic city center, classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, is justly famous for its 16th and 17th century black and white timber- framed houses with their wooden galleries, windows with tiny panes of colored glass, as well as the overhanging upper levels. The cathedral with its 466 foot Gothic spire is a landmark visible from most parts of the city. Built in red sandstone, the outside requires frequent maintenance. The stained glass windows from the 12th, 13th and 14th century are remarkable. The huge organ is embellished by a case equipped with animated figures. The nearby Astronomical Clock has automata ringing out the quarter-hours and the figure of Death sounding the hours. Witnessing Easter mass in this setting, with the pews full, polychromatic light streaming across the aisles, and the feeling of history everywhere was quite special.
The Monday after Easter is a national holiday in both France and Germany, so when we arrived in Speyer early in the morning and walked into town (having skipped the optional tour into Heidelberg, which though quite charming, we had recently visited) we found the place to be literally deserted. It felt eerie walking through this beautiful city with nary a soul in sight. It was almost like we had walked onto a movie set that wasn’t being used, or were an unwitting part of a Twilight Zone episode where all the inhabitants were transported into another dimension. I confess to having total ignorance of Speyer, and was very pleasantly surprised to find that it not only contains the largest Romanesque church in the world, but also many other fine buildings, churches, statues, fountains and architectural features. We wandered through town for a couple of hours, and not until shortly prior to our departure did we begin to come across other people. If you are in the area I would not miss the chance to visit this site.
Sailing on to Manheim, we picked up the members of our tour who chose to go into Heidelberg, and continued on to Rudesheim. This more than a thousand year old town, surrounded by vineyards producing some of the best of German wines, with its narrow winding lanes and half-timbered buildings, offers romance and history rolled into one. In the center of town is the Drosselgasse, a cobblestone little alley no more than 500 feet long, filled with wine bars, restaurants and pubs, that judging by the number of languages spoken, attracts visitors from around the world. There is a cable car to take you to the Niederwald Monument which overlooks the city and the Rhine below. It commemorates the re-establishment of the German Empire in 1871 by Bismarck and Emperor Wilhelm I. Dotting the surrounding hillsides are a number of other castles and fortifications, one of which now contains a large wine museum. I somewhat regret not having visited the Siefried Mechanical Musical Cabinets, a museum of one of the largest collections of self-playing musical instruments in the world. For the price of one euro, I was able to witness one of these instruments performing its magic at the entrance of the building. There is only so much time!
The Rhine is said to be the most traveled river in Europe, and judging by the number of ships and barges we saw, I certainly believe that. Despite the hustle and bustle of the water traffic, cruising on the river is wonderfully relaxing. We were blessed with sunny, clear days for almost our entire journey, and thoroughly enjoyed sitting out on the deck with a cup of hot cappuccino watching the myriad of picturesque towns and castles unfold in front of us with each bend of the river. Kilometer markers in large black numbers on the shore provide clear reference points along the entire length of the Rhine, and the ship provided excellent maps and brochures describing the nature and history of each landmark town we were passing. Everyone on board cranes their neck to see the Lorelei, the statue of the long haired siren who lured sailors to their death with her song, and who still has enough magic to make us forget all but the beauty of the scenery that surrounds us.
In the biggest horseshoe bend of this mighty river sits Boppard (Bodobrica to the Romans who built a huge fort with 27 foot walls here, some of it still well preserved.) The Carmelite monks have been a strong presence in the town, and the former Carmelite monastery is now the town hall. For those of you into furniture, Boppard is also the home of Michael Thonet, who invented a process to bend wood into pretzel shapes and designed bentwood furniture still popular today. As you walk through town, there are illustrations on the walls of his work with the catalog number of each item. Talk about product placement!
Food on the ship always offered samples of the local cuisine, so we had the opportunity to try a large selection of pork meats and sausage (Wurst) of which there are about 1500 different kinds available. Herring is popular, especially in the northern part of the country, and was always an option in the mornings, along with my favorite, smoked salmon. Spätzle (literally “little sparrow”, and one of my personal favorites) is a soft textured egg noodle popular not only in Germany, but all through Eastern Europe. (In Germany, 40,000 tons are produced commercially each year, and this does not include the spätzle made in restaurants and homes!) Wine and beer at dinner is included in the price of the cruise, and we were offered a good sampling of the local products, excellent in quality, and which I must confess our group consumed liberally. The 180 passengers were from all over the US, and we met some very nice folks from each region. Fran, who continues her tradition of having a cocktail party in her room prior to dinner each evening, provided a venue for all the members of our group to get together and share experiences.
The river Mosel is one of the most beautiful aquatic landscapes in Europe, and its most scenic part is the last 100 miles before it enters the Rhine at Koblenz. Right in the heart of this postcard setting is the little town of Cochem. It is surrounded by a smattering of castles and abbeys within rolling peaks and sheer rock faces. Sitting in glory on a precipitous rock high above the town is the splendidly restored Reichsburg castle, dominating the landscape. The many delicate pointed towers, battlements and oriels give the impression of the typical fairy tale castle. Built originally in 1051, it was completely destroyed in 1689, then rebuilt and equipped with Renaissance and Baroque furniture by the Ravene family. Of all the places we visited along the river cruise, this is the one that touched me the most. Part of the reason was the design of its tour by a most charming and witty lady, who literally collected the keys to the castle at the gate, and guided us through each room of the wonderful edifice, opening and closing doors as we went along. The result was a visit through stately rooms decorated with taste, filled with wonderful carvings and art, unencumbered by the presence of other tourists and guides, giving a deeply imbued sense of what it must have been like for the original owners walking through this great edifice. The town itself exudes the typical Gemutlichkeit of lovingly restored medieval houses with slate roofs typical of the region. There is even a historical mustard mill (Senfmuhle) – one of the last of its kind in Europe.
Back on the Rhine, the scenery begins to change as you approach the city of Cologne (Koln in German) with the appearance of large industrial complexes along the river banks, reminding the visitor that they are seeing the heart of the German economy – manufacturing. Home of the inventors of everything from the clarinet to the diesel and jet engines, the fluorescent lamp and the microphone, Germany remains the powerhouse of Europe. I have to forgive them for the fact that they are also the creators of the garden gnome, which has managed to proliferate to all four corners of the world.
The origins of this city of over a million dates back to the Romans, and their buildings are still being found, such as by the excavations near the city hall. (We witnessed a marriage, at the end of which two white doves are released, possibly symbolizing the last flight of freedom ) The cathedral is the greatest Gothic edifice of Christendom with its twin towers of more than 500 feet. Colossal yet still airy, the stone columns draw the eyes up to the great stained glass windows soaring above the 14th century altar, behind which is the 12th century shrine reputed to hold the relics of the Three Magi. In addition to the Dom, the city is also home of the largest university in Germany, 30 museums and hundreds of galleries. Miki and I enjoyed walking through the well-kept parks along the Rhine, sitting on a bench, and watching local life unfold in front of us.
After a day in the city, we headed back to our ship, and sailed to our final destination, Amsterdam. This is a truly multicultural city, with 45% of the population originating from outside the Netherlands, many from former Dutch colonies such as Indonesia, Surinam and the Antilles, leavened with a mix of Turkish, Moroccan and Eastern European immigrants. Taking a cruise on one of the myriad ships gliding through its canals lined with houseboats is de rigeur for new visitors, but since we had done this before, we opted to meet Veronica, Miki’s Dutch friend from her ortho program in Boston, who came on her bicycle, along with her husband, Erik. They live close to where our boat docked, and along with the 500,000 other cyclists in the city, find this means of transportation both convenient as well as healthy. We spent a couple of pleasant hours catching up with them about the milestones of our lives at the café of the Eye, a museum of cinema and visual arts reached by the blue ferry the city provides as a gratis form of transport across the bay.
Our visit was well timed to see Keukenhof Gardens, displaying millions of bulbs of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring flowers. The Gardens are only open two months out of the year in April and May, and even if you are not addicted to horticulture, well worth the visit. The fields of flowers driving up to the Gardens are enough to inspire an entire legion of Impressionist painters! I found it difficult not to take too many photos of the myriad floral displays.
That night we had a farewell reception on the ship, then caught a cab to Shiphol, Amsterdam’s hub airport for our connecting flight back to Paris, then home to LA. As we had a five hour layover at Charles de Gaulle, I tried to gain admission to the Air France lounge with the use of my American Express card. The man at the desk informed me they no longer extended this courtesy to card holders, but offered to let me pay with Air France miles. I thought 6,500 miles was a tad extravagant for this privilege, but agreed. When he looked at my boarding pass, the man commented that he had a son living in LA, so I shared with him the symmetry that I had a son living in Paris. This led to him offering to only charge one of us for mileage for admission to the lounge. I thanked him, and for the next five hours we had the pleasure of comfortable chairs, food and drink, and a large selection of newspapers and magazines. When we got to the gate, Miki noticed her name on the announcement board. Inquiring what the problem was, we were informed we had been upgraded (thanks to our benefactor whose name I didn’t even know) to First Class seats in row 1 of the plane. And people say the French are not nice to Americans! Thus came an unexpected wonderful ending to a most enjoyable holiday.

Best wishes to all of you,

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