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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Moving Sidewalks

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The landscape is lush. Inviting. A panoply of sizes, shapes and colors neatly stitched together in a seamless portrait reminiscent of early Flemish paintings.
Each scene is dramatic, breathtaking and somewhat different than the last. It’s like walking through the rooms of a renowned museum. But instead of walking, I’m on a moving sidewalk, one that glides past each scene languidly, allowing me to marvel at this veritable feast for the senses.
Uniworld’s River Ambassador ship is my portal to this outdoor museum and my sidewalk is the river. On this occasion, it sails effortlessly on Germany’s legendary Rhine, under a spectacular August sun that makes the surrounding countryside vibrant and alluring.
On both sides of the river, high on steep cliffs and mountainsides, imposing castles and fortresses offer a glimpse into medieval history, a time when wealth and power resided in individuals and families and not the state. Most of these stone structures are empty now, and of little use today, but some still serve as museums or tourist attractions. From the top deck of the three-tiered River Ambassador, they provide opportunities for that once-in-a-lifetime vacation photo and yet another memory.
River cruising has a way of providing such sights on a daily basis. The cruise down the Rhine toward Cologne was the finale of a 10-day journey that began with a brief stay in the Czech capital of Prague. Boarding for the cruise began in Nuremberg on the Main River, and would continue to the city of Aschaffenburg, where the Main intersects with the Rhine.
Along the way, in cities that aren’t household names – but are nonetheless intriguing and delightful – passengers are exposed to a portion of Germany’s Romantic Road, royal gardens, an eclectic mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, and castles. Lots of castles. As an added bonus, the view is up-close and very personal, a feature that big ships can’t match.
An intimate encounter with towns and cities along the river is probably the singular most attractive reason river cruises have more than tripled in popularity in the last 10 years. Ships dock near the center of each destination and a stroll or short motor coach ride places travelers in the middle of the action in minutes. Knowledgeable local guides fill in the blanks about the area, and there is still ample time to explore other options.
Touring is not the only pursuit taking place on river ships. Other mostly complimentary activities include wine tastings, culinary demonstrations, even sausage-making, as was the case on the German itinerary. Evenings onboard after dinner feature local entertainment such as folkloric groups or informational seminars on such things as glassmaking.
In most instances, however, the destinations are the lure. Prague, noted for its 100 spires, is often referred to the “The Paris of Eastern Europe.” Paris should be flattered. Churches and palaces are on nearly every corner, and it is an idyllic walking city. Highlights are the National Museum, state opera house, Wenceslas Square and, of course, Prague Castle. The castle has been the home of kings, emperors and presidents for nearly a millennium and once housed the crown jewels of the Bohemian kingdom.
Tourists flock to Prague’s Charles Bridge, built by King Charles IV centuries ago. The bridge spans the Vltava River and is pedestrian-only. Among its most charming characteristics are the vendors who have crafts and paintings of every description available for next to nothing.
Not far from the bridge is Old Town, or Stare Mesto. Here in the square is the remarkable Astronomical Clock on the city hall building. The square is jammed every hour on the hour with people waiting to see the clock strike and the figures of the disciples emerge. It’s just one of the abundant treasures of Prague, a city many are reluctant to leave, but Germany and its riches beckon.
Uniworld began offering “Treasures of Prague, the Rhine & Main” in 2011. German cities on the itinerary include Nuremberg, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Miltenberg, Aschaffenburg, Koblenz and Cologne. All have sights too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say, Uniworld selects the best in each one. In Nuremburg, it’s the fascinating history of the Nazi party and their huge rallies here. Bamberg once served as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wurzburg, now the second-largest city of Franconia, was mostly destroyed by allied bombing in WWII but has been restored to its original splendor.
Miltenberg is another of those sleepy medieval towns hardly ever mentioned in guidebooks. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame is that it was a regular stop of Frederick Barbarossa, an infamous Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Nestled below wooded hills on a bend of the Main River, it is one of the most photogenic cities on the trip. Aschaffenburg boasts the mighty castle Schloss Johannisburg, where Napoleon and Empress Maria Theresia from Austria were counted among the guests. The castle houses a museum with notable art collections.
Lastly, Koblenz is at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. It is primarily a cultural, administrative and business center of the Middle Rhine. Its massive 12th century fortress, Festung Ehrenbreitstein, is Europe’s largest.
Sadly, this is the last stop on this marvelous journey before disembarking in Cologne, but it shouldn’t be your last river cruise. There are far too many destinations to discover.

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