frotton heidelberg 1PHOTO: Heidelberg Castle photos courtesy Jane Frotton

The Viking Sun left Rudesheim, Germany promptly at midnight on our fourth day on the Rhine River, while many of us were still enjoying the piano music presented by Charlie, an affable and talented pianist, and enjoying the libations served by Mark, Marianna, and Demeter. There is no doubt the Viking crew members are charming, friendly, eager to practice their excellent English with the British, Canadians and Americans, and with a sole aim of ensuring everything was perfect on our trip. Added to that, the Captain and hotel manager had issued invitations to all passengers who had sailed on Viking cruises in the past, inviting us all for a champagne toast and hors d’oeuvres in the library before dinner. Hospitality, friendship and efficiency are definitely the keynotes with Viking Cruise Lines.  

 

     By a little after 9 a.m., on the fifth day, the Viking Sun was docked in Mannheim, a city dating back to the 1200s when it was a customs fortress on the Rhine. It was about 10 miles from Heidelberg, so Viking had more of those Mercedes Benz busses ready and waiting for us for a four to five hour excursion into the city and a visit to the famed castle at Heidelberg.

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   Like the city, the castle dates back to the 1200s and was beaten up more than once in the 30 Years War, lightning strikes, French battles, more wars and more lightning bolts. It has been renovated over the centuries more than once, but essentially is still ruins.

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   It was a castle that attracted our own Mark Twain, though, since he wrote extensively about it in his A Tramp Abroad in the 19th century, and the locals are apparently proud of this connection, judging by the number of quotes you see or hear from Twain…..”…nature has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye…” It was one of Twin’s favorite places in all his travels, describing Heidelberg as “the last possibility of the beautiful.”

       At any rate, the Heidelberg Castle is far more famous and far more visited than the Marksburg Castle, and is important in British history because in the 1600s, Frederick, “the Winter King” married Elizabeth Stuart, the British King’s daughter, and formed a new alliance between the countries.   There’s an excellent opportunity to learn reams of German, French and British history along the Rhine for those interested in pursuing it.

   As in all the cities and villages where the Viking offers tours and guides, there is also ample time to explore the area alone, or stop in a local café, coffee house, or restaurant for a meal. But Viking, being what it is, also ensures all its passengers that should they opt to spend the time strolling through Heidelberg or souvenir shopping during the free time, Matthias the chef would have a late lunch prepared and ready back in the ship’s lounge when the bus returned.

   The lunch a board came after the other nicety Viking offers its passengers upon every return to the ship after a village outing….staff meets passengers on the dock, light beverages in hand and warm welcome home smiles on faces.

   While most of the passengers opted for the tour into Heidelberg, those who remained on the Sun enjoyed the short sail from Mannheim to Speyer, another village on the Rhine, where the Heidelberg group met it after their tour. There was still time before dinner, for those who wished, to walk about Speyer, and see the ruins of 11th century men’s and women’s synagogues.

   Dinner at the Sun was leaving Germany and heading towards Strasburg, France, was another special great, with the accent on “A taste of Germany,” an incredible buffet of all the wonderful meats, vegetables and noodles that are so much a part of German cuisine.

Then the Viking Sun passed through the first of ten locks it would traverse between here and Basil, Switzerland.

   Locks fascinate me. How man made gates and pumps can hold back an entire area of the river, then fill it again to bring the water levels even to enable ships to continue passage is an engineering feat beyond my imagination. So I took every opportunity I could to be on the sundeck as we passed through the locks, watching the captain maneuver the boat so close to the wall of the canal you could scrape the sides (the because of the underwater bumpers, the boat never did) and watch the water rise and fall as commanded.

   A lock is basically a great big chamber with gates on either end, on a part of the river where the water level changes, either because of topography or a dam or some other reason. There’s a lock master on land who governs the traffic, but it’s the ship’s captain who maneuvers his own craft through. Because the Viking Sun was traveling upstream, it’s necessary to wait till the water level is low and the gates open, before the boat gets in. The gates both in front and at the stern of the boat then close, a valve is opened and water gushes in to raise the boat. When the water is at the level of the next piece of the river, the exit gates open, and the boat sails out. The whole process takes about ten to 15 minutes, and the captain is operating his craft and watching its movement from the side closest to the canal wall the entire time. It’s a serious business, but the Sun’s Captain Bartosz Balwierz, amiably answered questions and chatted with passengers once his work was completed. With his efficiency and excellence at the wheel, passing through locks, or navigating the treacherous waters around the Lorelei are just part of the job for Capt Bartosz.