Thursday, July 4, 2019

Back to Europe, Starting with a More Thorough Exploration of the Main River Valley

Welcome to our 2019 travels.  This year we are cycling from Nuremberg in south-central Germany to Copenhagen in Denmark.  Our German travels are outlined in the map to the right.  Except for the section in gray, our entire route is following rivers to the North Sea, then along that body of water to the Danish border. When we make it up to that point, we'll give you another map.

The German part of our trip is a combination of revisits to some favorite rivers, combined with new ones we've been wanting to explore.  Today's blog will focus on the Main (rhymes with "fine") River valley, shown in red on the map.  We previously cycled 275 miles along it in 2015, and this time are adding 150 miles that we skipped on that first trip.  Half that has been on tributaries and half on the upper section, above Bamberg (where the brown and red lines meet on the map).

Our starting point of Nuremberg was chosen because it is the starting point of a bicycle route down one of the larger tributaries of the Main, the Regnitz River.  But it is also a city with a past.  It's a glorious past that was sullied by its association with Nazism, thanks to a particularly pro-Nazi newspaper in town which helped lead to its selection as the location for some of Hitler's most famous rallies.  We'll take you to that site in a bit, but the town is more than that.  Here's a view of the Marketplace in 1594, and what the church on the right side and the tower in the back left corner of the square look like today.

Nearby is the home of Albrecht Durer, one of Germany's most famous painters, who lived here over 400 years ago.  Nearby buildings have corner statues that further recall Nuremberg's glory days.  Today, the square next to Durer's home is where folks congregate to socialize and soak up some sun.

The Pegnitz River flows peacefully through town and features some colorful ducks, and on an island in the middle of the river there is an annual "Sommer in der City" with sand trucked in and lots of drinks with paper parasols served alongside the ever-present beer mugs.

The Nazi Documentation Center does a terrific job of explaining why the Germans ended up with Hitler -- he came to power in a coalition, with only about 1/3 of the vote having been for the Nazis, but complacency about Hitler and his movement led to acceptance, even when what was accepted was an end of civil liberties for all and much worse for Hitler's political enemies and racial victims within Germany.  As a free press disappeared, so too did any reasonable chance of choosing an alternate way out.  The museum uses only a small part of Congress Hall, an ostentatious architectural pile vaguely resembling the Coliseum but at twice the scale, never completed and largely empty.  Nearby is the so-called Zeppelin Field where massive rallies of up to 150,000 soldiers were held, surrounded by tens of thousands of onlookers.  All of our readers have probably, sometime, seen a photo of Hitler haranguing the crowds from its rostrum.  That's it in the fourth photo, with Louise and Little Red, our tandem, barely visible to the right of the rostrum.  Today this is a sad place slowly being taken over by weeds.

At last it was time to take to the road.  Our route took us to Erlangen, a university town where Louise's brother David studied and earned his Ph.D. in the 1970's.  The main shopping street was probably not "pedestrianized" back then, since the wave of closing off areas like this to cars did not really get going in Germany until a decade or two later.  We stopped and had a picnic lunch in a park that adjoins one of the oldest buildings of the university.  It was a busy weekend in town, with a folk festival pulling in tens of thousands of participants each day.  Here is one group of four, the half-liter beer bottle they were sharing discreetly out of sight at the moment the shutter snapped.

The plan was to continue the next day down the Regnitzradweg, the cycle route, but we woke up to showers with the radar looking quite ominous for the rest of the day.  A train station less than 2 km away beckoned to us.  We got down there in a very light mist, hesitated for a few moments, then plunked our money into the ticket machine and hopped on the train that came in 4 minutes.  When we got off in Bamberg some 35 km later, it was the same very light mist.  An hour later, it stopped.  DANG, we could have continued biking and hardly gotten wet!  We got into our room early at our hotel and rechecked the weather forecast.  The rain was done for the day.  So off we went to re-explore this city we spent a few days in 4 years ago. Wouldn't you know it -- as we left the cathedral, it was raining.  And we had left our raincoats in our hotel room.  Aaargh, danged weather forecasts!  We sat in a pew quietly reading our Kindle devices for 20 minutes, until the rain let up a bit, and headed back at a fast walk.

On the outbound walk, before the rain, we passed by a Jesuit church that looked similar to one we had seen in Vienna, both patterned after one in Rome.  As in the Viennese church, there was a trompe l'oeil painting on the ceiling giving the false impression that you were looking up at the inside of a high dome, rather than at a gently rounded ceiling.  This was a 'new' church, only a few hundred years old.  In the ancient cathedral they have a list of all their bishops.  The first one took office one thousand and twelve years ago.  Not sure which bishop the sculpture was of, or how well he might have liked this likeness.

Across the street is a wonderful park, the former gardens of the bishop.  Looking southeast, that ominous cloud should have given us adequate warning of what was to come.

As it turned out, we did bike along 35 of the 70 km of the Regnitz bike route, and saw both the Regnitz coming over the falls in Bamberg, and the Main-Danube Canal which parallels it.  

This is no run-of-the-mill canal.  The first plans for it date to 1921, but serious construction didn't really get going until the late 20th century, with the final link completed in 1992.  It climbs up and over Europe.  Boats can come up from Amsterdam or Rotterdam via canals and the Rhine River to Mainz, where the Main joins the Rhine.  Then the dams and locks begin -- 34 of them on the Main to Bamberg, raising boats up to 230 m above sea level.  The 16 locks on the next section, the Main-Danube Canal, raise boats up to 406 m above sea level -- 1,332 feet, highest in the world -- then down to 338 m at the Danube.  From there, boats can take the Danube to Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Bucharest, or all the way to the Black Sea.  We'll take a closer look at some of the Main River locks a bit further along.

We next turned up the Main River a short ways to reach the Itz River, an itsy-bitsy little river that nonetheless has created a nice broad valley.  A very smooth bike path carried us to Coburg 20 km up from the Main with such good engineering that we scarcely noticed we were going uphill.  Our journey was enriched by meeting this local family out on a training ride with their 9-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.  Last year they rode the Brenner Pass to Italy, this year they're aiming for the St. Gothard Pass.  Whew, they'll need bigger hills than around here to get ready for that one!

PBS -- America's Public Broadcasting Service -- is the main reason we headed to Coburg.  For the past three winters we have been watching Victoria on our local PBS station, and come to greatly admire Prince Albert, and to know many of his relatives -- his brother Ernest and his uncle Leopold in particular.  It's hard to go a few meters about Coburg without reminders of this remarkable family, the dynasty of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha.  In the town square, for example, there's the statue of Albert.  The building behind him was the administrative center for the duchy his father and then his brother Ernest were the rulers of.

We spent the next day in full Saxe-Coburg & Gotha immersion.  First was the Veste Coburg, the ancestral castle.  It sits high on the hill overlooking the city, and was remarkably large inside the high walls.  We climbed up and down and up again and then down again, numerous times, exploring the maze of rooms and buildings.  Here are a few shots of the castle itself and some of the views.

Although the castle was no longer used as a ducal residence during Albert's lifetime, there were plenty of reminders of him, including the robe his mother wore for her coronation as Duchess, a painting of brother Ernest, a painting of Albert set in Scotland, and a mosaic of Albert.

There is one more person closely, in fact much more closely, associated with the Coburg fortress.  Martin Luther.  In 1530 the Elector of Saxony protected him here while the Catholic Church debated what to do about this Reformation Luther had started.  For six months he spent all his time here, primarily reading and writing, including work on his translation of the Bible into German so that ordinary folks could see for themselves what it said.  The castle has preserved the chapel, now called the "Luther Chapel," and commemorates Luther with a stained glass window and with portraits of Luther and of his wife, Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  That's the organ loft on the far left, with the pulpit below it and a baptismal font in the nave of the chapel.  The photo was taken from where the Elector of Saxony's private box was -- the rest of the congregation was in the nave, some 30 feet (10 m) below.

We took a bus up and down from the fortress to save our energy for what was yet to come (it was only 1 mile each way, but a 400-foot climb and descent).  Next, we hopped on our bike and rode 8 km out of town to Schloss Rosenau.  This was Albert's favorite place in Coburg, a country getaway used mainly in the summer.  When Victoria came to Coburg on her several visits, this was her favorite spot as well, since it was more intimate and surrounded by nature.  We can show you the side and front views of the place, but not the inside, alas.  It was indeed a cozy little spot, though it does have a ballroom capable of hosting  several dozen couples for the occasional special occasion.  Since we were the only folks who showed up for the 3 pm tour, we lucked out and had our tour in English.

Back to town on our bike, we stowed it away at our hotel and walked back into town for the 5 pm tour of our third Albertine site, Schloss Ehrenburg.  Once again, no photos allowed inside, though one can go to their website and get quite a good look about.  This was largely where Albert and his brother grew up, and where Albert and Victoria stayed in Coburg whenever they had important guests or large events to deal with.  It was quite grand.  Thanks to a handout, we were able to figure out more or less what our tour guide was telling everyone else in German, and he did answer a few of our questions posed in English.

The next morning we were off again by train, this time as part of our plan to explore the upper Main.  The train took us to Bayreuth on the branch called the Red Main.  We got in early so headed a little further up the Red Main, but found it so hilly that we returned to town and instead toured the Neues Schloss, a grand palace in town that did allow photographs.  It was built in the mid-1700's, when most of the U.S. consisted of small houses of very modest means.  Oh, what a contrast!

The next day we rode 40 km down the small Red Main to its junction with the White Main, near Kulmbach.  The km sign says 0 km because the Germans count their river distances from the mouth of a river heading upstream, and this is km 0 for the two branches.  They should also have a sign for the Main saying 525 km, for that is how far we will be following it down to its own km 0 at the Rhine, through many twists and turns.

Kulmbach is on almost no one's list of tourist sites, but we found it charming.  From its narrow medieval street pattern and quaint homes and businesses one could look up and see one of Germany's more impressive fortresses, Plassenburg.  It was built by the Hohenzollern dynasty, one branch of which went on to become kings of Prussia and then Emperors of Germany after Unification in 1871.  This branch of the family wasn't quite so lucky.  Plassenburg was seized and partially destroyed not once but twice, the second time by Napoleon's younger brother, Jerome.  They've tidied things up a bit since, and the view of the countryside and of the town spread out below was quite wonderful.

Riding down the Main, we occasionally saw other large structures high in the hills.  Near Bad Staffelstein we looked up at Kloster Banz, a cloister founded in the 12th century.  Just as Sunni and Shia extremists today attack each other's mosques and holy places, so too did Catholics and Protestants savagely attack each other in the Thirty Years War.  The cloister was plundered and destroyed.  It was rebuilt in the late 1600s, but a little over a century later it was disbanded when monasteries and convents were secularized following the Napoleonic Wars.  Today part of it is a museum, the rest a school.

Our route followed the Main, sometimes closely, sometimes out of sight, but never far away,.  Every 5-8 km we would come to a small town, sometimes riding past it along the river, sometimes through it.  In one such place, Kemmern, we were negotiating the twists and turns of our route through the town when we heard music close by.  We scooted around and caught this small procession that went all of a few hundred meters/yards around the church.  A neighbor told us the church does this 2 or 3 times a year, today perhaps because the prior Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi, a major event in German Catholic churches.

A little further along, we stopped to eat our picnic lunch next to one of those numerous Main River locks.  We watched as the Viking Skadi sat in the locks for what seemed like a dozen minutes, then slowly pulled out.  It houses up to 190 passengers, but only three sat on the front deck and none on the rear, the only viewpoints available.  As it went by you could see that the railings and folding chairs on the top deck were all folded down, indicating the boat has just come from, or is headed to, one of the many low bridges over the Main.  For particularly low bridges, they can even lower the little cabin from which the captain controls the boat.  Meanwhile, the Rhein Prinzessin waited its turn, followed soon after by a sailboat with its mast fully lowered.  Perhaps these boats sometimes go through in only 15 or 20 minutes, but with any sort of traffic, it's easy to see them sitting in or near a lock for half an hour or more.  And there are 68 locks between Amsterdam and Budapest, the 15-day journey the Viking boat is taking.  Whew, that's a lot of waiting about!  Hopefully they'll set up the chairs on the top deck soon so the rest of those 190 folks can come out, get some fresh air, and enjoy the view.

We are not entirely obstacle-free ourselves, but ours are usually handled in less than a minute.  In fact, we have to stop for obstructions like these only once every few days.  Most of the time we're sailing right along, sightseeing all day long from our own top deck.

Even before leaving home for our trip, we had made arrangements with our German friends Rainer and Brigitte to meet up on the Main for three nights together.  We met their train at 1 pm in Schweinfurt and cycled 19 km to the small town of Wipfeld, where they had found lodging in a Bett und Bike Pension.  Hotels that prove themselves bike-friendly to the largest bike club in Germany get certified as Bett und Bike, and we therefore try to find places like this so that we know our bike will be safely stored overnight in a bike garage or other safe location.
After dinner, we followed a pamphlet our host gave us outlining a walking tour of town, the high point of which was, figuratively and literally, the Aussichtspunkt, or viewpoint, high up on the hill next to the church.  That's pretty much the bulk of town in that first view, then a view across the river to a former Augustinian friary plus the ferry we will take in the morning.  In the past day we have also moved from Bierfranken, the beer-loving part of Franconia, to Weinfranken, the wine part, so yes, that's part of a vineyard in the foreground.

On the far side of the river was a post built to attract storks, which had in fact succeeded.  We watched a lone stork stand guard, or so it seemed, then fly away when a second one approached and landed.  This second one seemed to be leaning down to feed some little ones, but we could only surmise, as we never saw a baby stork.  After descending the hill back to the riverbank, we became enthralled with a family of swans, who finally all posed for a group photo.

The next morning we hopped on that ferry for the 5 minute ride across the Main and turned downstream, somewhat closer to the stork nest.  YES, there is a baby stork -- wait, no, TWO babies!  It's hard to imagine, but these tiny little babies will be big enough and adept enough to join their parents for the Fall migration all the way to Central or Southern Africa two months from now!

As we moved on, we went deeper into wine country, and in fact parked our bikes by the road in order to hike uphill to the Pilgrimage Church of "Maria in the Wine Garden."  It gained some notoriety in 1962 when its renowned wood carving of Mary was seized by thieves who threatened to saw her up unless a ransom of 100,000 marks was paid.  They were offered 10,000, and returned her.  She is now held up high in the church, and also under constant electronic monitoring.  Nearby was a typical piece of religious art with the family of the donor nobleman duly painted, and of course duly devout.  Having your family portrait painted was considered unacceptably tacky at that time, with the large exception of paintings like this.  Outside, the views to the left and to the right were of acres and acres of vineyards.

We had two more stops that day, first in Volkach where we took a photo of the Gasthaus Storchen, Guesthouse of the Storks, with its gleaming stork sign, and then of the handsome Rathaus, or city hall.  An hour later in Dettelbach we followed a guidebook's directions to track down a certain bakery and try a certain type of cookie.  It was OK, but the ice cream was better.  A sign in the window reminds folks that they've been in business 333 years! 

Our destination was Kitzingen, where Jeff had his photo taken next to the place where the town has marked the height of notable floods.  This is not right next to the river, so it has to rise maybe 2-3 meters/yards above normal to even reach the bottom of this building..

Although we are re-doing a large part of the Main that we rode in 2015, our overnight in Kitzingen was the only hotel we revisited.  The hotel itself was only so-so, but the breakfast buffet was not only above average, but in the most interesting setting we've so far come upon -- the old vaulted wine cellar.  All German hotels serve a breakfast buffet, and even the most meager of them is better than almost anything you'll find in America.  Here's a sampling of this one.

Following advice from the Backroads Guide to Germany that we read this Spring courtesy of our Seattle Public Library, we stopped in the small town of Sulzfeld.  This place is totally off the tourist route, yet it was one of the most authentic old cities we've seen in Europe, with virtually its entire city wall still intact.  Here's a tour around some of its highlights.

Our other main sightseeing stop this day was in Marktbreit, which we remembered from four years ago.  But it was worth another stop, if only to take yet another photo of its wonderful Spitzhaus, or "pointy house."  The view from the city out to the entry gate is also evocative, as is this second-story soldier on a house nearby.

Our destination was Veithoechsheim, a small city that's now basically a suburb of Wuerzburg.  After we had our lodgings booked, we discovered an amazing coincidence.  Vic and Jan, the couple who rent our condo in Seattle each Summer, actually lived in this small town for two years, 16 years ago, while Vic was on loan as an Endodontist from the U.S. Public Health Service to the U.S. Army, which had a base nearby back then!  On their recommendation, we visited the Sonnenschein Restaurant, and the sun is still shining on the chefs in this place -- we had an excellent meal.

The ostensible reason for stopping here was the presence of a palace built as a summer getaway for the Prince-Bishop of Wuerzburg.  It's elegant, but we found the gardens more interesting.  

The Main Cycle Route is on the opposite shore, but in the past year or two they've constructed a nice bicycle-pedestrian bridge over the river and high enough to let though Viking boats and other river traffic through.  In the distance, by the way, is a far more impressive bridge that carries the high-speed ICE (Inter-European Express) trains into Wuerzburg.

The next morning we said goodbye to Rainer and Brigitte, but not for long.  We're hoping to visit them at their home in Goettingen four weeks from now.  As we continue, we are still very much in wine country, and also in castle country.  The third one is seen from a ferry we took across the Main to our lodgings the next night.  The fourth one -- the white castle manor house and the grey keep next to it -- looms down above the city of Miltenberg.

In our 20 days of biking the Main valley and its tributaries, we only had rain the one time we discussed above.  However, what we did have a challenging time with was the heat.  In the second week it broke 90 degrees F (32 C) on four days, and was in the mid-80s (~30 C) for many other days.  Thank goodness for fans in some of our hotel rooms.  It wasn't overly humid, at least, and we managed.  When we arrived in Klingenberg we watched yet another Viking boat pass through yet another lock, then relaxed on the deck of our lodgings, the Beautiful View Hotel Staube, and admired the vineyards across the river.

The next day it hit 97 degrees.  At least it wasn't the 115 degrees they had to endure in the south of France, the hottest temperature ever recorded on the European continent, but hot enough.  We only did 29 km, less than 20 miles, and checked in early at a hotel we found that had air conditioning.  We sat in our room at 22 C, just over 70  F, and Jeff worked on the blog while Louise read a novel on her Kindle e-reader.  

Our last full day on the Main took us to Frankfurt, meaning the river ford of the Franks.  In Charlemagne's time the Frankish kingdom included much of today's France and much of what the Germans call Franken, or Franconia in English.  But Franconia is not at all "French," and for the last 200 years it has been part of Bavaria.  Ironically, in entering Frankfurt we left Franconia and Bavaria for the German state of Hesse.  Go figure.  

Our route was largely close to the river, and therefore uninterrupted by cross streets.  What bridges we came to had to be reasonably high for boat traffic to pass under them, as did our bike route.  It's possible to bike right past Frankfurt, one of the larger and busier cities in Germany, without ever stopping your bike!  But stop we did to take this portrait of the city as we saw it from Little Red.

We spent an extra day here in order to visit one of the larger art museums in Germany, the Staedel.  As always, our focus was mainly on Dutch art from the Golden Age, and 19th century art from almost anywhere, plus a usually faster-paced look at pretty much the rest of the collection.  But we'll start our "sampler" with a portrait of Frankfurt painted by Domenico Quaglio in 1831.  We wonder what, if anything, one can still find that was in his painting?

Next door to this painting is one of the museum's prized works, Johann Tischbein's Goethe in the Roman Campagna, completed in 1787.  The view of Frankfurt is a common size for paintings, but this one of Goethe is virtually life-size.  The commentary was amusing: "... this masterpiece of the collection lastingly influenced our notion of the poet's appearance, in spite of certain discrepancies in proportion and the enduring mystery of the two left feet."

One thing the Staedel did well was to tell us about some of the paintings, which many museums nowadays do as well, but also to tell us about how the museum came to obtain certain paintings through a particular benefactor or, occasionally, by means of special fund-raising for a particularly important painting. In the former category is Pieter Aertsen's Market Scene with Christ and the Adulteress.  The scene with Christ is in the center of the canvas, but these young women working at the market are in the foreground and therefore quite prominent.  They give us a good idea of what women wore in such circumstances 500 years ago, and so we have focused just on them.

Here are three other Dutch/Flemish paintings that caught our eye.  First is a portrait of artist Cornelis de Vos's daughter Susanna, followed by a view of the Haarlemermeer, or Lake of Haarlem, by Jan van Goyen.  Exactly a year ago we stopped to see an enormous steam engine built in the 19th century to drain the Haarlemermeer, which it did quite successfully.  Some of it is now farmland, but quite a large part of it is now Schiphol Airport outside Amsterdam.  The third one is View of Antwerp with the Schelde Frozen Over by Lucas van Valckenborch.

One more Flemish painting needs to be shared since, as the museum puts it, "this extraordinary picture holds a strong fascination for many viewers."  It is called Dance of the Rats, by Ferdinand van Kessel.
The 19th century collection is not as large, but it did have several works of interest.  We'll stick with our Dutch theme and share with you Claude Monet's Houses on the Bank of the River Zaan, painted in this city just north of Amsterdam in 1871 when Monet was avoiding the Franco-Prussian War and its violent aftermath.  Then, for a finale, Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage, painted in 1882 by the German artist Max Liebermann.

The museum had a rather large quantity of modern art, virtually none of which appealed to us, so we made our own "modern art" self-portrait, courtesy of a wall containing a mosaic of tiny mirrors.

We have been to numerous art museums in the dozen years we've been retired, but not one has had an exhibit like this last one we need to share with you. The Staedel had two rooms of paintings that were turned around to face the wall so visitors could see what the backs of these old paintings look like, and how art curators "read" this information to help establish the provenance of works they acquire.  We'll just focus on one, a 1789 painting of a member of the Holzhausen family.  Since the artist's date of death is included in big letters on the back, this information was added long after the painting was completed.  The irregular lines on the back of the canvas are from a reapplication of varnish sometime even more recent, as the new varnish spread through cracks that had formed in the original painting.  Finally, labels on the back show which dealers have handled the painting, and one indicates that the owner, a Holzhausen family member, loaned out the painting and that it was insured for a certain sum at that time. We hope some other museums give their visitors a similar look "behind the paintings" from time to time.

At noon on our 20th day of riding from Nuremberg, we reached the mouth of the Main.  The pole to the left of center in the next photo marks 0 km on the Main.  That's the Rhine behind it, but it's hard to see how large the Rhine is, so we've included one final photo taken 1 km further down the Rhine, looking across it to the city of Mainz.  The Rhine is one BIG river!

We have now pedaled 720 km -- 450 miles -- in the watershed of the Main.  We are now heading down the Rhine about 100 km, then will turn inland (and upstream, for a change) on the Lahn.  Our next blog entry will take you there with us.

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