Monday, September 29, 2014

German Beer

The Germans brew good beer, but the brands we are used to in Canada are brands such as Becks or Heineken (Although Heineken is Dutch not German). This is a nice quality style brew, but not really exciting. I have discovered that if you dig a little below the surface, there are some quite interesting German beers. Since I have written about the beers I discover as I travel, I thought I’d let you know about some of the excellent beers I have discovered so far.

Bamberg Smoky Beer Pub
In Cologne, one of the optional tours was a “Pub Crawl” to sample some of Cologne’s unique Kolsch style beer. This is a top fermented brew only produced in the city of Cologne. It is served in pubs all through the city, but a pub is only allowed to serve one brand of Kolsch. It is always served in small thin glasses unique to the beer. People often are deceived by the small glasses and think they can drink more than they should.

The pub crawl was interesting. You normally associate “pub crawling” with a younger crowd, but our gathering was a group of slightly older beer drinkers and we attracted a few stares as our group of 10 noisy seniors entered their pubs.

The beer itself was very good, and although we all agreed that each brand was unique, and tasted slightly different, everyone enjoyed them. I had a bit of a problem however, because since Regis is not really a beer drinker, I had to help her, so I ended up having double the beer. Oh well, everyone has their crosses to bare.  . . .

Another nice German Beer
In Bamburg, we discovered yet another quite interesting German beer. In this city they brew a unique beer with a smoky taste. This beer is made with a barley that is smoked, and we were warned that it is not to everyone’s tastes, and we might think it tasted a bit like bacon. When we arrived at the pub where the beer was brewed, it was immediately obvious that it was very popular with the locals, not only was the pub itself packed but the street out front was also packed with people enjoying pints of the brew. I wondered how they maintained their inventory of beer glasses with them all wandering the streets, but discovered that if you want to take the beer outside you pick it up at a window where you pay a deposit on the glass.

I would hardly call it a bacon flavored beer, but certainly the first mouthful had a smoky taste. After that it was just a very nice beer. I’m looking forward to sampling some more beer along the way.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Love Locks

Yea I know, it’s a really terrible play on words, but I couldn’t resist.

Beautiful View out our window
We have seen the locks of the Panama Canal twice, gone in from the Caribbean side once, and done a complete transit from the Pacific side. On those voyages the locks are the big attraction, and they are up front and center in the brochures and advertisements for these cruises. I developed an interest and respect for locks on the English Narrow Boat trip where I actually had to work the locks to get the boat through, and the town I call home used to have a lock system on its canals. I do not however recall Viking even mentioning the locks on this trip.

A Tight Fit
There are in fact over 60 locks the boat has to traverse during the 14 day journey. There are locks that slow the boat down through every section of our journey, but most are in the middle section and there are only a few during the last section on the Danube. The trip is however very well planned and many of the locks are scheduled during the night. The boat is amazingly smooth, so when I felt it hit something I investigated and looked out the window.  What I saw was a concrete wall inches from our cabin window. I could reach out and touch it (Although covered in green and brown river slime, this was not a real interesting option). A rare occurrence, the captain had nudged the side of one of the locks he has to go through. We went through ten locks that night, and they continued every 10 to 20 miles from then on. Expressing an interest in the locks, I was given a map showing the location of all of the  locks. Around Nuremberg they are spaced only a few miles apart. I wondered why at times we were dropped in one town and then picked up at another only 20 klm away. The reason is that it can take hours to get through the locks, so the captain goes through the locks while we tour interesting towns on foot or by bus. At one point we were gone all day, and the boat was still late picking us up 30 Klm away because of traffic through the locks.

For those unfamiliar with this use of the word lock, it is a section of a canal or a special enclosed section of a river where doors can be closed in front of and behind the ship and water can be pumped into or allowed to flow into the lock to float the boat to a higher level. In reverse, the ship enters the full lock on the high side, the water is allowed to drain out, thus lowering the boat to a lower level.

Bonus . . . A Castle and a Lock . . .
On a Panama Canal cruise the famous locks are the reason for the cruise so a lot is made of them; on this trip the locks are a necessary nuisance slowing us down, so they are basically ignored. Me I have an appreciation of the locks and how they work, and love watching the power of the water transfer the huge ship meters up or down to continue at a new level. I was surprised at how many people knew nothing about them, and the teacher in me momentarily came out of retirement and I happily gave lock lessons when questions were asked.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Not Another Bloody Castle!

Regis loves castles. She loves looking at them from afar, loves touring them, and just really enjoys visiting places that have castles. The river cruise through Europe was perfect, one day is spent cruising the Middle Rhine, and the brochures claim that “There is a castle around every corner!” is not really that far from the truth.

Castle Overlooking the Town
The day started with a tour of Marksburg Castle. This spectacular castle sits right on top of a hill overlooking the Rhine. This castle is unique, because it was never destroyed and so although sections are “restored”, it remains basically as it was in the 13th century. The castles on the Rhine were mostly built to allow someone to control a section of the river and collect “tolls” from ships using the essential waterway, so they are built on the rocky hillsides looking down on the river. As a result, the castles are built to fit the hillside and come in many shapes and configurations, rather than your “regular” square castle with four ramparts and a central building protecting the lords and ladies. Marksburg castle wanders up and down over the hilltop with the actual rock it is built on serving as the floor in sections (Not real comfortable . . . ). It was a wonderful tour visiting the chapel, kitchen, armory, living areas, and the torture chamber.

Castle Ruin
Once leaving Marksburg, there literally seemed to be a castle around every corner. This of course makes sense. The castle sitting on the hillside could only control the section of river they could see, so as soon as one castle as out of sight another greedy robber baron could build another castle and start collecting tolls. It must have been a nuisance for the boats using the river, and indeed in time, as the central government became strong enough the practice was stopped.

Wake me at the next Castle
Unfortunately most of the rest of the castles were torn down at least once if not multiple times. The King, to prevent the collection of tolls, destroyed some. Apparently the French came in during the 1600’s and destroyed most of the castles to establish their control of the region. Some have remained as ruins, but many have been rebuilt. Our guide on the boat giving a running commentary as we cruised past these castles used the expression “Restored in the  . . . style”; in other words they were sometimes not restored, but rebuilt to suit the new owner. Some are private homes, some museums, one is a hotel, and a number are youth hostels (you sleep in bunk beds but have the BEST view). This entire section of the river has World Heritage Site designation, so most of the castles are now somewhat protected, but it really is a spectacular section of the river.

We spent the afternoon, sitting up on deck chairs on the sundeck, waiting for the boat to round the next corner and the next spectacular castle to appear. We got to the point that even Regis was saying “Oh no, not another bloody castle!”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Love Locks

Cruising on a river is different in many ways from ocean cruising. One of the biggest advantages is that since rivers are such important transportation routes, they usually run through the central core of the cities. Cruising on the river means you dock right downtown, and avoid that ocean cruise essential, the taxi ride to get downtown. This was true in Cologne Germany, where we docked under one of the central bridges over the river and stepping off the boat we could walk to all the local attractions.
Love Locks in Cologne Germany

The next bridge down from the one we were under had an interesting story involved with it. A number of years ago, someone began a story that if lovers took a padlock up onto the bridge and securely locked it to the bridge and threw the key into the Rhine River, their love would last as long as the lock remained on the bridge. This has become a popular thing to do ever since, and even from afar, the bridge sparkles with the multi-coloured padlocks covering the walkway across the bridge.

After our guided walking tour of Cologne, we decided to walk across one bridge, along the other side of the river, and back across the Hohenzollernbruke where these ‘love locks’ were. It really is an amazing sight. There are thousands of padlocks adorning the fence separating the pedestrian/bike pedway/walkway from the train bridge. Although it started as simply attaching a padlock, it has now become a serious phenomena, with everyone competing to lock the best padlock to the bridge as if somehow the quality of the padlock improved your chances of a lasting relationship. Most are engraved with the lover’s names and there are many similar shiny coloured locks (I suspect some enterprising business will provide you with these custom engraved locks), but many are interesting antique locks, and some are huge, some tiny, some heart shaped some adorned with decorations. The fence is completely covered, and there is really room for no more locks, so now locks are attached to other locks, and they have started using chains to attach them higher up on the bridge supports, and these chains in turn are now becoming covered.
No Room Left

I know that something similar was started up in Ottawa Canada, but the Public Works there cuts the locks off, so I’m not sure what the message is there. Here in Cologne, it looks to me that all the locks have been left on the bridge.

Our guide claimed that some couples started using combination locks, so that if their love did not last they were able to go remove the now inappropriate lock. I’m not sure if he was joking or not . . . . .


The Dutch love their bicycles. I’m sure the country has many more bicycles than cars; it sure looks that way visiting Amsterdam. During a walking tour I got to experience the Dutch bicycle culture from a pedestrian perspective, and it ain’t a pretty picture.

When we managed to make it to Amsterdam in time to catch the boat, it also gave us time to take the walking tour of Amsterdam. The ship puts on a walking tour as part of the package in every place we stop. These tours utilize local guides, and so far they have been very good. They all speak English and use an in-ear audio system that allows you to hear them clearly from quite a distance. I’ve used these systems previously, and they are not always that good, but Viking’s system works great.

Bicycle Parking
As soon as we got off the ship we were warned about the Dutch bicyclists. Our guide cautioned us, “Do not cross when bicycles are coming, even though it is a crosswalk and they are required by law to stop they will not.” Following his lead we waited for a break in the bicycle traffic, and rushed across the bike lane.

Walking through the downtown of Amsterdam bicycles are everywhere. Most streets have long bike racks and these are crammed with bicycles, sometimes with additional bikes on top of others. The official bike racks do not come close to accommodating all of Amsterdam’s bicycles and every fence, railing, post or anything solid is covered with bicycles, chained there with massive bike locks. Walking down one street bordering a popular museum, I asked for a translation of a sign posted to every window, and discovered that is was a dire warning against locking your bike to the window bars. I then noticed no bikes on this street.

An interesting note about Amsterdam’s bikes is that they are all old and shabby looking; you see no fancy 18 speed bikes or slick road racers, these are all very solid utilitarian bikes. Our guide explained that everyone owns more than one bike, and indeed everyone has a fancy bike that is used for rides where you return home immediately, but the bikes parked downtown were used to drive to work and you never left your good bike here or it would be stolen, so everyone had a “beater” that was carefully aged, rusted and battered to be used everyday.

Personalizing your Ride
We were told to notice the stickers on some of the bikes. They were put there by the city and noted how long the bike was there. Anything left for too long was cut free and trucked about 15 klm out of town to a bike compound where you had to go ransom you imprisoned bicycle to get it back; an effective deterrent to long term storage on public property, but certainly necessary judging by the massive bike jams downtown.

I noted that the Dutch have adapted to cell phone use on bikes very well. I saw  many one handed bike-texters. Apparently there is a law against “Texting while driving” in Amsterdam that applies equally to bikes, but it is universally ignored, (Sounds familiar)

Walking back to the ship, we were again warned about crossing the bike lane carefully, and our guide deliberately challenged one biker by stepping into the marked crosswalk, but the rider refused to slow down and swerved around him uttering something in Dutch that our guide declined to translate . . .

Monday, September 22, 2014


We are off on another of our adventures, this one to Europe for a 14 day river cruise with Viking Cruises followed by 14 days in an apartment overlooking the Danube River in Budapest. This adventure did not get off to a good start however . . .

We were informed at check-in at the airport that our first flight from Halifax to Toronto was “Delayed” in St. Johns with mechanical problems. We did not have a lot of time in Toronto between flights, so this was an immediate worry made worse when we were given the “good news” that the plane had left St. Johns NFLD. This was not good news for us since our plane from Toronto was not waiting around for us. The airline kindly offered us a hotel in Toronto and rearranged our flights to Amsterdam . . . . a flight to Dallas Texas in the morning and way later in the day, a flight to Amsterdam that would get us there by Monday, when the boat would be well on it’s way to Germany.

On the Boat
We could join the cruise, but not until Tuesday in Cologne, so we debated giving up and fighting with the Travel Insurance company and the cruise company for compensation, but finally elected to go to Toronto and hope for the best.

Fortunately I found a friendly and resourceful Westjet employee, who had some imagination and instead of saying “no” said “Let’s try something else.”, and after computer searches, phone calls and queries from me, suggested “This is a bit of a complicated route but it will get you there.” He found a flight to Iceland leaving in an hour with another flight an hour after getting to Iceland that would get us to Amsterdam by noon on Sunday in plenty of time to catch the boat.

River Boats
So almost exactly 24 hours after leaving home we had added another country to our list and we were tired but comfortably settling into our cozy cabin on the Viking Baldur. And we still had time to explore Amsterdam on a walking tour.