Thursday, December 31, 2015


Situated at the base of a mountain on the Neckar River 22 kilometers from the Rhine River, Heidelberg is a lovely old university town with great views and some of the most expensive property in Germany. Germany’s first public library was founded here and it was a major base for the occupying US military until 1915 when it moved to its new headquarters in Weisbaden.

Our morning tour began with a trip up the hillside to the castle shrouded in fog. It is a beautiful location although the heavy fog completely obscured the views of the town and river below.  The most interesting points in the castle were the world’s largest wine keg a footprint in the brick patio created when a knight jumped from the window above to escape an irate husband or father.

The castle itself was begun in the 14th century and developed further over the centuries. By the 18th century it was being used as a quarry for stones to build new homes in town. The quarrying stopped in 1800 and restoration began including the building of a banquet hall built in 1934. 

In town we visited a church with a very modern Nativity scene that included soccer players and Nelson Mandela. 

We wandered the Christmas markets and visited the old bridge to look at the Bridge Monkey. The official legend about the monkey is that he is there to remind Heidelbergers that they are equal no matter which side of the bridge they live on. Looking in the mirror he is holding you see your own face and know that you are no better than anyone either in front of you or behind you as you cross the bridge. An added bonus to the legend says that if you touch his fingers you will return to Heidelberg. Touching the mice nearby will bring children and touching the mirror will bring wealth. 

This is a new monkey created in 1979. However, the earlier monkeys which have been on the bridge since the 15th century may have a better story involving a dispute between two powerful men on either side of the bridge. I don’t remember the whole story, but what our guide told us had to do with love and sex and a monkey representing those who do bad things. The older monkeys held the mirror in one hand with the other on its butt. The creator was telling his nemesis that if he wanted to blame someone, he only needed to look at himself. Thus the mirror.

By the time we left the fog had lifted for our bus ride back to the ship and  a few hours sailing to Rudesheim. We arrived in Rudesheim at dusk and only had time to wander the Christmas market for a few hours before dinner. It is amazing how busy every Christmas market is. I would have thought that since just about every decent sized town has a market, there would be some saturation point. However, every market we visited was crowded with people. It is a great way to socialize and spend an evening out with friends or family or both. We certainly enjoyed them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Today Strasbourg is the home to the European Parliament and a huge student population. Nevertheless it is a charming city with a small town feel. Over the last century it has changed from French to German at least four times so one gets strong German and French influences on this capital of the Alsace. It’s location just off the Rhine on a smaller tributary for defense purposes means one can even take a canal boat tour of the city. We did not do this but even on a cold day in December people were lined up for the tour. 

The highlight of any visit to Strasbourg is the magnificent cathedral. One is first struck by the delicacy of this huge building. Gothic use of flying buttresses changed the look of cathedrals from the ponderousness of the Norman architecture to a lighter and loftier look inside and out. The use of the buttresses meant that the support columns could be smaller and the building itself could be wider and taller. The Strasbourg Cathedral, completed in 1439 is a magnificent example of the Gothic style. 

Inside, one is immediately overwhelmed by the stained glass. Every bit of light that enters the building enters through one of the stained glass windows. While almost every cathedral has some stained glass, Strasbourg is one of the very few with no clear windows at all. It is interesting that some of them are painted and then fired in a kiln while the glass in other windows was created by adding minerals directly to the glass as it was manufactured. You have to look closely to see the difference and I don’t notice it unless it is pointed out. 

The other highlight of this cathedral is the astronomical clock. This is the third clock built on the site, the first two being built in the 14th and 16th centuries. The current one was completed in 1843 after five years of labor by 30 workers. Besides the actual clock, it includes a perpetual calendar, a planetary and a display of the sun and moon in their real position including eclipses. At 12:30 each day a life-size cock crows three times and 18-inch figures of Jesus and the Apostles parade around the fa├žade. We missed seeing the procession as the line was already too long by the time our tour of the city ended. 

The sculpture work on cathedrals is always interesting, especially the gargoyles.

For Christmas we also got to view a 100-foot long Nativity scene that filled one side of the left nave.
We had a very nice lunch at one of the old restaurants in town before wandering the Christmas markets and taking the bus back to our ship. 

Flowers in memory of the Paris shootings

For me an added highlight was watching the construction of a new bridge across the Rhine. We were delayed about four hours by the work. The bridge will consist of two spans each of which was constructed on shore and then had to be maneuvered into place. They were placing the first of the two spans on the day we were there. Of course the job took longer than expected so we had to wait while they finished. The span was already on a barge, but supported only in two places so maneuvering it had to be done with great care. I watched for about two hours as it would move a bit and then stop for a while. The bridge just upstream offered a great view of the progress although it was impossible to see exactly why they kept stopping. I had to leave before they were able to place the span on its new piers which was disappointing, but the whole process was interesting nevertheless. 

Portland is using an interesting technique to replace a bridge over the Willamette River. Since this is a replacement and the approaches are limited, the engineers decided to build a set of temporary piers next to the old bridge and then slide the old bridge onto those temporary piers. That way they could build the new one completely in place without disrupting traffic too much. It took them three days to slide the old bridge onto those temporary piers at a speed measured in inches per hour.  The new Sellwood Bridge is now in place.