Five-Country Bike-and-Barge trip in Europe, August 2019

By Dom Nozzi

Tuesday, August 13 and 14. We arrive at Paris airport and high-speed train to Strasbourg at the border of France and Germany. In Strasbourg, we tour the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I find to be gray and dreary inside. Remarkably tall ceilings, and a massive Notre Dame Cathedral Strasbourg France, Aug 13, 2019 (31)amount of stained glass windows. We visit the once-daily Astronomical Clock inside the Cathedral. Enormous crowd assembles to see it. I manage to squeeze my way into an area that gives me an unobstructed view of the Clock, only to realize that by doing so, my view of a video screen is blocked by an enormous masonry pillar, which means I miss a detailed 40-minute video describing the history of the Clock. The animation itself is highly disappointing, as a mechanical crow flaps its wings a few times and a few mechanical human figures rotate a few times. After 50 minutes of waiting, that is what 3,000 people have assembled to see?

We climb the 330 steps to the top of the Cathedral spire, which offers a superb view of the terra-cotta-roofed city. We also enjoy a 90-minute boat tour on the River Ill.

We are fortunate to have an opportunity to rent and ride bikes while in Strasbourg because in 2017, Strasbourg was rated the 4th best city to bicycle in the world.

Strasbourg is a party-till-late-at-night city, which means that bedtime for many does not start until 5 am and places do not open until 9 or 10 in the morning (including Starbucks).

I would give our Bed and Breakfast in Strasbourg a negative five rating (on a scale of one to ten). No soap. No shampoo. No waste can in the bathroom. No spare keys. No closet space or fridge space (because it is jammed with his clothes and food). The water heater closet is stuffed with fire hazard clothes and towels. And because the proprietor does not provide a user name, and has chosen an impossibly long password with handwritten letters making it impossible to know if the letters are uppercase or lowercase, it is impossible to log into WiFi.

Strasbourg is mostly a city containing one prominent feature: A charming shopping street main street. Even as a one-important-street city, the city is lovely and contains an outstanding walking street full of pedestrians.

The fabulous historic main train station for Strasbourg, very sadly, is now criminally fronted by a Modernist glass blob. A disgraceful design blunder.

According to Wikipedia, Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. In 2016, the city proper had 279,284 inhabitants and both the Eurométropole de Strasbourg (Greater Strasbourg) and the Arrondissement of Strasbourg had 491,409 inhabitants. Strasbourg’s metropolitan area had a population of 785,839 in 2015 (not counting the section across the border in Germany). Strasbourg’s historic city center, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honor was placed on an entire city center.

The Roman camp of Argentoratum was first mentioned in 12 BC; the city of Strasbourg which grew from it celebrated its 2,000th anniversary in 1988. The fertile area in the Upper Rhine Plain between the rivers Ill and Rhine had already been populated since the Middle Paleolithic.

Thursday and Friday, August 15 and 16. Our initial plan is to drive our Eurocar rental car to Mannheim for a visit. Fortunately, during our drive, we opt instead to visit the charming medieval village of Heidelberg.

According to Wikipedia, in the 2016 census, the population of Heidelberg was 159,914, of which roughly a quarter consisted of students.

Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, “Heidelberg Man” died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907. Scientific dating determined his remains as the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of worship were built on the Heiligenberg, or “Mountain of Saints”. Both places can still be identified. In 40 AD, a fort was built and occupied by the 24th Roman cohort and the 2nd Cyrenaican cohort (CCG XXIIII and CCH II CYR). The early Byzantine/late Roman Emperor Valentinian I, in 369 AD, built new and maintained older castra (permanent camps) and a signal tower on the bank of the Neckar. They built a wooden bridge based on stone pillars across it. The camp protected the first civilian settlements that developed. The Romans remained until 260 AD, when the camp was conquered by Germanic tribes.

Heidelberg has what looks like many newer buildings that mimic historical and ornamental style. My hat is off to the city and its architects for at least making an effort to design lovable buildings rather than unlovable Modernist buildings. But lacking the patina of age, the buildings looked too new. And therefore a bit sterile. The many newer buildings is a sure sign that many historic buildings were lost during World War II.

After Strasbourg and Heidelberg, we tour Nuremberg Germany – mostly on rented bikes. A great many historic buildings have been replaced with awful mid-century Modernist buildings. Again, a sure sign of the many buildings tragically lost during World War II. The Modernism severely detracts from the former charm of the city streets.

According to Wikipedia, Nuremberg has a total population of 787,976 (2016), while the larger Nuremberg Metropolitan Region has approximately 3.5 million inhabitants. Nuremberg was the site of major Nazi rallies during WWII.

We have dinner on a town center island at the Restaurant Trodelstuben, which served me absolutely delicious, authentic German food. I opt for “pig knuckles,” which is a very fatty, buttery meat (when served boiled). I also enjoy knockwurst Barbarossa, which consists of three types of knockwurst in three different types of sauerkraut beds – a total of nine knockwurst. To top off the meal, I enjoy a delicious glass of smoked dark bier and an unfiltered bier.

There are a good number of walking streets in town center Nuremberg. But nearly all of them are too wide and are degraded by too many Modernist buildings of recent decades.

Saint Sebastian Church in Nuremberg is stunning, as I learn upon entering. In a design I had not seen previously, the main alter of the Church is set far back from the parishioner seating.

We enjoy a wonderful museum in the Nuremberg Castle, and we cross “Hangman’s Bridge” to reach a café where I opt for “Gunpowder” tea.

We then visit the still-functioning Nuremberg courtroom where the famous Nuremberg trials were held for Nazi war criminals at the end of World War II. It is a very moving Nuremberg Trials Courtroom 600 Nuremberg, Aug 16, 2019 (79)experience to be in that courtroom – a courtroom that tried. Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Fritz Sauckel, Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, and Arthur Seyss-Inquart were all hanged after being convicted. Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess were tried. And Hermann Göring committed suicide before he could be executed following the trial.

We have lunch at the Behringer Bratwursthausle (the original, serving traditional German food). I opt for Nuremberg bratwurst, and delicious dish of cured tongue and smoked sausage.

Saturday and Sunday, August 17 and 18. We visit Regensberg Germany. Dom Saint Peter’s Cathedral contains amazing stained glass. And Saint Emmersam’s Abbey (Benedictan) contains ornamentation that is so busy that it makes one dizzy. We try somewhat St. Emmeram's Abbey Regensberg Aug 17, 2019 (60)unsuccessfully to avoid disturbing a wedding ceremony while there.

Regensberg contains a gratifying number of great human-scaled streets. And the city is attractive in part due to the playful pastel colors used to paint many buildings.

According to Wikipedia, Regensberg was founded as a hilltop fortified settlement about 1245 by Baron Lüthold of Regensberg.

Later, we arrive in Munich, where we again rent bikes and later dine at Haxnbauer Restaurant in Old Town Munich. This restaurant is said to serve the most loved and popular veal and pork knuckle in town.

According to Wikipedia, Munich is the capital and most populous city of Bavaria, the second most populous German federal state. With a population of around 1.5 million, it is the third-largest city in Germany, after Berlin and Hamburg. The name of the city is derived from the Old/Middle High German term Munichen, meaning “by the monks”. It derives from the monks of the Benedictine order, who ran a monastery at the place that was later to become the Old Town of Munich; hence the monk depicted on the city’s coat of arms. Munich was first mentioned in 1158. Catholic Munich strongly resisted the Reformation and was a political point of divergence during the resulting Thirty Years’ War, but remained physically untouched despite an occupation by the Protestant Swedes.

The first attempt of the Nazi movement to take over the German government in 1923 with the Beer Hall Putsch was stopped by the Bavarian police in Munich with gunfire. After the Nazis’ rise to power, Munich was declared their “Capital of the Movement”. During World War II, Munich was heavily bombed and more than 50% of the entire city and up to 90% of the historic center were destroyed. After the end of postwar American occupation in 1949, there was a great increase in population and economic power during the years of Wirtschaftswunder, or “economic miracle”. Unlike many other German cities that were heavily bombed, Munich restored most of its traditional cityscape and hosted the 1972 Summer Olympics.

Marienplatz in Munich is MONUMENTAL!

Unfortunately, our hotel is situated in a town center Munich location that seems to be a Middle Eastern skid row.

Also unfortunate for Munich is that there appears to be regular competitions held in which architects compete with each other to see who can design the most hideous, ugly building. It is agonizing that there have been many winners of this “contest.”

Munich, for me, turns out to be the most disappointing of the German cities we visit on this trip. The streets (now roads) are too wide – including the walking streets. There is too many Modernist buildings. And too many parts of the town center are run down.

The English Garden Park in Munich is extremely interesting. We come upon a grassy field packed with Woodstock-like sunbathers. Streams flowing through the part have such a strong current that several swimmers float down the streams without using tubes or life preservers. The park also contains a wave park, where several SURFERS took turns surfing the waves. Who knew you could surf in Munich?

Dom w 1-liter dark Bavarian beer Hofbrauhaus, Munich Aug 18, 2019 (3)For dinner, we are at the Hofbrauhaus, where I opt for boiled pig knuckle and a ONE-LITER glass of dark Bavarian bier. It is the largest glass of bier I have ever been served.

Monday and Tuesday, August 19 and 20. We arrive in Passau Germany, our gateway city for the bike and barge trip we are to embark on. Our first bicycling day after barging down the river a bit starts in Engelhartszell. Here we climb stairs after passing by the lock system along a pathway that crosses the Donau River. We find nice, flat, paved trails for our 30-mile ride this day.

Along the way, we cycle through vineyards, cornfields, plum and apple orchards, and forest.

According to Wikipedia, Passau is also known as the Dreiflüssestadt (“City of Three Rivers”) because the Danube is joined there by the Inn from the south and the Ilz from the north.

Passau’s population is 50,000, of whom about 12,000 are students at the University of Passau.

In the 2nd century BC, many of the Boii tribe were pushed north across the Alps out of northern Italy by the Romans. They established a new capital called Boiodurum by the Romans (from Gaulish Boioduron), now within the Innstadt district of Passau.

Passau was an ancient Roman colony of ancient Noricum called Batavis, Latin for “for the Batavi.” The Batavi were an ancient Germanic tribe often mentioned by classical authors, and they were regularly associated with the Suebian marauders, the Heruli.5-country tour

During the Renaissance and early modern period, Passau was one of the most prolific centers of sword and bladed weapon manufacture in Germany (after Solingen). Passau smiths stamped their blades with the Passau wolf, usually a rather simplified rendering of the wolf on the city’s coat-of-arms. Superstitious warriors believed that the Passau wolf conferred invulnerability on the blade’s bearer, and thus Passau swords acquired a great premium. According to the Donau-Zeitung, aside from the wolf, some cabalistic signs and inscriptions were added. As a result, the whole practice of placing magical charms on swords to protect the wearers came to be known for a time as “Passau art”. (See Eduard Wagner, Cut and Thrust Weapons, 1969.) Other cities’ smiths, including those of Solingen, recognized the marketing value of the Passau wolf and adopted it for themselves. By the 17th century, Solingen was producing more wolf-stamped blades than Passau was.

In 1662, a devastating fire consumed most of the city. Passau was subsequently rebuilt in the Baroque style.

At Niederranna we and our bikes are ferried across the Donau. Upon finishing our bike ride, we rejoin our barge at Brandstatt.

Wednesday, August 21. We enjoy a self-guided walking tour of Bratislava. Here we find very nice ornamental architecture and smooth paved stone streets and sidewalks.

For lunch, we dine at the Bratislavska flagship restaurant. I select Klastorny Leziak Tmavy – a half liter of tasty, dark Monastic bier. We also sample one of Slovakia’s trademarks: Currant wine – which to me tastes a little like a light, sweet cough syrup. For food, I select Pecena Klobasas Oblohou (a roasted homemade sausage).

Biking Old Town Bratislava is a treat. We start with a diversion that takes us to the location of the former Soviet-block wall that the Soviets told the world was needed toBunker at Slovakia border Bratsilava Slovakia Aug 21, 2019 (13) “protect the peaceful Communist nations from the decadent capitalist aggressors.” Only tiny remnants of tall, barbed wire fencing remains at the Slovakia border, along with a number of grim, heavily fortified concrete bunkers. We also find time to visit the Bratislave Castle.

Overall, a very good day.

According to Wikipedia, the first known permanent settlement of the area that includes Bratislava began with the Linear Pottery Culture, around 5000 BC in the Neolithic era. About 200 BC, the Celtic Boii tribe founded the first significant settlement, a fortified town known as an oppidum. They also established a mint, producing silver coins known as biatecs.

The area fell under Roman influence from the 1st to the 4th century AD and was made part of the Danubian Limes, a border defense system. The Romans introduced grape growing to the area and began a tradition of winemaking, which survives to the present.

In 1968, after the unsuccessful Czechoslovak attempt to liberalize the Communist regime, the city was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops. Shortly thereafter, it became capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, one of the two states of the federalized Czechoslovakia.

Bratislava’s dissidents anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centers of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Thursday, August 22. We are in Budapest Hungary.

According to Wikipedia, Budapest is the capital and the most populous city of Hungary, and the tenth-largest city in the European Union by population within city limits. The city has an estimated population of 1,752,286.

The central area of the city along the Danube River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has several notable monuments, including the Hungarian Parliament, Buda Castle, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gresham Palace, Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Matthias Church and the Liberty Statue. Other famous landmarks include Andrássy Avenue, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Heroes’ Square, the Great Market Hall, the Nyugati Railway Station built by the Eiffel Company of Paris in 1877 and the second-oldest metro line in the world, the Millennium Underground Railway. The city also has around 80 geothermal springs, the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue, and third largest Parliament building in the world. Budapest attracts 4.4 million international tourists per year, making it a popular destination in Europe. The first settlement on the territory of Budapest was built by Celts before 1 AD. It was later occupied by the Romans.

On a guided bicycle tour. Our guide has a very heavy French accent, which made her extremely difficult for we Americans to understand. In addition, despite her soft voice, she used no voice amplification, nor did she do well in keeping the cycling group together. To top it off, she offered very little information about what we were seeing on the tour. Overall, the tour was so disappointing to us that we successfully got a refund from our barge tour operator afterward.

Bizarrely, at the start of our bicycle tour, a German tour leader was trying to stop vehicles so that cyclists could cross the street and start the tour. One car fails to stop, which infuriates the guide so much that he angrily tries to slap the car with his hand to show his unhappiness. But his slap turns into vandalism, as his hand actually knocks a sideview mirror off the car! Immediately, the two in the car slam the brakes on the car, open the doors, and – red-faced – angrily storm toward the guide to confront him with their understandable rage. The guide gets in their faces and SCREAMS at them for not stopping. It is an ugly scene of fury.

Known as the “City of Baths,” Budapest sits on a fault line, and its thermal baths are naturally fed by 120 hot springs. The city is home to an impressive selection of thermal baths, many of which date to the 16th century.  I convince my companions that an obligatory part of any visit to Budapest is to visit the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.Budapest Aug 22, 2019 (23)

Budapest always provides delights. Everywhere one looks, there is a statue or monument that is over-the-top in splendor. The same is true with the stupendous buildings in the city.

Friday, August 23. Our 60-kilometer bike ride today takes us through the very pleasantly charming little villages of Visegrad, Vac, Veroce, Nagymaros, Zebegeny, Szob, and Esztergom. Esztergom, we are surprised to learn, contains a spectacular Cathedral that is the fourth largest in Europe.

Saturday, August 24. We are in Vienna. Immediately we can see we are in a monumental, world-class city with spectacular architecture. The city is also a very good place to cycle, although as is the case with many large cities in the world, car infrastructure has gone too far – particularly with the monster roadway widths and oversizing of intersections.

Saint Stephen Cathedral and Hofburg Palace are remarkable.

On a guided bike tour, we visit an artistic smokestack, the Gaudi-like Hundertwasser painted apartments, Saint Charles Church, the Vienna Opera House, the Hofburg Palace, City Hall (WAY more spectacular than city halls in America), and Saint Stephen’s City Hall Vienna Aug 24, 2019 (86)Cathedral.. But we miss the famous Narchaet Food Market.

For lunch, we opt for the delicacy that Vienna is world-famous for originating: Strudel. We sample both apple and plum strudel. So good that one has not eaten strudel until it is eaten in Vienna.

According to Wikipedia, Vienna is the federal capital, largest city and one of nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria’s primate city, with a population of about 1.9 million (2.6 million within the metropolitan area, nearly one-third of the country’s population), and its cultural, economic, and political center. It is the 7th-largest city by population within city limits in the European Union. Until the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest German-speaking city in the world, and before the splitting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the city had 2 million inhabitants. Today it is the second-largest German-speaking city after Berlin. In 2001, the city center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In July 2017 it was moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger. Apart from being regarded as the City of Music because of its musical legacy, Vienna is also said to be “The City of Dreams” because it was home to the world’s first psychoanalyst – Sigmund Freud.

Vienna is known for its high quality of life. In a 2005 study of 127 world cities, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the city first (in a tie with Vancouver and San Francisco) for the world’s most liveable cities. Between 2011 and 2015, Vienna was ranked second, behind Melbourne. In 2018, it replaced Melbourne as the number one spot. For ten consecutive years (2009–2019), the human-resource-consulting firm Mercer ranked Vienna first in its annual “Quality of Living” survey of hundreds of cities around the world.

The UN-Habitat classified Vienna as the most prosperous city in the world in 2012/2013. The city was ranked 1st globally for its culture of innovation in 2007 and 2008, and sixth globally (out of 256 cities) in the 2014 Innovation Cities Index, which analyzed 162 indicators in covering three areas: culture, infrastructure, and markets. Vienna regularly hosts urban planning conferences and is often used as a case study by urban planners.

Between 2005 and 2010, Vienna was the world’s number-one destination for international congresses and conventions. It attracts over 6.8 million tourists a year.

Evidence has been found of continuous habitation in the Vienna area since 500 BC, when Celts settled the site on the Danube River. In 15 BC the Romans fortified the frontier city they called Vindobona to guard the empire against Germanic tribes to the north.

Sunday, August 25. We bicycle from Wachau to Pöchlarn, Austria. We bicycle through the very sweet little villages of Mautern, Forthof, Durstein (which has an exceptionally charming main street – so charming that we wished we had a day or so to enjoy it), Spitz, and Melk. Our day ends with a pleasant Austrian wine tasting near our barge in Pöchlarn.

Monday, August 26. We drive our rental car from Passau to Frankfurt. On the way, we stop in Erlangen to stretch our legs and enjoy this German college town. Frankfurt has the unfortunate distinction of having an enormous number of glass and steel skyscrapers.

Town center Frankfurt turns out to be very quiet at night. I was not awoken by sirens or scooters.

Random, general observations about this trip…

The older the city we were in, the more lovable it was. The more recent the cities and the more recent the buildings, the more awful those cities and buildings were. This has been true in my travels throughout the world, but most strikingly in Europe, where one finds extremely ancient settlements.
Many German cities have been ravaged and degraded by Modernist buildings that are destroying the lovable charm that once graced these cities for several centuries.
Nearly all of the cities we visited on this trip had outstanding bicycle path and bicycle lane infrastructure.
We found that many larger German cities contain a large Middle Eastern and Muslim population. We were surprised by the overwhelming number of burka-wearing Muslim women we saw in German and Austrian cities.
German cities, in general, tend to be late-night party cites, where vast numbers of citizens seem to drink and dance and laugh into the wee hours of the morning. And not just on weekends.
We found ourselves driving at speeds at or above 140 kilometers per hour on the German Autobahn (about 89 mph). And yet we were regularly passed by motorists driving 200 kph, which made it seem like we are standing still.
Our barge traveled through countless locks on the Donau (Danube) River – some changing our river height by 60 meters.
The Donau River is very wide, and is milky green in color – a sign of eutrophication caused by agricultural fertilizers.
For many of the eight days of our cycling and barging, we experienced very warm, muggy, humid weather.
Interestingly, the Hungarian language contains many words that are extremely long and mostly use seemingly random letters that make for a daunting effort to try to pronounce. Hungarian, our barge guide told us, was about the most incomprehensible language in all of Europe. Amusingly, our guide informed us that the Hungarian word for “kiss” is “puszi,” which is pronounced “pussy.”

An Unfitting, Agonizing End to an Otherwise Remarkable Trip

Two big, crushing lessons learned on this trip from severe brain damage and stress associated with not learning this lesson previously. First, I must never again go on a trip to Europe where travel from city to city is by rental car. With our rental car, we experienced agonizing levels of stress and rage from one-way streets, lack of parking, a rental car company that sought to force us to pay for damage we did not cause, and the stress associated with driving in both congestion and crazy high speeds on highways.

Second, I must never again fly with Air France or through Charles de Gaulle airport. For our flight back to the US from this airport and with Air France, I experienced the most enraging, stressful, unpleasant airport debacle I have ever suffered in my large number of airport experiences.

Unbeknownst to us, Air France now has a punitively low maximum limit for luggage weight. At 12 kilograms and FOUR trips through a baggage weighing line, I was compelled to THROW AWAY three-quarters of my belongings in order to get under 12 kilograms and be allowed to proceed to security (shirts, sandals, pants, food, underwear, socks, etc).

Because airport staff could not speak English, and because they were utterly incompetent, I spent almost two hours being sent on an almost infinitely-looping wild goose chase. I circled between baggage weighing and passport clearance FOUR times. During that entire time, I had no idea what I was supposed to do, nor was the airport staff able to provide correct, consistent information. I repeatedly lost my temper with the incompetent, power-drunk, bureaucratic staff. In fact, the staff threatened to call the police to have me arrested, to which I responded that I would be grateful to be confronted by the police as maybe they would allow me to proceed to the security gate.

It was miraculous that I did not miss my flight, and was only able to catch the flight because my girlfriend heroically called Delta Airlines (the sister of Air France) to have a staff person guide me through the impossible, Kafkaesque infinitely looping quagmire that I was trapped in. It became obvious that the prime qualification that Charles de Gaulle airport looks for when hiring employees is that they must be utterly incompetent. And they must love exerting their paltry, lower-level power whenever they can as a way to punish air travelers. A useful tip for Air France: Please inform your passengers BEFORE THEY REACH THE AIRPORT that there is a draconian weight limit so passengers have a chance to retain possessions at home before being forced to dispose of them as a way to board your plane. Of the hundreds of flights I’ve taken in my life, I have never had to weigh my luggage at the airport, which means this is a very rare requirement.

News flash to Air France: the rarity of this sort of policy should make it obligatory that you notify passengers of this far in advance.

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