Today began very early. Today began at five AM! I'm never awake at five AM to start a day. End it, sure; I'm a night owl but five o'clock it was today. It helped that I crashed & burned about seven or eight o'clock the night before. I'd been awake 26+ hours after all. The wake up call wasn't officially until six but Dad's alarm went early & I figured I may as well start then. It definitely helped having that extra time to pack.
Breakfast was a buffet in the hotel, which is how I prefer them, tho' I don't normally have shrimp or pickled herring, or raw pork for that matter. I did find the scrambled eggs & bacon in the next room & enjoyed a variety of new (to me) & traditional breakfastery.
We left on the bus at 7:15 sharp for our first destination. Again, like Japan, our tour guide Ingrid hardly stopped talking the entire drive there, giving us a not-so brief history of Germany & listing off the particular hardships suffered by Germans in present day. She described Germany's involvement in both world wars but did some eggshell tiptoeing on the subject of Hitler. It was a pretty depressing ride & I kept wishing she would just step down & let people ask questions since there were obviously many. Unfortunately she already seems to have a series of lectures worked out for every ride.
Our first stop was in St. Goar where we boarded the Loreley Cruise Line triple-decker boat to ride up the lovely Rhine river (after making three U-turns to pick up some late passengers & then return on its way.) The Rhine is like Europe's version of the Mississippi with its importance in shipping & transportation. It's also set in a deep river valley (the part we traveled at least) with cliffs overhead where orchards & vineyards are planted on swatches of steep terraced land. Imagine picking grapes at a 50 degree angle. There are also quite a few castles up on those cliffs which were the highlight of the trip for me. Being a robber-baron back in the day certainly paid well.
Also up on the Rhine is the infamous Loreley, the legend of the young nude maiden whom sailors saw up on a clifftop at a particularly sharp bend in the river, who was combing her long, blond hair. Naturally the sailors would get distracted & ram their boats into the rocks. Surely a testament for the ages, either of the wickedness of women or the stupidity of men.
The Rhine cruise departed in Boppard where we then drove past bonn, Beethoven's birthplace on our way to Cologne. The first part of that drive was much the same as driving through the black hills of South Dakota with narrow, twisting roads scaling dreadfully steep hillsides. I don't see how it was possible to get such a huge bus up those roads but however it happened, it happened & we made it back onto the Autobahn without dying in a fiery wreck.
En route to the next city our guide had us sign up for any optional excursions we may be interested in. There were nearly a dozen to choose from & for an additional cost allowed us to explore other parts of the country & culture. These will be during what would normally be scheduled free time so no events will have to be sacrificed for others. Dad signed us up for ALL of them, citing how he wanted to get the most out of our trip. I'm sure we will, but this may mean I'll have less time to chronicle our journeys. My entries may be much abbreviated but I'll try to get down as much as I can.
The next stop was the city of Cologne, also on the Rhine. The feature attraction is the incredible gothic cathedral therein. Constructed from the 1200s to 1800s it stands as a monument to art & architecture for millennia, and also how bloody wealthy the Catholic church is. There's so much detail crammed into & onto every available space on the outside of the building that it's difficult to look at without some sense of awe. It towers over everything for blocks around & the centuries of soot & pollution encrusted to its exterior give an antiquing effect to the intricate detail all about, making it even more gothic & dark & beautiful.
We had about three hours of free time to ourselves in Cologne & I think most of it with Dad & me was spent in the cathedral. We went around the main floor where most of the tourists were & spent plenty of time gawking at the vaulted ceilings & stained glass windows (all stored safely in a salt mine during WWII) & especially for me, the freaking huge pipe organ hanging over the main nave near the center of the cathedral. I obviously don't know my way around churches so most of the purpose of its layout was a mystery to me, but I still marveled at the detail & artistry that went into every inch of the place. About the only thing that isn't done to the nines in that place is the vaulted ceiling, which is painted a plain white. I guess that's still to come.
Off behind the gift shop on the ground floor is a narrow circular stairwell. For 2.5 Euros you could climb the spiral staircase up & up. We did. There are 509 steps to traverse, counterclockwise & on bowl shaped risers that may have once been flat but gradually worn away through several centuries of foot traffic. The space is narrow, barely wide enough for two people to stand abreast & as you ascend the ceiling gradually nears your head. As soon as you pass under the arched entrance you see graffiti on the walls. Nearly every free space is covered with names, dates & messages from other people who have climbed these stairs. All the way up you see "I was here" & its equivalent variations in many languages, over & over again. The oldest message I found was dated 1980. The youngest was this year & I wouldn't doubt that a new one was written today. There's plenty of space left. Aside from the graffiti the climb reminded me much of the trip to the top of the state capitol dome I made in 2004. Cramped quarters & many stairs spiraling upward to infinity, occasionally passing by a slitted window where you could briefly see just how many stories you had ascended. The windows were regularly spaced but opened out upon seemingly random views like behind a statue or particularly scrolly bit of decoration. Not all were convenient but most were appreciated as those that were open let in the cool afternoon air from the overcast day. The stairs led up to a couple of side areas, one being the bell tower where the seven enormous bells hung, ready for striking, & the other a wide open circular room with a high celing & surrounding, you guessed it, more stairs. This zigzag staircase led up the final score of meters to the top. The uppermost point you could get without climbing out on the roof. This conical room was partially open to the air due to the decorative cutouts in the stone. The room tapered to a point at the top & was the highest point in the right-hand tower. There is a walkway outside it, fenced in to prevent people from falling out & others from adding to the graffiti adorning the gargoyles & various other stone decorations. Top of the world, ma!
The trip down was much easier & we still had time to check out the restored Roman archway (AD 50) on the courtyard just outside the cathedral & stop for lunch at a little cafe a block or two away. After a complete circuit of the outside of the cathedral it was time to get back on the bus & go to the hotel.
The welcome dinner was this evening & fine dining was in the air as we all had plenty of opportunity to visit & get to know each other. Tomorrow takes us to Hamburg. Hopefully I'll have more later. Right now I just want to shower & sleep. It's nearly 10:30 after all. ~_^
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Note: Yesterday's entry can be viewed here