By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On the second day of the four-day cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend, we sail on to Santiago island. Early in the morning, after a talk about snorkeling and getting outfitted with our gear, we have a dry landing at Bartolome island just off Santiago.
We climb a long boardwalk, 372-steps, over a barren landscape that evokes a moonscape, up to the summit for an iconic view overlooking the famous Pinnacle Rock and Santiago Island. On the way up, we get to see sea lions frolicking (courting, perhaps?) with each other, and on the way down, one perches on a deck, perhaps putting on a show for us, until another literally pushes it off (wanting attention?).
When Darwin visited here on October 5, 1835, he encountered Spaniards who came to catch tortoises for food; he also found many land iguana which today are extinct. Goats, pigs and donkeys were released on the island in the 1800s, “causing havoc for the island ecosystem and many of its native species,” the Galapagos Conservancy, a US-based nonprofit, notes. “Goats destroy habitat, cause massive erosion, and compete with native herbivores, including the giant tortoise. Pigs dig up both giant tortoise and sea turtle nests and destroy both eggs and hatchlings, dig into Galapagos petrel nests in the highlands, and destroy other ground-nesting birds. Donkeys are particularly destructive to Opuntia cactus in the arid zones. The presence of these species on Santiago had created an ecosystem very different from the pristine condition.” (https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/the-islands/)
Today there are programs to eradicate the goats, which have provoked ire from animal rights groups. “Which would you prefer,” our guide, Billy, challenges, “penguins or goats? Penguins or cats? Flightless cormorants or dogs? We are sorry for animal-loving people” but the Galapagos has made its choice.
Then we ride in the dinghy along the coast where we get a glimpse of the Galapagos penguin (one of 18 penguin species but the only one found this close to the Equator).
We are returned to a beach on Santiago Island to snorkel and explore for an hour. (Those who don’t want to snorkel can take a 12-passenger glass bottom boat to observe the marine life). Naturalist Alejandro, who is also a Galapagos National Park ranger, tells us to look for sea turtles, rays, maybe a small reef shark and the Galapagos penguin. (Karen is so happy with her Olympus Tough6 waterproof, shockproof camera, though David got excellent video with his cellphone in a waterproof pouch).
It is amazing to literally share the beach with sea lions. This also provides an opportunity to see the extraordinary Galapagos penguins; Sarah gets to swim with one. One of our group (we are Albatross; the other group is Booby) actually sees a white-tipped reef shark as he snorkels.
In the afternoon after a wonderful lunch, we have a dry landing off the dinghy and into the water at Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island) – a fascinating geologic site of a relatively “young” pa-hoe-hoe lava flow that came from 10 km away. It is like being dropped into a sculpture of black swirls and shapes – an absolutely stunning and dramatic landscape. Billy explains the black is because of oxidation but the layers underneath still have the original reddish-mustard color.
Billy says that when Darwin visited this very place, he estimated it formed only 200 years before and was spot on because scientists believe this land mass is a mere 350 years old. Now it seems virtually devoid of life – a moonscape – though when we look more carefully, we see the very beginnings of life taking hold: small mollugo plants beginning to grow out of fissures, a cactus, a locust flying by.
There is no organic soil, no water, the food chain is poor, but that locust eats the little bush and drinks its liquid and becomes food for lava lizards. This is like what Galapagos would have been at the beginning, just the top of volcano above the surface and nothing living, he says.
We are already witnessing the process of how the surface material will be broken down by lichens and eventually become soil.
Lichens are key to “terraforming” this barren landscape. “Look for moisture from steam coming out from fissures – that’s where lichens colonized.” The lichens crack the rock and turn it into organic soil that can support a plant or tree. Come back in 500 years, he says, and there will be life.
Billy tells us there used to be coal mining here, but after the National Park was established, the company was evicted. Today, the government has resisted permitting any kind of drilling, mining – for fresh water or for any of the valuable minerals that are likely in these islands, nor any of the resort or real estate development companies that would pay a small fortune for the rights to establish themselves here. The government has resisted all offers in order to preserve the Galapagos, “Nature’s Greatest Laboratory.”
“We know the Ecuador government has pressure to build resort hotels. But Galapagos has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1978 – even if a corrupt government would want to sell, it cannot. Politically and geographically, Galapagos belongs to Ecuador, but culturally, Galapagos belongs to world.” But a lot of celebrities and billionaires have been so moved by their experience, they deposit hefty checks on their way home. “Bill Gates wrote a check for $5 million and left it at one station.”
Sullivan Bay was made famous because “Master & Commander” was filmed here – but the images of the ship were all digitized because the only boats allowed in the Galapagos have to come from here. Also, all the wood that is used to build boardwalks has to be already cut down – no living trees can be cut.
Back on board, Alejandro gives a talk about how the weather and currents are responsible for the unique life found in the Galapagos, and why, only in the Galapagos, can you see sea lions, penguins, tuna with parrot fish, angel fish and flamingoes.
From December through May, the water temperature (avg. 76°F/25°C) and air temperature (avg. low/high 72-86°F/22-30°C) are slightly warmer. Seas tend to be calmer. Rainfalls are common for a short period of time each day, but the remainder of the day tends to be very sunny resulting in high humidity. Flowers come into bloom and vegetation is more colorful. This is a good time to observe birds mating or sea turtles nesting on the beaches.
From June through November, when we visit, the Humboldt Current brings colder water (avg. 72°F/22°C) and cooler land temperatures (avg. low/high 66-79°F/19-26°C) It also brings nutrient-rich water that attracts fish and sea birds: albatross arrive on Española and penguins are easier to encounter. This is the mating season for blue-footed boobies. During this time of year clouds fill the sky and a misty rain called Garua is common. Winds tend to be stronger and seas a bit rougher. The abundant marine life makes this the preferred time of year for experienced divers.
Alejandro tells us that the sunny, blue skies we have had are unusual for this time of year (late August).
Back on board the Galapagos Legend, we thoroughly enjoy relaxing on the deck, hanging out together – there are two hot tubs and a nice-sized pool, plus a fitness center, a library, a children’s playroom, and a gorgeous lounge where coffee, tea, hot chocolate and fresh fruit are always available.
The M/V Galapagos Legend has 52 ocean view, air-conditioned cabins plus 3 interior ones, each cabin which can accommodate a matrimonial, double, triple or quadruple option, accommodating 100 passengers. The Balcony suites have private balconies and panoramic windows. The Junior suites have three meters of panoramic windows. Housekeeping is provided twice daily. You can use US plugs, and US currency. Our cabins on the Earth deck are gorgeous and spacious and can easily accommodate a triple.
The ship is large enough to feel very comfortable and have all the amenities you would want in a luxury cruise, but small enough to feel intimate.
The cuisine on board is superb (we especially love the BBQ banquet served alfresco on deck), how we are greeted on the return from our excursions and snorkeling with hot chocolate or tea and a snack, and how coffee, tea and fresh fruit are always available.
There are special touches: we absolutely adore the electronic key-bracelets we wear throughout our stay (even snorkeling) so you never have to fish for a key; how they keep track that everyone is onboard with a computerized check-in. (You can purchase beer or wine packages; wet suits are $25 to rent; kayaks are $40 pp, and you can purchase access to wifi.)
By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Galapagos, an archipelago of some 200 islands spanning 8000 sq km just below the Equator and 600 miles from South America’s coast – has the most varied ecosystems and diversity in such a concentrated area on the planet.
You see animals and floral life that don’t exist anywhere else in the world – not even from one island to the next. It’s the only place in the world you can see sea lions, penguins and albacore tuna with parrot fish, angel fish and flamingoes.
We get so close because here, animals do not have a fear of humans because humans are no longer their predators. Most profound, is how vividly we can see the impacts of the environment on the evolution of a species, right down to their blue or red booby feet and the red sac that expands like a balloon on the male frigate bird’s neck. We see mating rituals, newborn chicks, adolescence and death. We get to swim with sea turtles and sea lions.
The best way to experience the Galapagos – a place that can only be described as “enchanting,” “mesmerizing,” “awe-inspiring” – is by ship. We book a four-day/three-night cruise on the 100-passenger MV Galapagos Legend, a gorgeous ship big enough to afford all the luxury amenities you could crave and small enough to be intimate. Go Galapagos, the operator, offers four itineraries (longer itineraries are available by combining sailings) and we choose the “East” which seems to afford less time sailing (in this time of year, we are concerned about rougher seas) and more time exploring islands, hiking, snorkeling and seeing a good portion of the wildlife that the Galapagos is most famous for.
Each of the destinations we visit is so different – in landscape, geology, wildlife, vegetation – that the experience we have changes drastically from morning to afternoon and day to day.
This Galapagos cruise proves to be the perfect combination of pure excitement and pure enjoyment. It is the very definition of “soft adventure” – giving us the ability to experience something really exotic, unique, remote and isolated, but in absolute comfort, adding the priceless dimension of being an experience that can be shared by a family, young and old.
After spending a couple of days on Santa Cruz island, we meet up with the rest of our cruise passengers for this sailing of the Galapagos Legend at the international airport on the adjacent island (a US Naval Base in World War II), and are taken by bus to a small marina where we are tendered by dinghy to the ship.
It is still morning when we go aboard for a “captain’s welcome” have an excellent orientation to the ship and the cruise, and then have lunch as the ship sails to the first island we explore. (A short, easy sail, it gives us time to acclimate.)
We have two naturalists on board, Alejandro and Billy, rangers who work for the Galapagos National Park. They not only guide us, but are responsible for making sure the strict rules that protect the ecosystems are enforced. (You can’t visit the islands on your own, and even the operators and cruise ships are limited in the number of people that can be anywhere at any one time.)
The Galapagos became Ecuador’s first national park in 1959 and began operations in 1968, with tourism really getting underway in the 1970s. In 1979, UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands a Natural Heritage for Humanity site, making the Park Service responsible for guarding and conserving the islands.
Alejandro tells us the rules that are in place to protect the animals, too many of which have been endangered by invasive species including rats, cats, dogs and most significantly, humans.
We are instructed to stay on the marked trails and not stray or go off on our own, not to bring any food (water is okay), not to use the camera flash (light is too strong and would stress the animal) or selfie stick. We must not take anything from the island, not a shell, not sand nor stone. “Keep it as natural as possible, with the least human impact, so we have this for future generations.” But the Galapagos already has clear examples of how fast human impact can set into motion the extinction of species.
The mystery is how these animals even came here to begin with. They are said to have evolved from animals that managed to get here from North and South America – but the most eastern island, San Cristobal, is still 600 miles from South America’s coast. They tell us how an iguana could have floated here on some sort of “raft”-like vehicle, which Karen comprehends about as well as the “Big Bang” theory of the universe exploding from a ball of matter that could fit in the palm of your hand.
(Think of it: an iguana would have to survive weeks at sea with swells and storms without food or water, arrive on an island and somehow meet a fertile animal of the opposite sex in a timely way in order to reproduce. It sounds about as credible as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden having two sons but being the progenitors of all humankind. After Billy later explains about teutonic plates that move 2 meters a year, west to east, and how these islands actually floated here, Karen is more inclined to think that these animals’ evolutionary ancestors were already onboard.)
The oldest islands are in the East (San Cristobal) and are 3 million years old; the youngest islands are in the west and are one million years old, and actually moving eastward at a rate of two meters a year. But, Billy tells us, an island would “disappear” before it reached South America’s coast (!!??). (Actually, Karen thinks the island would more likely disappear – and sooner – because of climate-caused sea-level rise, which makes her worry about the fate of these animals.)
Our first walkabout is that afternoon, on the island of North Seymour, a bird lover’s dream. The dinghy takes us to a “dry” landing which means we step onto slick rocks (they put down a towel to make it easier). We spend about two-hours (is it that long? Time flies by) walking a rocky – but easy – trail that makes us feel like we are strolling through Wonderland.
Because humans are not perceived as a threat, the animals pay us no attention. We can walk amazingly close to bird colonies, even to chicks still in the nest, as if we were invisible; they just continue doing what they will do. And yet, we later have experiences where it seems the sea lions do want to attract our attention, show off and even play with us, and on one occasion, a blue-footed booby (adolescent?) seems curious enough to just stand in the middle of the trail as we take photos, study us, and wait for us until we come back.
“Two things make Galapagos unique,” our guide, Billy, tells us. “Fear doesn’t exist and there is harmony – the hawk, boobies, iguana live in harmony [balance] because there is enough food to eat.” He tells us that the government gave fishermen an incentive to become guides, so there is less fishing and more for the animals. “Harmony and no fear.”
North Seymour is fantastic because we see several of the birds the Galapagos are so famous for– the blue-footed booby, the magnificent frigatebird (the largest colony in the Galapagos is here), swallow-tailed gulls; also land iguana (2500 are resident here). And we see them all! It is thrilling for us to see a blue-footed booby for real (the males use their webbed feet to attract a prospective mate, but when we go to San Cristobal, we see the red-footed booby, where red proved more enticing).
We also see boxes used to trap the rats (that came with humans) that were endangering the rest of the native species.
We get to see the great frigatebird males courting the females by clicking, bill-clapping shuddering and flapping their wings, while puffing up their bright red, gular pouch, as big as a balloon. Billy tells us it’s late in the season, so this is their last chance to mate.
We see frigatebird chicks in all stages of development. Billy tells us that the female lays only one at a time, and one of the two parents have to cover it or it will die from the heat, while the other goes fishing. When it hatches, if the parent doesn’t feed it, it will die. The parent is also responsible for cleaning the chick. “The very young need more protection than food, the older ones need more food than protection.”
We see a blue-footed booby chick in the nest. Billy tells us that the female lays 3 eggs, 12 days apart, so they hatch at different times after 28 days of incubation. The oldest is the largest and takes food first so has a 100 percent chance of survival; the second is smaller, so can’t outdo the eldest for food, and has a 50 percent chance; the third is the smallest, and has only a 25 percent chance of surviving. If there is enough food, all will survive. “In the nest, there is natural selection for the strongest and fittest.”
We also see death – a dead booby chick. Billy tells us that if he sees a booby chick fall out of the nest, the ranger isn’t allowed to help it and it will die. “It means the chick has a balance problem, and if it mates and reproduces, that trait will be inherited and would be the result of the ranger’s mistake. That individual should die before it reproduces. That’s natural selection.”
When you are here, you realize what an ecosystem is – the cooperation and competition that is required for survival.
We come upon a land iguana (they survived here but went extinct on Baltra), which is unfazed as groups of us stand over it. I’m fascinated by its delicately formed hands and feet that look so human, and yet, this isn’t just a different species but a different genus, reptilian.
There aren’t any hummingbirds here, Billy says, because there isn’t the kind of vegetation that hummingbirds require – a lesson that “Prey and predators have to colonize together or one or the other disappears.”
The humans who began arriving in the Galapagos in the 17th century were predators also, engaged in the fight for their own survival. Without food or fresh water, they relied on giant sea turtles and tortoises. “They could survive for 6 months with meat and water from a sea turtle –the turtle was their supermarket for hundreds of years.”
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Berlin is a surprise. The last time I was here, which was just after the fall of the Wall, it seemed dark, grey. Berliners were literally chipping away at the Berlin Wall, selling the graffitied pieces (the first act of Capitalism).
Now, I find the city bright, bustling and building. And an interesting amalgam of how Germany’s various historical époques, even the Soviet era, have been integrated in the reconstructed city after World War II.
What is most interesting to me, especially as we stop at the Brandenburg Gate, is how Nazism seems to have been ripped out from the roots, like weeds from a garden.
There is still some evidence of Soviet control, especially as we go through what would have been East Berlin (later, at Potsdam, we will learn the backstory of how Berlin was divided).
The Elbe Princesse is docked in a lovely neighborhood park in one of the city’s 12 districts. We have a bus-tour today, which I am grateful for because the city is really vast and I only have one day here, but it is soon obvious, you need to spend at least two or three days.
Our guide, Sylvia, gives us a bit of history as we travel from district to district, neighborhood to neighborhood.
We drive around the Victory Column – Hitler had it moved in the 1930s as part of his plan to make Berlin the capital of the World, Germania. To cement his dictatorship, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag, and blamed the opposition as an excuse to exert martial law.
We get out to walk around, stopping first at the new memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust. Out of 2.5 million Sinti & Roma, only 5000 survived (the German word for gypsy, Zigeuner, means trash and is forbidden).
Very close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag – the Parliament Building. People are lined up to tour the building, and can go up to a modernized glass dome.
The Brandenburg Gate, which dates from 1791, was part of the original wall around Old Town, and is the only one of 18 historical gates still remaining. “It survived 300 years, 2 world wars, 2 dictatorships, 1 wall.”
In 1806, Napoleon arrived in Berlin after defeating Prussians, entering through center of gate. He promptly “expropriated” the sculpture on top of the gate.
For 20 years, the Gate was in a no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, and could not be visited. Then, in November 1989, the wall came down.
All the buildings that flank the Gate were built after 1989, Today, the US Embassy and across from the embassy, a Holocaust memorial that opened in May 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II in Europe.
New York architect Peter Eisenman, who won a design competition to establish a central memorial site, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, placed 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights that appear as graves or coffins (the heights, Sylvia said, are supposed to represent the number of Jews killed in a place). The 19,000 sq. meter area is open day and night. The memorial is intentionally set on a slight slope and its wave-like form is different wherever you stand.
The memorial to the Shoah is supplemented by the underground information center, also designed by Eisenman. In a space covering 800 square meters you can find information on the victims and the locations. Themed rooms such as the Room of Dimensions, the Room of Families, the Room of Names and the Room of Sites deal with the fates of individuals, with photographs, diaries and farewell letters. Short biographies take the victims out of their anonymity. Historical photographs and film footage show the sites of persecution and extermination. (Cora-Berliner-Straße 110117 Berlin, www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en)
In the Museum Island complex we see where there are still holes from bullets and artillery fire in the Roman columns are the city’s most important museums (which were in the Soviet zone, so that the Allies had to build comparable museums): the Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Neues Museum (New Museum) the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery). The collections in these buildings encompass over 6,000 years of art and cultural history.
Sylvia tells us that because all the city’s important museums wound up in the Soviet zone, the Allies built comparable institutions in their quarter.
As we pass the Royal Library, Sylvia relates that on May 10 1933, Nazis entered Royal Library, stripped the shelves, and burned the books in the square. “It’s important to keep people stupid to impose dictatorship,” she remarks. I mutter something about a Tennessee legislator who, when asked what they should do about banned books, said, “They should burn them, I guess,” to which one of my traveling companions from Munich recoiled in horror. (Max Planck and Albert Einstein gave lectures here, Sylvia notes.)
We go by Alexanderplatz, which was a market in the Middle Ages. (I spot “Stop Wars” as graffiti painted on a nearby building. There are also Ukraine flags on many buildings.)
We drive down an avenue that leads toward Frankfurt and the border with Poland. After WWII, Stalin renamed it for himself, but when Stalin died, it was renamed Karl Marx Allee (a German Jew and the ideological founder of Socialism).
The mark of East Germany’s time as part of the Soviet bloc is very clear when we arrive at a long, long wall – Sylvia said that the “first generation wall” was built in less than 24 hours. “Germans went to sleep on the night of August 12 and woke up on August 13 to find a 43 km wall built in middle of night, to separate east from west.”
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany, 118 artists from 21 countries were invited to paint murals along a 1316-meter long stretch of the wall – the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. It officially opened as the open-air East Side Gallery on September 28, 1990, and a year later, was made a protected memorial.
Sylvia points us to the mural that is very possibly the most famous: “The Kiss” by Russian painter Dimitri Vrubel in 1990, It depicts Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time, and Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, based on a photograph taken in 1979, on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GDR. “The photographer got two years in prison.”
Sylvia also points out Berlin’s pride and joy, the Berlin Television Tower, built in the 1960s. At 368m, it is the tallest building in Berlin. (You can go to the top for a 360° panoramic view of the city.)
Potsdam, UNESCO World Heritage City
We are returned to the Princesse Elbe for lunch and then set out again by bus to Potsdam – famous as the place where the Allies decided Germany’s fate, split Europe, Germany and Berlin into sections, and launched the Cold War.
Potsdam, about a 45 minute drive from where we are in Berlin, is one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, and a UNESCO Heritage site.
We stop at Glienicke Bridge, known as the“Bridge of Spies”. Built in 1907, it was used as an exchange point between the Soviets and the Allies. In 1961, during the Cold War, no civilians were allowed on the bridge, only military, diplomats. To distinguish between the American and German Democratic Republic sides, you can see the dark green versus light green colors. The first exchange came in 1962: Francis Powers, who was taken prisoner in 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over Ukraine and sentenced to die, was exchanged for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy. (The 2015 Tom Hanks thriller, “Bridge of Spies” depicting the events was actually shot here – they closed the bridge for a week).
We stop at Cecilienhof Palace, where the Potsdam Conference took place in 1945, and are able to walk around the grounds. The palace was built in 1917 by Crown Prince Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, who would have been next emperor if Germany had won World War I. It hardly looks like a palace – he built it in Tudor style of a country manor to honor his grandmother. Today it is a hotel and museum.
What I hadn’t known before is that Harry Truman, who had just become president after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, got a phone call while here, ‘The baby is born,” code for the atom bomb was ready. He gave the order from here to bomb Hiroshima, seemingly as casually as that.
The Potsdam conference also lacked another major leader, Winston Churchill. In his place, a new Prime Minister. Clement Attlee. Stalin took advantage of them both.
Sylvia relates the back-story of how Stalin snuckered Truman and Atlee: on the last morning, Stalin drew a line in red pen through Germany and basically, said, “That’s mine.” “Potsdam set up the Cold War, a proxy war,” she says.
We next go to Sanssouci, Frederick II (Frederick the Great)’s fabulous palace. (We wander the outside, but do not have time to go into it).
Sanssouci Palace is like a mini-Versailles, with stunning formal gardens. The gardens were Frederick’s passion, and he built them even before the palace. It was the first royal park ever to be open to the public, and for free. (Versailles Palace was built first then garden, but was solely for royal use.)
Frederick loved this place – it was his private refuge and he even banned his wife from visiting. He wanted to be buried at Sanssouci and had a crypt built, but his nephew buried him elsewhere; then, 200 years later, Frederick was reburied here, as he wanted, with his 11 dogs. We notice that people leave potatoes at the gravesite. “The Seven Years War was under his administration. Potato, brought from the Indian countries of America, was a fast solution to hunger.”
Potsdam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, became the residence for Prussia’ royal family, spawning many fabulous buildings and palaces, making Potsdam one of the most-visited cities in Germany and deserves a full day visit (you can get to Potsdam by train from Berlin).
Our tours of Berlin and Potsdam have been a very good introduction, but I would have liked to spend another two days in Berlin and a full day in Potsdam. But I am doing what many American travelers to Europe are doing this year and doubling up on trips from my bucket list. So the next morning, I get myself to the Berlin railway station, heading to Bruges. for my BoatBikeTours bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam by bike and boat!
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I must confess to never having heard of Magdeburg before we were bussed from our ship, the MS Elbe Princesse, on the morning of Day 7 of our CroisiEurope river cruise, but, as in the case with the best travel experiences, it turns out to be marvelous to discover.
Our tour starts in the Market Square, renowned for its architecture and a City Hall with bronze doors that relate the city’s history – its 1,200 years is one of the longest in Germany – in 14 panels. Our guide also points out the golden “Magdeburg Horseman,” which dates from 1240 and is believed to be the first equestrian statue north of the Alps.
After visiting so many churches, the St. Mauritius and St. Katherine Cathedral is an absolute surprise – and not because of lavish gilded decoration (it is relatively simple) but more because of what it contains. Built from 1209-1520, it was the first cathedral to be built in the Gothic style in Germany, it is the largest church in East Germany, and its towers the highest. It was destroyed twice – in 1631 during the Thirty Years War, and in World War II, when 90 percent of Magdeburg’s buildings were bombed. And oh, yes, the church for some reason was used as a horse stable by the French during Napoleonic War.
We see where Germany’s famous son and Holy Roman Emperor, Otto the Great, and that of his first wife are interred inside the cathedral.
But what is immediately clear is the revolutionary spirit at the heart of this place – and Magdeburg.
Here we see a wooden chest with locks that was used to collect Indulgences – a symbol of its transition to a Protestant church. Indeed Magdeburg’s wholesale conversion to the Protestant faith was one of Luther’s greatest victories. (It is more impressive having just come from Luther’s House in Wittenberg the day before.)
A memorial in front of nearby St. John’s Church (which can be visited) erected by the renowned sculptor Emil Hundrieser in 1886 serves as a reminder of Luther’s influence on this historic city. Martin Luther attended boarding school here for a year when he was 13; he returned to the city on June 26, 1524 to give a sermon at St. John’s Church about “true and false righteousness” that was so powerful, it inspired almost every church in Magdeburg to convert to Protestantism in a matter of days. From this point onward, Magdeburg became a leader in the Reformation and a forerunner in school reform. Our guide tells us suggests that Magdeburg was fairly liberal and its law was adopted in other places.
This cathedral is adorned with gorgeous sculptures and wood carvings that strike me as unusual. For one, I notice the statue of St. Morris, a black saint from Namibia who was officer in Roman army, became Christian and refused to take part in pagan ceremony.
To my eye, the Church is ecumenical – it has Hebrew and Greek letters, doors from Greece that seem to depict Dionysus, and I see a fund-raising brochure from the congregation to help raise money to replace the synagogue destroyed by the Nazis (the cornerstone has just been laid). Our guide informs us there were 3000 Jews here before the Holocaust; today there are 600.) And in the pavement is a memorial to the Holocaust.
We see a beautiful World War I memorial, which dates from1929. When the Nazis came, they had to take it away. The statue was returned to artist’s family and then returned to church 1955.
We also visit the Unser Lieben Frauen monastery which has a sculpture park that was created in 1989, and is the venue for concerts. The monastery, the oldest building in Magdeburg, was constructed in two phases – the east section and nave were built in the second half of the 11th century; the western section between 1129 and 1160.
But most remarkable to me is the Green Citadel of Magdeburg, an apartment building that is literally a work of art and (amazingly) also a model for new urban design.
I can’t take my eyes off of it. We wander around this fascinating and magnificent structure, so colorful, whimsical. It exudes happiness and optimism, a Dr. Seuss-like quality and playful spirit. It is literally green – greenery grows from the roof, down the walls – none of which have straight angles. It is an “ensemble’ of buildings taking up a full square block, and is in such stark contrast to the other buildings in the vicinity, which range from Gothic to steel-and-glass modern.
The Green Citadel was designed by architect and artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna , he adopted Friedensreich, meaning peace, freedom, and Hundertwasser, meaning “100 Waters”), who died in 2000.
The Catholic Church underwrote the cost of building the building (27.1 million Euros) and it is now owned by a Swiss investor. It contains 55 rental apartments (the rental fee is based on the square meter, 10-12E/sq meter, which is cheap), a 200-seat theater, parking garage, day care center, and a 41-room Art Hotel (that’s what it’s called).
You walk into this breathtakingly beautiful courtyard and there are bird houses of all different shapes and colors (a Guinness record? Not sure). Within the courtyard are cafes and delightful shops (I can’t resist). The tower is 32 meters high, constructed as a spiral – a symbol of life – with a walkway all the way up to the top.
The structure exemplifies Hundertwasser’s ”commitment to a more human architecture in harmony with nature and his visionary ecological commitment developed from his belief in the power of nature and individual creativity,” the The Hundertwasser foundation writes. “Since the 1980s, he has been realizing architectural projects in which there is the window right and tree tenants, the uneven floor, forests on the roof and spontaneous vegetation. His buildings testify to his commitment to diversity instead of monotony, for romanticism, for the organic and for unregulated irregularities, for spontaneous vegetation and for living in harmony with nature.
“At the center of his ecological activities were tree planting and greening campaigns, the restoration of natural cycles, the protection of water and the fight for a waste-free society. He disseminated his socio-critical and ecological positions with manifestos, letters, speeches and public demonstrations in which he criticized the pure functionality of all areas of life, the uninhibited growth doctrine and the adaptation to social conformism.” (https://hundertwasser.com/en).
It’s interesting to learn that key industries here include the manufacture of wind turbines and small generators. Just saying.
Magdeburg was a fortress town and one of its favorite sons, memorialized with a statue, was Steuben, who helped the Americans win the Revolution. We are told that he also was the originator of “OK” –“He couldn’t speak English well, and this was his way of signing off ‘all correct’”. (Another famous son of Magdeburg, I learn, is the composer Georg Philipp Telemann).
That evening, as we sail to Berlin, our final port, we have a gala dinner, and it really is – cream of cauliflower soup; foie gras; veal; cheese in puffed pastry, and for dessert, dramatically served Baked Alaska flaming with Grand Marnier, accompanied by special wines selected by the chef. All the cuisine has been so flavorful, rich but not too rich, with gorgeous presentations.
We have asked for a tour of the kitchen, and they have complied – so we get to walk through. It is remarkably unbusy, unhectic, uncluttered. In the evening, we also are invited to tour the wheelhouse (I am told there is no auto pilot, which makes me think it is easier to “fly” to the international space station than to navigate the river because of the changing depth, hazards, currents.
We arrive in Berlin, overnighting at a dock in a neighborhood park.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our ship, CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princesse, sails early in the morning of Day 6 of our Prague-Berlin river cruise for Wittenberg, reaching this historic city, the epicenter of the Reformation lined with noble Renaissance-style houses and a marvelous way of preserving history, in the early afternoon.
The Martin Luther House, which was once an Augustinian monastery and now is the Reformation Museum, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a complete surprise – I might even say a revelation. I never expected to be so fascinated, so captivated by the unfolding of Martin Luther’s personal story so vividly depicted in the furnishings, artifacts, portraits and seeing where he actually lived, preserved pretty much as it would have been when he lived here. You begin to appreciate how one man could set a movement of such enormity – the Reformation! – into motion, how a single person could captivate and change the world.
I start off fairly disinterested but as I go through the house – the museum contains 1000 original objects from the Reformation over the centuries to the present including the many publications he put out – the answer comes quickly: the Guttenberg printing press (there is even a replica). You realize that Luther and the Guttenberg printing press were like today’s social media influencers. Indeed, by 1520, Luther had become a media sensation, unlike anything anyone had seen before.
Among Luther’s ideas that were heretical to the Catholic Church: Sins cannot be redeemed simply through confession, but faith; he reduced the seven sacraments to two, baptism and holy communion; he called ordination, confession, and last rites as “tricks of priests” to exert power. He called for the abolition of celibacy (and used that as the reason he got married, so he would not be a hypocrite); and said, “A Christian is free, subservient to no one (but subservient to all)” and he called upon the “electors and sovereigns” to implement the Reformation.
But the most controversial, which really roiled the entire institution, was the idea you can’t buy redemption with an Indulgence (the next day in a church in Magdeburg, we see the wooden box that would have been used to collect the Indulgences), and that priests can’t rid people of sin,
In June 1520, a Papal Bull accused Luther of 41 errors and gave him 60 days to recant. Instead, he created a media spectacle and burned the papal bull and other items.
Luther basically removed priests as the middle man between a Christian and his faith, and is most famous for translating the Bible into German, to make it more accessible (if I remember correctly, Jesus did the same thing to the priests).
Luther had been a monk and his wife, Katharina von Bora, a nun, given over to a convent because her family could not afford to support her, lived here for 35 years.
In what would have been their bedroom, we learn that Katarina fled the nunnery to marry Luther. A monk at the time, Luther said he should practice what he preached – abolition of celibacy. There is a wonderful quote from him (just about everything he said was dutifully transcribed by adoring followers) describing the surprising changes in his life after marriage, and the pleasures of being part of a couple. They had six children of whom four survived to adulthood.
We also see the living room where he would meet guests, have discussions with adoring followers. It’s like being in “the room where it happened” – where these ideas were formulated, transcribed, transmitted.
The couple became well to do after their marriage. Katarina, who clearly did so much to propel Luther (among the journal accounts is how she poured beer for the guests), farmed, and rented rooms to students.
Having been informed the day before to the importance of artist Lucas Cranach the Elder by my traveling companion, I am alert to seeing several Cranach paintings here, including the first authentic portrait of Luther, several others of Luther, and his monumental panel of 10 Commandments. (The English-language audio tour is invaluable to appreciating what you see.)
At this point, I am admiring of Luther and how he democratized religion, breaking the theocratic authority of the Pope and priests. But I later learn that in two of his later works, Luther expressed violent antisemitic views and called for the burning of synagogues and expulsion of Jews (I wonder if Luther regarded Judaism as a rival for worshippers.)
Luther wrote of a sculpture depicting an antisemitic scene, “Here in Wittenberg, in our parish church,” Luther wrote, “there is a sow carved into the stone under which lie young pigs and Jews who are sucking; behind the sow stands a rabbi who is lifting up the right leg of the sow, raises behind the sow, bows down and looks with great effort into the Talmud under the sow, as if he wanted to read and see something most difficult and exceptional; no doubt they gained their Schem Hamphoras from that place.” The inscription “Rabini Schem HaMphoras” was installed above the sculpture 27 years later, in Luther’s honor.
My traveling companion on the ship – who is from Munich – has told me to look for the sculpture in the church which I assume (incorrectly) is the Castle Church where Luther posted his Theses.
I still have about an hour to explore Wittenberg on my own (the rest of our group are all French-speaking and led by a guide) – really not enough time. I would have loved to have the whole afternoon to wander. But, armed with an excellent map that pinpoints 36 important sites, I set out with an aim of finding the church and the sculpture.
I head to the old market square and the Stadtkirche, also known as the Wittenberg Town Church of St. Mary’s. It was here that Luther delivered most of his sermons, and is the site of the first celebration of Mass in German instead of Latin. Wittenberg in general—and the Stadtkirche in particular—is considered the heart of the Protestant Reformation. There is a statue of Luther outside.
But on the map, behind the church, I see a street name, Judenstrasse (Jew Street) that suggests the Jewish Quarter would have been right here.
I later learn (from an article in Smithsonian, “Hatred in Plain Sight”) that around the back of the Stadtkirche set into the facade is the carved sandstone sculpture depicting a rabbi lifts the tail of a pig to look for his Talmud that Luther referred to, that I was looking for.
“The sandstone sculpture is a once-common form of medieval iconography called a “Judensau,” or’Jew’s pig.’ Its existence predates the Nazi period by nearly 700 years. Sculptures of Jews and pigs started appearing in architecture in the 1300s, and the printing press carried on the motif in everything from books to playing cards well into the modern period,” Carol Schaeffer writes in the Smithsonian. “Today, more than 20 Judensau sculptures are still incorporated into German churches and cathedrals, with a few others in neighboring countries. At least one Judensau—on the wall of a medieval apothecary in Bavaria—was taken down for its offensive nature, but its removal in 1945 is thought to have been ordered by an American soldier. The Judensau in Wittenberg is one of the best preserved—and one of the most visible. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage site.”
There was an effort in Wittenberg to “solve its Judensau conundrum” by turning the site into a Mahnmal – a memorial to the Jewish people.
“After five years of deliberation, those in charge of the project decided that the Judensau would remain—but they would add a memorial to the Jewish people. Unveiled in 1988, it is now installed on the ground in bronze. Two crossing lines are surrounded by text that reads: “The proper name of God, the maligned Schem-ha-mphoras, was held holy by the Jews long before the Christians. Six million Jews died under the sign of a cross.” Alongside those German words is a Hebrew quotation, the beginning of Psalm 130: ‘Out of the depths I cry unto Thee, O Lord’,” Schaeffer writes.
Neither of these are included on the map, and I miss them entirely, thinking that the sculpture is in the Castle Church.
But I do find the Cranach House. I’ve become fascinated with Lucas Cranach who turns out to have been an apothecary as well as important artist whose portraits filled the Luther House, and whose works decorate many church altars (including the one we had just visited in Meissen). You can visit the original apothecary (it’s still a pharmacy), and then go through to a courtyard where the Cranachs would have lived and today there is an art school. He and his son also served as Wittenberg’s burgomaster (mayor).
I later learn how important Lucas Cranach the Elder was in popularizing – spreading – the Reformation. Cranach was the court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, ground zero for the Protestant Reformation. His patrons were powerful supporters of Martin Luther and he embraced the movement, using his art to spread the new faith. Cranach made numerous portraits of Luther – several that we see in the Luther House – and provided woodcut illustrations for Luther’s German translation of the Bible. Cranach became such a close friend of Martin Luther that he was best man at Luther’s wedding and later godfather to his son. At some point, the duke gave Cranach the monopoly for selling medicines at Wittenberg and a printer’s patent with exclusive privileges as to copyright in Bibles. Cranach’s presses were used by Martin Luther. His apothecary shop was open for centuries, and was only lost by fire in 1871.
I notice that apartments on the second floor of many buildings through the town have names of their important occupants: Maxim Gorki (1903), Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, German playwright, poet, and philosopher. Jeremias Trautmann, German physician who performed the first completely documented cesarean section, in Wittenberg, Germany, on April 26, 1610. And very close to the Castle Church, one name really stands out: Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), who lived here in 1852.
I make it to the famous door of the Castle Church where, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 Theses, challenging the notion that indulgences can buy salvation, setting off The Reformation. The old wooden Theses Door was lost when the church was destroyed by fire in 1760. In 1858, King Frederick William IV of Prussia funded the bronze door with the Latin theses.
I don’t have time to go into the Castle Church (the Elbe Princesse group that was guided did). You can also pay a small fee to climb the tower.
I really would have liked more time to explore Wittenberg, a truly beautiful and well preserved historic village. (You can purchase an audio tour of the sites.)
We get back on the bus and then back on the ship for lunch, and then a relaxing afternoon sailing to Burg. In the evening, we have another marvelous dinner and entertainment. Tomorrow, we discover why Magdeburg is so interesting.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We sail on to Dresden, where CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princess is supposed to dock for the night, and we are invited to take a 9 pm walk through Dresden’s historic city center. We are all excited and standing around, when we just sail passed. It seems that the docking spot which is reserved for us was occupied by another ship, and because it is Sunday night, there is nobody to complain to or address the issue. So we sail on to Meissen while the ship’s manager scrambles to arrange for a bus to take us back to Dresden for the morning’s excursion.
Our excursion the next morning is first by bus for an overview and then walking, and between the two, we get to see – from the outside at least – Dresden’s highlights and get a sense of its history, but this is certainly a city that deserves more time and a more immersive experience.
Most of Dresden’s city center was destroyed in World War II, but the “suburbs” survived the so-called “moral bombing” in which 25,000 out of a population of 650,000 died. But you would hardly realize it – except that our guide, Alexandr Klein, pulls out black-and-white photos of the destruction so we can compare.
It’s fairly amazing, then, that the bombing could not stamp out Dresden’s extraordinarily rich history, heritage and culture, which in so many instances, have risen literally from ashes. They have restored and reconstructed the architecture, saving the facades where possible and in many cases reusing the stones;.
It was here, August 26-27, 1813 at the Battle of Dresden that Napoleon had his last big victory in Germany. It was fought on the outskirts of the Saxon capital of Dresden, between Napoleon’s 120,000 troops and 170,000 Austrians, Prussians, and Russians under Prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg. Alas, victory was short lived – a week later, Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig.
Dresden is a “green city’ boasting more trees (600,000) than humans (550,0000). We drive through an enormous park – like Central Park – where among the sites is the intriguingly named German Hygiene Museum, Europe’s only science museum to focus on the human being and body within the context of the environment and society, culture and science.
We drive by the New Synagogue, built in 2002 to replace the 1840 synagogue designed by the revered architect Gottfried Semper, that was destroyed on Kristalnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. At its peak, Dresden had 5000 Jews; today there are 700. “Most had escaped before World War II, so we have Jewish life again.” The New Synagogue has Star of David finial from the old synagogue. “A fireman who put out the fire in 1938 saved it, then gave it to survivors after the war.”
We pass Fletcher street. “The Soviets arrived May 8 1945. 200 soldiers had died in combat; Hitler had already committed suicide. Fletcher took white flag to surrender to the Soviets. The SS shot him in the back. He was martyred,” Klein relates.
Dresden also shows its history under Soviet occupation. There is probably no sight that better encapsulates the Soviet era than “The Red Flag” mural and wall fresco, “Our Socialist Life” on the exterior of the Dresden Kulturpalast. It was the pride of GDR architecture when it opened in 1969 as a “House of Socialist Culture”. Today it is the home of the Dresden Philharmonic.
“The revolution against Soviet rule started in Dresden and Leipzig churches in 1989. It was the only successful revolution in German history. Then the Berlin Wall came down a year later.”
We get off the bus and start a delightful walking tour through this beautiful city.
We start at Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. Completed in 1743, the Baroque church was considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. After it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, the ruins were catalogued and stored for its reconstruction. 4,000 of the original stones were used in the rebuilding, which began after Germany’s reunification, in 1990 and reopened in 2005. Great Britain, which was responsible for the bomb that had caused so much of the devastation, sent a gold cross to place at the top.
We see the famous Fürstenzug – the Procession of Princes – a 102-meter-long portrait of the Dukes, Electors, and Kings of the house of Wettin, together with leading German figures from the arts and sciences. Commissioned in 1870, it consists of 25,000 Meissen Porcelain tiles.
Our guide, Alexandr Klein, points out Taschenberg Palace, built in the 18th century by the Saxon King, Augustus the Strong for his mistress. (Augustus “had ambitions to be like Henry VII”; a mistress was an actual official position, he tells us). There is a bridge, reminiscent of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, connecting it to the Royal Palace. The original building burned down and was faithfully restored in 1995 and transformed into the luxurious Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden, owned by the Thai royal family (rooms can cost as much as 10,000E/night). A member of Historic Hotels Worldwide since 2017, it is within the historic city center, steps away from the most renowned sights, such as Semper Opera House, Royal Palace, Zwinger, and the Frauenkirche. (Famous past guests of the Taschenbergpalais include Prince Albert II of Monaco, designer Karl Lagerfeld, and President Jacques Chirac of France, https://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/hotel-taschenbergpalais-kempinski-dresden)
We walk along a Tuscan-style arcade with 22 rounded arches leading to the Court Stables.
One of my favorite parts of this delightful walking tour is strolling along Brühl’s Terrace (Brühlsche Terrasse), also known as the “Balcony of Europe.” Our guide explains that by the 19th C, Dresden already popular for European tourists. This half-mile long promenade is built on the old city ramparts and was laid out in 1738 as a private garden; it was opened to the public in 1814.
Klein points to where novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who fought with Americans in World War II, was held as a POW in the slaughterhouse district. He wrote “Slaughterhouse 5,” a science-fiction infused anti-war novel, based on his experience.
Klein leads us to the Zwinger, a magnificent early 18th-century palace and a stunning example of Baroque architecture. Inside is The Old Masters Picture Gallery with 750 paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries, among them Italian Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Tintoretto, and Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Vermeer.
Also worth visiting (we don’t have time) is the Royal Palace, which houses some of Dresden’s most important museums, including the Green Vault and the Numismatic Collection. You can also visit the State Apartment, a suite of rooms that have been faithfully restored to their original condition.
The tour gives us an overview, but I wish we had the afternoon to explore on our own.
(You can get a Dresden museum card with gives two days and free admission to the city’s must see museums and exhibitions: Old Masters Picture Gallery with Sculpture Collection until 1800; Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments; Collection of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Porcelain Collection; The Royal State Apartments of August the Strong and the Porcelain Cabinet, Coin Cabinet; New Green Vault; Renaissance Wing; Giant´s Hall of the Armoury; Turkish Chamber; Albertinum with Art from the Romantic Period to the Present Day; Lipsiusbau Exhibition Hall; Museum of Saxon Folk Art and Puppet Theatre Collection; Special Exhibitions in the Japanese Palace; Joseph Hegenbarth Archive; Hausmannsturm, 22E pp).
Meissen: World Famous for Porcelain
We are returned to the ship for lunch, and in the afternoon have a walking tour of Meissen.
We ride an elevator to the hill top, and visit the Cathedral, a three-nave Gothic hall church built between 1260 and 1410 and preserved in its near-original medieval state. We buy a ticket to see inside where there are paintings by the renowned Lucas Cranach., and stained glass windows from the 13th century.
We walk around Albrechsburg, a palace built between 1471 and 1500 by Duke Albrecht of Saxony that dominates the city and the beautiful historic square.
After our brief walking tour with our guide, Brigetta, we are taken by bus to the Meissen “manufactory,” where you go room by room to see demonstrations of the remarkable artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making these porcelain treasures.
It is remarkable to realize that they have been doing this very same thing for over 300 years, the oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe, founded in 1710 by King Augustus the Strong, who put together a team of physicists, alchemists and metallurgists to come up with the new technology. There’s also a museum with some 2,000 Meissen items.
Back on the ship, we sail from Meissen through the late afternoon and overnight to Wittenberg.
We are always a stone’s throw from shore. We sail by people’s backyards and front yards, close enough to exchange greetings. Bicyclists keep pace and even go faster than boat, as they ride along a path beside the water. I see one man on horseback as the sun goes down. The scenery is beautiful, and the cruise so peaceful.
Dinner this evening is spectacular, beginning with an olive paste on toast, salmon with cheese, filet mignon, goat cheese with salad, raspberry/cream pie.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We get our first glimpse of Konigstein Fortress, perched on a 24-acre rock plateau high on a hilltop, 240 meters above the river, as our ship, CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princess, sails past. It is formidable. Known as the “Saxon Bastille,” it is Germany’s largest fortifications and one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe. It was never conquered and never invaded (though our guide tells the story of a local teenager who managed to “invade” the fortress by scaling the walls; he was initially taken into custody but released after they could not find a law to charge him with breaking, and he became a local hero).
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison). The fortress has been an open-air, military history museum since May 29, 1955, and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
100 million years ago, this place would have been at the bottom of the ocean, our guide, Gerold Jahn, tells us. Now, because it is the highest perch, there are lightening conductors everywhere (100 years ago, three tourists were killed by a lightening strike) and there is a safety talk and posters.He takes us to his favorite views of the Elbe Valley and villages well below.
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison), and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
Originally, there was a monastery here, which was closed after Luther’s Reformation. It took 40 years to build the fortress, beginning 1580 until 1620, just after the start of the Thirty Years War (half of all Saxony people died in that war). The fortress was built to be invincible, though in fact, it was not built for defense, but as a refuge for the townspeople, scientists, and government.
It was designed as a refuge (Dresden is 28 km away) to accommodate as many as 4000 people (the fewest number of full time residents is 40, the present number of permanent occupants). Peak occupation was during the Seven Years War, in 1756.
What I find most fascinating is how they solved all the problems – water, food and sanitation – to make this place totally self-sufficient (not just impenetrable). The secret to its steady supply of water is a 152.5 meter deep well, which is the deepest in Saxony and second deepest well in Europe – and the key to how this fortress was made to withstand any kind of siege. We get to see how it was built by local miners over a four-year period. The well is fed by rain that filters through the soil over a period of 6 to 7 months (they calculated) and naturally refills and could not be poisoned by an enemy. They devised a system to a 130-liter barrel into the well to collect the water.
Also, every household had a patch of land and was expected to cultivate their own food. The fort has a self-sufficient town with its own butcher, bakery, brewery, hospital and treasury. Even today, young children attend school at the fortress and older ones are picked up by bus.
The fortress was used to protect the Saxon state reserves and secret archives during times of war. In 1756 and 1813 and during World War II, Dresden’s art treasures were also stored at the Königstein.
Its main function since the 17th century was as a prison. Some of the more notable prisoners incarcerated at Königstein (likely after secret trial) include: the Crypto-Calvinists, including Caspar Peucer (1574–86) and Nikolaus Krell (1591–1601), chancellor of the Electorate of Saxony; Johann Friedrich Böttger (1706–1707), co-discoverer with Tschirnhaus of European porcelain; Count Karl Heinrich von Hoym (1734–1736), cabinet minister of the Electorate of Saxony; committed suicide in his cell; Mikhail Bakunin (1849–1850), Russian anarchist and revolutionary; Thomas Theodor Heine (1899), caricaturist and artist and Frank Wedekind (1899–1900), writer and dramatist.
The fortress was never bombed during World War II, even though nearby Dresden was famously destroyed, That is because it was known not to be a military base but rather, American, French and Polish POWs (mainly officers) were kept here. “They were kept in very humane conditions – one day a week they could leave to hike,” Gerold tells us.
The fortress was considered impregnable – “The only way prisoners left was when their dead bodies were thrown over the wall” – but there is a famous legend of the daring escape of a French general Henri Giraud, who was kept here 1940-1942.
“We never knew how it happened. One theory was that he was smuggled little pieces of rope that he joined together until he had 45 meters, repelled down, and that a special agent met him at the bottom with clothes, false passport and he escaped to Switzerland. Another theory is that he had inside help and the Germans wanted him to escape because Giraud was an enemy of DeGaulle and if was free, there would dissention. The French claim it was Resistance who helped him. But after only two years, he died in airplane crash in North Africa.” (I’m thinking, murder???? What a film!)
In May 1945, the 20 soldiers (more like police) here waved a white flag to welcome the Russians. “They came with art experts. The Soviets confiscated the art, but when Stalin died in 1953 and Khruschev wanted to have détente, they and gave back the art.”
“It is a masterpiece of engineering, of architecture,” Gerold, who has a background in civil engineering, tells us.
I am grateful that we have about 40 minutes to explore on our own, and I go into a marvelous exhibit about the history of this place and this area housed within the castle (a treat to see inside).
We walk down from castle the through the four gates (coming up, we used the modern elevator). Really wonderful.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It doesn’t take long to appreciate CroisiEurope’s small-ship river cruise concept, and how, since its founding 40 years ago, it has grown into fleet of 55 ships sailing 170 itineraries in 37 countries.
CroisiEurope offers an outstanding onboard experience, marvelous river cruise itineraries through Europe, the Mediterranean and as far flung as Asia and Africa, and an all-inclusive pricing policy that affords exceptional value for money. (The mega-ship cruise lines use the tag “all-inclusive” but nickel-and-dime for drinks, shore excursions and the like). On CroisiEurope, the excursions offered in each destination, the wines and beers and cocktails, are in fact included at no extra charge (okay, the exception are premium liquors you might choose to order).
The ship, the MS Elbe Princesse, specially designed to navigate the low-draft canals and Elbe River, which carries me on an eight-day river cruise from Prague to Berlin, is delightful.
The excursions are for the most part very well done – they even arrange our own English-speaking guide for the four of us who are not French – though I would have preferred more time to explore on my own after the excursions.
River cruising is one of the best ways to travel and see and do the most in maximum comfort, and CroisiEurope’s value-for-money concept puts this experience within reach of more travelers.
The Elbe Princesse, 95.4 meters long and 10.5 meters wide, is a perfect size, with 40 cabins accommodating 80 passengers – not too small to feel claustrophobic or crowded and not too large to feel overwhelmed and anonymous – a village versus a floating city. The ship – which was built in 2016 precisely to sail along these relatively shallow rivers and canals and slip through the locks and under the low bridges with mere inches to spare- is actually a 21st century paddleboat.
The main deck cabins have large windows, and the upper deck cabins have French balconies. The cabins have an amply sized private bathroom (shower!), a really comfortable bed, TV, windows and daily maid service.
The dining room on the main deck is surrounded by large panoramic windows that give fantastic views of the scenery as it flows by (though I spend most of the time sailing on the rooftop deck), so you don’t feel you are missing anything as you dine and the sun sets.
The lounge and bar on the stern of the upper deck has outdoor access so you can have a drink while enjoying the feel of the open air, and is where each evening there is some sort of entertainment.
The sun deck, with chairs and sun loungers, spans almost the full length of the ship with part under an awning, and is where I spend most of the time as we sail to enjoy unobstructed views of the scenery.
Equally important is the ambiance created by the crew – as friendly and fun with a ready smile as they are efficient and helpful. In fact, within no time, the wait staff anticipates your preferences – two coffees at lunch, one decaf after dinner; sparkling water with lime; who prefers red, white or sparkling wine.
I had just come from a “wild camping” and hiking trip in Utah, followed by my three days literally hiking around Prague, so this opportunity to just sail place to place, not have to pack/repack, be taken on marvelous sightseeing excursions, and have three fabulous meals served with such panache each day is a true vacation.
The first evening, after a welcome in which we are introduced to the crew, there is a marvelous dinner (CroisiEurope has a fixed menu for its four-course dinners and lunches; breakfast is buffet with the opportunity to have omelettes made to order), rather than the choice of two or three items for each, but special dietary requirements are satisfied and there is always enough to enjoy. The food is fabulous – flavorful but not too saucey, rich or seasoned, wonderful variety, stunning presentation and service – and wine and beer are served pretty much throughout the day (premium bottles are extra).
All but four of us on this particular cruise are French or French-speaking (half of CroisiEurope’s clientele are French and half are international).
The English speakers who become my dining and traveling companions include two ladies from Vermont (one is originally from Montreal) and a woman from Munich, Germany who wants to practice her English (she reads the New York Times every day so is more knowledgeable about American current events than most Americans), and me. We become the “four individuals.” They send an English-speaking guide along for our excursions just for us, rather than half the French-speaking guide re-translate everything.
On our first day, we are taken by bus up to the entrance of the Prague Castle for our tour (the day before, I hiked up). Our guide, Vladimir, points out aspects that I never would have thought about – including pointing out the windows of the famous 1618 Defenestration of Prague.
We return to the ship for lunch, and then go out again for a walking tour through the Jewish Quarter (a short walk from where the Elbe Princesse is docked, where we encounter a climate action protest just outside the university), to the Old Town Square.
We walk through a university where Vladimir points out where Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, mathematician, astrologer, natural philosopher and key figure in 17th century Scientific Revolution, who figured out the movement of planets around the sun, used to live and where meterological observations have been taken daily since 1775. (Interesting to note Kepler, a Lutheran, came to Prague after being banished from Graz for refusing to convert to Catholicism, and later was excommunicated by the Lutheran church). Kepler’s house on Karlova Street in Old Town where he lived 1600-1612 is now a museum.
We walk to the Charles Bridge (Karlova Most), stopping inside St. Francis of Assisi (where Mozart played the organ in 1702) and then over the Charles Bridge, where Vladimir points out the statue of St. John, the martyr we learned about at Prague Castle, and where people touch to guarantee their return to Prague). At my suggestion, we walk down to the Lennon Wall on Kampa Island. On our way back to the ship, Vladimir walks us through the garden at the Senate complex.
After dinner, there is a marvelous folk music band and dance troupe that performs on the ship.
The ship departs Prague early the next morning, at 6:30 am, and I’m up to watch. We immediately go through the first of 17 locks on our way to Berlin. The ship was literally built for this route –the ship is powered by what looks like two water wheels because the water levels are actually pretty shallow – and we make it through the lock with just a few inches on either side.
The sail is picturesque and peaceful, as we float by charming villages and farms – stunning scenes of yellow fields of canola (cultivated for biofuel) juxtaposed against the blue water and white fluffy clouds – a very leisurely morning.
The route for today is to dock at Melnik and be taken by bus to Litomerice (which I mentally note on the road sign is but 3 km down the road from Terezin, the concentration camp).
The highlights of Litomerice include the Renaissance architecture of the city square; Mostria Horna, a tower that rises up 20 meters on a hill 272 meters above the water; and a medieval castle of Litomerice that dates from the 13th century, then converted into a brewery and today a wine tasting facility and museum. It is across the street from the brewery we are here to visit.
The bus takes us back to the ship which has sailed ahead to Roudnice, driving by the Roudnice Palace where (as I learned in at the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague) the Lobkowicz family has a vast and important art collection, Unfortunately, we do not have time to visit.
As soon as we are back on board, the ship sails on to Litomerice (!), as the late afternoon sun casts golden light, where we dock overnight.
After a marvelous dinner (gazpacho, salad nicoise, quail with potato, asparagus, a cheese course and ice cream) so beautifully presented and served, we thoroughly enjoy the evening’s entertainment of Martin the Magician, who does “close magic” (sleight of hand). It is marvelous fun.
Sailing again in the morning toward Bad Schandau – which means we will be leaving the Czech Republic and entering Germany – we are invited to do “gymnastics” (actually calisthenics) on the rooftop deck. It’s fun, but I keep running over to the rail to shoot photos of the scenery. We are given the heads up that we will be sailing by some of the most beautiful scenery of the cruise between 11 am and noon. Indeed, the scenery as we sail through Swiss Bohemia and Swiss Saxony (very popular tourist areas) is stunning, with dramatic rock formations, cliffs, a castle.
This is the Bastei Rocks formation in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany. It is part of the Saxon Switzerland National Park, with 400 km of stunning landscape, so popular with hikers. Together with the Bohemian Switzerland in the Czech Republic, the region forms the Sandstone Mountains.
The only way we could tell when we sailed across the border between the Czech Republic and Germany was that a crew member changed the flag and (now that I think about it), a bell was rung. But it is hard to tell just looking out onto the shore, though we strain to read signs.
From the numbers of inns and cyclists and people we see along the shore (we often sail so close we can shout out greetings and people often wave to us), it is obvious that these are popular places to visit. Three of the most visited landmarks are Lillenstein Rock, Bastei Bridge, which we will see from the river, and Köningstein Fortress, which we visit after lunch.
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
There is a mystery to be unraveled, as intriguing as an Agatha Christie whodunnit, but without the murder and mayhem: How were the 26 passengers on the historic Maine Windjammer, Victory Chimes, who came from as far as California, Utah, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania connected? And who among us is the interloper, unconnected to anyone else? Is it coincidence or providence that brings us together?
The mystery provides marvelous intrigue during the course of the six-day cruise sailing from Rockland, Maine, among the islands of Penobscot Bay.
A windjammer cruise is as much about experiencing the thrill of the Great Age of Sail, when these mighty schooners sailed with the wind and waves to bring the timber, building stones and raw materials that built the nation – literally engines of the economy – as it is about reconnecting with the joys of simple pleasures as basic as conversation and song.
Song and storytelling, indeed, are the theme of this sailing (many Windjammer cruises have a theme or focus), which features music on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings by singer/songwriters Mike and Amy Aiken. And on another enchanting evening, several of us listen in as Mike and the multi-talented Chef Adam Travaglione (who is also a musician in addition to being a fabulous chef, raised in his family’s restaurant) compose a song honoring the legacy of the Victory Chimes. The Aikens have sailed up to Rockland on the boat they have lived on for the past 21 years from their homeport on the Chesapeake (a clue to solving the mystery).
Here in Maine are the largest concentration of these historic sailing ships in North America, nine of which are members of the Maine Windjammer Association, sailing out of Rockland and Camden.
Each has its own story, its own character. And each sailing is different, even on the same ship – the product of the serendipity and alchemy of people (passengers as well as captain and crew), weather (which often provides the drama, whether because of fog or squall), and where we wind up anchoring. There is no itinerary. The captain sets course following the wind, weather and whimsy.
Each afternoon, after we drop anchor in some cove or harbor, Captain Sam Sikkema, the newest owner/caretaker of the Victory Chimes’ 121-year legacy, gathers us around with a map, reviews that day’s route and tells us the back stories of the people and places where we have sailed. In the afternoon or the morning before we set out again, we tender to shore to explore. (Maine has some 3,000 islands and 7,000 miles of coastline.)
Deer Island; Little Island; Burnt Isle (privately owned, but we are allowed to walk a shoreline trail); Merchants Run – so named because of the deep water that accommodated the big ships carrying lumber, granite, cattle, which island residents would stockpile and sell to the bigger ships; Crotch Island – named for its notch – is half its original height because so much granite has been taken out to build buildings in New York City and federal courthouses.
We watch as fog literally rolls in and envelops the Victory Chimes anchored in Brooksville, as we tender back to the ship. Later, anchored in Pulpit Harbor on North Haven (which, Captain Sam tells us, was mentioned by the explorer Samuel Champlain in 1515 and the osprey nest on a rock that leads into the harbor), we again watch as fog rolls in, making everything around seem to vanish as if by magic.
The Victory Chimes – the largest in the Maine Windjammer fleet at 128 feet and the only three-masted schooner left in North America out of 4,000 built in the Great Age of Sail – was designed to be sailed by just three, which seems amazing considering how 10 of us line up to help haul in the line to raise the sail.
“Victory Chimes not only exemplifies the 19th and early 20th century development of large American wooden schooners intended primarily, though not exclusively, for the coasting trade on both east and west coasts, but she is the only surviving example of the ‘Chesapeake ram’ type and one of only two surviving examples of a three masted schooner in the United States.”
To give you an idea of just how big – and the challenge of keeping such a historic vessel sailing – the masts of Oregon Douglas fir are over 80 feet in height. “A straight tree 110 feet tall is required to get the necessary length a full 21 inches in diameter.”
There is a six-horsepower Sea Gear engine to raise the anchor (the same one that was installed in 1906 to replace the original donkey engine) but no propulsion engine, so now – as then – there is a yawlboat, Enoch, that pushes the ship when the wind is not sufficient. That innovation, indeed, is what made the Victory Chimes such a cash-cow for its original owner, who made back the $12,000 he paid to build her in 1900, in the first year.
Designed by JMC Moore, her stout build, simple rig and yawl boat made her one of the most profitable ships ever to sail. The Edwin & Maud (as it was originally named by its first Captain, Robert Riggen for his sons) was one of 30 “Ram” schooners – nicknamed for the way they “rammed through” the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and through the sea. Victory Chimes is the last one.
The schooner rigging – as opposed to the square rigging of ocean-going ships – was a major American innovation that allowed the vessels to be nimble and fast, and operated with a minimal number of crew for maximum profit for the owner.
Cruising each day, we get to help raise the sails, but it is really a marvel to watch the intricate ballet of the crew performing physically demanding tasks – even daring-do – such as climbing those 80-foot tall masts to repair rigging, or snapping to with agility, strength and precision, to reposition sails and rigging to sail us out of the way of a storm.
Captain Sam or Chief Mate Tripp shout commands or signal with hand gestures and the crew calls back, “Ready throat, ready peak. Mainsail halyards hoist away.”
We pull rapidly, the line flying through our hands, until the line finally strains. Then comes the order to “Heave,” to which we respond “Ho” as two crew members pull down vigorously on their lines. Heave. Ho. Heave. Ho. Then, “Throat make fast. Peak make fast.”
And finally the call to “ease up” which is our order to take two steps forward followed immediately by the command, to “drop the line”.
Things get exciting – and we passengers just stand quietly out of the way, watching in awe and fascination – as the crew races to maneuver Victory Chimes out of the way of a squall. Captain Sam shouts out with urgency: “Hard left. James start the boat. Ahead 2000. Take in the mizzen. Take in the outer jib, then take in everything else. Bring James his foulies!”
Captain Sam navigates far south, tacking to avoid the storm. “The crew mustered the hell out of that squall,” he says later with a combination of pride and relief.
I love the language of sailing – “Scandalize the fore main;” “Cast the jigger right off” – and this description of Victory Chimes’ rigging: “The traditional ‘ram’ rig was a standing jib, flying jib, staysail (also called a forestaysail), foresail, mainsail and spanker (or mizzen), which Victory Chimes carries today. The heads of the fore, main and mizzen sails are supported by gaffs and the feet are laced to booms.”
(It’s amazing how many everyday expressions come from sailing: “Above board.” “Learn the ropes.” “Know the ropes.”)
The Edwin & Maud worked carrying cargo through World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression and World War II. By 1944, still sailing as a merchant vessel out of Baltimore, Edwin & Maud monitored the anti-submarine mine field at Chesapeake Bay and kept a sharp lookout for German U-Boats.
But then, mechanization of the war effort gave rise to bigger ships that made the old wood ships uneconomical. Hundreds were burned or just left to decay.
By 1946, the Edwin & Maud ended her career transporting cargo – lumber, mainly, but also salt, pumpkins, fish scrap for fertilizer or anything to pay the freight – and was converted into a new concept of “dude cruiser” by Herman Knust of Chesapeake Bay Vacation Cruises.
Originally, where the cargo hold would have been, are now 19 cabins (15 with two-berths, two with four berths and one each with a single and a triple berth) with the main saloon and galley.
In 1954, Capt. Frederick “Boyd” Guild brought the ship to the Maine coast and renamed her Victory Chimes after a Canadian coastal schooner he admired as a boy that had been launched on Armistice Day.
She survived a succession of other owners: A Minnesota bank president wanted to sail it on Lake Superior but couldn’t get certified (his own bank foreclosed). It was purchased at auction in 1987 by Domino’s Pizza and renamed Domino Effect. When Domino’s sold off its fleet, Victory Chimes was slated to be sent to Japan to be converted into a restaurant.
Captain Kip Files and Captain Paul DeGaeta, who oversaw the Domino’s restoration, purchased the vessel to keep her from leaving the country, changed the name back to Victory Chimes and returned her to the Maine windjammer trade. Maine’s Legislature welcomed her back with a special resolution.
In 1997, Victory Chimes was named an American National Historic Landmark under the Maritime Heritage Program of the National Parks Service, becoming one of only 127 vessels with that designation. (Apparently, though, historic vessels are not entitled to tax credits as historic landmarks.)
I had sailed on the Victory Chimes some years ago in the exciting annual Schooner Race with Captain Kip Files, who was her caretaker for 24 years.
Now Captain Sam Sikkema has the weighty responsibility of being Victory Chimes’ owner/caretaker. He acquired Victory Chimes in 2018 and had a great season in 2019 before being locked down by COVID-19 in 2020 – for perhaps the first year in its long history. PPP funding helped them stay afloat.
Captain Sam has had quite a sea-going career that began with sailing dinghies with his father on Lake Michigan. He has sailed around the world, on every ocean, in schooners, square riggers, training ships, yachts, fishing vessels and commercial vessels, as well as worked with maritime museums and shipyards as a carpenter and a rigger. Over the years, he sailed as crew on Niagara, Bounty, Sorlandet, Denis Sullivan, Californian, Red Witch, Nina, Robert C Seamans, Spirit of Bermuda, Alabama, Highlander Sea, Columbia, Victory Chimes and the 1841 Whaling Ship Charles W Morgan (serving as Captain Kip’s Chief Mate). He has been Captain of the sailing vessels Friends Good Will, Lynx, Tole Mour, Harvey Gamage, and the training ship Picton Castle, taking her across the North Atlantic Ocean four times. And he sailed the world with his cat, Fiji, who delights us with her antics.
“Of all the places I’ve sailed, my favorite place to sail is right here on the coast of Maine.”
“I am truly honored to be the new caretaker of this vessel and hope to bring new life to her while holding true to the authentic nature of the experience you have enjoyed in the past,” Captain Sam writes to past Victory Chimes passengers.
Cara Lauzon joins Mike and Amy Aiken for their Friday evening concert, when we are anchored in Rockland Harbor.
But on an evening when they aren’t performing, song spontaneously breaks out – starting with commercial jingles of our Baby Boomer youth, then going to popular rock and roll songs (Broadway musicals are not allowed).
For the “A” personalities on board (Sherman, who sailed his own boat up from the Chesapeake to come on this ship, crewed a sailing ship to Antarctica; Karen and Eric were next traveling to Alaska to fish, others share stories about biking trips in Europe), a windjammer cruise provides a rare luxury to just chill out. But each evening when we anchor, Sherman is first to take out the small sailboat (as is Captain Sam), Ed grabs the rowboat, and Glenn jumps into the water for a swim.
We scan the waters for seals, porpoises, birds. The photographers among us are constantly looking out for picturesque scenes to capture, reminiscent of the great seascapes of Winslow Homer and J.M.W. Turner and the Maine landscapes immortalized by the Wyeths (which we can see in the Farnsworth Museum, in Rockland).
Even in the rain it is pleasant on board – the crew puts out awnings so we can still stay on deck if we want and the Victory Chimes, the largest of the Maine Windjammers, with a capacity for 40 passengers, has a fairly large mess area, which doubles as a kind of lounge when it is not set up for dining, where it is pleasant to spend time reading in the evening. There is always coffee and tea, fresh fruit out and whatever dessert is left over from lunch or dinner.
Eating aboard the ships is one of the distinct pleasures. I can imagine a slight rivalry among the ships for best cook, and Victory Chimes cook, Chef Adam, would easily be among the winners, especially with his freshly baked everything (not too sweet or rich). Chef Adam prides himself on researching alternatives for people who have diet restrictions.
There is a routine to the day around food: coffee is brought up to the deck at 7 am; the bell for breakfast is rung at 8 am, precisely after the flags are raised. Lunch is served at noon. Appetizers are brought up to the deck at 5 pm (there is a cooler for you to store your beer or wine, but wine is served with dinner), and dinner at 6 pm. There is always coffee and tea and fresh fruit available. Meals are served family style – breakfast in the galley, lunch and dinner mostly served on deck.
While every windjammer cruise is different, there are certain constants – the feeling of being transported back into this Golden Age of Sail and the traditional lobster dinner. Some of the captains do it on a secluded beach; others, like Victory Chimes, serve on board (as elegant as eating lobster can be) but each one is an unmatched culinary experience of the freshest, most succulent and sweetest lobster in unimaginable abundance that spoils you for lobster forever.
The hours spent sailing are relaxing and chilling out – like a floating beach holiday – reading, playing games like backgammon, scrabble. A group is doing macrame (usually there are knitters or knotters). But a main activity is just chatting, which is key to solving the mystery of what brought all of us together on this particular cruise.
By the time we depart – having celebrated birthdays and anniversaries as if we have always been joined – Diana has thoroughly investigated and charted the connections, solving the mystery: Just about everybody – through college roommates, music, book club, Philly folk festival, sailing, childhood friendships, neighbors and family, is somehow directly or indirectly connected to the Aikens. Who is the interloper? Me. (See her diagram.)
You stay overnight on Victory Chimes at the dock before departing Rockland (giving me time to enjoy Rockland and an outdoor Blues festival). On return, you depart usually by 10 am, giving you time to see the sights in Rockland – the not-to-be-missed Farnsworth Museum of Art and Homestead (www.farnsworthmuseum.org); walk the three-quarter mile long breakwater to the Rockland Lighthouse, and visit the Lighthouse Museum. If you overnight in the area (there are lovely B’n’Bs like the LimeRock Inn where I stayed on a prior visit), visit the Owl’s Head lighthouse (www.lighthouse.cc/owls/) and the Transportation Museum, both in Owl’s Head.
Definitely make time to visit the Farnsworth Museum, an absolute gem of an art museum with an extraordinary collection of Wyeths – NC, Andrew and Jamie. Reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown, it is presently showing stellar exhibits (all on through December, except for “Parallel Visions”, an astonishing exhibit matching Andrew Wyeth’s paintings with George Tice’s photos, which ends in October to make room for the Farnsworth’s annual holiday display), showcasing Maine’s role in American art. Key exhibits include “Betsy’s Gift: The Works of N.C., Andrew, and Jamie Wyeth,” “Women of Vision,” “Betsy Wyeth, Partner and Muse,” and “Transforming the Ordinary: Women in American Book Cover Design,” (Farnsworth Art Museum, 16 Museum Street, Rockland, ME 04841, 207-596-6457, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.farnsworthmuseum.org).
For 2021, the Victory Chimes is offering 3, 4, 5, and 6-night cruises through Sept 28.
By Karen Rubin Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
If you want to see how America came to be, travel along the Erie Canal. A marvel of engineering when it was opened in 1825, the canal, which spans 353-miles from Albany to Buffalo, creating a water highway for commerce from the Midwest through New York City to the rest of the world, remains a dazzling achievement. But it was also the artery and an engine for invention, innovation, economic development, and ultimately social and political movements. Bike along the Erie Canalway (now virtually uninterrupted and part of the 750-mile Empire State Trail; there are several bike tour companies that offer inn-to-inn bike trips), but to really get the sense of it, float along the canal, tying up at the small towns and major cities that the canal birthed, and see unfold before you all the major social and economic movements that made America: immigration, labor, abolition and civil rights, women’s rights.
A few years ago, I had that opportunity, and in this time when people are shunning cruising because of the coronavirus pandemic but embracing RVs, renting your own self-skippered, specially-designed Lockmaster canal boat offers the best of those worlds. Founded decades ago as Mid-Lakes Navigation by Peter Wiles who designed the Lockmaster canalboats and was a significant force in repurposing the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use, the company, Erie Canal Adventures, is now in the hands of Brian Kennan, and . And even though you are still in New York State, the sights and experiences are as interesting and exciting as sailing the canals of Europe.
The company has made accommodations for COVID-19 – sanitizing the compartments so that there is a tape over them until the passengers arrive; instead of cooking utensils and “hard goods” being kept on the boat, they are taken off after each trip, sanitized and provided to guests in a sanitized tote when they arrive.
The orientation is still done on the water – the guide wears mask and gloves – to take you through one of the canal locks (thrilling), but the orientation that would have been done in the cabin is now offered by video.
Bikes are still provided but they are taken off the boat after each cruise, sanitized and replaced for each trip.
This part of New York State is already in Phase 4 – meaning that there is indoor and outdoor dining (with social distancing), many of the museums and attractions have reopened like the George Eastman Museum and the Strong Museum (with limits on capacity). In the various canal towns, you won’t have any trouble finding groceries or restaurants. And New York State has been successful containing the spread of illness and turning from the worst infection rate to the lowest in the country, because New Yorkers have scrupulously adhered to using masks and social distancing. (Now, to prevent any reemergence, the state is imposing a 14-day quarantine on visitors from states where COVID-19 rates are surging.)
I am at the helm of a 41-foot canal boat, a boat so enchanting and lovely, it turns heads and evokes waves, smiles, and snapped photos as it chugs pleasantly along at a top speed of 6 mph.
From this vantage point, I can appreciate this marvel of engineering, of grit and ingenuity the Erie Canal was, the vital role it played in the United States’ emergence as an Industrial giant in the 19th century and a dominant economic power in the 20th century.
There is no place in the United States like the Erie Canal, and no experience like having your own self-skippered canal boat – our floating home for the week – and a bicycle with which to explore the towns that were literally birthed by the canal. And to a New York City kid, seeing this bucolic countryside is a revelation. (“This is New Yawk!”)
It is extraordinary and thrilling to travel on the 363-mile long Erie Canal that slices through New York State and played such a vital part in the nation’s history, especially as we go through locks that are filled for us, and under bridges that must be lifted for us to pass.
Most of all, it lets us explore and appreciate the extraordinary innovation and ingenuity that developed because of the Erie Canal, the villages and towns, the factories and businesses that developed, and how the canal turned New York City into a global financial capital, and united the East with the West, how it funneled thousands of immigrants who populated the Midwest.
This is a true adventure. One where there are new discoveries, new insights, new perspectives formed with every new encounter. The Erie Canal birthed these places and now we see how they are being reborn, revitalized.
Setting off on our first morning, I have rarely felt that exhilarating sense of being so fancy free – to not have a set itinerary or schedule or even know where I am going or what I will see, but to have the power and ability just go where your curiosity leads. It is a marvelous.
We had trepidation about navigating the boat – a 41-foot long houseboat, like a floating RV – docking and most intriguingly going through the locks along the canal. But when we arrive, we get a two-hour orientation – every aspect about operating the boat, plugging in to electricity and water; how to turn on the engine, the stove, the shower, flush the toilet; how to recharge the batteries by running the engine in neutral; how to operate the radio and the correct protocol when contacting bridge and lock operators to “request passage”.
We are taken on a “shake-down” cruise that includes going back and forth through a lock. We are provided with a chart book and a handy sheet that lets you approximate how many hours between ports (important to keep track of the hours the lift operator is available).
Key advice: “Don’t approach anything faster than you would care to hit it.” The steel-hulled boat is powered by a 50 horsepower diesel engine; its top speed is 6 mph, and it weighs 11 tons “so you can’t get into trouble,” we are told.
The canal boat is outfitted with just about everything you might need – from ponchos to potholders to paper towels. There is even a grill and BBQ tools and canisters of propane. There are safety devices, a tool kit, even a sewing kit.
Our boat, the Canadice, is 41 feet long and can sleep 4 people (one double bed and two bunk beds in the galley; a well designed galley kitchen with small refrigerator and freezer; a shower; a table and sitting area in the bow), suitable for a family; the largest Lockmaster can accommodate 6 adults.
Within moments, the thrill of what this is all about floods over me: This is a real adventure, where have to do everything yourself, not have it done for you, make decisions.
As we sail along, I reflect on how lovely this boat is: the gorgeous knotty pine wood detailing; the varnished wood seats and a railing that makes for a back rest as you hold the tiller, brass and varnished wood. The cabin is beautiful knotty pine. It has a canvas canopy over the helm and even on a hot day, the breezes as we travel are delightful. The bow has screens with plastic and canvas that zip and snap easily so we can close everything up in the event of rain and a table that can even be moved inside.
The design for the Lockmaster came from Peter Wiles, Sr., who was a key architect of the transition of the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use. He had a small tour boat business on Skaneateles Lake and went to England to see the self-skippered canal boats that operated on the Thames, and brought back the concept for boats that he would design and build here.
Wiles took the charm and the traditional design but adapted the boat to the Erie Canal, with a wider (roomier) beam, mostly flat bottomed and do not have a keel (the Erie Canal is only about 12-feet deep and is actually filled and drained each season). He founded the MidLakes Navigation company which, when we visit, is run by his children, Sarah and Peter Wiles (the company has since been acquired and renamed Erie Canal Adventures).
We soon get the hang of piloting the boat, and after a couple of hours sailing, we come to Fairport, a most charming town, with shops and restaurants right along the canal. It is a picture-perfect model of revitalization.
Fairport did not exist before construction of the Erie Canal dried up a swamp and produced a “fair port” for travelers. “Commerce thrived as entrepreneurs turned ideas into products,” says one of the best guides to this portion of the canal, “100 Must See Miles”
One of these entrepreneurs was Henry Deland who had the idea to produce baking soda from wood ash. The building right on the canal and next to the bridge where there is now a delightful Towpath Cafe was where Deland manufactured his baking soda which was transported by canal to international markets.
Just up Main Street, on the south side of the canal, I find the Deland Mansion, built in 1876. After Deland made his fortune in Fairport, he bought land and founded Deland, Florida in 1876, which he thought to build into a citrus, agricultural and tourism center. He sold his northern business and hired people to clear land, lay out streets, erect buildings and recruit settlers, most from upstate New York; he lost his fortune in an orange freeze in 1885.
The mansion is magnificent: Second Empire style with tower, porches, fireplaces, it was one of the grandest private residences in western New York. After several private owners, including the Clark Family, the Deland Mansion opened as the Green Lantern Inn sometime after 1928, and served as a restaurant, speakeasy, rooming house, banquet hall.
The mansion is across from the First Baptist Church, which was built at same time as Deland built his mansion.
Each of the canal towns we visit has done a superb job of using historical markers and photos to illustrate the “then and now.” As we follow them, it is like a story that unfolds.
At Fairport, there is a marker that shows how Old South Main Street “yields to urban renewal: Commercial block changes from necessities to niceties.”
The beauty of the canal boat is that you can organize the day around what you want to do – whether it is to just hang out in a town – perhaps visit a museum. Our main purpose is to position us to bike the towpath. And so we tie up the Canadice at Fairport, take down our bikes from the roof, and head out about 7 miles to the next major town, Pittsford, along the canal bikeway. It is one of the prettier rides, with lovely homes on the canal.
Just before Pittsford, we cross over a mile-long section called “The Great Embankment.” This is the highest canal embankment, actually built over the Irondequoit Creek which rushes through a tunnel under the canal.
In the earliest days of the Erie Canal, the embankment thrilled both onlookers and passengers as boats seemed to travel in midair over the mile-wide valley created by the Irondequoit Creek. The canal has been rebuilt three times since it originally opened in 1823. The original canal was a mere four-feet deep and 40-feet wide; three times it was enlarged, made deeper (first 7 feet deep and 70-feet wide, then 12-feet deep and 120-feet wide), and in many cases, moved entirely to make a better route as boats became motorized.
This is our first introduction to the engineering of the Erie Canal. I really hadn’t even thought of the canal as having a false bottom, that the canal is actually drained (around November 1), and refilled (around May 1) each season.
The Great Embankment is a revelation, but we will find even more dramatic examples of engineering, as we explore by bike and boat.
We return to Fairport, and prepare to get underway again – actually boating back to Pittsford.
It’s just passed 6 pm when we leave Fairport.
But to leave Fairport, you have to go under a lift bridge, and Fairport’s is very distinctive: it is constructed with no right angles.
There are 16 lift bridges on the Erie Canal, all of them in the west, and the eastern-most one is here at Fairport. The bridges are delights to look at – they have ornate towers and it is wonderful to watch how they work.
We have been instructed on the etiquette of using the radio to ask the lock tender to lift a bridge or open a lock. Some are covered by operators handling multiple bridges, so you might be told to standby and wait for the operator to get back to the bridge. (take note of the hours of operation – westward from Macedon toward Buffalo, the locks are open 7 am to 10 pm; eastward to Lake Oneida in Syracuse (the boats do not go all the way to Albany), the lifts operate 7 am to 7 pm).
We tie up for the night at Port of Pittsford Park, right below the Main Street Bridge (there is no charge but some of the ports along the canal charge up to $15 to overnight).
We stroll the charming streets (and there are some gorgeous residential streets as well), and see what an affluent community Pittsford is. Old money and new money poured in over the last 15 years to revitalize the downtown area.
Pittsford was settled in 1789 by Revolutionary War veterans, but it was the Erie Canal that first brought prosperity to the town, because it facilitated transport to market of tons of heavy gravel from the nearby hills.
We see stunning Victorian-era buildings – the Phoenix Hotel, built in 1812 in the Federalist style, 1812 to serve the Erie Canal and Turnpike trade, restored 1967 as an office building across from the Town Hall, dated 1890. There is also the Canal Lamp Inn, a stunning Victorian, right beside the canal bridge. (Self-guided walk through Pittsford, villageofpittsford.org).
Just minutes after we finish our picnic dinner of pizza and get inside our boat and close the hatches, it starts to pour. We are cozy inside. We hear the patter of rain as we watch a DVD on our computer.
The star attraction – and the major character – in this travel epic is the Erie Canal, itself. The historic markers we come upon are like chapters in the story, and as our trip unfolds, our appreciation of what the canal was, what it represented, and the impact it had, grows.
All 11 Lockmasters in Erie Canal Adventures’ fleet sail from Macedon, near Rochester, NY, and with enough time, you can cruise some 200 miles from Buffalo to Lake Oneida in Syracuse along the canal. Besides sailing along the Erie Canal (as far as , you can also sail on other waterways, taking spurs south to the Finger Lakes, or north up the Oswego canal to Lake Ontario.