I recently wandered far from my usual roost in Malibu viewing city-and-land-scapes projects and pronouncements in southern California to savor the storied settlements and scenes of the romantic Rhine. Yes, it was a welcomed vacation.
It was also for me a trip back in time, having roamed the back roads there decades ago as a journalist and briefly as a test driver for Audi Motors, thanks to my former affiliation with the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; design being my passion, then and now.
Happily this time there was no need to tightly grip a steering wheel to bounce around the European countryside as if in a pinball machine, blinking intermittently at the control panels and passing scenery, sightseeing at a glance.
The exacting, encumbering car was contentedly forsaken for a river longship, where I had to open the suitcase happily just once for a week’s cruise, and be able to enjoy all at leisure.
There would no driving for me, thanks to Viking River Cruises, as its sleekly designed craft plied down the serene river from Basel, Switzerland, beneath a parade of legendary castles and cities, to Amsterdam.
The castles, of course, were a highlight, each with a rich history, fabled or not, and together for a significant stretch of the river a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Each day the Longship docked at a succession of distinctive towns and cities, my wife and I among the friendly, mostly well traveled 190 or so passengers to be greeted by resident guides for engaging free tours of historic neighborhoods.
This included the more modest Alsatian medieval village of Colmar, with its web of 9th century streets; 13th century Gothic churches and17th century half-timbered houses. Couldn’t help but buy hand made candies there.
And I could not resist the pastry or the architecture in Strasbourg, a city distinguished by a magnificent Gothic cathedral dating back to 1176, as much as having been under repeatedly recurrent French and German rule.
To an architectural and planning critic, it was heartening to see how pride has taken root in the continuing local preservation efforts, with its obvious communal and commercial benefits.
Other stops of note was Heidelberg and its majestic castle overlooking the historic university town, and in particular, the bustling, beer consuming city of Cologne, with its landmark towering Gothic cathedral.
I, of course, went rogue, and visited Museum Ludwig there, with its impressive collection of modern art, including raw German expressionism and a wealth of Picasso’s.
There were side trips to the commanding Marksburg Castle, the only castle in the Rhine Valley never having been besieged, undoubtedly because of its strategic siting and daunting steps. They were a challenge.
More accessible was the rococo Augustusburg Palace, lovingly designed and lavishly built by a German archbishop, and now also a UNESCO site.
Then it was on to the Netherlands, for a tour of some select windmills. But on the way was an impressive riverfront view of the broad shouldered city of Rotterdam. Prominent was the graceful Erasmusbrug Bridge, known in engineering circles as “the swan.”
It was a modern touch to a historic rich river, before cruising on to Amsterdam, which deserves its own commentary, and then on to Scandinavia, and eventually back to my waterfront Point Dume.