We are standing under umbrellas on the bank of the Rhine, before us the boat-with-no-name. One has been painted across the bow, but we’re not supposed to say it yet – not until the bottle breaks.
The bottle is a Domaine Chandon 2007, from a French vineyard in Australia. If all goes right it will hit the spot where the hull cuts inward, maximizing impact.
“Do you think it’ll break?” says my lady, Kate.
“Hope not. I’d hate to have to swim.”
She rolls her eyes.
We’re here for the maiden voyage of the Panorama – six days down the Rhine and Mosel Rivers with Avalon Waterways. And it’s sort of our maiden voyage, too: the first time we’ve been alone since our son was born, our first time in Germany, our first-ever riverboat cruise – and we’re not sure what to expect.
The Panorama is a kind of travelling hotel: You unpack once, settle in and it takes you to all these places. A cursory glance at the itinerary suggests lots of castles and alcohol, and towns so quaint you wish you’d been born in them. You dock at some and venture in, then head back to the boat before it sails. There’s cocktail hour in the bar, then dinner and drinks in the restaurant and after-dinner drinks with live music in the lounge. Tonight it’s a classical string trio from Belgium.
Kate sleeps as we float downriver. She misses our son, but last night was the first night she’s slept in two years. Apparently, she’s got a taste for it. Since there are long stretches of the Rhine that are more functional than scenic, the boat sails at night. Plus it’s best to nurse a hangover on solid ground. That’s not always as easy as you’d think.
The morning after the christening, we dock in the town of Rudesheim and promptly board a choo-choo. For those who’ve never been to the Rhineland, a choo-choo is a diminutive, toy-like train that doesn’t run on tracks. This one takes us to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet.
Siegfried, I can only assume, was the original incarnation of Kurt Weill, Tim Burton and Willy Wonka. His “cabinet” is, in fact, a museum full of elaborately disturbing, no doubt historically fascinating, automated musical contraptions. I’m sure I’d retain some of those historical facts if it weren’t for all the robot monkeys in dresses, spinning violins and our hypnotically terrifying Helena Bonham Carter-esque tour guide. The hangover doesn’t help.
Directly from Siegfried’s Cabinet, we’re led to a courtyard tavern, where the sun slides down off ivy-laden eaves and bosomy women in frilly frocks pour local brandy and just-brewed coffee into glasses topped with clouds of fresh cream.
“Wow,” says Kate. “This is almost as good as sleeping.” Everyone sings, our hangovers gone, and then we return to the boat.
Between lunch in Rudesheim and dinner in Koblenz there are dozens of castles, up on the hills with their towers and turrets, those hanging oval cages where prisoners dangled like parakeets. Out on the sundeck the weather is downright surreal: sun and wind, cloud and rain, then sleet and drifting rainbows. The light is glowing, macabre, the cliffs severe and close; so many castles, I feel like a goldfish. I stand on deck and watch the fairy tale floating by.
I could stay on this boat a long, long time. I like the fresh civility of it: a new town every day, the easy camaraderie of our shipmates. The small number of passengers and size of the craft are a necessary and essential part of the experience: Locks restrict clearance to a matter of inches. This ship is designed to embrace the intimacy while maximizing space and elegance. The floor-to-ceiling windows in our room slide so wide our cabin becomes an open-air deck.
As Kate sleeps, I try to avail myself of the on-board amenities. I have the fitness centre mostly to myself. The bar is a bit more crowded. And then there’s the giant chessboard with large, unwieldy kings and queens. Every riverboat apparently has one, but I don’t know why. Not once have I seen someone move a piece. I start to ask people if they want to play giant chess. They wince and tilt their heads apologetically. Perhaps it’s time I got off the boat.
We dock in Cochem – a town so accustomed to flooding, they mark the high-water level each year on the sides of hotels, as if the Mosel River were a mythical toddler growing up. In 1993 she sprouted to the height of King Kong. Even last year she was taller than Big Bird. At flood level are shops, restaurants and the requisite statue of an honest goat being killed in a wine press to prove it wasn’t lying (or something like that).
The schools and castles are high on the hills, where the views are as fantastical as the facts. In the opulent Reichsburg castle there is a used suit of armour eight feet tall. In the same room sit ancient pewter vessels that once held the daily allotment of wine for monks and nuns: five litres for him and a mere three for her.
It turns out that this – on every tour in every town – is a common theme: how much they used to drink, those wacky Rhinefolk of yesteryear. Our first night was spent sailing from Frankfurt to Mainz, a cool little city that owes its soul (even more than most) to wine: This is where Gutenberg turned a wine press into the printing press and published the first-ever bible. We saw it under glass in a dimly lit room. It’s the perfect thing to ponder when you’re back on board, just in time for cocktail hour.
The ship is heading for the city of Cologne, a medieval German town made French-like and famous by an Italian perfume pioneer. As you glide downriver, a drink in hand, the twilight pouring from every direction, your expectations appear in a new perspective. You see gentle Germans and drunken nuns, giant knights and towns under water, martyred goats that have been turned into wine and glockenspiels that play themselves.
And then the thought occurs to me: Maybe I, too, should get some sleep.
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