KITZEGEN / ROTHENBURG – 10 November
The Ama Reina is currently sailing through Franconia, land of the Franks, a province in the south of Germany. Franconians still identify strongly with their region – in shop windows and building doorways you see the red-and-white Franconian flag alongside the red-yellow-black German one… A reminder that unlike, say, France or Poland, Germany as a single entity is a relatively new concept, the territory now known ’Germany’ historically consisting of a conglomerate of separate states.
Unlike the steiner-guzzling, lederhosen-donning Bavarians, Franks have a reputation as a serious, grumpy people imbued with the Protestant work ethic. Nuremberg, for example, is a typical Franconian city. Yesterday we saw two more: Kitzegen and Rothenburg.
Josh and I opted out of the Kitzegen walking tour to go on a bike ride through the city – a thoroughly pleasant thing to do on a cool, melancholic grey day as the last of the autumn leaves fluttered to the ground. At one point we passed a small courtyard known as the Yard of Suffering, where in the 1500s a local governor of sorts ordered more than 50 citizens to be blinded with red-hot iron rods and cast out of the city – for reasons that weren’t clear in the brochure I read, though again, a horrific reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and the often bloody, brutish nature of life in the Middle Ages.
We saw the bright side of medieval life in Rothenburg, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Parts of the city look like a set for a Disney movie, but it never crosses the line into cliché/fakeness – and the authenticity of the city is apparent when you look closely, in the eroded stones and ancient, creaking wood. Rothenburg is full of the combination stone/painted timber houses that Germany’s renowned for, as well as mouth-watering apple strudel and schnapps – which is actually extremely strong and horrible stuff, very different to the sweet, fruity schnapps we know back in Australia.
It’s been interesting traveling through Europe 11 years on. Smartphones have completely changed the nature of sight-seeing – people now sight-see through their phones rather than their own senses. Nothing made this clearer than what I saw back at St Stephen’s in Vienna – there’s a grill you walk up to beyond which is the altar, and when I first visited there in 2004, most people would simply stand at the grill and look up and around in wonder, taking it all in. This time, everyone was just holding up their phones snapping photos as if they’re at a concert… Some of them literally stepped up to the grill, took a few pics, then, satisfied they’d captured something worth uploading to Instagram, ambled off – having never seen anything through their own eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I love the tech we have now, and I wish me and Paul had such devices when we did our trip… But this trip’s made me wonder if it hasn’t also taken something away from the sight-seeing experience, as we obsessively document our travel experiences rather than simply enjoying them.
Then there are the funny little things you forget – like how the Europeans call toilets ‘water closets’ (WC for short), and the fact you’re expected to tip at bars and restaurants – which I found kind of awkward and irritating at first, though I’m used to it now. Of course there’s also the driving on the right side of the road – easy to forget when you’re crossing the road and especially on our bike ride yesterday, where old habits could’ve put a quick and gruesome end to our adventures. The ship company even makes you sign a waiver before handing over the bikes, pretty much saying that if you get hit by a bus/fall into a canal/whatever, it’s your own goddamn fault.
MORE GERMAN TOWNS – 12 November
Been a big last few days. Wednesday night was a ‘dance night’ on board the ship which a bunch of us young people hijacked for our own partying purposes. There were long lines of shots; shirts wet with spilled alcohol; horrible photos that will hopefully never make it to the light of day… I even realised the burning sensation I’ve had in my throat all day is from the copious amount of cigarettes I smoked on the deck into the early hours. A floating retirement home by day, these occasional boozey nights are the Gen Y-ers time to make the ship their own – thoroughly enjoyable but also thoroughly exhausting, so that today was pretty much spent napping, wallowing in the pool and taking in the amazing sights as we sailed along the Rhine Gorge. Then recover just in time to attend an elegant dinner at the residence of Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, in her big royal mansion which devoid of people would have a bit of an Overlook Hotel feel… Stag heads on the walls, old paintings that look straight at you, and even a room painted top to bottom in deep, blood-gushing-out-of-an-elevator red.
My favourite part of the night was two piano interludes in between the three courses. To my delight the pianist chose to play mazurkas (Polish dances) and did so with exquisite skill, ‘exquisite’ not being a word I’d use normally but totally warranted in this instance. Listening to Chopin’s heart-tugging melodies in an elegant dining hall brought home the degree to which culture can permeate into one’s soul… Mazurkas in particular resonate with me in a way that’s difficult to explain for someone who’s spent practically his entire life in Melbourne, and it’s a powerful example of how an entire culture can be expressed through art… Because make no mistake, when you listen to Chopin – especially a mazurka or polonaise – you are listening to the sound of Poland. And however strange it may sound, it made me realise that whoever I end up marrying needn’t dig The Prodigy or enjoy driving to trance music, but she should definitely appreciate the delicate but profound beauty of a mazurka.
Last night was the Captain’s Dinner, the second-last night on the ship and easily the most rowdy to date. This time the crew – consisting almost entirely of Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians – were allowed to join us in the partying and man, they didn’t hold back. Initially me and Josh were not in the mood for any more festivities and even got as far as retreating to our cabin after dinner and changing into our jim-jams, but were eventually coaxed into the lounge where the party was already well underway, promising ourselves we’d have “just one or two drinks”. I then promptly plunged into Full Inebriation Mode, hit the dancefloor, downed a series of Jager-based drinks with one of the young Hungarian crew members then took her outside to the front deck for a prolonged pash in the freezing dark… With the consequence that I can now feel the first symptoms of a cold coming on just as we’ve arrived in rain-soaked Amsterdam. But the show must go on, and with Poland just around the corner, by God it will.