I love this time of the day on the longship Ingvi. At 5:30 a.m. the ship is quiet. The brand-new air circulation system whirs softly, Zlatoje Vukasovia the Serbian night auditor sets hot croissants and muffins next to the coffee machine (and is eager to try Google Glass), and the Internet speed is finally adequate for publishing a video from two days ago. “Probably because everyone is sleeping,” explains Zlatoje, whose name has the word gold in it. “Everybody call me ‘Goldie,'” he says. He is a huge man in impeccable dark suit and, as is the case with the entire crew, apparently blessed with a natural friendliness that transcends nationality.
This is only the fourth trip that Viking River Cruises’ Ingvi has taken with passengers, and the German captain seemed wrapped tight the other night while waiting for parts to arrive from Basel, Switzerland. The air conditioning and hot water systems were down, and the ship-wide dining room got a little stuffy. I’m sure the plan hadn’t been to turn our trip from Basel to Amsterdam into a shakedown cruise, but ah well. By yesterday morning our cabin temperature was fine, and there was plenty of hot water for a good shower.
I’ve been recording snippets of video with Google Glass and taking lots of iPhone photos, so the frustration of snail-like Internet speed has been driving me crazy. From past experience, I know that it’s good to stay current with a trip’s impressions on the blog, posting daily. Otherwise your memory presents you with a blur over several days that goes something like this: We are on this long ship with about 180 other people, cruising down the Rhine River, stopping each day at a different place to take highly professional tours of the local environs–the Black Forest, World War II battlefields, and Strasbourg so far–eating gourmet food in manageable quantities, watching the river roll by through our high horizontal cabin window, and checking the Viking Daily for what’s next.
Ingvi docked here in Mannheim, Germany, in the middle of the night. That might
of HAVE been when we felt a substantial jolt from our cabin on the first level. Our bed is below the water line, and when I stand at our window, I am looking across the river from a very intimate angle. The window is the same size each day but presents an ever-changing view of the opposite shore, barges going the other way, and the steep, concrete walls of locks as we drop down to a new level of the river.
This morning’s shore excursion will take us by spiffy, huge tour buses to Heidelberg, where we will tour a castle, naturally. We wear smart audio gizmos like you see in museums, enabling us to hear the tour guide via ear buds even if we drift back from the pack, which I usually do. I’m actually not a huge fan of the guided tours, because of the regimentation. An old family joke mimics a camp director at some dreaded day camp that we attended as children saying, “Come on, let’s go” in an irritating singsong voice. Our Viking guides are top-notch, but the basic set-up for me evokes herds of zombie tourists gazing in half-focus, missing most of what they see.
Of course in our group, you would see one particularly distracted male tourist wearing a South by Southwest cap, glancing up at 45 degrees at odd moments or standing too close to a dark wall looking at something no one else can see. That would be me, playing with Google Glass. The upward motion activates the screen, and it’s sometimes easiest to see what’s on the screen if you look at a plain dark background.
From the blur of what we’ve seen so far, I will dip in for some highlights. But first, another cup from the dream machine–café au lait, this time–and a round little sticky bun.
- The Cathedral Notre-Dame at Strasbourg yesterday was a mind-boggling tower of pink sandstone, soaring 406 feet over a city that has changed nationalities over and over, depending on the outcome of various wars. Tom and I had coffees at a café directly in front of the church yesterday morning. I can’t say that I found the cathedral beautiful, actually. It looks as if it needs a good cleaning, and the intricate design of the filigree seemed almost sinister to me. But you can’t help but feel awe at the scale of the work that went into its completion in 1439.
- Our guide, Craig Stirling, put his heart into telling the Audie Murphy story two days ago at the site of Murphy’s famous one-man stand against German tanks in a forest during World War II. Craig is from Australia originally. Love for a woman relocated him to Germany, and now he has become a passionate chronicler of the battles that raged around Colmar, France. After I recorded part of his talk at the site of Murphy’s heroics, we walked back to the bus chatting. What I didn’t realize was that our conversation was piped via the audio boxes to the rest of the group. “I heard this guy asking him to spell his name three times,” Darlene told me afterward, when we were in our seats on the bus. “Then I realized it was you, and I couldn’t keep listening.” Oops. I worked as a uniformed guide at Fort Ticonderoga in New York State one summer during college, so I know how tough it is to keep a tour’s spiel fresh, nevermind heartfelt and compelling. “For me, he was a Texas hero and an American legend,” Craig told the group. So kudos to Mr. Stirling for bringing the story of America’s most decorated World War II combat Soldier to life for busloads of tourists, decades after a bloody day in the woods of France.
- The Black Forest is no more black than the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Darlene grew up. But the forest is a beautiful area of steep mountain landscapes and picturesque chalets. We stopped on that day’s tour to see a cuckoo clock demonstration in a shop featuring hundreds of fantastic examples of clocks. We learned that the craft arose from the challenge of how to spend long, idle days in winter in a way that turned the abundance of wood into something marketable. Our Viking bus amazingly navigated narrow little streets in the villages we drove through on the way to the Black Forest. On the autobahn, our driver nimbly braked to avoid hitting a car pulling a trailer that lost a tire to a blowout.
Breakfast is now being served in the restaurant, so the sleepy part of the day has drawn to a close. Departure for Heidelburg is in 90 minutes, and I haven’t showered yet, so I will sign off from Mannheim. The Internet has returned to its crawl, so I hope this will actually show up sometime today for readers back home and elsewhere.