Friday, November 6, 2015

Day 15: Wine and Rhine

Our last full day in Germany, so we decided to do it up in style: a full day tour of the Rhine Valley – a UNESCO heritage site – including lunch, a river cruise, and wine tasting of the local German wines! The vast majority of the day lived up to expectations, though the wine-tasting and lunch left something to be desired.  Details in good time…

The tour had a rather inauspicious start when we found the office where we were to be picked up.  Remember that sketchy part of Frankfurt near the central station? The tour office was right in the middle of it, and I briefly wondered whether we had been the victim of some sort of online scam when booking the tour.  The arrival of Mike, our tour guide, and his luxury mini-coach with leather bucket seats assuaged my concerns.  His entertaining banter as he commented on our respective homes – Canadian politics, Californian drought, and French demographics – gave me full confidence we were in for a good culmination to this vacation.

Our first stop was an optional chair-lift to descend into the Rhine River Valley below. About half the group took the lift while the rest of us – 6 people – spent time with a herd of reindeer, and came to the river’s edge by coach.

The restaurant for lunch, Anker, was the ultimate in kitsch. Not only were the expected trinkets and knick-knacks everywhere – anchors, miniature ships and the like – but every metal surface was enhanced with decorative leaves, lights, and every manner of adornment. In a word, it was hideous.

I’m starting to grow accustomed to German abruptness, but I was immediately unimpressed by the restaurant service, as well. I can forget, if not forgive, a “mis-interpretation” when I ask for a glass of water to drink, and instead get a $4.00 (small) bottle.  It’s an unscrupulous habit, but the restaurant is not expecting repeat business from these tours.  When the server brings me a meat dish, and I say “Oh, I asked for vegetarian”, I am not expecting the response “No, they only told us four vegetarian meals”. She left the plate in front of me, as though I might change my mind. (Had she been reading this blog, she might know that is a legitimate possibility, but not for some uninspired chicken.) Eventually, I received a vegetarian meal instead, though I was vaguely surprised that didn’t occasion another surcharge on the meal.

My eagerness for the subsequent wine-tasting – usually a favoured experience – was subdued when I learned it was being hosted by the same restaurant, though we had to exit and re-enter through another door.  This room was equally kitschy, though Mindy and I made the best of it with our own table.

Four thimbles of wine were set in front of each of us.  You know the disposable shot glasses that hold exactly one ounce when filled to the brim?  That’s what we had for wine-tasting, with each plastic cup filled exactly one-quarter full. In an attempt to salvage some feeling of wine tasting, I managed to spread each quarter-ounce over three sips; needless to say, there was no opportunity to examine the wine, consider its aroma, or anything else that comprises a traditional structured wine tasting. Though we were the only patrons of the restaurant, the staff were too busy to involve themselves in the wine-tasting at all.  Mike, our guide, walked us through it based on the number of times he has witnessed it as a guide on this tour. I must admit, he didn’t do a bad job, given what was at his disposal.

The redeeming aspects of the wine tasting included the fourth sample – German ice wine, which was really quite good, and the fact I felt absolutely no compulsion to purchase any of the wine we had come to taste. Not only is that latter point good for the wallet, Mindy and I have already reached our collective allowance of liquor to bring home through customs!

Underwhelmed and not sufficiently tipsy from the wine, I was starting to wonder whether the whole tour would be a disappointment.  As we walked from the restaurant to the pier for our river cruise, things started to pick-up. The boat coming round to pick us up looked a far sight better than the restaurant we had just left…

…and there was a castle perched on the far side of the river, already in sight!

The cruise through the beautiful Rhine Valley carried us by several more castles and quaint villages; the castles were the vestiges of the robber-barons who once controlled this valley, and the villages were the successes that persisted once those barons were stripped of their power.

Where there was no town hugging the shores of the Rhine, the hill-sides leading to the river were lined with vineyards – the leaves turning yellow and deep red in the autumn. Periodically, we saw blue nets lining the grape-vines, protecting the grapes in hopes of a winter harvest for ice-wine. (While conditions for ice-wine in Canada seem pretty reliable, last winter Germany did not get sufficient days of cold temperatures for ice-wine until February, by which time many of the grapes were beyond salvation. Perhaps that accounts for the steeper price of German ice-wine, up to 120 Euros – about $200 CAD – per small bottle.)

The Rhine River is over 1500 kilometres long from its source in Switzerland to where it meets the North Sea, and we only cruised a few kilometres.  Nonetheless, we saw part of what is generally accepted as the most picturesque part of the river valley.  Given Germany’s drought this past summer, water levels along the Rhine are so low that ships are having great difficulty navigating the more shallow parts of the river, so it’s possible that even with more time we wouldn’t have cruised much farther. A minor disappointment for tourists, the shallow waters are wreaking havoc on barge shipping in Germany.  Barges are only able to accommodate a portion of their usual loads, and are suffering the economics of losing scale.

As the cruise concluded, we resumed our bus journey to the statue Germania, a monstrous monument to the founding of the German Empire in 1871, overlooking the Rhine Valley.

By this point in the tour I was starting to grow tired of the persistent tardiness of one diva in our group, and so I enjoyed some quiet satisfaction when at the appointed time Mike started up the bus and began pulling out of the parking lot, with Ms. Diva still wandering.  Some people, it seems, are more patient than I am, and when a chorus of voices called out to Mike to stop, that we were missing someone, he looked truly embarrassed and confused. “But this is the time I asked everyone to be back on the bus…?” I could see the German in him didn’t understand this.  I told myself that I would have let him know she was missing once we were a few hundred metres down the street….

Last but not least on our tour, we stopped at a little town that hugged the Rhine for some souvenir shopping.  Mindy and I were off to find chocolate and booze, as I was still suffering whatever is the opposite of buyer’s remorse, due to the lack of wine-shopping earlier in the day.  We found the chocolate, but not the booze – at least, none that was both appealing and at a reasonable price-point. More than a consolation, as the sun set, the view along the river was magical.

Though we didn't buy souvenirs, we certainly got an amusing memory as we walked around the town eating our chocolate.  We found a barber's shop that, apparently, includes refreshments as part of the deal.  I guess you'd want to drink from the bottle, as a half-litre glass may catch bits of hair...

Back on the bus, Mike brought us safely back to Frankfurt, lulled into a snooze by oldies in English on the radio. (To be clear, we were the ones lulled into the snooze.  I have every reason to believe that Mike was awake and alert while driving.) Having subsisted largely on chocolate and cheese through the afternoon, Mindy and I decided to revisit What the Food for our last meal in Germany.  In a perfect world, I would be eating traditional German(-like) fare at Bodhi on our last evening, but as Bodhi was in another city many hours away, WTF made for a very close second.  Besides, the lighter food was really what I needed.

Back at the hotel for our last night, our room was a hive of activity as we divided the heaviest and bulkiest souvenirs for packing, and prepared travel documents.  There was a moment of panic as I spoke to someone in the hotel lobby, who told me that the Frankfurt airport was on strike and all flights were cancelled.  When I probed, I learned that he meant all Lufthansa flights were canceled, as the strike was specific to Lufthansa. Phew!! Having confirmed the airport shuttle for tomorrow morning and set aside clothes for the day, we settled in for our last night on this trip.  While I won’t be sleeping in my own bed tomorrow night, a hotel in Toronto will feel decidedly more like home.

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