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Germany’s Disneyland for music geeks

By | Germany | No Comments

At Siegfried’s museum in Rüdesheim: “Your ears will be all eyes”

The Arizona Republic — August 14, 2016

RÜDESHEIM, Germany – The quirky and unique Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet isn’t just a Disneyland for music aficionados, computer nerds or history buffs.

It’s a playground for almost anyone who enjoys watching and hearing extraordinary contraptions make utterly splendid sounds.

Siegfried's Music Museum

Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet is set in a former 15th-century knight’s manor

The museum, set in a 15th-century former knight’s manor called Brömserhof in the German wine-producing village of Rüdesheim on the Rhine River, attracts about 140,000 visitors each year.  That’s 14 times the size of the local population.

Siegfried’s showcases about 350 mechanical instruments, making it one of the largest collections of self-playing instruments in the world.  Driven by rolls of sheet music and punch cards, some date back to the late 1700s.

From tiny music boxes to elaborate, automated orchestras complete with a band of 27 dolls and a miniature ballet dancer, most are in good working order and give credence to the museum’s fitting slogan:  “Your ears will be all eyes.”

I toured Siegfried’s on a drizzly and cool summer day along with about 150 fellow passengers on the Scenic Opal, which was docked on the Rhine about a 10-minute walk from the museum.  Indeed, a vast majority of the museum’s visitors are on Rhine-River cruises, which arrange private guided tours for their passengers.

Phonoliszt-Violina

A guide turns on the “Phonoliszt-Violina,” the museum’s most popular attraction

We were met at the door by the museum’s manger, Marlis Steinmetz, who was wearing a traditional German dress and hat typically worn at the beginning of the 1900s.  Steinmetz says Siegfried’s fascinates people of all ages who want to learn about music, technology and the role these instruments played in Germans’ lives.

“They like to see the forerunners of modern computers,” she says.  “They are really fascinated by it.  They like the atmosphere.  They like to see the past of music – how everything started.”

The museum is the creation of Siegfried Wendel, who bought and restored mechanical music instruments as a hobby.  There was so much interest in his collection, Wendel decided to open a museum in 1969, the first of its kind in Germany.  Now in his 80s, his collection has steadily grown over the past five decades, and so has the museum’s popularity.

“It’s not a museum in the typical way,” says Steinmetz.  “You don’t only look at things.  You can be very active.”

There is a musical chair built in 1890.  Sit down, and a tiny music movement – built into the seat of the chair — begins to play.  Push the button on a music box.  Not only do you hear a catchy tune, but the box opens up to reveal a cigarette holder.  Pull the trigger on a double-barreled pistol from the early 19th century and a tiny bird appears, sings a song, then vanishes back into the gun.

Old gramophones

The museum houses several oversized, wind-up gramophones

In addition to instruments, the museum houses several oversize, wind-up gramophones that play a collection of 78-rpm vinyl records.  While the guide cranked the gramophone, we listened to a scratchy 1950s recording of Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Sera.”  My CD player at home may sound much crisper, but it certainly lacks the nostalgic character of the old-fashioned record-player.

I especially enjoyed a player-piano topped by six violins from 1909 called the “Phonoliszt-Violina,” manufactured by a company called Hupfeld.  Once a guide flips the switch, the machine launches into a song from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in perfect harmony (see video: Phonoliszt-Violina)

Some admirers were so enthusiastic when the machines were created that they called them the “eighth wonder of the world.”  It’s estimated that about 3,500 were built through 1930 – the end of the mechanical-music era – but only about 60 of them are still in existence.  Steinmetz says it’s the museum’s most popular attraction.

“Nobody can imagine that violins can be played mechanically,” she says.

Rudesheim cable car

Cable cars high above Rüdesheim offer spectacular views of the Rhine Valley

The museum is open seven days a week from March through December.  It’s closed during January and February, when the riverboats take a winter break from sailing the Rhine.  The entrance fee is 7 euros (about $7.75), which includes a 45-minute guided tour, although a number of higher-end ships like the Scenic Opal include the cost in the price of the cruise.

Rüdesheim is the southern starting point of a picturesque 40-mile stretch of the river brimming with medieval castles called the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Aside from the museum, the town features a cable-car ride to a hillside monument that offers spectacular views of the Rhine Valley and its vineyards.

As nothing in the museum’s gift shop caught my eye, I inquired about the cost of the Phonoliszt-Violina, fantasizing about what an amazing conversation piece it would make in my living room.

Steinmetz smiled, as if to indicate I wasn’t the first person to ask about buying a piece of music history that wasn’t for sale at any price.

“Let’s just say it’s priceless,” she said.  “Some things can never be replaced.”

© 2016 Dan Fellner

The Romantic Rhine

By | Cruising, France, Germany, Netherlands | No Comments

40-mile Rhine gorge highlight of rainy river cruise on Scenic Opal

The Arizona Republic — July 17, 2016

MIDDLE RHINE VALLEY, Germany – Even under perpetually gloomy skies and unseasonably steady rain that caused flooding and disrupted the itineraries of numerous river cruises, it’s still easy to see why Germany’s longest river is widely known as the “romantic Rhine.”

Koblenz castle

A rainbow arches over the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress following heavy rains in Koblenz, Germany

The most idyllic portion of the Rhine is a 40-mile stretch in western Germany flowing north from Rüdesheim to Koblenz.  Called the Rhine Gorge, the region is liberally punctuated with remote chapels, terraced vineyards, about 60 villages nestled beneath jagged peaks, and a medieval castle at virtually every bend of the river.

The Middle Rhine has been romanticized over the centuries by numerous poets, painters and composers.  Noting that the gorge “graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape,” UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.

In short, the gorge is a storybook blend of nature and manmade wonders.

The four-hour passage through the gorge was the highlight of a week-long Rhine River cruise in June on the Australian-owned Scenic Opal, a 169-passenger luxury “Space Ship” that was launched in 2015.  It is one of 15 ships in the Scenic fleet, 13 of which are sailing on European rivers this summer.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle appears to be drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land obscured by high waters

The cruise was supposed to have started in Basel, Switzerland, and then head north on the Rhine through France and Germany before ending in the Netherlands, where the river empties into the North Sea.  But heavy rains spanning several weeks in the region led to high waters and made southern portions of the Rhine unnavigable for larger vessels like the Opal.

Numerous boats that ventured too far south were stranded — stuck up the river without a proverbial paddle.  Fortunately, our captain made a strategic decision three days before the cruise started to park the Opal farther north in Mannheim, Germany, where we were bused after arriving by air in Zurich, Switzerland.  So instead of visiting our first two ports by boat, we were taken there by bus.

It made for a chaotic and exhausting first couple of days of the trip but we were able to see all of the ports on our itinerary, including the city of Strasbourg, located in the Alsace region of northeastern France on the French side of the Rhine.  Strasbourg’s medieval city center, featuring an ensemble of historic houses, museums and churches, is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Strasbourg France

The medieval city center in Strasbourg, France, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

We also spent a day exploring the university city of Heidelberg, Germany, which was largely spared from bombing during World War II and thus retains its baroque charm.

By the third day, we were back on schedule and set sail from Rüdesheim through the Rhine gorge.  It didn’t take long to see the impact of the heavy rains and flooding.

The famous 14th century Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, built on a small island near the town of Kaub, appeared to be aimlessly drifting down the Rhine, its tiny patch of land totally obscured by the high waters.  The Rhine has long been a vital transport hub in Europe and the castle used to function as a toll booth for ships.

We later passed the stunning Marksburg Castle, built in 1117 to protect the town of Braubach.  Marksburg is the only castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed, having survived the Middle Ages, the rule of Napoleon and two world wars.

Koblenz flooding

A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle River in Koblenz was several feet under water

Our trip through the gorge ended in the city of Koblenz, located at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers.  Finally, the sun peeked out for a few minutes and we were rewarded with a resplendent rainbow arching over the impressive Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, built high on a mountain in the early 1800s and now connected to the city by a cable car over the Rhine.

The following day we took a walking tour of Koblenz and once again witnessed the flooding that has caused so much havoc in the region this season.  A popular pedestrian promenade on the Moselle was several feet under water.

“We have never had so much rain as this year,” said Homeira, our Koblenz guide, describing an unusual weather pattern that has impacted much of Europe this spring, even leading to a several-day closure in June of the Louvre in Paris after the River Seine reached its highest level in more than 30 years.

Kölsch beer

Kölsch beer in a Cologne pub

While the rain was an annoyance, the surprisingly cool temperatures – highs most days were in the 60s – were perfect for sightseeing.

In addition to the sightseeing tours, Scenic did a good job of immersing the 153 passengers onboard – about two-thirds of whom were Americans and Canadians — in German culture.  There were German language lessons, a performance by a local brass band featuring a long alpenhorn that looked straight out of a Ricola commercial (see video: German brass band), and a lecture about German beer.

We learned about kölsch, a light, all-barley ale brewed only in Cologne, our last German stop on the itinerary and the largest city on the Rhine, with a population of more than 1 million.

Kölsch, produced by more than a dozen breweries in the Cologne area, is typically served in small distinctive glasses called stange.  They are designed as such so that the beer can be consumed before it goes flat.

Scenic Opal

The Scenic Opal docked on the Rhine River in Rüdesheim, Germany

Kölsch is the Lay‘s potato chip of Rhineland beer.  As we noticed during a visit to a Cologne pub, it’s rare to see a German drink just one.

Our cruise concluded with a full day in Amsterdam, where we ventured into the countryside to see the lovely Dutch villages of Volendam and Edam and tour a cheese factory.  The following morning, we were bused to the airport during yet another downpour.  By then, we had grown used to it.

Despite the inclement weather throughout the week, the historic – and romantic — Rhine River gorge had single-handedly made the trip unforgettable.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited here in the late 1820s and wrote: “Beneath me flows the Rhine, and, like the stream of time, it flows amid the ruins of the past.”

Nearly 200 years later, what Longfellow admired is now even more historic and every bit as magnificent.

© 2016 Dan Fellner

View of Budapest

Winter on the Danube River

By | Austria, Cruising, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Slovakia | 2 Comments

Off-season cruise offers few crowds, lower fares and festive Christmas markets

The Arizona Republic — January 18, 2015

WACHAU VALLEY, Austria – With instructions as simple as those uttered by the mayor of Munchkin City, an assistant at the 900-year-old Benedictine abbey in Melk, Austria, told me how to bike to Durnstein, 20 miles down the Danube River.

“Follow the green signs with the number 6,” Franz said.  “You won’t get lost.”

Emerald Sky

   The Emerald Sky cruises through the scenic Wachau Valley

I was three days into a weeklong Danube River cruise in December on Emerald Waterways’ Emerald Sky that sailed about 400 miles from Nuremberg, Germany, southeast to Budapest, Hungary.

After spending the morning exploring Melk’s abbey, I decided to take one of the Sky’s bikes and catch up to the boat later in the afternoon in Durnstein, a town best known for a 12th century castle where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned after returning from the Crusades.

I would be biking in Austria’s famed Wachau Valley, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its architectural and agricultural history.  The area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.

Within a half-mile of leaving the ship, there was a fork in the path and no green sign – or scarecrow — to point me in the right direction.  I took a path toward the river.  It was the wrong choice and I wound up at a dead end.  After a half-hour to get back to the path, my traveling partner had to turn back to the ship because of a broken bicycle seat.  I was on my own and the proverbial Oz was starting to seem unreachable.

Danube bike path

 The bike path from Melk to Durnstein, Austria

Soon, I was at a bridge crossing the Danube that was so steep, I could barely walk the bike across.  My knee started aching.  The temperature was in the upper 30s and despite five layers of clothing, I was shivering.  My nose started running.  The path was hillier than I imagined and I worried that I wouldn’t make it to the ship before dark.

I’m not an avid cyclist.  Had I bitten off more schnitzel than I could chew?

But once I crossed the bridge to the north side of the river, I realized the journey was well worth some minor discomfort.  The terrain was mostly downhill and I pedaled my way through idyllic towns called Wosendorf, Spitz and Willendorf.  I glided past rolling hills dotted with steep vineyards dormant for the winter, and ancient castles and monasteries.  Under the afternoon sunshine, I saw why the Austrian composer Johann Strauss dubbed the river the “Blue Danube.”

Franz was right.  As long as I stayed on the path with the green sign showing the number 6, I was fine.  I made it to Durnstein just a few minutes after the ship docked, in time to remove my helmet and join my fellow passengers on a guided walking tour of the town before dark.  It had been the most scenic and invigorating bike trip I could have imagined.

Cesky Krumlov

The medieval town of Cesky Krumlov in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic

The bike trip through the Wachau Valley is the type of experience that makes European river trips one of the fastest-growing segments of the cruise industry.  Seasoned cruisers are looking for more authentic and immersive experiences than they can find on huge oceanliners.  A river cruise carries far fewer passengers and can dock in small towns, often within walking distance of the main sites.

“On the big ships, you can sail for a week and just see water,” said Daniela Mocanu, the Emerald Sky’s Romanian-born cruise director.  “Here, you really get to see the towns along the river.  That’s what our passengers love.”

And there’s plenty of elbow room to explore, particularly if you go during the off-season.  The 182-passenger Emerald Sky was just over half-full during our December sailing.  Eighty percent of the passengers were British; there were only about 10 Americans onboard.

Vienna Christmas market

     There are about a dozen Christmas markets in Vienna

During the busy summer season, the Danube can become clogged with up to 270 cruise ships on the water at the same time.  At times, it gets so crowded in popular ports that ships have to triple park, forcing passengers to walk across two other ships just to get ashore.  During our week on the river, Mocanu said, there were only about 30 other cruise ships on our route.  Finding a parking place was never an issue.

Yes, the weather was chilly; highs most days were in the 30s and 40s.  But it never snowed or rained, and after a couple of gray days in Germany, we had sunshine for most of the week.  Bundled up in layers, hats, gloves and scarves, it was not uncomfortable exploring the ports on walking tours.

An added bonus of going in December is getting to see the numerous Christmas markets in central Europe.  These markets feature festively decorated stalls selling everything from local handicrafts to roasted chestnuts, schnitzel, pastries and hot wine, known as glühwein.  There are 12 Christmas markets in Vienna alone.

Budapest Hungary

     The Danube River cuts through the heart of Budapest

We visited Christmas markets in every country along the route – Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.  And 10 of us took an optional day trip via bus from Passau, Germany, to the stunningly beautiful medieval town of Cesky Krumlov – another UNESCO World Heritage Site — in the Bohemian region of the Czech Republic.

In Slovakia, we were bussed to a town 45 minutes outside the capital city of Bratislava to visit the homes of villagers, who prepared homemade wine and sweets for us.  It was fascinating to hear the locals recount how their lives have changed since the fall of communism a quarter-century ago.

Prices for river cruises in the offseason are up to 50 percent less than the summer high season.  Cabins on our one-week sailing could be had for about $2,100 per person.  River cruises tend to be more inclusive than ocean cruises.  Our fare included daily sightseeing tours, airport transfers, local beers and wine with lunch and dinner, and all gratuities.  Service by the ship’s mostly eastern-European staff was outstanding.

Hungarian Parliament

View of the Hungarian Parliament from the Emerald Sky docked across the Danube River

Headquartered in Australia, Emerald Waterways is a newcomer to the European river cruise market.  The Sky, which made its inaugural voyage in April, was one of just two ships sailing in 2014 under the Emerald brand; two more Emerald ships will debut this spring.  Mocanu said most of the company’s 2015 summer sailings already are sold out.

Although nightly entertainment on river cruises lacks the glitz and variety offered on ocean liners, the Sky’s proximity to towns enabled it to bring onboard acts showcasing local culture.  A German oompah band performed and there was a Hungarian folklore show on our final night.  The Sky’s passengers were dazzled by acrobatic dancers backed by a musical quintet while we were docked across the Danube from a beautifully illuminated Hungarian Parliament building. (To see a video clip shot by the author of the Hungarian dancing, click on this link: Hungarian folk dancing on the Emerald Sky.)

The next morning we were driven to the Budapest airport for the trip home.  My knee was still sore from the bike ride.  My mood ached as well, as I realized the week had passed way too quickly.

© 2015 Dan Fellner