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QUINTESSENCE

Pirates, Cathedrals, Ghosts in the Peaks and Great Wine

Shield of Charlemagne
After days on the Rhine, we left the Netherlands and traveled through Germany into Cologne. In the foundations of this ancient Germanic city lie the Roman ruins and excavations one is more used to seeing throughout Rome. A Jewish ghetto has been uncovered in the construction of a subway that also contains the neighborhood of the Roman goldsmiths. We looked at the ongoing excavations, below current street level, of the oldest Jewish Mikwei (baths) and the shops of the Roman goldsmiths. I quite enjoyed the levels of built and rebuilt city: The relics of Claudius and his wife, Agrippina, (She poisoned him with arsenic in a successful plot to take the Empire and was later herself killed by her oh-so-infamous son, Nero. O, Shakespeare, have known thy ancient history!) Even the simple box brick re-constructions of the heavily bombarded town in the post-war fifties represent the survival of the city to the older generation.

We sampled the 300 year old Farina family floral and herbal recipe for "Eau de Cologne" originally combined by monks for medicinal purposes and spread throughout by the second world war by soldiers as gifts to their girlfriends and mothers. The Cathedral of Cologne is of course a four plus century Gothic and neoGothic edifice of astounding ambition, uncertain architectural parentage, and overwhelming dark and foreboding Gothic detail. It's not beautiful in the sense one thinks of St. Peters Basilica, but it is impressive. And the towering flying buttresses that send it soaring thousands of feet upward and uphold the tall improbable stained glass windows are simply imposing. One panel features the Old Testament ideas used in work by Michelangelo - The Pieta, the Four Apostles, The Last Supper and the Spirit of God, given in his touch of man's hand. As the Cathedral is constructed of sandstone it is never not being gently cleaned or repaired, as when gargoyles plummet to the square in the occasional earthquake.

The art galleries in the area feature private collections of Picasso, early medieval, and impressionists. But the reliquary of St Usula is the most disturbing. A religious sanctuary composed of the bones of the 1100 Virgins who died in her name from the beseiged convent, the bones of their limbs forming the words "St Ursula, Pray for Us." The shrine is upheld by pillars of gold wrapped human skulls and the mosaics on the walls are all made of the remaining bones. Macabre and deeply full of tragic historical grief.

Woke up at five one morning to see the beginning of the section of the Rhine leading into the Lorelei passage that is full of many centuries old castles and fortresses. Dr. Adam Tooze, the Cambridge educated Yale faculty member on our ship, himself a "child of the Rhine," gave us clues as to what to look for. On the bow of the ship at dawn it was cold, yet fresh and quiet as we journeyed slowly down the imposing narrow valley with hillsaides of terraced grape and looked up at the ancient and sometimes restored castles on their prominent positions overlooking the river. Only a handful of us were up for this quiet, golden dawn ancient history - but it was unforgettable. As we journeyed through the treacherus Lorelei passage (by angling the long narrow river cruise boat from one shore to the opposite) we found ourselves in a section of fortressed ruins once the dominions of the pirates of the Rhine. Spectacular. Green, steep and full of villages of old Germanic architecture.

Mainz lead to explorations of old Roman ruins and later, Heidleberg and Mannheim included a tour to the Schweigen Castle and gardens, the so-called German "Palace of Versailles." The company has been delightful, the German beer excellent, the food delicious, and sleeping to the slow churn of the ships's engines relaxing as the shoreline and it's many attactions slip by our opened balcony windows. We have made fast friends with our touring buddies and the interesting faculty, including experts in The Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation.  Most "interesting" passenger award goes to a senior economic advisor on US markets to the Eurozone's central banks which has made informal discussions on the current European financial situation quite engaging: the scholars inter-twine the historial and cultural roots of European unrest with the Euro banking challenges. Our stash of single malt scotch from the duty free store has been a hit in these late night discussions in the ship's lounge.

Then followed beautiful Strausborg, and we left the boat in Switzerland and began our journey into the Alps. Berne, Interlaken, and the mysteries of the Eiger, snow-capped JungFrau, and "The Monk" - the clueless, as the Swiss say, neighbor of the Virgin. (They view their monks as a more lusty, hardy group, apparently.) Today an adventure on Mt. Piolatus by gondola and cog train (48% grade!) to the summit (cloaked, alas, in clouds), where it is said the spirit of Pontius Pilate haunts the peaks and spends his eternal rest in the high remote lake, attempting futilely to wash his hands free of Christ's blood. Then by Glacier Express, the historic train railways of the mountains, to Zermatt, and the Matterhorn.

Have I mentioned chocolate, wild swans, the heavenly joys of sleeping on eiderdown, and good Swiss wine? You knew about the wine, right?

A Bientot!
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