We spent the day docked in the hamlet of Rüdesheim, where the north-south-flowing Rhine turns abruptly east, producing a warm microclimate conducive to grape-growing. There we had a group tour of Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum, with its whimsical antique player pianos and music boxes, and then we were let loose on the town's bustling Christmas market.
When the stalls on High Street petered out, I found a wine shop where I tasted at least a dozen Rieslings, priced between $6 and $10 a bottle, before buying an assortment of six. (Later, at an efficient German post office, I sent the box -- for about $25 -- to relatives in Brussels. It reached them, undamaged, in a matter of days.)
River Princess passengers reconnoitered that night for a specially arranged dinner at a local inn. The owner and his wife plied us with a delightful Riesling from the family vineyard while we showed each other the treasures we'd bought at the market. Most were Christmas bric-a-brac, but a man from Cleveland who collected Steiff bears had found one from a limited edition. It cost him about $100, and it was wearing a Rüdesheim medallion around its furry neck as if it were the town mayor.
The next morning, docked in Mainz, about 20 miles downriver, we prepared for a half-day bus trip to the romantic university town of Heidelberg. There a local guide took us through the ruined castle above town and pointed out the home of Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi on the far side of the Neckar River. But Heidelberg didn't seem to look its best in gray winter weather, and the Christmas market there was disappointingly small.
Back at the ship, we learned we couldn't get on the Main River because the water was too high for the River Princess to pass under low bridges. Later, I discovered this happens occasionally on German river cruises, notably last summer when two Uniworld ships headed in opposite directions on the Danube were forced to stop at the same low bridge. Instead of turning around and retracing their routes, they exchanged passengers, who were thus able to carry on with their cruises as planned.
A change of plans
There was no such ingenious solution to our dilemma. Nevertheless, most passengers were understanding, even though we wouldn't be able to get to Wertheim, Würzburg and Bamberg on the Main and Main-Danube Canal. The diversion also made our scheduled bus trips to the walled medieval town of Rothenberg and the city of Nuremberg longer than originally planned. They became grueling 10-hour affairs, with six hours spent on buses and barely enough time left to shop and tour. Still, in Rothenberg I walked the ramparts and bought ornaments at the Käthe Wohlfahrt store, part of a chain of German Christmas shops open year-round. I also visited the town's Museum of Medieval Crime, which showcases such instruments of punishment as thumbscrews, racks, head trusses and chastity belts.
In Nuremberg, shopping briefly yielded to modern history as we drove past the parade ground where Hitler held massive Nazi party rallies. The once handsome old city was the spiritual heart of the Third Reich, so it was virtually leveled during World War II. Still, a small historic section remains, where the Christmas market was centered. It turned out to be one of the biggest and best we visited, great fun to roam and noted for its Christmas Lebkuchencookies.
Despite the long bus trips, the cruise diversion had compensations, beginning with an unscheduled overnight in the pretty Romanesque cathedral town of Speyer on the Rhine, south of Mainz. There I toured the museum, which had a special exhibit on toy trains and gangly-armed mohair Steiff bears. I ate a bratwurst that was so long it stuck several inches out of its round bun, drank Glühweinand then started some serious shopping. I'd come with a list of German products that are expensive in the U.S., like FinnComfort shoes (about $200 here) and Dr. Hauschka skin cream (about $20 per ounce at my L.A. beauty supply store). In shops along Speyer's pleasant main street I found both for half the U.S. price.
On the last day of the cruise we managed to get on the Main River, but only as far as Frankfurt, which also had a Christmas market, of course.
But I spent my happiest hours there at an evening concert in a Carmelite church that now houses the city's archeological museum. The program featured Elizabethan choral works sung by a small choir, their voices echoing into the building's lofty rafters.
When they got to William Byrd's "Teach Me, O Lord," a hot current ran up my spine and lodged someplace in the vicinity of my heart. It wasn't the aftereffect of the Glühwein I'd had at the market. It was the Christmas spirit, which, when you finally get it, is just as transporting in Germany as it is at home.