Tauck River Cruise Recap, part 2: Southern German Beauties

Continuing from last week, I'll just jump back into my recap of the river cruise I went on, up the Rhine & Mosel rivers with Tauck River Cruising.  In this post I'll get through our few days in Southern Germany and the heart of the "Romantic Rhine".  

On Day 4 we were in my old stomping grounds - docked on the outskirts of Karlsruhe, the cute university town I lived in for a few months back in 2006.  Sadly, this was not a particularly lovely port, nor did I really have any time to go visit folks back in Karslruhe, but that doesn't mean it was a bad day!  On the contrary - once we left the industrial port (that did boast a crew school near by, so folks could at least watch rowers heading in & out from work outs while hanging out on board) we headed south towards the adorable spa town of Baden Baden.  I had been here before of course, but still enjoyed our walking tour, despite the continued crazy heat, because we had yet another really good local guide leading us around.  On my previous visit I'd of course glimpsed the spas and casinos, but didn't get the extra information about why Dostoevsky hated Baden Baden (he lost all his money), why there is such a Russian connection to the town anyway (the royal family of Baden married well!), and even more about the original Roman period (though there really are hardly any ruins left).  Plus, though I'd peeked into the casino, this time Tauck got us in for a private tour of this ridiculously gorgeous & opulent place.  It's NOTHING like the giant casinos you see in Vegas, but instead boasts these smaller, more intimate rooms decorated to the hilt with gilded everything.  The casino in Baden Baden was actually the inspiration for the casino in Monte Carlo, just to give you an idea of how popular & fancy this place was back in the day.  After the private tour, Tauck then had a special surprise for us- a refreshing beverage of choice (champagne was quite a popular option) along with a HUGE buffet of tasty snacks.  Some people chose to return to the boat for some lunch & R&R after our morning tour, but after gorging on all the delicious dumplings and such they'd laid out for us, me and some new friends decided to check out one of the famous spas in town.  "Not the naked one", as we explained to everyone who asked.  See - there are two spas in Baden Baden- the Friedrichsbad is historic and traditional, both in the design & decor, and in that there are 17 precise steps you go through, and you're nude while you do them.  On certain days the sexes can be mixed during each of these steps, but on other days they're segregated, until the end.  We did have some brave folks who chose to go to this lovely spot and enjoyed the experience (but advised on choosing the "soft" brush for their exfoliating treatment!). Being modest, me & these two sisters I'd befriended decided to go for the Caracalla Spa where you could keep your suit on and pretty much do what you want (no prescribed steps).  It still was a really cool experience, and we highly enjoyed our two hours of immersing ourselves in fabulous, hot, mineral water.  There were all kinds of different jets and currents and temperatures - including powerful waterfalls (hot or cold).  Pools were indoor and outdoor, and there IS a staircase up to the roof where there's a nude sauna, but somehow we never made it up there.  (Too busy relaxing!)  I did sneak an illegal shot of the interior, and then there are a few of the exterior- but needless to say, it was a really great afternoon!  Here are a few shots from around town, in the casino, and of the spa (just click the picture to advance to the next one):

When I got home from the spa I expected to catch up with my Mom & Aunt, who had elected to return to the ship after our casino tour, and it turns out they had their own fun adventure!  It seems that after lunch, they made an announcement on board that for anyone that wanted, you could join the chef on a little excursion out to the seafood market and then a strawberry farm.  They had really fun stories about getting to see the wholesale seafood market, seeing just how much food is taken in to the ship each day, and then of course they had some tasty fruit treats at the strawberry farm.  As someone who ate fresh berries just about every morning on ship, I very much appreciate the stops they made at places like this!  We also had fresh oysters on board that evening during cocktail hour, which though I don't care for, most people were really excited about.  In any case- it was time for us to head further down river for our next stop - Heidelberg.

I of course had heard of Heidelberg, but had never visited before this trip.  In chatting with a vacationing German the month prior in France he mentioned that he was from near there, and I said I was going to be visiting and he said - " EVERYONE goes to Heidelberg!  Why?  Why does EVERY AMERICAN go to Heidelberg?!?"  He just couldn't understand.  At the time, I just laughed and said that it was an important university or something - I didn't know.  After visiting this little town, I both understand why so many people go, but also understand his bewilderment.  This was, by far, the most crowded and tourist-filled place I went in probably my entire month & a half time in Europe.  Versailles was probably even more crowded, but it's big, so the tourists spread out a bit.  Heidelberg is tiny and adorable, and therefore its really a bit hard to escape the crowds.  We did our best, getting to the historic Heidelberger Schloss as early as we could (it was about a 30 minute drive from our morning dock location of Speyer - whose cathedral looked truly spectacular from the bus and therefore I'm mad I didn't run out & explore the night prior when we arrived!), but even arriving by like 9am, that visit was still about my limit for tour groups.  This place was humming- from an Asian wedding (we kept hearing that places were bought out specifically for Asian weddings, which was odd), to an outdoor theater being set up, to school groups galore arriving as we left.  It's too bad, because it is a gorgeous & romantic ruin of a castle, high on the hill with ridiculous views out over town and the river.  Our tour guide did her best to explain the ornate facades, usher us through the largest wine barrel in the world, and get a spot on the "patio" to talk a bit more about the views, but it was tough.  This was definitely one place I'm thrilled we had the whisper systems, because there was no way to all have a spot in ear-shot of the guide here!  Here are my fave shots from the castle visit (including two of the Speyer cathedral from our bus):   

After our visit to the schloss, we, along with everyone else, crowded onto the little funicular to get us back down to town, and enjoyed a short walking tour of Heidelberg.  Short in that we walked from the funicular station, past the Rathaus, to the big church (which wasn't even that interesting of a church) and then made it to lunch.  Maybe 15 minutes walking, with lots of stopping.  It's seriously a little place!  Our lunch was a fun inclusion of Tauck's - it was at a brewery and was family-style sausages and sauerkraut, with pretzles & beer cheese to start.  Add in a nice radler (pilsner + lemon soda mixed, aka: shandy) and I was a happy girl!  We then had free time for shopping or wandering as we wanted (baby lederhosen were purchased, to give you an idea of what we did).  I actually escaped the crowds for a moment to go see what our guide had called Heidelberg's #2 attraction - the student jail.  I didn't quite know what to expect, but she'd explained that it became a rite of passage back in the day for students to break some minor law (of which there were many) and get stuck in the "jail" for a few days.  It's basically a dorm room (they could still go to classes) that they were locked in as punishment for being drunk (or inconsiderate!) - which, in itself isn't that interesting.  In this case, however, a tradition of drawing not just your name, but elaborate pictures/jokes/verses/etc all over the walls began, and now they are completely covered.  I would call it educational or refined graffiti for the post 1800's set, and it was surprisingly cool.  Plus, your little ticket to the jail also gets you into the celebration hall where graduations & such were (are?) performed, and it was a quintessential private boys-school-looking room.  As one of the guides I passed called it- a real "Dead Poets" sort of moment.  Too true.  SO- while much of Heidelberg is basically crawling with tourists, I did like it and contrary to Rick Steves' advice, I do think it's worth a visit.  Just be prepared.  Here are some of my favorite shots from around town & the jail:

Our ship moved while we were out touring, so we had a shorter drive home and were docked in a lovely spot on the edge of Mannheim.  We got a little bit of a city tour of Mannheim as we made our way back, and while it wasn't going to win any awards for beauty, it did look like a fairly nice little city.  Mostly all modern, of course, but it does have a massive schloss downtown.  We were docked on a lovely little riverside park, and the weather had finally cooled down to a reasonable level, so some of us enjoyed a nice stroll through the park after dinner.  We could've, had we had enough energy, grabbed some of the bikes on board & biked into town for a beer or something, but after such a long day mostly everyone called it an early night.  

I'm going to stop now because the next two days really are ridiculous amazing and I want to give them their due.  Get ready for castles galore!