I enjoy going under bridges, finding something special in doing the opposite of what all the commuters and pedestrians are doing when they cross the bridge above me. On June’s Viking River Cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, we passed under many bridges: Ornamental and functional. Wide and narrow. Automobile and railroad. Old and new.
Low Bridge Ahead
Not until we reached the Rhine-Main-Danube-Canal, though, did the bridges feel, well, personal. I was up on the Sun Deck of Viking Modi one morning, doing yoga and stretches, when one of the crewmen, who looked uncannily like the Norwegian mystery writer, Jo Nesbø, approached and warned me of a low bridge ahead.
Looking forward, I saw that the bridge was, indeed, very low. I prepared to sit or crouch or leave the deck altogether but the crewman stood upright and he was far taller than I. So, I waited as we swooped underneath the bridge. The crewman could have reached up and touched the superstructure as we went past.
Then I realized that I could not see the pilot house. I asked where it was and the crewman said, “Wait.” I did and watched the pilot house rise up from the well it sank into to provide the necessary clearance.
After that, I paid attention and saw that all the cruise boats and river barges had the same kind of pilot house that could descend until the top was flat with the deck and then come back up. (The captain can pilot the boats by remote control when the pilot house is down or when in the locks.)
Low Bridges on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal
In the Danube-Main Canal, we encountered bridges so low that the captain closed the Sun Deck for three days. The crew removed all the deck furniture, folded the sun screen, lowered the railings, and dropped the pilot house so we could get beneath them.
Sitting on the Aquavit Terrace at the bow of the boat, I watched these low bridges approach and slide past. Sometimes I could almost touch them, even from this lower level of the boat, and anyone on the Sun Deck would have been swept into the water.
Water level affects the clearance, of course, and I was amazed to learn that the river had dropped to about six feet below high water. I honestly don’t know how we could have passed underneath these bridges were the boat six feet higher.
High Castles on the Rhine
The Sun Deck re-opened when we reached the Rhine River where the bridges were much bigger and higher. That’s when we could do what I had come on this cruise for—sit in the sun and watch the castles built by robber barons as we passed by.
Each castle marks the location of a former tolling station along the Middle Rhine River valley. Between 800 and 1800 A.D., Medieval noblemen built castles of all sizes and shapes to overlook trade on the river, collect tolls from merchants and travelers, and defend their kingdoms. Tolls and customs from the 79 stations on the Rhine provided the Holy Roman Empire with a major source of income.
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley between Coblenz and Bingen became a World Heritage Site in 2002. The 21 castles and fortresses along this stretch of the river were built in 13 historical styles. Most command the hilltops but two controlled river traffic from islands.
In a Model Train Set
On this part of the cruise I felt oddly like I was in a model train set. Viking Modi was one of many vessels on the river, both tour boats and commercial barges. Roads ran along both sides and railroad tracks carried commuter trains on the east bank while bicyclists wheeled along the west bank. Quaint towns popped up on both sides and the castles dominated the high ground. It was all so well-groomed that it seemed like a miniature world.
Our program director, Mieke, narrated the history of the Robber Barons and their castles as we passed by. Many of the legends seemed to focus on beautiful but disobedient daughters being punished for their transgressions.
Some of the castles lie in ruins, some have been restored as homes at great expense by celebrities and the One Percent, some have been converted to hotels or youth hostels, and some are open to the public as historical monuments. Viking took us into Marksburg Castle in the afternoon. Later that night, six of us took our own side tour of Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Coblenz.
Despite the beauty of the Danube and the drama of the Rhine, I enjoyed the more human scale of the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal best.