Travel

Cruising Germany’s fairy-tale Main River

The Scenic Jewel, built in 2013, sails on the Rhine, Maine and Danube Rivers.
The Scenic Jewel, built in 2013, sails on the Rhine, Maine and Danube Rivers. Scenic Cruises

One of my shipmates quipped, “I’m starting to think the Main River is the Rodney Dangerfield of European rivers. No respect. You just don’t hear much about it.”

I knew what he meant. Before I left home, I couldn’t find a single English-language book about Germany’s Main (pronounced “mine”) on Amazon.com.

But one thing I did know: the Brothers Grimm, those famed collectors of old fairy tales, were born along the river’s banks in the late 1700s. So I had to wonder: Could I still sense the centuries-old mood of those stories?

And you know, my shipmate did have a point. The Main River seldom gets the spotlight, thanks to being sandwiched between its more famous (and longer) cousins, the attention-getting Danube and Rhine rivers.

My trip had me meeting all the relatives: A 15-day cruise, beginning on the Danube (in Budapest) and ending on the Rhine (in Amsterdam), with three days on the Main in between.

I’ve sailed the intriguing Danube and Rhine several times before, but the Main was unknown territory to me. Was there anything to write home about?

So, my ears perked up when the cruise director, Szilvia Magyar, said, “The Main River is a difficult stretch for the captain.”

How so? Take a look at a map of the Main River. See how it twists and wriggles its way through the heart of Germany? It’s a complicated waterway.

I may be looking for the Medieval on the Main, but I’m doing it aboard the 169-passenger Scenic Jewel, a luxury vessel with high-tech amenities such as a MiniMac computer in every cabin, handheld GPS devices for touring, electric-assist bikes for jaunts shoreside, even balconies that convert to enclosed all-weather “Sun Lounges” at the push of a button.

FROM BEER TO WINE

Just before hitting the Main River, someone asked my husband, “Will we be going upstream or downstream?”

“All I know is we’re going from beer to wine,” replied my husband.

He was on to something: Bamberg, our first port on the Main-Danube Canal, is synonymous with beer; Würzburg, one of our last Main ports, is a storied wine town.

Right on cue, the evening before Bamberg, passengers got the lowdown with the “Bavarian Beer Experience” in the ship’s lounge.

As young women in traditional garb served us beers from small regional breweries, a local expert told us, “Bavaria is the No.1 beer capital in the world.”

In the coming days, we would be stumbling upon a cast of eccentric characters, both man and beast, that could have come out of a storybook.

Even the beer can be odd. In Bamberg, a town with a 1,000-year tradition of beer brewing, we met up with Andrea, our guide, who straightaway told us this is the home of Rauchbier, or “smoked beer,” produced only here.

But what most passengers cared for was Bamberg itself, whose entire Old Town section is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If the Disney folks ever want to create a medieval theme park, I’d advise they just make a clone of Bamberg.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood did use part of the town when it made the 2011 film The Three Musketeers. Andrea’s boyfriend, Urs, even had a role in the movie. As a juggler of knives.

A few hours after leaving Bamberg, as I was sitting on my private balcony, I started to see vineyards running up and down hillsides. A sure sign Wine Country is up ahead.

Then, I had to reach for my binoculars to see if my eyes were fooling me. In a field, I spied two of the largest geese I’ve ever seen. Fairy-tale fowl, worthy of a Brothers Grimm story.

Next day, we’re in the town of Würzburg, which also played a role in the Musketeers movie. But the area’s major role is “wine production, which is very important here,” said guide Alexandra as she led us to a wine-tasting in the deep underground cellars of the Prince-Bishop’s Residenz, a UNESCO site and one of Europe’s most opulent palaces.

We learned that 80 percent of the wine in this area is white. And then Alexandra said, “When you drink white wine, you think silly thoughts.” Which might explain her next remark about the bulbous, fat-bellied wine bottles used here.

“Our word for belly bottles, bocksbeutel, means the scrotum of the billy goat,” said Alexandra, then giggled.

The following day, in the Wertheim area, Scenic Cruises offered a program called the “Village Event.” Out of 10 tours, passengers choose one that will give them a look at a local activity, such as making schnapps or visiting a family farm.

I chose a visit to a wine- and beer-making monastery manned by four monks. My guide was Brigitte, a lederhosen-wearing grandmother, who told me, “I’m an almost nun. Before my last vow before becoming a nun, I met a guy. Six months later, I was married.”

At the Engelberg monastery, we were handed over to Father Klaus, a Franciscan who stated right off the bat, “This is not just any beer, but Franciscan beer.”

And monks know beer: the first breweries in Bavaria were started by them. Then he added that for his personal tastes, “wine is first.”

Back onboard the ship, we started to wind down our sail on the Main. Around midnight, my eyes were glued to the shoreline. The witching hour was when our river boat was to pass by the town of Hanau, birthplace of the Brothers Grimm. But all I could make out were some pretty street lights and several tall steeples.

Before long, we passed Frankfurt and by 7a.m., I was back up on the sun deck, watching as the Main River met up with its more fabled relative, the busy Rhine.

By now, it was easy for me to conclude: the Main is no Rodney Dangerfield of a river.

Cruising the Main River

For 2015, Scenic Cruises will offer their 15-day “Jewels of Europe” from March through November, with prices beginning at $5,395, per person, twin share. The all-inclusive pricing policy also covers drinks, shore excursions, even gratuities. For more info: http://us.scenictours.com/ or phone: 855-517-1200.

An Australian-owned company, Scenic Cruises will offer 12 river ships in its European fleet in 2105. Out of the 168 passengers on my sailing, 147 were from Australia. No worries. Aussies are friendly folk and I’ve always found they make for fine traveling companions.

Other cruise lines offering voyages on the Main, Danube and Rhine include:

AmaWaterways: www.amawaterways.com, 800-626-0126

Avalon Waterways: www.avalonwaterways.com, 877-797-8791

Emerald Waterways: http://us.emeraldwaterways.com, 855-222-3214

Tauck River Cruises: www.tauck.com, 800-788-7885

Uniworld: http://uniworld.com, 800-257-2407

Viking River Cruises: www.vikingrivercruises.com, 855-707-4837

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