Sunday, 21 May 2017

Speyer to Breisach

After passing through a sequence of five locks during the evening and early hours of the morning, the MV Emily Bronte moored outside the historic town of Breisach, in the so called Kaiserstuhl region of the German Rhineland plain which has the mountains of the Black Forest to the east and the Swiss Jura to the south. At the centre of the region is the ancient university city of Freiburg im Breisgau.  It's a highly fertile region with volcanic soil, renowned for its wine and brandy production.

Then, after breakfast, we were taken by coach on a tour through some villages of the Kaiserstuhl, and up into the mountains to visit Titisee, a small lake fed by glacial waters, with the holiday resort town of Neustadt wrapped around its eastern end. The journey took an hour and a half, and we were subjected to a well informed running commentary throughout, delivered by someone whose accent and English grammar were characteristic of someone for whom English was probably their third or fourth language, and wasn't as accurate as it needed to be for a British English only audience. As it was still early in the day, a few pauses to look at the scenery without interruption would have helped data digestion.

Titisee was busy with visitors from all around the world, and our scheduled stay was just an hour and ten minutes. Not just to get us back in time for lunch, I suspect, but because there would be a flow of other scheduled coach parties to maintain in the relatively small car park, throughout sensible visiting hours. We walked around the eastern edge of the lake in two directions, observed the boat traffic on the lake, and then followed the sound of an open air band to the place where it was performing Strauss waltzes in an open air concert arena several hundred metres away. We also briefly visited the Christkoenigkirche, and said a few prayers, mindful of the fact that it's the sixth Sunday of Easter. 

Disappointingly Riviera Travel scheduling does not take into account the worship needs of its clients. There's no information provided about the possibility of attending a Sunday service at any destination. Some opted not to go on the bus trip, but to stay and attend Mass in Breisach. I had a personal reason to visit a place where my mother had been before she had her stroke, and hoped there might be a mid morning service to drop in on, but there wasn't. At least the church was open. Given the number of people we've met on this trip who are churchgoers, and with so many of the travellers senior citizens, more likely to attend church than any other demographic group, I think there's room for improvement here.

Our return trip was half an hour shorter, by a faster route. Two and a half hours in a bus with a one hour stay didn't to me seem the right balance for an outing. Anyway we were back at the ship just after one, and after a couple of short travel briefings about tomorrow's Swiss Alps trip and homegoing, the rest of the afternoon was free for us to spend exploring Breisach.

The town has a fine Minister church on top of a promontory overlooking the Rhine. For centuries this rocky outcrop was an obstacle dividing the river, and most of the area where the present town stands was flood prone meadow or wetland. In the nineteenth century a major engineering project established a huge long barrage covering the main river channels and islands, containing two separate lock systems. The river banks were stabilised, land was drained, and the town built around and on the promontory could then be extended over the reclaimed land.

The Minster church originated in the 11th century but was enlarged in the 14-15 centuries. One tower is Romenesque, the other later one has a Gothic spire. The west end interior walls are covered with frescoes from the expansion period, much faded but well conserved nevertheless. There's a carved stone chancel screen of this period, also in a north aisle side chapel a niche elaborately carved with images of Christ's burial, at one time used as part of the ritual of the Paschal Triduum. The modern nave altar is a glass box, showcasing a reliquary chest to hold the bones of local saints. Amazingly, this fine piece of craftsmanship dates from the 1970s.

The territory on which Breisach stands has been fought over by French and Germans for centuries. The Minster was reduced to ruins towards the end of the second world war, but rebuilt and restored thanks to the leadership of the Parish Priest and an eminent local academic historian. Both had been against the war and nazism, and were imprisoned for their witness in a concentration camp, yet survived to carry out a great work of love and peacemaking.

The Rhine is the Franco German frontier. Because of 19th century alterations in the course of the river, Breisach although a German town is in France, and the frontier line is now just outside the town boundary. In the 1950s, the town took advantage of this unusual situation, declaring itself to be a truly 'european' town where borders no longer matter, a first grassroots step towards building a European Community of nations. What lovely stories to arise from the tragedy of what will hopefully be the last European war, to matter what English nationalists may do to disassociate the UK from this reconciliation project.

Supper this evening was preceded by another Captain's reception to thank the staff and the crew for their work during the cruise, and was followed by a seven course meal. We sat at table with a couple from Telford, we'd not met before. Both are active in their local church, one a church warden, the other an ex-church warden. married in 1966, like us. I think we've met about ten people who are churchgoers during this week. It rather proves my point about the neglected churchgoing demographic among cruise clients.

As we were getting ready for bed, we went through the last of the ten locks on our 500km journey up river. We will dock in Switzerland at Basel Hafen, according to the itinerary, just after midnight. It'll be our first return visit to the country in five years. This time at the opposite northern corner from where we arrived to live and work back in November 1992, just after a Swiss referendum declined participation in the Schengen agreement, like the Brits. Neither country has suffered, and both have prospered since. But Switzerland has the Rhine as its main industrial artery, and a different economic story altogether.

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