When we first considered this cruise, we were unbelievably ignorant about the geography of the part of the world we would be sailing through. For instance, I hadn’t thought about the fact that the Danube flows from northwest to southeast, beginning in the Black Forest and ending at the Black Sea (nice little coda, isn’t it?). But the Main and the Rhine flow from south to north, emptying at last into the North Sea. So how does a riverboat get from the Danube to the Main, you ask? The answer is that for centuries, it couldn’t. Shipping goods or armies by water from the south meant that somewhere along the upper Danube, everything had to be offloaded and hauled overland — and over some substantial hills and the Continental Divide — to where the Main was more or less navigable, and then loaded onto other boats to continue their journey northward.
The idea of an artificial waterway connecting the rivers has been around for two thousand years. The Romans considered it (after all, they were pretty good at building aqueducts, which carried water above ground level), but they didn’t know how to raise a canal up and over the crest of the watershed, not having developed the technique of lock construction. The first actual attempt at building a canal between the two rivers was made in the 8th century by Charlemagne; his engineers drew up plans and began work on what is known as the Fosse Carolina (Charles’ road). Although the project was eventually abandoned because much of the ground was too marshy, some of its earthworks can still be seen at Weissenburg, near Nurnberg.
The idea lay dormant for eleven centuries, until King Ludwig I of Bavaria (not the mad King Ludwig of Neuschwanstein fame — he came later) decided to build a canal as well as a railroad to forge closer ties among the German states. In 1846, after eight years of work, the Ludwig Canal opened for business. It was 107 miles long and 35 feet wide, and ships had to pass through approximately one lock for every mile, which made the trip very slow. The sizeable difference in elevation between the Main (much higher) and the Danube meant that ships had to be lifted up or lowered in order for the canal to operate — in other words, there had to be a lot of locks. As railroads increased in popularity, the canal’s usefulness declined rapidly after 1850, and over the next several decades it fell victim to neglect.
But in the 20th century, the project was reconsidered, and a new wider, straighter canal with fewer but more efficient locks began construction. Between 1922 and 1962, the Main was dredged and canalized, resulting in a 185-mile stretch of water with only 28 locks, each with a power station. At the same time, work on the Danube portion of the project was started. In 1992, more than 1200 years after Charlemagne’s engineers began their work, the Main-Danube Canal was opened to link the Danube to the Main and the Rhine rivers, and river traffic now flows freely from the Black Sea to the North Sea.
Well, “freely” is a relative word; it seemed as if we were always entering or leaving a lock as we made our way north. It was a bit disconcerting at times — we would wake up early to bright sunlight about 5:00 a.m., and then gradually we would descend into darkness as the boat was lowered in a lock only about a foot wider on either side than our riverboat. Then, after a while, we would emerge into daylight again.
Some of the locks we traversed raised or lowered our boat between 80 and 90 feet, which is pretty dramatic when you’re on a three-deck boat. The sun deck above us was closed to passengers while we navigated the canal because the gates of the locks barely cleared the top of the boat. The wheelhouse was lowered, and the captain steered the ship from a little console on the side deck, using a sort of joystick. All very interesting, and not at all what we’d expected.
Barge traffic on the canal as well as on the rivers was quite different from what we were used to seeing on the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes. Instead of a tugboat pushing a string of barges, these river barges are self-contained — well, contained — vessels.
Typically, the master of the barge lives on board with his wife and their children, who are home-schooled on the river until they are old enough to go to boarding school, usually in their early teens. The barge carries the family car, bicycles, motorcycles, a small boat — everything the family might need for a comfortable life on water.
They shop in the towns and villages along the river, have access to medical care when needed (even in an emergency, help is never very far away), socialize with friends who live on other barges, and lead normal, if peripatetic, lives. I loved the lace curtains at the windows of many of the barges we saw, signs of a house-proud wife and mother.
The scenery along the canal was extremely pastoral, between the locks and power stations.
Swans glided along, one mother shepherding three cygnets in varying shades from gray to almost white. A lone fisherman in camouflage pants along the bank gazed at us without curiosity as we sailed past.
All in all, an idyllic morning on the water, in rather jarring contrast to our experience the upcoming afternoon. When you read the next post, you will understand what I mean.
Till then —