RHINE RIVER REFLECTIONS By Terri White The Rhine River flows from the Swiss Alps and dumps into the North Sea in the Netherlands. Although castles dot the landscape, one small castle was built in the middle of the river! Nestled on the banks, villages thrive from tourism. Vineyards with vertical rows of grapes drape the hills. Wherever I gazed, the scenery exuded charm. Our hotel, an ancient former railroad granary, lay next to the ever-present train tracks. Worried about noise? Not in Germany! It supplies all homes and business next to the tracks with quadruple paned windows to soften the noise. In fact, we never even heard a sound. Narrow staircases winding up four flights with our gear reminded me of mountain climbing. If you are out of shape, don’t even attempt to tour Europe. Whether stairs or hills, you will need energy to survive. Cobblestone streets meander throughout the villages. Vines, potted plants and window boxes overflowing with flowers deck the rows of stores and homes. On each store, a symbol, hailing back to the eras of illiteracy, represents the type of store: a pretzel for the bakery or a fishing pole for a sporting goods store. In every city and village, artists, musicians, and vendors gather in the plazas. Restaurants set tables outside on the sidewalks or in the courtyard at the back. Surprisingly, they never pipe in music, offering instead a quiet atmosphere for conversation, while the servers let you enjoy a leisurely meal. In fact, many times we thought they had forgotten us. Food! Frankly, we were not impressed with the classic German sausage, sauerkraut, and potatoes, but the atmosphere made up for its lack. In Europe, public bathrooms are available. To keep them clean, they charge about 50 cents. Sometimes attendants clean the stall after you use it; other times, automatic cleaning robots accomplish the job. Either way, we never lacked for clean facilities. Castles everywhere – 25,000 in Germany. Some have been converted into hostels or event centers. Preserved for their historical value, others offer tours; their history fascinated me. These fortified structures, built on strategic river crossings and passages through mountains, levied taxes on all travelers. If you resisted, you were lowered into the dungeon until you relented. Dark, no food, no water, nothing. I peeked into a few historic dungeons while listening to our guide’s captivating chronicles and wondered if those castle lords were just wealthy thieves. Has anything changed over time? After leaving the Rhine River, we stopped briefly in Munich, a city with centuries old buildings, numerous museums, and the celebrated Oktoberfest. About 20 miles away, though, lies the infamous Dachau concentration camp, but that was not on our itinerary. Instead, our tour opted for a more light-hearted day at a historic beer hall and outdoor market – just a glimpse of big city life in Germany. I even noticed the original Aldi Supermarket! From quaint villages to castles, Germany captivated us with its history, scenery and culture. There was so much to soak in as we eased out of Munich and headed for the Austrian Alps for our next adventure.