Early in May of this year while promoting various cruise booking incentives to my Travel Meet Up group, I came upon a spectacular river cruise itinerary, sailing aboard a brand-new long ship, The Aegir, with Viking River Cruises. The promotion discounted pricing was heralded as “2-for-1 and free international airfare”, seemingly too-good-to-be-true, but in fact, it was quite honestly the best valued travel package I’ve ever come across. I spoke to three of my travel club members, who all chipped in most immediately, and without any ado but for a phone call to Viking River’s reservation line, we booked the 8-Day Rhine Getaway for the week during Thanksgiving, departing from Amsterdam and heading upriver to Basel, Switzerland. The tours, meals, beer, wine and all shipboard activities were included in the pricing, leaving only optional excursions and incidentals out-of-pocket, and the grand total per person was under $3K. Amazing considering we would visit 8 cities in 3 countries, with guided tours in Kinderdijk, Netherlands, Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Heidelburg, Speyer, Breisach, Colmar & Black Forest regions of Germany, as well as Strasbourg, France and have ample leisurely time to explore on our own, all within the span of 8-action packed days along the most scenic portions of the Rhine River.
Having never been on a river cruise, I was uncertain as to what to expect, but as I assured the other members, since it was pretty much All-Inclusive and every day we would be experiencing a new port along the Rhine, with guided touring and plenty of leisure time to boot; what’s not to like? Our air reservations were made and although we booked 2 cabins and linked the bookings, one of the members in the 2nd cabin had to send off for a renewed passport, which caused cabin #1’s air itinerary to be booked prior to the 2nd cabin’s air booking, leaving 2 of us on British Air through London, and the other 2 flying Delta via JFK, so always be sure if you need to align air for more than one cabin to ask for the Viking Air Plus service. We were fortunate that we all landed in Schiphol airport within 1 hour of each other and our transfer personnel were waiting with open vans to whisk us to the dock. After a wonderful dinner we walked 5 minutes over to Centraal Station, and spent 2 hours exploring A-dam. In hindsight, we definitely wished we had booked a pre-stay in Amsterdam, but our quick walking tour allowed enough time for explicit photos of the Oude Kerk, Red Light District, Damrak and a few nighttime shots of the bedecked streets, such a feast for the eyes, after dark in A-dam was exhilarating. Picture (1).
The long ship left the dock at 11:30pm, while we slept like babies in our Main Deck cabins 102 and 103. The cabins were superbly done, posh down bedding, Le’Occitane accoutrements in the bath, the glass enclosed shower stall was roomy, and an added bonus, the bathroom floor was heated! A flat-screen TV also provided us with extensive sailing itinerary details, daily on-board activity schedules, a “live” bow-cam, where we could see everything sailing by from our room, as well as all sorts of movies and other entertainment options, none of which we watched. We spent zip-nada time in our room other than to change and sleep, deeply.
The 1st morning of touring dawned sunny, with temps in the mid-50’s, where we docked in the Kinderdijk region of the Netherlands. No one picture could encompass the stark and desolate span of these 18 windmills, built in the 18th century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they provide an intriguing glimpse into Holland’s past. We met with one of the windmill keepers, wearing the requisite wooden clogs of Netherlanders, and he was quite jovial, but explained that many of their younger generation were not interested in working within the mills, yet he remained hopeful that windmill keeping would not become a by-gone tradition. Keeping the mills working is vital to this area, as it is below sea-level and many rivers, specifically the Lek and the Noord running through the region, would flood without the mills draining the polder! I was impressed most by the tiny typical sleeping quarters in a windmill. *See picture link at end of report!*
While sailing later in the afternoon, continuing our journey upriver, we saw a humongous replica of Noah’s Ark, which had been hand-built and sailed to London for the Olympics; it is now docked in Utrecht. The 2nd evening was spent enjoying the Captain’s Welcome Dinner, splendidly done, I must also include a picture below of the galley, or Chef’s quarters, as it was quite amazing how they provided hot meals for 190+ guests, served table by table in unison by our sterling wait staff. The meals were the finest I’ve ever been served, having catered and ‘been around the dining block’ a few times before, there were no disappointments plated here!
Cologne, or Koln in German-speak, was a highlight and all who have traveled this way before know it’s contents, Dom cathedral and ancient Roman historical museum were toured, as along the many cobbled streets we weaved our way until dark; it’s beer haus selection was par-excellence and we took an after-dark op ex beer tour (29 Eu) that had us squished into the man-festivals that are beer haus staples; there had to be 55 men for every one woman, a big win by the soccer team had everyone jolly and beer flowed like the Rhine, upstream into our ‘locks of lips’ YUM! The scenery was sublime for us gals. Our favorite beer was the golden Kolsch from Paffgen, pouring since 1883.
Koblenz included a ½ day tour of Marksburg Castle, one of the most fantastical castles with everything so intact that it looked as if it’s inhabitants had gone out for a hunt; later the same day we cruised along the Middle Rhine area, most scenic of all and passed the Lorelei, a legendary rock formation upon which it is said a voice is still heard singing (long story). Rudesheim’s residents, where we docked prior to dinner, were getting their Christmas Markets set up, and I somehow lost the city guide, but ended up with a 4-some from our ship of hardy drinkers, who hailed me into 1st a hat store and then into a beer haus, where they inundated me with beer…somehow we missed the start of dinner upon returning…2 hrs. later; Zoran, the Maître d sent us packing into the bar, where one of our party slumped into her seat while the rest of us ordered dinner from the bar menu – a club sandwich was de rigueur! I slept it off the next AM and made a point to avoid getting off-course again.
Heidelberg Castle, setting for the opera The Student Prince, did seem straight out of a movie set, and its university town feeling was youthful and vintage all-in-one. Our delightful city tour guide, Eveline, gave every detail in depth and was a walking historian herself. One could not take enough pictures of all the statuaries, stone walls, drop-dead views of city rooftops or even the wood wine cask, the largest in all of Germany, below the castle’s stone floors – the wine must have flowed mightily in this castle, no picture could encompass it all!
The ship left us and went along to Speyer, where we were motor coached over to board for lunch, and afterwards a nice amount of time to explore this important Jewish culture center. The immense Kaiserdom, Germany’s largest Romanesque building was hard to miss! The ship sailed prior to dinner being served, and we enjoyed yet another fantastic dining experience. I will pause here to fete Zoran, who took to me, and I to him, because I cannot help myself for watching all that goes on ‘behind the scenes’ in a restaurant, and it all went like Swiss clockwork, perfectly timed. Zoran was a munificent host and we hugged and chatted daily. Our hotel manager, Michael, also was very debonair and made sure all the details of our cabins were handled without ado. Our Program Manager, Simon Howell, warned us of a ‘special show’ in the lounge that evening; a glass-blowing demonstration, given by Rolf, a really ‘hot’ Rumanian, who asked me to be his assistant. I thought he said ‘I’ll need you to crush some glass’ but the language barrier made for my faux pas because later, when he called me up by the name “Luciana” and asked me to blow on the hot glass straw, it turned out that I was the head glass blower and he commended me on my newfound blowing abilities. I was presented with a lovely gift of the glass ball with loop that he and I completed. I gave him a pass on getting my name right, because I was calling him Ralph until I took his business card and realized I had botched his name as well as ‘exactly what I was to do’.
Evenings in the lounge were always a surprise, a children’s choir from Cologne, a dance trio from Strasbourg, even Simon presenting the following season’s cruises was a complete smash hit because all 190+ of us were having such a splendid time laughing; we were all firmly in the zone….Simon could’ve plucked us in the head and we’d have loved it, as champagne flowed every single night, keeping us all feeling quite cheery and light!
Strasbourg was a blur, we toured the Christmas Market area outside of the cathedral and I found a vintage carousel that I just had to ride, only one horse was big enough to support me…I set my Gluven (hot wine) down on a ledge to take my ride and watched a homeless man walk off with it merrily. Turns out the cups in which they serve the wine are ‘refundable’ so he had a double-bonus. I was glad as I wasn’t a big fan of hot wine, personally, but totally enjoyed the carousel ride! Christmas markets, IMHO, seemed duplicitous but my cabin mate was perusing the wares for hours, meanwhile it started to rain and I ran out of time and temerity for all the goo-gads of Christmas gadgets. I retreated to the ship and skipped our intended op ex, an Alsatian wine tour – but Lillimae really enjoyed it!
The last day was touring via motor coach along the Romantic Road and Black Forest region, stopping for a brief respite at a shopping center with requisite Cuckoo clock shop, glassblowing store and a kitschy presentation of “How to Make Black Forest Cake”, absolutely one of my favorites, so I bought a small flask of Kirsch, which is the cherry syrup liquor one uses to make this delicious dessert. The days final stop, and my favorite, although it was drizzling rain and the coldest day of our touring, was Breisach, known for its ancient Celtic Fortress high on a hill directly across from the hilltop aerie of St. Stephens Cathedral, looking every bit the tourists delights in sights-to-see. We climbed a hundred stone stairways to reach the cathedral, and then another 75 or more to reach the Fortress across town. The views were stunning, the streets very quiet in the early evening drizzle, really we were in heaven, I was quite certain. The best of 1100 photos was taken from atop the Fortress, looking across to the cathedral; This was our last evening and two locks were yet to come during our upstream run to Basel, Switzerland, so we stayed up the entire remaining hours of the cruise to watch our ship float upwards through cement walls twice, toasting w/the hearty drinking crowd from the Aquavit Terrace on the bow until we docked; our transfer coach arrived only 1.5 hours later; we dozed for a moment in our cabin, then hustled to put our bags in the hallway and bade fare-thee-wells to ship staff and fellow travelers.
A mere 23 hours later, or so it seemed, as hours were lost somewhere in-between, when we landed in ORF, we were all ready to kiss the ground. A great time in the going, a long homeward return journey; still I wish I had never left…Breisach had my name on it and I will return there to thru-hike there were many signs throughout the town identified by the Pilgrim’s scallop shell; was it just happenstance that it was one of many Germany Camino trails? I must go back to hike it and from there, maybe I’ll end up in Spain…
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SEE ALL THE PICTURES HERE!