Another Viking River Cruise and this time on the Rhine River
As always, the customer service on Viking is astounding. From making reservations to the sad farewells as we leave the ship, everything is tiptop.
A few background notes…I have booked our river and ocean cruises directly with Viking and almost always with Monte who is wonderful to work with. Generally, we take advantage of the option to fly in before to or leave from a different location for a relatively small fee. (For this trip, we flew to Milan, Italy, several weeks before the cruise and did our own thing through parts of Italy and Switzerland before meeting the cruise in Basel, Switzerland. We also added days on at the end to explore Amsterdam and Ghent, Belgium.) Viking has pre- and post-trip excursions, but often we like the time to explore on our own.
We have been on several Viking river cruises including the Douro, the Elbe, and the Danube, and have loved them all. We love the relaxing nature of the cruises, the excellent food, great service, and, perhaps most of all, the ability to dock near the center of town and walk into the cities.
When things beyond their control have happened such as flooding or the pandemic, Viking has always taken care of the situation in a very satisfactory way. The entertainment--from string ensembles to trivia, to singers, to piano--is topnotch. Many times the entertainment is from the local areas or may even be members of the crew. (There are no casinos on Viking river or ocean cruises but, for us, that isn’t a problem.)
Now, with this background, on to the Rhine River cruise. (Because of the length of this post, you can click below to skip to a specific stop.) There are also tips about river cruises scattered throughout.
The stops on the Viking Rhine River cruise:
We began our floating adventure in Basel, Switzerland. We had arrived a few days earlier and I’ll be posting our visit to this fun city soon. We boarded our ship, took part in the wonderful lunch available, and then were ready to see more of Basel. Even though we had explored the destination, we still took the free tour that Viking offered and saw some different sights and heard interesting stories. For example, many people go across the border into Germany to shop since it is so much cheaper. Another fact we learned…Residents have to take classes and pass tests to own dogs. And one last thing…bunkers, remnants of WWII, are still located under much of the country. (Unfortunately, Basel is a city in which the ship cannot dock close to downtown, but Viking does provide shuttle service whenever this happens.)
Back on the ship, we took as little time as possible to unpack since I feel I am wasting time. Instead, I want to spend as much time as possible walking the ship, watching the sights, and, of course, eating.
Viking includes an included excursion at each stop. Sometimes we take these and sometimes we pay for other options. It all depends on what appeals to us. Below you can read my review of our various excursions but know that there are many from which to choose to match your taste.
One note: Always close your curtains before you go to bed. The riverboats often dock side-by-side so you may wake up looking at a person from the next ship if you fail to do so.
Breisach, Germany and Colmar, France
The first stop of this Rhine River cruise from Basel to Amsterdam was in Breisach, Germany. We opted for the Black Forest excursion since our family, who was with us, had never been there. The drive to the Hofgut Sternen Hotel was beautiful but seemed very long. When we arrived at the complex there were choices of hiking, visiting a cuckoo clock demonstration, shopping, watching a glassblower at work, and viewing the very interesting cooking demonstration showing how Black Forest Cake is made. The scenery was amazing and the nearby old buildings such as St. Oswald’s Chapel and the historic Ravenna viaduct inspiring, but the crowding to see the clock demonstration made this excursion my least favorite of the trip.
On this same day, we were able to visit Colmar, France, a medieval city that has retained its charm. Viking gave the option of taking a little sightseeing train or joining a walking tour. Colmar is located in the Alsace region of France which has been under the rule of both Germany and France during history. In fact, Aleman German is spoken by the majority of people in Colmar and the residents call themselves Alsatian so they don’t have to identify with either country. (Viking guides are always superb. They share history, interesting tidbits, and more.)
Colmar’s historic half-timbered houses were built between the 14th and 15th centuries. They are held together by wooden nails which also made it easy to move a house if needed. When a resident wanted to move, they would number the pieces, dismantle the house, move the pieces to the new location, and reassemble them—all within one day. The houses were originally painted certain colors according to the job of the person living there. Later the color changed to reflect the residents’ religion—Catholic or Protestant. The paint color now has only two rules: 1) A house cannot be the same color as the houses next to it. 2) A house cannot be painted white since that was the color of German homes and they don’t want to be associated with Germany. (Note: A surprise in Colmar is the Statue of Liberty to honor the hometown sculptor Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty that stands in the New York harbor.)
We enjoyed the walking tour and the free time to just enjoy the views and the shopping. We took time to sit at a café where we were introduced to flammkuchen, a fabulous German pizza dish. (Viking had a cooking demonstration onboard the next day where we learned how to make this dish—can’t wait to try it at home!)
As always when we returned to the ship, we were met with smiles, refreshing damp towels, and words of welcome. The meals on board are wonderful and varied. Some nights Viking highlights foods that are traditional in the area. This night we had a delicious “Taste of Germany.”
Strasbourg was our stop for the next day and the Viking tour of the city was a great introduction. Strasbourg was also one of my favorite cities.
A few facts about the city:
· The French Foreign Legion is headquartered here.
· The Palais de Europe was founded here by Churchill to keep peace as the Council of Europe. Of the 46 European countries, all but 3 are in council: Belarus, Vatican, and Russia. The European Court of Human Rights is headquartered in the Human Rights Building, Palais des droits de l'homme, built in 1995.
· The Synagogue de la Paix is a modern building that was built in 1954 to replace the synagogue destroyed during WWII. The building, the second largest synagogue in Europe, has a unique menorah on one of its faces. (The largest synagogue is in Budapest.) The menorah has only 6 candles in memory of the 6 million Jews killed during WWII.
· The Cathedral was the tallest building in the world for over 200 years. At 46 feet across, the cathedral still has the largest rose window in the world. The original astronomical clock inside the church was built in the 1400s. After it broke, it was removed, and another was built in its place. The sun was in center of the universe on this clock since it was built by Protestants. At noon, 12 apostles parade in front of Jesus and are blessed by him.
· Strasbourg is a wonderful place to enjoy a cup of coffee or treat while surrounded by canals and picturesque half-timbered houses dating back to the 1300s.
Speyer and Rudesheim, Germany
The next day—more towns and another country. This time we paid visits to Speyer and Rudesheim, both in Germany. (Each day Viking provides a very informative newsletter about the day’s destination and the schedule.) We took the great walking tour of Speyer, whose cathedral is the burial place of 8 emperors. It was in Speyer where the term “Protestant” was first coined as 14 German free cities and 6 Lutheran princes protested Emperor Charles V’s Edict of Worms that banned Martin Luther’s writings. (We later sailed by the city of Worms.)
Speyer is also home to the Palatinate Historical Museum which highlights Jewish life before WWII when almost all the city’s Jews were murdered. Ruins include those of the oldest mikvah (ritual bath) in Germany from 1126. Thankfully, some Jewish refugee families have now resettled in Speyer and, in 2008, they laid the cornerstone of a new synagogue.
Great news about our stop at Rudesheim—we docked in the town for an easy walk. (The city has a little train that also takes you into town if you don’t want to walk.) We did the Dine In Rudesheim excursion and, although the food and entertainment were good, I would have loved to visit this town on our own, just wandering through the narrow streets and finding a café to try. The town was especially lovely after dark with lights illuminating the streets and lending a festive air that makes visitors want to linger.
Rhine River Castles (between Rudesheim and Koblenz)
This day was the most scenic of our cruising days—the day that everyone thinks of when “The Rhine” is said. The day we saw castles. (In fact, usually we sailed at night since the Rhine is primarily an industrial river with only limited sightseeing.)
We started the very crisp morning on the top deck of the ship to watch as we sailed by the many castles. Viking provided blankets and served hot chocolate to keep us warm as they supplied a very interesting commentary about the myriad of castles.
This Upper Middle Rhine Valley was the stronghold of the aristocracy—aka robber barons. The Rhine and Moselle were the only paths for trade between the north and south so control of these rivers was extremely important. The robber barons collected tolls illegally until Rudolf of Hapsburg came along and rid the area of many of these infamous landowners. Of course, whenever you have bad people, you get great stories such as that of Lorelei, a famous water nymph, who was immortalized in Heinrich Hein’s poem. She sat on a rock at the narrowest and deepest spot on the Rhine to sing and comb her hair. She so captivated passing sailors that they crashed and were drowned. (Just a note about the Rhine: The Rhine was straightened, widened, and deepened in the 1800s which increased the flow and removed about 50 miles.)
It was a beautiful morning to see these castles. With one approximately 1.5 miles, there was just time to sip hot chocolate and move to the best side of the boat to see the next castle.
We took the Marksburg Castle excursion which was excellent. The castle, with a history dating back to the 1200s, has never been bombed or destroyed. Sitting approximately 300 feet above the river, the castle has an outstanding view over the Rhine. Our tour was led by a fantastic actor who was entertaining and educational. Viking does give warning that walking may be challenging since visitors must go up—see the 300 feet gorgeous view above—and the floors are very uneven—think rocky in some places. I always imagine that castles are huge, but this one has only one bedroom and, in fact, the children slept in the same room as their parents. Only 10-15 people normally lived here except when it served as a fortress and then the numbers swelled to 60.
Because we took the Marksburg Castle excursion, we were unable to visit the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress located just across the Rhine from where our ship was docked. (We watched the gondola sail overhead on its way to take others to see the fortress.) Another trip, perhaps?
Koblenz was a great city for walking and exploring, especially since we were docked near downtown for easy access. We walked through nearby parks, explored beautiful churches, stopped to have drinks, and walked to the Deutsches Eck statue—a massive statue of Prince William—that marks the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers.
We sailed through the night to arrive at Cologne where we began our visit with the Viking walking tour for an overview of the city. We had visited many years ago during one of our first trips to Europe. I remember my awe when seeing the cathedral for the first time. I am still awed by the size of it and the fact that it miraculously escaped the heavy bombing suffered by the rest of the city during WWII. (Approximately 95% of the historical district was destroyed.) The darkness of the cathedral is part of its charm, but it is off putting if you are not expecting it.
Hundreds of years of pollution have soaked into the soft sandstone. In addition, the sandstone reacts with the sulphuric acid in polluted rain and turns gray. (The cathedral, one of the largest in the world, took over 600 years to complete so the sandstone has aged differently.) The cathedral is believed to house the relics of the Three Wise Men—stolen from a church in Milan in 1164—within a gold shrine.
We continued our walk past sections of the Roman wall that still exists in many places and the statue of the Flying Ford Fiesta atop the City Museum. (Ford is a major employer in Cologne.) We glanced in the windows of the Romano-Germanic Museum, currently closed for renovation, for a glimpse at the Dionysus Mosaic, the floor of a 3rd century villa. Instead of moving the mosaic, the museum was simply built over it.
In the evening, we opted for the Cologne Beer Culture and Dinner as an option to learn more about…beer, specifically Kölsch. In Cologne, beer, which is relatively inexpensive, is drunk from small glasses so it stays colder—and it’s always okay to drink a small beer. Servers refill glasses until you put coaster on top. Beer is relatively inexpensive. There is also a running rivalry with Bavaria about the quality of beer. Cologne has the opinion that Bavarian beer is Barbarian beer. The dinner and stops at multiple brewhouses was a great way to spend the evening and lead us to some of the active parts of the city. We only visited a few of the 26 brewhouses in Cologne, but each one we visited was very good. (Several of the brewhouses served wine and soft drinks for non-beer drinkers.)
Unfortunately, our dock was in an industrial area outside the city. Viking, as always, provided buses to get into town, but the smell was disconcerting and worrisome. (I believe this is only a temporary dock.)
We sailed at 10 pm to reach our next destination, Gorinchem, The Netherlands.
Gorinchem and Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Gorinchem was the drop off point for the Viking excursion to see both cheesemaking and windmills. We walked quickly through the picturesque, fortified town that was founded in about 1000 AD and later fortified in the 1200s and 1300s. The city was built in a star shape as all Dutch fortified cities were. Thankfully, the city was not bombed in WWII so it retains its traditional feel while also having a vibrant atmosphere.
Our next stop was at the Kaas-en Zuivelboerderij Kuiper Dairy Farm to learn how traditional Dutch cheese is made. We were able to visit some of the 227 cows that currently live on the farm and oooh and ahhh over the calves of various ages. Even though cheese was not being made at the time of our tour, our guide carefully explained the process to us, answered all of our questions, and took pictures of us before we ventured into the cheese shop where samples of over-the-top-good Goudas awaited. The family-owned dairy will package the cheese for you to take back to the US. (Cheese has to be in shrink wrapped packaging to successfully pass through US customs. The cheese is fine without refrigeration for many weeks.) We stopped at buying 2 cheeses, truffle Gouda and aged Gouda, but the choice was difficult.
Kinderdijk was our next stop—this time to see the UNESCO World Heritage site with 19 working windmills that still help regulate the flow of water. The windmills, which are still active, are run by millers who live, with their families, in the mills. (One of the mills has been preserved as a museum which is interesting to imagine the difficulties of living in one of these small places with lots of children.) The land and canals around the windmills were beautiful in the sunlight and made a wonderful last excursion for our Viking cruise.
We docked in Amsterdam as our final stop on this wonderful cruise. The crew is always so excellent that you feel you are leaving friends when you step off the boat. In addition, the fantastic, ever-present food adds pounds so that I leave the ship with more than I carried on.
Is a Viking cruise worth it? My answer is a resounding, “YES!” The overall experience, both onboard and on excursions, is great.
Do you have questions about the Rhine River cruise or about Viking? If so, please feel free to put them in the comments.
I'll be posting more about our trip to Switzerland, Amsterdam, and Belgium for more details.
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