There are two things I'm a big fan of: river cruising and parties. So it was a given I'd be up for the chance to cruise the Rhine River from Amsterdam to Basel aboard Avalon Waterways' newest launch, Avalon Creativity. As a teenager in 1962 I'd sailed a portion of this itinerary -- the most scenic part of the Rhine, studded with romantic old castles overlooking quaint villages. I was also eager to see a larger stretch of the river, especially since two of the ports were among my favorite European cities (Amsterdam and Heidelberg), and the remaining stops were on my Western Europe wish list.
As for the second half of the equation, I'm always up for a good party, so the fact that this particular sailing was the inaugural and we were invited to the christening and all the associated hoopla, I was happy enough that even a 12-hour flight in economy aboard a full-to-the gunnels Boeing 767 couldn't dampen my spirits.
Arrival in Amsterdam
Since most incoming flights arrive early morning, and embarkation doesn't take place till after 2 p.m., provisions are made at Amsterdam's NH Hotel (aka the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky) for a meeting room where incoming passengers can relax, enjoy refreshments, and get an orientation from a local hostess, who was happy to make suggestions for exploring the many sights of Amsterdam within a short walking distance of the centrally located hotel. (For pre-cruise passengers this service also includes optional shore excursions.) On request she marked up a map for each person with highlights tailored to that individual's expressed interests. For my wife and me, our map was heavily oriented to walking through the Jordaan, a hip section of the old city that reminded me very much of New York's SOHO, replete with tiny art galleries, and trendy boutiques and cafes.
Speaking of cafes, here's a caveat: In Amsterdam you will find two spellings of the word, "cafe." If the sign reads "kafe," coffee is indeed the featured item on the menu. You can also get coffee at establishments that call themselves "cafes," but with that spelling they may also feature a menu of marijuana and hashish!
After enjoying a Dutch snack of bitterballen (small deep-fried breaded croquettes filled with a yummy meat and cheese pastiche), we eagerly awaited the arrival of the bus that would bring us to the ship, and a chance to experience the two most beautiful words in the English language: shower and nap.
By 2:15 p.m. we were aboard, and, after pausing at reception to pick up our room keys, it was off to our Category P stateroom on Deck 3, the uppermost accommodations level on the ship. The cabin measured a cozy 172 square feet, most of its space taken up on entry by our three suitcases and the queen size bed. The decor was decidedly nautical, i.e. clean and functional in design -- with natural woods predominating. The carpet's geometric pattern in various shades of red gave the room a pop of color. The bathroom was fairly roomy for our cabin size, with dark natural wood cabinetry offsetting the ivory and off-white tones of the tile, vanity and walls. A glance inside the cabinets revealed a larger than typical amount of storage space.
After unpacking and stowing the luggage, the room seemed more spacious. Following a shower and brief nap, we made our way to the ship's main lounge for orientation, drinks, hors d'oeuvres, introductions of crew and a ship's tour, a short affair given that the only public rooms were the restaurant, the two lounges and a fitness room. However, there was one interesting aspect of the tour: the uppermost deck. Avalon Creativity stands a mere six meters (19.5 feet) above water level. Yet that is too tall for some of the lower bridges. The solution is that every appendage on that top deck: railings, canopies, masts and ladders can fold down or collapse to lie flat in a matter of 20 minutes. Even the wheelhouse collapses to half its normal height if need be.
Volendam and the Christening
At about 3:30 a.m., Creativity departed Amsterdam for the port town of Hoorn (pronounced "horn"). Hoorn was a major seaport and shipbuilding center during the Age of Exploration, and is the derivation of the name of South America's Cape Horn.
The streets of Hoorn, like streets and canals throughout the Netherlands, are fronted by narrow houses jammed shoulder to shoulder; there's no space in between. So narrow are they that taking furniture or other large objects inside through the front door is virtually impossible. For that reason, most houses have wide windows on their top stories and a short girder emerging from the gables above them, from which large loads can be hoisted up.
The other noticeable characteristic of Dutch architecture is that nearly all structures lean, some from one side to the other, and all from back to front. Though the sideways leaning is unintended due to being built on less than solid foundations, forward-leaning is intentional. Again as a defense against the Netherlands' prodigious annual rainfall, tilting a building forward minimizes the amount of rain that soaks into the brick facades and limits water and mold damage to the interior.
Upon return to the ship we were offered glasses of hot tea with rum, what seemed at first a strange combination, but turned out to be a very tasty warm-up. Lunch was served in two places: an indoor buffet light lunch in the lounge and, at the grill on Sky Deck, steaks and two kinds of sausage grilled to order, served with corn on the cob, baked potatoes and salad. Creativity is that rare commodity: a ship that is willing to grill meats to order at whatever temperature the passenger requests, from very rare to extremely well done.
At 1 p.m. we set sail for the 90-minute passage to Volendam, where the christening was to take place. I had little in the way of expectations for this city, my only connection to it being by way of its namesake in the Holland America fleet. What I found was a charming yacht harbor jammed with weekend visitors and yachties out for a stroll among the colorful waterfront cafes and shops. The weather, which had been cloudy and chilly, changed to nearly clear skies with bright sun, punching up the vivid colors of the well-kept houses' gables and tiled roofs. Many front doors were works of art in their own rights, ornately carved and polished hardwoods, many with beautiful etched glass panels depicting various nautical subjects. The breeze wafted the mouthwatering pungent aromas of curry, but whether from a yacht's galley or a quayside restaurant was impossible to discern.
By 4:15 p.m. we assembled with our press colleagues from Germany and the Benelux countries for the actual christening ceremony, which included the introduction of the ship's Godmother, Nancy Telliho, president of Newsweek Budget Travel Inc. Unlike the major hoopla and pomp of large ship christening -- or naming -- ceremonies, Creativity's was short, understated and to the point. The climax, of course, was the Godmother's invocation culminating in the cutting of a thin rope attached to a bottle of Champagne (Moet!), which obediently crashed against the flank of the ship within mere inches of the ship's name, breaking on the first attempt. Back aboard, the festivities continued, with speeches by the CEO of Seehandlung, the German investment company that financed the ship's construction, and Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, and a few words by the head of the family-owned Den Breejen Shipyards where Creativity was built. Afterwards, we made our way to the dining room for a gala, six-course dinner, which stretched from 8:15 p.m. till well past 11 and left us just enough time to return to the bar for a nightcap, accompanied by music from the ship's pianist.
By early morning we were docked back at Amsterdam's Javakade docks, where we had boarded the ship a day earlier. Strangely, even though we were staying onboard in our same cabins, it was necessary for us to disembark while the ship was made ready for its official inaugural voyage. Fortunately, we were able to return to the Avalon day room at the NH Hotel. There were two free tours offered, one, a morning city bus tour which included the Rijksmuseum, and another tour in the afternoon which went to the countryside, featuring "windmills, cheese and wooden shoes." We chose to continue our independent exploration of the city.
Our first order of business was to visit a recommended pancake house. Pancakes (pannekoeken) are another signature Dutch dish. They aren't much like American pancakes. They are more like thick crepes, and they're quite large. We ordered one of the favorite of the traditional pancakes, cooked with bacon inside, served with thick maple syrup. Three of us were unable to finish one pancake!
After breakfast we set off, proud inductees into the AGBAMA (The Amsterdam Guidebook And Map Army). Amsterdam is a very easy city to navigate on one's own, as evidenced by the huge proliferation of visitors walking around with their heads buried in their Rand McNallys and Frommers. Besides being small and compact, Amsterdam's canals make perfect landmarks. The main canals are arranged in seven concentric rings. Emanating from the focus of those rings, and crossing them at right angles like spokes of a wheel, are smaller canals.
The most difficult -- and dangerous -- aspect of walking through Amsterdam is bicycles. There are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam (one million cycles vs. 750,000 inhabitants), and most everyone commutes by bike. When couples in Amsterdam have a marital row, do pots and pans go flying? Neen! (No!) Bicycles are so central to life in Amsterdam they throw each other's bicycles into the canals! Bicyclists aggressively claim right of way, bicycle paths are the same color as the sidewalks. It is not uncommon to wander unintentionally off the sidewalk onto a bicycle path, only to hear the brrrrrrrring, brrrrrrrring of a bicycle horn just before it runs you over.
Our destination was Amsterdam's famous flower mart, a must-see for any visiting horticulturalist. There are flowers galore -- both cut and potted -- but the superstars of the mart are the bins upon bins of bulbs, especially the most incredible selection of tulips, everything from basic red to the most unusual and exotic imaginable. I was surprised to find that Americans can take bulbs home with them; there is a certificate issued with the purchase that clears them for importation to the U. S.
After the flower mart we worked our way along the streets back toward the hotel. If there is one thing nearly as ubiquitous as bicycles in Amsterdam it is the pungent aroma of cannabis wafting out of the doorways of the coffeehouses. We decided – for the purposes of journalistic due diligence – to check out the interior of one of these coffeehouses. Based on the decor of the outside, we thought the club called The Dolphins sounded interesting. It was. The interior had walls sculpted in 3D and painted to look like the underwater view of a coral reef. A massive flat-screen TV monitor behind the bar showed a continuously running video of colorful fish in an aquarium. On the wall, where a pub might list its offerings of beers or wines was a list of such things as "Jamaica," "Thai" and "Deep Red."
Returning to the NH we found ourselves in a much more crowded room; not only had the ranks of Creativity passengers swelled far beyond our pre-christening press group, but the room also held passengers for three other Avalon river cruisers boarding in Amsterdam that night.
Back onboard, the next order of business was the muster drill -- easy on Creativity; just go to the top deck; the ship is taller than the river is deep in most places, so the top deck would stay high and dry! Subsequently, our cruise director, Tony, discussed the following day's schedule, as he would every subsequent day for the remainder of the cruise. Creativity would remain in Amsterdam until 4 p.m. tomorrow. In the morning we would take buses to Centraal Station, Amsterdam's terminus for all things transportation, where we would board boats for a guided tour of the city by way of its canals.
My favorite aspect of river cruising is that each day includes at least one off-ship guided tour at no additional expense to the passenger. Avalon's operation was the smoothest, best organized element of the trip, and the quality of the guides, transport vehicles and tour structure was almost universally excellent.
At 7 p.m. we filed into the dining room for our welcome aboard dinner, which concerned me a bit since the previous "gala" dinner took close to three hours and there were only 25 diners. This time there were 140 of us. As it turned out, the meal ran about the same duration, but by starting an hour earlier we wound up finishing our coffee at a much more manageable 10:30 p.m., which was fine with me; I still had some sleep to catch up on.
Another Day in Amsterdam
The next morning started out early. Most days do, as it was seldom on this port-intensive itinerary that we didn't have an 8 a.m. tour departure. Since the tours generally run about three or four hours, they must leave early to be able to return to the ship in time for lunch. As for breakfast, the daily morning buffet -- usually beginning at 7 a.m. -- featured an egg/omelet station, breads and the usual offerings: bacon, sausage, tomatoes, hash browns, cereals, yogurt, cold cuts and cheeses.
Before leaving the ship we paused at reception for three essential items to take ashore. The first was a plastic card with our cabin number, one for each passenger in a cabin. This would be turned back in to reception upon our return: a simple, low-tech way of determining which passengers were still ashore. The second item was a slip of paper with the name of the ship, the ship's cell phone number, and the location, in local language, where the ship was docked. This is similar to the system used in countries where few citizens speak English, where hotels or restaurants issue patrons and potential customers business cards to hand to cab drivers. The third item is a wireless receiver with headphones used for the guided tours. The ship provides the outside guide with a matching transmitter through which to narrate the tour.
Our guide introduced herself as Els, a middle-aged burly Dutchwoman with a lusty sense of humor. The first thing she pointed out as we waited for our canal tour boat was the bicycle parking structure for the Centraal Station, a three-story garage crammed literally rail to rail with bikes tumbled one against the next. Els answered the question on all our minds: "How do the bike owners find their own bikes in that mess?" She gave one of the two responses we received during our days in Amsterdam: "They don't even bother searching; they just take the most similar bike in the general location of where they parked. When the owner of that bike returns, they take the closest match, and on it goes." (The other answer we heard was that bikes in Amsterdam are like babies; no matter how many are in view you can always pick out your own in an instant.)
When most people think of cities with canals, Venice jumps to mind. However, Amsterdam has more canals and more bridges than Venice. Our passage through the canals took us by many notable homes: notable for being among the oldest, the narrowest, the largest, the most expensive, and the most visited residence in all of Amsterdam: Anne Frank's house. We heard about the history behind the numerous shapes of the gables on Amsterdam's residences. Since literacy was low in the early days of the city (which made house numbering impractical), homes could be differentiated by a combination of wall color and gable shape.
As our canal boat took us through the Jewish section, 90 percent decimated by the genocide of World War II, by the city hall and opera house, it occurred to me how much we had already seen on our earlier strolls, reinforcing Amsterdam's compactness and approachability for exploration on foot.
After concluding the canal boat tour, we boarded our coaches for the return to Creativity, followed promptly by a sailaway gathering on the Sky Deck (top deck) for our departure for Cologne, Germany. Fifteen minutes later buffet lunch was served in the dining room -- at the same time as the grill on Sky Deck was serving its fare. Since we had already lunched at the grill, we decided to give the buffet a try. Choices were limited: a vegetarian pasta, pair of meat, fish or fowl options, two soups, and a limited salad bar consisting of two types of salad greens with mix-ins and a handful of prepared salads. Made to order minute steak and a sandwich option were always available, each served with crispy fries.
After lunch there was an enrichment talk on the Netherlands, followed by the daily "Coffee and Cake" service at 4 p.m., in turn followed by "happy hour" at 6 p.m., which featured two-for-one drinks, and a port talk on Cologne just prior to dinner.
After dinner it was still light, so we took our coffee to the Sky Deck to watch our progress down the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal. Though not particularly scenic, this passage gave us the opportunity to note the other vessels sharing the canal with us. Besides other river cruise ships we saw numerous private vessels, but the overwhelming majority of ships were long, low-slung cargo ships. River freighters provide the most economical mode of cargo transport in the region, cheaper than road, rail or air. These vessels are family affairs, with the owners living in quarters at the aft end, crew living at the very forward extreme. Each ship carries one or two automobiles on the stern deck as well for surface transport once at their destination.
Ode to Cologne
Since we weren't scheduled to arrive in Cologne until 2 p.m., this was a perfect morning to spend on Sky Deck watching the scenery go by. We were now clearly in the Rhine River, having left the steel-sheathed canal banks and, for that matter, the Netherlands, behind us.
The weather, though not rainy, was chilly and gloomy, disappointing to the shutterbugs among us. Gradually, the farmland gave way to the industrialized urban cityscape of Cologne (or, to the Germans, Koln), dominated by the huge cathedral overlooking it from its hillside.
Cologne is one of those river ports where the town extends all the way to the shore, and the central points of interest are within comfortable walking distance. The ship's scheduled free-of-charge walking tour included a 10-minute guided walk from the ship to Cologne's famous cathedral, followed by a 90-minute tour of both the cathedral and the city. We felt no need to participate in the tour as between the photocopied map (one was available each day in reception for that day's port call) and the fact that the cathedral totally dominated the view of the city from all angles, it was hard not to find one's own way.
Ironically, our route to the cathedral took us past the ultimate shrine to irreverence: a waterfront theater with a giant marquis announcing the opening of "Monty Python's Spamalot."
After spending some time in the cathedral, we walked through the nearby hip, lively mix of shops, bars and cafes, and stopped to check out Cologne's most famous export and namesake: the original eau de cologne, named "4711." Dating from the 17th century, it's a bit floral by today's standards, but for those seeking signature souvenirs there's no difficulty finding it whatsoever. We saw it on sale at everywhere from T-shirt shops to upscale boutiques.
On our way back to the ship we decided to stop at one of the little outdoor biergartens along the riverfront. We were between meals, but had enough room to sample local food and drink. In Germany there's no better bar snack than sausage, and the local bratwurst was very tasty. I readily admit to lacking a refined palate for beer. But sitting in a biergarten on the shore of the Rhine it became a "When in Rome" thing, so I ordered a glass of Cologne's most famous brew, Kolsch. "Small or medium," queried the waiter. I ordered medium. Maybe it's the metric system conversion, but in my mind the "medium" would have made an adequate birdbath ... for a pterodactyl. Trust me: if you find yourself in the same situation … go small! Beer skeptic I may have been, but after a sip I had to agree: there was something noticeably different and better about a brew on its home turf, just as much as for jerk in Jamaica or gumbo in New Orleans -- and even for my clumsy palate it was worth the trip!
Back onboard, tonight's post-dinner entertainment was a "classical music trio." I use quotes not because the music was out of the classical vein, but because the instrumentation was, mildly speaking, unusual: two violinists and an amplified guitar with two extra strings to provide a bass line as well. The performances were virtuosic, though the repertoire was a bit of "Boston Pops' greatest hits." There was one exception: Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez, one of my absolute favorites, and one that moved the whole audience to a standing ovation.
Castles on the Rhine
This day on the "Romantic Rhine" itinerary promised to be the busiest of the trip. It began with our 8:30 a.m. arrival in Coblenz. The town name derives from the Latin word for "confluence," due to its position at the meeting of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. A number of river cruise ships were already docked at the Rhine River piers, forcing us to take a berth on the Moselle, no big deal since we were still within a short walk of our targeted points of interest.
The day dawned clear but chilly, the blue sky a boon to the photographers among us who wanted that crisp, picture-postcard look to our shots. We kept our fingers crossed that those conditions would continue throughout the afternoon when we were scheduled to pass through the Rhine Gorge, that stretch of steep hills and cliffs bordering the river on top of which are perched the most famous of the Rhine castles.
We met Erika, another extremely articulate and knowledgeable guide, who led us on a one-hour walking tour of Coblenz (Koblenz in German). The town's history dates from the Roman era, around the ninth century B.C. Portions of the original Roman walls and their towers are visible in a number of places we passed by.
The town is lovely and clean, the buildings painted in a variety of pastel shades, and most lampposts and windows are punctuated with bright red flowers. It was hard to find a single building in need of repainting. The most prevalent wall color is a warm russet, the pigment created from the local sandstone.
Our visit to Koblenz included viewing three of its most famous monuments, two of them whimsical, and third anything but. The first of the two humorous icons was Koblenz's de facto mascot, "der Schangel," a bronze statue of a young lad standing in the middle of a stone fountain. The facial features have a cheeky, mischievous cast to them, and periodically, from his pursed mouth, emanates a stream of water, as if he were spitting at the onlookers. His countenance can be found gracing the lids of manhole covers all over the city.
The clock tower near the old synagogue bears the second tongue-in-cheek (or more appropriately, "tongue-out-of-cheek") iconic image. Below the clock is the bas-relief face of a bearded man with a medieval-looking cap, whose bright white eyes and red tongue protruded from the grey features. He was a bandit, beheaded for his crimes, who inexplicably represents good luck to the citizens of Koblenz. When, apocryphally, the severed head continued to roll its eyes and stick out its tongue at the witnesses to the execution, the event was commemorated with his likeness on the clock tower, a likeness which rolls its eyes and sticks out its tongue to mark every hour.
The final, and, in no way whimsical, monument was the statue of Emperor William I dressed in formal parade uniform astride his horse. The original statue was unveiled in 1897, and was destroyed by an artillery shell in 1945. The statue was a cause celebre to the German people, especially when declared a monument to German unity in 1953, at which time it was the location for the first performance of the German national anthem after the defeat in World War II.
Our view of the statue was from a moving platform as we swung around from our pier in the Moselle to rejoin the Rhine. By this point our promising blue skies had turned to a washed out grey, but the dramatic scenery and cliffside castles were a strong enough draw to keep us all on the Sky Deck, even if no amount of Photoshopping could tweak our shots of passing castles to look like the typical "Visit the Rhineland!" travel posters.
The Gorgeous Gorge
During the passage through the Rhine Gorge, our cruise director, Tony, conducted a running narration, much like on a Panama Canal passage, concentrating, in this case, on European history. The trip through the gorge ended at close to 5:15 p.m., just about the time that an early buffet dinner was to be served. From this point on the day seemed rushed and over-scheduled. Dinner was scheduled at such an early hour because we had a second port of call at Rudesheim coming up at 6:45 p.m.
The plan for Rudesheim began with what was listed as a "private train" to take us into Rudesheim. Actually it was a golf-cart-driven multi-car tram, and was no more a "train" than Key West's "Conch Train" is Amtrak; in fact, they look as if they came from the same manufacturer. It took us snaking through the narrow streets of Rudesheim to our destination, Siegfried's Mechanical Music Museum. The venue was worthwhile -- a visual and acoustic delight -- displaying one "music box" after another. These were incredible devices that reproduced music not through synthesis, but by mechanically playing the actual instruments, from simple music boxes through entire orchestras that took up nearly all the space of sizeable rooms. After the museum visit (culminating in an excessively ample time in the gift shop) we were instructed to walk down a block or two to the Rudesheimer Schloss Hotel, there to enjoy the city's signature libation, Rudesheimer Coffee, java with a mix-in of liqueur, whipped cream, vanilla, sugar and chocolate. The coffee was tasty, but was it worth the hour we spent there? Returning by "private train" to the ship we learned that we could have walked there in a straight line in about the same amount of time. We also could have skipped the rushed buffet dinner served too close on the heels of lunch, enjoyed one of the lovely restaurants, and returned to the ship in our leisure, well before the 10:30 p.m. scheduled departure.
If This is Thursday, It Must Be Mannheim, Er, Heidelberg, Er Speyer
Creativity called at Mannheim at 8 a.m. sharp. Mannheim is the preferred port of call for Heidelberg, as that famous German cultural center sits not on the Rhine, but on the Neckar River, a Rhine tributary. It is a lot quicker to get to Heidelberg by bus, and Mannheim itself has much to offer, having been a major cultural center supporting thriving colonies of artists and classical composers.
Nonetheless, Heidelberg was unquestionably the centerpiece of the day's exploration. The logistics were somewhat complicated due to the fact that the ship would be leaving Mannheim at lunchtime to progress up the Rhine 20 km (about 12 miles) to our afternoon tie-up at Speyer. Those wishing to terminate their visit to Heidelberg right after the tour would take the ship's tour bus at 12:15 p.m. back to Mannheim for lunch onboard and the sail to Speyer. Those wishing to have more time to explore Heidelberg could catch a second shuttle at 3:15 p.m. to reconnect with the ship in Speyer. When the tour guide on our bus took a survey of how many of us would be staying on in Heidelberg, I was surprised that only six of the thirty passengers on the bus opted for the extended stay, even though Heidelberg is recognized as one of Europe's most beautiful and invigorating cities.
Heidelberg's age is greater than 800 years old, having been a center of learning since the Middle Ages. The university and the academic community were so central to the city's essence that they shared importance and influence with its churches, highly unusual in Medieval Europe.
Equal to the university the most famous edifice in Heidelberg is Heidelberg Castle. No matter that it is mostly in ruins, it is a unique opportunity to stand in the midst of one of these monumental buildings that we had seen along the Rhine Gorge the previous day. The perspective at eye level is fascinating and equally dramatic. Begun in the 14th century, and constantly revised and added onto for centuries thereafter, Heidelberg Castle is a jumble of styles and states of repair.
The highlight for many is the giant oak wine cask, holding 56,000 gallons, a repository for tax levies at a time when taxes were paid in liters of wine, not currency. The barrel is mentioned by Herman Melville, who compared its size to the Moby Dick's head. On our guide's recommendation we made our way to lunch at Hotel Zum Ritter (Ritter Hotel), in the shadow of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Among the things we enjoyed were a beef broth with crispy pancake strips and dumplings, caprese, pork wrapped in bacon and chanterelles, and roast venison with bacon Burgundy sauce. Delicious!
After lunch we strolled to nearby Market Square (Marktplatz) to peruse a mind boggling number of stores, selling, besides souvenirs, baked goods, candies, cutlery and cookware, and, a typical German tradition, year-round stores dedicated solely to selling Christmas ornaments, decorations and stocking-stuffers.
We caught our 3:15 p.m. shuttle bus to the town of Speyer, arriving simultaneously with two other things: the Creativity and a rainstorm. By this point I had learned how to read the weather forecast published in our daily onboard newsletter. The weather predictions were surprisingly accurate, as long as you expected weather that was diametrically opposite to the printed forecast! That's why I brought my umbrella along into Heidelberg, which made us the envy of all the other passengers waiting under the eaves of the riverfront restaurant for Creativity to finish docking. While we were there we checked the menu and, having seen plates of crispy fish and chips being delivered to tables of locals, decided to stay there for a biergarten dinner: fish and chips and local beer.
Back on the ship we were able to shower and freshen up while our fellow passengers dined in the ship's restaurant, after which we made our way to the lounge for nightcaps and a solo singing performance by a local soprano.
A Little Bit of Germany, A Soupcon of France
Like the French traditional cheek-to-cheek kiss of greeting, today would be our one-time glancing passage through French territory. Strasbourg is located in Alsace, a region which has ping-ponged between France and Germany over centuries, and which still bears the imprint of both cultures in style, cuisine and language.
The official weather forecast called for overcast with a chance of rain, so I was confident we would have beautiful weather … and we did!
The schedule was more option-laden than on most other days. For one thing, in addition to the regularly-scheduled daily free tour, today there were two additional optional (for fee) shore excursions, the first since leaving Amsterdam. One of these trips went out to visit the Maginot Line, the heavy fortifications built by France after World War I in an unsuccessful attempt to stave off future German invasions. The second trip -- somewhat more light-hearted -- toured the Alsatian countryside sampling scenery and wine in equal parts.
We chose not to take either of the optional excursions, but that left a logistical problem: there was only one transfer offered from Strasbourg back to the ship, and that one was scheduled to depart immediately after the tour, meaning that there would be no time for either lunching locally or shopping or independent sightseeing.
I checked with our tour guide once off the ship, and found the solution couldn't have been easier or more economical. Taxis were available in large numbers, and the fare back to the ship probably wouldn't exceed 10 Euros. Not only that, there was a taxi stand within a stone's throw of where we would be eating and exploring.
The morning tour of Strasbourg was excellent. It began with a boat tour, following the branches of the Ill River, a Rhine tributary. The two branches embrace an island called Grande Ile, location of the original settlement that became Strasbourg, site of the city's "Old District," and now a World Heritage Site. Looking out the windows of the glass-covered motorboat at the charming cityscape passing by, it was hard not to glance back over the itinerary and conclude that the further up the Rhine we forged, the more picturesque the towns we encountered.
On our journey we passed many significant buildings: the Court of Human Rights (the all-EU version of The Hague, representing 47 EU states, leaving out only Belarus), European Parliament headquarters, and the Royal Palace, now an art museum. We passed lovely neighborhoods, a lively student area, and the Protestant church where Albert Schweitzer was pastor. Most charming of all was Petite France, at the tip of the Grande Ile, mixing charming bridges, old half-timbered houses and innumerable riverfront bistros, punctuating the waterfront with colorful umbrellas and walls of flowering window boxes.
We departed our watercraft and proceeded to tour Strasbourg on foot, wending our way through German Square to the city's centerpiece: Strasbourg Cathedral. One highlight of the cathedral's interior was the massive pipe organ, sporting more than 2,000 pipes, colorfully decorated in ornate filigree, looking a bit more like a calliope than a church organ. But the centerpiece of the cathedral is its world-famous astronomical clock. Several clocks preceded the current one, which was built in the mid-19th century, with features far ahead of its time. It accurately calculates leap years, equinoxes, eclipses, movement of the planets and religious holidays based on calculations so complex that many consider this clock to be the world's first computer.
After visiting the cathedral we made our way to Maison Kommerzell, an outdoor brasserie in the Hotel Salon Baumann. There, while people-watching in Cathedral Square, we enjoyed a typical Alsatian lemon marinated chicken and steak frites.
We enjoyed an hour or so of shopping, then caught a taxi back to the ship. We had the rest of the afternoon to relax, before going to the dining room for the "Gala Farewell Dinner."
We went to bed serenaded by the sound of the ship passing through a lock, having no concrete expectations for the day to come in Breisach, a town I knew nothing about.
Saving the Almost Best for Almost Last
There was no scheduled organized walking tour of Breisach. Instead there was a free bus tour to the Black Forest featuring a stop at either a cuckoo clock factory or open-air "museum." Free or not this offering was strongly reminiscent for me of large ship shore excursions, including a clock carving "demonstration," "ship's discount," and visitor drawing for merchandise. Instead I decided to wander on my own through this small, easily accessible town on this fine Saturday morning.
It was a good choice. I knew it the minute I left the ship. Looking landward at the imposing silhouette of St. Stephen's Cathedral, as I walked along the river, a huge flock of snow white swans paddled alongside me at about my walking pace. I walked across quaint flower-festooned bridges over tiny Rhine tributaries, through a lovely park and playground, and up the hill into the village, using the cathedral as landmark to guide me to the town's center.
Ringing the inner town were numerous equivalents to US small suburban homes, the main difference being that most had vest-pocket vineyards in their backyards instead of barbecue grills or swimming pools. In the heart of the town, land between houses all but disappeared, but the brightly colored buildings, abundance of flowering window boxes and clean streets charmed me. In the shadow of the cathedral a small farmers market had been set up, selling everything from wines to olives to cheeses -- all of it of local provenance.
I walked up the hill to the cathedral, scoped it out as well as the Rathaus (town hall). The biggest surprise was a spectacular sculpture in the outer courtyard. Here, a life-size bronze bull literally bursts up through the bricks paving the courtyard, carrying on its back the abstracted nude form of a woman, reaching for a star. The sculpture was created in 2000 by Breisach artist, Helmut Lutz, commemorating the early vote in 1950 to form a united Europe. The statue uses the Greek myth of Europa as a metaphor. In it Zeus takes the form of a bull carrying away on his back the Phoenician princess, Europa, whom he had abducted. Europa is the source of the name, Europe, so the sculpture represents the headlong inevitability of the unification of Europe.
I returned to the ship and joined the shore excursion to Colmar. This was the only "for pay" shore excursion I opted for on the cruise and it was well worth it. I knew little of Colmar except that it was the home of Frederic Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty. A relatively small number of us piled into a bus for the short trip across the border into France to Colmar, the third largest city in Alsace. We walked into the city, entering through a charming park fronted with trees gifted from their native countries; a towering sequoia from the United States and a Gingko from Japan, among others.
Colmar has the distinction of never having been bombed by the Allies in World War II. We turned a corner and found ourselves in the old section of Colmar, a portion devoted to fishermen and tanners. Between the smell of fish and of tanning chemicals, this was once the least desirable section of the city, but a few steps took us to a jaw-droppingly lovely gentrified area, where open flat-bottomed boats carried tourists past flower-bedecked riverbank walls and quayside cafes. It's called "Little Venice," but to picture it think of San Antonio's Riverfront Walk combined with the canals of the Loire Valley. So charming it was that I was sorely tempted to go AWOL from the organized tour and join the queue for tickets for a riverboat journey -- followed by a waterfront cheese and Alsatian wine break.
Not that I was disappointed in the remainder of the tour. I wasn't. In fact, it was fascinating, thanks, in part, to yet another superior guide.
It was difficult to forget Bartholdi's connection to Colmar in this central part of town. Squares and parks were not only named after him, but featured statues of him. Our walk took us past the Bartholdi museum. All this from his design for the Statue of Liberty. (In an era of prickly international relations, it's a stretch to visualize an era where the French possessed an almost rabid passion for the United States!)
Our last stop in Colmar was the Unterlinden Museum, formerly a convent and now best known for housing the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. This striking multi-panel painting was stylistically far ahead of its 16th century roots, showing, in a style many would identify as expressionism, the crucifixion, annunciation and resurrection.
Since our route back to the bus holding area covered much of the same territory we had already toured, our guide regaled us with this fascinating little anecdote guaranteed to charm the trivia buffs at your next cocktail party: The copper exterior of the Statue of Liberty was fashioned by the French company, Gaget et Gauthier. Looking to make a few extra bucks, the company manufactured and distributed many miniature bronze models of the statue to New Yorkers. These models bore the company name, Gaget, Gauthier & Cie. The correct pronunciation of the first word in French is gah-ZHAY. However, Americans anglicized the pronunciation, which came out sounding like GA-jet, a name which many claim became synonymous for unusual trinkets or novelties, and, voila, the word, "gadget" was born.
We returned to the ship and spent the rest of the afternoon packing, planning on getting to bed early for our disembarkation in Basel, Switzerland, and transfer to our departure airport at Zurich. This was a thoroughly enjoyable river cruise, and there was much in the way of enrichment both aboard and ashore. I can honestly say that there wasn't a single port for which I would say, "Next time I'll just stay onboard." But for those for whom onboard experiences weigh equally with offshore exploration, this concept of cruising will definitely be a tad too port-intensive.
And though we may have had many quibbles with the ship's food, this itinerary offered ample opportunities to dine ashore, always a major plus in our book.
--by Steve Faber, Cruise Critic contributor