This was our eighth river cruise with Grand Circle Travel (GCT). It was our second cruise on the River Harmony. We have also cruised on the River Aria, River Concerto (two times), River Melody (two times) and Bizet. We have done the Christmas Markets Along the Danube and Christmastime on the Seine previously. Each were unique in their own way. Most of what we can say about this cruise and ship could be also said avout these other ships and cruise itineraries. Only some of their ships are listed as available to review on this site because they have not been professionally reviewed by Cruise Critic. I hope they do review them because we have found GCT to be a very good value.
We flew into Basel, Switzerland and took a taxi to the ship, since we booked our own air arrangements. After lunch on board we went into town on their included shuttle bus transportation. This was the first of the Christmas Markets we visited on this cruise. While all of them we have visited share similarities, each one has unique elements not found at the others. Each market has plenty of Gluhwine, sausages,crafts, music and decorations. I will mention the other things that are unique in each one.Basel had a particularly extensive hat stand! The one really outstanding element of the Christmastime river cruises is the fantastic atmosphere and good mood throughout the areas visited and onboard the ship (both passengers and crew!)
We went inland by bus to Kaysersberg and Riquewihr in the Alsace region of France. The Alsace has been part of Germany at other times in history and so it has a strong Christmas market tradition like Germany. The most notable aspect in these two wine towns were the extensive decorations on the fronts of the buildings along the winding streets.
On day three we visited Strasbourg, still in the Alsace. A canal cruise through the oldest part of the city was included and very picturesque. There were numerous markets around the city which helped spread out the very large crowds visiting right before Christmas. These markets are very popular with people from throughout Europe, especially Italians we were informed. We enjoyed a very delicious waffle with Nutella from one of the stands and a Flamekuchen (kind of like a small pizza but native to this region) from another. While we waited to board the tram back to the ship we enjoyed a six piece Salvation Army brass band playing carols. An all you can ride public transit pass was provided to us by the ship.
On day four we were transferred to the spa town of Baden Baden in Germany with a chance to taste the "curative" (meaning pungent smelling!) water the town has been known for since Roman times. We had a chance to stroll this elegant spa town and visit the Christmas markets before returning to the ship. Later there was an opportunity to have coffee and cake with a local family when we arrived in Speyer.
Day five took us from Speyer to Mainz, Germany. On day six we visited the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz and saw an operating replica of his revolutionary printing press before visiting the many markets there. But the most unique visit we made here was to St Stephens Curch to view the incredible modern stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall. This is truly a must see when visiting Mainz.We tasted some fantastic German potato pancakes from a stand at the market.
On day seven we cruised the most scenic stretch of the Rhine, past the notorious Lorilei rock. (This famous mermaid of the river was even spotted on board !). We passed numerous castles and terraced vineyards along the river, on our way to Koblenz. We were in Koblenz on day eight as well. This is where the the Mosel River meets the Rhine at the Deutsches Eck (German corner). We docked on the Mosel near the famous statue of Kaiser Wilhelm. We had a walking tour in Koblenz (as in all of the places visited) and took the cable car across the Rhine to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress. We toured this incredible fortress on our own before descending back down to the other side of the river on the cable car.
Day nine gave us an entire day and evening in Cologne. During an included walking tour with our excellent program director Eva we saw the old town and where cologne was was created before visiting the remains of the three wise men in the cathedral. Truly something to do at Christmas time. There were six Christmal markets in Cologne and we made it to all of them-on foot. We purchased three of the unique mugs at several of the markets as souvenirs. Each market had its own commemorative mug specific to that particular market.
Our last day was in Nijmegan, Netherlands where there were no Christmas markets! Then we spent the afternoon cruising to Amsterdam where there was only time left for a quick walking tour along the canals and through the red light district. There was even a touch of Christmas here from the two transvestite Santas we passed! Only in Amsterdam...
Well that's a VERY quick summary of the ports of call. On the ship the food was excellent and very plentiful and the staff extremely accommodating, as we have found on our other GCT cruises. These cruises have 120-160 passengers, so there is more of an opportunity to meet people, especially as there is one dinner seating and no assigned tables. Once again the very pleasant holiday atmosphere makes cruising at this time of year special.
Another unique aspect to these cruises on GCT is that the pasengers are divided up into three groups of about 45 people each of which has a program director that conducts the tours for that small group. The wireless receivers allow you to hear her commentary even when there is traffic noise. The PD's went out of their way to customize the cruise for us. Visits to Riquewihr (truly a highlight) and Ehrenbreitstein were not on the original itinerary, for example.
River cruises are truly the easiest way to travel in Europe and we can recommend them without hesitation.