We know the French go on strike as a sort of national pastime, or when they get bored; but no one was prepared for a strike by the German Lock Masters. Since this trip up the Rhine and across on the Main River, the Main-Danube Canal and the Danube River involved over 50 locks, this problem severly disrupted our itinerary.
Of course Avalon cannot be blamed for this, and they responded as well as they could, but the final days were mostly river cruising without stops, and this disappointed everyone.
However, to proceed with the review. We started with a five day sojourn in Paris, a city we had never visited. We will leave our comments on this part of our trip to the end, since this is a cruise review. We do note that we went to Basel, Switzerland, our embarkation port by French train, a TGV Lyria Premier "Piccolo", that made it in slightly over three hours, hitting 320 kph on some stretches. This was far better and more comfortable, as well as cheaper, than struggling out to CDG to fly. We have some advice on using the rail system. First, if you are hauling cruise luggage, take the lower deck so you won't have to haul your bags up to the top level. Next, when you go on line to get tickets, and they ask for your country of origin DO NOT put in the USA - choose someplace like Australia. It will be cheaper. I don't know why, but it works that way.
We were required by Avalon to telephone them after 8:00 A.M. on the embarkation day to find out where in Basel Affinity was docked. The directions from the first person to answer the phone were incomprehensible, so my wife took the phone and asked in German. Someone else, I believe Helmut the Cruise Director, gave her the correct and simple address. The cab to the pier from the Basel train station was very expensive compared to Paris taxis. When we arrived it was at a semi-industrial area on the Rhine. We had been told that we could not board until 4:00 P.M., and it was then about 1:30. We explained that by no means were we going to take a 45 euro cab ride back to Basel and pay the same amount to get back to the boat, and that we were not going to sit in the sun on the pier. After some heated negotiation, we were allowed to sit "no moving permitted" in the lounge adjacent to the front desk. Avalon could have showed better initial flexibility and customer relations. We were later joined by two other passengers, Karen and Penny, who were also early arrivals and sent to join us. Eventually other passengers started to show up so the four of us were released from detention and paroled to our staterooms.
When we arrived there, our luggage was waiting, and, overcoming the less than welcoming embarkation, we started to settle in. We believed then and believe now that Avalon should have displayed more sensitivity and discretion in dealing with its paying customers; but we were resolved not to let that color the entire experience.
Despite the Cruise Director's claim, Affinity is of course a boat, not a ship.
The locks limit the width of all boats and barges to approximately 36 feet. The low bridges limit the height to three decks, with the lower deck being partially below the water line. Several river cruises earlier this year were stopped en route because heavy rains raised the water level to a point where the boats could not pass under some of the old bridges on some European rivers.
(There are boats cruising exclusively on the central prtions of the Rhine that are not so limited.)
In any event Affinity is quite attractive and well designed even though it is 4 years old, almost ancient among the rapidly growing body of River Cruise boats. Basically it has two decks forward (about 45% on the length) and 3 decks aft, all in addition to the almost entirely open sky deck. The lower forward deck consists of the main dining room and the kitchen. The second forward deck holds the lobby, front desk, Cruise Directors desk, an internet station with two computers, the bar and main lounge, and an open forward deck area with a few tables and chairs for forward viewing. The lower aft deck has eleven passenger cabins, all with windows rather than the open balcony doors found on the upper decks. The remainder of the space is occupied by the crews' quarters and ship equipment. The second aft deck is almost entirely staterooms, all identical. The far aft portion is used for the laundry and perhaps other housekeeping supplies. The third aft deck has more staterooms, including the four suites. In addition there is another small lounge area aft, with the library, a 24 hour coffee station, about 30 or so chairs with tables and a small open view deck overlooking the stern with eight or so chairs. There is also a hairdressers' room, which we did not investigate or use. The sky deck is reached by several outside stairways, aft, midships and forward. It houses the pilot deck/navigation bridge, which can be lowered a few feet if needed to get under bridges. This occured many times during the trip. There are deck coverings which can be raised, and a small hot tub.
There are 69 staterooms; 65 of them identical in layout except that the 11 on Deck 1 have windows. All the remaining 58 staterooms, including the 4 suites, have sliding glass doors opening to the water, with railings, for what is called a "French Balcony". The standard cabin is not large, 172 square feet, but this is a size more typical of a riverboat; and is quite adequate. The walls are a nicely finished white surface. There is a queen sized bed, which can be split into two single beds for those wishing it. Night stands are on either side and there is a convenient bullet lamp on each side which can be focused on a book for in bed reading. Opposite the bed is the desk set up, with one chair, a vanity mirror, several shelves and a mini bar, and over them all at one side, a flat screen TV. Next to this table arrangement is the closet, also with shelves and a wall safe. The bathroom has a corner shower, single sink and toilet. My wife and I found it all quite pleasing and perfectly satisfactory. As usual, we had no trouble storing all our clothes and other supplies. We did wonder how some of our substantially overweight fellow passengers would be able to maneuver in the shower. The only time we were on a cruise where we did not have adequate space for either sleeping or storage was on Viking's Clara Schumann for our initial river experience. We were able to explore one of the suites after almost everyone except for us had debarked. There is more furniture and a larger bathroom in the 258 square feet provided, and they are quite nice.
Everyone wants to hear or read about the food on cruises. It is not totally fair to compare river boats to ocean ships. The size constraints of these boats are fixed by the heights of the bridges, the depth of the various rivers, and the size of the locks which might have to be negotiated. Therefore the number of food items offered, and even their preparation, is quite limited. We were provided with a tour of the galley, and all were astonished that the meals we were served could be prepared in such small quarters.
Only dinner was served by the waiters; breakfast and lunch being buffet style. The principal difference between this boat and a cruise ship for breakfast and lunch was the number of items being made available on the limited sized buffet station. There was less fresh fruit at breakfast, and while egg preparation was provided, side dishes were fewer. The same thing was true for the lunches, several hot offerings and a hot meat carving station was available, but fewer items were provided, and the desserts were limited; although, like all the pastries on the ship, they were quite good. Also at lunch, precisely one-half hour after the meal started, an assistant chef appeared carrying the ice cream choices of the day, which he served with grand flourishes. Generally speaking we both found the breakfasts and lunches well prepared and satisfactory.
We were less enthusiastic about the dinners. My wife found very little to enjoy in the daily vegetarian offering. We might have put this down to a European lack of familiarity with this type of meal, except that there were at least two restaurants in Vienna (one closed for vacation, one other that we ate at)
which had a number of vegetarian options). There were at least two major entrEe offerings that simply should not have been on the menu, because the kitchen was not capable of the preparation involved. One was a sauerbraten and the other a goulash; both traditional German/ Austrian dishes. Both however require special preparation. My wife marinates the meat for her delicious sauerbraten for at least a week. And goulash requires extensive slow simmering. Neither were applied here, and the Austrian Chef admitted to my wife, in German of course, that the sauerbraten was not close to the real thing. We also felt that Avalon should have provided additional wait staff, because the waiters had too many tables and passengers to attend and service was rushed and had occasional lapses. All the waiters were cheerful and friendly, and they poured the complimentary (at dinner) wine freely, but the service was somewhat erratic and very slow at times. By way of comparison, on a scale of 1-100; I would rate Crystal at 98, Oceania Marina at 97, Oceania Insignia and Celebrity at 94, Princess at 91, HAL at 90, Royal Caribbean at 87, NCL at 80 and Avalon and Carnival at 85.
As a kind of post script, we should note that twice, when we would be ashore for lunch with no way to return to the ship, Avalon handed each shore bound passenger 15 Euros to buy lunch locally. We found the amount more than enough, but perhaps this was because neither of us have large hot meal lunches.
But it did meet Avalon's claim that it provides all meals. No cruise ship does this.
First and foremost, the Captain was amazing. He seemed quite young for his position, and obviously was in great physical shape. He was everywhere, seemingly at all times, doing everything, from manhandling the gangplank to hauling passengers' luggage, to guiding the boat through many difficult locks and past other river boats and barges on the various rivers. At one point he, and the captain of another Avalon Boat going in the opposite direction pulled up together so we were almost touching and could exchange handshakes and greetings with the passengers on the other boat, while our captain climbed across to greet the other captain. He was always cheerful and upbeat despite the concerns raised by the lock masters' strike and doubts as to when we could move and where we could go. We were told that the captains, and presumable all, the "sailing" crew, did not actually work for Avalon, but for a separate company that contracts out their services. Apparently only Helmut, the Cruise Director was an Avalon employee. When we were docked in Vienna for the last night, and most of the passengers had gone to a concert ashore, I saw the Captain wheel out a bike and take it along the Vienna pier side area for a well-deserved bit of relaxation.
The Cruise Director, Helmut, from Vienna, had an extremely difficult cruise to manage, due to the strike. He was required to be in frequent contact with Avalon's home office in Switzerland, relating to them the information about the delays we would face (obtained from the Captain, I imagine), finding out what remedies Avalon could come up with and transmitting that unhappy information to the passengers.
He tried to be as positive as possible in presenting the information and the options, but it was a thankless task. Some passengers complained about him, but I do not see how else he could have handled situations over which neither he nor Avalon had any control. He did seem to enjoy chatting in German with Edith, since apparently no other passengers spoke German. Of course the Austrian chef and perhaps some other crew members did also. Some of the more difficult problems arose from the fact that after he was able to send the passengers off to visit a town, there were often upsets to the plans, again caused by the strike, concerning where they would meet the boat to re-embark. This involved Helmut communicating with the bus drivers and making sure they could find our boat. One time the drivers almost got lost, and then had to drive the huge buses down very narrow small town streets to a pier which had never seen a river boat dock there before. The townspeople were delighted with this new show! All in all, I am sure Helmut and the Captain both breathed huge sighs of relief when we docked in Vienna. I have no idea how long the strike continued, but at least Affinity's next stop was down the Danube, not back to Germany.
Our cabin steward, Petor, was excellent, working very quickly, and getting our laundry back the same day, a very big help with the clothing we had worn in Paris. The Dining Room waiters were friendly and pretty good, but I believe that even just one more would have allowed a much less hectic pace of food delivery for everyone. The front desk staff was cordial and helpful, although not particularly outgoing. And as noted, they were extremely inflexible when we arrived. A course in customer relations would not be wasted. The Hotel Manager was cheerful once the trip started, and we had gotten past our arrival issue.
We had a slightly delayed start since apparently there had been a small transportation problem for some of the passengers coming from Zurich. In addition, we were told that 21 passengers had missed a flight connection at JFK, and would be joining us the next day in Strasbourg. Fortunately, they made it, and their number included a family group of 13!
Our first stop was Strasbourg, France, in what was once known as the Alsace-Lorraine. It originally was French, was taken over by Germany as the result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, restored to France in 1918 after WW1, retaken by Germany in 1940, and returned to France in 1945. It has some mixed architecture and language as a result. During WW1 the British, in an excess of patriotic zeal, decided to change the name of the German Shepherd breed to "Alsatian". We first visited by an open river tour barge, since part of the city is actually an island. This gave us a unique view. We then returned to Affinity for lunch and went back to town for a guided walking tour in the afternoon as well as some free time. We used the system now followed by all river boats. We were divided into groups of less than twenty and given headset earphones and a control box. Each guide had his or her own frequency for their group. The control boxes had different colors so we could get together with our guide, and the white colored group was always for "gentle walkers". This worked out quite well. We had used it on our Viking Elbe River cruise, so we knew how it functioned.
There were three optional tours at this stop, all requiring additional fees; unlike the mormal tours which were included in the cruise price. These were to the Black Forest, The Alsace countryside with wine tasting and the Maginot Line. I know there were some Black Forest takers, but I am not sure about the other offerings.
When we re-assembled around 6:30 for the port talk for the next day, we were advised of the strike problem, without too many specifics about how we would be affected; except that we had to leave Strasbourg immediately and would not have the local on-board entertainment as planned. We also had the mandatory safety lecture which, as on Viking consisted of mostly saying that if the boat started to sink, go on the sky deck and you will still be dry as the boat rested on the river bottom.
The next day was spent entirely on a Heidelberg visit. This involved a bus trip of about an hour or so each way. We first visited the castle above the town, and then were pretty much on our own. This was one of the stops where we were provided with 15 euros apiece to supply our own lunch. We did pretty well with that. Heidelberg is a town of about 150,000 and had been untouched by WW2. It still is a university town, with the historical legend of having students duel in order to get "fashionable" dueling scars. None were evident on our visit. Nor did we see any "Student Prince" singing in a local tavern. How neglectful of tradition is the present generation! It is a very attractive city nonetheless, with lots of older buildings and churches.
This is a comparatively small river-side town, and we enjoyed an easy stroll. It was apparently untouched by any major war damage, and still has a great many medieval structures. We returned to the boat for lunch, and the galley tour. This was a quiet day.
Wurzburg is noted for its extremely ornate and large Bishop's Palace. It is also a very pleasant town, and our guide, who actually was born in South America, was amusing and informative.
In the afternoon we went to Rothenburg, a small and beautiful city, somewhat inland. It still has its medieval wall. We walked through a tower gate in the wall out to a beautiful grassy area with a view of a lovely valley. We then took our guide's advice and walked a section of the wall by ourselves. We were rewarded by another beautiful view of the grass lawn outside the tower gate where we had been. We also saw a nice cat in front of her home. This was the only cat we saw on our entire trip, although Paris, Germany and Vienna have plenty of dogs. This visit would have been one of the tours for which there was a charge, but Avalon made in complimentary because of our loss of other stops.
Kitzingen is a small, attractive river-side town where we strolled for short time in the morning. It was not listed as a stop, but we were glad we had the chance to see it.
We then went to Bamberg which truly has many amazing buildings dating back to the 12th century. Bamberg is definitely a city to see. Once again we had an excellent guide. The only drawback was that the bus trip was about an hour and a half each way. That night we were treated to a "show" by the crew, which even involved the captain. Pretty corny as one might expect, but fun nonetheless. One of the acts was a juggler, and he was pretty good for an amateur.
This also involved a bus ride and an all day visit. Nuremberg is noted for the War Crimes trials, but one cannot actually see the courtroom, only the building and the attached jail. We disembarked the buses for another 15 euro lunch, which turned out well since we found a place with their specialty -excellent small sausages; (well excellent for me anyway).
Back on board we were told that the strike would prevent our stops at Passau and Regensberg. We were offered the option of remaining on board to sail to Vienna, with possible stops at Melk or Salzburg; but no promises in that regard - or disembark the next morning with luggage to travel by bus to Munich, spend one day there and the following day go by bus to Vienna, an all day trip.
We then had a lecture on beer, followed by beer tasting of four different types.
The balance of the trip.
While a number of people originally thought they would go to Munich, most felt that, since one of the main pleasures of cruising is not packing and unpacking, they would remain on board. So, the next morning only 11 people left. Helmut had planned on going to Munich, but since so many were remaining on board, he did also. The next two days were spent on the river, with only one brief stop where we could get off and stretch our legs. We did not stop at Melk, nor were we able to have a side trip to Salzburg. We had visited Melk before and also spent two days in Salzburg on another trip, but we felt sorry for the people who had planned on enjoying both the beautifuly cathedral in Melk and the charms of Salzburg.
It was during this stretch that we saw Avalon Expression on its trip from Budapest to Amsterdam. We pulled up together and exchanged greetings and handshakes, while the captains visited. It had started with 168 passengers, but had only 60 remained as the rest took the bus option offered rather than face the lock delays and cancelled stops.
We arrived in Vienna on Saturday morning as scheduled. We had time for a one more tour, spending most of the day in Vienna. Our guide was somewhat elderly, but she did lead us to a great casual place for lunch, the Rathsberger, just off the main pedestrian street near the Statsoper. We also ate there for lunch the next two days. While there one of our fellow passengers suggested that we visit the Albertina Museum. Vienna was very hot, in the 90s, and we knew the Museum would be refrigerated. We were absolutely delighted with the exhibition then being held, of many late 19th and early 20th century artists, including Manet, Monet, many Picassos, Klint etc. We had a most enjoyable time, and it was very near where we caught our bus back to the boat. That night many fellow passengers opted to go to a concert in town. This was an additional charge, and we had seen one of these concerts on a prior trip. They are staged solely for tourists, not serious music lovers. The orchestra members are dresed up in late 18th century outfits with wigs etc. The music is largely from the Johann Strauss family, with perhaps one or two Mozart pieces. All the more serious musicians from Vienna are at the Mozart Festival in Salzburg in July; so we decided to skip this show and use the time for more leisurely packing.
Some of our fellow passengers were forced to get up very early in the morning the next day to make their flights, but we were content to be among the last to leave since we were staying on in Vienna for two more nights, and did not want to arrive at our pension too early. Our taxi ride from Affinity to our Vienna residence took only about 15 minutes and was not expensive. Our cruise was over.
River boats are limited in this area, and we lost two entertainment offerings scheduled, due to the strike. These would have been local entertainers, but early sailing times prevented their appearance. We did have one musical evening (not counting the on board pianist) and this was a German zither player named Tommy Temerson, who was quite enjoyable. Edith chatted with him afterwards and was pleased to find out he knew, and had played in her home town. There were three lectures, all given by local educators, on history and the locks, and they all were knowledgeable, pleasant and worthwhile.
As usual, the majority of the passengers were American, but there was a very large contingent of Australians aboard, I believe 4 from New Zealand, a few from the UK and and some Canadians.
There were five or six young people, from early teens to early 20s, which surprised us a little. River cruising seems to offer more opportunity for socialize with fellow passengers, perhaps because we are always seeing people we recognize and with whom we are more apt to have shared dining times.
River cruising is different from ocean cruising in many ways. The small size of the boat, the much smaller passenger and crew size, the frequent stops, the guided tours, the limited entertainment, are only part of it. The peace and quiet of the rivers themselves make for a more relaxed overall experience. As noted earlier, it seems much easier to get to know ones fellow travelers and spend time conversing. The lock situation on this trip was a problem, but not enough to ruin the trip or make us regret it. Many of Avalon's amenities, free internet, free wine at dinner, the complimentary Rothenburg trip, and the overall effort to work with a very difficult problem made us believe that this is a good cruise line. We would recommend it as a way get to know countries in depth and in a much more personal way than from a large cruise ship.
We spent 5 days in Paris, arriving on July 13. We stayed at the Hotel St. Jacques in the Latin Quarter portion of the 5th Arrondissment on the Left Bank.
It is an excellent three star hotel, which fortunately has refrigeration, since the temperature was in the 90s for our stay. We have posted a review on www.tripadvisor.com.
This was our first visit to Paris, and we loved it. Bastille Day (July 14) the big National Holiday, was rather frantic, and no one can possibly see what Paris has to offer in a short period of time, but we had fun. The Metro is marvelous, fast, efficient, clean, frequent. There is a website - www.ratp.fr - which not only provides maps, but has a system which shows you how to get from station to station in a marvelous way, covering the metro and bus lines, giving choices for the fastest route, the route with the least walking and the route with the fewest connections,and a map with clear directions. We had three great dinners; La Cuisine de Phillipe, Le Berthoud and Le Tournebievre, all reviewed also on Trip Advisor. We ordered Louvre tickets on line, and that got us in pretty quickly at 9:00 A.M. The Musee D'Orsay is also marvelous and there are many others. We found everyone friendly and helpful, especially since I tried to speak French as often as possible. Unfortunately, when they answered in French, I was often lost.
Post cruise Vienna
We had spent a week in Vienna in 2008 inorder to see Wagner's 4 opera Ring Cycle at the Statsoper. We stayed then, as well as on this trip, at the Pension Suzanne, also reviewed on www.tripadvisor.com. The only problem this time was that it is not refrigerated, and Vienna reached close to 100 degrees. We made do with a fan, but there are few shops that are refrigerated, and not all restaurants are either. That aside, Vienna is a marvelous city, with wonderful sights, stores museums etc. It also has great music, but not during July or August unfortunately. We mentioned the Rathsberger Restaurant, which is a buffet, and a very good place for a well prepared, very reasonable lunch. We ate at one rather unique place, the Wrenkh-Weiner Kochsalon, which had an excellent vegetarin dish for Edith and a marvelous trout for me. It is reviewed also on Trip Advisor, and is highly recommended. It is quite convenient, as it is close to Stephan Plaz, which is immediately in front of St. Stephan's Cathedral in the center of the pedestrian part of the Innerstadt, cwhich, as it sounds, is the center of the city. Vienna has much to offer.
All in all we spent three weeks on this adventure, and while we were tired after our long flight back, we felt that the overall experience was well worth while.