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Floating through the heart of Europe. Join a Rhine adventure on the Viking Tialfi

Rhine River (via Shutterstock)
Rhine River (via Shutterstock)

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From its headwaters in the Alps, the Rhine River flows through the heart of Western Europe. Once the realm of traders and explorers, today it’s home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and a travel highlight of the continent.

Lined by castles and cathedrals, the Rhine area is best visited by river cruise because the waterway brought life, trade and culture to the region, and remains the source of much its history today. Viking’s eight-day journey from Basel to Amsterdam dazzles visitors with medieval scenery and regional cuisine. Our four-country journey will visit wine towns, ancient ruins and vibrant cities as it follows the river from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Updated October 14, 2019

The trip starts near the river’s source in Basel, Switzerland, with stops in Breisach, Germany; Kehl, Germany (near Strasbourg, France); Mannheim, Germany (near Heidelberg); Rudesheim, Germany; Koblenz, Germany; Cologne, Germany; Kinderdijk, Netherlands; and Amsterdam. It also travels in the reverse direction.

Basel, Switzerland

Basel (via Shutterstock)

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in Basel the night before my cruise. The city lacks the name recognition of its glitzy Swiss relatives like Zurich, Geneva or Lucerne, and I figured I’d wander its downtown, take a half-hearted stroll through a museum, and then get to the main attraction: my ship, the Viking Tialfi.

Wow, was I wrong.

It was sometime after viewing the 10th Picasso painting, or catching sight of the sixth building designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect, that I realized this unassuming Swiss city has plenty to offer.

While everyone’s whirlwind tour will differ, my must-see was the Kunstmuseum, an art institution rivaling the best in Europe. It features a greatest hits of the artists of the last 200 years, the likes of Monet, Manet, Degas, Gaugin, Modigliani and on and on and on.

And did I mention Picasso? This city’s love affair with the artist dates to 1967 when a local collector tried to sell two paintings he had loaned to the museum. Outraged citizens voted to spend more than two million Swiss francs to buy them. Picasso was so moved that he donated several more paintings to the city.

This clearly was a city with spirit, and when I finally walked up the gangplank to my ship, I looked longingly over my shoulder, wishing I had just a bit more time.

But the moment I stepped aboard the Viking Tialfi, my home for the next week, all disappointment evaporated. This is my first time on a Viking ship, and I was impressed. With an interior decorated with light woods, glass and stone, I felt like I was stepping into the lobby of a stylish hotel. Check-in was as simple as stopping at the reception desk and showing my passport. No long snaking lines like a big ocean cruise ship.

I quickly unpacked and then headed up to a wine and cheese tasting with my fellow passengers that segued into a welcome aboard program, and into dinner.

Shortly after returning to my cabin, I heard a whispering of wind and looked out my balcony window. Our Rhine journey had begun. I climbed into bed, knowing I had to rest up for tomorrow, a day that would have me visit two more countries.

Breisach, Germany and Colmar, France

My favorite part of cruising is waking up and finding myself in a new place. This morning, I found three swans floating outside my balcony, waiting, it seemed, just for me. It felt out of a fairy tale, which was fitting because today I was bound for Germany’s Black Forest, where the Brothers Grimm set many of their fantastic stories.

And then, the afternoon would bring another fantasy setting, offering a chance to explore the stunning French city of Colmar, filled with colorful half-timber homes that look like a postcard-version of a medieval village.

I start the day with a bus ride rolling past vineyards and into the woods. Along the way, our tour guide on this free Viking excursion fills us in on the scenery.

The Black Forest gets its name from its thick vegetation—and the fear it evoked in villagers. This was where witches lurked, where spells were cast, and peasants spun straw into gold. These stories intrigued Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm who visited during the early 19th century to collect the folktales. The legends were published in a series of popular books, and live on today as fairy tales.

When we reach our destination, the historic Hotel Hofgut Sternen, we have a chance to watch demonstrations about a quirky Black Forest specialty—cuckoo clocks—and a delicious one, Black Forest cake. But I was eager to walk in the mythical forest, wondering if I could find a big bad wolf or a princess kissing frogs. And although my hike was free of magical creatures, it did offer fern-filled gullies and multi-tiered waterfalls.

Back at the ship, I barely had time for lunch before heading out to Colmar. As it would happen again and again the coming week, I found myself falling in love with place that I’m embarrassed to say I barely knew existed before the cruise.

Put simply, Colmar is a travel gem, a city so pretty it doesn’t feel real. Centuries-old buildings painted in a rainbow of colors line its pedestrianized old town. Canals run through part of the city, which has earned it the name Little Venice. Visitors come for its shops, cafes, and museums.
For me the highlight, was a 500-year-old relic called the Isenheim Altarpiece.

This series of painted panels comforted and awed illiterate pilgrims to the local cathedral. Priests used it as a calendar of sorts, folding out different scenes on holy days. Even centuries later, its bright colors and vivid Biblical scenes feel cinematic, and I immediately understood why it’s called the Sistine Chapel of German art.

And on this afternoon, with only a handful wandering the city’s Unterlinden Museum, I had the masterpiece almost to myself.

Strasbourg, France

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Glorious.

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Sometimes a city captures your heart. Sometimes, its rich history can ignite your imagination. Strasbourg today did all that, and something more. It delighted my stomach.

The city and surrounding Alsace region has long been a territorial chameleon, repeatedly changing hands between Germany and France. Its food reflects that history, offering the heartiness of German cuisine prepared with French flair.

Our daylong tour, A Taste of Alsace, lets you sample that heritage. After strolling the city and nibbling local cakes and candies, we stopped for an Alsatian specialty called tarte flambee. Made of thin dough covered with creme fraiche and sprinkled with pieces of ham, it looked suspiciously like pizza. But it was much lighter, and flakier, making it easy to devour several pieces. Served with a crisp green salad dressed with a spicy mustard dressing, lunch was both simple and sophisticated.

There was more food to come, but first we had time to explore. At the end of the street, I encountered one of the highlights of Europe, Strasbourg’s cathedral. Completed in the 1400s, the red sandstone building was once the tallest church in the world. And after lunch, I had no excuse not to climb the 332 steps to its viewing platform. I stopped a few times to catch my breath, but drank in the view of the Rhine River valley. This was the region where the Germans and French have clashed for centuries. The fact that it has been at peace for 75 years now is remarkable.

Stepping inside took me back half a millennium, and face to face with the cathedral’s astronomical clock, a whirligig wonder that not only tells time, the phase of moon, and the location of the planets, but also delivers a grim lesson on mortality every 15 minutes. That’s when a mechanical skeleton symbolically kills the poor figure that marches in front of him. No one gets mercy, whether toddler or elderly man.

The message is meant to reinforce faith, but it also helped me appreciate the rest of the afternoon. If our time is indeed short, we should make the most of it. At least, that’s what I was thinking as we continued on our rounds, stopping at a cheesemonger with 200 varieties on offer. Then we picked up some bread and finally made it to a wine shop where we sat down to sip Alsatian vintages, paired to our recent purchases.

Our first glass was a revelation, a local Riesling that goes down easy on a hot afternoon. Cold, dry and crisp, it was as refreshing as water. Then I took some of the Camembert-style cheese we had just purchased, spread it on a piece of freshly baked baguette that we bought 15 minutes ago, and took a bite I’ll always remember.

The next tasting was just as compelling: a pinot noir, paired with blue cheese spread on a piece of a soft German-style pretzel—a bite of creamy, salty and chewy deliciousness.

Back on the ship, I wanted to collapse in my cabin, but had one more task. Just 100 yards upstream from our boat a strikingly modern bridge built just for pedestrians and cyclists crosses the Rhine. The span, called the Passerelle des Deux Rives (Bridge of Two Banks) got international exposure in 2009 when Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other leaders walked across to commemorate the 60th anniversary of NATO. Following in their footsteps, I paused at the top with one foot in Germany, one in France, while the river rolled on ahead of me.

Heidelberg and Rudesheim, Germany

For many visitors, Heidelberg’s highlight is a giant castle lording over the city. While the fortress is impressive, it’s most memorable for housing the world’s biggest wine barrel. Taxes were once collected in wine, and stored here. The 30-foot tall container has a dance floor on the top, and now you can order wine tastings in its shadow.

Perhaps that set the tone for the students in Heidelberg, one of Germany’s biggest college towns. And like college towns everywhere, it’s clear not every minute was devoted to studying. How else to explain why the university had its own prison just for misbehaving students? They were sentenced to what amounts to a glorified detention, in an attic lockup, where they could hold parties.

The inmates had been accused of crimes like fencing, knocking off a policeman’s hat, or releasing squealing pigs in the streets in the middle of the night.

I couldn’t resist a peek at what sounded like an historic Animal House film set. Climbing up the winding staircase brought me to something that looked like a cross between jail and a frat house. The preserved graffiti makes it clear these prisoners had a great time during their stay.

Back on ship, we sailed for a few hours to Rudesheim, a friendly, walkable town that marks the start of what’s called the Middle Rhine. Again, I had never heard of the place, which I now know is famous for its wines, brandy and river views, and it became an instant favorite.

A cable car station in town offers a 10-minute trip to a hilltop observation post with glorious views of the Rhine. I opted to walk back down to town on a 2-mile hike through vineyards originally established by the Romans.

The path eventually led to a wine bar equipped with coin-operated machines offering tastes from more than 100 bottles. Having just strolled through wine fields, I wanted to see what they produced. With a handful of coins, I went to work. Until this trip, I considered Rieslings cloyingly sweet, but one produced by a vineyard just a few miles away was dry and complex. I also tried a sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, but when I got to my last coin, I returned to the first machine for one more sip of Riesling.

You’ve got to support the local team, I always say.

Middle Rhine and Koblenz, Germany

Today offers what may the highlight of the trip, a chance to float through what I call castle alley, the 40-mile Middle Rhine, where it’s hard to throw a bratwurst without hitting a citadel. This is why travelers began visiting the region centuries ago, and one of the main reasons I wanted to sail the river.

The whole stretch is even recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and there’s no better way to see it than from the water.

As we left Rudesheim in the morning, I climbed to the ship’s rooftop sun deck with binoculars and a jacket. For the next two hours, as our cruise program director Andrew pointed out the sites and filled in the history, I felt like I was floating through a real-life IMAX movie.

Real estate, as we all know, is all about location, and that’s why there’s such a concentration of castles here. Local barons and lords taxed anyone traveling the river. Their glorified toll booths built fortunes. Every few minutes another castle would come into view. Some now house upscale hotels, others museums, and then there’s Heimburg, a charming one in the town of Niederheimbach, which is now a single family home. McMansion, indeed!

Soon we passed Lorelei gorge, a deep, treacherous section of the river, home to a legendary enchantress. Like the sirens of Greek mythology, her beauty and song would lure sailors, who wound up being smashed on the rocks. Somewhere in the middle of this castle-athon, a waiter appeared with trays of bloody marys. I hesitated, but figured why not? I’m sure the medieval sailors who worked this stretch of river would approve. As I watched the scenery unfold, I couldn’t help but smile. This was my perfect day: geography, history, travel, all served with a warm breeze, and a cocktail.

Our ship docked in Koblenz where the Moselle River ends its leisurely route from the French Alps and joins the Rhine. A statue watches over this strategic intersection, a spot called German Corner. But not all the history goes back centuries. It also displays three panels from the Berlin Wall. Signs in English explain how its collapse transformed the country.

I headed out on my own to explore this bustling town and wandered into an interactive museum called the Romanticum, which does a remarkable job explaining why the Rhine plays such a large role in German history. It told how artists and writers have long been enchanted by the region. This is where Mary Shelley set her tale of Dr. Frankenstein, who took his monstrous creation on a trip down the Rhine. It also inspired some of the first travel writing, and even 19th century poets like Karl Simrock, who warned travelers they could be seduced by the river’s beauty:

By the Rhine, by the Rhine… dwell not by the Rhine,
My son, I counsel thee fair;
Too beauteous will be that life of thine,
Too lofty thy courage there.

Looking at the river that night, I realized he was right. I didn’t want to leave.

Cologne

Less than a year ago, I was traveling through Germany on a train, which stopped for a few minutes in Cologne. I caught a glimpse of its legendary cathedral and was so impressed, I briefly considered tossing out my travel plans and visiting right then. Instead, I vowed to return.

Today was the day.

Our ship docked directly across the river from the landmark, and over breakfast, I admired the view. But the city, I was to learn, had even more to offer. Above all, Cologne is a survivor. With more than 90 percent destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, it has made a remarkable comeback. The city also has a devil-may-care attitude reflected in a rowdy Carnival that would do New Orleans proud. “Germans are hard-working, industrious, on time, rule-followers. In Cologne, we are none of these,” lifelong resident and guide Erwin Resch told me.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I started the day on Viking’s tour of the cathedral, the second tallest in Europe. It also houses a shrine said to hold the remains of the three wise men who brought gifts to baby Jesus. But I was surprised and equally impressed by a stained-glass window installed in 2007 by abstract artist Gerhard Richter.

He didn’t bother with angels and prophets. His creation is more like a Tetris game writ large. Thousands of glass panels in 72 different colors illuminate the church interior like a pixelated image on a giant smartphone. I loved the playful display, but others, including the archbishop thought it had no place in a church.

After that uplifting start, I turned to explore Cologne’s dark history. Like most German cities, it had a local resistance fighting the Nazis. Their story is remembered in the El-De Haus, which preserves the Gestapo headquarters where Nazi enemies were imprisoned, tortured and executed. Walking through its dank subterranean cells, it’s hard to believe how far the city has come, and the price so many paid.

I had a similar response at the city’s only synagogue. Cologne was once home to a thriving Jewish population of more than 20,000, but only a handful survived the war. The city’s grand synagogue was burned by Nazi crowds in November 1938’s Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night, a reference to broken windows. But today visitors find a grand rebuilt building, with an interior dome, and modern blue and white stained glass. The congregation numbers 4,000, and in 2021, it will celebrate an anniversary marking 1,700 years of Jewish presence in the city.

In 2005, Pope Benedict stopped by, marking the first papal visit to a German synagogue. Like many others, he noted how the city has learned from its history and become a symbol of tolerance.

That alone was reason to celebrate, and that evening I joined a Viking tour that promised to show another side of city life, its beer culture. Simply put, Cologne loves its kolsch, a light, drinkable brew served in a small glass. It’s made by several dozen breweries in town, and is best sampled at a beer house, which concentrate around the city’s old town market.

Having a drink isn’t simple though. It’s a bit like taking out a subscription service. You enroll by sitting down and placing a coaster on the table. The waiter brings beer whenever your glass empties, marking a tally on the coaster. The brew flows until you place a coaster on top of your glass. But there’s no rush. At 4.5 percent alcohol, and always served cold, these go down remarkably easy.

Our tour visited four beerhouses, and although I was ready for another round, our ship was about to leave for Holland. Stepping aboard, I looked up to the illuminated cathedral towers, glowing like exclamation points against the twilight sky.

That’s when I realize that in my rush I had neglected one of my goals: to climb the 533 steps to the top of the church. It was last year’s train stop all over again. I was leaving Cologne with regrets, and another vow. Next time, I’m going to make it to the top.

Kinderdijk, Netherlands

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Kinderdijk @lbleiberg

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Amsterdam

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Amsterdam’s Anne Frank house via Shutterstock

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If you’re going to Amsterdam, the first thing to do is go online months in advance and book a ticket to the Anne Frank House. The canal-front building where the Frank family hid from the Nazis is one of the most popular attractions in Europe, and without an advance ticket, extremely hard to access. Luckily, I had planned ahead.

As one of the millions who had read the diary in middle school and seen the play, I knew the story, and the betrayal that saw 15-year-old Anne and most of her family killed in concentration camps. But what surprised me was the cramped quarters of the secret annex. Eight people spent two years in hiding in a space smaller than my first apartment. And yet, this young girl was able to write in her diary words of hope that still resonate 75 years later.

Indeed, Amsterdam offers much to inspire. By late morning, I was strolling the streets, admiring the canals that tie together the city and head for Vondelpark. The city’s vast greenspace, a park covering more than 100 acres, not only offers ideal people watching on a summer afternoon, but it’s home to the Van Gogh museum, and to the famed Rijksmuseum, the Dutch National Museum. On my last day before heading home, I couldn’t have found a better spot to linger.

As one of the world’s richest cities, 17th-century Amsterdam supported a community of artists, and the Rijksmuseum, showcases the masters. Although large, I found the galleries easy to navigate with free smartphone tours available through the complimentary Wi-Fi. And while I marveled at Rembrandt’s "The Night Watch," I found myself drawn to river landscapes, castles and windmills by lesser-known artists. Although painted centuries ago, the scenes were like a highlights reel from my last week’s journey. Their paintings were so much more compelling than the shots I had taken on my smartphone!

Walking by their masterpieces I was reminded again why the Rhine is the heart – and the soul – of Europe. And, I realized, how lucky I had been to explore its shores from the comfort of a river cruise.

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