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2 Helpful Votes
Sail Date: May 2005
This is a review of our May 28-June 18, 2005 Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise/tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube, sailing from Amsterdam to Vienna on GCT's M/S River Melody. The trip included three ... Read More
This is a review of our May 28-June 18, 2005 Grand Circle Travel (GCT) "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise/tour on the Rhine, Main, and Danube, sailing from Amsterdam to Vienna on GCT's M/S River Melody. The trip included three days before the cruise in Brussels and three days after in Vienna. Most of this review is about the ship, as you will spend over half the time aboard. The ship's features and services shouldn't be compared to an ocean liner, but are more similar to a Mississippi River cruise on the Delta Queen. This is our 14th cruise, including two river cruises and the two GCT trips. AIRLINES The GCT airline service was not convenient; our total travel time was more than 16 hours  a 6 a.m. (PDT) flight from LAX to Washington D.C. with a five hour layover, arriving in Brussels at 7:30 a.m. (Central Europe Daylight Savings Time) the following morning. (Brussels is nine hours ahead of Los Angeles.) The flight to Brussels was on a United 767 with individual TV screens in the seatbacks; the outside rows were two seats wide. The return flight was on a Lufthansa 747 taking only 14 hours -- but we were jammed in like sardines, with no individual TV screens, and the outside rows were three across. And there were no pre-assigned seats from LAX to Washington D.C. or from Vienna to Frankfurt. Our previous GCT flights to Europe were on Delta and very good - non-stops LAX to London and Paris to LAX, with individual TV screens, and two seats wide. In the future, we will arrange our own flights and not use GCT. SHIP CABIN There was plenty of storage space for large suitcases under the two single beds (there are no larger beds in any cabins). There were two closets about two feet wide for hanging clothes, and two sets of two drawers. However, when the bed was folded down, the two drawers were difficult to reach -- they were deep under the bed and you had to sit on the floor to reach them. The cabin's mechanical key locks were recently removed, leaving a one-inch open hole in the door. The old locks were replaced by a plastic keycard arrangement located above the holes. The balcony proved to be a good investment and we used it often. The only problem: Because of the balcony, your bathroom was two feet smaller than in the non-balcony cabins. There were two small chairs on the balcony, and one chair and writing table in the cabin, with a telephone and hair dryer. One smaller round table is between the beds near the sliding glass balcony door. During the daytime, the beds were folded up against the wall and a small half-sized couch was available to sit on (but too small to lie on). CABIN TV The TV set was very small -- about 10 inches -- and located above one bed. Thus it could only be seen from the opposite couch or bed. It had six TV channels with only two in English (CNN's European edition and SkyView, a British news channel) and several in German. It was very difficult to get a daily or even a weekly weather forecast for Europe where our ship was. Frequently, the TV would go out of service when we passed under a bridge, into a lock, etc., as the satellite signal was blocked. One TV channel shows a view forward from the bow; another provides photos of the crew. Public announcements are piped into the cabin's loudspeaker; often late-evening, unimportant announcements would disturb the early sleepers. There were no music channels. BATHROOM The toilet is high. Two large mirrors over the sink provide a reverse image. Everyone uses the smaller round mirror instead. There's very little sink counter space, and a shower (no bath). E-MAIL SERVICE The ship has a single computer in the lobby for passengers, but without access to the Internet. Passengers can use the computer to compose and save outgoing e-mail messages on a 3½-inch diskette, and give it to the ship's front desk personnel, who will send your messages the next time the ship is docked. Your best bet is to use Internet cafes in each port, where the cost is at least half what the ship charges. BOARDING PASSES You must go to the front desk every time you leave the ship, and request your paper boarding passes. These are removed from your mailbox behind the counter, and you need to return them when you return, since the front desk personnel count the passes to verify everyone is back on board. SHIP'S LOCATION It was always difficult to determine where you were on the river, since no map was provided in the lobby or on your cabin's TV set. Nor were there any weather forecasts or narrations of the scenes we were passing - castles on the hilltops, small towns on the river's edge, etc. DINING Everything is open seating - no reserved tables. Thus some passengers lined up early and rushed into the dining room to get a window or large table. Tables typically seated four or six persons; the tables in the rear of the room away from the windows have benches and chairs instead of all chairs, and appeared to be larger. The morning orange juice always tasted watered-down. Two small glasses of wine (red or white) were served per passenger at dinnertime. Mealtimes were 6-9 a.m. for breakfast, lunch at 12:30 p.m., and dinner at 7 p.m. (lunch and dinner have just one seating). The quality of the food was fair; for the heavy eaters, more was always available. SHIP'S LOUNGE The drinks tasted watered-down. All drinks were small and expensive, and the service was slow. In fact, many passengers began to buy wine in the ports to drink in their cabins, and stopped using the lounge. The ship charged a $5 (U.S.) corking fee to open your wine. There is a 24-hour instant coffee dispenser in the lobby area. The lounge is poorly designed for the evening entertainment or tour talks. NEWSPAPER There were one or two copies of a faxed two- or three-page newspaper, but they always disappeared quickly from the front desk. BRUSSELS, BRUGES AND AMSTERDAM PRECRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals, good canal boat rides, and very good hotel breakfast service. But there were not enough photo stops and no museum tours. We only visited one church. There was no Internet service in the GCT-provided hotel. The chocolate and porcelain factories we toured were very small operations -- almost like backyard garage operations. VIENNA POST CRUISE TOURS The optional tours were good, with good meals. The same comments apply as in Belgium about photo stops, museum tours, church visits, etc. This hotel had Internet service in the lobby, but the cost was as high as on the ship. Only two blocks away was an Internet cafe with more than 10 computers available at half the cost. TOUR ACTIVITIES All of the tours including the optional ones were very good. However, the sights to be seen or visited did not follow the GCT catalog or web schedule. Some sights were eliminated and others changed without any notice. Be sure to plan your cruise around the fact that all stores are closed on Sundays and all museums are closed on Mondays. Be sure and take the optional tour to have coffee and cake at a local resident's home. Each group is limited to six to eight passengers, and it was very interesting to visit the home and talk one-on-one to the housewife. UNUSUAL ACTIVITIES One day, the tour director gave each of us one euro and asked us all to buy some sweet rolls while ashore, to be pooled together for breakfast the following morning aboard the ship. TIPPING All crew tipping ($10 U.S. per passenger per day) can be added to your cabin bill. However, for local bus and guide tipping, keep a brunch of one-dollar bills available (for a half day, one dollar per passenger for the bus driver and another for the guide; or double that for a full day). Plus you will need to tip the tour director ($5 per day per passenger) at the end of the cruise in dollars. U.S. currency was widely accepted aboard ship and by the onshore stores, cafes, etc. Of course, you can us your credit card in the stores and cafes; and euros are need for any local transportation or services (streetcars, subways, coin-operated computers, etc.). SUMMARY It was a most interesting cruise, and we saw many interesting sites including the Gothic cathedral in Cologne, the Heidelberg University and castle, the baroque palace of the Prince-Bishop in Wertheim, the Nuremberg museum, the Main-Danube canal, etc. The negative side: It's a long cruise with lots of walking on cobblestone streets. Read Less
2 Helpful Votes
Sail Date: June 2007
  Cruising from Vienna to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers  My wife and I enjoyed a long, colorful sunrise on our non-stop Austrian Airlines flight from New York, arriving mid-morning in Vienna to begin our 900-mile ... Read More
  Cruising from Vienna to Amsterdam on the Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers  My wife and I enjoyed a long, colorful sunrise on our non-stop Austrian Airlines flight from New York, arriving mid-morning in Vienna to begin our 900-mile cruise to Amsterdam.  We were met at the airport and guided to our bus by a Grand Circle staffer.   Before we selected this "Great Rivers of Europe" cruise on Grand Circle Travel's River Melody, we wondered if we would be claustrophobic in a small cabin and whether dining choices would be too limited.  We needn't have worried.  Now, post-trip, we unreservedly recommend a river cruise, and this one in particular. Unpacking once, and having your hotel transport you to interesting places is a great way to travel!    The Grand Circle staff and crew were superb and thoroughly accommodating.  The food choices and quality were excellent.  Every cabin on the ship afforded an outside view, was comfortable and had ample storage space and a decent size bathroom.  We stayed too busy to use the small TV perched above one of the beds.  When we were not enjoying the incredible scenery along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers or visiting uniquely beautiful and historic communities on the way, we were meeting fellow passengers in the lounge, dining room and upper deck.  The lounge and dining room were bright and provided expansive outside views through floor-to-ceiling windows along their full perimeter.  Both were very comfortably and pleasantly furnished.   The small workout room was sparsely equipped and windowless.  Although Grand Circle caters primarily to older travelers, this cruise included a contingent of vacationing Grand Circle employees on board, as young as 19 years of age.   A brief time in Vienna   Although we were to sail on the day of our mid-morning arrival, we hoped to squeeze in some sightseeing in Vienna.  Our ship was docked near Vienna, by the little village of Nussdorf.  To our delight, buses had been arranged to take passengers to the Ringstrasse - Vienna's old city center.  After lunch en board River Melody, we had time for a quick walk to explore Nussdorf.  Many Austrians were enjoying the walking and biking paths that stretched along the Danube toward the village and its small marina.  The "Blue Danube" was a greenish-tan color, yet still beautiful, and apparently considered safe by the few swimmers and many sunbathers enjoying this mostly sunny and warm Sunday.  A few private pleasure boats plied the river.    The center of Nussdorf, which is reached by a narrow tunnel under the roadway, is a picturesque community dominated by small, attractive inns, restaurants and churches snuggled against narrow, cobblestone streets barely wide enough to squeeze a car through.  Outside the village, houses were scattered on high hills where residents could enjoy commanding views of the Danube.   After our walk, we boarded a bus to center-city Vienna where we got directions to St. Stephen's Cathedral and other nearby attractions.  Our walk towards the cathedral took us past sidewalk cafes and ice cream parlors, crowded with people enjoying the warm afternoon.   St. Stephen's Cathedral is a large, ornate and imposing stone structure built between 1147 and 1510 A.D.  The beauty of its grand exterior was dimmed somewhat by a coating of grey grime on the lower half of the cathedral.  The interior was dark and cavernous, dimly lit by distant windows.  Whatever artificial lighting there may be for use during services was not in use.  Nonetheless, we were in awe of its size and impressive construction.  As we went to leave, booming thunder greeted us and we discovered crowds of people huddling, shoulder-to-shoulder, in the cathedral entrance to escape fierce lightning and a torrential downpour.  The storm remained intensive for a full hour and a half.  By the time it subsided, it was time for us to head back to the ship.  Our short visit to Vienna was only long enough to whet our appetite for this great city.   Wachau Valley and Melk   Late Sunday evening, River Melody began its westerly cruise up the Danube towards Melk.  Morning greeted us with gorgeous views of the Wachau Valley, a succession of picturesque tile-roofed towns, wooded hills and castles, including the ruins of a castle in Dunstein where England's Richard the Lion-hearted was once held for ransom.  The steep hills near Dunstein were terraced for the growing of grapes and apricots.  The region is known for its fine wines and apricot brandy and liqueur.   We climbed to the sunny top deck for unimpeded views of the ever-changing spectacle and to walk the deck's perimeter for exercise.   River Melody docked briefly in Melk for a visit to Melk Abbey, which has been a Benedictine Abbey since 1089.  Much of this stately and ornate baroque abbey, with its twin towers and 208-foot-high dome, was reconstructed in 1736 after a devastating fire.  The abbey is an imposing and magnificent structure, perched on a steep cliff-side with commanding views of the Danube and the town of Melk below. In a library having 365 windows, the abbey houses thousands of books and manuscripts from the middle ages. Most impressive is the ornate sanctuary, brightly lit by numerous large windows in its walls and dome.  Red, orange and gold dominate frescoes on arched ceilings and complement the magnificent carved pulpit.  Melk Abbey is a must see.    After exploring the abbey, we descended a stone walkway to the town of Melk.  There, accompanied by two German-born fellow passengers, we explored shops, sampled apricot brandy, followed side streets to the river and, finally, found a place to quench our thirst before returning to the ship.  That evening, the Captain's reception and dinner were followed by an evening of music.  We soon discovered that our (Dutch) captain's  excellent skills as a seaman were matched by his musical skill as he strummed his guitar and sang.  Our group's Program Director, Robert, (also Dutch) impressed us with his humor, his knowledge, his fluency in seven languages and his superb skill as a mime.  Turns out he had understudied for years with Marcel Marceau.  On various evenings throughout the trip, we had musical and dance groups and other entertainment, even a wonderful performance on the zither (a 42-string German instrument about the size of a guitar but shaped much like a harp).  Because River Melody is a small ship, accommodating a maximum of 140 passengers, we didn't expect or experience floor shows.  Other than that brief comment, I will skip details of the entertainment and focus instead on places of interest on the trip.    Passau   Early the next morning we entered German waters, arriving mid-morning at Passau, located at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz and Inn rivers.  Passau is an elegant town of steep hills and narrow cobblestone alleys.  We visited the ornate Bishop's Residence with its painted ceiling above the marble staircase and viewed the 14th century Town Hall (now a museum).  One corner of the Town Hall is marked to show the high water mark of many serious floods - one price of being located at the confluence of three rivers.  The latest flood recorded was August 13, 2002.  The highest occurred in 1501 and appeared to be at least 12 feet above street level.    We enjoyed Passau's beautiful gardens as we approached the Dom, the twin-towered St. Stephen's Cathedral.  Its ornate exterior was impressively bright compared with St. Stephen's in Vienna. In fact, workmen were in the process of treating its sandstone exterior with a white, impervious substance. Its brightly lit interior of white marble, intricate ornamentation and circular ceiling frescoes is stunning and opulent.  Except at the base of pillars, every inch of interior walls appeared to be embellished with statues and frescoes.  Compared with Melk Abbey, it had very little gold trim; but, like Melk Abbey, high windows provided ample light to view its extensive artwork.  This 17th century cathedral contains Germany's largest pipe organ with an astounding 17,774 pipes, 234 stops and 4 carillons.  We purchased tickets (4 euros each) and returned later in the day to enjoy a half hour organ concert.  Hearing the powerful organ reverberate through this grand cathedral was a treat!   Following the concert, we took pictures of the flower-bedecked waterfront and decided there was still time to see the glass museum housed in a waterfront hotel.  We took an elevator to the top floor of the hotel and discovered that the exhibit of 30,000 items took up a substantial area on each floor of the building.  By the time we worked our way back to the ground floor, it was closing time and too late to visit the Worlen Museum of Modern Art, which we had also hoped to see.  The glass museum was well worth the 5 euros entrance fee.  Friends reported that the modern art museum was also worth a visit.   Regensburg     The cruise from Passau to Regensburg took us through beautiful areas that appeared to be wildlife preserves.  Blue Herons, swans and ducks populated both sides of the river.  Walking on the top deck, we heard an endless concert of birdcalls, many unfamiliar to us. Fit and healthy-looking men and women of all ages could be seen biking, rollerblading, walking and jogging along riverside pathways. Periodically, we would pass clean, bright villages and towns, each with well-kept gardens and flower boxes and prominent onion-domed churches.  Typically German, clock towers always displayed the correct time.    Regensburg itself is Germany's largest medieval city.  The historic city center remains beautifully preserved, surviving undamaged from World War II.  Prominent near the waterfront are the turreted Old Town Hall, a beautifully restored 12th century warehouse in which luxury goods and salt (once almost as valuable as gold) had been stored and sold, and the famous stone bridge, the oldest bridge in Germany.  The bridge of 12 stone arches and cobblestone surface was built between 1135 and 1146 when the city was a major commercial hub along the river.  The city's cobblestone streets and squares have great charm.  Along the squares are cafes with street-side tables and chairs, under colorful umbrellas.  We settled into one of these to rest our feet and wash down a snack.   Of special interest in Regensburg were relics of Roman times.  The ruins of the Castra Regina fort - Porta Praetoria - contains a stone inscribed AD 179, when Marcus Aurelius was emperor.  Nearby is a Roman stone tower.  Next to the tower is a home once owned by a wealthy merchant during the middle ages and now used as a student dormitory.  Also not to be missed is St. Peter's Cathedral, a gothic cathedral with twin spires and beautiful stained glass windows.     Weltenburg and the Danube Gorge     The next morning, en route from Regensburg, on a high hill overlooking the river, we spotted Valhalla, a copy of the Parthenon built in 1830 by Ludwig I of Bavaria to serve as a hall of fame for the German nation.   We stopped briefly in Kelheim to board buses for an optional tour that included a visit to the church at Weltenburg Monastery.  The monastery - Germany's oldest -- sits on a bend in the Danube at the entrance to the Danube Gorge .  The church at Weltenburg Monastery is a baroque confection of stucco, polished marble, gilt and painted ceilings.  It has extravagant artwork, including an ornate domed ceiling and a large sculpture of St. George and the Dragon behind the altar.  Both the domed ceiling and the sculpture are cleverly backlit by hidden windows.  A Benedictine brother of the monastery explained its history and construction.  The Abbey houses the oldest monastery brewery in the world.  Of course, we had to honor the nearly 1.000 year-old tradition by hoisting a glass of the monastery's tasty "Dunkel Bier" to wash down soft pretzels.  The beer garden pays for the upkeep of the monastery.    After relaxing in the beer garden, we walked on the beach of small round river stones at the bend in the river.  There, a man in a flat boat (basically an overgrown rowboat with outboard motor) was taking paying passengers across the river.  Without a nearby bridge, we wondered how they would cross in the peak of winter.  A short distance farther we reached a dock and boarded a local ferry for an enjoyable half hour trip through the Danube Gorge.  The Gorge is a narrow passage through tall, Jurassic-era cliffs along the deepest and narrowest portion of the river.  Buses were waiting for us as we exited the Gorge in Kelheim.    Our next stop was in Michelsburg to visit Liberation Hall built by King Ludwig I to honor the German tribes who banded together to defeat the French during the Napoleonic Wars of 1813-1815.  Liberation Hall is a tall, classically styled cylindrical-shaped building edged by tall statues and rimmed with pillars at the top.  To enter, you walk up 80 steps to view the 34 goddesses of victory under an elaborate domed ceiling.  From there, stone staircases ascend to the level of the goddesses within and to an exterior walkway affording spectacular views of the Atmuhl valley and the Danube.   We were bused back to River Melody to continue cruising.  As we sailed, we marveled at the great variety of bridges spanning the river.  The low height of some forced the captain to order that the top deck (a popular place to walk or sit) be lowered for much of our cruise. We disembarked at Niederberg for transport to the little town of Bierberbach.  There our group enjoyed a kaffeeklatsch (delicious coffee and homemade cake) hosted by German families.   My wife and I and another couple were welcomed by Annaliese Wolf, who gave us a tour of her beautiful home and gardens and answered questions about her family and community.   She proved to be an energetic and remarkable woman who hosts groups like ours, raises three children, paints on silk fabric, tends to her large and successful flower gardens and still finds time to mow the front lawn of the nearby community church.  On weekends, she and her businessman husband tend to crops on a small farm they own in an outlying area.    In Bierberbach, which we judged to be a middle to upper-middle income community, we observed many houses with solar panels. Most vehicles we saw appeared to be fuel-efficient models.  Notably absent were SUV-sized vehicles, although larger BMW and Mercedes sedans were common.  Germans appear to be environmentally aware - prompted by numerous government laws and regulations.  We were told spraying lawns with insecticides is forbidden.  Instead, natural fertilizer and hand weeding are used to achieve the beautiful lawns we observed.    Even the riverside industrial areas we passed appeared to be clean, neat and carefully separated from housing.   Our next destination was Nuremberg.  En route, on the Main-Danube Canal, around midnight, we reached the highest elevation on our trip.  A marker beside the river identified the dividing point from which waters flow east to the Black Sea and west to the Atlantic Ocean.  We celebrated with a champagne toast, made more memorable by lightning-lit skies in the distance.  Our top deck had been lowered to accommodate low bridges, sometimes within a foot of the lowered deck.  Even the captain's pilot room was lowered.  It was fascinating to see a hatch open on the roof of the pilot room and to see the captain's head emerge for a visual sighting.  As we cruised through the night, we would periodically hear the throbbing of the engines as we entered locks of the Main-Danube Canal.  In all, we passed through 66 locks on this trip.    Nuremberg   Most Americans know Nuremberg as the place where Nazi war criminals were tried by the allies. The city was heavily industrialized during WW II and was repeatedly and extensively bombed.  In fact, 95% of the city was destroyed.  Much of its historic areas have been carefully restored, including blocks of the 13th century city with its arched gates, towers and half-timbered houses.  The city still contains reminders of Adolph Hitler's dreams of glory.   We visited the Nazi party rally grounds and drove into the assembly area of the Nazi party hall that was modeled after the Roman Coliseum but on a 50% larger scale.  Its granite façade and brick interior were designed to hold 50,000 people.  In the face of wartime manpower shortages, the hall was never completed.    Near the Nazi party hall is Zeppelin Field, the location of Germanic Stadium, a place where massive rallies and torchlight parades were held. The stadium served as an Olympic site in 1936.   60,000 slabs of granite lined the "great road" into the Stadium to magnify the cadence of goose-stepping soldiers.  The massive stone reviewing stand, with a dominant speaker's platform, still stands.  In 1945, U.S. military forces blew up the huge Nazi swastika located above the stadium.  The once flag-topped pillars around the field's perimeter were removed twenty years later.  The area has now become a recreational area, including a lake with boats, skating ponds and biking paths.  Nonetheless, this part of the city has the look of an older industrial and commercial area and appears poorer and less attractive than the wealthy river towns we had visited.   From Zeppelin Field we drove to the Palace of Justice, still a working courthouse, where top Nazi leaders were tried for crimes against humanity.  [The outset of the cold war ruled out Berlin as the trial site.]  Courtroom 600, where the war crimes trials were held, is still in daily use.  Pictures of the trials line the walls of nearby hallways and staircases.  Courtroom 600 appears much different now.  For the war trials, the back wall had been removed and a balcony built to accommodate great numbers of reporters, lawyers and witnesses.  The docks for prisoners were then accessed directly from a secure bank of elevators.  Bulletproof glass had been installed in the windows and sharpshooters had been positioned around the facility.    Sitting in courtroom 600, we were given an informative lecture on the war crimes trials and their outcomes.    This was the first time individuals had been tried for crimes sanctioned by a state.  Incredibly, despite having four very different legal systems, the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union were able to agree to establish the primacy of the rule of law.  Winston Churchill is said to have wanted the immediate execution of the top Nazi leaders.  Stalin favored a quick show trial followed by executions.  It was U.S. efforts that succeeded in transplanting American legal standards to the trials.   We drove by, but hadn't time to stop at, the old quarter of Nuremberg with its medieval half-timbered houses, steep slate roofs and cobblestone streets.  When we stopped it was to explore the central market square.  This attractive hotel and shopping area contains cobblestone streets, rivers, pedestrian bridges, gardens, sculptures and historic gothic churches.   Fresh vegetables, fruits and food stands were lined up on the square under colorful red-and-white-striped tarps.  Exploring the narrow streets, we located a shop that made lace items and purchased small gifts for family members and friends. At the 62-foot-high Schoner Brunnen fountain, a filigree masterpiece on the square, we followed the local custom and turned the fountain's brass ring for good luck.  At noon, we stopped in front of the large church on the square to hear the bells and watch the moving figures of the glockenspiel located high on the steeple.  [Wish I could remember the name of the church!]    Bamberg   The next morning, we went ashore in Bamburg for a walking tour.  This city, one of Germany's most beautiful, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 2,000 buildings listed as historical monuments.  Its old city center is said to have Europe's largest existing group of historical buildings.  Unlike Nuremberg, Bamberg was largely intact at war's end.  Its architecture reflects 1,000 years of building, including Romanesque, gothic, Renaissance, baroque and more modern designs.  Ornate mansions, palaces and churches line its narrow cobblestone streets.   Although it certainly is not the grandest cathedral in the city and lacks a steeple or dome, we liked the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. George with its Romanesque stone-arched exterior and bright white interior embellished in gold gild, pink marble and elaborate statuary.  The cathedral sits on a busy market square filled with commercial stands under colorful tarps.  Nearby, situated on a bridge that straddles the River Stegnitz, is the city hall, which is timbered on one end and painted with colorful murals on the other.  In the middle is a stone archway that permits pedestrian travel across the bridge.  The day we were there, a flea market was spread the length of the bridge.  Atop a nearby hilI, in the shadow of the twin towers of the city's largest cathedral and the new and old Prince-Bishop residences, we stopped to admire a large rose garden adorned with statues, then quenched our thirst with Rauchbier (a local smoked beer) at a street side pub.  We returned to our ship for lunch and a leisurely cruise to Wurzburg.   Wurzburg   We arrived in Wurzburg, on the Main River, at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, greeted by a breath-taking view of the five onion-domes of the Kappele chapel on Nikolausberg Hill, the fortress-like Marienberg castle, and hillside grape vineyards -- all on the hill across from our dock.  After breakfast, we were bused to Wurzburg's massive Prince-Bishop's Residenz --  said to be the finest baroque palace built in Bavaria.  Everything about this building is grand in scale.  The entry hall and grand staircase, sheltered by a soaring, unsupported vault, withstood the allied bombing that destroyed much of Wurzburg.  Huge entry doors permitted guests' horses and carriages to be driven directly into the entry hall through one door and to exit through another.  Everything about the Residenz is elaborate and bespeaks the power and wealth of one who served as both ruler and top ecclesiastic official. The interior is impressive in its size and embellishment.  The exterior bespeaks power and wealth but is not particularly beautiful except for the park-like gardens, fountain and sculptures behind the building.   Wurzburg is festooned with impressive churches.  In fact, there are 14 churches and cathedrals in the center of this city of 130,000.  The Romanesque cathedral and basilica, built between the 12th and 14th centuries is filled with elaborate 17th century baroque stucco and ornamentation, and contains 35 tombs of the prince bishops.  We wandered down a commercial street, nearly deserted on this Sunday morning, to walk over the Old Bridge, decorated with statues.   Next stop was an outdoor cafe that seemed an ideal place to rest and enjoy some coffee.  We passed interesting shops (closed on Sunday) as we walked back to our ship.  Only after our lunch en board did we realize that one of our waterproof jackets had been left behind, either at the cafe or Prince-Bishop's Residenz.  We walked back to the cafe and contacted the Residenz, but the jacket was never recovered.  C'est la vie!   Rothenburg   We took an optional afternoon tour of Rothenburg, a charming and beautifully preserved medieval town on the Tauber River.  Its intact defensive towers, gateways and walls date from the 14th century.  Many of its buildings and half-timbered residences are said to date from the 12th century. Wooden stairs to the top of the walls permitted us to walk along the fortifications for an elevated look at the town.  For the most commanding views, we climbed the tower atop the massive city hall, located on the main square.  The lookout at the top - a great place for photographs -- is reached by ascending 215 steep and narrow steps.    Despite crowds of tourists in the main squares and thoroughfares, Rothenburg was a very special place.  In addition to the picturesque architecture, historic buildings and cobblestone streets, we especially enjoyed wandering through the Christmas market and museum - Kaethe Wolfahrt - on the main square.  The museum displays holiday decoration themes from the 17th century on.  For sale there are the world's largest selection of German Christmas decorations.  Away from the busier areas, we discovered more lightly traveled streets with bell towers, historic buildings and a mix of modern shops.  We ended our visit with a horse and carriage ride that took us through the old town and a nearby residential area.  Fun, but you can quickly and easily see all of the same sights on foot.  There was a little added excitement when an impatient auto driver decided to pass us, narrowly missing a collision with our horse, as our driver began a left turn.   Wertheim   En route to our next port, Wertheim, we had a demonstration of glass blowing by a local artisan.  Glasswork from this region, including crystal, is highly acclaimed.  We arrived in Wertheim mid-day and enjoyed a walking tour of this attractive 16th century market town situated at the meeting of the Main and Tauber rivers.  The market square included all kinds of shops, including glass shops and clothing stores.  During one brief downpour, we stepped into a shoe store where my wife was happy to spot and purchase an attractive and supportive pair of shoes.  [That's why we always have a trip expense category labeled "miscellaneous."]   In Wertheim, there are some spots you shouldn't miss.  A short climb up a roadway and pathway takes you to the castle ruins that overlook the town.  The ruins are extensive and interesting.  Anywhere on the site will provide a nice view of the town and the Main River.  You can also climb the castle's tower for an even higher vantage point. We were reminded of illustrations from a children's fairytale with views of tall towers, church spires, cobblestone and brick streets and squares, castle ruins and slate roof houses hundreds of years old.  In town, we visited a sizeable and attractive Lutheran church.  Inside, a large and elaborate tomb in front of the altar held the remains of the local Duke and Dutchess.  We regretted not having an opportunity to hear the large and powerful pipe organ in the rear of the church.   We were docked in Wertheim overnight, giving us the chance to wander through the town after hours when all was quiet.  We crossed a walk bridge over the Tauber River and followed a path along the river.  Housing on the far side of the river was more modern than that within the old market area - less historic but still attractive.  We crossed a second bridge to return to the old town.  The pathway from the bridge continued behind the town hall where we discovered a large and magnificent rose garden with dozens of varieties and colors of roses.  Wertheim, like Passau, has had a history of major floods.  A wall by the town hall bears markings of past flood levels.  The highest mark (10' to 12' above ground level) represents a flood in 1509.  The most recent high water mark was dated 2002.  Back on the ship, we were delighted when a convoy of swans glided past our cabin window.  They were among dozens along the shore near our ship and appear to be a familiar sight in Germany.   Heidelberg   The next morning, after a few hours of early cruising, we disembarked in Miltenberg to join a full-day excursion to Heidelberg.   Buses took us through magnificent forested areas.  Our tour of Heidelberg began with a stop at the ruins of the city's 15th century Hohenburg castle, which has commanding views of the city straddling the River Neckar.  The castle, the largest castle ruin in Germany, was the setting for the opera The Student Prince.  Initial construction at its location dated to 1275; but, the current structure was built and rebuilt through the 17th century and is a mixture of architectural styles.  Within the intact portions of the ruins are housed an extensive apothecary museum and the great Heidelberg Tun - a wine barrel with a 58,124 gallon capacity!  Not far from the castle is the turreted hillside home once owned by Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect.    After our visit to the castle, we drove into town for a walking tour and lunch at the Schnookelach Restaurant, said to be the oldest haunt of Heidelberg University students.  During lunch, we were royally entertained by piano and accordion players and with a brief skit based on The Student Prince.  After lunch, we continued a walking tour, then wandered off on our own to explore the city.  Our scheduled stops include the old university assembly hall, once used for classes at Heidelberg University.  Most of the campus has been relocated out of the city center.  We also climbed up several flights to the student prison, used between 1712 and 1914 to house students being held for a few days for offenses such as fencing duels, drunkenness, brawling and practical jokes.  Imprisoned students used candles and watercolors on the walls to draw pictures of  themselves in profile wearing their fraternity uniforms.  The graffiti has been well preserved.   Students crowd every street in Heidelberg.  Of the 140,000 population of the city, 30,000 are students.  Bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional car, all compete for space in the narrow cobblestone streets.  Temperatures were high the day we visited.  We looked over the rows of umbrella-shaded tables in the attractive main squares and along most streets, many of which afforded excellent views of the castle, but decided to settle for the shaded interior of a pub where we could settle down with a cold local brew.  Afterwards, we located our bus and drove to Offenbach to await our ship.  It was a thrill to see River Melody approach and gave us our first opportunity to photograph our ship as it sailed.         Mainz   We docked in Mainz across from the Electoral Palace where seven electors once governed the city.  Nearby, was the starkly modern city hall, designed by a Danish architect and built with Danish marble.  In the front is a modern stainless steel sculpture (a bit reminiscent of a slinky toy) designed by a Spaniard.  The city may be ancient, but it is part of the new Germany and a major participant in the European Common Market.  The day we visited, the whole of the waterfront area was being set up for a community fair.  Had we arrived a few days later, we might have been lost in the crowds.   Somehow, Mainz appeared more ornate than other towns.  Its buildings appeared to have more elaborate timber patterns on their walls.  The Mainz cathedral (Dom), most of which was completed in 1239, has an impressive size and stateliness that surpassed other cathedrals we had seen.  The cathedral surrounds a peaceful central fountain and garden.    You wouldn't want to visit Mainz without walking to two other very special sites.  The first is the Gutenberg Museum that displays printing presses and printed bibles made by Johannes Gutenberg.  His invention of uniform metal molds for letters made it possible to produce error-free repeatable text and made printed Bibles and other texts available to the general public.   Mainz also takes pride in St, Stephan's Church.  Russian artist Marc Chagall created the beautiful, luminous stained glass windows over the chancel.  He was 90 years old when he accomplished these depictions of old testament stories.   Rudesheim   In the evening, we joined an optional excursion to Rudesheim, the center of Germany's Rhine Valley wine production.  En route we stopped at a park high above the Rhine river where we had a magnificent view of Rudeshein and Bingen, the town opposite on this wide mid-point in the river.  Both towns were the anchorage for many ships.   Our tour of Rudeshein included a stop at a winery as well as dinner and dancing at a local restaurant.  Sadly, we lacked time for the Wine Museum in Bromserburg Castle, the Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments or the Museum of Torture - all interesting attractions in the town.     We were bused first to the Peter Ohlig winery where we toured the winery and enjoyed some fine white Riesling.  Of course, Herr Ohlig was more than pleased to sell some of his fine wines.  My wife and I selected a bottle of very pleasant Pinot Noir, two wine glasses with the Peter Ohlig imprimatur and an ornate corkscrew for use on River Melody.  We were then bused to the main street of Rudesheim, which featured old stone towers, ornate buildings and a long view of the Rhine River, although partially blocked by a rail line.  We briefly explored some stores on the main street, then wandered up the Drosselgasse, Rudesheim's most famous street (actually a narrow lane packed with wine bars, cafes and restaurants).   Before entering the Lindewirt restaurant, we stopped at the Rudesheimer Hofengarten, a motel whose most popular units are converted wine barrels with  single beds on either side of a center door and a bathroom to the rear.  Fascinating.  These cramped units rent for more than the larger standard motel rooms but are very popular.  Our restaurant served more wine (a bit more than we needed for one evening) and typical German food.  A band entertained us and encouraged us to the dance floor with polkas and other tunes.  Towards the end of the dinner we darted out to the street to witness the Glockenspiel and carillon bells as they performed on the hour.   Koblenz   Our ship departed Mainz at 6 a.m. and cruised towards Koblenz.  We passed Lorelei, a large rock rising 440 feet above the river.  As in Greek mythology, the German's have a legend of Lorelei, a siren who sang sweet songs to entice sailors to their death against the reef below the rock.  As we neared the rock, a crew member, wearing a shabby blonde wig, entertained us by playing the role of Lorelei.  Happily, his less than alluring appearance and the crystal clear weather kept us from colliding with the reef.  All along this stretch of the river we saw castles and towers, some of incredible beauty.  There were so many to photograph that I began to be choosy about which were worth a picture.    Koblenz, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle rivers, became a city in the 13th century and later became a refuge during the French revolution.  As we entered the harbor, mid-morning, to dock on the Moselle side, we viewed the German Corner that features a huge statue of William I on horseback.  We began with a walking tour of the old city.  Across from our dock site was the Elector's Palace built in 1786 as a residence for the Archbishop of Trier.    Center city is dominated by the spires of the Church of Our Lady.  We chose to view only the outside of the church, having already seen so many grand churches and cathedrals on this trip.  Instead,  we headed for the pedestrian zone of the old city.  The colorful old buildings and residences of Koblenz proved equal in beauty to any we had seen previously.  We were especially amused by the humor shown in many of the statues (a short, stubby policeman standing by a woman selling cabbages and fruit; a girl chasing geese through a fountain; a young drummer boy; and a boy on a pedestal who would periodically surprise and dampen tourists by shooting a spray of water from his mouth).  One colorful three-story building had a beautiful painted clock high in a tower.  Beneath the clock was a face whose eyes shifted from side to side at regular intervals.  In one busy intersection in the pedestrian zone, the four corners are dominated by historic residences that have elaborate overhanging oriel windows - each worth a photograph.  At the end of our walking tour, my wife and I toured the Ludwig Museum of modern art -- worth a stop.   Months before our trip, at a memorial service for a friend, we met our friend's brother, Dieter, who had flown in from Koblenz.    When he learned that we would be stopping in Koblenz, he handed us his card and invited us to give him a call before we arrived.  Fortunately, he was available.  Dieter worked for many years as an attorney in the German defense department's military procurement section.  After reaching the compulsory retirement age, he "retired" to a legal practice.  Dieter picked us up by our ship in his new BMW 5 series sedan, informing us that it had a twin turbine diesel rated at 300 horsepower and demonstrating its incredible acceleration with pedal-to-the-metal bursts of speed.  "My wife doesn't like it when I do that" he said, with a broad smile.   Dieter's wife, Marianne, greeted us at their home with coffee and an irresistible homemade cheesecake.  Their beautifully furnished home appeared to have been converted from apartments.  Its four stories contained no less than three kitchens and decks on each floor looking out over well-tended gardens in the back yard.  After we visited for a while, they invited us to join them for a drive.  We drove first to the Old Fortress perched high above the south bank of the Moselle river and offering a full view of Koblenz.  The fortress, begun in the 13th century, is massive.   Within the fortress is a simple memorial (a white arched doorway with iron cross above and flower garden in front) memorializing German soldiers lost in WWI and WWII.  We finished the drive with a stop at a small white stucco church in the outskirts of Koblenz where Dieter's cousin had been wed.  Its interior featured incredibly beautiful wood arches and paintings.  The well-preserved beauty of Germany's churches and cathedrals is owed in no small part to a national tax that funds their maintenance.   Cologne   The next morning, as we sailed towards Cologne, we were treated to a slide show and discussion of the famous Cologne Cathedral.  There is evidence that allied forces had orders to avoid damaging this beautiful structure, which was spared, although bombs leveled most of the city.  It is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and the most visited building in Germany, boasting beautiful stained glass windows, an ornate gold shrine on its elaborate altar, and intricate detail common to 14th century Gothic churches.  Two large spires and elaborate stone carvings of gargoyles, wild animals and saints dominate its exterior.  Scaffolding covered major parts of the exterior.   We were told that every piece of the spires has had to be replaced within the last 100 years.    As we walked towards the cathedral, up long stone walkways, we were amused to see a large skin-tone statue of David prominently displayed in the midst of our view of the cathedral.  The statue belonged to the Ludwig Museum of modern art.  Both the Ludwig Museum and Roman-German Museum are adjacent to the Cologne Cathedral.  All three structures are within a short distance of the Cologne railroad station.  After viewing the cathedral, we visited the Roman-German Museum's extensive display of well-preserved Roman artifacts and statues and a magnificent mosaic floor transported from the ruins of a Roman villa.  Adjacent to the museum is part of an old Roman road once located outside a 42,000 square foot Roman house.   A few blocks away, on Kleine Budengasse, is a vaulted sewer system that served the city in Roman times.  The now dry and clean subterranean system can be toured for 2.5 euros.   Also nearby are the new and old city halls, the newer building having been located on the former site of the Roman Praetorium (seat  of the imperial governor).  Not far from the old city hall is the ruin of an old synagogue and the remains of a Jewish ritual bath (now preserved under a glass pyramid).      Next, we viewed the four floors of modern art displayed in the Ludwig Museum   On the lower floor was an extensive collection of American abstract artists, possibly on loan.   Other floors contained paintings by Picasso, Kirschner, Dali, and others.   Our visit to the museums had eaten up much of our day.   Although there was much more to see in Cologne, we had to return to the ship to continue on to Amsterdam.   Amsterdam   Our ship docked three blocks from Amsterdam's rail station and close to the replicated three-masted sailing ship, the "Amsterdam."  The nearby shipping museum was closed for two years of renovation.  Our first impression of the city was the sea of steeples and a single windmill.    We walked a short distance to board a canal boat for a delightful tour of the city's canals. With 1281 bridges connecting 90 islands, it is easy to see why Amsterdam is referred to as "the Venice of the north." Having visited Amsterdam many years ago, my first surprise was the number of houseboats anchored in the canals.  The city's housing shortage has greatly increased their number!  The many bridges over the canals, and bikes lined up on the bridges and along the parallel streets, please the eye.  The tall, narrow, wall-to-wall houses have a beauty and fascination all their own.  I only wish we had happened upon someone delivering furniture into a house by means of the loading hooks atop each house.  The narrowness of the houses makes it impossible to move large items of furniture to upper floors by way of the narrow staircases.      After our canal boat tour, we were provided with bus transportation to the vicinity of the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.  Having time for one, not both, we chose the smaller Van Gogh Museum.  I had been in the Rijksmuseum many years ago but had never seen the Van Gogh Museum.  We also had been informed that the display at the Rijksmuseum had been reduced because of remodeling; however, friends who attended the Rijksmuseum were very pleased with the display.  Because it was a Saturday in June, the Van Gogh Museum was extremely crowded.  The individual paintings and sketches were pleasing once we found a vantage point from which to view them.  Among the Van Gogh masterpieces on display were Wheatfields with Crows, Irises, and numerous self-portraits.  Also exhibited were works by Gaugin, Toulouse-Latrec and Millet.  Our return bus trip took us past the National Palace -- a rather unspectacular structure - and a shopping center with spires, looking every bit like a palace.  Go figure!   After lunch on the River Melody we walked to the rail station where we boarded a streetcar and headed to the Anne Frank house and museum.  The crowd lined up to enter was at least a block long; but, the line moved fairly quickly.  One thing we learned in line was the importance of watching for bike riders rushing down the sidewalk with little regard for the safety of pedestrians.  We saw many near misses.   The Anne Frank house and museum was impressive and saddening, reminding us of the best and worst extremes of humanity.  We climbed through four stories of narrow rooms that had hidden the Franks and another family behind what had been a warehouse.  The displays included pictures of the era, including the roundup of Jewish families and quotes from Anne Frank's diaries.  The diaries were also on display in glass cases.  Being there was an emotional experience.   Some of our group reported walking back from the Anne Frank house through Amsterdam's famous red light district.  Because my wife was suffering from a cold, we took the streetcar back to the ship.  A bit past 10 p.m., I joined a group of friends for a walk to the district.  We approached it via a parallel street crowded with pedestrians, bikes and cars.  The street was lined, wall-to-wall, with taverns and restaurants (at least 30 bars on one block).   Amsterdam on a Saturday night was even busier than Amsterdam by day. We crossed a canal bridge to the main drag of the red light district.  On this summer Saturday night the main street was jammed with crowds of young people (both male and female), some well oiled from time spent in the nearby taverns.  Scantily clad women were in nearly every window, posing and beckoning to persons in the crowd.  Johns could be seen using sign language to bargain for services.  The street was well lit from a multitude of sex shops and porn shows that further demonstrated the liberality of the Dutch!   The next morning we disembarked.  Our delightful river cruise was over.  My wife and I continued on, by land, to visit Delft, Antwerp, Brussels and Bruge; but, that is another story, perhaps to be told in some future trip report.           Read Less
4 Helpful Votes
Sail Date: November 2012
The summary of this review is that the trip was WONDERFUL. This was our third Grand Circle trip (previously with OAT to Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands and GCT to South Africa, but our first river cruise) and we have had three GREAT ... Read More
The summary of this review is that the trip was WONDERFUL. This was our third Grand Circle trip (previously with OAT to Machu Picchu/Galapagos Islands and GCT to South Africa, but our first river cruise) and we have had three GREAT experiences. As with the other two trips, the difference on this trip was the Program Director and the Staff. They truly reflect the high standards maintained by Grand Circle, which in our mind make the difference. The Itinerary We had read a lot on various forums about the Danube Markets, but little about the Rhine Christmas Markets. What a nice surprise to see markets in almost every stop despite our early trip. Only in Nijmegen (where they don't have markets) and Mainz (where they weren't open yet) did we not see markets, though they varied in size in various towns. We made up for that, however by shopping in other stores in the towns which many times had better prices and selections than the markets themselves. We found the best prices for our needs in the small stores in Heidelberg (Steins, Nutcrackers, & Smokers) though we managed to buy something in every town without much trouble. We followed our philosophy of buying something if we really liked it when we found it, because we have too often in the past said we'd get it later and couldn't.....and we didn't regret this approach as we rarely found cheaper prices. Our guide, Steven Martinot, was very helpful and thorough in recommending which town might have a particular souvenir, and which store/restaurant/bar might suit our needs. We arrived at the airport in Amsterdam about 9:30am and were on the ship by 11:00. One of the Program Directors met us and escorted us to the bus for the transfer to the Ship. We were docked centrally near the train station and in the afternoon set off to walk to the Anne Frank House, some shopping, and the obligatory stroll through the Red Light District. Amsterdam is an easy and safe city to get around in (we had been there before) so we went off on our own. We skipped the optional tour in Nijmegen the next day to the Holocaust Museum in favor of some relaxation (that jet lag is rough) but heard from those that went that it was a moving experience. Our walking tour was the first of many strolls through various river towns which highlighted the history and architecture of the area. The use of the provided individual receivers allowed us to hear our guide perfectly throughout the trip. After a brief walking tour in Cologne (where we experienced our only drenching rain and wind) we were given free time to visit the Cathedral or to browse the markets. There were several different Christmas markets in Cologne, and we finally got to leisurely visit them when the rain diminished and we returned after lunch, but it is NO fun at all to visit the Christmas Markets in drenching rain, no matter what protective clothing you bring!! It was a good first lesson, however, as we learned that those "water-resistant" parkas we brought really just resisted the water for a little while and there was no substitute for long underwear, rain pants, waterproof rain jackets, and LAYERS of clothing. Toe warmers and hand warmers came in handy as well!! Each day we stopped at another town along the way, stopping very close to town except in Strasbourg where the street cars were convenient and easy to use. Koblenz, Mainz, Heidelberg, Speyer, Baden-Baden, Strasbourg and Kayserberg were all wonderfully scenic stops. The two additional optional tours, Rudesheim and Heidelberg were well worth the modest cost. The walking tours were generally not strenuous, though definitely involved walking on cobblestone streets and uneven pathways. They varied in length, were generally slow-paced, and were usually a mile or two at the most. On-ship entertainment varied from a local children's choir to magicians to the chef teaching the making of German stollen. A musician performed every evening and at special events to assure constant entertainment. The tour was generally fast paced if you wanted to do everything, with something to do most of the time (especially shopping), but individual choices could slow this considerably by balancing the free-time activities. Most days we were eating breakfast by 8am and ready to tour by 9am. Usually, a half day was available for voluntary activities such as shopping or lounging. The Crew The entire staff of the ship was wonderful. We have never been on a ship, large or small, that had an entire staff (from the Captain and Hotel Manager to the Engineers, cabin stewards, or other staff) that ALWAYS seemed to sincerely care about making our trip perfect. We NEVER experienced a hint of poor service or uncaring people just going through the motions. Rather, each person without exception treated us as valued guests. We seldom saw our cabin steward (though when we did he always asked about how he could help us further); we would go to breakfast or dinner, and magically when we returned our cabin was always spotless and refreshed. At mealtime, despite our changing tables, so we didn't always have the same wait staff, they quickly knew our names, and the idiosyncrasies of our choices. I had two wonderful massages on the ship (yes, they have a masseuse!!!). The cost was about what you would pay at home, and less than half the charges you might see on a large cruise ship. I highly recommend you try to get one....a great way to get over that jet lag!! We have never had a more accessible Captain on any trip. We first met him at the Safety briefing which was the most thorough I have ever experienced. Throughout the trip, he was available, personable, and truly interested in the passengers. He even participated in the crew show (not to be missed, by the way), and not just to give a speech!! Likewise, the other senior members of the staff were always attentive and accessible. On any tour, the Program Director provides the glue that brings it all together. We again were blessed with a superb Program Director, Steven Martinot, who consistently shepherded us through the tour. As on all tours, there are different personalities of our fellow travelers that require different amounts of attention (perhaps we are one of those too). I have never seen a tour director more consistently patient with everyone, and truly interested in pleasing everyone. A truly remarkable person. This service level and extraordinary standard of excellence with its staff is the quality that separates the Grand Circle experience from the rest. The Ship The cabins were comfortable, though small. There are good videos on the GCT website that clearly show the cabins, but the nice surprise was the roomy bathrooms. In looking at cabins on the first day before people moved in, it appears they are all about the same with a small amount of space deducted from the cabin to provide the narrow balcony. Our shower (201) was large and covered the width of the bathroom (probably close to 4'x3') while others had corner showers that seemed a bit smaller, but certainly adequate. The pull-down beds were VERY comfortable and even though I am over 6', and large, I was absolutely perfectly relaxed. The sofas were adequate for sitting, but too narrow to lay down on, so we ended up leaving the beds down all the time. Two movies showed continuously on the TV (many were Christmas movies, though we saw Casablanca and Patton on two nights as we went to sleep!!); there was also news and other channels as well. The ship was exceptionally clean and the decor was pleasant, though not brand new. However, it did not show signs of wear or deterioration at all. The lounge was very comfortable as were all of the facilities on the ship. A small area off the main lobby, and the library provided quiet spaces that could be used as well. Obviously, in the winter, the sun deck serves primarily the smokers on the ship. A three-sided covered area behind the wheelhouse provided some protection from the wind and the elements, but obviously required heavy coats. On the day we sailed a particularly picturesque section of the Rhine, the dining staff provided homemade hot chocolate in this area as we all enjoyed the afternoon on the river. The Food The food was wonderful! We've cruised on over 20 large ships, and traveled extensively, and found the presentation, preparation, and variety to be very good. For Breakfast, every day omelets or eggs were available for custom preparation, a special preparation was available from the kitchen, and all of the normal breakfast foods -- pastries, meats, waffles or pancakes, juices, and fruits -- were provided on the self-service buffet. At lunch, this same buffet line (actually two similar lines) contained a wonderful salad bar, usually at least 3 prepared sandwich options, several hot options, and other self-serve sandwich options. Many days a custom pasta dish was prepared to your individual taste. Again, an option from the kitchen was available to order as was a hamburger and French fries!! We always started with soup which was delicious. Varied desserts options were always provided. Dinner started usually with an appetizer, soup and salad followed by a choice from two or three entrees. These included a wide variety of dishes including vegetarian options, turkey, duck, chicken, fish, lamb, pasta, and beef. Also, standard options of Grilled Chicken Breast and Salmon were always available with a baked potato. Two dessert options were offered. In short, only the pickiest eater couldn't find something to eat each night. And of course, red or white wine was provided on a complementary basis at dinner. Coffee, Tea, or Hot Chocolate were available on the ship 24 hours/day. Cookies or snacks were provided in the lounge in the afternoon and evenings. The first day, 5 bottle or 7 bottle wine packages were offered at a discount (bottles ranged from about 13 Euros and up) and soft-drink packages were also offered. Generally on the ship, prices were reasonable and seemed to be less than those charged for comparable items on large cruise ships. The Challenges Yes, there were VERY minor irritants along the way that could be improved upon (have you ever been with 140 people in any event that hasn't had some irritant?) As with any tour, a little flexibility and a sense of humor are needed. The most important of these was the inability to reserve a table for meals in the restaurant. When traveling with 4 in our group (tables were mainly for 6), it became a challenge to get 4 seats at the same table.....the recommendation from the Program Directors was to send someone early to stand in line and "hold" the seats! Thus, for every lunch or dinner, my wife or I was generally somewhere between 10th and 15th in line (I refused to go more than 15 minutes early) necessitating one of us to miss the port talk or other pre-meal activities. Actually, despite an otherwise wonderful trip, my wife has said she won't go on another river cruise unless she can reserve a seat in the dining room. The number of people who were always in line to reserve a table indicates the significance of the problem (we had groups of up to 30 on the trip). One night, the Manager actually gave the Captain's Table to a late arriving group that made a big fuss (perhaps this is a hint for future travelers). I gather they recognize this is a problem, but haven't found a way to accommodate it. Whenever a minor problem occurred (for example our toilet kept running), it was only a few minutes after reporting it that the issue was resolved. Our cabin bathroom tended to have a slight 'sewer' smell occasionally. I suspect it was a problem of not retaining water in the shower trap (I think it is a common 'boat' problem), but it was never so overwhelming that it was offensive. Plumbers were on board at two ports, and they were cleaning "kitchen fat" out of the pipes (at least I think that's what the limited English of the plumber said) and following this the smell disappeared. Special Suggestions We ended up with 3 suitcases (2 big, 1 medium) to get all of our different sweaters, raingear, snow gear, etc. to the ship. We also included a duffle bag for overflow when we bought too many souvenirs. Now we could do this as we did our own air, and were allowed 2 bags each, but suffice to say we had four full bags going home! In fairness, though, I could have left one sweater and two sweatshirts at home, and if we had taken advantage of the onboard laundry, easily stayed within 1 bag each (until we bought souvenirs!!). Those nutcrackers and steins and stuffed animals etc really do take a lot of room!! Fortunately, two suitcases just squeezed under the couch on each side!!! Read Less
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