Number of Cruises: 20+
Cruise Line: Viking River
Ship: Viking Sun
Sailing Date: September 30th, 2005
Itinerary: Treasures of the Rhine, Basel to Antwerp
We have found that one of the most pleasurable ways of visiting a variety of destinations is by river, and there’s no more leisurely way than with the comforts afforded by the ships that serve as floating hotels. Viking River Cruises was given top ranking by Travel and Leisure and Condé Nast, and we sailed in its brand new ship, the Viking Sun, largest passenger ship on the Rhine.
On our Treasures of the Rhine itinerary, we unpacked once and sailed past enchanting fairytale castles, romantic medieval villages, verdant vineyards, and pastoral landscapes, traveling from Switzerland to the North Sea.
IS THIS TRIP FOR YOU?
The mood of this well-appointed ship is relaxed and casual, ideal for destination-oriented travelers who like to spend most of their time exploring the ports and learning more about a culture. Between ports, you can enjoy the ever-changing scenery without any concerns about transportation, accommodations, meals, or what to do. The ship is state-of-the-art, and has many nice touches, such as the fresh flowers throughout the dining room, lounges, and other public areas.
If you are looking for the extensive onboard entertainment of ocean cruises--formal nights, casinos, or Las Vegas style productions, this is not the trip for you. Entertainment is authentic and local--Dutch dancers, French chansons, a crew show, live after dinner music, or participatory--a music quiz, guessing games (Just what WAS inside those socks?), and dance night. There are also movie channels on the stateroom televisions.
Some mornings, we’d awaken early, sip coffee on the sundeck or in the lounge, watch the sun rise and the Rhine come alive with freight barges, passenger ships, tankers, and leisure craft. We became immersed in life along this commercial and recreational international highway.
We might pass picturesque villages and bustling commercial centers, historic sites, or idyllic pastoral scenery. What a way to start the day!
We’d meet with fellow travelers to enjoy the breakfast buffet or made-to-order selections. Then it was time to step ashore and meet our local tour guides for an informative walking tour or motorcoach ride to more distant places that shouldn’t be missed. After this orientation, we were on our own to explore.
Fresh fruit and hard candy was available at the front desk, and after longer excursions, we were greeted in the reception area with refreshing beverages. Hot and cold beverages were always available in the area just outside the main lounge, supplemented in the early morning, late afternoon, and late evening with light snacks. The dining room has large windows on either side, and the lounge offers panoramic views of the scenery. There is also a sundeck with cushioned teak deck chairs.
Our cruise director, Walter Schlosser, kept things well organized and gave talks on the ports we were about to visit. An informative newsletter and port information page were distributed each evening for the next day’s adventures, and maps were available at the main desk. The staff is young, energetic, fluent in English, and quite helpful.
Staterooms were well-appointed, with adequate storage space, hairdryers, and in-room safes. The deluxe cabins of categories A, B, C, and D are a comfortable 155 square feet, and windows open in all but deck D, which is closer to water level. The standard E level rooms are just 120 square feet, a less expensive option for those who want to minimize their expenses. The only complaint we heard concerned the lack of bar soap and a soap dish. Bathrooms have a liquid soap dispenser with a combination soap/shampoo.
Chefs focus on the cuisine of the area and offer cooking demonstrations of some of the region’s specialties, like Belgian chocolate cake and French apple tarts. One morning, we had Fruhschoppen, complimentary mid-morning beer with bratwurst and pretzels. While in the Netherlands, there was a Dutch cheese tasting.
There is open-seating at all meals, so you can choose to sit with friends or meet new people. Executive Chef, Karl-Heinz Zwanzleitner, visited the dining room often to ask about our preferences and recommendations. At lunch, there was a salad and sandwich buffet as well as a menu with a choice of salads, soups, entrees, and desserts. A range of choices were offered at dinner, including regional dishes, and all was well-presented. At dinner, “Evening casual” was the norm, with Captain’s Welcome and Farewell Dinners a time to dress up as much as you like.
Our cruise began in Basel, the cultural heart of Switzerland, a university city known for its festivals, museums, and wide-ranging performing and visual arts. With free time before sailing, we took the tram to Marktplatz, site of the magnificent Burgundian-Gothic Town Hall and a square abuzz with shoppers, farmers, and vendors. From here there are five official walking tours of an hour or less. These include the medieval and baroque parts of the city, rich in Celtic and Roman past, tiny shops, elegant boutiques, winding narrow lanes and alleys through a former craftsmen’s district, Baroque and late-Gothic guildhalls, impressive patrician houses, and a 14th century city gate.
>From here, where the Swiss, German, and French borders meet, we spent twelve days gliding along the Rhine, experiencing some of the best of Europe.
BLACK FOREST, GERMANY
The next day, a private motorcoach took us past vineyards, meadows and mountains, and along roadways with names like Panorama and Clock. We were in Germany’s Black Forest, land of renowned woodcarvers, and headed for cuckoo clock and glockenspiel demonstrations. In this enchanted land, milk becomes yogurt or cheese and fruits are transformed into schnapps.
Our next stop was across the river in France. Strasbourg, the multicultural capital and largest city of the Alsatian region of France, is home of the European Council, the Commission on Human Rights, and seat of the European Parliament. A shipping and trading center, it was once one of richest medieval cities in Europe, and was the most glamorous city of German empire. Its architecture stands as reminders of the many historical and political changes through the centuries. Innovative modern government buildings are in stark contrast to 18th century French influences of Louis XV. Control of this region changed so often that some Alsatian’s grandfathers changed nationality five times, obligated to change their language each time. One brother might have died defending France, the other defending Germany.
The well-preserved medieval core of the city is Petite France, with winding cobblestone streets and traditional Alsatian medieval and Renaissance houses. Best explored on foot, this area is dominated by one of great Gothic churches of Europe, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, with 465 foot spires. The aromas of patisseries fill the air, and bakers offer tempting samples of cookies and other confections, like kougelhopf, a traditional cake. There was a shuttle back to the ship, but we opted to stay in this area for lunch, and dined on the renowned regional cuisine—tarte flambée (onion tart), baeckoffe (stew), choucroute (sauerkraut), local beer, and wine in a cozy centuries-old half-timbered winstub overlooking boats in a tiny lock. There was ample time to visit both attractions on our “must-see” list-- the Cathedral’s magnificent astronomical clock with planetary dial and automated figures, and the charming Alsatian Museum, in what had been a 15th century home.
We were docked by the 820’ Europe Bridge, connecting French Strasbourg with German Kehl. Families picnicked on the benches of this pedestrian link between two cultures, symbolic of the unity of Europe. We had time to walk across to France, and back to Germany again.
Former prisons for heathens in need of conversion were inside the 13th century walls we passed in Speyer. This is the site of Germany’s largest Romanesque Imperial Cathedral (1030 A.D.). The 180’ town gate, built in 1176 A.D., is one of the oldest and tallest in Europe. We descended the steps of a mikvah, or ritual bathhouse, that was surrounded by ruins of men’s and women’s synagogues, and were reminded of the tragic past of this former center of Jewish culture.
The impressive ruins of Heidelberg’s red sandstone castle, a Renaissance building damaged in War of Succession, and setting for The Student Prince, loom high over the city. A center of art and literature in Romantic period, it has a 600 year old university with a student jail, and well preserved buildings a city center filled with shops. One of Twain’s favorite cities, the city gate and old bridge should not be missed.
Amidst the beautiful portion of the Rhine where vineyards cover the hillsides, we came to our next port, Rudesheim. There is a riverfront promenade and lanes with shops and restaurants, but this stop is best known for Drosselgasse, the pedestrian wine alley of taverns for sampling local specialties and enjoying live music and dancing. A miniature train took us uphill from the ship to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum to see one of Europe’s most entertaining collections of unusual self-playing musical instruments.
The Romans introduced winemaking to the area, and abbeys and monasteries began producing high quality wine for sacraments, selling the surplus to the nobility.
We continued along this picturesque stretch of the Rhine past the treacherous currents—with whirlpools, rapids, and rocks -- where the siren Lorelei is said to have lured sailors to their death with her song. The landscape is dotted with castles, some built as royal residences and others used by robber barons to extracted tolls from all who passed by.
In the afternoon, we docked in Koblenz by the triangle of land called the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) that is dominated by an equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I. We were across from Ehrenbretstein Castle, in the area where the Moselle River joins the Rhine. The area features a riverfront promenade, shopping, and a number of interesting historical buildings and churches.
The magnificent Cathedral of Cologne, largest in Europe, is a Gothic treasure built in the largest city in medieval Europe. Built over seven centuries, its two soaring spires stand as a triumphant symbol in a city ravaged by World War II. Inside is the resplendent gold Shrine of the Magi, embedded with hundreds of precious stones and containing relics that made this as important a pilgrimage site as Jerusalem and Rome. We visited the Kölsh brewery for a sample of the beer brewed in Cologne’s since the Middle Ages, and then were on our own. After strolling the pedestrian shopping streets, we added to our culinary experiences, stopping at a bratwurst stand and visiting the Chocolate Museum, adjacent to where we were docked, for some delicious fun. You can visit the treasury of the Cathedral or one of the fine arts or history museums, and there are several blocks of shops and department stores.
Arnhem, site of one of fiercest battles of World War II, memorialized in the movie A Bridge Too Far, is now a city of parks and gardens popular with retirees. Our excursion was to the Dutch Baroque Palais Het Loo, hunting grounds and summer residence of William and Mary Stuart, who in 1689 became King and Queen of England. Queen Wilhelmina donated this royal summer home for use as a museum in 1984. Viking offered optional afternoon tours to Netherlands’ Open Air Museum, a village of historic Dutch houses, workshops, and windmills, and to the Kroller Muller Museum, with fine art—Van Gogh, Picasso, Seurat, to name a few-- sculpture gardens, and a park with bicycles and cycling paths.
Amsterdam, the exciting, cultural, and cosmopolitan capital of the Netherlands, is known for its liberalism and tolerance, as a city with a remarkable system of canals, and for its streams of bicycles. A glass-roofed boat ride took us past narrow gabled houses, unique houseboats, innovative modern and elegant historic architecture, and to the Rijksmuseum. This museum is home to treasured works by such Dutch and Flemish Masters as Rembrandt, Steen, Hals, Vermeer, Rubens, van Dyck, and best known for The Night Watch. With the afternoon free, choices abounded-- Dam Square and the Royal Palace, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, the Floating Flower Market, antique shops, medieval churches, or the showcase windows of the Red Light District. Refreshment options were as varied as the sights, from Belgian fries served with mayonnaise, raw herring, Heineken beer at the brewery, cannabis at a “coffee shop”, where, it is said, you can walk in and fly out…or a “brown café” for a beer and taste of local culture. Tired of walking? Take circular tram #20 for an overview of the city.
That night there was a folkloric dance performance by the Dutch Blokkerder group in the Viking Sun lounge.
We stood in the centuries-old market square in Gouda, a shipping port for regional cheese. It was time for the animated figures of the glockenspiel to come alive on the red-and-white shuttered 14th century town hall, a site, popular for weddings. Across from Town Hall is St. Janskerk, largest in the Netherlands, and world-famous for its stained glass windows. This city, best known for the regional cheese marketed and shipped from here, is a pleasant place to shop or munch on a Stroopwafel, a thin waffle sandwich cookie with sticky caramel filling that originated here.
About 900 windmills have been preserved throughout this kingdom, and our afternoon tour took us inside one of the nineteen at Kinderdijk, an area named for the child who, according to legend, was found here in cradle on the slope of a dyke after a flood. The exteriors of the windmills are preserved and protected by a foundation, and some are inhabited as full-time residences.
Had it not been Sunday in this strictly religious region, our tour would have included cheese making at a local farm. Instead, our evening in this land that exports more cheese than any other was spent onboard sampling a variety of the area’s specialties.
Later, we were in Schoonhoven, city of fine silversmiths, and a local craftsman came onboard to demonstrate his intricate jewelry making.
Delft, birthplace of Dutch Master Vermeer (Girl with the Pearl Earring), is best known for its hand-painted blue and white glazed pottery, produced since 17th century. Our factory tour ended, of course, in the gift shop, which offers an extensive array of choices in all price ranges. We had free time to shop or sightsee in the historic pedestrian-only center and visit Nieuwe Kerk, where Royal family members buried.
We returned to the ship in time to learn to how to make Belgian Chocolate Cake, an apt introduction to our next day’s excursion. The Viking Sun lounge came alive that night during the Crew Show’s frolicsome performances.
A motorcoach awaited us the next morning for our grand finale—Bruges, Belgium, one of most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Europe, with architecture that reflects the prosperity its days as a cultural, artistic,and textile center and trading port. Flemish painters van Eyck and Memling lived and worked here. Horse drawn carriages clippity-clop along the cobblestone streets of a city that brings to mind the paintings of the Old Masters. Swans glide along in waters with names like Lake of Love. The walking tour took us to the two main squares, Burg and Markt, with 13th-16th century Market halls and a magnificent Gothic Town hall, the oldest in Belgium. We stepped inside the Church of Our Lady to view the art treasures, including a marble Madonna and Child by Michelangelo.
Our included lunch was a tasty traditional beef stew and Belgian waffles. After the optional (but highly recommended) tour by canal boat, we window shopped at shops selling fine laces, chocolates, and tapestries. If you are continuing on to Brussels, as we did, you will probably find the prices and selection to be better there.
You’ll need local currency (Euros) for tour guide and driver gratuities. The suggested gratuity for the shipboard staff is ten Euros per passenger per day, and you can put this on your credit card. Most people thought the service to be excellent and tipped a bit more.
I recommend flying in a day or so early to avoid concerns about transportation delays. You’ll start your cruise better rested and will have time to explore the area before starting your cruise.
It’s also a good idea to carry contact information should you need to reach the ship, particularly if you are not using the cruise line’s transfer service. Ships may be required to dock in a location different from the one listed in your documents, for example.
This was a trip through time along Europe’s medieval highway, strolling village lanes and cobblestone streets, gliding through romantic canals, walking hallowed aisles and royal halls of awe-inspiring cathedrals, castles and palaces. It was also a front row seat to contemporary life along the river. It’s an introduction to the technological marvels--locks that keep a river navigable and a canal system that keeps a kingdom below sea level dry.
The best part is that the Viking staff takes care of everything from beginning to end. You don't need to waste time and energy planning your day, and there is time to explore on your own. Aside from gratuities and a few optional tours, everything is included in your price.
This was our second cruise with Viking River Cruises. Our first, the Vienna to Amsterdam trip, was superb. Now to choose out third itinerary---Russia, China, Eastern Europe, France…