Rhine -- Basel to Amsterdam: 10-17 December 2013

Another stray comment from Tim Adams instigated this vacation. A Viking River Cruise email in mid-June, flashing 2-for-1, drew his attention and he, in turn, forwarded it. A brush fire of phone calls and emails ensued and by the time the dust cleared and calendars were checked, four couples started planning for VRC’s Basel-Amsterdam cruise of 10-17 December 2013.

The itinerary included:
Day 1: arrive in Basel –km 170 (from source of river)
Day 2: Breisach (excursions to Black Forest, Colmar) –km 210
Day 3: Kehl/Strasbourg –km 300
Day 4: Mannheim/Gernsheim/Rudesheim (excursion to Heidelberg) –km 420-530
Day 5: Koblenz/mid-Rhine castles (excursion to Marksburg) –km 580-590
Day 6: Colgone –km 685
Day 7: Kinderdijk, and much later to Amsterdam –km 800-1000 approx.
Day 8: leave early for Newark, home, and snow

Big picture stuff

This cruise was the first one for four of us, with the Carrs and Adamses the veterans of a few or several. So, we Viking Virgins probably gawked as newbies will do even though our expectations had already been shaped and tempered in the form of recollection and advice. And, for the most part, those expectations were met, with each of us adapting the final form as only face-to-face reality can do.
          Most of the details of the ship and general itinerary can be found on VRC’s website. (Be sure to link Basel to Amsterdam, not the other way around.)
The Baldur, a three month old ship, measured nearly 450 feet, four decks, and carried 190 passengers and 50 crew, a far cry from the 5,000 passenger behemoths of the other stereotypical travel ventures. Thus, no swimming pools, no climbing towers, no gyms—just sleeping rooms, a large lounge, a large dining room, two modest common areas, and a sun deck if weather allowed.
          Our room measured 15x10, large enough for a double-twin bed (large but desirable), a sizeable closet, a tight but comfortable bathroom, a flat screen TV, a refrigerator, and a chest of drawers. It was what we expected, and Tim’s advice that we would be sleeping in, not living in, the room, fit.
          We knew the window would be small, and it was, perhaps four feet long and eighteen inches high, starting at just over the five foot mark in the room, meaning short people had to clamber onto the bed for a view. Just feet above river level, the window view angle even allowed a passing peeping swan to peer in.

Not to be understated was the influence of the camaraderie of a group of friends traveling together. The eight of us (Deb and Don Teator, Judy and Tim Adams, Lynda Pisano and Ross Burhouse, Pat and Jim Carr) formed a comfortable and cohesive pack, sharing many of our experiences within our own bubble to the exclusion, at times, of the other 180 guests. This meant sharing dinners, some lunches, most of the tours, but with the freedom to break away as any of us needed.
          The one downside, of course, was the minimized interaction with others that might have happened otherwise. And even though we met our share of fellow travelers (Bob & Diane from Texas, especially), we knew our team of friendly faces would be touchstones for the trip.
          Thus, reactions to events, knowing who was shooting what pictures, saving seats on the tour bus, checking news about home, wondering about any of the unknowns, and all the other little nuances of having friends close by continued from airport takeoff to arrival home. (And Don and Deb drove with Lynda and Ross from Greene County.)

Food was a Jekyll and Hyde relationship, with Hyde being us.
           Jekyll: The food was excellent and plentiful. Breakfast and lunch could be a buffet or the restaurant, with dinner solely at the restaurant. Portion size at the restaurant was comfortable and small by American standards but was most welcome. Hyde: We over-consumed, by more than a little, on the buffet lines, even as we complained about our gluttony. And then there was the coffee stand, available all day, most of the time with the accompanying side sweets and breads.
          The restaurant menu for dinner included choices for appetizers, entrées, and desserts, with a finishing cheese plate, if so desired.

Another major element was invisible. And that element was the unavoidable comparison to the France 2012 tour of the Adamses and Teators—self-directed. Every decision—where to stay, where and what to eat, what to see, when to rest—was totally ours, and those details became engrained.
           This Rhine cruise, of course, was different. We paid for someone to make those decisions, and that was both liberating and…. restrictive at the same time.

Weather almost lived up to the guidebook billing—average high of 40 degrees, low of high 20s, more clouds than sun, warmer as you got closer to Amsterdam. After an initial sun-filled morning in the Black Forest (good timing!), we then endured sixty hours of a raw and cold fog that chilled, obscured, and empowered ambiance and character. However, it was steady and one that we grew accustomed to; eventually, it warmed a few degrees and a broken sun emerged.
          Venturing onto the sun deck in the visceral night-time fog added another face of weather.

Of course, the promise of experiences and sights, as well as curiosity to be satisfied, led us to this undertaking. A categorical recounting might suffice but I will maintain the chronological for this account.

Day 1 found us arriving at Basel’s waterfront at 3:30 pm, after a four hour layover in Frankfort; we had arrived an hour too late for a guided walking tour of Basel. Instead, we stretched our legs on a brief walk before yielding to our desire to unpack, wash up, and familiarize ourselves with Baldur’s routine.

Day 2 started early in Breisach, boarding the bus to the Black Forest, wending our way through attractive German towns at the foothills (Ihringen, for one). After twisting our way up a road that reminded us of Rt 23A to Haines Falls, we arrived at Sankt Peter and viewed the Abbey at St Peter. On the return, we visited the touristy Holgut Sternen with its kaleidoscope of cuckoo clocks for sale, glass making, Black Forest Chocolate Cake demonstrations and eating, and hiking. Our elderly German guide narrated, somewhat idiosyncratically the last fifteen miles with his accordion, dolls, and voices.
          After the on-board lunch, Andy led our bus with a guided tour to Colmar, a charming Alsatian town with a medieval center that contained ambiance, history, beauty in bunches. Andy proved to be the first of three outstanding guides on the trip.
One disappointment was to not have enough time to explore the town at our docking site.

 Day 3 found us moored at Kehl, in a dense, cold fog that penetrated every bone unless three layers warded it off. We made an early start for Strasbourg, with a sincere but mediocre guide, who led us through another Alsatian medieval town center anchored with a magnificent cathedral whose tower with its nearly 300 steps invited three of us to climb to the top. Most of us opted to take a later shuttle bus instead of the lunch bus. Deb and I shared a flatbread in a bakery that equaled almost anything (patisserie, that is) we had seen in France the year before (OK, OK, Strasbourg is in France!).
           On the way back, sympathy went begging when Judy complained that a beggar-amputee wandering in traffic would probably tape on his leg after the panhandling was done! The schedule was beginning to tell and we climbed into bed before 10 pm.

Day 4 found us docked in Mannheim from which we departed for Heidelberg. Our wizened eldress guide, Evelyn, a native, was the second of our outstanding guides and she cast her spell with the details and stories as we ventured to the castle and town. Heidelberg Castle is both imposing and grand, but a bit over-advertised, I thought; still, I would not have foregone a chance to trek its grounds. Later, a tour of the town—a town in which the Americans were stationed and thus not damaged in WWII—saw more medieval and early modern buildings, the Kiss lore, the rubbing monkey on the bridge, the former site of the Jewish synagogue, stumble stones that marked formers Jewish houses, and an inviting café where we warmed our bones with coffee and Black Forest cake.
          Boarding the bus, we re-joined Baldur at Gernsheim, continuing to Rudesheim. We spurned the choo-choo train optional tour, opting instead to walk through the Christmas Market where Don bought a hat to match Tim and Jim.

Day 5 started slowly, with many on board sleeping late because of Baldur sailing all morning. The mythic mid-Rhine castles were riveting; some still lay in ruin, some upgraded to residences or luxury rentals. Throw in vineyard after vineyard on steep hillsides and this was indeed a magical place. Fortunately, the fog had lifted just enough to adequately discern most of the hilltops. Add Lorelei’s lair, and the Rhine legend of castles was complete.
          We sailed past Marksburg, docked at Koblenz, and soon boarded the bus for the tour back to Marksburg, a compelling view of history that we found fascinating but were relieved we did not have to re-live it.
          We later walk to Koblenz’s center, encountered more Christmas Markets and back streets, and finally turned “homeward” to Baldur.

Day 6 found us in Koln (Cologne), tied up within walking distance (for able walkers) of the city. Our third wonderful guide, Two Meter Peter (yes, 6’, 6”), in an early light rain that soon dwindled to nothing, had us skirt the Dom Cathedral (used as a navigational beacon, it was the only landmark to survive Allied bombing), three Christmas markets, the old Jewish center and archaeology, and a couple museums. We took the Viking bus back to the ship and lunch, and promptly returned to the city on one of the shuttle buses so Jim, Tim and I could scale the 509 steps of the Cathedral Tower. Jim and I returned early, while Tim, Judy, and Ross museumed. The other three ladies stayed home for the afternoon.
          That evening, six of us accompanied Ulli (Queen of Koln), another worthy guide, on the Beer Culture Tour, where we visited four Brauhauses (not Pubs!) and tasted the Koln specialty, Kolsch, which is the name of the beer and the German dialect spoken. One can drink one’s own language if Koln is home. (Fruh, Sion, Peter’s, Gaffel—the four we visited)

Day 7 was a sailing morning, with a visit to the captain’s wheelhouse. Late morning, we listened to the Dutch and Cheese lecture, mooring midday at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO site framing about 15 working windmills. We toured one that served as a museum and learned about the dike system and its intricacies. Etta, our proficient-enough guide who lived close by, used her own residential example of the reality of sinking land.
          Back on ship, we packed for an early morning departure and readied for the Captain’s Dinner.

Day 8 was a tease. We had sailed most of the night, landing in Amsterdam only to set our bags in the hallway at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, and depart the ship for the last time on the shuttle bus for the airport flight at 9 a.m. An eight hour flight awaited. No Red Light District.

The big picture items—overview, travel mates, food, schedule—capture the trip’s essence but so many other elements added meaning. In no particular order:

Urban nature of trip: Our 2012 France trip saw us in many small towns and back roads. Just by the nature of the beast, VRC needs to have something for everybody (four bus loads) and cities fill that need, and popular demand. Kinderdijk was the only “small” part of the trip, with the rest being big towns and cities.

Jet lag: We must have treated ourselves better this trip compared to last fall. We reached the ship at 3:30 p.m., with minimal sleep since the morning the day before, stayed up to 10 p.m. before nodding out. Although there was some tiredness, it was nothing compared to the year before. However, upon arriving home, we dealt with eyes that ached with tiredness by mid-evening, followed by the urge to rise early. (six hour time difference)

Flights: VRC arranged all the flights and did a good job, especially with a non-stop home. I could have done without the four hour layover at Frankfort but it is what it is. VRC even had representatives meet us at Basel, and then practically held our hand in Amsterdam, which was so much appreciated. (I suspect dealing with newbies has taught VRC that an extra step saves them some time too!)

Docking sites: I don’t know what VRC can control but half the time we found ourselves moored to a spot where there was no reasonable distance to walk into a town or city. The veteran VRC cruisers complained there was much more of this on this cruise than on the others they have experienced.

Bus tours/shuttles: The companion piece to the topic above is VRC’s plan to get us to sites we wanted to see. At times, a shuttle bus ran from a site (Strasbourg, Cologne) a few extra times in the afternoon and thus allowed a flexible schedule for viewers/shoppers. The Black Forest bus tour was a lengthy one, up a long climb, down the other side, but necessary for the nature of the countryside. Some of the veterans commented that closer sites would have precluded the need for as many buses but we VVs (Viking Virgins) accepted it as part of the routine and of our education. It all seemed part of a cohesive plan.

Sleep/noise: VRC beds were comfortable and roomy. One unusual distraction, or attraction, were night noises, especially at sleeping time, as the ship wended its way to the next destination. Rough water, the engines of passing boats, docking, and navigating the locks made for a sound-fill that caused some confusion at first, and then was almost welcome as background noise. The deck above us, with their rooms entirely above water, missed out. 

Downton Abbey: The Adamses’ VRC trips had put VRC on our radar but the constant advertising during the Downton Abbey series certainly made Deb yearn and drool every episode. Good marketing.

Diversity?: Back to the last topic, and after getting on board, one wonders if VRC signs up only middle class, retired older white people. A little tongue in cheek, this last observation, because taking a week’s cruise in Europe just before Christmas probably was perfect for our age group. And even the towns we visited seemed homogenous, and only in Cologne did we espy even a few non-whites.

Christmas markets: A key marketing ploy by VRC is highlighting the plethora of Christmas markets that practically every town and city exploits, probably from local custom but it certainly helps if boatloads of eager-to-buy tourists are available almost every day. After the third or fourth one (Day 2), I was somewhat jaded, viewing them as a cross of our juried craft fairs and yard sales. Still, they acted as magnets for activity for these cities and towns and left an impression of a vibrant city center that might have been missing otherwise. And we saw many locals as they also milled, and drank, and flirted, and enjoyed the Christmas air.

VRC standard tours: A key part of any journey is making connections between oneself and surroundings. And if it is my first time visiting the Rhine (or an art museum, or a historic site, etc.), my experience is made better if I know the particulars or importance. VRC is to be complimented for arranging competent, or better, guides for our daily tours. In addition, the use of the “Quiet Box” is a vast improvement over forty people clustering around a guide who has to yell to be heard.

VRC optional tours: These are the tours we pay extra for. One can debate what should be included but it is nice to have a choice, even at additional cost, knowing we may not be reconnoitering these grounds for a long time. And it is a reminder, when I formulate my next self-planned trip, to find local guides to enrich my experience.

VRC daily info: Just before dinner, with almost everyone assembled in the upper lounge, Program Director Anita Jaric provided a briefing of the activities for the following day, housekeeping notes, etc. And then, during dinner, the staff, as they made up the rooms for the second time that day, placed on our beds the Viking Daily—a four page letter of the schedule for the following day with a compilation of history and culture of the areas we would be viewing. These letters also served as a concise reminder of our trip.

Cost: A week-long cruise on the Rhine, including airfare, for $3700 per couple seemed too good to pass up for us first-timers, and a good deal for the veterans. A full fare, and airfare, could easily double that figure. Throw in another $1000 for tips and purchases, and we experienced one of our dreams for a very fair price. (Last year’s 18 day France trip, self-made, ran about $6500.)

Views of river banks: Part of the fascination of river sailing is to see a world that we non-sailors rarely see. So, a mile or two of non-populated banks of trees or grasses sufficed soon enough. Sighting a town garnered more attention, especially mid-Rhine.
          However, the reality of most of the sailing being in the dark makes this viewing moot, although the nightly experience of joining the “sun” deck was one we looked forward to, even on the foggy nights too dense to see even the length of the ship.

Other passengers: People like us filled the ship, and it was enjoyable to hear the life stories of others who were cruising for the first time or tenth time, sharing stories of past vacations, the thumbnail versions of one’s life, sharing our thumbnail versions, and sometimes continuing that conversation. In fact, the Adams-Carr relationship derives from a VRC cruise a few years ago. Still, we had our built-in dome that muted the potential to meet many others, a pleasurable and worthwhile trade-off.

Lectures: During the off-time, when no regular tour for everyone was transpiring, one of the staff or a hired local would introduce and speak on a topic for 30-45 minutes. From gingerbread making to windmills and polders to Dutch culture to the European Union history to several more, the chance to garner more culture and history was another plus for us travelers.

Wine: One of my interests is to try the wines of the region. And VRC has hired a winemaker to make the house wines for the trip, and a Gruner Veltliner, Zweigelt, and Sec certainly fit that bill, even if I thought them ordinary quality. Three or four times, there was an alternative at dinner that I thought was better quality than the house wines, even though house wines were good enough and complemented our food.
          Once, in Strasbourg, I bought a bottle of Gewurztraminer for the table, a wine that truly gave a touch of the area’s flavor.
The other wine story is the vineyards we viewed, especially on the mid-Rhine. Our jaws slackened as we studied the steep hillsides, some terraced, containing vineyards of a few hundred square feet to acres on rugged slopes that defied our pre-conceptions. Fascinating.

Daylight: The sun certainly rose later than we remembered at home and research revealed why—latitude and placement in the time zone.

Latitude -- City -- Length of Day 12/21 -- Sunrise -- Sunset
38’ 39” – Washington DC – 9h 26m – 7:23am – 4:50pm
40' 44" -- Pittsburgh -- 9h 16m -- 7:40am -- 4:57pm
42' 39" -- Albany -- 9h 2m -- 7:22am -- 4:25pm
47' 26" -- Basel -- 8h 25m -- 8:15am -- 4:41 pm
52' 23" -- Amsterdam -- 7h 40m -- 8:48am -- 4:29 pm

Stuff missing: The Carrs gracefully endured a couple incidents that could have fried others. Their luggage did not show up until Day 3, and they in good humor kidded about wearing the same clothes, cleanliness, and so on.
          And then Jim (or, Pat, depending on the version) lost his camera. Or, Jim could not find his camera after leaving the bus after Strasbourg on Day 3. All those photos, not to mention the value of the camera—lost! So, Jim became a legend on board, the guy whose camera disappeared, probably on a bus, and we could not imagine a Viking guest who, upon finding a camera on a Viking bus, would not return it to Viking’s lost-and-found
          Two days later, Jim found the camera. Rummaging through her clothes drawer, Pat felt a hard object and, presto, the camera was found in the undies section. Jim, somewhat innocently, said that when he searched, he never got past the panties, inviting Pat’s retort, “That hasn’t stopped you before!” So, all is well that ends well
          To make their life even more interesting, their flight to Basel was timed so tightly they almost missed the early afternoon arrival.

Staff: Not to be ignored was the excellent service from top to bottom of Baldur’s staff. It was, however, two people we encountered the most. One, Kremena, did the room service and filled every request, even our request for a sheet under the duvet so we could sleep more comfortably. Thank you, Kremena.
          Our star of the trip was Zoltan, our 30 year old Transylvanian waiter, servicing the left entry corner of the restaurant. Tall, lanky, laconic, seemingly emotionless at first, it took about five minutes for one of his reactions to connect and meld for the rest of the trip (wag his finger like a teacher, gesture for eye contact). He would tease, deny, slyly grin, unexpectedly toss in a comment, take our requests literally (a little more coffee meant a half-ounce!) and we enjoyed his humor, tricks and stories the entire way. And we watched as he would connect with all his tables.
          Many of the staff were Eastern Europeans and Philipinos, and we admired their hard work and commitment to service while they were away from family. And VRC, of course, is to be commended for their commitment to training and service.

Security: Warily optimistic is how we travel—optimistic that the world is a good place where no evil lurks; wary in case those lurkers exist. It was easy to overlook how much VRC did to ensure our safety: reminders, daily ID passes to return from trips off-ship, guides with markers, safe destinations, and so on. Perhaps, there is safety in numbers and, even with our minimal experience overseas, Deb and I felt cautiously secure. On board, a group congeniality should have precluded any thought of suspicion, but we obviously chose not to leave valuables unattended.  Furthermore, a fellow VRCer returned money he thought was mine (and I could not be sure if it was nor not!).

Pickpockets: Guides and staff continually cautioned us to hold tight and protect our valuables from the pickpockets, especially in the crowded areas, even in the Christmas markets and especially at the cathedrals. As far as I heard, none of us lost a thing to theft. And we especially include Ross, a veteran “giver-away” of items during his last few trips.

Parking: Parking Spot in Newark-McClellan was a handy spot to park the car. And when we returned on a snow laden Newark tarmac, our car was brushed off and waiting. Good idea, Tim.

Invisible WWII:
A blissfully, blithely ignorant person might well comment how neat and how clean and how quaint so many of the villages presented themselves and leave it at that. Of course, even the typical traveler, with a modicum of world history, cannot escape the bubbling-under-the-surface agony that was World War Two. And Germany especially. Mostly, the traces of devastation and slaughter have been effaced but the psychological scars run deep here, as it does for the rest of the world. Unless, one wishes "stuff" seventy years ago is long enough ago to not mean much today. Heaven forbid.

A few other even more minor details
Lynda suffered a queasy stomach for two days, casting a pall on her last couple days. Ugh. Cause-unknown.
=> The tour of the captain’s wheelhouse on our last day was a view into the most prestigious job on board.
=> Why all those rock jetties on the Rhine’s shores? To narrow the width so the river would run faster and thus clean sediment more effectively.
=> Deb started watching Downton Abbey’s early years on the plane on the way over, continued with the available shows in room, and finished all but five shows on the way back to Newark.
=> In addition to Dom Koln’s 506 steps, the fearless threesome also climbed Strasbourg’s cathedral tower’s 300-some steps.
=> Cocktail “hour” was a gathering spot for many in the 90 minutes before the briefing and dinner.
=> We noticed the Pharamcie in Alsace, with memories rushing back of Deb’s visits last year.
=> I filled out fifteen or so postcards. Too bad I could not find one worthy of Ken.
=> The stork tradition in Strasbourg was worth telling, but we heard it way too many times from our guide.
=> Of course, Deb had her photo album compiled two days upon returning home - a wonderful of preserving our memories.

A closing?
Several weeks have passed since trip’s end, and since the writing of the rough draft. Somehow, the more I thought and wrote, the more I valued VRC’s efforts and the more I appreciated the scope of our travels. Even though the self-made details of last year’s trip is etched ever so fixedly in my brain, I must admit that allowing veteran planners decide most of my course proved to be a worthwhile decision, even more so when shared with friends whose interests and personalities melded so comfortably for a memorable week in December 2013.