After an enthralling few days in Paris, we headed to Basel for our Rhine cruise departure. A zippy 3 hours by TGV from Gare de Lyon, the train was quiet and relaxing. European rail travel is typically the easiest transfer between cities and often faster than flying.
Raindrops followed us from Paris along the route, becoming sleet, then snow. Yes, snow, in early May! Crops and fields were dusted in frost as we whizzed past. Temps thankfully rose as we neared our destination though white skies remained.
Basel is steeped in history with a contemporary side. The Rhine divides, a bridge connects the ancient and modern. The Swissotel was our base, a comfy and prime spot to launch our urban power tour. Located on the “new” side of the city, it’s an easy walk across a bridge to Old Town, less than a mile away. The friendly hotel staff expertly advised us on local sites, transportation and eateries. When tummies growled, we dined at the recommended Roma Restaurant, serving terrific Italian fare at reasonable prices (often hard to find in Switzerland!).
All hotels provide visitors a Baselpass for use on city trams to get around town, efficient as it is convenient. On Sunday morning, we hopped aboard, transiting the Rhine into Old Town. The main square was surrounded by a bastion of splendid medieval structures now functioning in various capacities as hotels, restaurants, offices, residences and shops. Walking along the river, we spotted our vessel in port, the Viking Hlin, awaiting our contingent of Sunday cruisers. There happened to be a women-only 10K in town that morning. We chatted with a few friendly racers in a coffee shop who showed us their medals – already engraved with their name and time. As a distance racer myself, I was quite impressed!
Boarding time. A short walk from the city center, the Viking Hlin, our floating hotel, awaited dockside.
The Swissotel happened to be the same which Viking used for pre-cruise overnights; the onsite Viking rep graciously took our wheeled bags which were dispatched to our stateroom. Our welcome aboard occurred just after noon, allowing us to unpack, have lunch, get settled. Hours later during dinner, we were sailing smoothly downriver toward Amsterdam, navigating through tightly spaced locks, the sides of which were touchable. Naturally, I did. I had to ask the captain: if we’re headed North to Amsterdam, why is it called downriver? The reply: if one noticed, water levels reduced, the ship descended through each of the locks. The Rhine is higher in Basel, lower in Amsterdam. Aaahhh, now I get it.
The sky was pouty most of the week, with misty rain and blanched skies following us from Basel then on down the Rhine. No matter, we came prepared with hooded raingear and brellys, refusing to let it dampen our adventurous spirit, an attitude shared by fellow travelers as we communely melted in awe with each inspiring site.
Such uniquely indigenous experiences! In Breisach, we bussed to a small village where we hiked the Black Forest.
Later, we were treated to a Black Forest Cake demo featuring a hearty five gallons of whipped cream (or so it seemed)
Next day, we docked on the German side in Strasbourg, then motored over to the French side of the river, visiting its own Notre Dame Cathedral.
Strasbourg was especially lovely, its sturdy Tudor styled architecture laced with effusive flowers and greenery.
Showers followed us into Mannheim where coaches transported us to Heidelberg. Walking the grounds and its namesake castle were well worth the trip!
Heidelberg Castle was vastly impressive, fairly accessible for its size. In Koblenz, we toured Marksburg Castle, a formidable fortress. It was the most daunting site to navigate, the entrance featuring a slanted boulder as a walkway with numerous crevasses we had to leap over, scaling a series of uneven steps just to reach the living quarters. Can’t imagine they had many return guests back in the day.
Cafe hopping along the route, we sampled a luscious, top chef style fresh asparagus soup at a cozy café in Koblenz. A taste of Heidelberg featured sensational brats. Cologne treated us to a native Croatian meal prepared and served by expats.
Aaah, Cologne, our favorite Rhine stop, with its towering cathedral hosting The Magi remains, the Gothic mecca I’d longed to visit.
It was breathtaking, spectacular, even in the drowning rain. Luckily, our ship was in port long enough to catch its nocturnal illumination when the skies compliantly cleared that night, a magnificent vision.
Bonus: though we motored into the city center, there was an easy walking path across the bridge back to our ship with dramatic riverscape views. Truth be told, every experience was worth the trip, no matter the coach distance from ship to site.
At every stop along the route – Breisach, Strasbourg, Heidelberg, Koblenz, Cologne, Kinderdijk – we were greeted by keen local guides, as knowledgeable as they were friendly. Each escorted us in small groups, detailing the many centuries of history and conquest, culturally transforming each locale. enhancing our enjoyment with their insight.
Without a doubt, castles were the star attraction. Cruising provides an optimal vantage point from which to view these stupendous monuments. The Middle Rhine is a cornucopia of medieval castles, cloisters and ruins.
Some were built as fortresses, others as summer homes of former nobility. Along the route is the legendary siren, Lorelei Rock, a 430′ spectacle, easily spotted from top deck.
On our last full day, at long last, the sun sparkled the landscape as we headed into Holland. Local geography chalk talk: of the 12 provinces in the Netherlands, technically, “Holland” includes only provinces 1, North Holland (Amsterdam, Haarlem) and 2, South Holland (Kinderdijk). First stop, Kinderdijk, where we strode off the ship with bikes waiting, pedal powering along grassy trails among soaring windmills.
The wind was peppy, turning the gigantic blades into robust spinners. It happened to be National Windmill Day – all 19 monumental structures were in full operation. Lucky us!
Day 7, we arrived in Amsterdam, our final destination. We were delighted to learn we could have breakfast on the ship, then leisurely make our way off since we had no urgency to fly home, having booked an overnight hotel. Directions in hand, we walked straight to the conveniently situated Kimpton De Witt in 10 minutes. With bags dropped and tram passes in hand, we headed to the Museum quarter.
First up ~ the Van Gogh. But alas, another detour. Having just strode into the Anne Frank House and Rijksmuseum on a previous visit, we planned impromptu admissions for our art walk. Times have changed. Tickets to prime sites, such as the Van Gogh, must be purchased in advance. With increased popularity and spikes in tourism, many museums now have timed entries to manage crowd control. I was crushed. Strolling around, disappointment evaporated upon meeting two persuasive young promoters at a boat dock. New plan: a canal cruise, guided by a hilarious 19 year old captain at the helm providing salty commentary with flowing prosecco. Quite entertaining! Certainly, a memorable Mother’s Day for me.
After walking all day, we’d earned a hearty meal. At lunch time, we’d found a superb Turkish restaurant behind our De Witt hotel, exceptionally good! Amsterdam is among the many European cities offering global cuisine. We were on the hunt for a dining adventure. And there it was, Joselito, a Spanish tapas restaurant. Fantastico!
Beef empanadillas, chicken skewers, spicy meatballs served with a half litre of temperanillo, delightfully delish! Our friendly server, David, made it moreso.
Our takeaway from this trip: river cruising is an excellent travel experience. It can be as relaxing or adventurous as you wish. We especially enjoyed the social interaction, meeting people from all over the US, some of whom became new friends. It was a novice cruise for some, double digits for other sailing veterans. Though there was considerable bus time spent getting to and from various sites, we found brief respites for local exploration. Naturally, all the local Rhine vintages and German beers were richly rewarding, as were the indigenous foods.The cuisine on board particularly exceeded expectations with a congenial wait staff eager to insure each guest’s preferences were met.
The planning wheels are in motion…we’re amped for the Danube! Or Rhône. Or Douro. With multiple choices showcasing notable sites blending hidden gems, there are numerous well designed itineraries from which to choose.
Next month: London. So soon, you say? Passports are meant to be stamped, not collect dust ~ Ta for now!
Ship notes to prospective river cruisers ~ the daily motor coaching involved at most stops on the Rhine is more than is common on other routes*. It was a 90 minute trip from the ship to the village where hiked the Black Forest in Breisach. Heidelberg is actually about a 40 minute ride from Mannheim where the ship docks. We also returned downriver to a different city after Heidelberg. Just the walk to the bus in Strasbourg took over 15 minutes, with multiple timed returns offered back to the ship. Koblenz and Cologne were directly accessible from the dock. All things considered, cruising remains an optimal way to take in multiple countries, historic sites, interact with locals while enjoying sumptuous cuisine, fine wines in comfortable surroundings with fellow water loving explorers. It’s highly social, with plenty of time to chat, swap stories about various shore experiences as well as back home. One of the best parts is unpacking once while covering sizeable territory in a relaxing atmosphere.
Cabin notes ~ lower cabins situated at water level can be noisy. On the bottom deck, all cabins have “swan windows”, meaning these lovely creatures can be seen floating by one’s window.
Since most of the cabin is below the water line, the banging propellers of passing ships can be heard, along with a constant hum from an unidentified source. Also, with longships often docked together, the already petite light source is completely blocked, rendering darkness – and no privacy – during the day. Though the square footage is the same as French balcony cabins, it’s quite cozy with limited space in/around the bed. I say thanks for the experience but I’m destined for a French or full balcony cabin henceforth.
Travel tips ~ book/prepay in advance any “can’t miss” sites, whether ship shore excursions or favorite museums, especially when traveling during peak seasons.
Basel Tips ~ if flying in or out, be aware that Basel airport is split into a French and Swiss side. A valid passport or identity card is needed to transit between – within the terminal. It’s also crucial to know on which side a car rental company exists. For instance, renting a car at MLH/Mulhouse (French) can result in lower cost with low to no drop off fees if returning car elsewhere on the continent. From BSL/Basel (Swiss) side, higher rates and drop fees apply.
*On our previous Bordeaux river cruise, we walked off the vessel at every stop directly into the local town or village. Every shore excursion, naturally, involved a motorcoach to reach the vineyards and chateaux which were hallmarks of that sailing.