Cruising the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel

April 22, 2015 Updated: April 22, 2015

Like the water rat in the children’s classic “Wind in the Willows,” I believe there is nothing half as much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Circumstances change, but not the spirit. Long gone are the battered canoes of my youth. Now, I mess about in cruise ships. 

Recently, I shanghaied my sister into joining me on an eight-day Viking Rhine River Cruise. The river carried us through an enchanting journey of castles and cuckoo clocks, medieval villages and oompah bands, legends and archeological discoveries. 

Our embarkation port was Amsterdam. We arrived a day early to explore this city of canals reflecting tall, narrow houses and bicycles that have the right of way. After a close encounter with handle bars, my first thought upon seeing a bike was “yield.” We yielded our way through the historical centre to the Van Gogh Museum. My favourite, “The Bedroom,” was out for restoration. I bought a ceramic plaque of his painting to serve as a daily reminder to return to this lovely city. My royal delft plate is on a high shelf, safe from grandchildren.

French fries in a paper cone topped with mayo is Amsterdam’s street food, and we did not miss the catsup, just our tram. There was so much to look at that agendas were forgotten except for dinner. 

The concierge suggested a typical Dutch meal at Restaurant Haesje Claes. It takes up six historic buildings and retains many of the original architectural features. Some think “Dutch cuisine” is an oxymoron, but our sttamppot was hearty and satisfying. It is simply a pile of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut with a slice of bacon, sausage link, and pickle stuck to the side and crowned with a big meatball. 

We topped off our meal with a visit to Cheese and More where most of the cheeses are made on Henri Willig’s dairy farms in the Dutch countryside. After sampling different varieties, we purchased a ball of the creamiest Gouda I have ever tasted.

The windmill we visited was restored to its 18th-century appearance with cabinet beds, furnishings, clothing, and implements of the era.

Understated Elegance

Boarding our Viking longboat was like entering another world. With 50 crew members for the ship’s 190 guests, service exceeds expectations. The décor is contemporary and light. We felt like royalty when we entered our suite with a veranda for optimal river-viewing, not to mention the fresh plums and champagne. 

Viking’s decks are fair-weather indulgences with padded chairs and shawls. The lounge has comfortable sofas and chairs arranged in conversation groups, all with a river view. The restaurant offers fine dining, three meals a day. There is a buffet option for breakfast and lunch, but table service is always available. The chef uses seasonal, local ingredients plus cuttings from his herb garden on the top deck. 

Manager Gerald David greeted us on arrival and presented a welcoming and helpful presence to every passenger. He said crew members are highly trained and go through a two-week team-building experience. When a passenger had a concern, David’s attention was fully focused on the guest, and the problem was addressed immediately. 

“Our guests are demanding, and we expect them to demand the finest service,” he said. 

Our cruise included two shore excursions per day: one complimentary, the other billed. As they are scheduled at different times, passengers can enjoy two excursions a day, or just spend time on their own in a quaint port village. The program director was specific about the physical demands of each excursion and offered a leisure option that required less walking and fewer stairs. The concierge solved the mobility problem for one frail gentleman and his wife by arranging for a rickshaw to pick them up at the dock and drive them through medieval lanes that cars cannot navigate.

Windmills and Castles

Kinderdijk, Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Heidelberg, Speyer, Strasburg, Breisach, Colmar, and the Black Forest—passenger favourites were as varied as the menu. Our favourites included the UNESCO world heritage site Kinderdijk, which has 19 windmills built in the mid-18th century. 

Most are occupied by Dutch families who enjoy the windmills’ three-storey, circular living space. The windmill we visited was restored to its 18th-century appearance with cabinet beds, furnishings, clothing, and implements of the era. As we were standing 20 feet below sea level, it was reassuring to see the windmills turning. The guide used a windmill model to explain the mechanics, but I was more drawn to the ducks and birds larking around the misty canal.

When I think of the Rhine River, I think of castles. This cruise included enough castles to satiate a lifetime of yearning. The first one we visited was the 900-year-old Marksburg Castle. This best-preserved castle on the Rhine was built to defend a family, not to house royalty. Most rooms were devoted to an armoury, blacksmith shop, kitchen, and animal and servant quarters. Just two rooms were “home”: the bedroom with its canopied and curtained bed and the great room where people visited and supped. 

High on the “titter” factor was the W.C. that opens into the great room and faces the dining table. The door has no lock on the inside as it was considered rude to leave a conversation. People simply continued conversing with the door open. At night, the door was bolted in fear of an enemy invasion.

On the way to Heidelberg by coach, we saw the evocative ruins of the 13th-century Heidelberg Castle, the setting for Austro-Hungarian composer Sigmund Romberg’s 1924 operetta “The Student Prince.” 

Of note is the Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine cask built in 1751 from 130 oak trees and only filled a few times. Its size—28 by 32 feet—and capacity of 58,000 gallons made us feel dwarfed. Mark Twain, however, was unimpressed, saying in his book “A Tramp Abroad”: “I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in.” 

One afternoon we cruised past hills dotted with castles. Most passengers sat in the lounge, a few on the chilly deck. My sister and I snuggled up on a sofa with mugs of hot chocolate and enjoyed the program director’s narration. He shared details of each castle and village we passed, ending with the Lorelai. This 16-foot bronze statue of the legendary maiden marks one of the most dangerous river passages, and her story of betrayal and suicide is haunting. The murmur of the river is said to be her lament to her faithless lover.

Villages and Clocks

The boat docked within easy walking distance to the village of Speyer, founded by the Romans. We took a quick tour through the twin-towered 11th-century cathedral, the greatest building of its time and the largest Romanesque building in Germany. It is impressive, but we were seeking lesser-known sites. 

In the 11th century, Speyer was home to the largest Jewish community north of the Alps, and a wall of the synagogue still stands. A small museum displays artifacts including the Lingenfeld Treasure, a collection of coins and gold utensils from the 1300s probably hidden by a moneylender during a plague pogrom. 

Untouched by time, the 12th-century ritual bathhouse is the oldest and best preserved relic of its kind in the country. We descended several flights of stairs to the ground-water bathing pool. I felt the weight of history of a community that lived in an often uneasy peace with its Christian neighbours until World War II. Only 15 survived the Holocaust. 

A journey lighter in spirit was a coach ride through the Black Forest to what my sister called “Cuckoo Clock Circus.” The original cuckoo clock first made in the 1600s was a simple, hand-carved wooden clock with stones for weights. The shop displays a replica along with cuckoo clocks of all sizes and a variety of automations, from pastoral animals and peasants to Harley Davidson motorcycles. 

We finished off our gift list with clocks, beer steins, and creations from the glass blowers’ shop. This island of shops in the wilderness is obviously a tour bus stop, but the merchandise is high quality. 

A Royal Farewell

Viking’s service continues to airport security. When the bus stopped at the airport, a Viking representative boarded and promised to escort us to the right check-in counter. Inside, my sister and I decoded the information board and broke away from the group. When we got to the counter, the Viking guide was leading some of our new friends to our check-in point and walked guests through the process. From first boarding to final departure, Viking was with each passenger every step of the way.

As the water rat said, “Lord, the times we’ve had together!” Or was it my sister?

Carol Stigger is a Chicago-based writer, teacher, and traveller who specializes in developing-nation issues, microfinance, and leisure travel.