November 23, 2014

Sailing the Romantic Rhine

The Avalon Tapestry sails the river of royalty, poets,
artists and winemakers

By Karen Northridge

The day I booked a Rhine River cruise with Globus, a friend called me in a great fever of excitement to announce that she, too, would be taking a river cruise. The chance to see Europe the way Europeans do, via the waterways that crisscross the continent, is rapidly gaining popularity among North Americans. After a week in the summer of 2006 on Avalon Waterways' new ship, the Tapestry, I knew why.

Imagine effortlessly gliding downstream, glimpsing castles and cathedrals perched on steep hillsides. Though the feudal lords who built these medieval gems are long gone, their tactical strongholds remain, giving the Rhine Gorge a magical appearance and calling forth images of knights and damsels.

Listening as the cruise director describes these romantic remnants of ages past, I let my mind wander inside the thick, crumbling walls and envision torch-lit halls and dungeons deep below. When we pass the rock of Lorelei, a voice not far from my ear asks if I hear the siren's song. I don't, of course, but as we sail through this narrow gap in the river, the legend's truth seems plausible, its allure palpable.

The poets and artists of the Romantic Movement found inspiration on the Middle Rhine River 200 years ago and spread the region's reputation in music, art and poems. But, it is river cruising that gives us a front-row seat. A river cruise is a pleasing hybrid, one that combines the benefits of a cruise and an escorted tour: Arrive at the ship, unpack once and settle in to enjoy accommodations that let you explore new destinations each day with expert local guides who unveil the history, myths and legends of the area.

River cruises are growing in popularity, and this is due in part to the building of new ships that are more comfortable and appealing. River ships lie long and low in the water and are able to skim beneath bridges and squeeze securely into narrow locks. Their size and amenities are limited by the size of the rivers they ply.

At first glance, the brand-new Avalon Tapestry, owned by Globus, looks the same as its counterparts. With three decks above the waterline, the 443-foot-long vessel appears to have the classic river ship profile. But, the Tapestry breaks with tradition in one important aspect: The navigational bridge is at the stern, rather than the bow. The bow is reserved for the dining room, the main lounge and a sundeck, giving passengers panoramic views from all three locations. In fact, the best sightseeing along the Rhine is done without leaving the ship.

The Tapestry's 172-square-foot staterooms offer a desk, ample closet space and a bathroom with shower. There also are two junior suites on board, each offering 258 square feet of space. Sliding glass doors that lead to French balconies on 77 of the ship's 84 cabins let you enjoy cool night breezes and the slip-slap of the river against the hull. One bit of advice: Close the drapes at night so that the orange lights that line the locks won't shine directly into your cabin.

Transporting a maximum of 168 passengers, the Tapestry is an intimate backdrop for each day's events. Seating in the contemporary dining room is open, making it easy to choose your dinner companions. Most tables are small, seating two or four, and I found that the few larger tables were quickly taken. An enormous buffet is offered for breakfast and lunch. The dinner menu changes nightly, with two or three choices for each of the four courses. Complimentary local and imported wines are poured with dinner. Many passengers gather in the lounge before and after the evening meal to take in the festive music and the often spectacular scenery.

Our cruise began in Basel, Switzerland, at one end of the Rhine's navigable waters, and took us approximately 825 miles, touching France, flowing through Germany and ending in Amsterdam with the North Sea almost in sight. Each day included one guided excursion, and sometimes additional optional excursions were available.

Our first stop was Kehl, Germany, an industrial port not far from Strasbourg in the Alsace region of northeast France. We boarded the motor coaches that would accompany our boat on shore throughout the week, and we made the 45-minute commute to Strasbourg's La Petite France district. We explored the city's great Gothic cathedral and saw its famous astrological clock, and sailed aboard a canal boat on the city's Ill River to view the unique blend of German and French architecture and heritage. We passed two impressive European institutions, the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, before returning to our ship in time for lunch.

Later the same day, two optional excursions were organized, one visiting an Alsatian vineyard for a special tasting, and the other venturing into the Black Forest. I couldn't resist the trip to the Black Forest, eager to see the land famous for its cuckoo clocks, cake and kirsch schnapps. As we drove through the countryside, the sun spotlighted brilliant spring-green hills. On cue, families, kids and couples, young and old, began to appear on distant walking trails, each with at least one dog trotting along nearby. Hollywood couldn't have created a more perfect scene.

We stopped at a cuckoo clock store for a taste of Black Forest cake and shopping. The tour also took in the Vogtsbauernhof open-air museum, where a collection of farmhouses and buildings from the 16th to 19th centuries have been relocated. Visitors can step back in time as they walk through barns and homes with distinctively steep, thatched roofs that nearly reach the ground. Inside, aromas of smoke and hay still mingle.

From Strasbourg, we continued downriver to the charming German town of Speyer. Its attractions are accessible on foot from the boat, so I walked along the tidy streets and past pretty parks filled with people to reach the main square, which is anchored by an imposing 11th-century Roman cathedral. Its famous crypt is the final resting place of several German kings and emperors. From here it is an easy stroll to the old quarter, where you can peek in the windows of wonderful shops or stop for coffee and pastries.

While the Tapestry sailed on to the city of Mainz, our destination for the night, the passengers left Speyer by motor coach and headed to Heidelberg. This city on the Neckar River is Germany's oldest university town, and its philosophers and scholars have influenced modern thought for generations. Beyond these academic achievements, Heidelberg offers stunning views and an exuberant spirit.

Looking up from the river's edge you'll see the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, still guarding the city below. Our excursion included a tour of the castle's grounds, where we stood under the triumphal arch built by Prince Friedrich V in 1615 for Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James VI of Scotland. Their romance is one of Germany's fabled love stories.

Taking the short walk back to town, I found the Marktplatz, which still retains a bit of a 17th-century look. Little shops and stalls sell everything from souvenirs to antiques, and outdoor cafes beckon passers-by to sip the local brews. A small group of us from the Tapestry stopped by a bistro, nearly empty at that late afternoon hour, and settled into tables in the sun for a round of people-watching. In typical German style, by the time we left just an hour later, there was not an empty seat to be had, the music was playing and the party was in full swing.

The Tapestry spent the night docked in Mainz, one of the larger cities on our itinerary. Despite the fact that four out of five buildings in Mainz were destroyed during World War II, the city still boasts an old section worth visiting. Restored half-timber houses, broad squares, baroque churches and the Mainz Cathedral are at the heart of the city center. Small boutiques, cafes, taverns and wine houses line Augustiner Street, aka "Stroller's Street," where locals and tourists alike head to pass the early evening hours.

A few passengers went ashore after dinner to see the sights, but most saved their explorations for the next morning. I easily found the heart of the old section, and despite encountering some confusing curves and streets that ended abruptly, made my way back to the boat before its scheduled late-morning departure. An important note: When the itinerary says the boat will leave at a specific time, it will, with or without all its guests. There was one unconfirmed rumor of passengers who did not return on time, missed the boat and were transported by bus to the next appointed stop.

Just two hours after leaving Mainz, we docked in Rudesheim, the center of Germany's Rhine wine region. Along the banks of the river, the straight rows of vineyards climb the mountains, stretching from water to sky. A stop at any of the villages along this section of the Rhine should include a visit to a local vineyard, or at least a wine cellar. Our afternoon in Rudesheim took in Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet, a museum with a collection of antique, self-playing instruments. We also had time to explore the village's most popular tourist streets and join a spontaneous polka at a festive wine tavern. After all, who can resist a lively rendition of "Roll out the Barrel"?

Early the next day, we began the journey through the Middle Rhine. This marks the beginning of the river's most scenic section, where the Rhine's history magically unfurls before you. Seated comfortably in the main lounge as the boat slowly made its way downstream, I found my head swiveling from shore to shore to see each castle before the next appeared. With a style that was both scholarly and lighthearted, our cruise director described each passing sight, including the region's 21 castles.

Shortly after lunch, the Tapestry docked in Koblenz at the Rhine's confluence with the Mosel River. A monument to German unification marks the rivers' juncture -- the Deutsches Eck, or German Corner, was originally constructed in 1897 and was rebuilt after being destroyed during World War II. You can climb the 107 steps on the monument's original pedestal for a view of the city's layout.

Koblenz has a 2,000-year history marked by a long series of occupants, settlers and conquerors, including the Romans, French and Prussians. Remnants of each era -- castles, palaces, towers and fortress walls -- remain for exploration. The old town is just a short walk from the ship's docking point. Unseasonably cool weather during this early June sailing encouraged me to move quickly along the narrow streets, ducking into cafes and nipping into shops along the way. On returning to the Tapestry, I warmed myself with tea in the main lounge as the ship sailed to Cologne.

Sailing overnight showed me how unusually easy it is to travel by riverboat. While we danced after dinner, the Tapestry steadily made its way downstream. The boat was so stable and the water so still that the only indications of movement were the views of onshore lights approaching, then receding, as we passed each town.

The next morning, the Tapestry docked in Cologne, a prosperous city and birthplace of eau de cologne. The twin steeples of Germany's largest and most visited cathedral are easily visible from the river. A guided tour of the city began with a ride aboard the Jingle Train, which carried us from the riverfront to the cathedral and through the streets of the old town. Later, I took time to tour the cathedral on my own before finding my way to some of Cologne's best shopping. Coffee shops, bakeries, shoe stores and boutiques selling Cologne's signature 4711 scent tempt window-shoppers, but with little time to overspend, I headed back to the ship for the midday departure to our last stop, Amsterdam.

Amsterdam has more than 40 concentric and radial canals, which means that one of the best ways to see the Dutch capital is via canal boat. Avalon scheduled a one-hour excursion for Tapestry's passengers that took us past tall, stately row houses wearing their distinctive gables. We cruised past funky, weathered houseboats sporting overgrown gardens, and we saw the morning rush hour of bicycles competing with buses, trams, pedestrians and a few cars. Windows and doors proudly displayed orange flags, the official color of the royal family (they belong to the House of Orange- Nassau) and the nation's soccer team. We passed a long line of visitors waiting to tour the Anne Frank House and later learned that it's best to arrive during the late afternoon and early evening to avoid the crowds.

The canal ride provided a good overview of Amsterdam, and it left time to explore some of the city's other well-known sights. Having visited the Red Light District previously, and knowing that only a portion of the Rijksmuseum was open due to renovations, I opted for a trip to see the working windmills at Zaanse Schans. The village preserves the customs and work methods of times past. Here, windmills still are used to grind the fine powders used to tint paint, a cheese shop produces delicious local varieties, and true cobblers carve wooden shoes.

This step back in time was the last of my Rhine River cruise. The trip had been an almost effortless sojourn through history's most romantic eras -- on Europe's most enchanting river.

Information: For more information, visit Vacations To Go's Rhine River Web site, or call (800) 510-4002 to speak to a river cruise specialist.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2006 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 510-4002 for current rates and details.


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