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Castles Along the Rhine

CASTLES ALONG THE RHINE

A RIVER CRUISE - AMSTERDAM TO BASEL
By: Susan Dischner Moore

Amsterdam is one of the greatest small cities in the world. From the Amsterdam canals to world famous Amsterdam Museums and historical Amsterdam sights, it is one of the most romantic and beautiful cities in Europe. Coupled with that is the observation that the Dutch are fit, healthy people as they walk and bike all over the city and suburbs.

We landed in Amsterdam on a bright, sunny, cool spring day! First on our to-do list was to see the city, and there is no better way than on a canal cruise.  There are many companies that run canal cruises.  The one we took lasted about 2 hours with a knowledgeable guide who offered wonderful commentary that gave us a real sense of how Amsterdam evolved through the centuries. Museums are the main tourist attraction in Amsterdam. Everyone knows the Riksmuseum, Van Gogh, and Stedelijk museums, but there are many more. Amsterdam has over 50 museums which attract millions of visitors each year.

Following 10 years of renovation, the Rijksmuseum , one of the world’s greatest museums, reopened in April, 2013. There are more than 8000 works including those of the noted masters, Rembrandt, Vermeer and van Ruisdael. 

People generally associate Amsterdam, Holland with tulips.  In the spring the tulips are in bloom all over Holland along with many other beautiful flowers. If you are lucky enough to be in the city from the end of March to the middle of May a visit to Keukenhof gardens is a must. A guided tour that takes you through Holland’s famous flower destinations; we had a terrific guide whose knowledge enhanced our visit immensely.  Keukenhof’s gardens are one of the world’s largest and located about an hour from Amsterdam.  En route we stopped to photograph the many fields of colorful hyacinths. The purples, pinks and whites were breathtaking. As spring was a little slow in coming this year, the tulips were just starting to appear.

Our two nights in Amsterdam before the cruise was just enough to whet our desire to return in the future.

We boarded our lovely river cruise boat that carries about 130 passengers. We chose a river cruise because it is one of the hottest cruising trends today, even though river cruises have been operating for decades. We wanted to experience life aboard a riverboat, and see some of central Europe. It is a great way to see the inland, center of a country or countries without packing/unpacking every day or two. I think this is why the river cruises have become so popular. River cruising now offers more modern ships with expanded amenities and intriguing itineraries to places  ocean going vessels can’t reach.  But don’t expect a river cruise to be an ocean cruise on the river.  Mega- ship staples like pools, sea days, multiple lounges and endless activities are non-entities on riverboats. And, while the river cruises include tours in the fares, you won’t find the variety of options you’ll find on the ocean cruises. It is all-inclusive so there is no need to think about any extra expenses. Drinks (including alcohol), gratuities, shore excursions are all included. Bikes are also available at no charge so if you want to explore on your own when going ashore that offers a fun option.   The food was superb and there is open seating in the dining room for dinner so you can sit where ever you want but it is at a set time of 7:00 pm.  Every evening before dinner the cruise director briefed us on the tours and sights for the next day. It was great fun gathering in the lounge and sipping a glass of local wine or a cocktail and listening to our wonderful cruise director tell us what to expect in each port of call.

As we sailed away from Amsterdam everyone gathered on the sun deck for a champagne toast to a wonderful week ahead of us sailing up the Rhine to Basel , Switzerland. The Rhine River begins in the Alps and flows downstream to Amsterdam and the North Sea.  It runs 766 miles and is one of the most important rivers in Europe. Between Amsterdam and Basel we passed through 14 locks, which offers an amazing experience.  These are not the locks one encounters when taking a barge trip, but true engineering marvels.

Our first stop was Cologne. The ship stopped in Zons, Germany.  We disembarked there and were bused to Cologne,  the oldest city on the Rhine.  As a place of pilgrimage it was second only to Rome. Pilgrims came from all over to see the relics of the Magi (3 Kings who paid homage to the baby Jesus.) Today it is the fourth largest city in Germany and its Gothic cathedral is the largest and finest in Germany. It is considered something of a miracle that it escaped being demolished in WWII as 70% of the city was destroyed by bombing.

Our 3rd day we stopped in Koblenz and Boppard. Koblenz is at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle. There is a beautiful park where the rivers meet. For an old city which celebrated its 2000th birthday back in 1992, Koblenz is in great form and serves as the cultural, administrative and business center of the middle Rhine. We did a “gentle” walking tour in Koblenz as we had walked far and long in Cologne the day before. One of the nice things about the tours that were offered is that there was always an “active “ tour and a “gentle” walkers tour offered. I should mention here that one still needs to be physically fit to handle a river cruise, as even for the gentle walkers it can be far from the boat to the buses on the tours themselves you are often traversing uneven terrain such as cobblestone streets and ancient staircases.

Our next day we spent the morning on the sundeck sailing past “ Castles along the Rhine”.  Everyone had their cameras ready,  and the weather was perfect. I know I took far too many photos of Castles but it was such fun,  as a guide offered a running commentary as we sailed by many famous castles and of course the famous Lorelei Rock. In the afternoon we docked at Rudesheim which is probably the most famous wine town in the world. We chose to do a great wine tasting at the Castle Vollrads and learned a lot about the local wines.

My husband and I agreed that our stop in Germersheim ( Speyer) was our favorite,  as we did a fabulous Vinegar tasting at Doktorenhof and then the 5 of us had signed up for a special “Vinegar Cooking Class”. What a treat we had as we helped prepare a four course lunch starting with white asparagus soup, homemade pasta with fresh green beans and diced ham & prawns, chicken with glazed carrots and potatoes and  various strawberry desserts and a chocolate tartlet. The  it was hands on so we all had a chance to cook.  Everything was just that much better because it was enhanced with vinegar which was a revelation to most of us.   We are now vinegar converts.

The next day we docked in Kehl, Germany and were bused to Strasbourg where we enjoyed a great canal cruise and then a walking tour of Strasbourg.  Throughout history Strasbourg has been handed back and forth between Germany and France. It is certainly a French city now, but one with a definite German accent. One of the most famous past residents is Albert Schweitzer. Musician Rouge de Lisle composed La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem while he was living here. This is also a great place to take advantage of those bikes onboard and cycle the beautiful paths in and around Strasbourg.

Our last stop was Breisach am Rhein, Germany. This is where the Alsatian Wine route winds it way from north to south for 170 kms. There are rolling vineyards, dotted with flower-decked villages. Traditional inns and inviting wine cellars pay tribute to the importance of wine locally. We visited two villages, Kayserberg and Riquewihr and had great fun tasting Flammenkuchen.

Another option at this stop would have been to visit Colmar which is a pleasant town in French Alsace. The canal system here links the city with Strasbourg and Basel, contributing to the city’s wine-trading importance that continues even today. Of note: one former resident is of special interest to Americans. Frederic Auguste Bartholdi who was born in Colmar in 1834 was the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. Another resident, Matthias Grunewald was a painter of some renown in the 1500s. His Isenheim Altarpiece is regarded by critics as one of the greatest artistic creations of Western civilization, on a par with the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel.

All too quickly our wonderful week came to an end as we disembarked on Sunday morning in Basel, Switzerland. From Basel there are many possibilities for extending a trip.  A few days in Lucerne or anywhere else in Switzerland or Europe for that matter it’s a great “jumping off” location for more adventure.