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Rhine River Cruise 2016

This is a report about a river cruise on the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam that I took in September 2016. I wrote up a narrative including maps as a PDF, but this forum doesn't like attachments or links to such documents. So, here it is, one day at a time:

This is an account of a cruise on the Rhine River taken by my wife Frances and me in August and September 2016. The cruise was organized by Viking River Cruises, and we sailed aboard the Viking Hlin. We were not strangers to river cruises, having gone on four such tours previously, three of them with Viking. We were also veterans of as many independent trips.

Saturday, August 27 (Washington to Paris)
We spent most of Saturday getting ready for our evening flight. We took the cats to the vet for boarding. We finished our packing. We took out the garbage and recycling. After an early dinner, we ran the dishwasher, reset the thermostat, and unplugged some electronic gear. Then there was nothing to do but wait for the Supreme Shuttle.
The shuttle showed up within a few minutes of the appointed time. We were the only passengers. We zipped to Dulles in good time, trying not to pay attention to the number of electronic devices the driver was using. He dropped us off at the Air France terminal in good time.
Check-in went smoothly, and there weren't many people in the security line. Having endured that minor humiliation, we restored our possessions to their proper places and took the little train to the gate.
As usual, we were way early. Since we had already eaten, there was nothing to do but read and work sudokus. Finally, it was time to start boarding. I have never decided whether it's better to sit and wait for the line to shorten or join the scrum in order to get on a little earlier. We usually compromise and join after it is already long. At least on international flights, there is always enough room in the overhead bins. We stowed our backpacks, strapped in, and put on our sound canceling headphones. We had aisle and inside seats in the center section, which was four seats across. The other middle seat, next to Fran, was empty. At the other end was a young woman who looked remarkably like Rose Tyler from Doctor Who. I was a bit concerned that we would be victims of some alien menace before The Doctor came through to save the survivors, but nothing came of it.
Because it was a night flight, they turned down the cabin lights. I didn't want to disturb anyone by turning on my reading light. So, I just tried to sleep. That didn't work very well, but I dozed a little. They served us a meal, which was surprisingly good. It being Air France, wine was free. They even gave us a little champagne. Later in the flight, we got a little panini as a snack.

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Sunday, August 28, 2016 (Paris and Basel)
By the time we landed at Charles De Gaulle, it was Sunday. We went through immigration and then had a long walk to our connecting flight to Basel, Switzerland. The waiting room served many gates. You had to watch a screen to keep an eye on the status of your flight, as they didn't show the gate number until twenty minutes before boarding. Boarding itself involved walking out onto the tarmac and walking up portable stairs.

The plane was a commuter jet, with two seats on each side of the aisle. We were in row twenty--which was the last one. After boarding, well before our schedule flight time, we were delayed for a half hour. Considering that our flight time was only about an hour, we spent almost as much time on the ground as in the air. At least the seats were comfortable.
Basel-Mulhouse airport has its own quirks, the chief being that it serves three countries: Switzerland, France, and Germany. We almost walked out through the wrong customs exit. Taking the correct course, we were soon met by the Viking transfer staff, who took charge of our luggage and put us onto the coach. After waiting to accumulate a few more arriving passengers, we set off for the ship. Along the way, we got our first look at Basel. We were docked near the center of town, an area of narrow, twisty streets. Not for the last time, I marveled at the skill of the coach drivers as they maneuvered those big machines without mishap.
We joined our fellow passengers and stopped across the boarding ramp to the Viking Hlin. Because it was so late in the day, we were able to get into our cabin right away. Typically, the furniture filled most of the room. The bed took most of the space, and we had to coordinate moving around it. However, there was plenty of storage space and outlets to recharge our gadgets. Some of those even accepted US plugs without adapters.
After unpacking, we went forward into the lounge, where we were pleased to find that the buffet was still open. Grabbing a couple of small sandwiches, we set out to have a look at Basel. The first thing that struck us was the swimmers. It was late Sunday afternoon, and the temperature was in the upper 80s. Both sides of the river were lined with bathers. We could see many people in the water. Some were swimming and some bobbing on floats. It looked like everyone in Basel was grabbing a last chance for fun in the sun.
Leaving the river, we proceeded into the old city. Almost everything was closed, this late on Sunday. However, we had a good time just wandering around and looking at the half-timbered buildings and narrow streets. The courtyard of the rathouse, or city hall, was open, and we spent some time photographing the galleries and murals celebrating Basel's history. After a short walk, we returned to the ship for the first briefing.
Given that we were on our fourth Viking tour, we had a good idea what we would be told. We were introduced to the cruise director (English/Spanish), captain (Polish), hotel director (Slovak/Canadian), chef (Slovak), and concierge (Mexican/Slovak). We were told the general daily procedures and routines and then a summary of the plans for the next day. One new thing was that a simplified breakfast and dinner menu would be served in the Aquavit Terrace forward of the lounge every day. On previous cruises, we had gotten into the habitat of having a quick lunch in the lounge rather than the restaurant. Now we also had the opportunity to use the same venue for the other two meals.

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We decided to try that out right away. When the briefing ended and the crowd headed downstairs to the restaurant, we stayed put and then strolled out onto the terrace. The head waiter for that area was a Filipino with the unlikely name of Jerome. We had a meal consisting of a seafood smorgasbord and beef carbonnade. Jerome explained to us that if we wanted anything on the restaurant menu, he would bring that to us as well. This was great: a cozier space with more choice and a great view. We wound up taking all of our shipboard meals on the terrace, never setting foot in the restaurant.
I don't recall whether we went up to the sun deck after dinner or directly back to our cabin. We were tired and jet lagged, and so we did make an early night of it. The ship cast off during the night and started down the river.
Walking miles (two days): 2.1.

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Monday August 29 (Breisach, Black Forest, Colmar Pocket)
By the time we awoke, we were docked in Breisach, Germany. We went forward to the terrace for breakfast, where we found a light buffet of breads, cheese, cold cuts, sweet rolls, and fruit. After filling our plates, we sat down at an outside table, where Jerome bought us coffee and a menu. I ordered an omelet and Fran had eggs over easy, a pattern we would follow most days.
The river around us was filled with swans. There were ducks, gulls, and a few cormorants as well, but mostly swans. We always see wild swans when we visit Europe.
We finished well ahead of the time for the tour to depart, and so we stepped off the ship to take a look at the town. Breisach appears to be a small town. Its dominant feature is a large church on a steep hill near the river. The small area that we were able to walk through was filled with wine bars, cafes, and souvenir shops. We encountered a few people walking their dogs, a group of skinheads playing with a toy machine pistol, and a cat that came out of her yard and demanded to be petted. In a small square we encountered workmen loading up what looked like the remains of a festival that we had just missed (we have a knack for just missing festivals). l did find an ATM, which I used to get some Euros.
We took a few photos and then headed back to where the buses were waiting to take us on our first organized tour of the trip. We drove out of the vineyards of the river valley and into the hills of the Black Forest, while our guide gave us background information about the region. There were two stops on the tour. The first was at a scenic overlook, where we shared the space with a couple of other groups. The fields were edged with fencing that looked like plastic tape but was in fact electric wire. Fortunately, no one stepped too close. We did have a great view of the lines of hills receding into the distance.

We returned to the bus and rode to the Hofgut Sternen hotel, a cluster of buildings featuring glassblowers, painters, cuckoo-clock makers, and so on. Naturally, all of these artifacts were available for sale. We decided to forgo this bounty and instead went for a walk in the woods. We didn't have all that much time, but we got to walk along a mountain stream, cross a rustic wooden bridge, and see a waterfall. Then we rejoined our shipmates, some of whom were burdened with large bags.
The bus returned to the ship in time for lunch. Most people went into the restaurant, while we returned to the terrace. Today's buffet featured roast beef sandwiches and chicken wings.
The afternoon's excursion was an optional tour of sites related to the Colmar Pocket battle in January and February 1945. During the battle American and French troops drove the last of the Germans out of France. Alsace has had a turbulent history, sometimes ruled by the French and sometimes by the Germans. In modern times, it was taken by Germany in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. France took it back after World War I. After the fall of France in 1940, the area was formally incorporated into the Third Reich. Thus, at the time of the battle, both sides thought that they were fighting in their own countries.
Our guide was a Czech who clearly had a strong interest in the history. He took us to the Colmar Pocket Museum, Mount Sigolsheim, an overlook where we could see down into the valley while he pointed out where different actions took place. That site also featured an American memorial with the insignia of all the divisions that took part and a French military cemetery. We took a little break near the memorial at Ostheim, where the café stayed open just to accommodate us

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During this battle Lieutenant Audie Murphy made his famous stand in which he held off over 200 German soldiers and six tanks by himself. The Third Infantry Division had just crossed the Maison Rouge Bridge over the River Ill when the bridge was destroyed in an accident. This left Murphy's platoon cut off with a German-occupied village (Holtzwihr) in front of them and the river behind them. When the Germans attacked, he lost about half his men and told the others to fall back. He climbed on top of a damaged and burning M-10 tank destroyer and used its machine gun to keep the Germans pinned down while he directed artillery fire with his field telephone. Eventually he called fire down on his own position before the telephone was damaged, he was wounded, and he had to fall back. He then led his remaining 19 soldiers in a counter attack. The Germans, disorganized and not realizing how few Americans there were, retreated. That bought enough time to rebuild the bridge so that reinforcements could arrive.
Our guide told us this story while standing at the Audie Murphy Memorial, on the spot where it happened. It was a moving end to the tour and a highlight of the trip. This man from the Czech Republic was so grateful for what Americans had done to liberate Europe.
The ship started down the river soon after we returned. We changed into somewhat nicer clothes before joining the first-day cocktail party in the lounge. We needn't have bothered, as most of our fellow passengers were in t-shirts and shorts. The waiters bought around champagne so that we could drinkers a toast to the voyage. Then we had the daily briefing and went out to the terrace for dinner (Chateaubriand). Since the ship was underway, we had a great view of the scenery going by. We went through a lock and got to watch the while process while sipping our wine.
That was about it for the day. We went back to our cabin and read for a while before going to sleep.
Walking miles: 4.3.

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Tuesday, August 30 (Strasbourg and Kehl)
When we woke up, the ship was docked in Kehl, Germany, across the river from Strasbourg, France. As usual, we had some time after breakfast and before departure time. We stepped off the ship for a little walk in the park that ran along the river. There were bicycles whizzing by, joggers, and people walking their dogs. We spotted a poster for a festival of German-made "Cowboy & Indianer" movies. The local rowing club had a boathouse and launching slip. It was a peaceful way to start the day.
We boarded our assigned bus for the short trip to Strasbourg. After a little tour on the bus, we disembarked for the walking portion. First, though, we had the all-important bathroom break. Bathroom breaks on tours are almost a tradition themselves. You have this scrum of persons queueing up to use the facilities. Women have it worse, of course, but even the men have to wait in line. As people emerge, they mill around while waiting for everyone else. Sometimes there are many groups from different organizations, and do you have knots of people, each surrounding a guide holding a "lollipop" (ours said 32A), counting to see if all her charges are present. Meanwhile, a few shutterbugs (that's me) are on the edges, trying to grab a few pictures while keeping an eye on the tour and watching for companions.
That having been accomplished, we set off for the walking part of the tour. Strasbourg is a beautiful city, full of canals and half-timbered houses. The battlements were reworked by Vauban during one of its French periods in the Seventeenth Century, and some of that is still visible. The tour ended outside the cathedral. We were fortunate that there was no line at the door, and so we walked right in.
I have mixed feelings about visiting cathedrals. They are architectural and artistic wonders. They embody the civic and religious purpose of all the people who planned, funded, and built them. Even within an architectural style, they display wide local variation. The trouble is that they have a purpose, and it is not to amuse the tourists. Cathedrals remain as places of worship and contemplation. So here we are, barging in with our cameras and phones, gawking at the rose window, pipe organ, pulpit, and side chapels. Even if one is trying to be respectful (and, alas, many are not), the sheer number of people streaming through is bound to distract from the sanctity and tranquility of the site. Sometimes I'm so overwhelmed by what we're doing that I have to just stand and sigh.

In this case, we did barge in, and I did take pictures. It's a lovely Gothic church, with a striking rose window and an organ loft that seems suspended in midair. One corner contains an astronomical clock. There was a big crowd in front of it. Maybe we had just missed its striking. After leaving the structure, we took some pictures of the outside. I noticed that there were guards with assault rifles keeping an eye on the people in the square.
We spent some time walking around the city and looking at the buildings lining the canals. We came across a toy store and bought a stuffed toy for a relative with a newborn. Then we headed back to the rendezvous point near the cathedral and took the bus back to the ship for lunch.

After lunch, our plan was to cross the footbridge, take a look at the park on the French side, cross back via the road bridge, and then walk around in Kehl. The cable-stayed footbridge is a striking assembly of girders and cables. It has a platform in the center of the span where you can stop for a view up and down the river. The park is mostly green space, with a few sculpture groups and garden areas. There are playgrounds and athletic fields closer to the road bridge.

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We ran into trouble with our plan to cross back to Germany. We couldn't find a route onto the bridge. We had to keep moving deeper into France as we searched for a street that connected to the bridge. At one point we spotted a Sherman tank and thus discovered a memorial to the French Second Armored Division, which had helped to liberate Strasbourg. Eventually we did get onto the bridge. The traffic from Germany was backed up because of a French police checkpoint. We never did learn that was about. There was construction going on for a new bridge to carry a tram line over the river.
Once we were back in Germany, we followed the road into the center of Kehl. We then walked along its main shopping street, roughly parallel to the river. Kehl is an ordinary, even dumpy, little town. That wasn't entirely a bad thing, as we got to see where ordinary Germans lived and shopped. There was a farmers market in the church square. One cultural surprise was seeing cigarette vending machines right on the street, even in residential areas. In the USA those are very rare these days, and never outside. Having found nothing to hold our interest, we used our map to find a route back to the river, reaching it just about at the footbridge. From there we walked along the path and boarded the ship.
We changed into somewhat nicer clothes, because we had been invited to a cocktail party for the Viking Explorer Club before the regular briefing. But first there was a flammkuchen cooking demonstration in the lounge. Flammkuchen is a pizza-like dish native to Alsace. Instead of tomato sauce, it uses sour cream or crème fraiche. The traditional topping is bacon, but, as with pizza, you can use anything you want.
The Viking Explorer Club is not exclusive; everyone who has taken a Viking cruise before is automatically a member. We had some snacks and chatted a bit with our fellow repeaters, mostly about what cruises we had been on before. We spent most of our time talking with a Japanese-American woman who we had noticed taking pictures with three different devices. We had a few words with the captain and other managers, who were circulating among the guests. They made their usual pitch to sell two-for-one gift certificates. The highlight of the party is always a toast with aquavit, a fiery Norwegian liqueur. When we returned to our cabin after dinner we would find souvenir aquavit glasses to take home.
Walking miles: 12.6.

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Wednesday, August 31 (Mannheim, Heidelberg, Gernsheim, and Rudesheim)
After traveling through the night, the ship docked in Mannheim. I have no memory of this town at all, as its sole function was to provide a location to board buses for the morning's activity, a trip to the famous university town of Heidelberg. Our guide was an expat American who was more interested in telling us about the love story between a short-lived Holy Roman Emperor and his consort than the city itself. The citadel shows the effects of successive rebuilding from medieval to baroque times. The battlements give a wonderful view of the red-tiled town and the river.
The bus took us back down the twisty-wisty streets, and we had a walking tour. It was half shopping tips and half history, but we did get some good ideas about where to get local beer. After the tour we had a very short time on our own. We first went out onto the famous bridge to take in the view, where we ran into the Japanese woman with all the cameras she really wanted to do us the favor of talking our picture, and so we let her. After that we went in search of a church that was described as in an unusually restrained baroque style. We found it, impressive in its simplicity. It was near the university library, outside of which was a riot of bicycles worthy of Amsterdam.
We decided that we really wanted to have a beer in this German city. However, by the time we found the bierhaus, ordered, and were served, our time was so short that we had to gulp it down and run for the bus. We got there after most people had already boarded.
We bid farewell to Heidelberg and returned to the ship, which in our absence had traveled further down the river and docked in Gernsheim. As soon as everyone had boarded, we cast off again. We had a lunch of Cuban sandwiches as we started down the river. We spent the afternoon gliding along, sitting on the sun deck, taking pictures of the passing landscape.
Late in the afternoon we docked in Rudesheim, a small town at the southern end of the scenic gorge of the Rhine, where we were to stay overnight (so that we would transit the gorge in daylight). There was a little walking tour, mainly to point out good places to eat and shop. We opted out of the tour of the music box museum.
Aside from being a stopping point for river cruises (there were four or five ships lining the docks), Rudesheim's claim to fame is the gigantic statue of Germania on the heights above the town. This statue was erected by the Second Reich to celebrate the unification of Germany in the 1870s. Visiting the statue involves a cable car ride up the hill. We were expecting something large and stable like the funicular we had ridden in Bergen a few years ago. However, after buying our tickets, we discovered they were little open metal cars like you might find on a Ferris wheel. Since we’d already paid our money, we gulped down our qualms and climbed in.

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I’m not too bad about heights, although not immune to vertigo. Fran is worse about such things. I took some videos and photographs as we sailed through the air, but I did not hazard to look straight down. Fran just kept her head down and tried to endure the trip. Whenever the car went past one of the pylons, it would start shake and make loud grinding noises like the cable was about to snap. When it was in between, everything would get totally quiet, like we were in freefall. On the whole, both of us were happy when the trip ended and we could stand on terra firma. The hilltop was set aside as a park, with a restaurant, pavilion, viewing platforms, and, of course, Germania herself. There were photographs showing the history of the area (in German) and signs pointing out what could be seen from different vantage points. The view down towards the Rhine was spectacular, with the town, vineyards, hills, and river traffic. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, as the cable car was going to shut down for the night. The trip down was a little less nerve wracking, at least for me. I looked down a little more and saw that we probably could have walked up and down through the vineyards, although it would clearly have taken more time. It was over soon enough, and we were back in the town.
There was a Christmas decoration store near the cable car terminus, one of a well-known chain of such stores in Germany. Since we like to pick up a tree ornament on our trips, we dashed in to see if we could find something before it closed. The little shop was really crammed with goods. Most of it was junk, more or less, but there were some expensive pieces. Truth be told, we were looking for something closer to the “junk” end: just a little thing to remind us of Germany. We found a glass beer mug ornament.

Our next task was to find somewhere to dine. Since the Hlin was going to be in port overnight, we could try some local food. I was hoping to find some local music as well, but all the eateries that featured music were playing country & western. We wound up at the Restaurant Rosenberger, which was one that the guide had mentioned during the walking tour. We had menus in German (we learned too late that they also had English), and so I wasn’t quite sure what I was ordering. It seemed to be a specialty of the house, though. It turned out to be a roast half-chicken, and it was quite good. Fran had a schnitzel. The portions were huge, and doggie bags were out of the question (where would we put them?). We regretfully passed on dessert and waddled back to the ship. It was a pleasant evening, and there were ducks and geese along the river.
Walking miles: 9.1.

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Thursday, September 1, (Rhine gorge, Marksburg Castle, Koblenz)
The ship pulled away from Rudesheim early in the morning to begin a day of gliding through the Rhine gorge. This was one of our reasons for taking the trip, and we were not disappointed. It was castle after castle all morning long. There were many times when more than one castle was visible at the same time. Some were barely-recognizable ruins, while others were in good repair, being used as hotels or even residences. Some were on islands in the river, although most were perched on the heights above. If there weren’t castles, there were villages with churches and walls, plus vineyards, railway tunnels, and river traffic. We were on the sun deck taking pictures nonstop, as were most of the passengers. One woman was using a DSLR with a gigantic lens, without a tripod. I don’t know how she managed, but she seemed happy with the results she was getting. While it was a pretty nice day, the progress of the ship made for a stiff breeze. We were wearing our raincoats as windbreakers. At one point the staff came up with mugs of hot chocolate spiked with Kahlua, which I was happy to take from them. The tour director kept up a running commentary on the PA system, describing the castles as we passed them. I thought some of her stories were suspect, but they were entertaining.
After a lunch featuring shrimp po’ boy sandwiches and bratwurst on rolls, we docked in Koblenz. The afternoon’s excursion was a bus trip to Marksburg Castle, a well-preserved and restored Rhine castle. The tour was a bit more of a muddle than one usually finds when traveling on Viking. There were too many groups for the castle to handle at once, and, apparently, our guide was late. We were left in the seating area outside the café while we waited for the organizers to straighten things out. The tour, when it finally started, was a study in contrasts. The rooms were interesting and captured some important aspects of life in the Middle Ages. However, they were too small for our group, which got alternatively squished together and then strung out as we worked our way through the narrow passageways. Sometimes the guide finished her descriptions before everyone had even entered the room. This description is perhaps too whiney for the way I felt on the tour, but, in retrospect, it should have used smaller groups and better timing. Be that as it may, we did stop in the gift shop and pick up a metal model of the castle to add to our collection.
We still had plenty of time on our return to Koblenz, and so we decided to visit the Ehrenbreitstein fortress on the opposite side of the Rhine. The way across the Rhine was another cable car. Fortunately for our nerves, these cable cars were large enclosed vehicles that could carry about a dozen people. There was a great view, although Fran wasn’t so excited about the windows in the floor. The fortress is one of those military installations that has been built and rebuilt for about a thousand years. Most of what one sees today dates from Napoleonic times. We had fun walking among its massive walls and parapets. There are some museum exhibits, although the labels are all in German. The facility has multiple roles now, including art exhibition space, café, and meeting rooms. In one of the upper parade grounds we came across a cocktail party for Scenic Cruise Line passengers. It was a good vantage point to look down on Koblenz, including the point where the Moselle and Rhine merge. Right at that point is another huge monument celebrating the German Empire. This one is an equestrian statue of Wilhelm I himself. The pedestal is a substantial building in itself, and one can climb stairs into it and peer out at the Rhine. We discovered this after leaving the fortress. We took the cable car back across the river and spent some time walking around the statue and looking at its many self-congratulatory plaques and statues.

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Viking usually sets aside one dinner as a buffet of local food, and this was the night on this trip. We had piles of German food to choose from: beef, pork, sausage, liverwurst, salami, cheese, potatoes, and so on. There was beer and schnapps to drink. There was also entertainment, in the form of accordion and barrel organ players in lederhosen. Even our Filipino waiter was wearing it. We had a good time and ate far too much (well, I did anyway).
Walking miles: 6.9.

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Friday, September 2 (Cologne)
The next morning, we woke up in Cologne. We decided that we had enough of group tours for a while, and so we set off on our own, heading for the zoo. We arrived just as it was opening, with few other visitors. The meerkats were just waking up. Most were piled in a basket under a heat lamp against the morning's chill. They had trained seals that did the ball-spinning trick like in old cartoons. At the end, the trainers threw a bunch of plastic water bottles into the pool. The seals gathered them up and put them all into a recycling bin. On our way out, we happened across the otters being fed. It was a bit of a shock to realize that their food was whole (dead) baby chicks.

It being lunchtime, we walked back to the ship to eat on the terrace (bacon cheeseburgers). Then we retraced our steps to visit the botanic garden. In point of fact, we weren't entirely sure that there was a botanic garden that was different from the zoo, as our directions seemed to lead to the same place. However, we persevered and found it across the next street. The first view was impressive, with a large formal flower garden standing in front of a Nineteenth Century conservatory. However, the building is now a conference center. We walked around the grounds. There were some interesting groupings, but Fran's professional eye saw that they were not being well maintained. We did see our first red squirrels among the trees. The conference center was hosting a meeting related to trade with China, and so we had the incongruous experience of encountering Chinese businessmen and businesswomen dressed to the nines in the middle of a park in Germany.
We left the garden and went to the aquarium, which is also near the zoo. It wasn't spectacular, but it was fun. We had to share the space with school groups and mothers with small children. The upper floor held an insectarium, which is unusual. There were gigantic cockroaches, stick insects, brightly colored beetles, and an enclosed area where you could walk around amidst butterflies.
After leaving the aquarium, we walked along the river to the cathedral. Cologne is one of the great cathedrals. You see pictures of the end of World War II with the cathedral standing alone in the rubble of the city. The story is that holds the crowns of the Three Kings. We didn't see them, but it was already late in the afternoon. I didn't have the heart to take any pictures inside; we walked around in silence. I did take some of the Gothic exterior. There is an archeological museum nearby. It was already closed, but all around the building were stone fragments of statuary and buildings. The railway station is also nearby, with strikingly different architecture from the cathedral or the Romans. It was getting late, and so we walked back to the ship along the river.
This afternoon’s briefing included the disembarkation procedures. The cruise wouldn’t be ending until Sunday, but they always do the briefing a day ahead of time so that people can prepare and get their questions answered. Since we were taking the two-day extension in Amsterdam, we would be taken by bus from the ship to the hotel. Our departure time was a reasonable 8:30. They explained about the tipping policy and how to pay for any incidental expenses, such as purchases in the shop or drinks in the lounge. Tips to be divided among the crew could be paid with our bill, while any tips for specific people should be given to them directly. This was the same as in other cruises we have been on. We decided to give an extra tip to Jerome, the waiter in the terrace area.
Walking miles: 11.6.

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Saturday, September 3 (Utrecht, Kuiper cheese farm)
We left the Rhine and sailed into the tangle of rivers and canals that make up the Netherlands. The Viking itinerary booklet describes this section as the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta. The terrain was certainly different from Germany. Instead of towering hills covered with vineyards, we saw a flat green country stretching to the horizon. Sheep and cows were grazing in fields protected by dikes and levees. We started to notice fishermen along the banks. They were spaced very regularly, each with his folding chair, cooler, and a net bag extended into the water. We wondered about the regularity of it. Later in the day we would learn that there was a contest going on. The net bags were to hold their catches until they could be counted, after which the fish would be released.
At some point in the morning I happened to look up and realized that we were passing Nijmegen, which was the target of a parachute assault by the 82nd Airborne in World War II. We had visited Nijmegen in our Tulips & Windmills cruise back in 2006, and I recognized some of the buildings as we went past.
As we were continuing downstream, the captain made the wheelhouse open for visitors. We waited our turn and slipped in for a look around. Not surprisingly, it looked very similar to the one we had seen on our Danube cruise in 2014. The captain remarked that it really should be called the “joystick house,” because there is no actual wheel. Everything is controlled through the computer navigation system.

The itinerary call for us to dock in Utrecht, but there was an alteration caused by bridge work on the canal we were supposed to pass through. I believe we docked in Rotterdam instead. The primary excursion for the day was a visit to the Kinderdijk, a UNESCO world heritage site with the largest collection of working windmills in the world. However, we visited the Kinderdijk in 2006. We chose the optional tour of a Dutch cheese farm. We boarded bus “E” for our excursion. While the buses were loading, some of our fellow passengers were confused. They asked our driver if this was bus “A.” He said, yes, “E”—The point being that the Dutch pronounce “E” the way we do “A.” I overheard some passengers saying something about “that European stuff.”
The Kaas- en Zuivelboerderij Kuiper (Cooper’s Cheese and Dairy Farm) is a family-run operation, now in its third generation. The grand-daughter of the founder began the tour by explaining the process of making cheese from the raw milk intake to final delivery. We caught a glimpse of her grandmother, one of the founders, before she slipped out of a room we were entering. The farm makes gouda cheese using their own milk and starter enzymes that they buy from a commercial firm. They also make a small amount of goat cheese for a neighboring farm that raises goats. There is quite a variety of gouda, depending on the herbs you put in it and the amount you age it. Most of their cheese is produced in the familiar wheels, about a foot across, as this is the best shape for allowing all of the cheese contact with the air while aging. They produce a small amount in the form of rectangular blocks, which are preferred by hotels and caterers because they are easier to cut into portions. After we were finished with the cheese production tour, we took a step back in the process and went into the dairy barn. There we were guided by the woman’s father. The cows in the barn were either pregnant or had just given birth, which is why they were inside getting special feed. Most of the cows grazed in the fields. We later were taken to see the pens where the newborn calves are kept. There were four at the time of our visit, one of which was bleating continuously. Of course, only the cows are kept on the farm. The bull calves are sold for meat. They keep careful records of the cows’ output and lineage, so that they can breed the cows that produce the most milk.

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Naturally, there was a shop. We were assured that we could take cheese home with us as long as it was vacuum sealed. Fran picked up some spiced cheese for one of her coworkers, while I bought some standard gouda and 3-year aged gouda for us. We also yielded to a touristic impulse and had our picture taken holding a big wheel of cheese.

On the way back to the ship, the guide explained how the Dutch lived near and on the water. The country is crisscrossed by canals, and we saw a number of windmills. Most of the pumping duties have since been taken over by diesel power, of course. In the towns and villages, the people will have canals crossing in front of their houses, and everyone has a boat. In a final Dutch twist, we dropped off our guide seemingly in the middle of nowhere, which was where she had left her bicycle for her ride home.
That evening saw the captain’s cocktail party and the farewell dinner, which included champagne and beef Wellington. Then it was time to pack our bags, fill out our feedback surveys, pay our bills, and prepare to disembark the next morning.
Walking miles: 2.7.

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Sunday, September 4, 2016 (Amsterdam)
We woke up, packed our last-minute items, and then trundled our bags into the passageway. Squeezing through the accumulated luggage, we made our way forward to the terrace for breakfast as usual. Then we hung out in the lounge until it was time for one last bus trip. After verifying our luggage at the dockside, we boarded the bus and were taken to the Hilton Amsterdam, on the south side of the city. The Viking concierge at the Hilton met us, helped us to check in, and gave us a briefing. There was a tour of the city scheduled, but we declined. It being too early to get into our rooms, we took our cameras and walked out for a look on our own.
The Hilton is on the edge of the area covered by most guidebooks, south and west of the center. Our aim was to locate the Brouwerij’t Ij brewery, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the zoo. All of those are nearer to the center of the city. So, we started walking. We used the canals that ring the city as our guide. Since we wanted to just see the area, the walking didn’t bother us. We stopped a lot to take photos of the buildings, boats, canals, bridges, and bicycles.

This being the Netherlands, the weather was unstable. Most of the time it was pretty nice, but we had short periods of rain now and again, ranging from drizzle to shower. We expected this, and so we were wearing our rain gear. For me, that included an orange hooded slicker and my white fisherman’s cap.

We found the brewery and made note of its location to come back for a tour in the afternoon. Then we headed north to find the Resistance Museum. This, incidentally, took us right alongside the zoo grounds. We travelled through some interesting multifamily housing and townhouses. They seemed to be relatively modern buildings, although they might have been renovated older ones. There were little stores nestled into the same structures as well as what looked like community halls.

The Resistance Museum is right across the street from the entrance to the zoo. There is a café next door, the Brasserie Plancius, and we sat down at an outdoor table for some lunch. I had a pastrami sandwich and cappuccino. The people around us were a mixture of families, business people, and young adults.

After finishing our meal, we went into the museum. It takes an interesting approach to portraying the difficult time of the German occupation during World War II. It explicitly deals with the choices of collaboration, accommodation, and resistance. Early in the war, when it seemed that the conflict would be short and that the Germans would win, the occupation was not very onerous. Most people tried to adjust and get on with their lives. Some tried to use the occupation as an opportunity to gain power or wealth. A few resisted from the beginning. As the war dragged on, life became more difficult, the German demands increased, and, of course, they began rounding up Jews. Some Dutch people aided them even with that, but resistance increased. The museum is laid out with small room-like areas, each devoted to a particular theme or event, in roughly chronological order. The explanations are in Dutch and English, and there is also a good audio guide to provide more detail. Near the end of the exhibition is a section on the Dutch colonies in Indonesia, with the additional ambiguity of fighting the Japanese while defending their hold on the colonized peoples. This couldn’t be resolved, and the colonies became independent soon after the war ended.

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By the time we left the museum, it was getting near to 3:00, when the brewery tour would start. We didn’t want to miss it, as it would be our only opportunity for a tour in English during our stay. We arrived in enough time to buy tickets and have a beer while we waited. The outdoor seating area of the brewpub is filled with long picnic benches, and there were plenty of people there already. We squeezed into a space and sipped some rather nice brews. The weather turned again, with rain coming down rather heavily. Everyone was forced together under the shelter of the umbrellas. We wound up chatting with a guy from Brazil and one from San Francisco. Although the pub doesn’t serve meals, it does have snacks, such as cheese and sausages. The pigeons were well aware and quite insolent about jumping right onto the tables to try to grab their share. We finally took a cheese basket that someone had left and scattered it on the ground to distract them. The pigeons were grabbing these big cheese cubes that you’d think would choke them, but we didn’t see any in need of the Heimlich maneuver.
Not long after we finished our beer, the tour began. Our guide was one of the brewers, who happened to be German. He explained that the name of the brewery was a pun in Dutch, as was its logo of an ostrich with its egg. (I won’t try to explain that.) It began with a guy who was tired of bland Dutch beers, such as Heineken, and decided to make his own. He spent some time as a sort of underground brewer, making small batches in his flat and running them into Belgium and back again to give the impression that they were imported. Eventually he and some friends (including some rock stars, as his “regular” job was writing punk rock songs) set up this brewery in what had been an industrial bathhouse, back when workers didn’t have hot water in their homes. While their production has expanded since then, it’s still very much a small-scale craft operation, and they intend to keep it that way. The brewpub is a place for them to offer their experimental beers. They purposely limit its hours and do not serve food in order to keep it from being too much trouble.

After the tour, I bought a t-shirt, and we sat down to drink the free beer that came with the tickets. Then we started to trek back to our hotel. We got through most of the city okay, but as we got into the southwest, where our maps weren’t very good, we ran into trouble. We accidentally went waaay too far south, and it took us a while to get our bearings and find our way back. I have to admit that we don’t handle being lost very well (although we’ve had experience by now!). We had some testy discussions as to where we were and what we should do. We did finally work it out, arriving at the Hilton from the opposite direction than we had intended.

The Hilton is a very nice hotel indeed. Our room had plenty of space, and we had a view down onto a marina on the canal. It came with all the amenities, including bathrobes and slippers. Well, that’s not quite right. There was one amenity it did not come with: free WiFi. In order to get a WiFi password, you had to join the Hilton Honors Club—in other words, you had to sign up for their marketing and affinity program. It didn’t cost anything to do that, and so, technically, then, it was “free.” However, this was the first hotel I’ve ever stayed in that had that kind of policy. I’ve stayed in a Motel 6 that had free WiFi. I decided that I could do without email or Facebook for a few days.

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Our next decision was where to have dinner. Our guidebooks weren’t as much help as they might have been, because of our location. Most of their recommended eateries were further away than we wanted to go. We worked out that van Baerelstraat, a north-south street that ran up towards the Rijksmuseum, seemed to be where the restaurants were in that part of town. We walked up there and found we had quite a few to choose from. We settled on Solo Eten & Drinken, a relatively casual place. We didn’t have any trouble ordering in English, but we didn’t hear anything but Dutch from the people around us—a nice combination. There was a large group nearby that seemed to be there for a special occasion. I had a large hamburger made with foie gras, with frites and beer. Then we went back to the hotel to relax and get some sleep.
Walking miles: 9.9.

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Monday, September 5, 2016 (Amsterdam)
The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel, as it was included in our extension. It was a very impressive buffet. It had just about anything anyone could want for breakfast. After having thus fortified ourselves, we headed out to visit the zoo. Now that we had some familiarity with the city, we took a different route, north on van Baerelstraat and then through the archway of the Rijksmuseum. We got to experience rush hour in Amsterdam. This is different from any other city, because of the bicycles. While we knew enough not to walk in the bike lanes, there were plenty of places where our paths intersected, and we had to weave around or jump out of the way. The corner at the entrance to the Rijksmuseum has an amazing mob of bicycles and as many cars as you see in any big city.
The volume and variety of bicycle traffic is amazing. There were people in business clothes, sports togs, and everything in between, including women in spike heels. Any manner of container you might imagine was used as a basket—wicker, plastic, milk crates, wooden slats, and wire. There were purpose-built bicycles with front compartments like wheelbarrows. Some of those were covered with canvas or metal doors. There were tandem bicycles and three-seaters for children. Some of those large-basket vehicles were carrying children, and we saw not a few small dogs in baskets. One woman had a large floral arrangement in the basket and was holding another, controlling the bike with one hand. I imagine she was a florist making a delivery. I saw a man riding a bike one-handed while “leading” a second one with his other hand. There were, of course, plenty of people using their phones while riding.
The weather was much the same as the previous day, and we were clothed similarly. While standing on a bridge and looking down the canal to the point where it intersected another, I was approached by someone who asked if he could take my picture with the canal in the background. So, once again, my fake mariner’s image is in someone’s photo collection, this time representing a Dutchman.
We got to the zoo pretty early and went in, accompanied by school groups and strollers full of small children. We had visited this zoo at the end of our first river cruise, back in 2006. At the time it was a bit rundown and sad. I was very pleased to see how much it has improved. It was a delightful place, and construction was continuing while we were there. Several of the exhibits, such as the lemurs and kangaroos, let you walk among the animals. The lemurs were jumping onto the wooden fences and sunning themselves with no barrier between us and them. There were some people in uniforms standing by, and I imagine that they would have intercepted us if we actually tried to touch the animals, but it was much closer than we’d ever been before.

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We spent a long morning at the zoo. We still didn’t see quite all of it, but we were getting anxious to move on. Upon leaving the zoo, we stopped in the same café where we had the day before and had a snack (Dutch pancakes—crepes, more or less—with Nutella) and cappuccino. Then we set out for our next goal, the Rembrandt House Museum.
As you might guess, the Rembrandt House Museum is the building where Rembrandt lived and worked. The story begins with a video that appeared to have been produced for television, perhaps by the BBC. It had some insights on the twists that Rembrandt put on some of the standard themes of paintings in his day. We didn’t watch all of it, as it seemed quite long (if it was a television episode, it was probably an hour). We didn’t come to Amsterdam to sit and watch TV. The museum has a good audio guide that takes you through the house, explaining Rembrandt’s life as an artist, art dealer, and entrepreneur. Many of his paintings—not just the portraits--were made to order for specific clients. We saw how the house was arranged to receive clients and serve as a workshop for the artist and is apprentices. His store room was filled with props and curiosities that showed up in his paintings. One of the most interesting parts was his own studio. The arrangement of the studio is reproduced from the way it is shown in paintings. While we were there, one of the staff was demonstrating how pigments were compounded and made into oil paints. You couldn’t just go down to the art store and pick up a tube. In fact, tubes hadn’t been invented yet. Some of the ingredients were incredibly expensive and had to be used very sparingly. The museum has a nice feature in that if you give them your email address, they will send you a link to a virtual tour on the web. The tour shows the time of day when you visited the rooms in the museum. You can also see presentations on the rooms you skipped.
We stopped in the museum shop and bought a few things: a Christmas ornament, a couple of magnets, a model of the house, some cookies, etc. Nothing very big. Then we left, heading for the Van Gogh Museum and Vondelpark, on the west side of the city center. As we passed through the area near the railway station, we came across an open-air flea market. They were in the process of shutting down for the day, but we browsed through. It was quite a collection of stuff, although we didn’t see anything we wanted. We also had a sit-down in a café and had some cappuccino. Then we were off again, passing through a Rembrandtplein, a square dedicated to you know who. It includes a sculpture group that was a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in three dimensions (even the dog), and behind it is a statue of the artist himself, looking down from a pedestal. Naturally, lots of people were standing around among the statues posing and having their pictures taken. Along the curb of the square we spotted a parked van for a company that supplies security and bomb-sniffing dogs (yes, the words were in English)—sort of the modern equivalent of the night watch.
We passed through the Rijksmuseum arch again, but by the time we got to the Van Gogh Museum it had closed for the day. This was only a minor disappointment, as we had been there in our previous visit. We continued on to Vondelpark. It being afternoon rush hour, we again had to contend with streams of bicycles crossing our path—the more so since the park itself seemed to be a favored route for the bicycle commuters. The park itself is a large expanse of greenery, with ponds, streams, monuments, and so on. There were quite a lot of people hanging out there, enjoying the fine weather. There were families with children, people grilling on what appeared to be disposable grills, and not a few groups smoking marijuana. We sat ourselves down on a bench and had a rest. We took a few photos of the geese, people, and bicycles.

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We left the park and went south on van Baerelstraat, heading back to the hotel. Since it was late enough, we stopped in a restaurant for dinner, the “Small Talk Het Restaurant,” which billed itself as a British-style eatery, with a picture of a guardsman in his tall hat as the logo. The staff seemed to be all east Asian. I had beef skewers in peanut sauce for dinner, with a dame blanche and Bailey’s coffee for afters. Then it was finally time to head back to the hotel.
When we got back, there was some kind of corporate function going on in the marina area. We could see lots of well-dressed people mingling among a buffet and a bar. For us, though, it was time to start packing. We put everything into our bags and read a bit before going to sleep.
Walking miles: 11.6.

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Tuesday, September 6 (Amsterdam-Washington)
We had breakfast in the hotel buffet and then assembled with the rest of the Viking remnant for the airport transfer. The minibus to Schiphol didn’t take long, and the Viking agent at the airport showed us where to check in. The whole process was automated, including baggage check. I was surprised that it worked, as the automated machines usually have trouble reading our passports. I have in my notes that we went through an extra security check, but I don’t remember anything about that. It must not have been very serious.
The flight was direct to Dulles. It was KLM, which seems to be the same corporate entity as Air France these days. That was good, as they have better food than most airlines. I had beer, pasta with pesto, gouda, red wine profiteroles, ice cream, and a cinnamon roll. I spent the time starting to write this narrative and listening to music on my tablet.
We arrived at Dulles and were packed into the mobile lounges for the trip to immigration. Many of the people didn’t understand how these transport worked, and so they plopped down as soon as they got inside, which created a big backup for all of the people behind them. Once we got to immigration, there was the usual long line, just to get to the “express” machines. However, our gouda did us in, and we were directed to get into a line to be screened by a person. We did that and got through without difficulty. Then we picked up our bags and got in yet another line for customs. There were sniffer dogs working back and forth, but they didn’t seem interested in our cheese.
Having completed the rituals of reentry, we proceeded to ground transportation. Supreme Shuttle had the shorter line than Super, and so we chose them for our trip home. More waiting for a van. We shared the trip with a British couple who talked about how “Bexit” was a good thing. We disagreed with most of what they said, but we just let them go on about it. We had to give the driver some directions within a few miles of home, as his GPS was taking him the long way around. Finally, though, we were home. We had just enough time to go to the vet clinic and retrieve the cats before they closed. The cats, naturally, walked around the house while giving us an earful about how little they thought about being boarded for almost two weeks. Be that as it may, we were all home, and the vacation was over.
Walking miles: 1.9.

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Notes on Special Topics
Who are these people?
One is always thrown together with other passengers on cruises. Usually, there is a mixture of interesting people, aggravating people, and people who are just there. Our private nickname for such a person is “the loud-mouthed schnook.” This time, we seemed to be embarked on a special schnook excursion. There were many of the sort of tourist that people mean when they say, “I’m not tourist—I’m a traveler.” They were people who wore shorts and flip flops while visiting cathedrals—and then they spent their visits to these sacred places talking loudly and taking selfies. They were people who had no concept of getting out of the way while someone was taking a picture. They sat on opposite sides of a tour bus and held conversations at a volume that everyone else could hear. I learned a lot more about complicated family relationships than I ever wanted to know. I also learned about plans for new reality television shows. Surprisingly, I learned that these people were not inexperienced travelers. They had visited many places in Europe, without learning to be respectful of the locality or considerate of their fellow passengers. There were more large groups of people traveling together as well—six or eight people at a time. It was as if private parties were going on around us.
I do wonder whether the passengers were really different from previous cruises or if our tolerance has changed in some way. I also have to admit that our failure to connect with any interesting people on the trip is our own doing, albeit not intentionally. One of the best times to have a good conversation with a stranger is at dinner time, when you sit down at a table for six and your other four companions are a matter of luck. We didn’t do that this time, because we so enjoyed dining on the terrace that we never set foot in the restaurant. The terrace was all small tables, seating four, and it was never so crowded that people were forced together. Thus, we dined by ourselves.

Another general impression is that the clientele was older than on previous cruises. Now, river cruises in general tend to attract an older crowd. They don’t offer the adventure activity you might have in a Caribbean cruise, and they are pricey. We are in our early 60s, but we’ve always felt that we were on the low end of the age distribution. Despite having taken our first river cruise ten years ago, we are still at that end. The market seems to be skewing older faster than we are aging.

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The end of cruising as we know it?
We took our first river cruise some ten years ago. At the time we were very inexperienced at taking trips of any kind, and we thought that it would be better if we had some guidance during our first visit to countries where the native language was not English. This recent cruise was our sixth ; that is evidence that we find much to like about this form of travel. However, we may be nearing the end of this phase—if not the end of cruises entirely, then at least of our pattern of alternating river cruises and independent trips from one year to the next. First, we’re running out of rivers to cruise on, having taken trips on the Seine, Rhine, Danube, and the complex of waterways in the low countries. Second, we now have as many independent trips under our belts, and we’ve learned to cope with languages, transportation, lodging, and so on. Third, the irritations of the cruise package are starting to outweigh the advantages.

On the advantage side, we do like having a hotel that moves with us. You can unpack once and make yourself at home for a week or more. We like being whisked along to new destinations while we sleep, thus saving precious waking time for fun. We like stepping off the ship near the center of town.

On the disadvantage side, we dislike group tours, walking around with a receiver in your ear and being part of a mob intruding on others’ lives. We dislike being tied to someone else’ itinerary and schedule. While it’s true that one can always skip the tour and go off on one’s own, you still have to leave town when the ship sails. The tours visit sights of general interest, and usually they are good choices, but everyone has special interests that can’t be accommodated by a cruise format. We dislike the fact that some cruise stops are designed to meet coaches to take the passengers off somewhere. In those places, there really isn’t much to do if you don’t want to join the group. As noted in the previous section, we dislike being thrown in with people we can’t get away from. In Amsterdam, we sat in crowded restaurants with conversation buzzing all around us. The talk may have been banal or worse, but it didn’t bother us, because it was all in Dutch. Onboard the ship (or worse, the bus), it’s harder to tune out the conversations in English.
While the food on cruises is good, we seldom have the opportunity to sample the cuisine of the countries we are visiting. Viking stocks a good draft beer (Bitburg), but there were so many local beers to choose from in those bistros that we sailed past.
I would dearly love to find a cruise line that catered to independent-minded passengers. It would take us to important towns, and always stop right there, not a bus ride away. It would have maps and perhaps podcasts, with a concierge to help us with reservations and plans. There would be no group tours. We would arrive in the morning, walk down the gangplank, and be on our own until time to leave. Maybe we could even stay somewhere for more than one day. Meals would put more emphasis on the local cuisine, including varieties of beer and wine. If there was onboard entertainment, it would be local performers who would board at one town and then leave at the next, to be replaced by someone new. Any tours would be optional and consist of walking around with no more than a half-dozen people and a local guide. That would really be the best of both worlds.
Where will we go from here? I don’t know. We have yet to see the Rhone, Elbe, Moselle, or lower Danube. Maybe we will board a ship again. We’re working on an independent trip for next year. Beyond that, who can tell?

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Viking longships
Like all the other river cruise lines, Viking has been rolling out a new fleet of ships that are bigger and posher than their old ones. They call their new series the “longships.” I’m sure you get the connection. Fortunately, we don’t have to row them. I had mixed feelings about this development. The advertising of these new ships dwells on the improvements to the cabins . There is also a notable increase in price for a cruise on one of these ships. My feeling is that upgrading the cabins is one of the least effective ways to improve a cruise. If you’ve read my narrative, you will have seen that we spent very little time in our cabin. We slept there. We stowed our gear. We returned to it at the end of the day to do a little reading before going to sleep. That was about it. I fear that making these cruises more expensive, to pay for the amenities, will price out the people who could just barely afford one of the low-level rooms for what would have been a trip of a lifetime.
Before I get too down on Viking, I should note that we certainly did like the forward terrace (the Aquavit Terrace) quite a bit. Again, in my narrative I explained how we ate all of our meals there. It was also a good place to sit, either in port or under weigh. On the other hand, the older ships used to have a library at the stern, which was a nice little out-of-the way place that you could sit, and read or play a boardgame, away from the noisier lounge. On the longships, the stern is given over to the expensive suites with wraparound (real) balconies.
On the whole, the longships are a little better than the older ones, but not by a lot. The terrace out-balances the library. I can’t think of any real difference in our cabin. The décor is a little nicer.

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Gear
We are pretty good at packing by now. Even though we knew that Viking would be taking care of our luggage from the time we departed customs until check-in for our return flight, we still packed pretty light. Each of us took one small roller case and a small backpack. We checked the cases and used the backpacks for our carry-on, overhead bin pieces. The carry-ons held our cameras, prescription meds, some comforts for the flight, an emergency change of clothes, and a few things that we stuffed in at the last minute. I have a very small shoulder bag for books and my tablet—that goes under the seat. Fran uses a purse for the same function. We both have sound canceling headphones, the kind that actively process the signals to reduce ambient noise. Those help a lot on the plane, although they are uncomfortable to wear for hours at a time.

Other than the cameras, we kept our electronic gear to a minimum. I carried a small generic android tablet. It’s enough to connect to the internet using WiFi, play some music, and accommodate some reading and writing. It also had a guide to Amsterdam loaded on it. We carried a pay-as-you go android smartphone, just in case we needed it, but all we used it for was to take some pictures of restaurants and check to see if our vet had left any emergency messages. I did not take our GPS unit this time, as it hasn’t proved very useful in the past. We relied on paper maps to get around. I did take a small pair of binoculars, which was useful . As you might guess from this list, connectivity is not a priority for us while on vacation. We don’t update our status on social media. We don’t post photos of what we are eating. The whole point of a vacation is to get away from everything, not take it with us.
While not exactly “gear,” another thing we always take on our trips is a box or two of energy bars. They’re handy on long bus trips or when we’re out on our own and don’t want to use up any of our time sitting down for a meal.

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Clothing
We aimed for a “nice casual” range: nice enough for cathedrals and restaurants, but durable and comfortable. Since we knew the weather would be warm at first and then get a little cooler, I brought polo shirts, a couple of long-sleeve rugby shirts, and some casual collared shirts. I had nicer-looking cargo pants, a pair of casual pants, and jeans. For cooler weather I two a light sweaters and a light raincoat. For my head, I wore my now-famous fisherman’s cap and a grey flat cap. I had one necktie, for when we wanted to dress up a bit. For shoes, I had a pair of brown walking shoes and a pair of leather loafers. I wore the latter on the plane, to make security a little easier, but they were comfortable enough for extended walking after we arrived.
Shopping
Shopping is never an important part of our trips. We do look in museum gift shops. We sometimes browse souvenir stores or specialty shops. Fran usually picks up a few small things to give to give to her coworkers. That said, we did rather less shopping (certainly less buying) than usual on this trip. We never felt like we had the time to spare for much browsing. The museum shops were not impressive. An exception was the Rembrandt House Museum, where we found some souvenirs. The only clothing we bought was a t-shirt from the brewery in Amsterdam. I looked at other items, but nothing was interesting enough to buy. Even the Viking shop failed to tempt me. We bought a stuffed animal for a newborn we know, some Christmas tree ornaments, a few small models, and, of course, we bought cheese. We did not go through the usual ritual of trying to use up all of our euros in the duty-free at the airport. We just held onto them, since we’re going to be able to spend them next year.
Photography
Although we don’t go on “photography vacations,” we do take a lot of pictures on our trips. I take many more than Fran does, but she takes more time to get the best composition. I use a Nikon Coolpix PX100, while Fran uses a Canon Sureshot SX130-IS. These are both point-and-shoot cameras that were top-of-the-line when we bought them, which was about five years ago. They have enough options to give us control over our photos, but we don’t have to carry around extra lenses the way we would if we had DSLRs. Fran’s camera is small enough to fit in her (large) purse, while I carry mine in a case attached to my belt. I have the programmed auto set for my favorite way of shooting, which is to take bursts of three exposures, one f-stop apart. When I get home, I combine the three images using software to correct for under- and over-exposing. That doesn’t work if I am moving (on the ship) or there is a lot of motion in the frame, but at least I have the choice of three images to work from. We almost never use a flash. I carry around a tiny tripod in my shoulder bag, but I use it only in the darkest conditions.
We seldom take pictures of each other: Maybe one or two across the table in a pub or something like that. Fran took one of me while I was wearing an armored helmet at Marksburg Castle. Usually, someone offers to take a picture of the two of us at some point during the trip, and that is the way we get a “together” shot. We never take selfies. We never try to use forced perspective to make it look like we are holding up monuments or other structures.
We use our photographs to make a slideshow that runs on several devices in our house and in my office. I post some of the best photos on Facebook. We also print photos for an album, although we are perennially behind on that. At the time of this writing (late 2016), we are selecting photos from our 2014 trip!

Posted by
988 posts

Greatly enjoyed your trip report. I did this same cruise in 2008 on Viking but in the other direction.

Posted by
661 posts

I enjoyed your report, hope to do a river cruise someday.

Posted by
694 posts

Thank you for your trip report. I enjoyed the little details that you added. My Mom is thinking of a river cruise for her 80th birthday. (I refuse to go on another ocean cruise). Have you been on any US river cruises? If so would you compare them?

Posted by
484 posts

Thanks for the report. We've did that river from Amsterdam to Budapest this spring (actually 3 rivers) We use AMAWaterways, so it was nice to read in detail about Viking. I was snickering at the story of you and Fran getting lost in Amsterdam. We did too! We traveled extensively and I have never been lost in a city like we were in Amsterdam. (with a map) My husband and I were in total disagreement as to which way to go and then a lovely Dutch gentleman asked if he could help us. (This must happen a lot in Amsterdam.) We will be doing our 3 cruise on the Rhone this summer (in time for lavender and sunflowers and more Van Gogh and French wine! We have been lucky and have met TERRIFIC people on both cruises and enjoyed many dinners together. Thanks again for bringing to my mind good memories.

Posted by
11573 posts

He explained that the name of the brewery was a pun in Dutch, as was
its logo of an ostrich with its egg.

That brewery is Brouwerij 't IJ, and we spent several very happy (!!) hours there some years ago. Didn't take the tour as we've already been through umpty brewery tours but each had a sampler flight of the offerings, and a pint or two of favorites from the batch. There were lots of friendly locals as well as some tourists lifting pints at the picnic tables so it was great fun. Bought a glass for our collection of those from favorite places.

Posted by
504 posts

vandrabrud, I was on one American river cruise, a Mississippi River cruise on the American Queen, back in 2008. The boat had elevators and seemed to be accessible. We ran into one elderly woman who had been on the cruise over and over again. She was happy to just stay aboard the whole time. The company that ran that cruise, Majestic, has since gone out of business. I believe that the American Queen may be running again by a different company, but I may have that mixed up with something else.

Posted by
214 posts

Thanks for an extremely well-written and comprehensive report! I've been considering a Rhine cruise, and this gives me a lot to think about--especially in light of some of the other threads on river cruises. Yours is the most complete review, and some of your observations touch on the aspects of a river cruise that I'm most concerned about. In particular, the food, at least on Viking, seems from your account to be aimed at an American audience, with the exception of the local food night. One of the things I most enjoy about travel is eating, and I'm not sure that what you've described would be very interesting, even if well prepared. And being in a large crowd lining up to get on a bus, to then be in that crowd while on a tour, is another concern. Have you traveled on other cruise lines? Some of the commenters on the other threads really liked AMA tours, both for food and size. The idea of not having to change hotels a lot is nice, and I'm sure that seeing the castles from the river is a wonderful viewpoint--it's hard to tell if that outweighs the other concerns!

Posted by
504 posts

Lois, yes, that's pretty much the trade-off you face with cruises. As I indicated in my notes, we may be reaching the tipping point where our tastes and confidence have changed enough to stop taking cruises. For the past 10 years or so, we've been alternating independent trips and cruises.

The only other cruise lines we've tried have been Majestic, as described above, and a getaway cruise to the Bahamas on Celebrity. Every time we were planning a river cruise, we looked at the offerings. It always worked out that the cost and itinerary favored Viking. I've had suggestions about looking into Tauk and Scenic because of the different way they do things. I hadn't heard about AMA before. We'll add them to the list.

--Dav

Posted by
484 posts

Just want to weigh in on river cruises again. We've taken a couple and will take another this summer. From our observations, more and more folks are looking at this mode of travel in Europe due to it's safety, and convenience. And with more people now entering into retirement, aka, babyboomers, the demand for these trips is encouraging the cruise lines to put more and more ships in the waters. What you do not realize is that these waterways are not only for tourists, but for trade. The locks are only so fast and only so big. If a country decides to give trade ships priority over the cruise ships then your tour will have more and more delays. It is nice if you have a great ship and like to lounge, but if your intent is to see as much of the stuff "off ship" then you may not like the unexpected delays. I would advise anyone who wants to cruise the Danube to do it soon, before it becomes over capacity. We are now looking at the lesser European rivers. And we are very young and energetic so we look for a cruise that offers bikes, more active walks, and other options. We have been very pleased with AMAwaterways.

Posted by
11573 posts

Interesting points, tgreen. Sounds like the same issue some of the ports are having too many oversized cruise ships? Something might have to give to relieve overloaded waterways or overloaded port destinations.

We briefly looked at a river cruise as we'd talked to some people who really liked them but decided that there were more cons than pros. We're just too independent to be tied to a schedule, and enjoy longer (sometimes much longer) stays in one place than the itineraries provide. Believe it or not, we also enjoy a change of accommodations; they all have had their own personalities! Bus tours, and meals in the same place every day? No thank you. And then there's the price... We can go for quite a lot longer for the same $$.

But that doesn't mean that they're not right for the travelers who enjoy them. Not everyone likes creating their own itineraries, making their own hotel bookings, taking public transport, etc. Down the road should we be less able to move efficiently around by ourselves, we may consider one again.

Posted by
1655 posts

Thanks for the comprehensive report. We took the same cruise on the Viking Eir in July. It was our first cruise of any kind.

A year ago this week, we took an independent trip to Tuscany and have that experience as a point of comparison. We have many of the concerns about cruising that you have. There is definitely a lot of river traffic and we found ourselves tied to another Viking ship at many of the dockings.

We travelled with another couple which assured us good company. We only had a few obnoxious shipmates, but they sure made up for the lack of quantity.

While VRC did a great job, we decided this way of visiting Europe is not our cup of tea. It felt like the Disney World version of Europe and would appeal to the same crowd that would think Epcot is a cultural adventure. I also realize that our preferred method of travel would scare the bejesus out of many Americans.

Thanks again for the detailed report.

Posted by
214 posts

tgreen's caution about heavy river traffic was something I hadn't considered, but makes a lot of sense--and is another point to consider when thinking about these cruises. I also liked the analogy to Epcot, and I think that's probably right on point. Lots of people really like Disney and Epcot and enjoy the various country exhibits, but that may be as close as they have been to those places. Great if it's enjoyable, but it doesn't work for me. The Rhine cruise does seem enticing, since it seems like the best way to see that area, but I will really have to think about whether the compromises with food and conforming to schedules are worth it. It's great to have the comments from those who have been there!

Posted by
504 posts

I know that Viking schedules its lock appointments long in advance of each cruise. I imagine that the other lines know their business and do the same. Thus, the increasing river traffic will have been accounted for before you set foot on board.

I also think that the "Disney" and "Epcot" labels are an exaggeration. There are difference between taking a guided trip and setting off on your own. Cruises are more oriented toward customer comfort than more adventurous tours. Those things being said, there is nothing phony about the cities you visit. If you've plowed through all of my posts, you know that I have reservations about the experience, but I don't accept that there is anything false or inauthentic about river cruises.

Posted by
1655 posts

Those things being said, there is nothing phony about the cities you visit. If you've plowed through all of my posts, you know that I have reservations about the experience, but I don't accept that there is anything false or inauthentic about river cruises.

Yeah, my comment might have been a little snarky, but it wasn't aimed at river cruises, but at some of the folks that take them.

We did break away from the herd and enjoy some wonderful experiences on our own time. We also had excellent tour guides in Heidelberg and Cologne. But there were also disappointments. The trip to the Black Forest was nice, but there was hardly any time at the destination and it was pretty much geared towards selling you cuckoo clocks and knickknacks.

VRC commercials are extremely well produced and look very enticing. However, if you're expecting the crowd free, intimate experiences they portray you'll probably be disappointed.

Posted by
484 posts

I might add that when on a River Cruise you must be flexible and leave expectations at home. The river is unpredictable and even if a ship has an "appointed time" to enter a lock, that might not work out. On both cruises the river was high or too strong at times. The Danube water traffic was shut down in Austria due to too high and strong currents. We had to wait, however our cruise line formed an alternative tour of a summer palace (not on the itinerary) we loved it. Also we were bused to Vienna and hoped the river would settle down so that our ship could meet us there, It did. On the long cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, we were stuck a few time waiting for the river level to lower so that we could pass under bridges. And an entire days itinerary (Melk Abbey) was scraped and we were cruising thru that lovely valley at night in order to arrive in Vienna. That being said I wouldn't give up the wonderful mornings cruising on the Main watching the wildlife and hearing a cuckoo bird in early morning.

Posted by
1516 posts

Hi Dav, thanks for taking the time to write this excellent trip report! We are thinking about taking the Basel-Amsterdam cruise next fall and the info you provided was very helpful. Sounds like you had a good time!

Posted by
12103 posts

Thanks for an interesting, most detailed report, and for the infor on the battlefield sites in Alsace. High time I go back to Alsace. I was in Kehl once, ie 1999. On Koblenz: the fortress Ehrenbreitstein serves the HI hostel in Koblenz. I stayed there in 1971, went back in 1987 to get the photos of the great view from Ehrenbreitstein.

Ehrenbreitstein was built in 1818 after the defeat of Napoleon to guard against a resurgent France, since the left bank of the Rhine should be Prussian and was awarded by the Great Powers to Prussia. The statue of William 1 on Deutsches Eck , where the Moselle and Rhine join, is a more modest one built after WW2 since the original was severely damaged in 1945.

Posted by
12103 posts

Hi,

Good that you got up to the Niederwald Denkmal to see the "Germania" statue. and that it wasn't covered with scaffolding. Notice on the front and back the list of battles from 1870 to 1871 in date order.