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Published: October 13th 2015
I wanted to do something spectacular for our honeymoon so I booked us on the Viking River Cruise Rhine Getaway. It starts in Basel, Switzerland and eight days later concludes in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Since my last name is Basel this is a place I’ve always wanted to go to. I booked it more than a year in advance as the Viking Cruises fill up fast. They are expensive but we had heard nothing but great things about them. I wanted to spend more than half a day in Basel which is all the Viking itinerary had scheduled so I deviated from their schedule for a fee so that we could go a day early. I also wanted to spend some time in Amsterdam and since the cruise schedule didn’t have any activities planned there I also booked an extra day there. I used Expedia to book the Hotel Basel in Basel. I used Viking to book our flight since they would guarantee the fare even though we were more than a year out and couldn’t actually book it until we were less than a year out. When the day finally came to leave on October 1,
2015 we headed to the Air France terminal at Houston’s airport. We thought we had plenty of time before boarding as we got to the gate area an hour before departure. But, while we were sitting enjoying our lunch we heard “last call” for our flight over the PA system and our names were announced. We dropped our food and ran for the terminal and were instructed that boarding concluded 30 minutes before departure but we had made it there just in the nick of time. The Air France 747 was very cramped. Other than that we were pleased. The food and entertainment systems were good. After nine hours in the air we arrived at Amsterdam for our connection to Basel on KLM. The flight to Basel was delayed nearly an hour but since that was the final leg of our journey and it was early in the day we didn’t mind. The plane was much smaller and we had to take a bus to it on the tarmac. But it was a smooth and short flight to Basel.
We were surprised at how small and empty the Basel airport was but that made
for a quick trip to baggage claim and short wait for our luggage. Fortunately, there were Viking staff there to pick up others for another cruise so we were able to have them help us figure out the logistics of getting to our hotel. They were very helpful. The weather turned out to be warmer than expected. High temperatures were around 70 degrees most days. I was a bit disappointed in the lack of fall color as well. Someone told us the trees were late turning color this year. But the further we traveled north during the trip the more we saw signs of the leaves turning color. The taxi ride to the hotel from the airport was 40 Euros including a small tip. Tipping is not required or even expected but if you receive exceptional service it is customary. The hotel turned out to be quite nice. It was a typically small room for a European hotel but very nicely decorated and comfortable. A nice perk was the free mini-bar which was nicely stocked. The hotel is in a great location just a block from the Marktplatz which is the main town square and
touristy area hosting a farmer’s market and a few food vendors. We had lunch there. I got a bratwurst and Dawn got a sandwich. Marktplatz is also just two blocks from the Rhine River. One of the roads emanating from the square has a bridge crossing the river to more shopping and a nice park stretching along the shore for strolling. Marktplatz also is the location for the town hall which is a centuries old distinctive red colored building with ornate frescoes and statues adorning it. The square is lined by upscale shopping, florists and bakeries. It seems there is a bakery about every 50 yards in Basel. There were large crowds everywhere but not to the point of being an annoyance. It seems to be a popular tourist destination but without any of the stereotypical tourist traps selling anything with the town’s name printed on it. As a matter of fact we could find only one shop that had such items and it was a Christmas store right across the street from the hotel. One thing that struck us about Basel is that it was impeccably clean. Not a bit of litter anywhere
in the streets and no homeless or beggars. Another important note is that while walking you have to be very careful not to get in the way of one of the many trains that travels the main streets. They have a bell to notify you of there presence but they also travel very close to the sidewalks. We walked across the bridge to the other side of the river. It was a beautiful day in the 60’s with ample sun. We took a stroll along the shore and sat for a while on one of benches and just enjoyed the view and atmosphere. The architecture is just what you would expect from a Swiss town. It reflects the history and culture which is heavily German with some Swiss thrown in. Swiss German, a dialect of German, is spoken there. We went back to the hotel and while Dawn took a nap I went on a sightseeing tour of the area around the hotel. There are many beautiful sights to be seen. There is a lot of new construction going on in the city of Basel reflecting their very healthy economy. But mostly, what you notice is how old
and well kept most of the buildings are. It seems buildings aren’t considered old unless their at least 400 or 500 years old. Many are over 500 years old. I returned to the hotel in time for us to go to dinner. We found a nice place with outdoor tables and even though the temperature was in the 50s we enjoyed our food tremendously. The name of the place was Harmonie. I had the Carbonna and Dawn had the Harmonie salad. Both were excellent. The next morning we took another walk looking at the stores and architecture. Basel has plenty of high-end clothing and accessory stores. We found a medieval cathedral in Munsterplatz that appeared to date back to about 1200.
We were surprised at how quiet things were on a Saturday morning once you got away from the real touristy areas. We found a large department store called Manor that had everything. We each bought a hat to help keep the sun out of our eyes. We also went back to the Christmas store to pick up a few more gifts for people. Then it was time to check out of the
hotel and into the cruise ship. We got a taxi for the short ride to the dock in the St Johann part of Basel. Our cabin was expectedly very small but with floor-to-ceiling windows and a sliding glass door that created what they call a “French Balcony”. We were in time for lunch on the ship so we just ate there and then took advantage of their tour of Basel in the afternoon. It was largely a repetition of what we had already seen. That evening at dinner on the ship we met some great new friends, the Evans family from Tennessee who had once lived in Houston. They were on the trip with his parents. They became our regular dinner partners for the entire week as we thoroughly enjoyed conversations about many things, even politics and religion, and without getting into any arguments!
The next night we met more good people, Rod and Judith, from Boulder and had an equally pleasant time talking with them over dinner and for the rest of the trip.
Overnight the ship sailed to our next stop which was Breisach which was a stopping point to reach the
Black Forest. In the morning there were swans swimming all around the ship, an amazing sight. The bus trip to the Black Forest was about an hour long and beautiful. I was surprised that fall colors had not yet happened since it was the first week of October but as I learned the farther north we went during the week the more colors we saw.
Once in the Black Forest we had choices as to what to do. I chose to do the hike into the Black Forest. Dawn chose to watch the coockoo clock making. There was also a demonstration of making Black Forest cake later that we both caught. After that we got on the bus for the ride back to the boat. It was a beautiful ride but we missed most of it while sleeping. Neither of us had a good night sleep that we attributed to jet lag. In the afternoon we took a walk into Breisach with an eye towards hiking up to the church on top of the hill. We walked around looking for an access road but only found a flight of steps. After several minutes of an
exhausting hike up the steps we reached the church, St. Stephen’s. It is a Romanesque-Gothic building started in the twelfth century and completed in the thirteenth century. Upon arrival we also saw the access road which would have been a much easier climb.
There were some great views from up there and after leisurely walking through the church and the surrounding town we headed back down to the main part of the town. Back on the ship the meals were amazing. All meals were provided and there was ample variety. Wine was included with dinner every day. Each evening before dinner our cruise director Nick would give a daily briefing. This included a description of the next day’s activities.
Every day there was a land excursion which was included in the cruise price and then there were also one or two optional excursions for a price. Our cruise director Nick was delightful and entertaining. We will always remember his urging for “order” during his briefings trying to keep the talk among the guests to a minimum so he could be heard. The next day, Monday, our land excursion was into Strasbourg,
France. There are beautiful flowers everywhere you look. The architecture is both French and German with many building in the classical Alpine style. This is the Alsace area of France which has changed hands between France and Germany multiple times and you see signs of that all over. Alsace has their own culture including the symbol of the stork and its role in fertility.
The center of town is actually an island where the main attraction is the Notre Dame cathedral. It is nearly as large as the one in Paris and is actually taller being that the twin spires were actually completed. The cathedral is also surrounded by shops and restaurants and souvenir shops. I purchased a traditional German beer stein here. In the afternoon we took time to walk across the Rhine on the pedestrian bridge to the French side of the river where there was a nice park. Likewise, on the German side, we walked the park alongside the river in the town of Kehl.
Upon returning to the ship we took in the Sun Deck relaxing in the lounge chairs and sipping hot chocolate. We also tried our hands
at the miniature golf and shuffle board on deck. The next day we landed in Heidelberg where the main attraction is Heidelberg Castle. It is a Gothic-Renaissance structure built in the thirteenth century but destroyed by lightning ignited fires twice, the last being in 1764. It has only been partially rebuilt since. We were not able to go inside but the views of the Rhine valley below from its hilltop location are spectacular.
The town of Heidelberg is also a delight with its traditional German architecture. As always there were numerous bakeries tempting us at every turn. The ship sailed down the Rhine a bit further that afternoon to Rudesheim. The concierge on the ship gave us a walking tour but it was too late in the day to take in the sky-tram or “seilbahn” which is one of the main attractions of the town.
This is the spot that the crew likes because it has night life very close to the dock. It is a very quaint and very small town and worth the time. This area is known for its Riesling wine production.
There are vineyards all along the banks
of the river and we saw some people picking grapes as we sailed by. Some of the vineyards are on slopes too steep to use mechanized equipment so they have to be harvested by hand. That night at dinner we got a large table so that we and all six of our new, best friends could all sit together. We had a great time which also included me breaking in my new beer stein. Since this was about the halfway point in our trip it was time to get some laundry done. The ship staff took care of it, for a price, of course. The next day they let us sleep in which was a real nice break from the 6:30am awakenings by our alarm clock so that we could get showered and dressed and have breakfast before our 8:30am departure for our ground excursions.
During the day the ship sailed to Koblenz so we got to sit in our cabin and watch the beautiful scenery go by which included numerous castles. The cruise director also gave a play by play description up on the sun deck. That afternoon we all boarded a bus
at Koblenz to ride up to Marksburg Castle. It is the only hilltop castle on the Rhine that has never been destroyed. It has been lived in for over 700 years. Our tour included an in-depth look at the living quarters inside. It was well worth the time. When we got back Dawn and I walked down to the “Seilbahn” to ride the gondola up to the fortress on the hilltop across the river. It was a very smooth ride in a big cable car so Dawn’s normal fears disappeared. Ehrenbreitstein Fortress is a sizable fortress developed over the last 200 years housing the state museum of antiquities, plus special exhibitions & war memorials. There is an audio self-guided tour that is available but we were on limited time before dark so we didn’t do that. But we did get a bratwurst at the little concession stand near the entrance that was very good. The views of the Rhine River valley below are breathtaking. After returning to the town on the seilbahn we walked over to a large monument plaza at the fork of the river to take in the sights and to take a handstand picture. At dinner that evening on the ship they had a German menu and entertainment including an accordion player and a glockenspiel. On Thursday we were in Cologne which is the first large city on the tour. The major attraction in Cologne is the cathedral which is nearly as big as St. Peter’s in the Vatican. It is a Roman Catholic cathedral begun in 1248 but not finished until 1880. The artwork inside is incredible including the mosaic tiled floors. The weather was rainy that day so we weren’t very interested in exploring all the ample shopping after the cathedral tour. We stayed in town for lunch so we had to walk back to the ship which took about half an hour. The Chinese restaurant we found was actually pretty good. After a nap I wanted to explore a bit more but Dawn was more interested in reading and relaxing so I went off on my own. Our friends had just returned from the Botanical Gardens and said that it was very good so that’s where I headed. On the way there I happened upon a sculpture garden that was very interesting. There were about a
dozen contemporary sculptures spread out over a large green grass plaza and for whatever reason there were a lot of rabbits there. After the sculpture garden I went on to the botanical garden and our friends were right. It is very large and very impressive. The slow rain continued all day, however, and put a damper on the sight-seeing. Friday the ship spent the day traveling down the river towards The Netherlands. Along the way there is a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark right on the west side of the river. We stopped at Kinderdijk to see the windmills for a few hours before heading on to Amsterdam. The tour of the windmills was very interesting. There are nineteen and are still in use moving water up for flood control purposes. Others mill corn. Originally, the windmills were designed to house the operator, called a “miller”, and his family. Back at the ship for dinner they gave us a gourmet seven course dinner for our farewell. We made some great friends on this cruise and I think that was the best part of it. We exchanged emails and promised to reunite at some point.
It was also time to pay for any charges incurred during the cruise and to tip the staff. Tipping is kind of hidden cost of any cruise and can be fairly expensive. We tipped a total of about 170 euros. That night the ship headed into Amsterdam and that was the end of cruise. We, however, booked a night at a bed and breakfast before returning to Houston so we could have a day checking out Amsterdam. The concierge on the ship took care of getting us a taxi to get to the hotel. Unbelievable, a friend of mine from highs school was also in Amsterdam that day with his wife. Thank you Facebook! So we were able to get together after not seeing each other for nearly forty years. We joined them on a walking tour of the city which was to take three hours but we only lasted about two and a half hours and then headed back to the B & B. The walking tour was very good and is free but you are expected to tip the guide ten euros each. He was very good and worth it. We were surprised to learn
that marijuana is illegal in Amsterdam. It is de-criminalized, not legal, but the police generally look the other way and are very tolerant. Coffee Shops are the place to go to find some marijuana edibles. Also a surprise was the fact that it is illegal to consumer alcohol in the streets. If caught you will get a ticket. During the tour we walked through the red light district. Since it was the middle of the afternoon many of the windows were empty. It is taboo to take pictures of the girls as well. The guide informed us that the going price is fifty euros for fifteen minutes but customers are usually done before that. We were very tired and our feet hurt from all the walking. In Amsterdam you have to be careful not to get hit by bicylclists while you are walking. They rule the road and bicycle is the preferred mode of transportation for most who are able to ride. The name of the B & B is La Remise. At first we were concerned when the owner finally came to the door and let us in to see that there was a very steep
and long set of stairs between us and our room. But the room turned out to be exceptionally large and decorated nicely. The neighborhood was also nice although it was about two miles from the main part of town. Sunday morning it was time to catch our flight back to Houston and we are ready. Viking worked us very hard with all the walking tours and then we get to Amsterdam and do the same ourselves. We were exhausted. But it was the best vacation we’ve ever had.
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