Beauty on the Rhine – Conclusion

DSC05999 (3)I knew it would come – the final day of exploring and cruising the Rhine! At 8:00 AM we arrived in Breisach, Germany; a town known for its sweeping views of the Rhine valley. It was a difficult decision, but rather than tour Breisach in depth, we took an optional trip to the Medieval village of Colmar instead. Turns out Colmar was one of my favorites!

IMG_3925 (2)The Viking brochure calls Colmar, France “a canal-lined Medieval gem”, and rightly so. With its 9th-century streets, 13th-century churches and original Old Town, it’s a storybook come to life. I’ve never seen such a colorful and charming place! In every direction was a photo waiting to be taken. My camera and I were very busy!

Our Viking guide led us through town, a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys and flower-laden canals with 1000 years of history mingled in. We walked through the tanner’s district, passed the Pfister House built in 1537, and on to the Schwendi Fountain, sculpted by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, was born in Colmar in 1834. The house where he was born is now a museum dedicated to presenting and preserving his work.

We walked to St. Martin’s, the largest church in Colmar. Construction of the church originally began in 1237, but it has been restored many times since then. It retains its honey-colored exterior and single bell tower. As in Strasbourg, storks seem to flock to Colmar in the Spring. We could see a large stork nest on the roof of St. Martin’s, complete with a momma stork and her babies (see right corner of roof)!

With instructions on where to meet later, our guide left us with free time in the “Little Venice” quarter. The neighborhood was once a rural area, so the canals here are bordered by original houses formerly owned by wine producers, boatmen, and flower and produce merchants. The bright colored houses are now restaurants, wine bars and specialty shops with the most unique little store fronts you’ll ever find.

We successfully met up with our tour group at the intersection of Colmar’s two major roads from back in the medieval days, now a popular square with quaint surroundings.

Our guide led us to the bus, which then delivered us to the Lofn, where a flock of swans joined us for lunch. It was our last lunch of the trip and I remember it well. Why? Black Forest Cake for dessert! How appropriate, since our afternoon excursion was to the Black Forest!

Thick woods, grassy meadows and misty waterfalls shadowed by a canopy of evergreens… that pretty much describes the Black Forest! Our bus tour took us through several wine-producing villages on our way to the deep, dark woods. At the visitors center we were invited to attend a cuckoo clock demonstration, watch a pastry chef make Black Forest Cake, and take a little stroll into the forest. We couldn’t go far since Hansel and Gretel weren’t with us and we didn’t bring breadcrumbs to mark the way! We returned to the ship via Freiburg, a major university city where we got stuck in late rush hour traffic.

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IMG_3939 (2)The ship cast-off from Breisach at 6:00 PM and headed for our final port of Basel. The evening was filled with celebration, starting with the Captain’s Cocktail Party and a final farewell from our Program Director, Emilie. Emilie was wonderful… always a smile, always a kind word, and always THERE! Dinner was also a celebration. It was a chance to say goodbye to the staff and crew, and to the friends we had made on our shared journey. After a final walk around the upper deck at sunset, we headed to our room to pack for home.

The Viking Lofn arrived in Basel, Switzerland at 2:00 AM, and by 8:20 AM we were on a bus to the airport. Sadly, our flight schedule did not allow us time to visit Basel, nor did we take the optional extension to Lucerne like so many of our fellow travelers. But that’s OK, we hope to make another trip to the region someday. We also hope to travel with Viking again!

I looked back towards our ship as the bus pulled away. Who did I see? Program Director Emilie was standing there waving goodbye! Like I said, she was ALWAYS there!

Beauty on the Rhine Day Five – Strasbourg

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I’d never been to France before our Rhine River cruise, and if Strasbourg is any indication, I believe I’ll need to go again!

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It was an early morning aboard the Viking Lofn. By 8:30, our shore excursion for the day was underway. In the heart of the Alsace region is Strasbourg, the largest port on the Upper Rhine. Because it sits on the border between Germany and France, Strasbourg is a cultural mix – a pleasant blend of old and new, beer and wine, cheese and chocolate. The border is in the middle of the river so in the photo below, the ship where I’m standing is in Germany and the other is in France.

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Our bus tour included a drive through the German Imperial District and the European Quarter, but what I found most interesting was the hundreds of stork nests we saw in the trees on our way to the historic district. Storks migrate here in the spring from as far away as Africa. Storks are said to bring good luck, fertility… and babies! Symbols of them are prevalent throughout the city.

The bus dropped us off in the enchanting neighborhood of Petite France, my favorite part of Strasbourg. Charming on a beautiful day were the scenic canals displaying the reflection of colorful, timber-framed houses and flower-boxed windows. In the Middle Ages this area was home to the tanners, millers and fishermen.

Over cobblestone streets and pretty little bridges, we crossed the Ill River which surrounds the old town and forms an island. The entire “island” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame, Rohan Palace and Museums, courtyards, squares, shopping and the popular Christmas market.

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Strasbourg’s soaring cathedral is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. It sits on the sight of an old Roman basilica destroyed by fire 100 years after it was built in 1176. Construction of the current cathedral began at the end of the 12th century.

The stunning pink sandstone makes it one of the most magnificent examples of Gothic architecture in the world, featuring a remarkable Rosette and stained-glass windows. The interior includes a suspended pipe organ, intricate carvings and an original astronomical clock built in 1842.

We went back to the ship after the walking tour and stayed for lunch (because lunch on the ship was ALWAYS so good). Viking provided shuttle bus services all afternoon long, so of course we went back to see more of amazing Strasbourg on our own.

We were treated to a “Taste of Germany” that evening… a hearty German buffet and rousing music; and as always, a nice assortment of wine and beer from the region. And for dessert – on this night, anyway – a rainbow!

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During and after dinner, the Viking Lofn navigated through the Grand Canal d’Alsace, a system of locks necessary to ensure ship safety on the river. There is a total of 12 locks on the Rhine upstream from Basel. We went through most of them at night, but not this one. I found it an interesting process to watch. Because river cruise ships utilize as much square footage as possible, there is about a one foot gap between the width of the lock and most ships. I could reach out and touch the cold, damp lock walls from the balcony of our room.

Watching the progression of the sunset was fascinating as well! I had worried that sunsets on a river cruise would not compare in beauty to those on an ocean cruise. Fortunately, I was wrong!

Coming up, the final post! Beauty on the Rhine Conclusion – Breisach, Colmar, and the Black Forest.

Beauty on the Rhine Day Four – Heidelberg & Speyer

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A ruined castle intrigues me. History can tell us when it was built, how it was used, and by what means it was destroyed, but its mysteries will never  be fully known. What stories lie buried in the rubble? What scandal? What heartbreak? My imagination was working overtime as I regarded the red sandstone ruins of Heidelberg Castle.

We had a leisurely morning on day four of our Rhine River cruise, but by 10:00 AM we were traveling by bus along the Neckar River to romantic Heidelberg… and to the skeleton of Heidelberg Castle! The amazing thing about Heidelberg is this: the view of the castle from the city is as breathtaking as the city is from the castle! American forces thought the city was so beautiful they chose not to bomb it during WWII.

Our Viking tour guide was a student of European History at Heidelberg University, so he was knowledgeable and passionate about our tour. We started at the castle, originally built in the early 13th century as home to the Palatinate monarchy. By 1294, it had expanded into two castles. A lightning bolt destroyed the upper castle in 1537, while the remaining structure was later damaged by wars and fires. In 1764, another lightning bolt left the castle permanently uninhabitable. For me, the castle was a highlight of the trip!

The City of Heidelberg was totally rebuilt during the 18th century after the French troops of Louis XIV left it in ruin. The result is an interesting combination of baroque buildings and half-timbered houses mixed together with the towering turrets of Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest university.

In the heart of Old Town is Market Square, the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Friedrich Memorial, the Palatinate Museum, the Statue of Madonna at Kornmarkt and the Old Bridge, along with shops, bars and restaurants. Our serious, scholarly, college-student-tour-guide had a grin on his face as we passed a well-known pub. Turns out he is also a DJ and bartender there. Oh, the versatile lives of college kids!

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We spent our free time visiting the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store and enjoying a handcrafted beer at Vetter’s brewery – popular with university students and tourists alike. We walked across the Old Bridge for a dramatic view of the castle before heading back to the bus.

At 2:00 PM, our ship arrived in Speyer, one of the oldest towns in Germany, where we were free to explore on our own.

Attractions include a 12th– century subterranean bath, a 13th-century tower gate, a Baroque Trinity Church, and a Romanesque imperial cathedral. The Speyer Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains the remains of eight Holy Roman Emperors, German kings and empresses. The town was once a major Celtic hub, but now has approximately 50,000 inhabitants.

Onboard the Lofn, a relaxing dinner and entertainment rounded out our day. Only two more left!  Next up: Beauty on the Rhine Day Five: Strasbourg, France.

Beauty on the Rhine Day Three – Marksburg Castle, Scenic Sailing and Rudesheim

IMG_3444 (2)Our third day of sailing the Rhine was one of my favorites! What’s not to love about Marksburg Castle, an afternoon on the scenic Middle Rhine and a fun night in Rudesheim?

DSC05057 (2)We spent the morning at Marksburg, the only castle in the Rhine River Valley that was never in some way destroyed. Because it was built with such strong fortification in 1117, this stately structure has been watching over the region as a fortress since the 13th century. It has survived many ancient conquests, the 30 Years War, Louis XIV’s campaigns, Napoleon’s rule, two world wars and decades of erosion; yet firmly it stands 550-feet over the tiny town of Braubach.

DSC04878 (2)We seemed to have stepped back in time as we toured the mighty castle! Although it was used for protection rather than a royal residence, it had typical rooms such as a kitchen, a dining hall and bedchambers, plus a chapel, an armory, a wine cellar and battlements with slots built-in for bow and arrows. It also had a torture chamber with gruesome instruments from the middle-ages on display.

One of the most impressive things about the castle is the incredible view! Its lofty perch is the reason it withstood attack – you can see for miles and miles in all directions.

The Rhine River at its best is the stretch through the heart of Germany known as the “UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Middle Rhine”. We spent a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the deck of the Viking Lofn watching castles, forests, vineyards and storybook villages come and go. A truly remarkable experience!

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DSC04831By 5:00 PM we had docked in Rudesheim, a charming river-side town with a medieval feel in Germany’s Rheingau wine region. We spent the evening in town instead of onboard, and I’m so glad we did. Locals and tourists alike flock to the Drosselgasse, a narrow cobblestone street lined with shops, wine bars and taverns. Our optional tour group enjoyed a festive full-course dinner served with unlimited local wine and lively oom-pah-pah music. There was singing and dancing and a hearty “Prost” (Cheers) all around!

We cast-off at midnight, leaving Rudesheim for Mannheim where we would take a bus to Heidelberg and Speyer the following day – so stay tuned! Beauty on the Rhine Day Four is coming up next!

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Beauty on the Rhine Day Two – Cologne

DSC04625 (3)We were busy, busy, busy in Cologne – the largest city on the Rhine! The second day of our river cruise started shortly after breakfast which was always delicious, by the way.  (My favorite: made-to-order omelets, home-made yogurt and fresh fruit!) It was a gorgeous morning for our walking tour, the highlight of which was Cologne’s magnificent 14th-century Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With twin spires and beautiful stained-glass windows, this impressive church received little damage from Allied bombs during WWII while the rest of the city was hit hard.

The cathedral has a rather dark outward appearance, but the interior is welcoming and is laid out in the shape of a Latin Cross. Two aisles on either side help support one of the highest vaulted ceilings in the world. At the end of the gigantic naïve is a shrine to the Three Wise Men whose relics were brought to the city in 1164. The cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark.

After the cathedral tour we continued our walk, learning about the city’s Roman heritage and the ancient ruins scattered throughout. The Old Town area was painstakingly rebuilt after the war and is now quite charming with rustic alleys, famous pubs, museums, fountains, monuments and boutiques filled with chocolate and yes – cologne!

DSC04687 (2)DSC04671 (2)DSC04717 (3)DSC04682 (2)Cologne City Hall is known by art historians all over the world for its Renaissance facade built by Wilhelm Vernikken, but most tourists know it as the place where a grotesque wooden face sticks out its tongue when the tower clock strikes the hour.

On our way back to the ship for lunch, we crossed the Hohenzollern Bridge where tradition prompts couples to attach padlocks to the railing and then throw the key into the Rhine River. The “love locks” ritual is supposed to ensure their love will last forever. Isn’t that sweet?

DSC04719 (2)DSC04709 (2)DSC04712 (2)DSC04728 (2)After a quick lunch on the ship (which had a perfect docking location) we were off for our afternoon excursion to the Bruhl UNESCO Palaces. We toured Augustusburg Castle and Falkenlust Hunting Lodge, both lavish 18th-century residences which were extravagantly decorated and beautifully landscaped.  Having already seen several of Europe’s finest castles, we were only mildly impressed.

DSC04764 (2)We got back to the ship with just enough time to freshen up before our evening out in “Beer City”. We wanted to experience the Brauhaus culture and sample the Kolsch – a light, crisp beer brewed only in Cologne. Our fun Viking guide led us to three different brewhouses where we sipped Kolsch poured fresh from the barrel into 7-ounce glasses, small enough to finish the beer while it was still cold. Of course, the moment the glass was empty, it was quickly refilled unless you placed a coaster on top of your glass to signify you’d had enough.

We had traditional German food for dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, popular in the Kolsch culture since 1858. It was easy to have a good time that night in Old Town… not only was it full of happy beer drinkers, but there was a wine festival going on as well! It was definitely Party City!

We cast-off from Cologne around 10:30 PM, shortly after our beer group returned to the ship. The stunning view of the city as we sailed up the Rhine – its churches and bridges drenched in night lights – is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

DSC04796 (2)IMG_3360 (2)Next post: Beauty on the Rhine Day Three – Marksburg Castle, Scenic Sailing and Rudesheim

Beauty on the Rhine – Day One

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The Viking Lofn cast-off at 11:30 PM, leaving Amsterdam for our first port in Kinderdijk, home to 19 remarkable windmills built around 1738. We arrived in Kinderdijk at 10:00 AM and set out to explore these technological marvels which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

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The windmills were originally erected here to drain the wetlands which sit below sea level and have been prone to flooding since the 13th century. A great flood in 1421 is the source of the fairy tale “The Cat and the Cradle”. Legend has it that a wooden cradle washed ashore here containing a cat sitting on top of a baby to keep them both from falling out. The name Kinderdijk means “children’s dike” in Dutch.

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Today, pumping stations run by diesel fuel are used for pumping water in low-lying areas, but the windmills are kept in working order for backup and for tourism. The windmills at Kinderdijk were completely operational during World War II when fuel was too scarce to be used in the stations.

Our tour took us through the windmill workshop where a guide explained the details of their operation and maintenance. We also went inside a working windmill – all the way to the top – to see up close not only the mechanics, but the living quarters of the family who keeps it running. A stop at the windmill museum concluded our tour and we hiked back across the dike and returned to the ship.

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We left Kinderdijk at 12:30 PM through a network of canals which eventually led us to the Rhine River. The afternoon was spent meeting our 188 fellow passengers and familiarizing ourselves with the ship, including a required safety drill, lunch, an excursion briefing and a chance to visit the First Officer in the wheelhouse of this lovely Viking Longship. With numerous ocean cruises on mega ships under our belt, we found the simple elegance and quieter atmosphere here an invitation to kick back and relax, and the scenery made that easy to do!

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Our reward at the end of day one? An unforgettable sunset!

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Next up:  Beauty on the Rhine – Day Two – Cologne, Germany

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