Cruisin’ the Rhine … with food, wine … and much, much more

After two years of not travelling abroad – our last trip overseas was to Turkey in 2019 – we were all fired up to take up our favourite hobby again this year, and we decided to do it in style. First up would be a Rhine River cruise with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises (starting on March 30) and then a land trip through the 3 Benelux countries with Insight Vacations (kicking off on April 9).

This would be our first river cruise together, and as both of us love the rich cultural history and architecture of Europe, we decided to take a cruise from Amsterdam to Basel with Uniworld. The cruise would include the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland.

But first, for those who don’t know, the Rhine begins in the Swiss canton of Graubünden in the south-eastern Swiss Alps, then flows in a mostly northerly direction through the German Rhineland and the Netherlands to eventually empty into the North Sea. It is the second-longest river in Central and Western Europe (after the Danube) and stretches over about 1 230 km.

My “partner in crime” in front of the River Empress in Amsterdam.

After a long and sleepless flight we arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, collected our luggage and were transferred to the River Empress, our “hotel on water” for the next 11 days.

This was awaiting us for the next 11 days!

Day 2 and our first full day in the “Venice of the North”, we had three items on our agenda, first a “Morning with the Masters” tour of the Hermitage Amsterdam, then a canal cruise, something we’ve done twice before but simply cannot get enough of, and finally a visit to Keukenhof.

We had the privilege of visiting the amazing Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, in 2017 and, unfortunately, Amsterdam’s version just did not come up to scratch. The cruise through some of the city’s nearly 100 km long elaborate canal system, however, made up for this disappointment.

The city is called the “Venice of the North” for a reason. Canals crisscross the heart of the old city and bridges link some 90 islands. As the principal city in a newly independent Holland (one of 12 provinces of today’s Netherlands), Amsterdam was a boom town in the early 17th century, rapidly outgrowing its medieval walls. The city’s fathers responded by demolishing most of the old city and building an entirely new one, creating Europe’s first planned city. That “new” district is now 400 years old, and as one glides along the main canals, you pass stately merchants’ houses built centuries ago (some of them are now house museums one can visit). But the canals are not merely scenic, they are essential thoroughfares – people take water buses to work and live in houseboats along the banks – so a canal cruise also gives one a look at the busy modern city.

Amsterdam is also known for its artistic and cultural heritage, narrow houses with gabled facades dating back to the 17th century (some leaning forward or sideways because of sinking foundations) and its Museum District which also houses the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum where works of Rembrandt and Vermeer can be seen, and the Stedelijk where modern art is displayed.

Cycling, however, is key to the city’s character and there are numerous bike paths where the bicycle reigns supreme … and pedestrians seem to be “fair game”!

Like the Red Square in Moscow, Keukenhof’s “cacophony of colour” has always been on Sharon’s bucket list, so we were looking forward to the visit. Only one problem; the week before we arrived, the average temperature in the Netherlands was around 18°C, but that dropped to around 4°C the week we pitched up! We were warned that the expansive gardens would not be in full colour, but that the various pavilions would make up for it.

When you think of Keukenhof Gardens (available from the end of March through to the middle of May), imagine rivers of blue hyacinths curving through the trees and great drifts of brilliantly hued tulips and daffodils carpeting Keukenhof’s 32 hectares. It’s probably the most spectacular flower garden in the world, and it’s only open for a few weeks each spring. Gardeners plant some seven million bulbs on these grounds, making it a showcase for the Netherlands’ legendary flower industry.

There’s more to see than just flowers, of course. There are intriguing exhibitions in pavilions scattered throughout the estate, as well as concerts and activities for kids. This time around we were overjoyed by the spectacular colour display in some pavilions, knowing that we’d be back later with Insight … and, hopefully, better weather.

Day 3 saw us travelling to Harlingen in northern Netherlands, in the province of Friesland on the coast of the Wadden Sea. Harlingen is a town with a long history of fishing and shipping, and received city rights in 1234. On the way there, we were blown away by the engineering ingenuity of the Dutch to “steal” land from the sea centuries ago. Their incredible system of dikes (or levees) prevents flooding as much of the country is below sea level.

Local legend has it that the only reason Harlingen isn’t under the Wadden Sea is because of the actions of a young boy, Hans Brinker, who plugged up the local dike with one finger and thereby saved the city from sinking. It is, of course, just a fun story, but a statue in his honour can be found near the docks nonetheless.

We strolled through the town’s quaint alleyways with a local guide. Many of the buildings here have been around for three or four centuries, giving the town a historic feel. Among the many interesting things we saw, was the gable stones on older buildings, small plaques with unique carvings used to help people find their way before numerical addresses were popularized.

From here we took a short drive to the town of Franeker, where we found the oldest working planetarium in the world hanging from the ceiling of a beautiful canal house. This accurately moving model of the solar system was built between 1774 and 1781 by the Frisian wool comber, Eise Eisinga. We also visited a historic mill, still active today as a grain mill.

Our “hotel on water” was waiting for us, and so was another 5-star dining experience. Ours was the River Empress’ first engagement in over two years, thanks to the pandemic, and the whole crew pulled out all the stops to impress. And impress they certainly did. From bedroom to lounge to dining room, and everywhere in between, the service could only be described as 5-star. And there was even a fully equipped gym where we tried hard to fight the inevitable result of all the indulgence!

The food was a culinary delight every time – from breakfast all the way through to dinner – and the wines the dishes were paired with were spot on, thanks to a very knowledgeable sommelier. Sadly, only three South African wines made it onto the excellent wine list, and all three from the same producer, Bouchard Finlayson in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. They were the 2017 Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, the 2017 Hannibal and the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc.

The fourth day saw us arriving at Arnhem, almost completely destroyed in WWII. It has since blossomed into a burgeoning Dutch city with several museums, shop-lined streets and historic landmarks. Our day included a visit to the impressive Kröller-Müller Museum which Helene Kröller-Müller established in the 1930s on the family estate outside the city.

Kröller-Müller bought seven Van Goghs in a single day in 1912, valuing the painter’s then little appreciated work for his “great and novel humanity”. She went on to purchase many more of his paintings and in the process almost single-handedly rescued him from obscurity and established his modern-day reputation. The museum features some 97 works by the master, including The Bridge at Arles. But Kröller-Müller didn’t stop with Van Gogh. Her goal was to establish the first museum in the Netherlands devoted to modern art, so the collection also boasts exceptional works by Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and Auguste Rodin, among many other late 19th and 20th century artists.

After spending quite some time admiring the various works of art, we went outside into the extensive sculpture gardens for more amazing and eye-catching art. The museum has commissioned a sculpture a year for decades, so the collection is unusual, contemporary and diverse.

Before I forget, there are some 36 locks on the river between Amsterdam and Basel which we mostly negotiated at night. And cruising the Rhine on one of these luxurious boats is like floating on air: you’re hardly aware you’re moving, the only clue being the landscape gently passing by. And that landscape not only included towns and cities, but also vineyards, some precariously perched against steep slopes.

Cologne was on the itinerary for day five. Unfortunately it was Sunday and most of the shops and restaurants were closed. We did, however, stroll through the narrow, cobbled lanes of the Old Town, featuring 12 stunning Romanesque churches. The highlight of the visit was found on the Domplatte, the square where the impressive Cologne Cathedral is located. Inside this Gothic building is the Shrine of the Three Kings, which is believed to contain the relics of the Magi, and beautiful stained-glass windows.

Our next port of call, on day 6, was Oberwesel, from where we took a short bus ride to Bacharach, an ancient village that appears straight out of the pages of a storybook. A guided stroll through the picturesque and historic town, first documented in the 11th century, took us among the many timbered houses – the oldest dates back to 1368 (it’s now a restaurant called, appropriately, Altes Haus) – and to the remains of the old town walls, demolished by the French during the Nine Years’ War, the Gothic ruins of the Werner Chapel and the single spired St. Peter’s Church. Vineyards rise in terraces all around the town, producing excellent Rieslings, a specialty of the region. The visit ended at Weingut Toni Jost Hahenhof’s tasting room where we tasted three styles of Riesling, their 2020 Jodocus Riesling (a “dry” Riesling that tasted more off-dry to me), the 2016 Bacharacher Hahn Riesling Kabinett (a fruity wine) and the 2008 Wallufer Walkenburg Riesling Spätlese (a delightful dessert wine).

Vineyards clinging to the steep slopes of the Rhine River Valley.

If the vineyards don’t catch your attention, the numerous castles along the way will.

After yet another fine dining experience on board and a wonderful night’s rest thanks to our hotel on water’s smooth sailing, we disembarked at Frankfurt, known as the Manhattan of Europe.

Frankfurt, a central German city on the river Main, is a financial powerhouse – it’s home to the European Central Bank – with soaring skyscrapers as well as traditional old town architecture. It is also the birthplace of the famed writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe whose former home is now the Goethe House Museum. Like much of the city, it was damaged during WW II and later rebuilt. The rebuilt Altstadt, or Old City, is the site of Römerburg, a square that hosts an annual Christmas market.

We were told to expect the unexpected in Speyer, a city where ancient treasures harmoniously co-exist with modern-day innovation. It was day 8 of our river cruise and we stopped off here for more discoveries and exploration.

Founded by the Romans, Speyer is one of Germany’s oldest cities. The impressive Speyer Cathedral, a number of other churches, and the Altpörtel (old gate) dominate the Speyer landscape. In the cathedral, beneath the high altar, are the tombs of eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings.

The city is famous for the 1529 Protestation at Speyer. One of the ShUM cities, Speyer and its Jewish courtyard are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ShUM cities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz refer to the cluster of three Jewish communities in the 11th century, namely Shpira, Warmaisa and Magenza. They were centres of Jewish scholarship and of great importance for Ashkenazi Judaism.

After yet another 5-star lunch, we hopped onto a luxurious coach for a short drive to Heidelberg. Heidelberg is well-known for its universities and romantic cityscape. Surrounded by forested hills, it sits on the banks of the Neckar River. The Old Town is filled with museums and historical buildings like the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Karl Theodor Bridge (180-meter long and built in sandstone in 1788), and a castle that mixes Gothic and Renaissance styles (built in the early 13th century).

The Marktplatz (market square) is the heart of the Altstadt (old town) and sits just below the Heidelberg Schloss (castle) where it hosts old and modern houses in a maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets. Boutiques and restaurants as well as attractions such as the Palatinate Museum and the Studentenkarzer (the students’ jail).

Many, many moons ago I had the privilege, as a motoring journalist, to cruise down the Rhine from Strasbourg to Rotterdam, so I was looking forward to our visit to this city, our brief excursion into north-eastern France’s Alsace region. It was day 9 of our cruise and we were looking forward to this historic city with its cobbled lanes, half-timbered homes, giant stork nests and impossible-to-resist pastry shops.

Controlled over the centuries by either France or Germany, Strasbourg – cross-cultural and bilingual – offers a delightful combination of old and new, as well as French and German characteristics. After exploring many of the highlights on a city tour – which included the statues of theologian, humanitarian, philosopher and physician Albert Schweizer and Johannes Gutenberg, inventor, printer and publisher who introduced printing to Europe with his mechanical printing press – we ventured inside the Strasbourg Cathedral (or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg), one of the city’s most famous sites. The same craftsmen who built Chartres worked on it, and the rose window may be Chartres’ equal.

Our wonderful Rhine cruise was coming to an end, very sadly, but we still had Basel in Switzerland to explore on day 10. We started our visit with a unique ferry trip across the Rhine to Kleinbasel. The ferry works by natural current only and a cable guides it across. Then we took a scenic walk along the Rhine promenade for the best views of the Patrician houses and historic facades on the opposite Grossbasel side. Once we crossed back over the river via the Mittlere Brücke (Middle Bridge), we visited the impressive Basel Minster, a Catholic Cathedral built between 1019 and 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic styles. Today it’s a Reformed Protestant Church.

Before weaving our way through the city’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys, we took in the beautiful panoramic view of the city and its bridges.

Incidentally, Basel’s position at the borders of France and Germany makes it a popular place to work for commuters from three countries.

Our final evening on board was celebrated with a special Captain’s Farewell Reception and Dinner, yet another memorable gastronomic experience.

The next morning we flew to Brussels in Belgium via Munich for the next leg of our European odyssey, a land tour of the three Benelux countries, but that’s for next time.

END

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