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Thursday 24 August 2017

Cruisin' Down the River Rhine

“How do you fancy a river cruise?” asked my dear friend and graphics designer, Cathy Helms one day way back in 2016 during one of our Skype calls.
“Um…” was my reply, “what do you have in mind?”

In mind, was joining Cathy, her husband Ray and her mom, Lynn on an eight day cruise down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam.

Fast forward several months to August 2017….

There I was at 6.15 a.m outside a Premier Inn hotel near Heathrow’s Terminal 5. (Comfortable, nice hotel)  I was awaiting the arrival of the regular and efficient hopper bus to take me to the airport. A couple of hours later – and with the kind, also efficient help from the Assistance staff, my B.A. flight took off heading for Zürich  (with equally as helpful cabin crew who took care of me because of my fading sight. Most impressed.)

Landing was fine, passport control was fine, baggage reclaim, ditto – again all with very helpful assistance. Now for the Big Test. Cathy & co were due to land at Zürich  from North Carolina (via a transfer at Munich) just five minutes or so after me… and would you believe… they did! What timing!

So we boarded another (included in the trip) hopper bus to the Moevenpick Hotel, Zürich, dumped our baggage in our rooms (I was sharing with Lynn) grabbed a bite to eat – and the US contingent went to bed. Yes it was only about 3pm but there’s this irritating little thing called Jet Lag…  Actually, I confess, I went too as I was also shattered.

Lynn and I toddled down for a wonderful dinner in the outside Restaurant – oh that Black Forest Gateau  was to die for, although just as well we shared one between the two of us – it was enormous!

All photos ©CathyHelms
Next day we were not due to join the boat until early afternoon, so we signed up to go on a coach trip to the Rhine Falls.

The falls are located on the High Rhine on the border between the cantons of Schaffhausen and Zürich, between the villages of Neuhausen am Rheinfall and Laufen-Uhwiesen/Dachsen, next to the town of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland. They are 150 metres (490 ft) wide and 23 metres (75 ft) high. The falls cannot be climbed by fish, except by eels that are able to worm their way up over the rocks.

Very impressive, even given the long walk down dozens of steps and then back up again.

Me and Lynn
My only comment about Switzerland, though: it is very expensive.

Day 1. August 5th 2017
So, after collecting our luggage, into the coach again and off to Basel to find our home for the next week: Avalon Tours Tranquillity II.

Tranquillity II
Slightly disconcerting to discover when we got to the docks that the boat was double-moored alongside another cruiser (this happens a lot, apparently). Our cabin (mine and Lynn’s) was number 102, small but very clean and very comfortable. It was on the lower level, so no State Room with those great big ‘patio-door’ windows, but the slit windows were fine, and as I discovered that night there was one lovely (for me) delight at being near the water level. I could hear the water gurgling along the hull – just as my Jesamiah Acorne would when aboard Sea Witch. I tell you, that sound is the best for being soothed to sleep!

Folded bunny towels!
And the daily newsletter

Ray, our waiter, Danny, & Lynn
First night dinner (and indeed every meal) was delicious, wine (or beer or soft drinks) included with the meal. I had red wine, of course, but it was really good to be offered a different wine each evening. Have to say here, the only one I wasn’t keen on (and I’ve found this at home as well) was the Shiraz. The best wine was the Regent 2016.

dinner is served!

There was a very comfortable coffee bar at the rear of the boat where tea, coffee, fruit juice and cakes and biscuits were available as self-service. We spent much of our time there, very pleasant viewing of the river and a fairly quiet spot as most passengers tended to congregate in the bar lounge at the bow.

Day 2 Breisach
Cathy and co went off on a coach trip through  the Black Forest, (I didn’t – already seen it). In the afternoon we set sail for the next stretch of the Rhine…

Blackforest Gateau
Sitting reading on the sun deck while travelling downriver was glorious. (Incidentally there are quite a few low bridges at the higher end of the Rhine, so check with your tour operator before booking because the sun deck has to be lowered for the boat to sail beneath them – which on some cruises means several days without use of this upper, open, deck.)  There are also many locks, which were efficiently negotiated and very interesting!

Strasbourg is the capital and largest city of the Grand Est region of France and is the official seat of the European Parliament. Located close to the border with Germany in the historic region of Alsace, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin département.
Strasbourg's historic city centre, the Grande Île (Grand Island), was classified a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre. Strasbourg is immersed in the Franco-German culture and although violently disputed throughout history, has been a cultural bridge between France and Germany for centuries.

Me Cathy & Ray

We had our own excursion into Strasbourg, wonderfully navigated by Ray and Cathy (including a trip into town via the tram!) Apologies to any French readers, but as I have often founded before, almost everyone we stopped to ask if they spoke English (in my poor French) shrugged & said no. One chap was helpful, and one lady but the tram driver… I mean not even the basics? Hrrmph. Anyway we had a lovely cool drink a Starbucks (!) sitting outside in a wonderful open square watching a display of bubbles!

Heidelberg is situated on the river Neckar in south-west Germany. Located about 78 km (48 mi) south of Frankfurt, Heidelberg is the fifth-largest city in the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University is Germany's oldest and one of Europe's most reputable universities. Heidelberg is a popular tourist destination due to its romantic cityscape, including Heidelberg Castle, the Philosophers' Walk, and the baroque style Old Town.’

the Castle
 Again I did not join the official tours today – a lot of walking involved, unfortunately, which is beyond my poor old knees. My friends went off, though, and viewed the Gutenberg museum with the famous very first printing press, designed circa 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg. 

The first printing press
 ‘Mainz is the capital and largest city of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany. It was the capital of the Electorate of Mainz at the time of the Holy Roman Empire. In antiquity Mainz was a Roman fort city which commanded the west bank of the Rhine and formed part of the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire; it was founded as a military post by the Romans in the late 1st century BC and became the provincial capital of Germania Superior. The city is located on the river Rhine at its confluence with the Main opposite Wiesbaden, in the western part of the Frankfurt Rhine-Main region; in the modern age, Frankfurt shares much of its regional importance. The city is famous as the home of the invention of the movable-type printing press, as the first books printed using movable type were manufactured in Mainz by Gutenberg in the early 1450s.

Lynn and I strolled to the main shopping centre – very interesting to see the German branches of UK shops, and we took shelter in a bookshop when it suddenly decided to rain. Again, interesting to see familiar book covers with German text!

The Rhine
 then the Rhine Gorge
and Koblenz: Rhine valley wine country!

The excursion to Rudesheim was fantastic! In particular, Siegfried'sMechanical Music Cabinet, a Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments. Fabulous! Situated in the Brömserhof, a knight's manor of the 15th century. Just above the Drosselgasse in Rüdesheim am Rhein, with about 350 mechanical music instruments out of three centuries, an eventful 45 minute tour with music. 

I love gallopers!
This was followed by the German equivalent of Irish Coffee…

The cruise through the Rhine Gorge,  
  viewed from the sun deck, was fabulous.

The Rhine Gorge is a popular name for the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a 65 km section of the River Rhine between Koblenz and Bingen in Germany. It was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in June 2002 for a unique combination of geological, historical, cultural and industrial reasons. The region's rocks were laid down in the Devonian period and are known as Rhenish Facies. This is a fossil-bearing sedimentary rock type consisting mainly of slate. The rocks underwent considerable folding during the Carboniferous period. The gorge was carved out during a much more recent uplift to leave the river contained within steep walls 200 m high, the most famous feature being the Lorelei. The gorge produces its own microclimate and has acted as a corridor for species not otherwise found in the region. Its slopes have long been terraced for agriculture, in particular viticulture which has good conditions on south-facing slopes. The river has been an important trade route into central Europe since prehistoric times and a string of small settlements has grown up along the banks. Constrained in size, many of these old towns retain a historic feel today. With increasing wealth, many castles appeared and the valley became a core region of the Holy Roman Empire. It was at the centre of the Thirty Years' War, which left many of the castles in ruins, a particular attraction for today's cruise ships which follow the river. At one time forming a border of France, in the 19th Century the valley became part of Prussia and its landscape became the quintessential image of Germany. This part of the Rhine features strongly in folklore, such as a legendary castle on the Rhine being the setting for the opera Götterdämmerung.’

The Rhine Gorge

ships that pass in the night - well, OK, day

‘Koblenz, is a German city situated on both banks of the Rhine at its confluence with the Moselle, where the Deutsches Eck (German Corner) and its monument (Emperor William I on horseback) are situated. As Koblenz was one of the military posts established by Drusus about 8 BC, the city celebrated its 2000th anniversary in 1992. The name Koblenz originates from Latin confluentes, confluence or “(at the) merging of rivers". Subsequently, it was Covelenz and Cobelenz. In the local dialect the name is Kowelenz. After Mainz and Ludwigshafen am Rhein, it is the third largest city in Rhineland-Palatinate.

We docked at dock number 4, and waiting there was a dear friend, Carolin, who I was delighted to say, I could invite aboard. A fabulous couple of hours was spent together in the coffee lounge with non-stop chatter and laughter, sadly, she had to leave Tranquillity II before we sailed. My big regret – Carolin – we forgot to take a photo of us together! 

Tranquillity II

‘Cologne is the largest city in the German federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia and the fourth-largest city in Germany (after Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich). Cologne is located on both sides of the Rhine River, near Germany's borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. The city's famous Cologne Cathedral is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne. The University of Cologne is one of Europe's oldest and largest universities. Cologne was founded and established in Ubii territory in the 1st century AD as the Roman Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, from which it gets its name. The city functioned as the capital of the Roman province of Germania Inferior and as the headquarters of the Roman military in the region until occupied by the Franks in 462. During the Middle Ages it flourished on one of the most important major trade routes between east and west in Europe. Cologne was one of the leading members of the Hanseatic League and one of the largest cities north of the Alps in medieval and Renaissance times. Prior to World War II the city had undergone several occupations by the French and also by the British (1918–1926). Cologne was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany during World War II, with the Royal Air Force (RAF) dropping 34,711 long tons (35,268 tonnes) of bombs on the city. The bombing reduced the population by 95%, mainly due to evacuation, and destroyed almost the entire city. With the intention of restoring as many historic buildings as possible, the successful post-war rebuilding has resulted in a very mixed and unique cityscape. The Cathedral, however was mostly avoided, where possible, by the bombers – not because of any religious reason, but because it provided a distinctive landmark.’

Personally, I found the Cathedral to be a little O.T.T. with its architecture, but then I’m not a cathedral fan anyway. Lynn and I had a nice, short easy walk while Cathy and Ray went off exploring.

We sailed through the night and woke up to find ourselves docked in the Netherlands. 

Amsterdam's Canals

Amsterdam is the capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, although it is not the seat of the government, which is The Hague. Amsterdam's name derives from Amstelredamme, indicative of a dam in the river Amstel. Originating as a small fishing village in the late 12th century, Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century), a result of its innovative developments in trade. During that time, the city was the leading centre for finance and diamonds. The 17th-century canals of Amsterdam and the 19–20th century Defence Line of Amsterdam are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Famous Amsterdam residents include the diarist Anne Frank, artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange, the oldest stock exchange in the world, is located in the city centre.’

some of these houses are a little lop-sided -
the whole of Amsterdam is supported by stilts
(its basically a man-made island) and sometimes the stilts sink... 

Our canal boat trip was most interesting... 
Something like 10,000 bicycles are removed from the Amsterdam canals every year. Because of so many bicycles, there is a rather good joke about them and the canals:
The canals are 9 metres deep. 
3 metres are mud. 
3 metres are water. 
3 metres are bicycles.

 ... the afternoon excursion to see some windmills and how clogs are made was equally so – although very much a ‘tourist trap’.

clog making - alas, by machine, not hand
Mind you, I'm not sure that my friends were impressed by my (bad) singing of I Saw A Mouse... (with clogs on...) an Amsterdam nursery rhyme. 

Day 8
Alas, homeward bound. Have to say, I don’t think much of Schiphol airport. Initial assistance, pre-security was appalling, as was information. I’ll avoid the place in future! Sadly also, because of the poor service I didn’t get to say goodbye to Cathy, Ray and Lynn. Still, goodbyes are never good, so maybe that was just as well…

I heartily recommend river cruising, but pick and choose which rivers and from/where to!