Cruising the heart of Western Europe – Part 1

Kathleen & Alex Warner Europe cruise down the  Rhine River.

You know that feeling you get when family or friends have taken a vacation somewhere and invited you over to see pictures of the trip? For those old enough to remember this meant a projector slide show, some refreshments, interminable droning on about things that you couldn’t have cared less about, and the urge to do physical harm to yourself to make it stop!  Well, sit back and relax because here comes another such experience for those brave or foolish enough to read further.  

Last fall my wife Kathy and I decided to start planning a trip to Europe and a cruise down the  Rhine River, something that we had talked about for a few years. After discussions with friends and some background work, we contacted Viking Cruise Lines and booked a seven-day excursion departing from Basel, Switzerland and ending in the Netherlands. Viking took care of not only the cruise arrangements but also the flights “over the pond” and an extra two-day extension to explore Amsterdam.  

Before leaving we bought some Euros (the currency of most of Europe with the exception of those independent-minded Swiss who cling to their Swiss Francs) through a local bank, with an exchange rate of 100 Euros for approximately 110 US Dollars. Euros in hand, along with a good old Visa credit card, our passports, and four suitcases we departed Dayton’s Cox  International on a United Airlines flight Easter afternoon and flew into Chicago’s famous  O’Hare Airport, the site of many previous Warner connections and snafus. There we had to present our passports to representatives of our connecting Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt,  Germany before boarding a 747 for an eight-hour journey. I have to say that the Germans know how to fly—great food and service along with plenty of room to stretch out and catch some sleep before arriving in the heart of the Deutschland at 8:00 the next morning (seven-hour time difference between Chicago and Frankfurt). 

We were met at the gate by a Viking rep who escorted us through Customs and onto our last flight, a short hop to Basel and our home for the next seven days, the longship Rolf. The reason for departure from the picturesque town of Basel is that it is the start of the navigable waters of the Rhine, which originates in the Swiss Alps and flows north to the North Sea, a distance of about 800 miles. The Rhine is Germany’s most important river and is the border between the Alsace region of France and Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg area.

The Rolf is 455 feet in length, 38 feet in width.

The Rolf is 455 feet in length, and 38 feet in width (limited by the size of the 11 locks through which you pass going down the waterway), has three levels, and carries 190 passengers along with  53 crew members. We settled into our veranda balcony stateroom and explored the ship before sitting down to the first of many great meals, most featuring regional menus of various  French and German specialties to go with some of the best wines I’ve ever had (and I’m far from a wine connoisseur; think Boone’s Farm and boxes!). After a welcome aboard briefing from the management team of the Rolf, we set sail that night down the Rhine looking forward to the first of many onshore adventures the next morning.  

We were awakened by a bump in the night as we entered the first of four locks on that part of the river. We dropped almost 50’ at about a foot every 5 seconds before sailing on down the river, on our way to exploring the famed Black Forest of Germany, home of cuckoo clocks and  Black Forest Cake. The clocks were interesting but the cake left a lot to be desired—the layers of chocolate sponge cake soaked in cherry brandy topped with whipped cream and sour cherries weren’t nearly as good as advertised (Resistance is Futile!), at least in my humble opinion. 

Kathleen and Alex Warner Europe trip.

Next was a trip to the town of Colmar, France, home of Frederic Bartholdi, the designer of the  Statue of Liberty. The town plaza and surrounding areas gave us our first glimpse of the  European lifestyle where pedestrians rule and little auto traffic is seen in the central areas of towns of all sizes. Fortunately, most Europeans speak English fairly well, especially when encountering Americans (we almost felt guilty not being able to converse in native tongues.  Guess two years of high school French had been forgotten!). Anyhow, a great town where we wish we could have spent more time! 

Finally, to end this first of three articles, we spent the next day, again after sailing overnight, in  Strasbourg, France, the main city of the Alsace region which is famous for its wines, due to the mild climate and fertile soil which are conducive to the growing of quality grapes. The Alsace region as of 1871 has been in German hands; the French after WWI; back to the Germans during Hitler’s reign of terror; and currently France following WWII. With a multicultural background, Strasbourg is a thriving city of historical and educational importance not to mention the home of almost 1,000 storks, a point of pride throughout the populace! 

For those of you still awake and interested we’ll take a look at the scenic castles and towns of the Middle Rhine River in the next day or so here at Au revoir and auf  wiedersehen!