I’m a passionate traveler, but cruising never interested me. “Too slow, too confining,” I told friends. Yet last summer my husband and I booked passage on a Rhine River cruise.
Richard and I are independent travelers. In Europe, except for a rental car and a hotel for the first night, we travel with a tentative itinerary and without reservations. Not being on a schedule, we enjoy lingering conversations with locals and other travelers we meet in pubs and cafes. Sometimes we incorporate their recommendations into our trip. It leads to wonderful discoveries.
Yet here we are aboard a riverboat for 15 days, seeing the same people and eating at the same time in the same dining room every meal. And we’re touring ports with guides who will select what we see. I am mourning a loss of independence that in my mind links travel with adventure. But Richard’s recent leg injury prevents him from sharing the driving with me. If we want to travel, a cruise is the sensible solution.
We choose a Viking Rhine River cruise because it takes us to Franconia, a region of Germany we have not traveled, and cruising offers the best view of castles along the Rhine. The trip begins in Amsterdam and concludes in Budapest. After studying the brochure, we opt for mid-range accommodations. We can manage without a balcony, which seems to be the major advantage of top category staterooms.
But it turns out there’s another difference. Our stateroom aboard the Aegir has clerestory windows. The light is fine, but the view is of treetops and sky, not sites along the shore. Amenities, however, include flat-screen TV with international programs, movies on demand, and free Internet.
The dining room is a pleasant surprise. The maître d’ asks about dietary restrictions. Richard has a food allergy, a challenge when traveling. The ship’s kitchen presents him with each day’s menu and makes adjustments. Remarkably, wherever we sit — there’s no assigned seating — a waiter serves his special meal.
Our day starts with the bountiful breakfast’s mind-boggling buffet. Although we could eat in the dining room at lunch, we choose the atrium or take plates to the sun deck. Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, I’ve brought binoculars for close-up views of villages along the shore and castles like the Katz and the Maus on the mountains. When the Aegir docks at Koblenz, we tour the 700-year-old Marksburg Castle, the best preserved on the Rhine. The moat, once guarded by ferocious animals, now welcomes us with flowering gardens. The torture room’s stretching racks, branding irons, and threatening tools still conjure a chamber of horrors.
We return to the ship and dinner in the white tablecloth dining room, ordering from a menu with matching complimentary wines for each course. Our tablemates are two retired couples from Australia, World War II veterans and their English wives. They charm us with stories of wartime romance. A couple from Chile completes our table of eight. After dinner, they Skype their nanny and young sons. On following nights, we dine with travelers from New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, England, Italy, Iran, Canada, and the United States.
Evening programs vary. One night a local official talks about German life: housing costs, hourly wages, maternity and paternity leave, etc. Another time, a dance troupe comes aboard. A documentary film about building the 106-mile long Main-Danube Canal is fascinating because we experience the locks that raise the water more than 1,300 feet. Charlemagne began the canal 793, but it wasn’t completed until 1992. Usually we learn about the next port, where dockside buses wait to whisk us away.
Cologne is our first stop in Germany. The Gothic cathedral is the centerpiece of the town and our tour. Richard and I leave the group for lunch at the Ludwig Museum, which displays the world’s largest collection of Pablo Picasso’s works. Afterward, we visit archeological sites, the underground Roman city, and the excavation-in-progress of an ancient Jewish community. It’s near City Hall where we happen upon a wedding.
A trip along the Rhine is not only a historical journey with sites that date to Roman times, but a virtual pub crawl with a passport to German beer culture. There are more than 5,000 breweries in the country. Cologne serves 26 varieties with Kölsch, a light ale, the most popular. By custom, brauhaus barmaids fill empty glasses until customers cover them or say “nein.”
In Würzburg, at Balthasar Neumann’s masterful Bishops’ Residence, I want more time with Giambattista Tiepolo’s ceiling fresco of the four continents, but our guide herds us out to the court garden. There’s a beer garden, too, where an oompah band contributes several decibels to the festivities.
During a morning in Nuremberg, we visit notorious World War II sites, including the Reichsparteitagsgelände, the immense stadium where the Nazis held patriotic rallies. In Market Square, we purchase souvenir lebkuchen, gingerbread houses, where they originated hundreds of years ago. We pass Albrecht Dürer’s house on our way to the medieval beer cellar that served as a bomb shelter during the war. A guide leads us through the shadowy labyrinth, explaining that “six-pointed stars on pub signs are not the Star of David. They identify the brewer’s guild. The church didn’t allow drinking on Sunday,” she says. “People counted the points of the star for six days and knew not to drink on the Sabbath.”
In Passau, with the ship’s complimentary tickets, we bypass a long queue for the sold-out morning concert at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The pipe organ, the largest in Europe, fills the Baroque hall with glorious music. At a riverside restaurant, fellow passengers rescue us from a long lunch line with an invitation to share their table.
Our tour guide in Passau is a student. He leads and talks at a fast clip. With his sore leg, Richard can’t keep up. We lag behind, then lose the group. Poking around, we stumble upon the atists’ quarter. As with Boston’s Freedom Trail, a red line on cobblestones points the way. We browse galleries and chat with working studio artists.
Every port promises more than we have time to experience, but good planning and guides make the most of our shore visits. A cruise is not only an easy way to travel, it’s also a gracious and relaxing way to see the world. I confess, I’ve become a convert.
Shirley Moskow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.