While floating quietly and seamlessly down “Europe’s King River,” we wandered through castles, Christmas markets and classic cathedrals; we ambled through picture-perfect riverfront cities whose half-timbered homes were models for those collectible ceramic Christmas villages; and we enjoyed new friends while we shared gourmet meals and world-class wines in our beautiful home away from home.
I was traveling by myself on a December Viking river cruise down the Rhine, and never have I experienced a more convivial adventure. On Viking Kara, my fellow travelers and I mingled and shared stories as well as exceptional excursions to destinations along the way that were simply splendid.
It may have been the most relaxing way to tour one of Europe’s most fascinating regions. From Amsterdam to Basel, we cruised down the placid river, stopping at the fascinating ports of Cologne, Rudesheim, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Colmar, where expert guides showed us why these cities are appealing anytime. And we never had to pack between ports.
December is when this region of Europe becomes even more magical because traditional Christmas markets take over historic city squares to sell seasonal gifts and local foods. Sipping gluhwein (mulled wine with brandy) and munching on various versions of fried potatoes, including my favorite, reibekuchen (potato pancakes), we’d navigate the crowds to find perfect presents.
But the camaraderie onboard Viking Kara may have been the best gift of all to those of us gathered during our eight-day cruise. “I admit that I was concerned at first about the open seating policy and the structure of the meals,” Dr. Ben Bratcher, a dentist from Texas who was celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with his wife, Julie, told me later. “I am not a veteran cruiser so my expectations were based on what I had heard from ocean cruises. I was quickly corrected and thoroughly enjoyed the way (Viking does) it. We met several nice couples and knew instantly that we would be seeing more of them.”
Our fellow travelers on this particular Viking cruise ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s, with groups of friends traveling together, couples celebrating important milestones, cohorts toasting various birthdays and mothers and daughters and mothers and sons making memories together. A few of us braved the experience on our own, and we were each quickly adopted by welcoming new friends. Passengers came from Canada, the U.S., all over the United Kingdom, Australia and even China.
We had all chosen this winter adventure down the Rhine, Germany’s longest river and the second-longest, next to the Danube, in Central and Western Europe, to shop at the many different Christmas markets. These wintertime crafts and food festivals originated in this region of Europe and fans of the holiday will find more collectible keepsakes than they ever imagined.
Our home base, Viking Kara, is one of 64 longships built by the U.S.-based company specifically to cruise Europe’s many rivers. While today there are several river cruising operators, Viking River Cruises continues to garner the most accolades. For five consecutive years — 2011-2015 — Viking has earned “Best River Cruise Line” and “Best New River Ships” and “Best River Cruise Itineraries” from the international team of Cruise Critic editors. “In an expanding river market, Viking continues to reign,” says Cruise Critic. Travel + Leisure also awarded Viking the highest score of all river and ocean cruise lines in that magazine’s annual World’s Best List in 2015; it has been recognized 11 times on that list for #1 River Cruise Line.
From the moment I received my impressive box of travel documents prior to my cruise to my first step aboard Viking Kara, I was delighted with the details. My spacious Veranda stateroom with its open-air balcony and remarkably commodious bathroom was a true comfort. Viking longships accommodate only 190 passengers each, so merry-making among new companions is easy to realize in the lounge and restaurant areas.
Meals were served at the same time for breakfast, lunch and dinner in The Restaurant, where panoramic windows kept that river in constant view. These seatings paved the way for those new friendships, where tables for four to eight invited mingling. And menus typically offered a few regional specialties, while keeping certain favorites always available.
Breakfasts were bountiful buffets, with omelettes made to order and all manner of sausages, potatoes, pastries and fruits filling our plates.
Lunches offered several choices, changing every day, of such delectable dishes as vegetable terrine, tuna melt on toasted brioche, smoked river trout on toast, ricotta gnocchi with eggplant and tomatoes, Monte Cristo sandwich, coq au vin, herring and traditional garnishes, fettuccine Alfredo, roast beef and herbed cream cheese on crusty baguette, and always dessert, like Black Forest ice cream coupe, banana split, or the Flying Dutchman (caramel-filled waffle) with ice cream.
Dinners were decidedly gourmet, with choices among appetizers, entrees and desserts. Choices typically offered meat, seafood or vegetarian options. It was often hard to choose between appetizers such as smoked salmon carpaccio with salmon caviar on sweet corn blini or potato-crusted Mascarpone cheese with truffle sabayon sauce, or between seared crab cake with corn or tomato mozzarella tart with tomato confit or Filipino shrimp egg roll; or between entrees such as pan-fried char fillet with pea puree, baby corn, tomato concasse and cauliflower or Chateaubriand with buttered vegetables, potatoes and Bearnaise sauce, or gratinated cannelloni with cherry tomatoes, zucchini and parmesan foam, or potato leek crepe with Gruyere and baby vegetables. Delightful desserts included French tarte tatin, Mascarpone & sour cherry cake with brownie streusel and marinated berries, warm apple hazelnut crumble, Black Forest cake or always ice creams or sorbets.
Beer and wines flowed during dinners. Rieslings and pinot noirs specially chosen from Alsace and other regions we cruised through gave us yet another connection to the places we were experiencing.
The Aquavit Terrace was a quieter, more intimate option anytime anyone wanted to have a meal away from the lively restaurant scene. Lunches here were more casual buffets, offering sandwiches and salads, or sometimes, hamburgers and French fries.
We often cruised at night, waking to a new port each morning. We’d disembark, board buses for short drives to the cities of note along the route, then follow a guide on walking tours before being released from the group to wander on our own.
Two girlfriends traveling together from Florida told me they were disappointed by all the bus rides and group tours. But there seemed no better way to reach Cologne or Heidelberg or Strasbourg when docking on the river, and if you didn’t want to follow the guide, you could be on your own in the cities in no time for plenty of shopping at those Christmas markets.
But the guides were all great, and you really do learn fascinating tidbits when you follow them.
In Cologne, Marion Dijkman guided us through the historic core of her beloved city’s old town, centered by the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, regarded as a masterwork of medieval Gothic architecture.
“It took 600 years to build,” she told us through our radio ear pieces as we navigated our way through the crowds. “It was started in 1248 to house the reliquary of the Three Kings” — their supposed mortal remains brought back as a victor’s spoils of war with Milan in 1164. “It remains the largest shrine of the Middle Ages today,” she said. Indeed, Cologne Cathedral is said to be the most visited landmark today in Germany, drawing 20,000 visitors every day.
Of special interest here, of course, is cologne. “It wasn’t until the end of the 19th Century that an underground sewer was built,” Marion said. “With no sewage treatment, lots of garbage and water often contaminated, people didn’t bathe. In 1709, an Italian man named Farina was the first to use citrus oils to mask personal odor — only the very wealthy could buy it. Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, Mozart, Beethoven all used it and Napoleon was said to use a bottle a day.” World-renowned perfume 4711 was Farina’s first competitor and these two perfumers are still in business in Cologne today.
In Heidelberg, Susanne Hofer von Lobenstein led us to the impressive Heidelberg Castle, a dominant landmark on the hill overlooking the charming city.
“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective,” wrote Mark Twain after visiting Heidelberg Castle in 1878. “This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where the sun cannot intrude.”
Though abandoned more than 300 years ago, the castle still commands fantastic views of the Neckar Valley and its river that flows into the Rhine.
“The Rhine, Neckar and Danube were very important and a main way of travel during medieval times,” Susanne told us. “The oldest Jewish settlements are also along these rivers.” She pointed out some of the brass plaques in front of historic homes in the city center that once were homes to Jewish residents before World War II.
In Strasbourg, our guide, Vivienne, shared its volatile history. It was an independent Alsatian republic for 700 years until after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). “Strasbourg held out until 1681, when it became French for 200 years.” But in 1870 it went to Germany until 1918 when it went back to France, then under Nazi occupation during World War II before returning to France at the end of that war.
Strasbourg proved a favorite for many of us — it is unfailingly lovely with its half-timbered houses lining canals punctuated by weeping willows. It has its own imposing Cathedral de Notre Dame that soars over the old town’s center, at 426 feet, the highest medieval building in Europe. The town is filled with antique shops, artisans and craftspeople as well as beer makers and purveyors of tarte flambe — Strasbourg’s version of a very-thin-crusted pizza.
And finally the medieval Alsatian village of Colmar captured our imaginations. Our guide, Peter, told us about its turbulent history which also involved going back and forth between France and Germany.
“Colmar is an intact medieval town,” Peter told us. “Ruins and houses here date back to the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, largely saved from World War II destruction.” It is home to the Unterlinden Museum, “the second most visited site in France, after the Louvre, for its 16th century altar piece,” Peter said. He showed us the smallest house in Colmar, just 12 square meters on two floors with no first floor, “so they didn’t pay taxes, since they were levied only for first floors.” On our way back home on the bus, Peter serenaded us on his accordion with several lovely French tunes.
“I am usually a sound critical thinker and in all honesty I have thought about it a lot and my Mum feels the same way, but we can hardly find anything we didn’t like about our week with Viking,” wrote Darren de Warren, one of my new friends from the ship whom I asked to weigh in on our experience.
“I really liked the contrast of the smart casual cruise and the relaxed, friendly, efficient staff in the context of deluxe cruising. It was a real paradox but it really worked,” he wrote.
“Sensitive to the details of design, I loved the Nordic space and the influence this had on my mood. Having done a little ocean cruising with 2,000+ others on board, there was no comparison in the relaxation stakes. I was amazed at the silence of the engines, the mix of activity and non-activity on different days and the absence of on-board hoopla. Just the piano each evening, a cocktail and a chat before dinner finished great days.”
Darren, “pushing 50,” was traveling with his mother, Pam, 70, both from Brisbane, Australia. “Having ocean-cruised with her before, there was no comparison to the flexibility we had to do our own thing,” Darren wrote. “I could take off and do walking tours while she remained on board, caught some pics of the riverbanks I didn’t see, had lunch, while I could also do a reconnaissance for her on shore at the next port and then suggest things her mobility would permit. She never felt she missed anything and nor did I.”
Bratcher also commented on the attentiveness of the crew. “Obviously, the crew gets the majority of the credit for our experience,” he said. “They really can make or break an experience. Considering the length of the cruising season and that fact we were there toward the end of their time, I thought they did a great job of staying engaged… I truly did not have one time where I thought they acted tired or worn down.”
He noted that the highly social nature of our cruise may not be for everyone. “I saw a few people who seemed more inclined to stay by themselves,” he said. There were a couple of chances for dinners on your own in Rudesheim and Speyer, and the on-board concierge will make that an easy choice.
But for many of us, the experience was thoroughly enhanced because of new friends.
And I found the best holiday presents ever.
IF YOU GO
Viking River Cruises: www.vikingrivercruises.com. The eight-day cruise down the Rhine, including all meals and included excursions, begins at $1,999 per person.