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Thursday, August 15, 2013

CRUISING THE WATERWAYS IN STYLE

Switzerland, France, Germany, Holland...

After extensive inquiries, Elaine and I discovered that more and more travelers were selecting river cruises as a popular travel choice for a relaxing way to see Europe. Alluring itineraries, extensive amenities, unique shore excursions and smaller groups persuaded us to select the Avalon Affinity ship from Basel to Amsterdam for our first river cruise.

After embarkation on our longboat from Basel Switzerland we set sail to the stirring music of Conquest of Paradise from the sound track of the movie ‘1492’- the story of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the New World which became our sail-away-song from each port of call.

Our compact stateroom was well designed with light wood finishes and floor-to-ceiling sliding windows affording views of the countryside and river life. It didn't take long to adapt to the rhythm of the cruise nor to engage in conversation in the dining room with its chatter like the swallows returning to Capistrano!  Open seating at 2, 4, or 8 table tops allowed us to mix and mingle for casual dining in a setting tastefully decorated in colours of taupe, chocolate brown and blue, silver leaf and dark woods. The bar lounge offered classic and long drinks with such names as Illusion and Snake Lady along with evening entertainment from a chanteuse to a classical string trio.

With a handful of excursions offered in each port, we set off this first morning in Strasbourg with a certified local guide. Noteworthy stops included the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame with its 30 foot high famous astronomical clock featuring a perpetual calendar, planetary dial, solar and lunar eclipses that chimes at noon with a crowing rooster. After a photo stop at Place Gutenburg with its namesake statue of the printing press inventor we continued on to the quarter of Petite France for a glass of Alsace wine and a beer brewed from the local Kronenbourg brewery. ‘Don’t miss the artisanal gingerbread shops’ someone quips ‘or the panoramic city view from the Musée D’Art Moderne rooftop café’.

The next day we stopped in Heidlberg  beholden to the mighty and famous castle ruins and home of the love musical The Student Prince. From the funicular we entered the castle forecourt to the richly decorated façade of the Friedrichsbay wing comprising of niches with statues - a veritable portrait gallery of emperors and kings from the house of Wittelsbach and others. Sections of the castle have been classified as- significant history, renaissance architecture, and the Hortus Palatinus with the ‘Father of the Rhine’ sculpture. Adjacent to the King’s Hall is the Fasbau with the Great Wine Barrel and ‘Porko’ the unofficial court jester to oversee the castle’s wine stock. Returning to the old town below, the Hauptstrasse leads from the Karlstor triumphal arch to the market place, the Church of the Holy Spirit reserved for both Protestants and Catholics  and Goethe’s  historic restaurant, the ‘Golden Hecht’ at the entrance to the medieval bridge. Among the art galleries and fashion boutiques we were particularly attracted to ‘Obra’–a shop of poetic objects and jewellery fashioned from resin in a range of vibrant colours.

The big joy of river cruising makes for friendly interaction and observing up close. Here in Mainz, we
visited the Johannes Gutenberg Museum with his 42 line Gutenberg Bible and demonstration of the printing process using moveable type and techniques employed by this inventor of printing. With some free time we sauntered to the Church of St. Stephen to see the stained glass windows of Marc Chagall with those unmistakable ultramarine blues he so favoured. During lunch we sailed through the locks to Rudesheim am Rhein a perfect example of a small Rhine Valley wine town. A miniature train conveyed our group into town to see the charming Siegfried Mechanical Music Museum with collections of self-playing music instruments from a delicate music box to the cacophony of a mammoth piano-orchestration demonstrated by the curator. Before returning to the ship we stopped by the Drosselhof  Stubchen beer garden seduced by their signature Rudesheimer coffee with brandy and whipped cream.

Downstream from Rudesheim to Koblenz is the dramatic Rhine Gorge designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 1992. From the ship’s top deck with camera at the ready, we anticipated a 60 mile stretch of striking beauty with fortifications, vineyards and castles once used for the collection of tolls. Artists and poets like that of Lord Byron and Mark Twain captured the moment with the legend of ‘Loreli’, a 430 foot high cliff which caused ships to flounder by the treacherous currents.

We began our 6th day in Cologne with the buffet breakfast of blueberry pancakes and maple syrup, eggs to order, fruits, artisanal bread, pastries and coffee. Now fortified, our walking tour approached the city’s magnificent cathedral in the high Gothic style as the bells rang out from the soaring twin towers that dominate the river skyline. Inside, pillared stone walls, banks of flickering candles and stained glass windows shimmered in the light. Next to the cathedral is the famous Germano-Roman Museum but we chose the adjacent Ludwig Museum with its ‘brutal architecture’ to see the Picasso collection and retrospective exhibition of Saul Steinberg’s colossal mural commissions from the 1958 Brussel’s World’s fair. Returning to ship we couldn’t resist the shops for their Lindt chocolate confections, Eau de Cologne perfumes and taverns for a refreshing local Kolsch beer.

Sailing on to Amsterdam, we moored at the dockside by the train station of this sophisticated 700-year-old city. There is no better way to see the city’s classic architecture and quirky houses than a canal boat which was offered for our final morning and a choice of other options for the afternoon and evening- the Keukenhof tulip Gardens and the red light district.

‘You had better stop right now so I can snap a photo of you’ Elaine said as the cruise wrapped up its journey ‘and let the memory live again’.  

For your next European Cruise, Call  1 877 411 6359 or Click here, and get ready for the vacation of a life time

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