By: Glenn Scarborough, Travel Consultant
This past December I had the pleasure of joining Avalon’s Tranquility II for its “Festive Time on the Romantic Rhine with Avalon Waterways” itinerary. This was my second Avalon Waterways vacation, and it will not be my last. My friend Akram was excited to join me for this trip (full disclosure: all the best pictures in this blog are his). What follows are my impressions and musings about the trip, although we did so much that I couldn’t possibly include everything. If you are the kind of person who (like me) likes to sit and go through photo albums with people, then you might find the read rewarding.
My time in Zürich was short, leaving me wanting to come back and explore more of that beautiful city. We arrived one day early to try and let our bodies adjust to the time change (which was a lively failure) and to explore the city a little (which was a fabulous success). Not knowing much about the city, we decided the region called District One sounded like it would be in the heart of things. We were not disappointed. This old part of town was full of highly skilled artists, artisans, and craftspeople. Of all the cities that we visited, Zürich definitely had the best window shopping. The little streets and alleys were dotted with jewelers, artists, goldsmiths, tanners, etc all working their magic right behind their shop windows. Walking through Zürich’s historic streets and occasionally stopping to watch these beautiful products being created was a great way to spend a Friday afternoon.
The next afternoon we caught the transfer to Basel where we would board our ship. We already knew exactly where to go from the day before; Avalon had prominently displayed permanent signs in the Zurich airport pointing the way to the adjacent hotel that serves as the meeting point (and probably the same hotel used for any additional pre-nights as well). I’m sure the scenery was pleasant on the drive to Basel, but I was still jetlagged and slept for most of the way.
The staff were all warm and welcoming, as was the ship with its festive garlands running through the common areas, and everyone seemed excited to have new guests coming aboard. We met our cruise director, Bram, that evening when he introduced himself and the staff to the guests. He also had to confirm what we already had been warned about by email… that the water levels just past Strasbourg were still not high enough for our ship to pass. Unless there was enough rain in the mountains over the next couple of days, they would have to alter our itinerary in one of two ways, both of which involved more bussing and hotel stays than we were hoping for. Despite that uncertainty, this was still going to be a lovely trip.
Dinner was the first of many delightfully decadent meals on board the Tranquility II. Avalon’s food is outstanding, so much so that it deserves its own paragraph. Breakfasts always boasted an assortment of hot buffet items, which varied from day to day but were always satisfying, as well as plenty of cold cuts, yoghurts and cheeses, and a station for made-to-order eggs and omelets. Lunches were also buffet-style, with even more new options each day, and with the egg station replaced by either a grill or carving-station depending on what kind of dish they were highlighting that day. Dinners, though, were the main event. They had a great selection every night, with regional favorites (everything from escargots to rijstaffel, and many more in between) as well as selections that might be more familiar to American palettes for the pickier eaters. Honestly I could write an entire blog just about the food and wine on board, but I’m already going to be pushing the limits of any reader’s attention span. Suffice to say, we did not go hungry!
We woke up the next day docked in Breisach, Germany. Today’s sightseeing was a drive through the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest that inspired the Brothers Grimm among so many others. The forest’s trees were so dense and tall that even from the road some of them actually look black, caught in the shadows of their peers. Fairy-tale towns dotted the rolling mountains, with their distinctive steeply-roofed homes. I would have loved to actually get out and walk through the woods, but there just wasn’t time. Instead, they took us to a cuckoo-clock maker nestled into the side of a hill, where we met the woodcarver who was as much fun to talk to as he was to watch work. His swift, surgical slices turned chunks of wood into intricate little fir trees quicker than you could say Kuckucksuhr. He wasn’t limited to small-scale carving though; the structure next door to his shop was a cottage that was itself a fully functional life-sized cuckoo clock. We spent some time admiring the hundreds of elaborately decorated clocks while we sampled glühwein (made with local kirschwasser, cherry brandy), and of course a slice of Black Forest gâteau. When the cottage next door struck 11, which was itself a spectacle worthy of the drive, it was time to start meandering back to the bus for our return trip through the forest.
After lunchon our Rhine with Avalon trip, there was an optional excursion available but my companion and I decided we’d rather just explore Breisach and climb up to the cathedral. It was a bit of a climb (we passed a couple of other Avalon guests who had turned back before the top), but definitely worth it if you’re ever in town. The view from the top of the hill was lovely, and St Stephen’s Cathedral was an interesting piece of history with a distinctive architectural style. I was particularly struck by the unique open-air crypt tucked away under the east side of the structure. I have seen my share of cathedrals, but I’ve never seen a crypt with a view. There were renovations going on during my visit, but hopefully other travelers will find it complete soon. The town itself was a quaint and sleepy little place with not much going on on a Sunday afternoon, but it was nice to have some time to explore it.
Monday was Strasbourg, France: the capital of Europe and the self-proclaimed capital of Christmas. I can certainly vouch for the latter at least. L’Île de Strasbourg was basically one enormous Christmas market, and has been continuously planned since the 1500’s. Each year, they invite a country to join them and exhibit their holiday traditions, food, etc. This year it was Finland, a country I have always wanted to visit which is now even higher on my list of places to go. The Finnish exhibition was every bit as “Finntastische” as their signs proclaimed. We sampled some delicious salmon that they were smoking on-site, plus some moose sausage and glögi, which is Finnish glühwein (but slightly fruitier). The glögi was my companion’s favorite drink of the trip, but my experience was a little marred by user error… I had just finished a wonderful cup of hot chocolate and didn’t think to ask the friendly Finn to rinse the cup out before he filled it with glögi, so I ended up having chocolate-covered mulled wine which was its own unique experience (but one that I do not recommend).
La Grande Île de Strasbourg is beautiful. The section known as La Petite France is especially magical, with its remarkably well-preserved half-timbered buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries. After our morning tour, we cycled back to Petite France for some flammekuchen and the best wild mushroom soup I’ve ever had. You might ask, if you’ve been keeping track, exactly how many meals we had each day. I will just say that any tour can be a food tour if you have the right mindset, and leave it at that…
The crown jewel of Strasbourg is their Cathedral de Notre Dame, with its imposing Gothic spire, masterful statues of saints adorning every wall, ancient tapestries hanging between stately pillars, and the astronomical clock. While certainly not as big as the astronomical clock in Prague, the Strasbourg clock is at least as impressive. It has a 12-hour clock with two sets of minute and hour hands, one set for local time and one set for local solar time (offset by about half an hour). It also has a 366-day calendar wheel, a spherical moon showing the current lunar phase, a model of the planets showing their current relative positions around the sun and against the Zodiac, a 24-hour clock that also shows the real positions of the sun and the moon, and a large astrolabe, all controlled by an impressive machine labeled “Comput Ecclesiastique.” There is so much to take in with this clock. With its advanced astronomical depictions, the astrological signs, and the statues of Roman gods, the last place I’d expect to find something like this would be a Catholic cathedral. Of course, there is plenty of Christian symbolism as well, most notably the procession of Jesus and his apostles every day at noon. If you visit Strasbourg, make sure you give yourself time to explore this cathedral. It is something truly special.
In my travel journal I made note of the heightened level of security throughout Strasbourg and especially around the Christmas markets. The armed military presence was not subtle. Of course none of this was on my mind while we were wandering through the city. My mind was mostly on the fantastic sights and sounds and smells of this historic city.
Perhaps most surprising were the sounds. I expected a festive atmosphere (and boy was it festive!) but I was pleasantly surprised by the caliber of musicians dotting the streets. One family in particular stood out from the rest: a mother, father, and child of maybe eight playing and singing just a few blocks from the cathedral. Even though they performed without any amplification, their perfectly in-tune voices ricocheted through the alleyways and caught my ear from blocks away.
That evening, after returning to the ship with arms full of gifts for family and friends, we had the regularly scheduled port talk with our cruise director. Except today’s meeting was far from regular. Today we would learn, one way or the other, what the rest of the vacation would look like, and the air of anticipation in that lounge was almost tangible. 2018 had been one of the worst droughts since the middle of last century. One of our guides told us (I have no idea how true it is) that parts of the Rhine had been so low that spent ammunition from World War II had been uncovered in the mud for the first time since the war. No river cruise ship had sailed past Strasbourg in over a month. But it had also been raining every day we were there, so maybe there was a chance. The sense of anticipation instantly boiled over into applause and relief when Bram told us that we would be able to pass the low point tonight, and would be able to sail all the way to Amsterdam as originally planned. Dinner that night was especially lively as we sailed back into Germany. I think the staff were even more relieved than the guests. They’d spent the past month just sailing up and down the small stretch of the Rhine between Basel and Strasbourg, after all.
The next day we had breakfast with a view of Mannheim, which I wish we could have explored but there just wasn’t time. There is so much to see and do along the Rhine, but with only eight days they have to prioritize. As if to drive home that fact, today would be our busiest day of the cruise with excursions in both Heidelberg and Mainz.
Heidelberg is a gorgeous city. I know I say that about all of these cities, but it really is true. Heidelberg Castle was fascinating.
Much of it is in ruins, but there are many detailed Renaissance statues set into several stories of stone alcoves, with one wall sporting a large iron sun dial. In the cellar is the world’s biggest wine barrel, so big that it has a dance floor on top of it and was allegedly only filled three times (although may have never been filled). The castle was home to Frederick V and Elizabeth Stuart (the Winter King and Winter Queen) until they accepted the crown of Bohemia for one unsuccessful year after the Second Defenestration of Prague. (Their story was particularly interesting to me because when I was in Prague a few years ago I got to look out the window used for that act of rebellion.) After being forced into exile they raised 13 children, who were so successful that their bloodline runs through a good chunk of today’s European monarchs.
Back down in the city, we browsed through more Christmas markets, warmed ourselves with the ever-present magic of glühwein, and explored the area’s shops and cafes. Heidelberger glühwein is traditionally made with one of several kinds of fruit, our unanimous favorite being black currant.
We left Heidelburg to meet the ship in Mainz, where we would visit the Gutenberg Museum and then explore the market after dark. The museum was fascinating. The main attraction of course are the bibles: one that just barely predated the printing press, one original Gutenberg Old Testament, and two Gutenberg new testaments, each finished by different illustrators in totally different styles. They also have an impressive assortment of historic western printing presses and a thorough collection of different Asian printing methods.
Our Avalon guide was good. He gave us a demonstration of the techniques used with the original printing press, and gave the freshly printed page to one of the guests (the gift shop of course sells pages printed with the same press). My only complaint was that the tour was almost completely focused on Gutenberg and early Western print, and barely touched on earlier printing in Asia. Thankfully we had an extra hour after the tour to explore the Eastern printing part of the museum, as well as the section that filled in the gaps from Gutenberg to the modern age. This was a fantastic museum. If you are ever in Mainz, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
After another delightful dinner, the entertainment for the evening was a theatrical string trio. The ship was docked until the early morning, so afterwards we decided to explore the nightlife. It was a Tuesday night though, so the options were more limited than they would be on a weekend I’m sure.
The next morning was Rüdesheim, the highlight of which was Siegfried’s Mechanical Instrument Museum. I first learned of Siegfried’s Museum in college, and it was one of the experiences I was most looking forward to during this trip. Even so, it absolutely exceeded expectations. They had so many incredible, whimsical musical machines! We were led through the historic building by the museum staff, who were as bright and happy as the machines they operated for us. Words really don’t do these melodious automata justice. If I hadn’t seen them operate with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe how well they work. These artifacts were impressive mechanically, musically, and artistically.
Until today we had kept the cold, rainy weather at bay through generous servings of glühwein, coffee, and hot chocolate. After the museum we added a new tool to our arsenal: the Rüdesheim Coffee.
This might be the most effective way yet to fight off winter’s chilly grasp, and it is as fun to watch as it was to drink. They place a couple spoons of sugar at the bottom of a large mug, then some warmed Asbach, a local brandy. They then light the brandy on fire (this is where the performance aspect starts). Once the sugar is nice and caramelized, they pour fresh coffee over the flame to extinguish it, and top the whole delicious concoction with thick whipped cream and flakes of dark chocolate. It’s basically an Irish coffee, but sweeter and with more fire.
All of the Christmas markets have been lovely, but I think Rüdesheim’s may have been my favorite. I haven’t written much about any individual market, even though they were kind of the focus point of the itinerary. That’s not because they weren’t a blast; they were fun and interesting whether you were Christmas shopping or just enjoying the sights and smells and tastes. It’s just if you’ve experienced a German Christmas market you don’t need any more descriptions, and if you haven’t, well, I don’t really know how to describe it exactly. The closest parallel might be a boardwalk or Christmas carnival, but with way better food and fewer rides (although there was the occasional carousel). Suffice to say, if they are your “thing” you will not be disappointed, and if they aren’t, there are always plenty of engaging alternatives to walking the markets.
After spending every last second we could in the Rüdesheim market we meandered back to the ship for lunch. Today was my favorite lunch, a pasta dish that was actually spicy enough for my chile-scarred taste buds. It took some people by surprise, and I heard a few people who weren’t as impressed as I was, but it was a welcome fix of capsaicin.
The remainder of the day was spent underway. Normally river cruises tend to sail during dinner, overnight, or while guests are out on an excursion (like when we left the ship in Mannheim and caught up with it in Mainz). This helps maximize the waking time in each destination. But sometimes the journey itself is the destination, and the magical Rhine Gorge is something that just must be experienced from the water. There is a train that runs alongside the river for much of it, but I can’t imagine seeing a new castle flash by every few seconds would have quite the same effect as really letting them sink in over several hours.
The Gorge, even in December, is every bit as exciting as promised. Here the Rhine is at its most romantic, meandering through lush mountains whose vineyard-adorned slopes rise nimbly from the river bank. It seemed like every other peak was crowned with the ruins of another mystical castle. Bram did an excellent job narrating the passage, giving us the history of the region and plenty of insightful stories about the castles and the villages between them. He also regaled us with the history and mythology of the Lorelei, whose famously tumultuous currents have claimed the lives and captured the imaginations of Rhinelanders for generations. This particularly deep and narrow part of the river is tightly regulated, with ships signaling to each other with large blue panels, and plenty of port authority signaling stations lit bright enough for any storm. Those heading downstream have right of way while navigating these fast and unpredictable waters, and will signal to each approaching ship to direct them to whichever side they feel most comfortable passing on.
The only negative was the cold… it was an overcast day in December after all, and a windy one at that. Those of us who decided to take on the chilly breeze bundled ourselves up and sat or stood around on the observation deck. The rest of the passengers enjoyed the views from one of the lounges or from their stateroom. Avalon’s expansive Panorama windows were engineered specifically to enjoy views like these as thoroughly and in as much comfort as possible. My companion experienced the passage from the warmth of his bed, and while he may have only seen half as many castles, he was more than twice as warm to make up for it. For my part, I love the cold and ended up lasting even longer out in the elements than the sweet Canadian family I was sitting with. As a born and bred Houstonian, I allowed myself a bit of pride in my thermal fortitude. The bartender created a special cocktail for the Lorelei, which must be the same one they use in summertime because it was comically cool and refreshing on such a frigid afternoon. I would love to go back and sail through the Rhine Gorge again in the summertime, on a clear sunny day that might be more deserving of a glass of chilled cider and fruit.
Sailing from Rüdesheim to Cologne is no short trip. Since we wouldn’t leave the ship again until the morning, they brought on some musicians for a holiday sing-a-long after dinner. Audience participation generally makes me nervous and self-conscious, so it wasn’t my favorite activity, but those who aren’t as uptight as I am had a lot of fun.
Thursday was a short but powerful day. We arrived in Cologne during the night, and then only had until 2pm before we had to set sail for Amsterdam. As is often the case, there were two options for the morning’s guided tour, and my companion and I decided to take the smaller alternative tour, which was a survey of Jewish history in Cologne.
Our guide Silvie was easily my favorite guide out of both Avalon vacations I’ve been on. Her tour was about Jewish history within the context of the long practice of hatred and discrimination in Cologne and in Germany at large. This hatred and fear was not reserved solely for the Jewish people, of course, and Silvie did an excellent job of including the persecution of other groups like the Roma people, the LGBT population, and the mentally or physically handicapped.
As we approached city hall Silvie told us of the constant stream of weddings performed there (including hers), and sure enough when we walked by there was a small gathering of conspicuously well-dressed people waiting for their newlywed friends. On seeing them, she remarked that there would soon be another bride and groom, or groom and groom, or bride and bride, coming out of city hall. There was no trace of irony or criticism in her voice, and her casual inclusivity meant a lot to me personally.
The main event of Silvie’s tour was the “EL-DE Haus,” the Gestapo headquarters in the region from 1935 to 1945. The house is named after the initials of the original owner Leopold Dahmen, a Catholic businessman who was forced to rent it to the Gestapo instead of using it as a mixed-use commercial and residential building as originally intended. If you are ever in Cologne, I strongly recommend giving the EL-DE Haus a couple hours of your time (though if you go on your own, be sure to purchase the audio guide as most of the text is in German).
It exists as a museum and a memorial today thanks in large part to the efforts of teacher and activist Kurt Holl and photographer Gernot Huber, who hid in the building after-hours to capture images of the basement prison. Silvie did an excellent job of guiding us through the entirety of the museum, and really bringing us into the world of 1930s Cologne.
All of this had taken only about three hours total, and so we had another couple of hours to explore Cologne before we had to set off for Amsterdam. We spent much of that time in the Cathedral, admiring the magnificent architecture and taking comfort in its beauty and reverential quiet. This morning had been incredibly powerful and insightful, but I definitely appreciated having such a soothing space in which to reflect and recharge.
The cathedral is a compelling monument of unity and inclusive community cooperation, and is the heart and soul of a city that has been torn apart so many times (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally). Of all the cathedrals I’ve been to, this is one of the most impressive, and has a fascinating story. When finally completed in 1880, the cathedral was the tallest building in the world until the Washington Monument surpassed it. Without a doubt, the original designers and builders were among the boldest visionaries in Western architecture.
We whiled away the rest of the day on the water, wending our way north towards the mouth of the Rhine. I was fortunate enough to visit Amsterdam in May of 2017, when the tulips were in full bloom. I think this is a great time for your first visit to the area (the flowers absolutely defy description; they are stunning), but I was equally impressed by how lovely the city is even during winter. Don’t let the strong chilly breeze and frequent showers scare you away! Just be sure to dress appropriately. I wrote “breeze,” but that wind is no joke. There were still pockets of green and the occasional winter flower arrangement, and every day we saw someone maneuvering through the crowds bringing home fresh-cut flowers. But flowers aren’t the main attraction during the holidays, of course. Amsterdam’s most striking asset to tempt you into visiting when the tulips are dormant is the Light Festival.
If you are at all like me, hearing the words “Light Festival” in December conjures up images of brightly decorated conifers and festive holiday paraphernalia, but the Amsterdam Light Festival is a horse of an entirely different color. In this case, mostly white. The Festival occurs every winter, from the end of November well into January, and has nothing at all to do with Christmas or any other religious holiday. It is a series of art installations along the canals in the historic city center featuring light in various ways and is designed to be enjoyed at night either from the water or by walking (or biking) along the canals. Imagine a parade, except instead of floats slowly moving by while you stand and watch, you float through the parade route and slowly pass all of these amazing light sculptures made by artists from all over the world. The Festival showcased an eclectic mix of styles and subjects: Pixar-style table lamps made of lights, dozens of foot-wide light spiders that comprise an enormous spider perched on one of the bridges, a set of interlocking fabric tubes inflated by moonwalk blowers and lit up to look like neurons sending messages back and forth, and a collection of giant dandelion seeds swaying gently in the wind, to name a few. Pictures don’t really do them justice, but I am including my best attempt at capturing the dandelion seeds because they were my favorite.
Today we had two excursions with Avalon: a canal cruise ending with a tour of a diamond factory and the optional Amsterdam food tour. As a tourist in Amsterdam you have to do a canal cruise if you haven’t before. It is one of the requirements of visiting the city. The 17th century waterways are the heart of the engineering triumph that is Amsterdam, and are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a lovely way to see the historic city center. The diamond factory was in a fascinating old building, built to allow in the maximum amount of light to facilitate several generations of diamond cutting and polishing. It was interesting to watch a couple of the technicians work, but the “tour” was really focused on the diamond demonstration.
Much more engaging to me was the food tour. Traditional Dutch foods, as both our guide and our cruise director pointed out, are largely snack foods. The food tour was less sampling different kinds of meals, and more roaming the city on foot for a few hours while grazing on a variety of wonderful Dutch snacks. We tried all kinds of snacks, including bitterballen (round creamy fried meat croquettes) served with beer, several cheeses, kibbeling (fried bits of cod), lightly-pickled raw herring served with pickles and raw onions and a shot of genever (I loved this, but it was the most polarizing of all the snacks we had. I had half the plate to myself!), the iconic stroopwafel, chocolates that were almost as good as I found in Belgium, and these tiny puffy pancakes called poffertjes. This tour was a whirlwind of culinary delights, and was an excellent way to end a week of Avalon excursions.
That night was our final night on board the Rhine with Avalon. We had our farewell dinner (which was the most extravagant of all the fabulous meals) and went out to explore the city with a few of the other guests. At this point, you might think that this would be the end of the story. But you would be wrong! I always try to add a day or two before and after a guided trip, just to have some extra time to do and see things that are beyond the scope of the itinerary. In this case, I was able to spend two full extra days. Saturday was mostly filled with a full-day excursion booked by Urban Adventures, a partner of Intrepid Travel who operate a-la-carte sightseeing excursions in several major tourist destinations around the world.
Our final day on the eastern hemisphere was a lovely one. We slept in, then our only plans were to attend a performance at the Concertgebouw and to check out the Van Gogh museum (I missed the museum the first time I was in Amsterdam, and was determined not to miss it this time). There are surprisingly few cafes or bakeries near the Concertgebouw which are open for breakfast on a Sunday morning in December, but we ended up at a charming little vegan raw food restaurant where I had some surprisingly delicious raw vegetable “pad thai” made with strips of zucchini and carrot instead of noodles. Neither of us is remotely vegan but after the shameful amount of food we’d consumed over the week, a salad cleverly disguised as thai food may not have been the brunch we deserved, but was definitely the brunch we needed.
A laid-back final day was the perfect way to end our trip. My “Festive Time on the Romantic Rhine with Avalon Waterways” had certainly lived up to its namesake in so many ways. Though the tastes and sights are over and done as I look over my journal on the flight back home, I still feel the energy of the trip. The final part of my experience is to share all my pictures and stories with my friends, family, coworkers, and you of course. Thank you for reading!
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