Podcast 28 – My Rhine River Cruise – a week of history, wine and music
In this Travel Podcast Episode 28, you’ll hear about the Rhine River cruise that I took in May with my husband Guy with Lüftner Cruises. I talk about the pretty riverside towns we visited on our cruise from Basel to Cologne, about the food, the wine and above all the history of this fascinating river. You’ll find out what the experience of cruising down the Rhine is like, so you can decide whether you might enjoy this style of travel, where you can see four countries in a week and but sleep in comfort and only unpack once.
Day 1 – Basel
We flew to Basel from London to meet our river cruise ship, and were very much looking forward to our first cruise. There was a time a few years ago when I thought of cruising as something that my parents would do, but as I’ve got older the idea of only unpacking once, being very comfortable and yet seeing lots of interesting places in Europe has started to appeal.
On finding the ship, we left our bags on board as it was too early to check in, and made the short walk back to the centre, to have a look around Basel. As it was a public holiday we found the town very quiet and it was a shame that the shops and confectioners were shut as I saw plenty to tempt me in the windows. In the main square was the medieval town hall with a red painted facade and clock and we had a look in the courtyard that was full of classical frescoes on the themes of Law and Justice.
We walked up the hill through the alleyways into the old quarter around the Cathedral square where we had a coffee and slice of cake in the cafe beside the Museum der Kulturen. From the adjoining courtyard we could see the amazing sculptural roof with hanging gardens dangling down, which made an interesting architectural contrast to the older half timbered buildings surrounding it. We walked on to the Cathedral and looked around the cloisters where the bare, open stonework was softened by an attractive wild flower garden in the centre. As it was nearly time to check in on board, we walked back along the river bank, passing swimming platforms with changing rooms beside the river, where it is popular to swim in the Rhine in summer.
Back at the Amadeus Princess, we checked in to our cabin, which was compact but with plenty of good storage space and floor to ceiling windows which could slide right back to create the effect of our own balcony. We had a safety briefing with information about the ship and itinerary and then got ready for the Captain’s welcome reception, with a champagne cocktail before dinner in the Panorama Restaurant. Read more about our day in Basel
Day 2 – Strasbourg
The boat travelled overnight from Basel to Strasbourg and our morning started with a guided tour of the city, where the coach toured around some of the different neighbourhoods with a commentary from the guide. Strasbourg is on the border of France and Germany, and while it is now part of France, over the centuries it has changed hands from French to German and back again. This is one of the reasons that the people of Strasbourg are so pro-peace and why the European Parliament and European Court of Human Rights are situated here, while the Conseil de l’Europe enables member countries to work out their differences through discussion, to maintain peace in Europe. We passed a statue in one of the squares called “Mother Alsace”, of a mother mourning over her two dead sons killed in action, commemorating the times in the past when Strasbourg was changing hands from France to Germany and members of one family might be fighting in different armies on opposing sides; father against son or brother against brother.
In the historic centre we saw the pretty square with half timbered houses around the Cathedral which was very beautiful with stained glass windows that had recently been cleaned and a colourful organ halfway up in the roof. Our tour included a boat tour through the area called Petite France along the canals and rivers that encircle the city centre. There was an audio commentary that you could set to whatever language you liked, with plenty of interesting annecdotes about all the old buildings and places that we passed. After the boat tour the coach took us back to the ship where we enjoyed our 3 course lunch.
Day 2 – The Alsace Wine Route
Not far from the Rhine are the Vosges Mountains which run parallel to the river from north to south. In the foothills of these mountains are all the vineyards where the Alsace wine is produced, with a route that runs through the small villages and towns known as the Alsace Wine Route. We took a tour of Domaine Hering, a family run property in the village of Barr where we had a walk through their cellars to see the large stainless steel wine vats and the old oak barrels where the wine are aged. In their wine tasting room, overlooking the garden, we enjoyed a wine tasting of Pinot Gris, the dry Reisling and Guwurstraminer which is fruity and floral, tasting them side by side to compare flavours. On the return journey after the wine tasting we stopped at the small town of Obernai which is a pretty town on the wine route that grew wealthy on the wine trade. Read Guy’s account of our wine tasting on the Alsace Wine Route
Day 3 – Speyer
Overnight the Amadeus Princess had moved on to Speyer and we woke up with a perfect view of the beer garden. The town was just a five minute walk from the river and after breakfast we set off for a walking tour with our guide. Our first stop was the medieval Jewish Baths or Mikveh that were in use up to the 16th century, but were covered over with rubble when the town was destroyed and only restored in the 1960s. We walked down the stone steps into the baths which were used for ritual purification, and combined water from heaven with water from the earth, being open to the sky to allow the rainwater in.
Next stop on the tour was the Lutheran church of the Holy Trinity, with a beautiful painted ceiling, gilded altar and decorative carved angels. We were told it was unusual for a Lutheran church to be so richly decorated and we could see why it was a popular spot for weddings (there was an organist practicing the wedding music that you can hear in the podcast).
Our final visit was to the huge cathedral, with stark sandstone pillars and a crypt housing the stone coffins of the kings and emperors of Germany from the 12th century. The coffins were housed in niches in the walls and I wondered how they had managed to slide them in as they must have weighed several tons. In front of the cathedral was a large stone bowl three metres across and whenever there is a new bishop of Speyer, the tradition is that he has to fill the bowl with wine for the people of Speyer. Read more about our tour of Speyer
Day 3 – Heidelberg
During lunch, the ship travelled on to Mannheim, but for our afternoon excursion, we took the excursion arranged by Lüftner Cruises to the picturesque town of Heidelberg, which is well known for its old university and medical school. Heidelberg was one of the few German towns not to be bombed by the Allies during the Second World War and the story goes that General Linden had enjoyed a popular operetta of the 20s and 30s called The Student Prince that was set in Heidelberg, and was so taken by the romantic aspect of the city, that he made sure that it was not bombed. Just as well, as after the war the Americans made Heidelberg their headquarters in Europe.
The coach took us first up to see the castle on the hill that gives the town its romantic aspect and although the castle is ruined, there were many beautiful courtyards, terraces and carved stone facades with statues and pillars. We went down into the cellar that housed some enormous wine casks, one so big that you could only reach the top by climbing up a staircase. After an hour looking around the castle, we drove down to the lower part of the town, which was pedestrianised with plenty of pleasant squares, cafes and beer gardens. On the way we passed several imposing old houses with flags flying which the guide explained are owned by different student fraternities. These are like members only clubs where the male students gather to drink plenty of beer and sometimes (if it is a fighting fraternity) practice their sword fighting in private.
We walked along the River Neckar where a university regatta was taking place and onto the arched stone bridge where you could see marks where the river had risen to in times of flood over the centuries. We also enjoyed the shop selling nothing but Christmas decorations and cuckoo clocks where we brought a small wooden Christmas decoration to take home as a souvenir.
Day 4 – Rudesheim
Overnight, the ship travelled to Rudesheim, and that morning a small tourist train took us from the ship to the Rudesheim Music Museum, an old manor house with a collection of mechanical musical instruments with everything from a fairground organ to a tiny music box. The museum can only be visited during one of their guided tours and the museum guide took us from room to room, explaining about each mechanical instrument and then setting one playing. Watch the video of the musical instruments at the Music Museum
Before we knew it, we were all humming and singing along to nostalgic tunes like “It’s a small world” and “Que Sera Sera”. In one room was a mechanical piano and it was if some ghostly invisible pianist was playing to us, while in another the guide passed around with a charming music box with a tiny tweeting bird. I noticed that the reproduction of the music box in solid silver was on sale in the gift shop for a mere €2000, so any thoughts I had of taking that home were shattered.
Finally we walked down the narrow street of the Drosselgasse which was lined with inns and wine shops where you could try and buy different local wines. In a very pleasant tavern we tried the local speciality, a Rudesheim coffee, made of flamed Asbach brandy topped with hot coffee and whipped cream, with a sprinkling of chocolate. It was both delicious and warming and put us in excellent spirits as we walked back to the Amadeus Princess, in time for the sailing at midday. Watch the video of how to make a Rudesheimer coffee
Day 4 – The Middle Rhine
Up to that point the landscape of the Rhine had been quite flat, but now we were moving through a part of the Rhine known for its romantic beauty, with vineyards and castles set high on rocky cliffs above the river. These castles were built in the Middle Ages by local princes who wanted to dominate the river and grew rich from the taxes on the trade along the river. Over the centuries, the castles fell into ruins, but many were rebuilt in the 18th century in romantic style with turrets and gothic arched windows. Over two hours we sailed through the Middle Rhine valley, passing a high cliff called the Loreley where the Rhine narrows to a small channel where many ships have got into difficulty. There is a story of a beautiful mermaid who sits on the rock, combing her hair, and distracting the sailors onto the rocks – somehow it’s always the woman’s fault!
Day 4 – Koblenz
In the afternoon we reached Koblenz at the confluence of the Rivers Mosel and Rhine and walked along the quay where the flags of the German states were flying. Most of the town was destroyed during World War Two by Allied bombing and the bridges that used to be along this stretch of the river were also destroyed at the end of the war by the retreating Germans.
We walked past the Museum of Modern art with some interesting sculptures in the couryard and through the beautiful gardens beside the church filled with colourful spring flowers. The symbol of Koblenz is a fountain of a spitting boy with a jet of water which spurts out of his mouth every few minutes to soak the unwary who might be standing in front of it. Our tour ended at 6pm under the town hall clock where there was a face that rolled its eyes and then stuck its tongue out 6 times in time to the chimes of the bell. Back on the ship we enjoyed another delicious dinner, this time with a pirate theme with all the staff dressed up as pirates with stripy shirts and bandanas. Read more about our tour of Koblenz
My chat with Nancy, one of the other cruise guests
I recorded a chat with Nancy, an American guest from Texas who was enjoying the cruise with her husband. She had experienced a couple of other cruises with Lüftner Cruises; the Tulip Time Cruise in April from Amsterdam to see the bulb fields and gardens of the Netherlands as well as interesting historical tours in Belgium and Ghent; and the Christmas Markets cruise from Vienna which Nancy found was perfect to put you in the Christmas mood. Although Nancy and her husband had travelled widely in Europe on land based tours, she found that the cruise enabled you to see a lot in a short space of time and had the advantage of providing a comfortable base so you didn’t have to frequently pack and unpack when moving hotels every few nights. Read more about life on the Amadeus Princess Cruise ship with video
Nancy enjoys walking and found the walking pace on the European cruises to be relatively easy, with tours that were planned to take into consideration that “we’re not all mountain climbers”. She chose the Rhine cruise because most of the places visited on this trip were new to her and she had especially enjoyed Basel, Ruddesheim and the beautifully preserved castle at Cochem. Nancy told me how she loves to shoot videos when on the tours which she reviews when she gets home. She started this habit because she loved the sound of the church bells in Europe and wanted to capture the sounds to take home with her. On this type of cruise she found that when you see so much, in such a short space of time, it was difficult to take everything in, so the video enabled her to capture as much as possible from the trip and made history come alive for her.
Day 5 – Cochem
From Cochem, the Amadeus Princess took us on a detour away from the Rhine on the Mosel river to Cochem. Our morning tour with Lüftner Cruises took us up to the castle on the hill which was built in the Middle Ages but had fallen into ruins until it was restored in the 19th century, when it was fashionable for wealthy businessmen to buy these castles and rebuild them in romantic style. In the 1860s the castle was bought by a wealthy German industrialist, Jacob Louis Ravanez who spent a small fortune renovating and redecorating it. Ravanez used the castle as a summer residence for his family, adding all the modern conveniences of electricity and running water. We found the castle surprisingly intimite inside, decorated with hunting trophies with walls richly painted in neo-gothic style and fabulous views from the balconies over the river valley and town.
Further down the hill we walked down some of the stone staircases that wind through the old town. The town centre is pedestrianised through most of the day with plenty of pleasant cafes beside the river to relax. The guide pointed out some of the shops and businesses by the river which are set up to be cleared quickly if the river floods. They monitor the water level upstream at the town of Trier and if it reaches a certain point they know they will be flooded in the next twelve hours. This gives them the opportunity to remove all the goods from the shops and once the water recedes they can clean up and get back to business.
We stopped at one of the wine shops for a wine tasting of the local Mosel wines. The best wines are grown on the south facing slopes with a layer of slate chippings covering the soil under the vines, which absorbes the heat of the sun during the day and then radiates it out at night to help ripen the grapes. The Riesling grape thrives in this area in damp, humid conditions and tends to be harvested quite late in September or October as it needs a long growing season. We also tried a peach liqueur made from a special variety with thick skin and red flesh that grows in the vineyards. The fruit is used in deserts but also to make the delicious aperitif when the peach liqueur is mixed with sparkling Mosel wine.
As there were no excursions planned for the afternoon, so we borrowed bikes which are provided by Lüftner Cruises for guests to use and cycled along the towpath with views of the town and the castle. Later after dinner we enjoyed a cruise cabaret with different sketches and entertainments that the staff laid on for the guests. In the evening the ship sailed back to Koblenz and then overnight to Cologne, where we would be disembarking.
Day 6 – Cologne
We spent the final day of our trip in Cologne where we had to leave the cruise due to work committments, although the cruise would continue to Amsterdam. We left our cases in the automatic lockers at the train station and had a look at Cologne Cathedral, one of the major landmarks of the city, as it remained standing while the rest of the city was flattened by bombing. We found beautiful side chapels and religious artworks, but was I surprised that we couldn’t find an audio-guide, only a small leaflet the explain about the things to see in the Cathedral. We missed having the wonderful guides that we had experienced on our other cruise excursions and realised how much we had learned from their stories and annecdotes.
For lunch we found ourself in a square called Heumarkt and settled on a restaurant called XII Apostles which had an attractive painted ceiling, although we later realised that the food was Italian rather than German. After lunch we decided to spend our last couple of hours at the Chocolate Museum by the Rhine and even if we didn’t know the way, we could probably have guessed by the number of teenagers heading in that direction. The rooms on the ground floor told the story of how cacao is grown around the world and there was a mini-rainforest glasshouse to walk through.
Upstairs there were machines behind glass like a glimpse into a chocolate factory, where you could follow the process and see the chocolate being melted, then made into squares and finally wrapped. There was also an enormous chocolate fountain where you could have a taste of chocolate on a wafer and we ended our visit in the cafe overlooking the Rhine with a cup of hot chocolate and a slice of chocolate cake. The fantastic gift shop had every type and flavour of chocolate so it was the ideal place to pick up some souvenirs for our kids as we were heading for home. As we walked out we saw some cycle taxis and decided to treat ourselves to a ride along the river and back to the station where we picked up our bags and took the very efficient train service to the airport.
Our Rhine River cruise with Lüftner Cruises was very enjoyable and if you love history, are interested in food and wine and want to see a lot of different things on your holiday, but do so in comfort, then this kind of cruise will be ideal for you. We found it a great combination of stimulation with the fascinating history of the river and the region, and relaxation of having a floating hotel to return to each day which made the experience very stress-free. I will definitely be looking at what other river cruises in Europe I might enjoy in the future.
About Lüftner Cruises
My thanks to Lüftner Cruises who hosted our Rhine River Cruise – Lüftner Cruises specialise in European river cruises on the Rhine, Danube, Rhône and other destinations in Europe, with personal service and Austrian hospitality. You can also follow them on their Facebook Page. We travelled on the Amadeus Princess on a 7 day Classical Rhine Cruise which travelled from Basel to Amsterdam, although we disembarked at Cologne.
Music on the Podcast
Opening Music – Venus as a girl my Andy McGee on Musicalley.com
Piano Music – played on board by one of the guests
Organ Music – the organist in the Lutheran Church of the Trinity at Speyer was practicing for a wedding
Drinking song from Heidelberg that our guide played us on the coach
Mechanical instrument playing “It’s a small world” at the Rudesheim Music Museum
Que Sera Sera Gramophone played at the Ruddesheim Music Museum
Music Museum – mechanical piano playing at Rudesheim Music Museum
Music box in the Rudesheim music museum
Piano music – played on board by one of the guests
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