European River Cruise: The Adventure Begins

A view of Amsterdam from our hotel room.

Days One and Two — Amsterdam

After over a year of planning (and paying), we embarked on our two-river cruise with Viking. This cruise began in Amsterdam.  We are traveling down the Rhine River to Basel, Switzerland.  We will transfer to another boat to travel down the Rhone through France.

No air travel is complete without drama.  Our flight left Orlando two hours late because of thunderstorms near the airport.  I am consistently disappointed in how the airlines seem unprepared for Florida’s rain.  Imagine that!  We had a 90-minute layover in New York, JFK, so we didn’t think we would make our flight.  The Viking people, however, booked us on a flight leaving JFK two hours later.  When we arrived at JFK, we were booked on our original and later flights.  Since the original flight was also delayed an hour, we kept the earlier reservation—a big mistake.  The later flight left on time, but the “earlier” flight was delayed four hours.  At one point, we were stuck on the tarmac in a pot-hole that required them to round up a “super tug” to get us unstuck. Instead of six hours in an uncomfortable seat, we could enjoy ten hours.  Thanks, Delta/KLM.

On Viking River cruises they generally offer what I call a “pre-show” and an “after party.”  The pre-show is helpful in getting acclimated to the time zone before the cruise begins.  We decided to take the pre-show in Amsterdam.

A fancy water bottle refilling station in Amsterdam.

Having arrived later than we expected, after checking into our room, we walked around the downtown area of Amsterdam to do some sightseeing.  We also stopped in a place called FEBO, which featured hot Dutch food in vending machines.

It was tight, but Candy could put on these wooden shoes.

The six of us finally linked up around dinner time.  The various restaurants the Viking people recommended required reservations we didn’t have, so we eventually found a German restaurant for some delicious schnitzel at the train station.  Our hotel, the Moevenpick, was a short walk from the train station.  After dinner, we decided to get some sleep and be ready for the next day.

Our group on the bridge leading to the train station from our room.
A view of the city during the walking tour.  There are more bicycles than people in Amsterdam, and they always have the right of way.  This makes life interesting for pedestrians.
The so-called Wailing Tower, where supposedly women waited while the Duch sailors went to sea for months. The guide was unclear on whether those were tears of joy or sorrow.

Our first full day in Amsterdam began with a guided walking tour arranged by the Viking people.

In the afternoon, we sought out the Rijks Museum.  Amsterdam is the home of many of the Dutch Masters.  While I am not big on art museums, we wanted to see some famous artwork, including a few Van Gohs and Vermeers.

Karen, JJ, Duncan, Candy, and Betty. I was there too — at least, that’s the story I’m sticking to. You need a reservation to get into the art museum, so while we waited for our time slot, we enjoyed sampling some traditional Dutch snacks, including bitterballen. These seem like mushroom soup and some chopped meat rolled into a ball and deep fried. The reviews were mixed, but I liked them. (The best ones we had were on the Viking ship the next day.)
The front of the Rijks museum. We successfully figured out the trolly system in Amsterdam and made our way to the museum. It was very interesting that a ticket seller (a human in a booth) was on every trolley.
Candy and Karen are critiquing artwork in the Rijks Museum. They gave this four stars, a thumbs up, two smiley faces, and a “hooah.”

That evening we were scheduled to take a boat tour along the canals of Amsterdam.  After a bit of a death march through the city, we purchased sandwiches and drinks to take on the boat (at the recommendation of the boat people).  There are several boat tour companies.  We used the “Dam Boat Tour” outfit.  The tour was excellent, and our guide was very informative.

There are no railings along the canals. The Dutch have a fascinating, laissez-faire attitude and feel like people should be responsible for their bad choices. Imagine that! Note that the left tires of the white van overlap the canal bank.
The Dutch have planted some foliage to help protect the banks of some of the canals.
Most of Amsterdam is at least a meter below sea level, so the entire city has been built on pilings. The earliest buildings were built on wooden pilings that last a very long unless exposed to the air. That is why most buildings in the area are only five stories high; that is all the weight the wooden pilings can hold.  The Dutch devote a lot of effort to managing the water levels in the city, but over time, as the tops of the pilings have been exposed to air from time to time, the buildings begin to lean.  Note in this picture how the buildings are leaning in several different directions.
Another view of the Amsterdam canals. The houseboats are permanent residences, complete with city water and sewer.

Day Three – Arnhem

On day three, Sunday, the girls walked around the city to do some souvenir shopping and visit the famous Red Light District, but we guys got on the train to Arnhem to see the museum commemorating the fighting around the Arnhem bridge during Operation Market Garden in WWII.  Figuring out the train was relatively easy, but then figuring out the bus to the museum in Hartenstein (Ooosterbeek, near Arnhem) proved tricky, so we just took Uber.

A monument in front of the museum.  I found this sentiment quite refreshing in a world where blamestorming and finger-pointing are commonplace.

The museum was small but well done.  A multi-projector moving map presentation did a nice job laying out the fighting for the bridge step-by-step.  The highlight, however, was the “Airborne Experience” presentation on floor -3.  The presentation began by sitting in a room watching a video of glider troops preparing for battle.  Then a door opened, and upon entering, we found ourselves in a mockup of a Horsa glider.  We were sitting in the seats of the glider, feeling the bumps, and looking through the front window as the glider detached its tow cable and landed (with more bumps).  After leaving the glider, we were treated to a scene of paratroopers landing and animated vignettes depicting the fighting.    It was good enough we all did it a second time.

Duncan inspected an airborne bulldozer near the winger of the glider we had just landed.
British paratroopers landed after the gliders.
The moving map presentation of the battle.
See! I was there.
We are not sure there would have been any British 17-lb guns at Arnhem, but two flanked the museum.
The museum had a small food truck where we got a light lunch and then took a longer-than-expected walk to the military cemetery to see the graves of British, Dutch, and Polish soldiers who fought during the battle.

Included in the admission to the museum was a much smaller museum with a short film presentation near the Arnhem Bridge.

The bridge over the Rhine was the objective of the operation. The British were unable to capture the bridge. The Allies later destroyed it from the air to prevent the Germans from using it. When it was rebuilt, it was built to match the original bridge.

After a short walk to the train station, we traveled back to Amsterdam to link up with the girls and board our boat in time for dinner and departure.

Day Four (Monday) — Kinderdijk

The boat traveled through the night, arriving at Kinderdijk the next morning.  Kinderdijk is the most extensive collection of Dutch windmills in any single location.  There are eighteen of them there.  We took the included walking tour of the site.  JJ and Karen took the optional excursion to a factory where they make Gouda cheese since Kinderdijk is in the Gooda region.  Candy and I had done the cheese tour on our previous Viking Rhine cruise.

A view of some of the windmills at Kinderdijk. These windmills were used to pump water from one canal up a meter to another. The Netherlands’ soil is fertile but soft, peat, so the land and canals continue to sink. Most of the country is between one and six meters below sea level. Water is constantly pumped into and out of reservoirs, rivers, and canals to stay above water.
A more detailed view of a windmill. All of the windmills in the area still work. They are used from time to time to maintain them.
Our guide explained how the windmills and the water management system work.

This was a better tour than the last time we visited Kinderdijk.  More was open to see this time.

After the walking tour, we returned to the Kara to resume our journey and have lunch. We had a half day sitting on the deck, reading, and enjoying the ship.

Day Five (Tuesday) – Cologne

German humor. We found this plaque on the ground in Cologne. In cities that go back to Roman times, this is probably true.
Cologne existed before Roman occupation, but there are many remains of Roman times throughout the city. We were told that there is a McDonalds in the city where you can eat your Big Mac in Roman ruins. This is the remainder of a bed of a Roman road. When the Romans built it, the bed would have been covered with gravel and sand.
This was our guide for the walking tour of Cologne.
To get to the famous cathedral from our boat, we had to cross this bridge full of love locks. Unlike bridges in other cities, this is a train bridge, so they don’t have issues with the locks being too heavy.
The famous cathedral in Cologne took 600 years to build. It was one of the few parts of the city that weren’t destroyed during WWII. The Allies used the cathedral as a landmark during bombing missions.
This is a view of the cathedral from our boat on the other side of the river.
This is a statue of one of the Prussian emperors that flank the Hohenzollern Bridge.
There are several of these three-panel displays in the cathedral.
It is difficult to capture the entire cathedral at one time in a photograph.
We ate at a beer hall for lunch. In Cologne, they during Kolsch beer. Unlike the large mugs of beer found in Bavaria, Kolsch is served ice cold in small glasses. The waiters will keep filling your beer and recording how many glasses you drink by marking on a coaster until you put your coaster on top of your glass.

After lunch, we shopped for a few souvenirs and then went to the chocolate museum.

Where’s Buck?
The chocolate museum was fascinating. First, we had to get through a bunch of climate change and fair trade propaganda, but then we got to see how chocolate is made. Since chocolate goes back to Meso-America, I found the large display about Aztecs and chocolate particularly interesting.
Unlike the tour in Hershey, these were machines that were making chocolate. In Costa Rica, we saw how the Aztecs made chocolate, but this tour was more about how chocolate is mass-produced today.

Day Six (Wednesday) – Marksburg Castle and the Middle Rhine

The day began with a walking tour of Marskburg Castle, one of the few castles not destroyed at some point in history.

Our guide in the castle provides some historical context.
Examples of armor are housed in the castle.
JJ prepares to storm the castle. Note how the original entrance, made to accommodate knights on horseback, was later made smaller to make it easier to defend.
A motley crew, indeed! JJ, Karen, Candy, Robert Redford, Betty, and Duncan
Duncan poses next to an adult-sized bed for multiple people.
A view of Marksburg from the boat.
The cannons in this emplacement were sited to control this section of the Rhine.
This is a rare breach-loading cannon. Sadly, none of the guides could tell us anything about it.
Hello, down there!
The kitchen in the castle with a walk-in fireplace.
Another view of Marksburg from the level of the Rhine.

In the 1980s, a Japanese businessman tried to buy Marksburg to move it to Japan.  The German government, of course, denied the request, but they permitted him to measure it.  Today there is a replica of Marksburg in Okinawa.

After the castle tour, we walked around a rose garden near where our boat was moored. We found this German war memorial for the Franco-Prussian War and WWI. You can see Marksburg in the distance.
A close of the inscriptions.
Candy poses among the flowers.
A view from the river.

After Marksburg, we reboarded and contiCenturywn the Middle Rhine, looking at castles and countryside along the way.  While doing so, we also got in a game of “Tens,” a card game.

Castle Liebenstein and KM 566 on the Rhine. Built in the 13th Century, Liebenstein is the highest castle on the Middle Rhone. The tower now contains a restaurant and hotel.
Sterrenberg Castle shared a defensive wall with Liegenstein and is still known as one of the two “hostile brothers,” a legacy from a 13th Century feud.
A picturesque building along the river.
The owners of the larger Centurystle named Maus Castle (pictured) at KM 558 along the Rhine.
Rheinfels Castle (KM 556) was initially built in the 13th Century. Today it is a hotel and restaurant.
Katz Castle, KM 555, was built in the 14th Century and was heavily damaged by Napoleon’s forces in 1806. It was rebuilt during the Victorian era.
This is a train tunnel entranced disguised as a castle in an attempt to fool the Allies during WWII.
Shoeneburg Castle (KM 549) was built in 966. It was burned by the French in 1689. The castle was reconstructed to include three medieval fortresses and towers.
Gutenfels (KM 546). This castle, along with Pfaltzgrafenstein, was built as a toll station to control the river and extort merchants.  Reportedly the guns from this castle could stop any merchants who attempted to slip past.  There were also narrow channels and thick chains to help control the river traffic.
In this picture, you can see Gutenfels in the distance and Pfaltzgrafenstein in the foreground.
Pfalzgrafenstein (KM 545) sits like a battleship in the middle of the river.
The “back side” of Gutenfels, shows that we are indeed in Reisling wine country. Note how the vineyards are planted vertically up the slopes of the hills and mountains.
A view of picturesque scenery along the river..
Another view along the river. There is something about the architecture and colors of German buildings and towns that I find really appealing.
Stahleck Castle (KM 543) was originally built in the 12th Century. It was attacked several times and eventually captured by the French in the 17th Century. It contains a youth hostel today.
Nolig Castle (KM 539) dates back to 1300. These ruins were never part of a castle, per se, but were part of the fortifications around the town of Lorch am Rhein.
Sooneck Castle’s romantic style dates to 1834, when the crown prince of Prussia built it.
Reichenstein Castler (KM 534) is also called Falkenburg. This castle is an example of neo-Gothic construction. Today it holds a collection of porcelain, furniture, and weapons that span five centuries.
A church along the river.
Rheinstein Castle (KM 533) was built in the 14th Century and features a still-working drawbridge.
The Mouse Tower (KM 530) sits on an island in the middle of the river.  It gets its name because supposedly an archbishop imprisoned there was eaten by mice.
Erenfels (KM 530) was built in the 13th Century amid vineyards.
A view of Ehrenfels and its vineyards.
A picturesque church overlooking the Rhine.

In the evening we docked in Ruedesheim.  Four of us went on the Dine in Ruedesheim excursion.  I have to say that this was the first time I have been really disappointed in Viking.  We went to a restaurant in town.  The food was okay, but not nearly as good as the food on the boat.  The music was so loud, that even with earplugs (which I always carry due to tinnitus), that is was physically painful and my ears are still ringing (more loudly than normal) 12 hours later.  The music selection was also disappointing.  We were hoping to learn some German drinking songs, some polka, or something traditional.  There was some German music, but there was no effort to teach any German songs.  The playlist was from the ’80s, featuring those famous German songs: Sweet Caroline and YMCA.  And then a bunch of the other passengers on our boat became loud drunks who thought they were hilarious.  It was a real let-down after a nice day on the river.  At least it was expensive, so we have that going for us.

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