A relaxed river cruise on Viking Var from Basel to Amsterdam is the perfect voyage for first-timers, says Jeannine Williamson
As I join the throng of people in the south transept of Strasbourg’s lopsided cathedral, the concept of clock-watching reaches new heights as we all gaze up at the 60ft astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world. On the dot of 12.30pm the amazing timepiece that charts the exact position of the sun and moon comes to life.
This is the best time to admire the clock as it’s the one time in the day when all the figures move around, powered by a mechanism dating back to 1842. Outside I pause to take photos of the distinctive cathedral that dominates the old town with its single tower (money ran out to build the second one) and then stroll through the charming Petite France neighbourhood, jam-packed with half-timbered Renaissance buildings.
On the coach back to Viking Var we glimpse the contemporary side of the capital of Alsace, the smallest region in France and the multicultural capital of Europe. The cylindrical parliament building also looks incomplete and our guide explains the architects wanted it to reflect the unfinished nature of the European Union, although others claim it’s a modern-day Tower of Babel where people speak in one language.
Every day we pick up similar fascinating snippets on the cruise along the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam. Starting in the Alps and meandering through Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, the river flows through a picture-postcard landscape taking in some of the most scenic parts of Europe. The area has a rich and colourful history dating back to Roman times and the vista of steep vineyard slopes is dotted with charming medieval villages. It’s perfect for first-time river cruisers.
At least one daily excursion is included, and on the first morning we dock at Breisach, Germany, and head into the heart of the Black Forest for a tour through the mountainous area. At a cuckoo clock workshop we learn how local farmers started the tradition of carving simple wooden clocks during wintertime over 300 years ago. A craftsman demonstrates how the cuckoo sound is created by miniature bellows and that it’s possible to silence the resident birds at night.
That afternoon I join an optional excursion. The poignant trip, with a knowledgeable local expert, visits Second World War sites in the Colmar Pocket, one of the last regions in France occupied by German forces. We stand in front of a simple memorial to hear how 19-year-old Audie Murphy single-handedly held off an entire German platoon to later become the most decorated soldier in US history. He went on to become an actor, best-known for westerns, but was persuaded to play himself in the 1955 autobiographical film To Hell and Back.
The Rhine has more castles along its length than any other river in the world, and they don’t come much more dramatic than Heidelberg. Rising up on a rocky hilltop over the university town of the same name, it’s one of Germany’s most impressive historical landmarks. Built between the 13th and 17th centuries, the red sandstone ruins showcase fine examples of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. A walking tour reveals the castle’s turbulent past, which includes being plundered and burned by the French army and – disproving the old saying that it never happens twice – being struck by lightning and sustaining extensive fire damage in 1537 and 1764.
This stretch of the Rhine is also Germany’s largest wine producing area, where more than 70 per cent of the country’s wines are produced in over 20,000 wineries. After lunch our walking tour takes us through the traffic-free cobbled streets in the pretty wine town of Rüdesheim, with time to visit a cosy tavern and sample some of the aromatic white wines.
No other river abounds in more myths and legends than ‘Father Rhine’. The rugged cliffs, forested hills and green valleys that hug its curved banks have long inspired artists, poets and musicians, and in the 19th century it became a symbol of romanticism.
700-year-old Marksburg Castle is the only fortress on the Middle Rhine to have remained unscathed by enemy attacks. Passing through the drawbridge is like walking back in time and we experience the upstairs-downstairs of castle life, from the knight’s hall to the dungeons with their grisly instruments of torture.
One of the joys of river cruising is that you never have to wait long until the next sight comes along. Before you sail into Cologne you’ll spot the twin 515ft cathedral spires on the city skyline. The imposing cathedral is the biggest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the largest facade of any in the world. The panoramic views from the top of the south spire make the climb up the 509 steps well worth the effort. Taking a break afterwards I discover that Kölsch is the only language people can drink – it’s a local dialect as well as the name of Cologne’s beer.
Shortly before arriving in Amsterdam we reach Kinderdijk, home to the largest concentration of old windmills. Built in 1740, the 19 mills are remarkably well preserved and provide more memories of a spectacular and diverse cruise.
Throughout the week we also savour many local food and drink specialities on board 190-passenger Viking Var, including a Dutch cheese tasting washed down with a nip of juniper infused jenever, the strong drink from which gin evolved. Another day we learn how to make Rüdesheimer coffee, a wickedly rich mix of coffee, brandy, sugar, whipped cream and dark chocolate. And on a fun German-themed night the usual à la carte dinner is replaced by a leisurely buffet served at different locations around the ship, including the galley, which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the pristine kitchen that produced imaginative and tasty dishes throughout our cruise.
All too soon it is time to leave, and I spot several passengers with carefully wrapped cuckoo clocks – fitting souvenirs of the many happy hours spent admiring unusual timepieces, cathedrals, castles and a host of other cultural delights.
An eight-day Rhine Discovery cruise on one of Viking River Cruises’ longships departing in September 2015 costs from £2,345pp, based on two sharing. Price includes flights, excursions and transfers (vikingrivercruises.co.uk/020 8780 7900).
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