Rolling on the Rhine 0
Although it's the capital of France's Alsace region, Strasbourg has a decidedly German flavour. (BARBARA BAGNELL PHOTO)
A river nourishes the land but also the human spirit, especially if -- like The Rhine -- it flows past evocative and restful scenes: Soft hills, ancient castles and timeless villages with old steeples and climbing vineyards.
My wife Barbara and I returned to The Rhine just weeks ago, aboard The Viking Sun, a stylish riverboat we boarded in Basel, Switzerland, for a 14-day journey.
A riverboat, like the 185-passenger Viking Sun, is distinct. Unlike ocean cruisers, it has no casino or swimming pool. Its owners, Viking River Cruises, don't criticize luxury liners, they just have other objectives. It's for people inclined to reflection and engaging conversation over dinner.
The evening meals were imaginative, like fresh seared river trout with lentils and vegetable ragout accompanied by a Gruner Veltliner white wine, reasonably crisp but with a slight reminder of Chardonnay. Dinners were followed by entertainment: A piano and violin duet one night, a talk another evening by a qualified speaker on the future of the European Union. As one passenger put it: "It's a thinking person's cruise."
Not that life aboard was dull. One afternoon there was a fun pastry-making class overseen by Andreas Glaschke, one of the ship's chefs. And people danced the night away after dinner as keyboard-player Dimo Tchakarov, played on. (Tchakarov also served sausages on the upper deck another afternoon.) It seems to be working: Viking now has 28 ships. In 2013 it will have 31, and in 2014 it plans 37.
The Rhine cruise continues until November with 14 ports of call, each with a tour accompanied by a local top-level guide. Tours are geared to the interests (and pace) of those aboard.
For example, at 8:30 one morning we boarded one of several comfortable buses and, after driving through an outlying neighbourhood decorated by spring flowers, we entered the heart of France's Strasbourg with its population of about 638,000 people.
In the beautiful Old Town, our guide Raffaela led us on a walk along fabled streets lined by architectural jewels. It was easy walking.
"Everything in Strasbourg is flat." Raffaela said, "It's great for walkers and bikers."
Naturally, no tour of Strasbourg is real without a visit to its famed cathedral. It's worth visiting if for no other reason than age and size. It was begun in the late 1100s, Gothic in style, and is one of world's tallest churches.
As Raffaela put it: "It had to be big to demonstrate the power of the bishop."
Some events were less serious, like the congenial evening in Germany's Rudesheim. We went for dinner with a dozen others, to Rudesheimer Schloss, where a few band members and a handful of young waitresses lived it up. The food was traditional German, and the wine flowed. It ended with a dance line, including me, snaking its way through the tables. It was an authentic German night on the town, and I'm grateful for the experience.
But my memories of days on the Rhine inevitably centre on the river. It's magnificent, and helps one understand why long ago peasants, picking grapes from the riverside vineyards, are said to have sung as they toiled: "The Rhine, The Rhine, Blessings on The Rhine."
GOOD TO GO
For information on cruises, including details of last minute sales, go to vikingcruises.com. We boarded The Viking Sun in Basel after arriving by train from Belgium using a Eurail pass, available from ACPRail.com.