Categorized | Features, Cruising

Viking River Cruises Offers Carefree European Travel

Viking

Viking River Cruises offers a 26-mile e-bike ride through Germany’s Black Forest. (Photos by David Budnik and Sondra Shapiro)

 

By Sondra L. Shapiro

It was early morning as our Viking long ship, Alruna, docked in the little town of Breisach, Germany.

Day seven of our eight-day Viking River Cruises Rhine Getaway was sunny and promised to be comfortably warm. The air was clean, with sweet floral scents that tickled our nostrils. The perfect day for a 26-mile e-bike ride through Germany’s Black Forest.

Our guide, Cannon, a U.S. transplant and avid biker, greeted our nine-member group in the ship’s lobby. It had been 15 years since I sat on a bike so I was apprehensive about my abilities.

Cannon led us to a parking lot where we met his co-guide, chose our bikes, got an e-bike lesson and safety pointers. The guides exuded confidence so I immediately relaxed.

After a few practice spins around the lot, we hit the road, pedaling through small German villages, rolling hills, asparagus and strawberry farms. Though our optional excursion was challenging, Cannon and his assistant kept our group together, with one riding in the front and the other bringing up the rear. They made frequent stops to accommodate the less adept bikers or to give us the opportunity to take in the area’s bucolic majesty.

Viking

Sondra Shapiro and husband, David Budnik, take a detour off a woodland trail to a pristine, non-industrial area of the Rhine.

Our first stop was nestled off a woodland trail that revealed a pristine, non-industrial area of the Rhine. We could hear a symphony of bird songs, the rippling sounds made by swans gliding across the river and the clucking of mating bullfrogs.

Late morning we stopped for refreshments at a farm stand and café. Over perfectly brewed coffee and freshly-made pastry — including black forest cake and sweet, juicy strawberries — our group began to bond.

Around noon, we got to Staufen, a 16thcentury village. Local lore claims it’s where Goethe’s Faust sold his soul to the devil. We refueled at a little eatery dating back to 1407, then set out to independently explore the town’s shops and sites by foot.

At our designated meeting area, we got pointers on how to maneuver the steep terrain before us. It would be quite the haul through the Black Forest’s hilly, fir-dense landscape.

A 400-year-old farm run by the same family for generations.

The e-bikes came in handy as the motor offered just the push to keep us going to our destination, a 400-year-old farm run by the same family for generations. Our reward for the strenuous ride — home-made schnapps and bread served up in the family’s original home. Our hosts, Barbara and Valentine Sonner, also run a popular farm-to-table restaurant on their property.

At day’s end, we were gratefully whisked back to our ship via comfortable motor coach. As we dragged ourselves to our cabin, we detoured to the ship’s self-serve hot beverage station for a cappuccino and well-earned homemade cookies.

This excursion typifies the Viking experience: Attention-grabbing and often invigorating outings that immerse travelers in history, culture and meet-ups with a country’s residents — all with safety in mind.

Our trip began in Amsterdam and ended in Basel, Switzerland, with stops in Kinderdijk, Cologne, Koblenz and Rudesheim, all in Germany, and Strasbourg, France.

The Viking Cruises itinerary included one free excursion in each port and extra-price optional activities — most catering to a wide range of energy and skill levels. Some were walking tours, others were by motor coach. There also was ample opportunity for independent exploration.

David Budnik enjoying his birthday celebration in Amsterdam.

Since we were celebrating my husband’s milestone birthday, we splurged by adding the two-night Lucerne, Switzerland land extension. We traveled with Viking a couple of years ago and appreciated the hassle-free experience so much we decided it was a celebration-worthy choice. Extensions are offered  both pre- and post-cruise.

The Rhine Getaway began in Amsterdam.

Before meeting up with the Viking Alruna, we explored Amsterdam on our own for a few days. After exhaustive itinerary planning, transportation and lodging decisions, we earned a rest. Now we were free to relax and flow with each daily adventure.

The cruise line took care of the logistics (flights, hotel and often airport transportation). If there were glitches, they were quickly fixed. When I was concerned the time between a connecting flight back to the states was cutting it too close, a Viking rep told us to go and enjoy the day and she would look into it. While we were out, I received an email that she re-booked a direct flight without an extra charge.

River cruising attracts travelers headed to a new destination for the first time, nervous about visiting non-English speaking areas, insecure about getting around an unfamiliar area, or people like us, seasoned explorers who want a break from having to do all the thinking and planning on our own.

Life onboard satisfied our desire to get up close to daily life along the Rhine. From our cabin balcony or the outside decks, we watched people walking dogs, picnicking or camping, families ambling along the river’s edge, young boys fishing, lovers sharing a kiss or two.

The Love Locks Bridge, where couples affix padlocks in tribute to their love.

The smaller size of our long ship, with its 95 cabins, meant convenient docking in small towns or cities like Basel and Amsterdam. After exploring Cologne, Germany, it was a brief walk to the ship via the Hohenzollern Bridge, better known as the Love Locks Bridge, where couples affix padlocks in tribute to their love.

Another day we took an early evening stroll to the picturesque town of Speyer after sightseeing in Heidelberg.

My husband and I got in the rhythm of taking the included tour (when it didn’t conflict with an optional one) to get a lay of the land from the very knowledgeable local guides, then we’d grab a map of the area from reception or our tour guide and venture out on our own. We couldn’t resist wandering through the medieval towns with their enchanting cobblestone streets, cathedrals, eateries and museums.

Viking

A stone’s throw from Strasbourg’s iconic cathedral, we indulged in a luscious Alsace specialty, flambée, a pizza-like dish composed of sour cream, onions and bacon.

Sitting outside at a café nursing the local libation or having a leisurely lunch while people watching is one of the best ways to learn about local culture. A stone’s throw from Strasbourg’s iconic cathedral, we indulged in a luscious Alsace specialty, flambée, a pizza-like dish composed of sour cream, onions and bacon.

In Cologne we sought out the local beer, called Kölsch, which was recommended by the ship’s program director, Elizabeth, during our nightly port discussion.

She imparted an invaluable tip — the waiters keep the refills coming until you signal you’re finished by putting your coaster on top of your glass. They mark the coaster with their pencil each time you get a refill to calculate your tab.

Drifting along the Upper Middle Rhine with its castles, terraced vineyards, medieval ruins and fairytale villages.

One afternoon we drifted along the Upper Middle Rhine with its castles, terraced vineyards, medieval ruins and fairytale villages. Elizabeth’s melodious British accent lulled us as she pointed out the various sites to the backdrop of classical music she chose for the occasion — Clair de Lune, On The Banks of Green Willow, The Lark Ascending.

Eberbach Monastery, in Rüdesheim, Germany

Still under the trance from our magical afternoon, we agreed to join new friends for an optional wine tasting and dinner at the Eberbach Monastery, in Rüdesheim, Germany. The former Cistercian order, founded in 1136 by St. Bernhard of Clairvaux, has been producing wine for centuries. This movie fan was impressed to learn the 1986 Sean Connery film, Name of the Rose, was filmed here.

We toured the Romanesque and early Gothic monastery church and the monks’ cold, unheated cloister. We could envision the young monastics, whose lives were dedicated to prayer and personal sacrifice, sleeping under threadbare blankets in the chilly, cavernous space. Our tour concluded in the ancient wine cellar where candles perched atop giant wine barrels lent a romantic, intimate feel.

The Eberbach Monastery restaurant – Veal in a sherry mushroom cream with the area’s specialty, tender white asparagus

Sitting around a large, rustic table, we sampled three crisp Rieslings. Then headed to dinner at the onsite restaurant with its homey ambience and locally-sourced ingredients. I was impressed the dishes didn’t condescend to tourist fare. Freshly-baked bread, tomato salad and veal in a sherry mushroom cream with the area’s specialty, tender white asparagus, were accompanied by generous pours of the vineyard’s wines.

The chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream was a sweet end to an enchanting evening, reaffirming our decision to extend our Viking trip with a Lucerne land tour.

Viking Lucerne Extension

When we disembarked in Basel, we were escorted to a comfortable motor coach for the picturesque ride to Lucerne. The only effort was the body contortions required to get the best camera angle as the Swiss Alps came into view.

Upon arrival in the city, our driver found a parking spot near the very popular Lion Monument, depicting a dying lion forged from the face of rock ledge in tribute to the Swiss Guard who died protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Normally a mob scene, we got there early enough to view this emotion-invoking art without distraction.

The hillside Art Deco Hotel Montana Luzern has mind-blowing views of Lake Lucerne and snow-capped Alps

The hillside Art Deco Hotel Montana Luzern, with its mind-blowing views of Lake Lucerne and snow-capped Alps was home base for the next two nights. Since it was too early for check in, a Viking concierge took us on a two-hour walking tour of the city, introduced us to the transportation system and gave us a visitor card that allowed us free access to public transportation, discounts for cableways, mountain railways, museums and some excursions and free Wi-Fi that worked in hotspots throughout the city. The card is free for guests staying in Lucerne hotels.

Chapel Bridge in Old Town Lucern with Château Gütsch in the background.

After her comprehensive tour of the city we felt confident venturing off on our own for the rest of our stay. It helped knowing she was on hand at a desk in the lobby daily from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to recommend places to dine, give directions to museums, restaurants and sites. Or to arrange private tours, which she did for a couple who wanted a tailor-made trip to Mount Pilatus. She also told us that local supermarkets had the best prices for Switzerland’s famous chocolate. We spent the grand total of $1 in American currency for the tasty treat, while comparable chocolate was often 10-times more in the chocolate shops in Old Town.

Mt Pilatus was a highlight of the Viking Lucerne Extension.

The Lucerne extension offered some hard-to-resist, well-thought-out optional excursions — a trip to the top of Stranshorn Mountain and a 13-hour tour I heard one of my fellow travelers say was everything you could want to do when visiting Switzerland. It included a scenic cruise on Lake Lucerne, a mountain summit visit, an abbey and dairy stopover where you can produce your own cheese topped off by a fondue dinner.

LUCERNE: On our last morning, we sat wistful, sipping a fresh, rich dark brew and devouring made-to-order omelets from the included buffet in the hotel’s dining room overlooking the mountains and lake.

On our last morning, we sat wistful, sipping a fresh, rich dark brew and devouring made-to-order omelets from the included buffet in the hotel’s dining room overlooking the mountains and lake.

We decided then and there, this milestone birthday trip gave my husband a priceless gift — a care-free vacation experiencing different cultures, history, cuisine and awe-inspiring vistas.

Not to mention the yummy birthday cake our waiter brought to our table one night at dinner, and the big “Happy Birthday” banner hung in our cabin by thoughtful staff.

For more information visit www.vikingrivercruises.com

Leave a Reply