Notes on Planning and Packing

Europe 101: The Great River Cruise

We did it! We took an amazing Viking Cruise down the Moselle and Rhine rivers! It was all the things that you hope a river cruise will be. It was also the height of the first travel season during a pandemic. In fact, it was the very first cruise out of the gate for Viking since the initial Covid shut down. With only 67 passengers on board a longboat that normally accommodates about 180, our experience both on and off the ship were quite altered from cruises past. I’m here to give you the 411 on exactly what to expect and how to use your time wisely.

Before and After

Reality checks all conclude that cruising has drastically changed since that crazy little thing called COVID landed on our doorsteps. In fact, it made us wonder if travelling at all would be worth it? How could we be sure that cruising would even be a safe choice? We finally settled on this particular cruise because we felt that Viking had pulled together a plan we could count on. So, what did Viking do differently? Well, they laid it out beautifully here in this video from Spring 2021.

Getting Onboard

River cruise lines are very pared down compared to their ocean loving big sisters. In fact, I highly suggest that you acquaint yourself with a river cruise ship because there are a ton of amenities you will not find. You won’t find a pool deck. There’s no casino. These ships often do not have a centerpiece lobby. There aren’t a ton of dining options and you’re not likely to find a rave in the ship’s disco. There are no stage productions and there’s no all day buffet. What there is, though, is plenty of touring and a simple, efficient way to get around.

To Tour or Not To Tour?

Probably Viking’s biggest barrier to getting back to the job at hand was their tour schedule. Normally, river cruise itineraries have more than enough options at each port to please just about everybody on board. From wine tastings to hiking, Viking had the ability to cover it all – pre-pandemic. With that said, the pandemic choices were severely limited and needed to be cleared by local authorities every step of the way.

At first, we were under the impression that if we wanted to leave the ship, there was only one choice: go on the tour. With most ports offering one or two tour options, we were a little nervous that we would be stuck on a bus or following a red tour paddle all day. It turns out that most local officials were extremely nervous about passengers importing more Corona Virus. The negotiated agreement was to limit visitors to the historic downtown areas.

The good news for us is that we had an included tour at every port along the way. The better news is that we didn’t need to go on any of them. So, sleeping in was an option but small tours were too.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Viking prides itself on its food and beverage selections like most cruise ships do. With one main dining room and a terrace, Viking certainly delivered for each and every meal. We enjoyed a standard menu available each day combined with chef’s specials that spanned the regions we were sailing through. We enjoyed delicate French concoctions and sturdy German dishes including a Bavarian themed night with all kinds pretzels and mustards to please the palate. I have to say, however, that Viking tends to cater to a retired crowd and many of the standard choices were not my cup of tea. I stuck to the chef’s special each day.

The Sleepy Moselle

Our trip itinerary started in Paris where we spent a few days enjoying the city. We met our ship in Trier along the lovely Moselle River. There, we got comfortable for 7 days of vineyards, small riverside villages, towering castles, historical architecture, and river locks- lots of river locks!

Here’s a time lapse video of our very first lock. It takes about 20 minutes in real time.
Our first lock. You can see the river level where we started on the wall behind us.
Part two of the lock.

For reference sake, we happened to be on these two rivers just after massive rainfall had devastated the area just North of our route. The river was high and fast and the banks were certainly flooded. While the water was certainly a sight, it was the iconic hillside vineyards. Steep rows of vines bask in the sunshine and thrive throughout the river valley making it the scenic stretch of river you hope for.

The Mighty Rhine River

As the principal trade route to the inner European populations, the Rhine is as strategic as it is scenic. Romantic looking castles dot the vineyard covered hills looking over the waters they once protected or tormented… depending on who you were! Plenty of lovely riverside towns dot the banks and offer a glimpse into the traditional Germany so many come to think of. Our cruise highlighted the following:

The roaring Rhine was particularly fast throughout our cruise including this highlight stretch of castles.

Trier: Romans and Vineyards

A true seat of Christianity, the Romans settled here and left things for the Germans to run after a couple of centuries. Here, vineyards thrive and the seats of regional popes remain.

Cochem: Half Timbered Charm

With a large castle perched overhead, the little riverside town of Cochem is perfect for a mid afternoon walk to enjoy the ambiance. Take in the baker who has fresh goods to offer. Sit in the cafe and order something hard to pronounce. Stroll past the fountain in the town center and pop in to the general goods store to see what the locals are up to. Our ship stayed just long enough to tour the castle and enjoy the town for a few hours.

Koblenz: The Deutches Eck

Situated where the Moselle and Rhine converge, Koblenz is a work-a-day city that wear’s it’s German pride well as it hosts King William at the water’s edge. The lovely church just steps away from King Bill is a surprisingly pretty stop and there are plenty of eateries to choose from. Although, your ship will most likely be the easiest choice as cruise lines time things to ensure you enjoy your midday meal onboard.

Mainz: Local Markets and Guttenberg

The big story here is the book business. Home to print press inventor Johanes Guttenburg, the town hosts a comprehensive museum but also offers a lovely town square with fresh markets and plenty of outdoor cafes. The better story around town are the smaller churches which burst with historic architecture. While the grand cathedral is hard to miss, it’s not all that memorable. But, just around the corner, smaller parish churches come to life with baroque and rococo brilliance.

Speyer: Biergartens and Basilicas

Speyer offered quite a few points of interest including the large romanesque cathedral with a very large crypt worth investigating. Additionally, the Judenhof or Jewish quarter has a succinct story to share with interesting baths to explain more about this branch of orthodoxy. However, my favorite part of little Speyer was the wide open work-a-day main street full of bustling stores and cafes. We particularly loved the home goods stores with gadgets and heavy pans that we wished we could ship home! Time here can wind down in the little amusement area in the park where the local beirgarten sits. Perfection.

Strasbourg: Our Favorite Stop

I’m going to just say this: out of all the ports our river cruise stopped at, it was Stasbourg that blew us away. It’s imposing grand cathedral with bells that tolled on and on. It’s half timbered, canal laced charm couldn’t have been more perfect an experience. The food and wine were just sublime and our stay was just too short!!! Can you tell we have plans to return? Our favorite moments included mass, the canal boats (get your tickets ahead of time!), and shopping for the unique French pottery exclusive to this area. In all reality, 3 days would be plenty of time to spend here. We did not get enough time to enjoy the whole thing.

brown and white concrete building near body of water
Photo by Pierre Blaché on Pexels.com

Basel

Out of all the Swiss cities to see, Basal is best used for a transfer point to much better options to the south. As our river cruise came to an end and transferred us to Zurich. I couldn’t help but realize in hindsight that we should have taken the train right to Bern for the day then use the ever efficient trains to zip right to Zurich and our hotel.