Historically one of the great rivers of the European continent, the Rhine River flows from Switzerland, with water coming from the Alps; to the Rhine Falls; on to Lake Constance; and, then in a northerly direction before emptying into the North Sea. It straddles both France and Germany and ends it’s 710-mile journey in the Netherlands.
Along the river’s route you will find many cities, towns, and villages including Amsterdam, Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Strasbourg and Basel. It also serves as one of the most important arteries of manufacturing transport in the world, frequented by freighters, as well as cruise ships and pleasure craft. The scenery varies from industrial to idyllic. You might see a giant factory adorning the river bank or catch a glimpse of sheep and cattle grazing along the banks. It is also a joy for campers, fitness enthusiasts, swimmers, fisherman, and even those that just enjoy a leisurely walk along the beautiful and well-manicured pathways.
Our group of 25 recently returned from an 11-day trip which included two-nights in Amsterdam and a seven-day luxury cruise, ending with two-nights in Switzerland. In Amsterdam we were happily surprised to learn that it was Pride weekend during our visit. Over 350,000 participants from all over the world were in attendance and the rainbow flag hung proudly everywhere. What fun being a part of the well-organized festivities as we walked the narrow streets, among the enormous crowd of celebrants. And the parade was truly spectacular.
Amsterdam is a wonderful 900-year-old city whose Golden Age was in the 17th century when they were the world’s merchants, providing all types of goods to the world. There are thousands of bicyclists that frequent this capital of the Netherlands – you really have to look both ways before crossing the street! They have a local saying, “if you hear the bell ring, it’s too late.”
An extremely liberal city, Amsterdam is renowned for its “coffee shops” selling hemp, etc.; its Red-Light District; and, more. There is also a lot of Jewish heritage there with the Anne Frank House, the Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum.
A river cruise is really an ideal way to visit this region. Our cruise ship held 140 passengers and the cabins featured balconies with all the amenities. The meals were first-rate with wine, beer, and soft drinks provided at both lunch and dinner. In addition, a variety of shore excursions, including bicycling, was offered at each port. While entertainment wasn’t of the variety of large ocean cruise ships, we were treated to classical violinists, R&B live music, and more. Our tour manager was with us from our arrival at our Amsterdam hotel until the end of the cruise; and, the crew of 55 accommodated any of our needs with nothing less than outstanding service.
The first major city we visited was Cologne, Germany, where the imposing Cologne Cathedral is located. It took over 600 years to build this massive, gothic structure.
Cologne was built by the Romans and you don’t need to search far to find many remnants of their structures. They recently excavated the remains of an ancient Jewish synagogue with a mikvah, in Cologne’s historic Jewish quarter. There is going to be a Jewish Museum built on this site, with plans to open in 2021. Of course, you can’t leave without trying a Kolsch beer or visiting one of the many fragrance shops that sell cologne water named after the city where it was first introduced.
Sailing through the enchanting valley of the Rhine Gorge is a true highlight of the cruise. Steep vineyard covered hills, where Rhine wine is produced, mingle between a variety of 40 castles that top the hillsides like icing on a cake. These fascinating fortresses belonged to the nobles and barons of long ago. Although many are in ruins, some are still used as hotels, restaurants or are private residences.
This area reminds you of Cincinnati where the Ohio River flows with Mt. Adams in the background. This is the reason the early German immigrants felt at home here and why we call that area “Over the Rhine.”
Continuing on, the dramatic landscapes lead to the end of the gorge and the charming small wine town of Rüdesheim frequented by tourists for its many wine bars, live German band performances and Rüdesheimer coffee. We ascended via a gondola to visit the Germania statue which was dedicated in the 1800s to celebrate the Prussian victory over the French. A beautiful view of the Rhine valley can be seen from atop this hill.
Another unique find in Rüdesheim is Siegfried’s Mechanical Museum which houses all types of instruments that play utilizing mechanical components like paper rolls in pianos and metal pins. One instrument has six violins being played by a machine. The collection spans three centuries and includes approximately 350 self-playing instruments.
The next stop on our voyage brought us into France and the lovely Alsatian city of Strasbourg which, during its history, shifted its nationality five times, changing hands between Germany and France and France to Germany depending on which country won each war of the time. The magnificent cathedral and the beautiful petite-France with its half-timbered houses, cobblestone streets, canals with a covered bridge and a dam with panoramic views makes it a charming city to visit.
We had a choice to visit Heidelberg or Speyer on our next stop. Having been in Heidelberg several times, I chose Speyer. I was surprised to find a Jewish Museum at the location of ruins from an 12th century synagogue. The site included a mikvah fed by both the river and rain water. After descending 30 steps, we were able to gain a close-up view of the pool of water which was in excellent condition and is still being used today.
In Freiburg, our last stop on the cruise, we visited a market filled with all types of produce, food items and crafts. We also discovered a recently built synagogue with a congregation of about 200. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit, as advance reservations are required. Maybe next time.
Our cruise ended in Basel, Switzerland, and from there we enjoyed a two-night visit which included a boat ride on Lake Lucerne and a dinner at my favorite restaurant, “The Old Swiss House,” famous for their veal schnitzel. They make between 1,200-1,400 of these schnitzel meals each month. I kept telling our group about this restaurant and I’m certain no one was disappointed. A quick visit to the inspiring Lion Monument in Lucerne, allowed for a background of a photo of our well-traveled group.
The last day we visited the quaint town of Stein Am Rhein and its half-timbered buildings with painted facades; and, the town of Schaffhausen where the powerful Rhine Falls are located. Dinner at a local Zurich restaurant perched high on a hill provided a splendid view of the city and topped off our 11-night trip. We had a very congenial group, many who didn’t know each other at the start but now have become friends and hope to journey on another future adventure together. That is what makes Great Memories!
In my opinion, river cruising is absolutely the best way to see both America and the European countries. The smaller vessels provide easy accessibility to local communities and unique places, giving you a truly immersive experience. You can avoid large crowds of passengers, getting on or off the ship is extremely easy, and overall, it provides a great adventure. If you haven’t experienced this type of travel, treat yourself to a fabulous trip. There are many ships and itineraries from which to choose – there really is something for everyone, here and abroad. Don’t miss the boat!
Next month: Hudson Valley
If you have any travel questions for Herb Reisenfeld, The American Israelite’s travel columnist, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org