For several reasons, my wife Linda and I have never been interested in going on an ocean cruise. Our perception has always been that the cruise ship and its onboard activities are typically the main attractions of a cruise, whereas we've always been interested in the destination rather than the journey. Having no interest in casinos, lounge acts, shows, fancy dress dinners, and 24-hour-per-day feeding frenzies, we believe that we will be paying for amenities that we will never use. Then we heard some good things about river cruising, mainly the much smaller ships and the emphasis on land tours. After doing some research, we thought that a Viking River Cruise trip would be a good way to visit parts of Europe on our first trip to that continent.
Our trip, named "Rhine Rhapsody" by Viking, began with a flight from Dulles International Airport through Paris to Basel, Switzerland, where we boarded the Viking Longship Idun with about 200 other passengers. The Idun was quite elegant as far as we were concerned, especially since many of our previous trips involved sleeping in a tent on the ground. Our stateroom was tiny, but it met our needs, which was mainly sleeping at night, plus it had indoor plumbing and a hot shower! A flat screen TV was available for watching movies or a few English language broadcast stations such as BBC and CNN. We live in Maryland, and it was eerie watching the international newscasts leading off with the riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.
The Idun had a spacious lounge area with a bar that featured nightly entertainment, mostly by an onboard pianist, that we chose to skip. In the restaurant we enjoyed the daily breakfast buffet with omelet station, and for lunch we had the option of ordering off the menu in the main restaurant or partaking of the small buffet in the partially outdoor Aquavit Terrace. All dinners were served in the main restaurant, and all meals featured a single open seating, so we chose to sit with different people for just about every meal. The food was terrific, and much fancier than anything that we would order in a restaurant back home. At first sight the meal portions seemed to be somewhat small, but after eating all four dinner courses I was quite satisfied. By the way, wine was complimentary with all dinners and my glass was always kept full. I never felt hungry, and I never felt stuffed, and, if can you believe it, I actually lost a pound during this trip!
Other features of the Idun included a sun deck, walking track, shuffleboard court, giant chess set, and an herb garden that supplied the galley. There was a small library, an even smaller gift shop, and a reception area in the lobby. The Idun's crew was fantastic! Everyone, from the captain to the housekeepers to the deck hands, were very pleasant and always greeted us with smiles.
Along with cruising along the Rhine and Moselle rivers, our trip included a number of guided land tours, starting with a walking tour of Basel, Switzerland. Before we began this trip, Linda and I were concerned about the size of our groups during the guided tours. We have always been averse to the idea of being in a mob of people being herded around and following a guide carrying a sign. We've been with large groups in the past, but only as part of free U.S. National Park Service guided interpretive programs. Whenever we've paid for guided tours, our group sizes have ranged from five to fourteen people. Our Viking River Cruise groups ranged from 35-40 people in size, all following a guide who carried a sign. The guide had a microphone headset and everyone in our group had Bluetooth listening devices, so at least we could wander about somewhat away from the group and still hear the narrative. It was important to me, as a photographer, to be able to spend a few minutes away from the mob in order to get some decent photo opportunities. To be fair, we also had several opportunities to spend some time exploring locales on our own.
My photography equipment included two Sigma SD14 DSLR bodies, two Sigma lenses (10-20mm and 18-250mm), a flash, several filters, extra batteries and memory cards. I also had a Leki Sierra Photo trekking pole that doubles as a monopod, and I was able to attach a SLIK ballhead to it. The wide angle lens was great for photographing streetscapes and the outsides of large buildings, like castles and cathedrals, and it was also useful for photographing the interiors of those same buildings. The 18-250mm lens was great for everything else.
The walking tour of Basel gave us our first experience in a European city and exposed us to the first of many so-called half-timbered buildings that we would see throughout our trip. We also visited our first cathedral here, Minster Cathedral, which holds the burial places of the philosopher Erasmus and of the famous mathematician Jacob Bernoulli. We went inside three other cathedrals on this trip: Cathedrale de Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, France; the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Trier, Germany; and, Cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris. Each cathedral was more impressive than the last one, with Cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris being the epitome.
On day four of our trip the Idun docked at the German town of Rüdesheim, and from there we took a two-and-a-half hour bus ride to Heidelberg, home of the oldest university in Germany (600 years). After a walking tour of Heidelberg we made our way to Heidelberg Castle, home of the world's largest wine barrel (50,000 gallons!). The castle is now mostly in ruins, but it offered great views of the Altstadt, or Old Town, below its ramparts. This was the first of three castles that we toured, the other two being Marksburg Castle overlooking the German town of Braubach and Reichsburg Castle perched above Cochem, Germany. Marksburg Castle has the distinction of being the only castle along the Middle Rhine to escape destruction and ruin by enemy forces, most notably the French.
We spent the morning of our fifth day cruising through the gorge of the Middle Rhine, viewing numerous castles perched on promontories high above both sides of the river. I was equally impressed by the large number of castles that we saw, and by the scope and size of their construction in such hard-to-reach places. The upper half of the Middle Rhine (Rhine Gorge) from Bingen to Koblenz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more than 40 castles and fortresses from the Middle Ages. The morning temperature on the top deck of the Viking Idun was quite brisk, especially with the stiff wind that was blowing. There was only a handful of fellow passengers joining me outside the entire time, and this was probably the most that I ever endured for the sake of getting some good photos. By the time that we reached Koblenz I believe that I was nearly hypothermic because I couldn't stop shivering. Luckily I survived the ordeal and I am happy with my pictures.
We enjoyed leisure time on our own in Koblenz before continuing our cruise up the Moselle River, where we later experienced walking tours of Cochem, Bernkastel-Kues, and Trier, all in Germany. Trier is Germany's oldest city, founded by the Roman emperor Augustus around 16 B.C., and it has the oldest Roman ruins outside of Rome. It is also the birthplace of Karl Marx, the writer of The Communist Manifesto.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that we cruised through some of the most famous wine country in Germany. Large vineyards covered many of the hillsides along both the Rhine and Moselle rivers. I was impressed not only by their size, but also by the steepness of the land upon which the grape growers and harvesters had to work. It is probably accurate for me to say that most of the German wine that is produced in this region is Riesling.
After disembarking from our cruise ship in Trier, we made our way by bus through Luxembourg on our way to Paris. While in Luxembourg we made two stops, the first at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial where many serviceman who died during the WWII Battle of the Bulge are buried. The grave of General George S. Patton can also be seen here. After our visit we moved on to Luxembourg City for another walking tour. Finally we arrived at our hotel in Paris.
The Pullman Hotel Tour Eiffel is about a block or so away from the Eiffel Tower and even closer to the RER train and Metro stations, making it very convenient for us to get around. The room was quite nice, and very much larger than our cruise ship stateroom. While on the river cruise all of our meals were included, but in Paris we were on our own for lunches and dinners. After filling ourselves up at the hotel's breakfast buffet each morning we didn't really need to eat much for lunch, so we ate lightly at the Hotel des Invalides, at an Eiffel Tower food kiosk, and at a McDonald's in Versailles. For our dinners, being in Paris, we ate Italian food! We had pizza at a sidewalk café, panini sandwiches at a small shop run by Asians, and penne pasta at the same sidewalk café.
Our first morning in Paris included a guided city bus tour that took as around to all of the major attractions and stopped at the Cathedral Notre-Dame. I had plenty of time to look around inside the cathedral and take pictures, but my photo options were limited because it was a Sunday morning and mass was being celebrated at the time. I wish I had some time to walk around and photograph the outside of the cathedral, but I had to get back aboard the bus. There was so much more that Linda and I wanted to see in Paris that we never made it back to Notre-Dame. After the bus tour Linda and I were totally on our own for the next two-and-a-half days.
That afternoon we walked from the Pullman Tour Eiffel to the Hotel des Invalides, which King Louis XIV had built for wounded veterans during the late 17th century. The Hotel houses Napoleon's tomb, the Army Museum, and the impressive Dome Church. The artwork and the number of gilded surfaces were dazzling.
We spent the next morning at the Louvre. Before we left home I used the Internet to buy tickets for the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Palace of Versailles, so, with tickets in hand, we took the RER train to the Musé d'Orsay station, the closest one to the Louvre. We have ridden on several metro train lines in the U.S., most frequently on the Washington, DC Metro. Whenever the train stops at a station, its doors automatically open to allow passengers to get on and off. That is not the case for the Paris RER trains! Linda and I stood patiently by the doors, waiting for them to open, but nothing happened. Luckily I noticed a green button on the door, pushed it, and whoosh, the doors slid open, saving us a round trip to the next station.
We arrived at the Louvre about a half hour before opening time and got into line. When the museum opened we passed through the security checkpoint and then made a beeline to the Mona Lisa so that I could photograph it without having to fight through hordes of other tourists. There was still a small crowd in front of the painting, but I patiently made my way forward and got the picture. Next we made our way to see the Venus de Milo sculpture, stopping along the way to photograph the Winged Victory sculpture. Afterward we strolled casually through the museum, marveling at its massive size, and also at the magnificent paintings hanging on the walls and the elaborately painted ceilings.
Admission to the Eiffel Tower is for specific dates and times, and Linda and I had to be there at 1:30 p.m., so we rode the RER train back to the Champs de Mars station. Since we already had our tickets, the line to board the elevator up to the second level was quite short. Our tickets were good for a trip to the very top of the tower, but Linda isn't very keen about high places, so she opted to stay at the second level while I went up the rest of the way. The line for this second elevator was very long and somewhat slow, but, for me at least, it was worth the time. When I got off of the elevator I walked up one more flight of stairs to the highest vantage point on the Eiffel Tower. I had 360 panoramic views of the city and I was able to photograph all of the places that we visited, and then some.
We began our final full day in Paris by taking the RER train from the Champs de Mars station to the Versailles-Rive Gauche station and the Palace of Versailles. I was totally stunned by the masses of people who were waiting to get into the palace on a Tuesday morning in April, so we began our visit by going directly to the park and gardens, where there was no line at all. The gardens are meticulously designed and very ornate, but we were disappointed at the lack of blooming spring flowers. All we saw were some dying daffodils. None of the fountains were operating either. When we finally got in line to enter the palace we realized that we had made a huge mistake, because the line was at least three times longer now than it was earlier. Anyway, we were patient and eventually made it inside, where it was still extremely crowded.
We had been impressed by the elegance and extravagance of both the Hotel des Invalides and the Louvre, but the Palace of Versailles was absolutely breath-taking and put the other two places to shame. There was so much gold that it is no wonder that the French peasants rebelled against the aristocracy! The picture frames, the statues, the woodwork and trim, the crown molding, and the ceiling paintings were all gilded or surrounded by gold. The Hall of Mirrors was filled with all of those things as well as with magnificent crystal chandeliers. Even the exterior building trim was gilded, and some of the outdoor courtyards were paved with elaborate mosaic designs. The Palace of Versailles is absolutely overwhelming!
Later that afternoon we returned to our Paris hotel and then walked about a mile-and-a-half to visit the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc stands in the middle of a large traffic circle that is too dangerous for pedestrians to cross, so there is a stairway down to an underground tunnel that passes under the street and brings you up beside the Arc. After walking around the Arc and taking photos, and looking down the long Avenue des Champs Elysees, we returned to our hotel room and then went out for our final dinner in Paris. After seven nights on the rivers and four nights in Paris, we were ready to go home.
I am not a prolific photographer. I spent 30 years shooting color film transparencies when every shot had to be spot on with exposure, composition, and sharpness, and I've carried that mentality with me into the digital age. I shot 727 photos and Linda shot another 240. You can see a slide show of our trip at my Shutterfly web page. You can also see more photos in my Rhine Rhapsody album here on TPN.