Once upon a time we sailed on a ship past Rhine River hills topped with fairytale castles.
They might look like pretty cake decorations, the narrator on our ship said. But they were protective fortresses during dangerous medieval times.
Castles along the Middle Rhine in Germany have been designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
Viking River Cruise
There's a sense of déjà vu in this cruise tale. Sailing past castles on the Rhine--wasn't that a Viking River Cruise commercial on Downton Abbey, the popular PBS series?
In fact, this was the very Viking River cruise advertised on Downton Abby.
The Stahleck Castle sits high above vineyards in the hills along the Middle Rhine. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
Just about when Downton viewers could barely stand the scorching chemistry between Matthew Crawley and his Mary, a Viking commercial appeared in smooth segue. Viewers were invited to sample something romantic. Matthew and Mary may have been slow to action, but Downton's viewers booked that cruise like lightning, filling Viking's Rhine cruises to capacity in Downton Abbey's first season.
Amsterdam to Basel
One sparkling week in October, my husband and I sailed Viking MS Jarl on the romantic Rhine cruise.
The itinerary was Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. We were happy to see both cities again, but also discovered the advantage of river cruising. Smaller European cities have friendly shopkeepers and helpful waiters. Tourists are few.
There's also lots to see in these towns that once were European centers of commerce. Architecture is as old and inspiring as in big cities.
Another plus-- the distance between ship and port city is often just a walk down the gangplank.
MS Viking Jarl is a 190-passenger longship. Here she docks in Breisach, Germany. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
MS Jarl is one of Viking's longships, with an Aquavit deck where you can sit at tables warmed by heaters. Have a meal, have a drink and watch the river go by.
Floor-to-celing windows in staterooms invite river-gazing, as does the many-windowed, comfy indoor lounge.
Black Forest cuckoo clocks
There's no telling how many cuckoo clocks were packed away in suitcases the day of our High Black Forest tour. It's beautiful countryside, and we had a chance to hike, or eat gooey Black Forest cake, or shop beer steins and cuckoo clocks.
A drive through Germany's High Black Forest led to a large cuckoo clock with waltzing figures. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
In Cologne, yes, you can buy cologne. Or powdered Berliners, a bit like a jelly-filled beignet.
We were amazed by Cologne's Romano-Germanic Museum, packed with artifacts from past and present Cologne excavations. The museum even has glass bowls from 2 A.D., both large and small. Who knew Romans had figured out how to make glass?
Deep questions like these, my partner and I found, are best resolved with German beer or a cool glass of Riesling. And there's good news on the Riesling--it's not a sweet wine these days.
Germany and France are both on the Rhine cruise itinerary. Strasbourg, France, home to the European Union, was a favorite port call, and a chance to catch a French meal.
Strasbourg, France, home to European Union headquarters, is also home to tasty Alsatian food. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant
Colmar, France is a Hollywood set director's dream. Blocks of half-timbered buildings date to medieval times.
Knights rushing past on trusty steeds would not have been a surprise. No knights, but we did meet an unexpected vision-- a 39-foot Statue of Liberty in a traffic circle.
Turns out the sculptor who designed the gift of Liberty for the U.S., Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, was born in Colmar.
Colmar, France is a photogenic town with blocks and blocks of the half-timbered buildings of medieval times. — Photo courtesy of Anne Chalfant