Years ago, studying French at uni in southern Africa, I decided I’d live in France, and that Strasbourg – the prettiest looking city in my encyclopedia – was the place I’d call home. Instead, I ended up in Sydney. Talk about having a hopeless sense of direction!
So, it was with excited curiosity that I finally made it to my long-lost French ‘home’ on a recent cruise. Happily, Strasbourg – a prime stop on Viking’s eight-day, four-country Rhine Getaway cruise between Amsterdam and Basel – exceeded expectations. Its entire historic centre, on an island ringed by the Ill River and the Canal du Faux-Rempart, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Our morning walking tour of the city started at the serene Barrage Vauban, a 13-arch, pink limestone bridge and weir built in the late 1680s over the River Ill. From there we crossed the Ponts Couverts (three bridges guarded by four medieval towers) and entered La Petite France, the city’s most picturesque district showcasing the colourful, intricately patterned half-timbered houses so typical of the Alsace region.
As we walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, patisserie staff came out of their stores offering bountiful free samples: gingerbread, French coconut macaroons and a local specialty, Kougelhof – a tall, brioche-like cake.
Oh well, if you insist. “Never have one breakfast if you can have two” is my motto.
The tour culminated at Strasbourg’s towering Cathédrale Notre-Dame – the world’s tallest building (142m) for 227 years until 1874. It features more than 4600 panels of stunning stained-glass windows, which Hitler stole and hid in a German salt mine during WWII, but its biggest surprise is an 18-metre-high astronomical clock. This amazing machine does all sorts of things, including showing the day of the week (each represented by a god of mythology), the sign of the zodiac, the positions of planets and stars, the four stages of life, death too. If you’re ever in Strasbourg, synchronise watches: the clock’s cast of animated figures put on a big show daily at 12.30pm.
Strasbourg never became home but, as I mused over lunch of Quiche Munster and a pastis (aniseed-flavoured aperitif), it’s a wonderful place to visit, and better late than never.
I had another flashback to my youth – drive-in cinemas – as we cruised through the Rhine Gorge, the informal name of the UNESCO World Heritage Upper Middle Rhine Valley. Seated comfortably in a deckchair on the open-air roof deck of the Viking Hervor, I felt the steep mountainsides passing by – some covered in forest, others with terraced vineyards – were like a giant cinema screen.
There are 40 castles and fortresses dotted along the banks of this 65km-long stretch of the river, each with its own fascinating story to tell. Some are romantic ruins, others are fully restored hotels with “restaurants, taverns, spas and torture museums”, according to one website. (Who doesn’t love a good torture museum!)
You can visit its most famous castle, Marksburg on an optional tour with Viking. Perched spectacularly high above the town of Braubach, Marksburg lays claim to being the only castle in the region that was never besieged or destroyed by enemies. It’s well worth visiting not just for the spectacular views over the river, but to get a sense of life in a medieval castle – don’t miss its spectacular dunny! And yes, the former stables have been converted into a torture museum.
Perhaps the most picturesque castle, though, is little Pfalzgrafenstein, built in the shape of a boat on a little island in the river, near Kaub.
What’s the cruise itinerary?
Six guided shore excursions are included in the Viking cruise package, but there are many add-ons, so you can tailor your itinerary to suit your interests, such as wine tastings, scrumptious dinners, palace visits, cheese making, E-Bike rides or tours of nearby cities such as Colmar in France and Heidelberg in Germany. My pick of the included excursions are:
The Kinderdijk windmills: I was expecting this to be a mere pit stop to take photos of pretty but mostly defunct windmills. However, the 19 windmills in this UNESCO World Heritage site in the Netherlands are still working with pretty much the clever technology of old – they were built around 1740 – to scoop water between the lower-lying lands and a reservoir. They’re inhabited by their operators, and you get a tour of the house! It’s a fascinating lesson in ingenious water management.
Cologne: Germany’s fourth-largest city is best known for its monumental twin-towered cathedral and bridge, which is lit up in colour at night, but the alleyways and squares in its old town centre buzz with restaurants, cafes and beerhalls. Got a sweet tooth? Get thee to the Chocolate Museum!
The Black Forest: A welcome venture into the German highlands to stretch one’s legs and breathe in the fresh air of the fabled forest. Plus, the chance to watch a Black Forest Cake-making demonstration and have some cake and eat it!
How much does this cruise cost?
Viking’s eight-day Rhine Getaway starts from $3295 per person, including on-board meals, wi-fi, a complimentary shore excursion in every port of call and more. Amsterdam and Basel are only embarkation or disembarkation points, so allocate extra days to explore them (Viking offers add-on packages in each). Both are lovely cities. Amsterdam’s main attractions are its canals and first-class museums such as the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Anne Frank Huis. In Basel, don’t miss the gorgeous red-sandstone Rathaus (Town Hall) and Pfalz viewing platform over the Rhine River behind the Basel Minster (cathedral).