Strasbourg to Koblenz highlights
A short walk from the ship we boarded a boat for a scenic one-hour cruise on the canal and River Ill which surround the historical city centre. This was a great introduction to view the city with its diversity of medieval houses and the large contemporary EU buildings: the European Parliament, European Court of Justice and the European Council.
Strasbourg is now in the Alsace region of France and sits on the border with Germany on the Rhine. Due to its strategic position the city was alternately occupied by France and Germany, which has impacted on both its culture and architecture. To put this into perspective our guide said any current Strasbourg centenarians would have changed nationality four times in their lifespan!
Petit France is a delightful maze of lanes flanked by well-preserved half-timbered medieval houses and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. The area used to be home to millers, fishermen and tanners and the buildings are connected across the River Ill by footbridges, many of which date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The architecture is particularly interesting as the buildings have large sloping roofs and include open lofts where hides were once dried.
The European Quarter on the banks of the river consists of several large striking contemporary buildings that house European Union offices. The European Court of Human Rights has 47 member states. The European Parliament, which meets 12 times each year, houses 751 MEPS in its large sprawling offices. Our guide joked that difficulties can surface when dealing with so many nationalities, particularly when organizing formal dinners, as demonstrated by her wonderfully politically incorrect anecdote:
“When everyone is in agreement arrangements run smoothly: the French cook; the British meet and greet; the Italians entertain; the Germans organize the event. When things don’t run smoothly: the British cook; the French meet and greet; the Germans entertain and the Italians organize everything. The Greeks are then asked to foot the bill!”.
Following the canal and river cruise there was a tour of the city’s spectacular cathedral. The original medieval stained glass is superb as is the astronomical clock that dates back to the 14th century. There was a walking tour through the centre back to the ship but we opted for a coffee and taxi to save on the legs. In the afternoon there were three optional excursions: Black Forest; French wine tasting; Maginot Line bunker; which by all accounts were excellent.
The second night aboard was the Gala Welcome Dinner – such a good idea not to have it on the first night – an a la carte five-course gourmet meal and excellent regional wines and truly outstanding. Afterwards we were entertained by a local French duo – accordion and singer – performing songs by Piaf, Aznavour and the like. By rights we should have been ready for bed but after some more friendly chatter the staff came round with a late evening snack – mini pizzas which were surprisingly light and delicious at the same time – just in case we hadn’t eaten enough supper.
Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university town, is a thirty minute drive from Mannheim where we docked. The vibrant student town enjoys a temperate climate so we sat outside in the market square enjoying a drink following a visit to the beautifully romantic Schloss Heidelberg, which hovers above the town. Previously one of the grandest palaces of the Renaissance period and considered the eighth wonder of the world in the 17th century it is now semi-ruined but a definite must-see. The castle became the home of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James VI of Scotland & James I of England, when she married Frederick of Palantine on Valentine’s Day 1613. They were both aged 16 and apparently very much in love. The impressive Elizabeth Gate (1615) was built in sections and erected overnight so Frederick could surprise his wife on her birthday the next morning – now that’s what I call romantic. The panoramic views of the city from the ramparts across the rooftops and the River Necker are most impressive.
Heidelberg is charming and reputedly has the longest shopping street in Germany with many speciality shops including a praline chocolatier and an all-year round Christmas shop selling a myriad of hand carved and glass bauble decorations.
Following supper entertainment was provided by a talented trio of two violinists and guitarist who played a wide selection of European and classical music. Exquisite.
Wednesday: Mainz & Rudesheim
Mum wasn’t up to the walking tour of Mainz and the attractions of its cathedral and the Gutenberg museum – home of the father of modern printing – particularly with an early 8.30 start, so we elected for a lie-in with tea and blueberry muffins in our room. However, when guests returned there were so many complimentary comments about the guided walking tour I was sorry to have missed it.
As we sailed north under grey skies it was unusually cold for mid October but it was so pleasant being on the ship, chatting to people, enjoying tea in the lounge whilst watching the world go by that the weather didn’t detract from our enjoyment at all.
Early afternoon we arrived in the pretty, but touristy, village of Rudesheim. Transported by a mini tourist train around the village we had a fascinating visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music museum, which houses one of the largest collections of mechanical music boxes, barrel organs and musical box plates. Afterwards we sampled the local delicacy of a Rudesheimer creamy coffee with a slug of local brandy before we ambled down the narrow cobbled streets back to the ship.
That evening many guests opted to experience a typical German meal in one of Rudesheim’s restaurants. However, travelling with mum it was easier to dine on-board, particularly as the food, service and dining companions never disappointed. Also, the included wines have all been excellent and one’s glass is regularly topped up without having to eye the waiter.
Thursday: Rhine Gorge & Koblenz
Just after 8.30 we started our sail down the Rhine Gorge. This famous stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley epitomizes the romantic notion of the river with spectacular scenery, 40 castles and fortresses from the Middle Ages, picturesque villages and precipitous vineyards tumbling down the steep hillsides.
For most guests this was one of the highlights of the trip and one which I had anticipated viewing from the Sky Deck against a backdrop of blue skies and sunshine. With rain, mist and clouds it did not look promising. However, tucked up inside the lounge gliding through breathtaking scenery on this misty day was, arguably, more beautiful. This stretch of the river was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002 and, to be fair, would be stunning at any time of year. To make up for the cold, wet, day and put a smile on everyone’s face we were offered a glass of warming Gluewein which was particularly enjoyed by those brave souls on the Sky Deck, keen to make the most of the experience in spite of the weather.
After passing the last castle we arrived at Koblenz, which is located at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers. The location is impressive and it’s easy to understand why the Romans first occupied this site 50 years BC.
The weather was not kind during our time in Koblenz and as Mum languished on the ship, the majority of us joined one of the three included tours in the area. I opted for the city walking tour. As usual, the standard of guiding was excellent and despite the rain it was interesting to walk around Koblenz, which like other strategic cities was heavily bombed during WW2 and reconstructed following the original city plan. But although there was free time to wander around the town most people headed back to the ship, rather cold and damp.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avalon Waterways