The temptation was intense. A gentle breeze, warm sunshine, a cozy lounge chair and an empty glass of Riesling. Conditions were perfect for an afternoon nap. Who could blame me, right? Isn’t this what a vacation is all about?
But just as my eyes fluttered shut, the oohs and aahs of those nearby brought me back from my dreams to the real-life fairy tale unfolding before us.
Gliding along the Rhine
We were on our very first European river cruise, gliding gently along the Rhine River in a region known as the Rhine Gorge. In about 30 miles, more than 40 medieval castles and charming little villages unfolded before our eyes, just the kind of places where Cinderella, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty would call home.
Indeed, our cruise was called Rhine & Moselle Fairytales — the Moselle is a smaller, lesser-known river through France that flows into the Rhine at Koblenz. Our ship was the AmaPrima, one of the 23 ships in the fleet of AmaWaterways, a family-owned company with an excellent reputation for service and safety, according to CruiseCritic.com and other cruise review sites.
We were celebrating a significant wedding anniversary — a fairy tale journey of its own. We began by arriving a day early in Amsterdam, where our fairy tale cruise would embark. Of course, an extra day in Amsterdam is not enough to explore the memories of Anne Frank, the brilliance of Van Gogh and Rembrandt, the abundant cheeses and flower markets — but we did our best.
After boarding the ship, we were delighted, relieved in fact, at the size of our room. Those details are provided online, but you always worry about how you, your spouse and your stuff will make it a home for 10 days. Just as the brochure promised, we had two balconies, plenty of storage space and a bathroom big enough to do your business.
And before you sign up for a cruise like this, you also worry about the other guests on board. Will you meet anyone you like enough to share dinner with for the next 10 days? Will you have anything in common to talk about?
Those fears were allayed the first night as we cautiously approached a couple sitting in the corner by themselves. Dan and Sonia were their names. He’s a general contractor in southern California and had some fun stories about building homes for the stars. Sonia is a native of Spain who came to the U.S. as a translator for government projects.
Over the next 10 days, we shared several meals and lots of laughs with Dan and Sonia, tasting wine in Koblenz, sipping fiery coffee in Rüdesheim and eating amazing pastries in Heidelberg. And we made lots of other friends as well. Of course, the people you meet along the way are always the best part of any journey.
The heart of German wine country
While our cruise was not specifically noted as a wine-themed cruise, our path along the Moselle and Rhine took us right through the heart of German wine country. So, in addition to fabulous selections of wine at dinner each night, we had numerous opportunities for touring and tasting throughout the day.
We particularly enjoyed the tasting at Dr. Pauly-Bergweiler Cellars in Bernkastel. Fifteen generations of the Bergweiler family have grown grapes and made wine in this location. That’s pretty impressive given that two world wars were fought on this land.
One of the sites we passed on our third day on the river was the infamous Bridge at Remagen. You may remember a movie by the same name starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn. While the movie is just that — a movie which doesn’t necessarily cling to facts — the fact is that the bridge at Remagen was one of two remaining bridges across the Rhine in March 1945 and because Allied soldiers held it, the war ended months earlier.
Today, the original pillars of the bridge remain and serve as a museum dedicated to peace. I regret that our cruise didn’t allow for an opportunity to dock and explore the museum and the grounds. Remagen is just south of Bonn, so note to self: Return to Bonn someday for a road trip to Remagen.
That was the only disappointment in activities on the ten days on the AmaPrima. And when you put it in context, we really saw and experienced a lot.
Experience extra activities
One of the reasons we chose AmaWaterways was the number of activities available on and off the ship. Each day, small groups headed out for hiking, biking and activities of all interests and skill levels. You could join the group or head out on your own, which we did often. Or you could sleep late and just hang out on the deck. No one was keeping tabs.
Rambling around Rüdesheim
We particularly enjoyed our day in Rüdesheim. Sure, it’s a touristy-town these days, thanks in large part to the number of riverboats that dock here. Nonetheless, we enjoyed a gondola ride through the vineyards to the top of a scenic overlook in Niederwald Park.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon and despite the many tourists, it was obvious that this is a place loved and utilized by the people of Rüdesheim. Families spread picnics on the lawn, children ran chasing balls and dogs, couples posed for engagement photos all with the Rhine Valley spreading in the distance.
Rüdesheim boasts that one of its little streets, the winding cobblestoned Drosselgasse, is “the craziest street in Europe.” With billing like that, we had to check it out. Filled with restaurants and night clubs, the Drosselgasse is developed for the tourist experience, but nonetheless, we loved the energy.
In one of those little cafes is where we experienced Rüdesheimer Coffee. I’d love to tell you a story of immense history and intrigue, but basically, in the 1950s, a local chef was looking for a way to distinguish his café and this community from others that were developing a tourism base. Today we would call it marketing or branding, but in the 1950s, everyone was just trying to recover from the war.
Rüdesheim is known for a type of brandy called Asbach Uralt. The basis of Rüdesheimer Coffee, it’s been made in these parts since 1892.
Watching the coffee being made is as much fun as drinking it. The waitress brings a cup and saucer unique to Rüdesheim. She places a sugar cube in the bottom and pours in a good portion of brandy. Then she lights it on fire.
After a minute or two, she pours in some stout coffee, plops a big dollop of real whipped cream on top and then shaves dark German chocolate on top of that. It’s the best coffee ever! Several of our shipmates bought Rüdesheimer Coffee kits as a souvenir. Now that we’re home, I wish I had done the same.
Spend a day in Strasbourg
We loved our day in Strasbourg, truly a magical European city. We had lunch in the shadow the beautiful Strasbourg Cathedral as accordion players filled the air with their tunes. There has been a house of worship here since before the birth of Christ. Construction began on this particular building 50 years before Columbus set sail for the Americas. Think about that.
The cathedral is renowned for an astronomical clock that includes dancing figurines as it marks the top of each hour. We thought we were standing in line to see the noon show, but somehow we mistakenly got in a line that took us up a narrow, spiral staircase, so old and so tight that we could not turn around to rectify our mistake.
We kept going and going in a crowd of people, our legs about to collapse under us from the climb, until all of a sudden, we were at the top of the cathedral. The Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest in the distance, the Alsace region spread before us like a fairy tale. We can go back and see that old clock another day.
From Germany to France to Switzerland
While each day of this cruise had its moments comparable to a fairy tale, none topped our afternoon in Riquewihr, France. The little village is so magical that when Disney was looking for inspiration for the 2017 release of Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson, they sent their set designers to Riquewihr.
France has a program somewhat similar to the National Register of Historic Places in the U.S. Les Plus Beaux Villages de France highlights about 150 of the country’s most adorable little towns. Riquewihr is one of those pretty villages. While it’s filled with tourists today, this is not a Disney movie set. These buildings are real and until just a few years ago, people lived in them above the shops below.
We ended our cruise in Basel Switzerland, another fairy tale town widely recognized as the cultural capital of Switzerland based, in part, on the more than 40 museums in the city. We spent an extra day here on our own, while many of our shipmates participated in tours organized by AmaWaterways.
But for the time being, our fairy tale cruise was over. An early morning Uber would take us to the airport for the long journey home. But we had a list of places and experiences we must do again tucked in our luggage along with brochures for additional cruises and tour options. That’s the fun thing about a fairy tale — you can just turn the page and pick up the story where you left off.