A really straightforward journey with KLM from Cardiff. With only a 40 minute transfer at Schipol (Amsterdam), to our joy and amazement, our bags caught the same flights!
After all the foul wind and rain we’ve had at home, another great surprise… Sunshine!
A quick, easy transfer to the ship - just 15 minutes. All aboard by 11:15am just over 4 hours from Cardiff Airport.
Then another bigger surprise. This is our 10th trip with Viking. The Hotel Manager asked us would we like a upgrade? “Of course not!" we said - oh no we didn’t!
A double stateroom upgrade with a very very good bottle of red wine waiting in it - Christmas came early.
We went for a stroll around Basel; Christmas markets in full force flowing with Glühwein. A delightful way to spend an afternoon.
And so, back on board, a nap and time for dinner.
We’ve both had birthdays in the last few days. At dessert time, the maitre d’hotel and the entire (and I mean entire) waiting staff appear with a beautiful mango and passion fruit cake-like creation and sing “Happy Birthday”. A really nice end to a really good meal. Except…
Back to the stateroom and sitting in the middle of the table is a bottle of champagne (type) and two glasses!
Who knows what tomorrow might bring, if Day 1 is any measure by which to judge!!! Maybe we get to take the ship home as our personal yacht?
Docked this morning in Breisach, after sailing overnight. This morning’s outing was a trip through the Black Forest.
Our local guide came on the mic; we’d heard those tones before! On another tour from Breisach to Colmar in 2012, we’d had the same guide. We recognised the pleasant musical meter of Jack’s voice; a Welsh speaking ex-pat who at one time lived not 5 miles from us in Barry. (I know many people claim nothing special comes from Barry, but he must be an exception; well informed with a great sense of humour).
Clearly planned for more typical Decembers, there were just a few, fairly brief, stops. The scenery is delightful, not spectacular, but well worth seeing. Snow would have made it spectacular; impossible this year with temperatures at 12℃ at 9am. Only the distant high mountains had managed a smattering.
The main stop was what can only be described truthfully as a tourist trap - not as bad as many, but nonetheless… A restaurant selling coffee & black-forest gateau; a glass blowing workshop and store selling its own and higher quality imported items from Scandinavia; a cuckoo clock store with other “traditional” local items: beer steins, Steif teddy bears and wood carvings. Its biggest “attraction” was a giant outdoor cuckoo clock (sans cuckoos) that had figurines going around, carousel-like, every half-hour.
However, never let it be said that Germans have no sense of humour. Directions to the toilets…
After returning to the ship, and lunch we had a quiet afternoon on board recovering from the excitement of the morning.
We docked in Kehl - the German side of the Rhine. The opposite bank is Strasbourg, France. Previously, you would hardly notice driving across the bridge between the countries. Now, in the aftermath of the Paris atrocity, there’s a pre-EU-style border post on the bridge entering France. Passports needed (although they waved our coaches through).
Strasbourg is a good sized city, 7th largest in France, home to most EU and Council of Europe institutions. I learnt that the Council was established first in London, by Winston Churchill (he’s allowed one mistake!) and is a separate organisation to the EU. Both organisations are not the least bit shy about “investing” large numbers of taxpayers’ Euros, Pounds, Kuna, etc in themselves. Their buildings are palatial. We drove past most of them.
Old Strasbourg still remains and this is where we spent most of our time.
Strasbourg was the home of the very first Christmas market (15th Century, I think) and now hosts 11 separate markets. Around the old town, they have a real flair for decorating the buildings.
The cathedral is massive, even by catholic Europe’s standards, and here we found one of the most impressive nativity scenes I’ve ever seen.
This is where, for those who choose, midnight mass will be celebrated. Given the austere look of the seating and the fact that it will be a full 2 hour mass, returning to the ship at 2am Christmas morning, we’ve opted out. (Eventually, 39 fellow travellers attended).
Kehl is a much smaller town, largely comprising a single shopping street, lots of parks and churches and some upmarket housing. Great for an afternoon stroll.
After dinner, Christmas Eve was marked by a presentation on European Christmas traditions accompanied by large quantities of the Christmas fare that accompanies them: stollen, ginger-bread, sweet cakes, glūhwein, hot chocolate with rum or brandy or amaretto or (think of another European country’s favourite spirit!).
Staggered to bed.
Our morning was spent cruising up the Middle Rhine, a land of castles dating back to the 12th Century, although most had been destroyed during conquests by the Sun King (Louis XIV of France) and others over many centuries of conflicts. The majority were restored in the 18th and 19th Century and a few have been “upgraded” to expensive 21st Century hotels. Progress??
The weather was fresh but really pleasant, especially as we sailed between 9am - 11am, arriving in Koblenz at lunchtime.
What a pleasant, pretty city and the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers. We docked where the rivers meet, within a stone’s throw of the city centre.
Within 100 metres of the docking was a cable car service to the old fortress city, set high on a hill overlooking the Rhine. Spectacular views.
The town itself has plenty of interest, historic and modern. The banks of the rivers are parks. I could spend more time here, no problem at all.
Dinner: “A Taste of Germany”. Every recent cruise has an “A Taste of …” evening. To me, this is the one part of a Viking cruise that fails.
The restaurant always serves great food, but this has become increasingly “international” (American to be honest), whereas, when we started, at least one course every evening was a “Regional Speciality”.
So, the “Taste of …” evening puts together a range of regional dishes, but as a semi-buffet served in 2 locations. This results in organised chaos as diners line up to see what’s available. Tonight the queue averaged 20 minutes.
The quality of the food suffers; it's being kept warm in self-serve dishes (also, it’s dumped on the plate instead of having the chef’s beautiful presentation of the dish). Vegetables and sides are self served and add to the plate’s less than appetising appearance. Below average musicians move around adding to the congestion (and being Germany, playing loudly, killing conversation).
We’ve suffered 3 of these already this year, and this was the worst. The pork belly had been hacked to pieces and was as tough as old boots. Chicken sitting under hot lights: Sahara dry. Why put the soup at the end of the main course buffet? Who wants their main course plate going cold whilst eating their soup? Why can’t the waiting staff be allowed to bring the soup from the kitchen? It looked the best thing on the menu. It might have even lessened the number of people queueing up for main course.
I’m sure many enjoy it. To me, it’s the 7th level of Dante’s Inferno (I’d even bet the Minotaur would enjoy it!). You can’t even escape to the Aquavit Smorgasbord Venue, as this location is commandeered as an overflow dining area.
Thankfully it’s only one evening on this cruise. If they’re on future cruises, we’re eating off-ship.
Overnight to Cologne, a lovely city we’ve visited before.
A Sunday after Christmas, so all of the shops, except food outlets, were closed, as were the Christmas markets (except one). It was busier than Oxford Street on the first day of the January sales! Clearly, this is the time wise German men find best to take their wives shopping!
There was an amazing display, across several window, of Steif teddies. I now fully understood the German man’s wisdom, or else there’d have been stowaway bears on our KLM back home.
We had a final look around the final Christmas market, having enjoyed the afternoon in Cologne, a city that’s always worth a visit.
The Netherlands tomorrow.
A pleasant day sailing along the Rhine and then into the Dutch canal system, stopping around lunch time at Kinderdijk. We’ve been here before; it’s a "pit-stop" for all ships sailing into or out of Amsterdam - a UNESCO site of 19 working Dutch windmills. In glorious sunshine, like today, very pretty.
However, as so many ships pass through Kinderdijk, the option to visit a working dairy farm, where traditional Gouda cheese is made, was offered. We took the option.
We walked through a pretty little village, which we’d never noticed before, boarded a ferry across the river and picked up the coach on the other bank. If this little car ferry wasn’t there, it’s 45 minutes via the nearest bridge.
Twenty minutes later we exited the bus to what our local guide described as “Eau d’Cow-lone”. Yes, this was indeed a real live working farm, not a tourist stop.
We were given an excellent tour by the owner. It’s a family farm. His mother looked in her 80’s and was working in the cheese pressing area. The process is from udder to cheese; nothing happens to the milk which is piped directly from the milking shed to the cheese making area. It certainly pays off in the flavour. The smoothest, richest gouda I’ve tasted.
At around sunset, we returned to the ship to travel on to Amsterdam and a late afternoon flight home.
We docked conveniently for the centre of Amsterdam. Time to pack and leave the ship at 1pm for our transfer to Schipol Airport. Dieting to start immediately on landing in Cardiff!!