By JAN STADTHERR
My bags have been packed for years. Perhaps I should clarify. The bags under my eyes are packed, but I’ve very seldom had some place to go that is thousands of miles away. Well, I actually got to pack my suitcases in September for a 15-day European river cruise!
Since our 20th wedding anniversary is this year, my husband, Ron, suggested we take a river cruise. (Yes, he is the sweetest!) We made reservations with a cruise line in April that would take us down three rivers – the Rhine, Main, and the Danube, and through the countries of the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. We paid for the trip in full only to receive an email two weeks later from the cruise line to apologize that they had to cancel our cruise due to the familiar line heard frequently in the past three years – “staff shortage.” We were so disappointed, and received a full refund. To spare more hassle, we had Deb, a family member who is a travel agent, seek out another company who offered a similar cruise. Thankfully, she found a very reputable river cruise line. Overjoyed, I was like a little kid anxiously waiting for Christmas.
Four months later, we flew for over seven sleepless hours direct from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, a city below sea level. From the air, I was amazed to see the hundreds of dikes laid out like streets. The airport is the largest airport I’ve ever entered. The walk from the gate to the “baggage hall” seemed like miles. The cruise line staff was there to greet us, and we boarded a bus that brought us to our longship, the Elba, a three-level, 443-foot long boat that quietly glides over the water. We felt no movement unless we were in one of the over 60 locks along the 1,200 plus-mile cruise.
The main mode of transportation for the 1.6 million people in the Amsterdam area is by bicycle. My mouth dropped when the guide told us there are four times more bikes than cars in the city. It was also a shock to learn that it is a law in the Netherlands that bicycles have the right-away, not pedestrians. It may not be the law but the same bike protocol is used in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Pedestrians cannot walk in the bike paths, and nearly all the guides emphasized to stay out of the way of the speeding bikers. While in Germany, this blonde was walking on the bike path when I suddenly heard a loud “hallo, hallo!” I turned to see a woman on her bike at my heels.
Touring the 19 windmills in the small village of Kinderdijk in the Netherlands was fascinating. We learned why the windmills were built in the 18th century, and seeing the living quarters within the mills where some Dutch people still live today. Unfortunately, the tulips were not in bloom.
Being our first trip to Europe, I loved the uniqueness and antiquity of the countries, including the three rivers on which we floated. I took many photos of the architecture of the buildings including homes, medieval and gothic-style cathedrals, and palaces. Many of the buildings were built in the 13th century and have been maintained well since that time.
The Cologne Cathedral in Cologne is the most visited landmark in Germany. It attracts 20,000 people a day, and it is the tallest, twin-spired church in the world. The foundation was laid in 1248, and the church was in construction for many centuries until completed in the mid-1800s. Our guide said that there will always be scaffolding along various parts of the building as the sandstone, which is now very dark due to air pollutants, is constantly being maintained.
Preparing myself as to what to expect on a river cruise, I read a blog of a man who has gone on many in all parts of the world. When writing about the cathedrals and palaces along the three rivers we traveled, he said that when you see one cathedral or palace, you’ve seen them all. Yes, they are similar, but each has its own story to tell.
I have so much more to share. Part two is my next column. Having taken three ocean cruises in the past, I prefer the river cruise with smaller ships and under 200 passengers. It was a fabulous trip, and I hope that we can take another cruise again. As I said, my bags are always packed.