Those advertisements for Viking Cruises are annoying — that smart, white-clad, silver-haired couple on deck, gazing up at romantic fairytale castles, waving elegant flutes of champagne and never squabbling.
It doesn’t look like me somehow — and certainly not my motorcycle-loving husband, who’d be more at home at a biker rally.
Even so, I love rivers and there comes a time in life when you have to go with the middle-aged flow — and so here we are boarding the ‘longboat’ (as these river cruisers are called) in Amsterdam, not knowing quite what to expect. But as soon as we are shown to our stateroom and read the first daily bulletin I get the picture.
Pushing the boat out: Beautiful Basel sits on the Rhine
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be looked after. Few decisions to be made, no worries about transport, courteous, well-trained staff to answer every need.
At each new daily mooring, there is an included tour and one or two optional ones (you pay extra), but there’s nothing to stop you staying on the boat, browsing the excellent small library, eating good food and letting the Rhine send you to sleep.
I like going to the huge dining room and just joining a table. We bond with a young American couple called John and Beth. One night, pretty Beth and I confide in each other, helped by a few Riesling-induced tears and hugs.
After-dinner drinks in the lounge, with music playing, can forge instant friendships. On one occasion, we plonk ourselves on a table with some lovely Brits.
‘You look just like that lady from the Daily Mail,’ one of them says. Post-cruise they have become friends. There are eight people travelling alone on our ship, the Aruna, and I understand why. This is a safe, undemanding holiday with new people to talk to at meals and excursions. It couldn’t be more friendly. Yes, most of us are middle-aged, but there’s a group of passengers in their 30s too — like my new chum Beth.
The first stop is at the hugely-popular Kinderdijk windmills in the Netherlands. We pile into one of the historic pumping machines — a rather claustrophobic experience.
Bel Mooney travelled with Viking Cruises on a getaway from Basel to Amsterdam
Whole families lived in the tall, iconic buildings, under the constant clank of the blades. No wonder they look so gaunt and miserable in old photographs on the walls.
This excursion confirms the routine. After breakfast you’re whisked away in different groups on coaches, each with a guide, to that day’s venue — and, after sightseeing, back to the ship. If the guide is good, so much the better.
The one we have next day in Cologne is big on cosy platitudes and low on information, although, of course, the lordly cathedral speaks for itself. We’d be better off skipping the organised stuff and wandering on our own.
A tip: don’t be afraid of being independent. Being shepherded in a group isn’t for me — and there’s plenty of it on a cruise. But at a UNESCO World Heritage Site such as Marksburg castle you have to have a guided tour — and it’s worthwhile.
Bel, pictured above, aboard a Viking ship
Germans call their beautiful river Father Rhine: 764 miles of waterway rising in the Alps and passing through Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands before joining the North Sea at Rotterdam.
On one sunny afternoon of cruising through the magnificent scenery of the Middle Rhine we see vineyards sloping precipitously down the river banks, castle after ruined castle on hilltops, and a changing panorama of pretty, peaceful villages along the edge of the mighty river — which transports goods as well as holidaymakers. Hearing the well-judged commentary as we loll on deck, cold beer in hand, fulfils all my imaginings.
We absolutely love the atmospheric wine tasting and dinner in Eberbach monastery; buy festive trinkets in Heidelberg’s famous Christmas shop, and are fascinated to explore Strasbourg with a young guide clearly proud of her magnificent city — surely one of the prettiest places in Europe, with a cathedral to overawe even the most experienced churchaholic like me.
Here on display is all the might of EU institutions, too — and I find out that evening that our vessel is staffed by 13 different nationalities. Together with the fascinating history of conflict over Alsace (and with our own national difficulties never far from the mind), this is thought-provoking.
My favourite stop proves to be one of the optional visits — the medieval town of Colmar — an enchanting, unspoilt town which happens to contain one of the world’s greatest works of art, the German artist Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, from the early 16th century.
It’s good to do some research before you go on a well-organised cruise — and next time I’d plan what to skip — like the hideously touristy Black Forest cuckoo clocks.
On the other hand, many of the Americans loved that diversion. A cruise has to cater for all tastes — and that must explain why this sort of holiday is fast becoming the most popular of them all.
Bel Mooney travelled with Viking Cruises (vikingcruises.co.uk), which has the Rhine Getaway eight-day Basel to Amsterdam cruise, including six guided tours, from £1,995pp based on June 2020 departure.