A European river cruise has long been on my travel to-do list. So, when I had the opportunity to experience the AmaWaterways “Enchanting Rhine (Wine Cruise)”, I was all in. Bob and Lynette Morus, proprietors of Phelps Creek Vineyards in Oregon, traveled with us. They hosted wine tastings and lectures throughout our journey. I could not even believe my good fortune!
I’ve taken many ocean cruises over the years. And while I’ll always love them, I really enjoyed the more intimate atmosphere of a river cruise. We sailed on the 162-passenger AmaPrima. Built in 2013, the ship’s construction and décor are reminiscent of a classic ocean yacht. My stateroom featured both French and outside balconies, and other amenities like unlimited Wi-Fi, a luxe marble bathroom with multi-jet showerheads and an in-room safe.
As cliché as it sounds — although I traveled alone, I was never lonely. In fact, I became fast friends with two wonderful ladies who let me dine with them and tag along on various excursions. They were delightful, and meeting them certainly enhanced my cruise experience.
The food on board was fantastic. I had marked vegetarian on my pre-cruise paperwork. The ship’s maître d’ met with me on the very first day to answer any questions I might have and assured me they would accommodate my food preferences. Boy did they ever! I think I Instagrammed every single meal. AmaWaterways was the first river cruise line to become a inducted into the international gastronomic society, La Chaine des Rotisseurs. It’s the world’s oldest and largest food and wine society, and is dedicated to creating and promoting exceptional cuisine. In addition to phenomenal food, each meal was paired with limitless wine. Yes, please!
Freiburg and Breisach
The options for tours at our first stop were either Riquewihr or a Freiburg and Breisach excursion. I chose Freiburg and Breisach. Margarita, our local guide, was delightful. Her enthusiasm for her home country was contagious.
We began our day with a morning wine tasting led by Arno Landerer at the Kaiserstühler Winzerverein Oberrotweil. The winery is in Botzingen, a lovely village situated near Freiburg. It’s part of a wine co-op that was launched in 1935 with about 66 families. Today, it has grown to include around 200 wine-growing families.
Landerer was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining. We sampled as he explained the region’s wine history. Germany's wine history is thought to date back to 70 A.D., when the Romans brought their vineyards to Germany. They built the first terraced vineyards within the Kaiserstuhl (Emperor’s Chair), the volcanic region of southwest Germany ideal for grape growing. Our tour concluded with the opportunity to peruse the gift shop, which teemed with the wines they produce, locally made gifts and wine-related items.
Set in the foot of the Black Forest, the historic city center of Freiburg was our next destination. The stunning Freiburger Münster (Freiburg's cathedral) stole the show for me. I was entranced by this towering Gothic cathedral, with its intricate filigree stonework on the spire and vibrant stained-glass windows. Constructed of red sandstone, the cathedral was erected in 1200 and completed around 1530.
Along both sides of the church, there was a thriving outdoor market. From food vendors selling pretzels, bratwurst and currywurst to tables stacked with local jams, spices, fresh flowers and souvenirs — it was a feast for the senses.
After we took some free time to explore the town, we boarded the bus and headed back to the ship. Margarita wanted to make sure we didn’t miss a thing, and offered a last-minute side trip to those of us who could trek uphill quickly. The bus dropped us off at the foot of the volcanic cliff in the town of Breisach, where we made a fast climb to St Stephen’s Münster (St. Stephen’s Church).
An exact construction date isn’t known, but many people believe it was built sometime after 1185. About 85 percent of the church was destroyed during WWII, so the town considered tearing the rest of it down. However, thanks to the Bishop of Freiburg’s rallying efforts, they instead raised money for its reconstruction, and spent the next 20 years rebuilding it to its original design. Many of the furnishings and the west portion of the church survived the bombings. Spectacular (and well preserved) murals adorn the walls. Painted by notable 15-century artist and engraver, Martin Schongauer, they depict scenes of the Last Judgement. It’s believed that they are some of the largest murals north of the Alps that remain. Other impressive architectural elements included the west door’s tympanum, which featured intricately carved scenes from the life and martyrdom of St. Stephen.
Situated on the Ill River along the German/French border, Strasbourg is the capital city of the Alsace region of France. Our drive to Strasbourg was an interesting juxtaposition — from the contemporary architecture of buildings like the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Building and the European Parliament to the half-timbered 16th- and 17th-century houses and shops along the cobbled streets around the historic city center, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I was smitten with Strasbourg. It looked as if it had been plucked from the pages of a Black Forest fairytale book. Shopkeepers were decorating their storefronts in preparation for the upcoming Christmas markets, so it looked especially magical.
You can’t miss the majestic Gothic Strasbourg Cathedral, located in Gutenberg Square. More than 500 years old, it’s the tallest medieval building in Europe and houses the oldest working astronomical clock in the world. The cathedral’s clock has undergone three iterations and is the collected effort of varied mathematicians, artists and technicians. The first clock was built sometime in the mid-1300s. The second, more elaborate clock was built in the late 1500s. The current astronomical clock was completed in 1843 and still reflects features of the earlier clocks. Each day, you can watch a video about the clock’s history, and, at 12:30 p.m., witness the clock in action. While visiting the cathedral is free, you need a ticket for the show.
Just when I thought I couldn’t be more enamored with a city than I was with Strasbourg, we docked in Heidelberg, a part of the Castle Road trail. Situated on Mount Königstuhl and overlooking the Neckar River and the charming university town of Heidelberg, the impressive Heidelberg Castle welcomes more than 11.8 million each year.
The original castle was built sometime before 1214. Because local farmers made up most of the labor force to build it (and could only use them certain times of the year), they were more concerned with getting it built quickly rather than maintaining a style of architecture. Also, the castle was rebuilt and expanded over the years because of wars, lightning strikes and fires. As a result, the castle architecture reflects varied styles including Gothic and Renaissance elements.
Although the day was cold and rainy, I could have spent hours exploring the castle and grounds. Our tour included an outside look at the Ottheinrich Building and an inside visit to the Barrel Building adjacent to King’s Hall. This is where you’ll find the world’s largest largest wine cask. Made from 130 oak trees, the cask is almost 23 feet wide, just over 27 feet long and holds 58,000 gallons of wine.
After our day in Heidelberg, we sailed on down the Rhine and docked in Rüdesheim that evening. Some guests opted for the Rüdesheimer coffee tour, but I chose a visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum.
This historical and whimsical museum was created by Siegfried Wendel, whose mission was to rescue and repair 19th-century automated musical instruments that were being tossed out as scrap metal in the ’60s. It’s Germany’s first museum collection of automated musical instruments and the world’s largest collection of mechanical music boxes. There are about 350 exhibits of mechanical instruments — from tiny music boxes to the huge Bernhard Dufner’s band with 27 automatic dolls each playing a different instrument. Also on display is the Hupfeld Phonoliszt Violina. Invented in 1907, this group of self-playing violins and piano premiered at the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels and was dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world.”
I was entranced by the building the museum is housed in, the Brömserhof. Built in 1542, it was the home of area nobles, the Brömsers. The walls of the ancestral hall are dressed in striking frescoes, and the home features a Gothic chapel.
Thankfully, the rain that seemed to follow us most of our trip let up just in time for our hike to Ehrenfels Castle the next morning. Our roughly six-mile trek took us through the town (another charmer) and vineyards. Our hike provided striking views of the town below, and the Rhine and Klopp Castle beyond. Ehrenfels was really more of a fortress than a castle. It was built to defend against French attacks and used later to extract toll money from ships plying the Rhine.
My favorite part of our next stop in Cologne was touring Germany’s largest church, the Cologne Cathedral. It’s also the final resting place of the what are believed to be the bones of the three wise men. Upon his return from the conquered city of Milan in 1164, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick brought back the relics of the Magi, making the cathedral an important European pilgrimage destination for Christians.
Due to lack of funding and limited interest in its construction, it took six centuries for the cathedral to be completely built. Though heavily hit, the cathedral survived World War II, and was declared a World Heritage site in 1996. In addition to the shrine of the wise men, the cathedral’s Gothic architecture, inspiring artwork and stunning stained-glass windows are mind bending to see firsthand. Before you leave, consider a climb up the 533 steps to the south tower’s platform for an incredible panorama of the city and the Rhine.
Other city highlights to make time for include the Römisch Germanisches Museum, where you’ll find the world’s largest collection of Roman glass vessels, a Roman mosaic dating back to around 220 to 230 A.D. and 100,000-year-old stone tools that were discovered in the Kartstein cave in the Eifel.
Also, don’t miss the best potato pancakes and a cold Kölsch beer (or two) at Gaffel am Dom, a beer house located on the northern side of the cathedral.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Our time in Amsterdam was rainy, but that certainly didn’t detract from my experience there. I’d visited before, but missed the opportunity to tour the Anne Frank House. I vowed to make that a priority if I ever returned. Our cruise manager helped us secure our tickets (it's best to purchase them online prior to your visit), so we departed from our pre-arranged city tour a bit early for the visit.
It was a sobering exhibit I won’t soon forget. The museum contains the apartment Anne and her family hid in for two years during World War II. Anne’s father, Otto, was the only one in their family to survive the Holocaust. He rescued the home from being demolished in the 1950s, and in 1957 he established the Anne Frank Foundation there. It was impossible not to be moved after seeing her original diary, other historical documents, photographs and video that told the story of the persecution of the Jews during the war.
It was an easy walk back to the ship from the Anne Frank House, which gave us an opportunity to explore the city a little more and discuss our museum experience.
My time along the Rhine was much too short, and I’ve already scoured future AmaWaterways itineraries for my next adventure. A Christmas markets cruise? A Bordeaux wine sailing? A European castles itinerary? My list just keeps getting longer, it seems.