Of all the great river cruises I have taken, this AMA Waterways Wine-Themed Cruise was a first on many levels.
The first first was I took a family member with me, my younger son James, an easy-going, late thirty something, whose temperament is pleasant and inquisitive. Like me, he wanted to know the history of everything, and was always eager to go and see, actually the best kind of traveler there is. He had never been on a river cruise before, so seeing travels through his Gen-X eyes was instructive to a Boomer like me.
The second first was the timing of this trip. We left on November 14th, the day after the Paris attacks, and the day after the Lufthansa strike ended. I was on Lufthansa, James was on United, but we were both traveling up the Rhine through the eastern part of France — that included Riquewihr and Strasbourg. Many concerned relatives and friends were anxious about our trip, but James and I were undeterred. France was only one stop. We went from Switzerland though France, through Germany and ended in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
The last first was this AMA Waterways Cruise was my first wine-themed cruise, where we were sailing up the Rhine, by way of the Alsace region of France. This locale includes the great vineyards and terroir of the Riesling, the Pinot Gris, the Gewürztraminer, the Crement, the Sylvaner. to name just a few. The Cruise also had a wine expert, Robert, “Bob” Dickinson, on board who would provide exceptional wine lectures that included q/a time and wine tastings and wine pairings with dinner on our nine day cruise.
We also went to vineyards and wineries of the Alsace area, and heard the vintners discuss the soils, weather, and all else that related to grape health and sweetness. The Alsace lies on the west bank of the Rhine, between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains to the west. To the north and east Alsace shares a border with Germany; to the south with German-speaking Switzerland, and to the west with Lorraine and Franche Comté.
One of first stops was a small village called Riquewihr, called one of the most beautiful in France. James and I had been to many French cities and villages, but after seeing Riquewihr, we agreed on its unique beauty. It had a romantic, otherworldly quality: ancient yet well preserved. It was here we bought great slices of gingerbread from a shop called Le Coeur d’Alsace, and then enjoyed a vineyard experience at Charles Sparr, an Alsatian winery and vineyard that had been in existence since 1680. 12 generations of Sparr vintners have worked the soil, producing dazzling wines, and Eaux De Vie.
Back on the AMA Certo, our river cruise vessel, we thought that Riquewihr, and the Alsace wine producing areas we felt had a Napa Valley feel. Hills were filled with grape vines, and the weather was mild and damp. The only difference lay in time. These French vineyards, with their distinct terroir, had been producing grapes since the 1200’s. The first grapes planted in Napa were in 1839. We are such a young country.
The next day, still in the same vicinity, we toured the city of Strasbourg, the Alsace capital. The University of Strasbourg has been in existence since 1538, and has 46,000 plus students. When we walked around Strasbourg, we happened upon a makeshift memorial to those who died in the recent Paris attacks. There was a palpable essence, with small burned votives, and accompanying notes, of sadness with solidarity.
This memorial, perhaps intentionally, lay close to the Strasbourg Cathedral, built in 1438 and is one of the most ornate Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
In addition to its rose window, and great stained glass on all sides, it also houses the Strasbourg Astronomical Clock. It is the third clock at that location: the first had been constructed in the 14th century, the second in the 16th century, and the current clock dates from 1843. Its main features are a perpetual calendar (including a computus), an orrery (planetary dial), a display of the real position of the Sun and the Moon, and solar and lunar eclipses.
An interesting place, upon reflection, for a clock of such magnitude – in a Gothic cathedral. All we could guess is that the clockmakers wanted people to know understand the gravitas of time, and how mortal time related to the wider universe as they then understood it.
This sense of temporality was underscored as we left France, when we saw many ruins and castles in the Rhine Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some had been left to the decay, while some were now privately owned Hostels, and some had been turned into hotels.
Seeing the castles on the Rhine was so memorable, and one of many on our AMA Certo vessel, where we relished the time on board as much as we relished our off board excursions.
We enjoyed the social life of the large lounge, as well as our room, with both a French balcony and a walk out balcony also. The AMA Certo provided comfort in all dimensions.
Though James is 6 ‘5”, the bed fit him well, the blackout shades provided great sleep, there was an early and late risers breakfast, and many times the walking tours were also geared to early and late risers. What a blessing to those of us who have difficulties with mornings. And for those who did not wish to go out guided tours, the guests could take bicycles out from the AMA vsessles, the Certo included, and bicycle up and around the towns.
Also, each time on board for the evening meal, the food was prepared by the Executive Chef, Bogdan Dumitrascu, and his team. They were often four, and sometimes five course meals that reflected the country we were sailing through, accented by local wines of the region also. Indeed, one of the major differentiators between AMA Waterways and other river cruise lines is that AMA is the only cruise line that has ever been inducted into the Confrerie De La Chaine Des Rotisseurs, an invitation-only society that extends invitations only to those companies with world class culinary acumen.
Our next major city stop was Cologne, a 2,000-year-old city, founded in 38 BC, and spanned the Rhine River in western Germany. The landmark of Gothic architecture set amid reconstructed old town is the twin-spired Cologne Cathedral, that began being built in 1248 AD. It is known for its gilded medieval reliquaries — in one gold reliquary box, the bones of the Three Wise Men are said to reside.
It was a cold day with light rain when we left the AMA Certo to visit Cologne and the cathedral. I had seen it before, but I wanted to again be reminded of the wake of history this Gothic survivor had endured, especially the many bombings of World War II. Seeing it again, I remembered that a sense of survival permeated the interior. Human history with its furious peccadilloes, lay outside its doors. It was a dark cathedral, and while tourists toured, others were in deep prayer. The lights of candles and stained glass reflections cast soft shadows on the supplicants’ faces. The feeling of ubiquitous security was dominant. Inside, all was well.
We cruised the evening until we came to our final stop, Amsterdam, where 45% of the population was under 35, there were bikes on the streets, and houseboats on the canals. The youthful scent of chocolate and marijuana permeated the coffee shops. It was at one where you could buy a chocolate bar with marijuana inside. To me, that sounds awful, but then, I am not 35 or under.
Though it was a city replete with young people on bicycles, there is great history here as well. The Anne Frank House is here, and we were told that even in the most inclement of weather, lines to see the place where she wrote her famous Diary usually spread around the block. It was cold and rainy on the day we took the Canal cruise, and true to form, the serpentine lines – made up of mostly young people — were long.
This was the third most visited place in Amsterdam, following the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. I came to think that Anne’s youth and articulate nature are alive and well in young Amsterdam, both now and in years to come.
A few final comments:
Travel after the Paris attacks: Shakespeare once said, “…Each substance of grief hath twenty shadows….” James and I felt that because of the Paris attacks, it was necessary to travel, as we gratefully accepted risk, as we gratefully engaged the risk of life.
About James’s view: He commented about the age of those on board – he was about 30 years younger than most everyone else. He wondered why that was, as he had a great time exploring the areas on bicycle, and with the rest of us on our tours. He loved the local color, the wine tasting and the freedom this type of cruise engenders. He plans to take his wife and two young sons on a river cruise in another few years.