Story by Carol Canter
Photos by Carol Canter and Jack Heyman.
My first Zumba class took place on the Sundeck of the Ama Prima, our beautiful Ama Waterways ship, as Captain Ron Schuegard piloted our 160-passengers and crew through the legendary Rhine Gorge. Wellness Host André Almeida led our group to “step to the left, step to the right, then circle slowly now using your sexy move.” Latin music and the breeze energized us, as we surrendered to the rhythm and the scenic splendor. Dazzling it was, viewing turreted castles — even a few picturesque ruins — strategically built atop craggy hilltops or vineyard-terraced inclines. Surreal, superb and spectacular was our dance, making us feel we were grooving inside a modern day fairytale . . . not locked away in a tower, but free as the fast flowing Rhine that carved this deep dramatic gorge over the eons of time. How will we ever do Zumba in a gym after this!
Yoga, resistance bands, core strengthening and power walks through historic ports of call were other included wellness options to enjoy or ignore over the course of 11 days, as we cruised 2 rivers through 4 countries — Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland — sampling the local food, wine and culture along the way. We peered into epochs of history dating back to the Celts and Romans, viewed Gothic cathedrals, Rococo palaces, Art Nouveau mansions and always the achingly-charming half-timbered houses dating from the Middle Ages, their window boxes ablaze with flowers in hot pinks, purples and reds.
Day 4 of our cruise at Koblenz, cable cars took us soaring above the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle, where we surveyed the topography of the two rivers that would define our richly varied 11-night journey between Amsterdam and Basel.
The 820-mile Rhine has served as Europe’s most important waterway on its course from Switzerland to the North Sea. Industrial barges pass, reminding us this is a working river, yet its concentration of castles is unsurpassed along 40 miles of the Middle Rhine upstream of Koblenz. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, known to visitors throughout the world as the Rhine Gorge, is storybook Germany where fairytales are born, and legends, lessons and lore abound. . . brothers feuding from their neighboring castles, robber barons taxing passage on the river, and of course a “Siren” named Lorelei to blame for luring sailors to their death.
How else could one explain shipwrecks against the rocks at this deep, narrow and once turbulent part of the Rhine but for a golden-haired beauty perched atop a sheer 433-foot slate cliff and her seductive song. Ama passengers, armed with binoculars and cameras for castle-spotting and shooting, are served Rüdesheimer Coffee, a local specialty set aflame with Asbach brandy, topped with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. The drink sweetens the tragic verses of “The Loreley Song,” a poem penned by Heinrich Heine in 1824, and later set to music by German composer Friedrich Silcher. The song plays on deck as our boat passes the formidable cliff:
… “The boatman has heard what has bound him – In throes of a strange, wild love – He is blind to the reefs that surround him, – Who sees but the vision above …”
And this by Sylvia Plath, published in 1960:
Lorelei – It is no night to drown in: – A full moon, river lapsing – Black beneath bland mirror-sheen, – The blue water-mists dropping – Scrim after scrim like fishnets – Though fishermen are sleeping, – The massive castle turrets – Doubling themselves in a glass – All stillness. Yet these shapes float – Up toward me, troubling the face – Of quiet.
Our river cruise was the ultimate way to take it all in — the passion, tragedy and whimsy of legends, the scope of history, dazzle of scenery and the sheer joy of the journey for our diverse group of passengers, lodged in luxury watching the story of two rivers unfold.
The second river, the Moselle – known in German as the Mosel — is a main tributary of the Rhine. Tumbling from its source in the Vosges Mountains, it flows 340 miles through NE France and Luxembourg to Koblenz, a fairytale village whose name defines its “confluence” with the Rhine. Between Koblenz and Trier, the Mosel is at its most picturesque, looping past vineyards of startling beauty. Beguiling villages we’d never before heard of become new favorites for their narrow cobbled streets and architectural jewels.
Cochem is gateway to the landmark Reichsburg Castle, perched on a wooded hill above town. Touring the castle and peering through its flower-framed windows at the expansive valley below, one feels the tragic irony that Louis Ravené, a wealthy Berliner of French descent, did not live to see the transformation of a castle ruin into the majestic neo-Gothic treasure he passionately envisioned and funded.
In Traben-Trarbach, impressive Art Nouveau mansions line the riverfront and town, built with the enormous wealth of the town’s cosmopolitan wine merchants. For this small Mosel town, by 1900, was the most important wine-trading town after Bordeaux in France!
Bernkastel-Kues, known as the city of wine and philosophy, has an irresistible market square with a Pointed House or Spitzhauschen and lopsided houses that contrast with the perfect symmetry of its fine Renaissance Rathaus or City Hall.
Trier, Germany’s oldest city founded by Roman Emperor Augustus in 16 B.C. was once known as the Rome of the North. Remains of an Imperial Bath, 1st century Amphitheater where gladiators once fought to the death, and Porta Nigra, the best-preserved Roman city gate in the world, recall the heyday of Augusta Teverorum when it was a powerhouse of the ancient world. A walk from Porta Nigra leads through cosmopolitan market square, Trier’s center of commerce and capitalism, to the house where Karl Marx, revolutionary philosopher and co-author with Engels of the seminal Communist Manifesto, was born in 1818. Time travel in Trier truly spans the millennia, not to mention world-changing philosophical currents.
We can thank the Romans for planting vineyards on the steep hillsides along the Rhine and Mosel over 2,000 years ago to supply wine to their soldiers … and be grateful that the quality of the wines has markedly improved since then.
If it’s been said that wine is bottled poetry, then these vineyards are sheer visual verse, an exquisite emerald canvas stretching from riverbank to sky, impossibly steep, at times nearly vertical. To conceptualize the planting, tending and harvesting of the grapes is a leap of faith, as it seems to defy gravity’s laws, and of course the labor must be done by hand. It came as no surprise to learn the Mosel boasts what is said to be the steepest recorded vineyard in Europe – and likely in the world – the Calmont Vineyard in the village of Bremm, between Zell & Cochem, at a 65 degree incline!
How sublime to cruise past one estate after the next, watching the verdant hues deepen or pale in the changing light. So too was our chance to cycle peaceful bike lanes at their base, enjoying use of Ama’s fleet of 25 bicycles. And to reach the heights, we rose by gondola above the vineyards at tiny Rüdesheim, a scenic wine town at the edge of the Rhine Gorge. After the bird’s-eye perspective, some of us chose to amble on foot down vine-lined pathways, framing our photos between bunches of grapes, flowers and views of the Rhine valley below.
So as we sipped the wines served onboard our Ama Prima, we had absolute respect for the terroir, and for the care that went into the wine’s evolution from grape to glass. We became attentive to the flinty minerality and herbaceous notes that characterize the Rieslings of the Rhine and Mosel, where the roots of the vine dig down through the red slate, which warms the soil and keeps in the heat.
Our palates had been educated during several optional winery visits, where the thick walls and cool cellars kept the temperatures consistent for the wines, and cooled us from the heat of the summer day.
At a tasting at Axel Emert winery in Traben-Trarbach, the owner helped us differentiate a Riesling that was “Trocken” or bone dry from one that was “Feinherb” or slightly sweet — always with more than a spoonful of humor.
At Dr. Pauly Bergweiler winery in Bernkastel-Kues, we learned that back in the 1930s and ‘40s, these Rieslings sold for prices comparable to the best Bordeaux. This came as a surprise to many passengers, whose first introduction to the Riesling grape came in the 60s or 70s through the sugary Liebfraumilch best known through the Blue Nun label.
Fellow Ama Prima passenger, the Honorable Georges D. Muller of the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs (“royal guild of goose roasters”) offered a talk on the history of wine, from its discovery in Georgia 7,000 years ago through Prohibition in the U.S. in the 1920s and the “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting of May 24, 1976. The event “shocked the wine world” when two California wines –- a 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and a 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars — earned top honors over some of the finest wines in France.
He explained that Ama Waterways is the first cruise line to be extended membership into the invitation-only Confrérie, the oldest food and wine society in the world, founded in 1248 and revived in Paris in 1950. Muller’s talk readied us for that night’s special Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner. Here’s what the classic French menu looked like:
Paté de Canard, Walnut Brioche, Fig Chutney – Port Wine Onion Confit
Soup: Soupe à l’Oignon (French Onion Soup, Cheese Crouton)
Medaillon d’Agneau” (Herb Crusted Lamb Rack, Medallion, Navarin, Natural Jus) – Romanesco, Ratatouille, Potato Gratin
Variation de Desserts – Opera Cake – Orange Sorbet
Wines were paired daily at lunch and dinner with these sumptuous multi-course meals, designed to suit everyone from vegans to carnivores. There were always multiple options beyond the daily courses listed as the Chef’s Recommendation. Some reflected a more Asian influence, like “Grilled Fillet of Gilthead Sea Bream, Red Curry-Coconut Sauce, Vegetables, Quinoa,” others a special theme.
The Chef’s Table, which every passenger could sign up for at least once during the cruise, was a dining highlight, especially when sunset cast a glow over our intimate private dining room.
Exercise was the favorite antidote to our culinary excesses, and most passengers took advantage of the guided walking tours that gave an overview of each port. In Amsterdam, this included a canal cruise. In Cologne, a stop for a Kolsch at a historic brewhouse-pub, served with Reibekuchen — potato pancakes with applesauce.
Some chose to narrow the focus with a special Interest Tour: to the Bundesbank Bunker where currency was stored during the cold war; to uncover “the Secrets of Porta Nigra;” or to explore the splendors of Schwetzingen Gardens.
The fitness folks were off on a hike or bicycle ride, either on their own or joining a guided group. Hikes wound two or three steep miles up to castles like Grevenburg or Ehrenfels, or along the romantic Philosopher’s Path in Heidelberg, in the footsteps of some of the great thinkers across time.
The Strasbourg Bike Tour weaves 13 miles through France’s most bike-friendly city, and along the picturesque canals of the medieval quarter known as La
Petite France. The 28 mile Guided Bike Ride along the Moselle follows the bend in the river between Traben-Trarbach and Bernkastel-Kues, past the Abbey Machem, and the gorgeous vineyards producing the world’s best Rieslings. And some of us just pedaled a few miles on our own, after a half-day guided excursion, so we could “have it all.”
There were indeed moments between all the offerings to sit on our private French balcony and watch the river ripple and flow, shower in our gleaming marble bathroom, or perhaps watch a movie in our spacious stateroom.
With passengers ranging in age mostly from 40 to 90, and from places as far-flung as Brazil and Australia, there seemed to be something for everyone. Two lively sisters from Quebec joined in all the action. The elder, a retired ski instructor now in her 80s, kept up with the group of fast walkers. Her younger sister, who joined the slower-moving “gentle walkers” touring group, tossed her cane aside the first evening when, moved by an Edith Piaf song, she joined some younger passengers on the dance floor.
In fact, a group of all ages seemed to form organically during the course of the cruise to take over the disco nightly. No matter how far we had walked that day — through historic cities or around the track on the ship’s deck; cycled along river pathways; kicked and splashed in the small refreshing swimming pool; or stretched and strengthened on deck with André, there was always the dance floor that beckoned us — for more rhythmic exercise, more bonding, more fun.
Night-lit modern bridges gleamed and glowed our final eve as most of Ama Prima’s passengers and crew found ourselves out on deck, reluctant to miss the balmy breezes off the river as we bid farewell to new friends with whom we’d shared a fairytale journey.
But the end of the cruise came for many of us in the disco, as it had almost every night before. As the clock struck midnight, we sang along with the Louis Armstrong classic, which had become the refrain of our trip: “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
IF YOU GO: Visit AmaWaterways website. https://www.amawaterways.com/ To learn more about the cruise detailed here, 11-night Rhine & Moselle Fairytales, visit https://www.amawaterways.com/destination/europe-river-cruises/2018/rhine-moselle-fairytales
AmaWaterways is offering Free Air on select 2019 river cruises through December 31.