Basel to Amsterdam river cruise: Romance on the Rhine with Crystal Bach

Recently I've been praying to St Anthony, the patron of lost things, on a regular basis; however, perhaps not praying so hard as a guest on Crystal Bach's previous cruise along the Rhine. That unlucky woman lost her priceless diamond engagement ring in her suite's bathroom and despite the staff's best efforts the ring still hasn't been found. An endoscopic camera has been ordered in Amsterdam to search the plumbing system when the ship arrives at the end of this journey.

Cruise director Johannes Lackner tells me and my cruise buddy this story over dinner a couple of nights into our cruise from Basel to Amsterdam. We are impressed by the above and beyond attention to individual service and when we return to our suite we check out the basins to make sure we don't lose anything ourselves. It seems the ring slipped through a nearly invisible overflow hole, not the plughole.

Double basins in the bathroom are among the many thoughtful design features of our suite, which is exceptionally spacious and elegant – as is the whole ship. Crystal operates four nearly identical river ships, built between 2017 and 2018, on the Rhine, Danube, Main and Moselle rivers. Each one accommodates a maximum of 106 guests, who are looked after by 68 crew members – the highest crew-to-passenger ratio in the business.

This sense of space is due to the small number of guests. Although river ships in Europe conform to about the same size (up to 12 metres wide, 135 metres long and three decks high) to fit under bridges and through locks, most are designed to accommodate 150 to 190 passengers. Crystal's ships have fewer, bigger suites; the free-flowing main dining room has plenty of tables for two; and the chic, airy Palm Court lounge is never crowded.

When we board Crystal Bach in the attractive Swiss city of Basel the August weather is unseasonably wet and grey. Which is a relief to locals and visitors alike; the July heatwave that scorched Europe brought back memories of last year's historically low water levels, particularly on the Rhine and Danube, which led to several cruises being cancelled or rerouted. Not to mention disruptions to cargo traffic which, in turn, led to a downturn in the German economy.

By the time the ship docks in Strasbourg the following morning the sun is shining and there are no signs of last year's dried-out riverbanks. We start the day with a pre-breakfast yoga class and head out for a boat tour on the canals ringing the Alsatian city's medieval heart. Later we join a small group for a private organ recital in the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, organised by Crystal. What a treat to skip the queues and have the awe-inspiring Gothic nave to ourselves – the soaring 16th-century music transports us to another world.

Being able to escape the madding crowds makes all the difference when visiting landmark sites, especially in Europe at the height of the season. Another exclusive outing is to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Electoral Palace in Koblenz, for an evening concert performed by a wonderful all-women string quartet. Group day tours are small and mostly free – exceptions are a foie-gras and wine-tasting in Strasbourg, a day in the haute spa town of Baden Baden and a visit to fairytale Eltz Castle in Wierschem.

While it is impossible to escape the line of coaches on the hill leading up to Heidelberg, wandering around the site of the ruined palace under lowering skies it's easy to see why this ivy-covered, pink sandstone edifice inspired so many Romantic artists and poets in the 19th century. The Romantics were equally entranced by the string of medieval castles that tower above pretty towns along the Rhine between Rudesheim and Koblenz. Crystal Bach's charming destination manager Viktoria Bujaki delivers a commentary on the castles' history and legends as we sail through the Gorge, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A dramatic storm, complete with driving rain and a brilliant rainbow, thunders in just after we pass the 12th-century Marksburg Castle – JMW Turner, where are you? – and the sun deck quickly empties of camera-wielding guests. The rapid change in conditions reminds us cosseted cruisers that the river is not to be trifled with but as Captain Tilstra has been sailing Europe's waterways for 48 years, we are in safe hands.

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Koblenz is another piece of history, with roots dating back to Roman times. Set on the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine – an area known as the German Corner – the city has churches, museums and picturesque squares galore. Our guide, Heike, tells us that hosting the prestigious national flower show in 2011 changed the city's latter-day fortunes; the cable car linking Koblenz to the site of the imposing Ehrenbreitstein Fortress was built for the festival and today the aerial ride over the Rhine is a major attraction.

Realising midway across the river that I've left my iPhone on a public piano near the cable car office almost prompts more prayers to poor overworked St Anthony but the phone is returned so quickly – thanks to Heike and the amazingly efficient office staff – that there's no time for desperate supplication. The fortress is worth the angst-ridden river crossing; it's a fascinating and vast complex of metre-thick walls, tunnels, bridges and gates, built by the Prussians in the 1800s on a site that's been strategic for millennia.

In Cologne we decide at the last minute to join yet another tour – the opportunity to learn from local experts is too good to pass up for a couple of hours' window shopping and wandering. Although we manage to fit that in as well, thankfully before we delve into the deeply disturbing recent history of Nazi Germany.

Silvia, a passionate, articulate young woman whose grandparents – like so many of their generation – never talked about the war, takes us into the dark side of the city. Walking through the former headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo, the EL-DE building, and hearing the stories of its prisoners and the thousands of people sent to death camps from this exact place is particularly chilling in light of the recent worldwide rise of anti-Semitism and the alt-right. A woman called Gertrude, now in her 90s, survived imprisonment in EL-DE and still lives in Cologne; Gertrude and Silvia's enduring message is that we must never forget what happened just 70 or 80 years ago.

A day and night in Amsterdam brings this memorable journey to an end. A visit to the almost-deserted Special Collections floor at the Rijksmuseum is a highlight; seeing the restoration of its most famous exhibit, Rembrandt's The Night Watch, which is being filmed and live-streamed across the world, is also pretty special. Unfortunately, Amsterdam's crowded streets are not so special these days – it seems that too many weekend tourists have mistaken the city's liberal outlook for a licence to drink and smoke themselves stupid and an overabundance of tacky pubs and clubs don't exactly discourage them.

But whatever happened to that missing diamond ring on Crystal Bach? Before we disembark, we have a coffee with cruise director Johannes. The endoscopic camera was useless, he says, but Rudi "the tall engineer" solved the mystery. He took the entire bathroom to pieces, recovered the ring and now the challenge is returning this prized piece to its owner in South Africa. I volunteer to be a diamond courier but sadly Johannes has other plans.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Etihad operates 35 flights a week out of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with direct connections from Abu Dhabi to 21 cities in Europe, including Amsterdam, and Geneva or Zurich for Basel. Business-class travellers have the use of Etihad's stylish lounges in Sydney and Abu Dhabi and flyers in any class can pay for access in Abu Dhabi. See etihad.com

CRUISE

Crystal Bach's seven-night Rhine cruises between Amsterdam and Basel sail from March to December. Fares start from $US3395, including "Book Now" savings when booked by October 31, 2019. See crystalcruises.com.au

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Sally Macmillan was a guest of Crystal River Cruises

FIVE FACTS ABOUT THE RHINE

WHERE IT FLOWS

The Rhine runs more than 1230 kilometres through six countries – Switzerland, the Principality of Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands – before flowing into the North Sea at Rotterdam.

LEGEND

Lorelei is both a place on the Rhine and a 19th-century ballad that has inspired countless poems, songs and stories. Lorelei the legend lured sailors on to rocks in the Upper Middle Rhine Valley (aka the Rhine Gorge) – you can see her statue when you sail past Lorelei Cliff. Historically, it was the most dangerous stretch of the river, where ships often went aground.

ON FIRE

The annual Rhine in Flames festival is a series of five spectacular fireworks displays along the river, staged in Bonn (May 2, 2020), Rudesheim (July 4), Koblenz (the biggest, on August 7), Oberwesel and St Goar (September 14 and 21). Both sides of the river are brilliantly illuminated, as are castles and boats.

WINELAND

Rhineland-Palatinate is Germany's top wine-producing region and the Ahr, Moselle, Middle Rhine, Nahe, Rheinhessen and Palatinate encompass the full range of German wines. Riesling is the main white wine created in the Rhine River valley; unlike many non-German Rieslings it is usually light and dry.

CHRISTMAS MARKETS

Towns and cities along the Rhine hold Christmas markets that open in late November and continue until just before Christmas. The tradition dates back to the Middle Ages; visit in the evening for the full effect of the lights, carol singers and festive atmosphere.

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