The beauty of the Rhine is easily lost in translation.
Our planned river cruise from Amsterdam to Basel is generously sprinkled with World Heritage-listed attractions. But what does UNESCO's coveted award mean? What does it tell us about the places we'll visit, such as the famous Rhine Gorge?
UNESCO's website declares that the gorge is, "an outstanding organic cultural landscape, the present-day character of which is determined both by its geomorphological and geological setting and by the human interventions, such as settlements, transport infrastructure, and land use, that it has undergone over two thousand years."
UNESCO's opaque prose hides a glorious stretch of the Middle Rhine where "geomorphological and geological setting" presumably means the ancient gorges and canyons which mould the course of the river from Koblenz some 65 kilometres south to Bingen.
"Human interventions" no doubt include the magnificent castles and palaces that for centuries have stood sentinel at the Rhine Gorge's every turn, while "land use" sinfully understates the spectacular geometry of terraced vineyards that march almost vertically up the gorge's perilously steep hillsides.
The Rhine Gorge proves a highlight – if not the highlight – of our cruise. So much for research before you travel.
Happily, most would-be travellers Googling "cruises on the Rhine" are not likely to stumble onto UNESCO's website. They'll be much too busy trying to navigate the cruise companies' myriad offers of free flights, free connections, free excursions, free drinks, and free gratuities – all of which somehow still leave quite a lot to pay. (Our package includes a "complimentary Silver Spirits beverage package" which – for a brief, happy moment – seems like an invitation to try to recoup the cost of the cruise in XO Cognac. But then comes the first hangover.)
In the end, our choice of a Viking cruise came down to a convenient departure date. It proves a happy choice. Our cabin is a tasteful exercise in making the most of a small space; the service stays on the right side of the line between attentive and intrusive; and the cuisine is excellent (bar one very stringy steak) – and much too plentiful.
Our fellow travellers are mostly used-to-be this or used-to-be that, but now retired. We seem to be the only Australians among a boatload of Americans and Brits, and that's no bad thing. It means the conversation doesn't keep taking you back to Australia. There's also the malicious pleasure of teasing Trump voters about their choice of president.
On our first morning, we are still in Holland, at Kinderdijk, where the windmills line up along the canals every bit as beautifully as they do in paintings on Dutch biscuit tins. We learn, however, that things were not so romantic for the millers and their families. They lived cramped, corner-less lives with too many stairs and the ever-present danger of being flicked into the hereafter by the swirling arms of the mill as they stepped outside their front door.
We tie up north of Cologne that night, only to find our morning departure to the cathedral city delayed by "heavy traffic on the Rhine". "Old Man River" may just keep "rollin' along", but "Old Father Rhine" is working flat out, carrying 10,000 vessels a day along its 1200 kilometres, according to our captain.
The view from our small balcony is always busy with motorised barges, their bellies full of gravel, sand, coal, construction equipment, cars and loads of who-knows-what in stacks of containers. No wonder that at times – such as our approach to Mannheim – the view turns unashamedly industrial.
But we don't spend a lot of time on the balcony; there's so much to do ashore. Viking offers no fewer than 16 shore excursions to fill our seven days and eight nights on the water, ranging from two to six hours each. For the more independent, there's a daily printed guide to what to see and do wherever we tie up.
Most tours are optional, but six are included: the windmills and Cologne, plus Heidelberg, Strasbourg, the Black Forest and the imposing Marksburg Castle towering over the Rhine Gorge. We narrow our options by eliminating four excursions which involve a lot of eating and drinking. We're doing quite enough of that already.
I won't attempt to walk you through all our excursions. But imagine red geraniums dripping from window ledges of centuries-old half-timbered houses that meander along cobbled streets towards market squares dominated by an imposing cathedral and, on a nearby hill, the turrets and towers, ramparts and ruins of the once-grand palace of some forgotten princeling. The surrounding fields glow with yellow dandelion and pale green plastic protecting crops of white asparagus.
In short, the towns and cities nurtured by the Rhine – from Koblenz in the north to Colmar in the south – are every bit as picturesque as the tourist brochures promise. The delight is in the detail.
South of Cologne, for example, there's the marble and gilt extravagance of the interiors at the 18th century Augustusburg Palace, which competes for attention with its much smaller hunting lodge, Falkenlust, a rococo gem, decorated floor to ceiling with dazzling blue and white Delft tiles. "There are no fewer than 10,531 of them," says our guide, Pieter, with conviction that suggests he might actually have counted them.
There's also the utterly unexpected. In Speyer, towards the end of the cruise, we're drawn to voices seeping from the town's thousand-year-old Romanesque cathedral. Sliding tentatively past the massive bronze door, we are hit by a great wave of music from an afternoon concert. A symphony orchestra and a huge choir are transforming Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah from dismal dirge into something almost sublime and absolutely unforgettable.
Strangely, no matter how much you eat on board, you still find temptation ashore, such as the shops with what look like wheels of cheese but turn out to be giant rounds of nougat. And you'll find there's still plenty of room for a Rindswurst sausage hotdog and local beer after a hot morning wandering among the frenzy of architectural styles that is Heidelberg Castle.
Complaints? None really. Even the weather was good. We did think the Alsace winery tour might have included more than one winery. But maybe even that was a plus given that I didn't much like the wine. Too sweet.
FIVE SHORE THINGS IN AMSTERDAM
ON THE HOUSE
As well as the dauntingly large, such as the Rijksmuseum, and the dauntingly popular, such as Anne Frank House, Amsterdam's more intimate attractions include house museums such as the 17th century Willett-Holthuysen canal house with its sumptuous interiors and a jewel of a garden that might have been stolen from a French chateau.
Away from sunflowers, irises and starry, starry nights, the surprise drawcard in Amsterdam's imposing Van Gogh Museum is the "selfie wall", a huge blow-up of one of Vincent van Gogh's self-portraits. It shows van Gogh at work on a painting, quite possibly one of the three dozen "selfies" he painted between 1886 and 1889.
"Cathedral fatigue" is common among tourists in Europe. So vary the mix with a synagogue, such as Amsterdam's imposing Portuguese Synagogue. Built in 1675, its light-filled, elegantly simple interior is now both a place of worship and a concert venue. See it on a ticket to the Jewish Cultural Quarter.
Our cruise on the Viking Kvasir departed Amsterdam in the evening but boarding was from noon. We arrived early to enjoy the "embarkation buffet" followed by a free walking tour of the city. Our guide, Chantal, introduced us to beautiful parts of Amsterdam we'd somehow managed to miss despite days exploring the city on foot.
Europe's big cities have spruikers offering "free" walking tours, where "free" means you pay what you think your guide was worth. Ours was worth quite a lot. Knowledgeable, and with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Arthur led us from the majestic to the miniscule, from the Royal Palace in Dam Square to a canal house just 1.8 metres wide.
Travellers are spoilt for choice when it comes to Rhine River cruising. Viking alone offers nine itineraries ranging from eight days to more than three weeks, and Viking is just one of a number of established operators cruising the route.
Viking's eight-day Rhine Getaway starts at $3495 for 2018 sailings with return air fares to Europe at $999 for bookings before March 31.
Greg Lenthen travelled at his own expense.