FOR many of the travellers I met on my recent cruise on the Rhine, it wasn't their first foray into river cruising, nor was it mine.
I had done a different Rhine cruise some years ago, and was looking forward to my second venture, this time to different cities, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. We boarded the Amacello at Breisach, a town on the German side of the Rhine and directly facing the Alsace region of France.
The most appealing aspect of river cruising for me is the fact that I can check into my cabin, hang up my clothes and that's it. No more packing and unpacking, and there's the pleasure of bringing your temporary home with you to different cities and towns.
The cabins on the Amacello were warm and welcoming, with white bed linen and chocolates on each pillow. And that's where my greed took over. We had to fill in a registration form and, because I was in the cabin on my own, I was overcome with fear that, if they knew this on board, I would be deprived of the second chocolate every night. So who to invent as a bed fellow?
Because of Gerald Kean's recent split with Lisa, I promptly (after a few drinks in the bar) assigned him to my room as the second resident. And it went on from there. Every morning I was asked by my companions as to his whereabouts, and of course the answer was that he had slipped out to buy me a little trinket, was having a massage in the on-board spa or was merely having a lie-in after our wild night of passion.
On our first morning, we took a walking tour of Breisach (without Gerald), a town of historical note.
We trekked up to the top of the town to the Church of St Stephen, taking in the snow-covered roof tops. The church is both Romanesque and Gothic, and was bombed in the Second World War. Eighty-five percent of it has been rebuilt. Our guide was Andrew, who had a strong English accent and had learnt English when he had played many years ago with an English band called the White Plains. A local Dickie Rock.
Amacello offers morning and afternoon tours at all ports of call, and the great thing is you are near enough to all towns and cities to do your own thing or to take advantage of the guided tour. We figured it made sense to learn more about the area from those who know, so after a gorgeous lunch of various buffet appetizers such as salad nicoise or panini rustico, followed by cream of celery soup with herbs and croutons and a main course choice of baked fillet of John Dory with root vegetables, light mustard sauce and basmati rice, or breaded veal or Malfadine pasta and a buffet choice of desserts and cheeses, we took the afternoon trip to the Black Forest, again sadly without Gerald.
On this occasion our guide was Jack. He had a strong Welsh accent. We assumed he had played in a previous life with a Welsh band and couldn't believe it when he informed us he was from Holyhead, but had been living in the area for a long time.
The trip up though the forest was awesome. Snow-covered pines and firs all the way up. We stopped at Hofgot Sternun, home to one of the largest cuckoo clocks in the world and a sweet little Christmas market, where we all bought some wooden Christmas decorations and partook of the obligatory gluhwein.
The Germans are big into their Christmas, and many houses were festooned with wooden hanging decorations.
And then it was back to our cosy warm boat and dinner again, a veritable feast, all served by the most courteous and friendly staff I have ever come across.
A starter of duck breast with grape chutney, foie gras and port wine fig, followed by French onion soup, topped with cheese croutons and a main course of medallion of lamb with herb crust on thyme sauce, ratatouille, and potato gratin followed by creme caramel, Grand Marnier orange tarte and home-made port wine ice cream. Complimentary and well chosen wine flows freely at dinner time.
Our port of call the next day was Strasbourg and we broke loose from the guided tour. Because of the European Parliament, I had it in my head that Strasbourg was a city of grey buildings. I could not have been further from the truth. The Petite France area is absolutely beautiful – full of old medieval black-and-white, timber-framed buildings and covered bridges. The canal tour is a must. The sandstone Gothic cathedral takes pride of place in the middle of this area and the Christmas markets were absolutely packed, all lending to a wonderful atmosphere.
We were lucky enough to be there on a Saturday morning, when the weekly market of local produce takes place. Cheese, vegetables and fish abound. We passed storks and flamingos in the Orangerie gardens, and finished up our day with a few bevvies on a lovely boat restaurant. Then it was a taxi back and another wonderful dinner. To soak up more of the wonderful atmosphere of Strasbourg, we took a trip after dinner to the Perestroika bar, where one could imagine oneself to be on the left bank of Paris, surrounded by an eclectic mix of bohemian types and dogs in coats.
The following day we visited Speyer, one of Germany's oldest towns, with its Jewish quarter, cathedral and the beautiful Trinity Church with its wood-adorned interior.
AMA waterways really go out of the way to make this a memorable experience. Great food, plenty of complimentary afternoon tea and gluhwein, friendly staff and the chance to see many 'out of the way' towns and cities without once having to unpack.
By staying in his cabin for most of the duration, Gerald didn't know what he was missing with this wonderful trip. He even missed my Elvis impression in the bar on one of the many nights of fun and over-imbibing. Strahill, the barman, has promised to practise as my backing group for my rendition of In the Ghetto when I return.
Move over, Gerald.