Castles, Legends and Koblenz
Thursday, July 16, 2015
Viking River Cruises’ Viking Vidar continued her 15-day Grand European Tour this morning as we arrived in Koblenz, Germany on what would turn out to be a real scorcher of a day along the Rhine River. With the mercury pushing above 30°C by lunchtime (86°F), it was a good thing that our touring activities were confined to the morning, with an afternoon of relaxing scenic cruising.
The last time I was here, it was the middle of December and I nearly froze my Koblenzes off. But the city has some truly gorgeous Christmas Markets, all nestled within a very Medieval, almost Black Forest-esque town that doubles as a proper city in its own right, with over 100,000 inhabitants that call it home.
It’s also old: in 1992, Koblenz celebrated its 2000th anniversary. My country – Canada – celebrated its 148th birthday on July 1. The United States, by comparison, turned 239 years old on July 4. We’re infants toddling around in diapers compared to Koblenz.
But rather than hang around in Koblenz again, I opted to do something that typically isn’t available in the winter months: take the included excursion to Braubach, Germany and the imposing Marksburg Castle that sits perched high above the town.
After a 15-minute coach ride to Braubach, we arrived at Marksburg Castle. I can see why this tour isn’t offered in the dead of winter: the switchback roads leading up to the castle are barely negotiable by our giant Mercedes-Benz coach in the summer. They must be hellishly dangerous in the winter, when the possibility of black ice exists.
Wear good shoes: there’s a lot of walking to be done here, including several sections of uneven rocks and boulders. There was some griping about the uneven rocks and tough conditions going up, but hey – it’s a 700-year old castle!
Not only that: Marksburg is a 700-year old castle that was built with remarkable fortifications – and was never besieged. Not once. Not even so much as an attempt took place. That makes it one of the only untouched castles along the Rhine. It even managed to escape all notice during World War II’s bombing campaigns.
The castle is pretty much as you’d expect: the Blacksmiths shop is over there. The Armoury is over here. There’s the Dungeon. It’s a neat building, but the overuse of fluorescent lighting threw me off and killed the mood. It must have been murder to change those bulbs in 1487.
There’s also some things in there that were never used during the time the castle was operational like looms, a wine press, and a chastity belt.
But the inherent design of the castle is definitely worth going for, and the views of the so-called Middle Rhine are splendid.
I must tend to gravitate towards fun factoids, because the one piece of information that stuck with me all day was the revelation that one of the Castle’s four toilets (really just a perch mounted four stories up with a hole in the bottom) was adjacent to the dining room. I mean, it’s right there. And it was done for a practical reason: no one wanted to leave the conversation at dinner, so the person using said toilet would just waltz in, do their thing – and keep the door open so as to continue the conversation.
When you add in the fact that people didn’t drink water then due to contamination fears and preferred to start hitting the wine hard and early, it sounds like the makings of one heck of a fun evening. Curiously, my high school history classes omitted all these fun bits of information years ago.
Just before noon, we re-boarded our coaches for the quick ride down to the waterfront in Braubach, where Viking Vidar was just pulling up to meet us. A refreshing drink was presented to each guest as they re-boarded the ship (nice touch!), and before I knew it, Viking Vidar was on the move again. The Viking Longships are so whisper-quiet that you can barely tell when the things set sail.
While I enjoyed a casual lunch in the Viking Lounge, I thought about some things that people had asked me about river cruising. Popular as it is, there’s still a lot of misinformation out there about what has, alongside expedition and luxury cruising, become one of my favorite styles of cruise travel.
Some common river cruising myths:
You Don’t Cruise At Night
Incorrect! Most runs actually do a substantial amount of river cruising each evening. There are exceptions, of course; the distance to cover on runs through the Bordeaux region of France and Portugal’s Douro Valley is so small that nighttime cruising isn’t necessary. For most other river cruises, expect to be able to enjoy a nightcap as your ship sets sail for the evening.
Viking Has Too Many Ships. There Won’t Be Enough Places To Dock!
I never know where this comment comes from, but I hear it frequently. Here’s the skinny on the docking situation: not only are there more than enough docks along the Rhine, Main and the Danube, Viking is actively buying up docking space in towns they don’t even visit yet. Work that one through, and it’s clear that as river cruising’s popularity grows, itineraries will diversify to include cities and towns beyond what is currently available. As to Viking’s unparalleled growth: sure, they have lots of ships. But there are already hundreds of cargo ships, hundreds of European river ships on lines North Americans have never heard of, and small ferries plying the rivers of Europe every day. There’s more than enough space for Viking’s fast-growing fleet.
You Have To Pay For Everything / Everything Is Included
There are two flip-sides to this coin, and they’re present in the river cruising world. Some people have the mistaken assumption that everything on a river cruise ship is offered on an a ‘la carte basis, while others think that everything is all included. Very few lines make you pay for everything – though they do exist. Likewise, there are a handful of lines that include everything but the kitchen sink in their fares.
Viking straddles a very comfortable middle ground: beer, wine, and soft drinks are provided complimentary with lunch and dinner. We’re talking free-flowing wines and beers; it’s unlikely you’ll ever see the bottom of your glass. Beverages purchased outside these hours in the Viking Lounge incur a small (even in Euros) cost. The Europeans are very practical when it comes to bar prices; there’s none of this $8-for-a-beer nonsense that has infected much of North America.
Viking also provides complimentary specialty coffees, juices, and of course, all meals onboard. Gratuities are extra, and shore excursions offer a great mix of included tours and optional excursions that are actually really reasonably priced – like the Prost! Brauhaus Beer Tasting Tour offered in Cologne for €29 per person.
I should also add, for those who are curious, that internet access has actually been far better than I expected here onboard Viking Vidar. It’s faster than a lot of river cruises I’ve been on, though it still goes through periods of outages; bridges and locks throw the thing off. Overall, I am impressed! Curiously though, if I do a Google search, my results come back en Espanol. But that’s easily switched to English!
This evening, I decided to enjoy a casual dinner once again in the Aquavit Terrace. An optional alternative to the main dining room, the Aquavit Terrace serves up a set menu of simple dishes that are perfect if you’re looking for a light meal or a more intimate dining experience.
I enjoyed the Chef’s Salad once again. What can I say? I’m a sucker for avocado, meats and cheese on a salad. I negated the relative healthiness of my meal by ordering a side of French fries, of which I am not ashamed: they’re damn good.
It was also a nice evening because I met a nice couple from Canada, and another from the United States that had lived extensively in Wiesbaden, Germany and the UK. It was a very quiet, relaxed dining experience with some great views as we made our way along the Rhine and into what I can only assume is one of the first locks of the cruise.
Tonight, a German language lesson was held in the Viking Lounge. I think it’s fantastic that Viking offers this to their guests, as I strongly believe that you should at least know some basic words if you’re visiting a foreign country with a different language. True, most Germans – especially younger Germans – speak fantastic English, but some of the older generation do not, and I have had to rely on my limited command of the language several times. Plus, I just think it’s fun to be able to order lunch in German without a word of English!
As we went through more locks and evening turned into night, I realized I was missing something: my traditional glass of Aquavit.
A distilled spirit hailing from Norway, the inclusion of Aquavit on all Viking ships reflects the Norwegian heritage of the company’s founder, Mr. Torstein Hagen. It’s a bit like a cross between scotch and cognac in taste, and Viking serves it in the most wonderful decanter/glass combination I have ever seen.
The kind I like to drink the most is the Linie Aquavit. Legend (or clever marketing) has it that the Linie Aquavit must sail around the world for six months, passing the equator twice. Only then is it ready to be enjoyed.
It’s strong, but smooth. It’s a sipping drink, to be sure. A snifter of it can last me an hour or more. And nobody does it like Viking. All day there has been something missing with my Viking experience; I’m glad I finally figured out what it is!
The aquavit is just one of those little touches that makes coming back onboard a Viking Longship feel a lot like returning home. It’s the highest praise I think one can bestow upon any ship – and it’s the Viking way.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Vidar’s Grand European Tour continues tomorrow from our first port on the Main River: Miltenberg, Germany! Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.