Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper – PART 4: On to Paris

Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 3 of the story concluded as we were sailing up the Mosel River from Cochem to Bernkastel, Germany – our last segment onboard the ship. (The original itinerary called for us to be docked in Trier, Germany, at that point, but alternate arrangements had to be made as the river was temporarily closed to ship traffic following a collision between two ships.)

Sep 26 (Monday): After breakfast, our final meal aboard ship, we boarded our bus at 8 AM for the trip to Paris. There were two stops along the way, which helped break up the journey as well as provide more interesting things for us to learn about. The first stop was the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, near the site where the famous Battle of the Bulge (also known as the Ardennes Offensive) was fought in World War II. The cemetery was established on December 29, 1944 by the 609th Quartermaster Company of the US Third Army while Allied Forces were containing the final German offensive of the war. It was formally dedicated in its current state in 1960 and is administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. It contains the graves of 5,074 American soldiers, including that of General George S. Patton, as well as tablets listing the names of 371 missing in action. The grounds are immaculately tended, with the graves arrayed in an arc so each one faces toward the US, and there are many informative plaques commemorating the soldiers and providing historical information, such as maps illustrating the major battle movements. I found the place to be very moving – a solemn reminder of the costs of war.

Soldier’s Graves at the Luxembourg American Cemetery
General Patton’s Grave
Names of Soldiers Missing in Action
Battle Map at the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

Next was a stop in Reims, France (pronounced “Rhas,” where “Rh” represents that unique, throaty, cough-like French “R” sound). We had some free time to explore the market square and find lunch before taking a brief walking tour with a local guide. The major attraction on the tour was the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Rheims. The cathedral was originally founded in early 5th century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary (or “Our Lady,” thus “Notre-Dame”) and was the traditional site for coronation of French kings, at least before the French began cutting off their heads. Clovis was the first king baptized and crowned in the cathedral and is still entombed in the present-day church. Construction of the present church was begun in the 13th century, on the site of an earlier church destroyed by fire, and completed in the 14th century. It is a beautiful example of high gothic architecture, undergoing extensive restorations in the 19th century following minor damage during the French revolution and in the 20th century following major damage during World War I.

Market Square in Reims, France
Market Square in Reims, France
Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral
Reims Cathedral
Tomb of King Clovis in Reims Cathedral, 401

Two of the guests travelled on their own during the free time to visit the site in Reims where Eisenhower had his headquarters after D-Day and where Germany surrendered to the Allies to conclude World War II. As we boarded the bus again for the final journey to Paris, they showed us some interesting photos of the place, inspiring me to mark it down as a site to visit if we get back to Reims someday. After an hour and a half or so of driving on the bus, we began to get bogged down in the traffic entering Paris. As we neared the heart of the city, progress slowed to a snail’s pace as the streets were jammed to capacity. We caught a glimpse of the iconic Arc de Triomphe as we turned onto Avenue de Wagram, turned onto Rue de Courcelles, and spent what felt like another half hour crawling along the final half mile. At 5:30 PM, we arrived at the Hotel du Connectioneur, our home for the next four nights, which claims to be a five-star tourist hotel.

On first impression, the hotel appeared to live up to the claim, with a very attractive lobby, a lovely garden in the rear, and attractive furnishings and paintings in the corridors. We were given what were purported to be keys to our room, but when we got to the fifth floor and found the room, the “keys” did not work. Upon further examination, we realized that they were merely plastic cards bearing the name of the hotel, with no magnetic strips. Back down to the lobby went Pat, returning after ten minutes with actual keys. (We later learned that several other members of our tour group had the same problem.) Once in the room, we found it to be a bit “tired,” with a scratched banquette with doors that didn’t quite close properly, drapes that were difficult to close, and other signs of wear and tear. I don’t want to give the impression that we were unhappy with the hotel – we and many other guests merely thought it didn’t quite live up to its five-star billing.

The Hotel du Connectioneur, Paris

At any rate, once our luggage was delivered to the room, we set off on foot to explore the area around the hotel. We were quite impressed with the hustle and bustle of the city and the many fashionably dressed women – I suppose the men were also fashionably dressed but somehow, they didn’t make an impression on me. (Am I a chauvinist pig? Perhaps a bit …). Our walk took us to the Arc de Triomphe before we found a restaurant called La Flamme, where we had lovely Parisian dinner.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris
Our First Paris Restaurant

On the way back to the hotel, my phone died again. Since Pat had left hers at the hotel, we had only our semi-functional memories to guide us as we tried to retrace our steps. Being a couple of old farts who were rather tired by that point, we became slightly disoriented and had to stop into a bar to ask directions, but eventually we made it back for a nice night’s sleep – with visions of Parisian sugar plums dancing in our heads.

Sep 27 (Tuesday): After a complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel, we boarded a bus for an introductory tour of Paris. Shortly after departing, we noticed a nice-looking Boulangerie called Le Pain du Faubourg and made note of it as a potential place for lunch. The bus then made a circuit around the rather amazing traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe – it has some seven or eight lanes of traffic, all unmarked, and connects to a dozen avenues which radiate out like bicycle spokes. Somehow the Paris drivers manage to safely negotiate it while weaving across multiple lanes to reach their desired avenues, but we were extremely happy to be riding the bus rather than trying to drive on our own. The bus tour took us to the central city and along the right bank of the Seine River (after very briefly crossing to the left bank and back again) while our guide pointed out various landmarks. Most notable to me was the Louvre, the former royal palace which now houses the word-renowned art gallery. I could not believe the size of it – it was simply impossible to capture it in a photo.

The Arc de Triomphe, viewed from the bus

The bus crossed to the left bank again and dropped us off near the Square Rene Vivani, a scenic park on the left bank, which offered a view of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris. The cathedral is located on an island in the river called Ile de la Citie, the strategically located site of the original city of Paris. It is currently inaccessible as work continues to restore the cathedral following the major fire in April of 2019, with scheduled completion in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Square Rene Vivani
Square Rene Vivani, with view of Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris

After a brief talk by our guide, we were given some time to wander on our own with instructions to be back in no more than 40 minutes. We set off across the river onto the island, where we passed by the central police station located on a street known as the Quai des Orfevres, which immediately brought back memories of the books I’ve read by George Simenon featuring Chief Inspector Maigret – his office was located in that very police station. We enjoyed ourselves immensely as we wandered aimlessly westward to the end of the island, then across to the right bank and back eastward, snapping photos in every direction.

The Seine River, Paris
Seine River, Paris
St. Neuf Bridge, Paris
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

As I began to wander off again in who knows what direction, Pat reminded me that we needed to get back to the Square Rene Vivani quickly so we didn’t get left behind by the tour group. After again becoming momentarily disoriented, we eventually negotiated our way back to the right bank and were literally running (although I was lagging well behind my young whippersnapper of a spouse) so as not to be late. But all was well, as we arrived in plenty of time to rejoin our guide, although I was huffing and puffing a bit from the mad dash. As I strolled around the square, waiting for the group to depart again, I was approached by a young woman brandishing a petition and gesturing in a manner so as to indicate that she was deaf and collecting signatures for some important matter related to aid for the deaf. Reluctantly I began to fill in my name and country of residence, but I stopped when I got to the column stating how many Euros I was going to give her. Since I didn’t have any, I went to find Pat and ask her for some money to donate, but she told me I was an idiot, and luckily the tour guide summoned us to start moving along at that point. Later, I learned that the woman was part of a large, well-organized group of scammers who are nor deaf at all but work the crowds for money at many popular Paris tourist spots. Harrumph.

We walked with the guide for several blocks and through some lovely parks to the famous Sorbonne University, where our bus returned to pick us up again. We drove through the Luxembourg Garden, back to the left bank, and past the Hotel des Invalides – a complex of buildings containing museums and monuments relating to the military history of France, originally constructed by Louis XIV as a hospital for wounded soldiers – before stopping briefly at the most iconic landmark in Paris.

The Sorbonne University, Paris
Hotel des Invalides, Paris
The Eiffel Tower, Paris
We just had to do it!

The bus returned us to the hotel shortly before 1 PM, and we walked to Le Pain du Faubourg to buy a nice sandwich for lunch. After devouring the sandwich back at the hotel, we once again headed out to board a bus at 2 PM, this time for a tour of the famous Palace of Versailles. The bus ride took a half hour as we drove 11 miles to the southwest, passing directly by the Roland-Garros Tennis Center. This caused a brief pang of regret for Pat, as we had originally planned to take this Viking trip in May of 2020, at which time the French Open tennis tournament would be ongoing and she might have been able to attend some matches. Of course, not only was the Viking trip cancelled due to Covid but the French Open was also delayed for five months, but we have vowed to return some year during a future French Open.

Getting back to the tour – I can only say that Versailles is simply stupendous. It was built by Louis XIV between 1661 and 1715 on the site of a hunting lodge and chateau built by his father. In 1682, he moved the seat of his court and government to Versailles, making the palace the de facto capital of France. This continued during the reigns of Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, who primarily made interior alterations to the palace, but in 1789 the royal family and capital of France returned to Paris. For the rest of the French Revolution, the Palace was largely abandoned and emptied of its contents. Napoleon used Versailles as a summer residence from 1810 to 1814, but did not restore it. Following the Bourbon Restoration, when the king was returned to the throne, he resided in Paris and it was not until the 1830s that meaningful repairs were made to the palace. We first toured the gardens, then entered the Palace itself for a guided tour – tour groups are limited to no more than twenty people and set for specific time periods. I won’t try to say anything more about the Palace, but leave you with the following photos that don’t fully convey the beauty and magnificence of the place.

Gates of the Versailles Palace
Entrance to Versailles Palace
Versailles Palace Gardens
Versailles Palace Gardens
Versailles Palace
Versailles Palace
Versailles Palace
Hall of Mirrors, Versailles Palace (and overwhelming crowd)

Despite the efforts made to limit the number of people inside, as the tour proceeded the crowds became overwhelming. I began to feel very uncomfortable with the close contact and donned my mask about halfway through. As we rode the bus back to the hotel, I also began to feel as though I were catching a cold. I felt relieved to get back to the hotel, and we set off again for the Restaurant Morny, about a half mile south of the hotel, where we had a nice dinner. (I had flank steak and a Lagavulin single malt Scotch, only my second dram of the entire trip.) On the way back to the hotel, we stopped into a grocery store so I could by a couple of Cokes, which had become my morning go-to since Dr. Pepper seemed to be unavailable anywhere.

Sep 28 (Wednesday): Wednesday was the first day of our so-called Post-Cruise Extension, and we had no planned activities until 5 PM. We decided to spend the day just gadding about, visiting some new places as well as some of the places we had seen on yesterday’s tour. So, we went to the nearby Metro station and purchased an 8-pack of tickets for 16 Euros. Each ticket was good for one trip, for as many trains and transfers as desired until physically leaving a Metro station.

Our first trip was to the Montmartre district, where we rode a little tram up Montmartre hill (which we were each able to board using one of the Metro tickets) to visit the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica and have some nice views of Paris from the high elevation.

Sacre-Coeur Basilica on Montmartre Hill
Panoramic View of Paris from Montmartre Hill

As we walked down the Montmartre hill, I was again approached by a supposedly deaf person soliciting money, and she became rather aggressive when I failed to produce any money. She eventually walked away and I saw that she joined a group of about a dozen women of similar age, all wearing what was essentially a uniform of a gray jumper over a white blouse. Harrumph again. We then walked to a restaurant recommended by a search on Pat’s phone, but it required reservations. Luckily, we found a nice, casual place called the Brasserie Flotte nearby. After lunch we set off for the Louvre, not actually to visit the museum, but to see the famous pyramid at the entrance and to explore the nearby Tuileries Garden.

The Louvre, Paris
Tuileries Garden, Paris
Tuileries Garden, Paris

Then we crossed the Seine to visit the Musee d’Orsay on the left bank, an art museum housed in the former Gare d’Orsay, a Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900 for the World’s Fair. We strolled around the building looking at paintings by Monet, Renoir, and other French artists and briefly entered a special exhibit of works by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Unfortunately, the crowds were rather large, and I again began to feel uncomfortable with the close contact and wore my mask during most of the visit.

Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Musee d’Orsay, Paris
Musee d’Orsay, Paris

We used the last of our Metro tickets to return to the hotel, arriving shortly before 5 PM, and began to get ready for what was to be a highlight of the trip – dinner and a cabaret show at the Paradis Latin, which claims to be the oldest and most legendary cabaret in Paris, located in the Latin Quarter. The building was initially built by Napoleon as a theater where bourgeois and intellectuals mingled with merchants, workmen, and students. It was rebuilt by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 and has served as a popular cabaret ever since.

Unfortunately, my “cold” was starting to feel worse, and I worried that I shouldn’t be going to an indoor cabaret show if I was contagious with something. So, we took out our home Covid tests, and instead of the Paradis Latin, we discovered trouble in paradise. I was positive. Despite my five vaccinations and previous careful avoidance of people, I had become infected by contact with someone, either a fellow cruise patron, someone in the crush of visitors at Versailles, the deaf scammers – who knows? The bottom line was that my vacation was done and I needed to begin isolating immediately. Pat was negative, so after some discussion we decided that she should go to the show and I would stay in the room with my mask on. She returned later in the evening with a glowing review of the show, as well as some photos and videos. Here’s one for your viewing pleasure:

She was only allowed to use her camera during the pre-show while dinner was served. The real show was apparently spectacular, including multiple lithe and attractive performers, multiple costumes – in some cases rather minimal – and multiple sets. I would have loved it, Pat told me, and I felt really sorry for myself.

Sep 29 (Thursday): I put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign and stayed in the hotel with my mask on all day. Pat brought me up some breakfast from the buffet and left for a walk to a nearby park, the Parc Monceau. She again returned with photos, several of which I’ve included below.

Parc Monceau, Paris
Parc Monceau, Paris
Parc Monceau, Paris
Parc Monceau, Paris

She then went off to get another sandwich at Le Pain du Faubourg, but she returned with a surprise for me. Somehow, she took a wrong turn or something and couldn’t find the place, but she found a similar place whose name she doesn’t recall and bought a sandwich there. And, wonder of wonders, the place had cans of Dr. Pepper! She bought two for me, and my previously flagging spirits soared! Then she was off again, this time for a walking tour called “Flavors of Paris” to the St. Germaine neighborhood in the 6th Arrondissement. She visited four local shops and sampled Parisian foods, including olive oil, chocolate, cheeses, and macaroons. She also passed by the oldest café in Paris, Le Procop.

“Taste of Paris” Walking Tour Site
Le Procope, the Oldest Café in Paris
Le Procope, Paris

And again, she brought me a surprise – one of the establishments had too much cheese for the Viking guests on the tour, at least in part because I didn’t show up. So, they packaged it all up and sent it home for me!

Sep 30 (Friday): At last, it was time to go home. Pat again brought me up a plate for breakfast, and we headed down to the lobby at 9 AM, both of us wearing our masks, and boarded a bus for the airport along with two other couples. I was already feeling much better and was able to reassure the others that I was not seriously ill, though did not tell them about my positive Covid test. I was afraid that if anyone found out, I would have to stay in France for 10 days according to their travel policy. I am confident that the risk of my traveling was minimal as both Pat and I wore our masks all the way home (except for the brief time we were eating on the plane). In my defense, I will say that the only reason I even took the Covid test was out of concern for others whom I could possibly have infected, and I suspect that many people are travelling these days while unaware that they are positive, because most people probably are not self testing unless they feel quite ill.

Viking again showed their commitment to excellent customer service as we were accompanied on the bus by a Viking agent, who escorted us all the way through the confusion of Charles De Gaulle Airport directly to the Delta check-in counter. The airport proved to be very clean and modern, with automated passport scanners and face recognition cameras for a hassle-free exit from French sovereign territory into the International Airport space. Here’s a photo I took from our boarding gate.

Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris

During the flight, I watched two movies (including Maigret, starring Gerard Depardieu, inspired by our sighting of the Quai des Orfevres police station). In stark contrast to Charles De Gaulle, when we disembarked at Dulles International in Washington, DC, we found an old, grungy-looking place. We took a weird looking bus to an enormous customs hall, where we had to shuffle along in line for half an hour to reach one of the entry gates with an actual person in attendance. (There were about fifty gates, but only ten or so were in service.) After passing customs, we took a tram to the Delta check in counter to drop our luggage, then went through the TSA screening line with shoes and belt removal and all that because Delta failed to note that we are approved for TSA PreCheck, had a mad scramble to find my phone and vest, and ended up literally running to our gate as we were being paged: “Passengers David and Patricia Saari, report to Gate xx for immediate boarding.”

Back at MSP, we summoned a Lyft ride, only to discover that the driver had left and charged us a $5.00 no-show fee, all because we were waiting at “Zone B” instead of “Zone A,” some fifty feet away. Live and learn. But we did eventually arrive safe and sound at our condo at 9:49 PM CDT after summoning a second Lyft ride.

So, there you have it, dear readers – all in all an amazing and thoroughly enjoyable journey. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland, down the Rhine, up the Mosel, and on to Paris.

Map of Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper

Final Thoughts: I’ve been thinking a lot about the trip during the three weeks since we returned, and I’d like to leave you with a few last updates and thoughts:

  1. Regarding the Covid situation: On Saturday, I contacted Health Partners for instructions on what to do. I was prescribed a regimen of antiviral drugs and instructed to continue isolating for five days and masking for five more after that. The “cold” symptoms disappeared in a couple of days, and I never got a fever or any sort of aches or pains. After several days of negative tests, Pat also had a positive test and followed isolation and masking instructions per her Allina Clinic. She felt crummy for a few days but also had no fever. We are both fine now, with no carryover whatsoever, currently at our summer place in Grand Marais.
  2. If we had it to do over again, we would have worn our masks in all crowded areas during the trip. We were not vigilant enough, lulled into complacency by being vaccinated and boosted and having avoided infection throughout the worst of the pandemic. However, we believe it is safe to travel if proper precautions are taken.
  3. We highly recommend Viking to anyone considering overseas travel. As I have described in the blog, their planning and service were excellent. We met several people on the trip who have travelled five or six times with Viking, and one person who was on her tenth Viking trip. All agreed that the trips are well worth the price.
  4. We learned a lot on the trip about European history and culture. We found people everywhere to be friendly and welcoming of us as American tourists. I visited Paris nearly fifty years ago and had a very different feeling – at that time I perceived many as snobbish and disdainful of the American tourists. I hope my observations on this point are correct and that things have changed for the better and forever.
  5. Nearly all of the guides on the trip expressed serious concern about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which they perceive to be the worst crisis for Europe since World War II. Let us remain committed in our support for Ukraine, as we are supporting all our European allies by doing so.
  6. I’ll close with an observation one of the Viking guests made that summed up the differences between Europe and North America very concisely: In North America, 200 years is a long time, and in Europe, 200 miles is a long way. Let’s continue to cherish both cultures and learn from each other.

Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper – PART 3: The Rhine and The Mosel

Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 2 of the story concluded with a shipboard lecture about the relationship between Germany and France, after which we spent a quiet night while still docked in Mainz, Germany. Then we were ready to once again sail downriver on the Rhine.

Sep 23 (Friday): The ship departed Mainz at 8:45 AM to begin a four-hour trip through a region that I can only describe as a fairy tale land, with some thirty medieval castles dotting the hills on both sides of the river. The cruise itinerary was structured for this sailing to be done during the day precisely for this reason. The only problem was the weather – it started out chilly and foggy, and while the fog dissipated fairly quickly it never warmed up to the comfort level we had previously enjoyed throughout the entire trip. Despite the chill, I spent the morning up on the sun deck of the ship, gawking and snapping photos as we went along and listening to the commentary by our Viking cruise director. Virtually all of the castles were sacked and destroyed by French forces in the early 1690s as Louis XIV made war against the Holy Roman Empire. Most have been rebuilt at least to some degree, but some remain as mere ruins. Today, the castles make for picturesque backdrops to the quaint villages and steep vineyards lining the banks of the Rhine.

Morning Mist on the Rhine near Mainz, Germany
Castle at Eltville, Germany
Castle and Vineyards near Rudesheim, Germany
Castle and Vineyards near Rudesheim, Germany
Castle near Rudesheim, Germany
Castle in Trechtingshausen, Germany
Lorch, Germany
Bacharach, Germany

As we approached the famous Lorelei rock (spelled “Lorely” by the locals) we were told that the river was very shallow, with only 0.7 meters (27 inches) clearance below the ship’s keel. Luckily, this was sufficient for sailing; earlier in the season the river had been closed to cruise ships in this region, so we were very grateful for recent rainfall that had restored the water level and allowed our cruise to proceed. As we passed around a bend in the river, revealing the large rock formation on the east bank, I thought I could hear the siren song of the Lorelei enticing the captain, but he remained steadfast as we passed by. Imagining an earlier time in history without engines or navigation aids, before the modern road was built along the river bank, perhaps with a fog like we had in the morning, I could easily imagine ships crashing into the rock and spawning the legend I first learned of in German class as a teenager.

Low Water Point, near Sankt Goarshausen, Germany
Approaching the Lorelei Rock
The Lorelei Rock

My last photo during the morning sail was of the Rheinfels Castle, just past the Lorelei rock in the town of Sankt Goar, which was built in 1245 by the local Count for his personal residence and tax collection headquarters – and incidentally was the only castle in this region of the Rhine able to defend itself against Louis XIV’s troops. As I was snapping away at the castle, my phone gave up the ghost – dead as a doornail. Was it the magic of the nearby, seductive siren that crashed the phone? Nope, I had simply taken so many pictures that it needed a recharge. So, I had to settle for a mere 150 photos during the morning sail, rather than the 300 I probably would have had if I’d fully charged the phone ahead of time. (Just be thankful I’m not putting them all in this post!)

Rheinfels Castle, Sankt Goar, Germany

By the time we reached Koblenz, the phone was back in business again, just in time for a walking tour of the city after lunch. Located at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers, Koblenz was first established as an encampment for Julius Caesar’s troops in 55 BCE and became an important trading settlement. Naturally, our walking tour stopped first at an ancient church, the Basilica of St. Castor, first established in 836. It was redone in the Romanesque style in 1208, and a gothic vaulted roof added in 1498.

Basilica of St. Castor, Koblenz, Germany
Basilica of St. Castor, Koblenz, Germany
Rose Window and Organ Pipes in the Koblenz Basilica

Near the Basilica is a public square with some modernistic sculptures, including this one which the guide told us was a human thumb representing something or other that I can’t recall, but which Freudian types seem to think is actually representing another part of the human anatomy.

Thumb Sculpture in Koblenz

We then saw an enormous statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, located at the confluence point of the rivers. Wilhelm was crowned as the first Emperor of Germany (beginning the so-called Second Reich after the Holy Roman Empire, or First Reich) upon conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. We learned that the Emperor was actually crowned at the Palace of Versailles in France, apparently as an act of humiliation for the defeated French. The statue was destroyed by bombing during World War II, but was later rebuilt and dedicated to German unity.

Kaiser Wilhelm Statue, Koblenz, Germany

We then walked through the more modern section of the city, where we passed by a protest march led by young climate activists, which is apparently a fairly regular occurrence in many German cities. For some reason, the march seemed to stir some anger in at least one of our fellow Viking tourists; I wanted to ask him if he was a former oil company executive, but decided to bite my tongue instead. We also saw what has become the symbol of Koblenz, the “spitting boy,” officially known as the Schängelbrunnen fountain, so named for the Schängellied, the city anthem. It symbolizes the fun-loving, quick, and clever nature of Koblenz residents. The boy’s image even adorns manhole covers throughout the city.

Youthful Climate Activists in Koblenz
Climate Activist March in Koblenz
The “Spitting Boy” Image on a Manhole Cover in Koblenz
The “Spitting Boy” Fountain
Picturesque Square in Koblenz
Sidewalk Display, Koblenz

After the official tour, Pat and I took a gondola ride across the river to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a huge structure overlooking the city from the east side of the Rhine. The fortress sits on the site of a castle built in about 1000 before being expanded and improved many times over the centuries. Especially fortified against gunpowder weapons during the 16th century, the castle was successfully defended against sieges by Louis XIV and Napoleon’s armies until finally surrendering to French forces in 1799. The French then destroyed the castle in 1801 when forced to withdraw from the region. The current fortress was built by Prussia from 1817 to 1828 and has never been attacked. It was occupied for a time by American troops after World War I and used as a place of safekeeping for archives and cultural objects during Word War II. Since then, it has been used at various times as a refugee camp, a residential housing site, and a youth hostel, and now is a major tourist attraction offering historical displays and spectacular views of Koblenz and the two rivers.

Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Koblenz
Entrance to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Koblenz
Inside Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, Koblenz
Confluence of Rhine and Mosel Rivers in Koblenz (and the gondola cars)

Once we were back on board the Herja, the ship set sail again at 5:45, heading up the Mosel River a very short ways to Winningen, where we docked for the night.

Sep 24 (Saturday): The ship departed Winningen at 6 AM, winding its way up the Mosel River through the steepest vineyards in the world. We learned that the Mosel River Valley is lined with slate, which retains heat and acts as a natural tempering system to create a perfect grape-growing climate. Even in wintertime, when the regions outside the valley are covered with snow, the valley itself remains temperate and snow-free. Many of the vineyards are planted on slopes at angles of 60 degrees or more, making for very challenging, hand picking by skilled workers (many of them migrants) during harvesting season.

Vineyards on the Mosel in Muden, Germany
Treis-Karden, Germany
Klotten, Germany
Vineyards of the Mosel Valley, near Klotten, Germany

After lunch, the ship docked in Cochem, Germany, and we departed by bus for a shore excursion. We drove along the south bank of the Mosel past picturesque villages and lush vineyards. Along the way, we saw that a large cargo ship was essentially stuck downstream of a sharp bend in the river as a result of a collision with another ship, and we were informed that this may well require a change to our cruise itinerary. Eventually we reached the town of Senheim, Germany, where we visited the Schlagkamp Winery. The winery shop was extravagantly decorated with an eclectic collection of winemaking implements and other assorted stuff. We were entertained by the winery owner, who could easily have a second career as a standup comedian. He talked about how the family-owned winery has evolved over the centuries to incorporate new technologies with the old methods while we tasted three wines: an Elbling, a Riesling Secco, and a Red Vineyard Peach Liqueur. (He also told us the secret to a good marriage in the Mosel Valley. When courting, ask your prospective mate three questions: 1) what is your name, 2) who is your family, and 3) how many acres do you own.) We enjoyed the wine very much and bought a bottle of the unusual peach liqueur as a memento (which probably won’t last long).

Winery in Senheim, Germany
Winery in Senheim, Germany
Winery Owner and Family

After the winery tour, we boarded the bus again and drove back to Cochem, this time along the north bank of the river. As we drove by, I was able to get another view of the ship that was blocking the river, and I could see that it had rammed into the concrete barrier alongside the river.

Cargo Ship on the Mosel after Collision

Once back in Cochem, we exited the bus for a walking tour of the town, during which we saw two of the old city wall gates and something I’ve never heard of before – a wine vending machine. Our guide also showed us high-water marks from past river flooding events and explained how the residents and business owners near the river periodically have to deal with the impacts from serious flooding, including twice in a month during 2021 in nearby areas. So, even though the town appears idyllic, there are difficulties, the same as anywhere in the world.

Medieval City Wall and Eastern Gate, Cochem, Germany
Medieval City Wall and Western Gate, Cochem, Germany
Vending Machine in Cochem, Germany (What, no Dr. Pepper?)
High Water Marks from Floods in Cochem, Germany

The highlight of the tour was a visit to Cochem Castle, an imposing structure built high on the steep bluff overlooking the town. Luckily for us old farts, the tour included a bus ride up the hill (masks mandatory on the bus). The original structure dates back to the 11th century, but the castle was razed by Luis XIV’s troops in 1689 and lay in ruins until it was restored in 1866 by a wealthy private owner whose eclectic tastes resulted in a fascinating mixture of styles. Our guide entertained us with tales of secret passages, castle romances, and other tales as we strolled through dozens of rooms filled with beautiful furnishings and historical artifacts. (Tour group sizes were limited and masks required inside the castle.)

Cochem Castle Overlooking the City
View of Cochem and Mosel Valley Vineyards
Basilisk Overlooking the Mosel River from Cochem Castle
Cochem Castle
Dining Room in Cochem Castle

After the castle tour, the bus deposited us by the western city gate before strolling back through the town and across a bridge to our ship. Once back on board, we were informed of a change in the cruise itinerary as a result of the upstream ship accident – instead of setting sail at 7 PM for Bernkastel, we would spend another night docked in Cochem and travel to the German cities of Bernkastel and Trier by bus on Sunday before returning to the ship in Cochem.

Sep 25 (Sunday): So, off we went after breakfast on the bus. The extra time needed to drive to Bernkastel and from Trier back to Cochem made for a somewhat strenuous day, but we enjoyed the chance to see some of the countryside that wouldn’t have been visible had we sailed to Bernkastel during the night as originally planned. Bernkastel is a charming little town known as the “Pearl of the Mosel,” with medieval squares, narrow lanes, and half-timbered houses galore. Unfortunately, it was raining during much of our walking tour and the multitude of umbrellas prevented me from getting pictures of some of the best sights, but I did my best to capture the spirit of the place. We again saw high-water marks from the periodic floods and heard of the resilience of the local people who accept and respond to the challenges of mother nature. We also saw several statues of bears (Bern, in German) which particularly tickled my fancy.

Bernkastel Square lined with Half-Timbered Buildings
What’s the Deal Here? (In bygone days, taxes were based on ground floor area alone.)
Bear Fountain in Bernkastel
And Another Bear on the Balcony Above

Along the way, our guide told us of the famous “Bernkastel Doctor,” which is actually the name of a wine from one of the local wineries. According to the story, the Elector of Trier, was staying at a nearby castle in 1360 when he became seriously ill. The Elector’s celebrated doctors prescribed all kinds of medicines and remedies for his fever, but to no effect. In desperation, apothecaries and herb women from near and far were brought in to give the Elector their potions, but nothing worked. Eventually, a local winegrower brought the Elector a keg of his finest wine, declaring it to be the best medicine. The now-desperate Elector took the wine and his fever was miraculously cured. As a reward, the Elector issued a certificate awarding the vineyard the prestigious honor of “Bernkastel Doctor” from then on.

Restaurant Commemorating the “Bernkastel Doctor”

We also stopped into St. Michael’s church, a beautiful Catholic church near the river. It was much smaller than the giant “ABCs” we had been seeing in other places, and it was completely empty. Our guide explained that attendance at churches has dwindled to practically nothing, in large part to the “bad things that some priests have done,” as he euphemistically put it.

St. Michael’s Church, Bernkastel

After the Bernkastel tour, we reboarded the bus and drove to Trier, where we were set free in the main market square to find ourselves a spot for lunch. Due to the inconvenience of missing lunch on the ship, which we would have done had it actually been docked in Bernkastel per the original itinerary, Viking provided each passenger with a credit of 30 Euros. Pat and I strolled through the square looking over the various delicatessens and restaurants. We passed by one called the Brgrhouse, which had as its number one burger choice the “Juicy Lucy.” (Did they copy this from the world famous Minneapolis burger?) Eventually we settled on one called Brasserie ZUR SIM, where we enjoyed some delicious Flammkuchen, which is essentially the German version of pizza. Unfortunately, we had to abandon our outdoor table for one inside when the Flammkuchen were swarmed by bees – I guess they found them as delicious as we did.

Restaurant in Trier, Germany (that didn’t seem very “German”)
Traditional German Flammkuche

The restaurant was located adjacent to the Porta Nigra, the “Black Gate” of Trier, built in the winter of 169-170 by the Romans, who first established an encampment at Trier circa 16 BCE. The gate was damaged when Trier was sacked multiple times by various Germanic, Hun, and Frankish tribes, and eventually a hermit monk named St. Simeon took up residence inside, in 1028. He was later buried in the gate and beatified, and two adjacent churches erected in his honor. However, when Napoleon came to Trier in 1804, he ordered the churches and monasteries closed and the gate restored to its Roman form.

The Ancient Black Gate in Trier

After lunch, we had a walking tour of Trier, starting at the immense Aula Palatina, or Basilica of Constantine, constructed between 300 and 310 entirely of brick. The bricks look very different from modern ones, being very wide but not thick, and the layers of mortar are essentially as thick as the bricks themselves, but they must be very strong to still be standing nearly 2000 years later. The building incorporates a natural circulation heating system built into the floor and the exterior walls, which seems extremely advanced for such an ancient building. This system provided a comfortable setting for the Romans in their togas even in the cold, northern climate. The interior is sparse, a far cry from the opulence we saw in our previous visits to cathedrals and churches, though it does have a nice, modern organ (it now serves as the Church of the Redeemer and is owned by a congregation within the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland).

Ancient Basilica of Constantine, Trier, Germany
Basilica of Constantine, Trier
Brick Construction of Basilica of Constantine, Trier
1700-Year-Old Roman Bricks of the Basilica of Constantine, Trier
Interior of Basilica of Constantine, Trier

We then walked past the Palace of the Electors with its beautiful Garden, residence of the Archbishops and Electors of Trier from the 16th to the 18th centuries, then on to the Trier Cathedral. The Cathedral was originally commissioned by bishop Maximin in the fourth century, following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. The original building was sacked by the Franks before being rebuilt, destroyed again by the Vikings in 882, then restarted and completed around 1066. Over the centuries the church continued to be rebuilt and embellished, according to the fashions of the moment with Gothic vaults, Renaissance sculptures, and Baroque chapels, but the overall style of the building remains Romanesque with a Roman core.

Palace of the Electors, Trier
The Palace Garden, Trier
Trier Cathedral
Trier Cathedral
Trier Cathedral

Then it was back to the market square and the Porta Nigra, with a stop at an interesting model of the old city, before reboarding the bus and beading back to the ship.

Model of Trier Old City

As we drove, I was struck by something our guide had said during the walking tour. While relating some of the more modern history of Trier, she was speaking of the aftermath of World War II. “After the war we were lying low,” she said, looking directly into my eyes, “but you held out a hand and lifted us up.” She was obviously referring to the Marshall Plan and the US’s role in restoring Europe from the devastation. I thought back to some of the other things we had learned on the trip – Louis XIV’s utter destruction of the Rhineland, coronation of the German Emperor at Versailles after the Franco-Prussian War, the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. In these cases, victory on the battlefield wasn’t enough – total humiliation of the enemy seemed to be required. But then, after Hitler fell, the victorious side took a different approach. It wasn’t done simply out of altruism, of course, but to restore economies and promote strong trade, and to create an alliance against the feared Soviets – but nonetheless it was the right thing to do, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride for one of the best things my country has done in its history.

We arrived back at the ship in Cochem in time for dinner. The river now having been cleared for ship travel again after the accident, the ship sailed off toward Bernkastel at 5:30 PM. Here are a few pictures of Bernkastel and the scenery along the Mosel during the final sailing portion of the trip before docking in Bernkastel. On Monday, we would be departing from there by bus for Paris, rather than sailing all the way to Trier per the original itinerary.

Final View of Cochem from the Ship
Mosel River near Ernst, Germany
Vineyards near Bruttig-Fankel, Germany

OK, that’s enough for now. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland, down the Rhine, and up the Mosel.

In Part 4, we’ll be off to Paris for the grand finale of our trip. Stay tuned …

Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper – PART 2: The Upper Rhine

Welcome back to the travel blog describing our recent Viking River Cruise journey from Geneva to Paris. Part 1 of the story covered our pre-cruise activities in Switzerland. I’ll pick up the narrative where I left off last time, having just completed a walking tour of Basel, Switzerland.

Sep 19 (Monday): After reboarding our bus in Basel, we were transported to our Viking ship, the Herja. The ship, built in 2017, accommodates 190 passengers and a crew of 50. There were only about 160 passengers on our cruise, and it didn’t feel cramped or crowded at all. As I mentioned in Part 1, we had upgraded to a fancier stateroom with a little balcony as part of our 25% rebooking bonus when we had to cancel the first time. As you can see in the photos below, the ship is very long (443 feet) but fairly narrow (38 feet) and floats only about 20 feet above the water at its highest point. Shortly after casting off from Basel, the reason for these particular dimensions became quite obvious as we passed through the first of many locks we would encounter along the river. The ship was just narrow enough to pass through the lock gates and just low enough to pass underneath when the exit gate was raised. While this first lock was much longer than the ship, others we encountered later left only a few feet of length to spare fore and aft. In other words, the ship’s dimensions were specifically tailored to fit the river locks.

Our Ship, the Viking Herja
Our Stateroom, Number 205
Pat on the Balcony
Looking Upriver after Leaving Basel
Approaching the First Lock after Leaving Basel
We Could Touch the Lock Wall from the Balcony as the Water Level Dropped
Lock Gate Opening
Passing out of the Lock (Note: Pilot House has been retracted for additional clearance)
Leaving the Lock Behind (Pilot House back in normal position)

Monday afternoon and evening were spent sailing peacefully down the Rhine River. During this first sailing segment, we unpacked our luggage into the stateroom drawers and closets, toured the ship, were pampered at lunch and dinner by the friendly servers in the elegant dining room, and had a restful night’s sleep in the large bed. By the time we docked in Strasbourg, France, at 8 AM Tuesday, we had passed through another four or five locks, but the ship was so stable and the lock process was so smooth we were barely aware of any motion unless we were looking out the windows, sitting outside on our balcony, or up on the deck.

Sep 20 (Tuesday): After breakfast, we boarded a bus for a brief tour of Strasbourg, passing by a very large park (Parc de l’Orangerie) and the extensive campuses of the Strasbourg University and half a dozen other colleges; our guide explained that the city is a worldwide center for research in medicine, pharmaceuticals, and other major fields. It is also home to the European Parliament as well as multiple European and international agencies. In this region, the Rhine is the border between France and Germany, so anything on the west side is part of the French province of Alsace. After the bus tour, we disembarked in the old city for a walking tour.

The centerpiece of the old city is the Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg, built between 1015 and 1439. The spire is 466 feet tall and was the tallest building in the world until 1874. The building is so enormous I couldn’t get a picture of the whole thing, so you’ll just have to infer its size from the photos below. The interior is magnificent, with a domed ceiling and enormous stained-glass windows. (During World War II, Hitler wanted to convert the place into a monument to the German people. In preparation for this eventuality, the stained-glass windows were removed and hidden in a salt mine in Germany, where they were later found by the famed “Monuments Men” of the US Army and returned to the cathedral.) Another amazing thing in the cathedral is the Astronomical Clock, with sculptures – the 12 apostles, figures representing the stages of life, angels, and more – many of which move about at various times of each day. The clock was originally built in 1352, but has been updated over the years, most recently from 1838 to 1842, and now shows the official and solar time, equinoxes, the date and day of the week, Zodiac signs, and the phase of the moon, among other astronomical data.

Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg
Some of the Stained-Glass Windows recovered by the Monuments Men
The Astronomical Clock

After the tour, we wandered about the old city. It is very picturesque, with modern buildings that blend seamlessly with the old. Eventually, we found a place for lunch – the Restaurant au Sanglier, known especially for its wild boar dishes. Pat had some sort of vegetarian dish, but I had to try one of the house specialties, a wild boar ham hock (while quite tasty, it turned out to be so enormous I could only manage to eat about two thirds of it). After lunch, we returned to Gutenberg Square to catch a shuttle bus back to the boat.

Canal in Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg France

Before dinner, we donned our life vests for a mandatory safety drill, which went off very smoothly. I wondered if everyone would be so calm if a real emergency arose, but luckily, we never had to find out. At 9:45, the ship set sail down the Rhine again, but not before there was a page requesting the passengers in one of the staterooms to check in – they had apparently failed to scan their keys when reboarding the ship, and Viking didn’t want to leave anyone behind.

Sep 21 (Wednesday): When we awoke, the ship was docked in the German town of Germersheim, on the east bank of the Rhine. After breakfast, we boarded a bus for a tour of nearby Speyer, Germany. One fun thing we learned along the way – the US Army sponsored a music festival known as the British Rock Meeting in Speyer in 1971 and again in Germersheim in 1972, primarily for the entertainment of the US troops. However, the organizers failed to mention the plan to the city fathers of Germersheim, who were horrified by the prospect of 70,000 Woodstock-style revelers over three days, causing a mad scramble for police and security coverage. According to our guide, the Hells Angels also stepped in to provide security, and although the event went off with no serious incidents, the Army quietly dropped plans for future such festivals in the area.

Our first stop in Speyer was at the Imperial Cathedral of Speyer, a Romanesque design built between 1030 and 1061 by Holy Roman Emperors Konrad II, Henry III, and Henry IV. Originally built with a flat roof, Henry IV upgraded the building to include a vaulted ceiling, adding external flying buttresses to mimic the then-emerging Gothic style. (To me, these looked entirely ornamental, with no actual structural function. Also, I should actually say that Italian masons did the work – the emperor only gave orders, after all – and these masons travelled on to other towns for Cathedral projects once the Speyer work was done. One might say they were among the earliest migrant workers.) The purpose of the Cathedral was, through its size and beauty, to project the power of the emperor to its westernmost edges. Its four towers represent the four seasons and the idea that the power of the emperor extended in all directions. The interior of the building, though vast and impressive, is quite plain compared to the Cathedral in Strasbourg.

Imperial Cathedral of Speyer
Imperial Cathedral of Speyer
Flying Buttress added under Henry IV
Interior of Imperial Cathedral of Speyer

We also learned that the upper Rhine River no longer follows the precise route that it did up until the early 19th century – it was straightened by Swiss Engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla beginning in 1817 to improve navigability and reduce the distance by river between Basel and Worms by 50 miles. The work was completed in 1876, after Tulla’s death of malaria. As a result, the remains of the Speyer city wall no longer abut the river but are several hundred yards away from it. After touring the Cathedral, we walked to the market square, dominated by 19th century administrative buildings constructed under Otto von Bismarck after establishment of the second German Reich by Kaiser Wilhelm I. We strolled the length of the square (actually a very long rectangle) to one of the remaining gates of the old city wall, then back toward the cathedral again, stopping along the way at a small bakery for a sandwich lunch.

Original Speyer City Wall and Gate
Old City Wall Gate in Speyer Town Square
Administrative Building Constructed during Reign of Kaiser Wilhelm I

We had been surprised to learn that Speyer is home to a large Technical Museum which houses an enormous, eclectic collection of automobiles, aircraft, and space-related items, and that it was located only a short walk from the Viking bus rendezvous point. So, we went there and spent about two hours wandering about. Most of our time was spent in the space hall, which had extensive details of the major worldwide space programs, including Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Space Shuttle, International Space Station, and others. I was extremely surprised to learn that the Soviets were developing a space shuttle which actually orbited the earth before the program was abandoned when the USSR was dissolved in 1991. The most visible attraction at the museum is a Boeing 747 airplane mounted high above the ground and accessible by a very long staircase. The interior is populated by dummies of passengers and crew, with large sections of the fuselage opened up to reveal the construction details. There is a large chute, like a waterslide without the water, to get down more quickly, but I opted for the long journey down with my aching knees, fearing a worse outcome if I tried the quick method.

Jet Engine at the Speyer Technical Museum
Soviet Space Shuttle — Who Knew?
Speyer Technical Museum

At 6:15 PM, the ship again cast off and we sailed peacefully into the night, arriving in the early morning hours in Mainz, Germany.

Sep 22 (Thursday): When we awoke, the ship was docked in Mainz, again on the east bank of the Rhine. After breakfast, we went on a walking tour of Mainz – no need for a bus since the city is so close at hand. Mainz is just downstream of the confluence of the Rhine and the Main River, and was first established as a port by the Romans in 13-12 BCE. During our tour, we strolled along lovely, tree-lined streets to the central city, where the first highlight was – no surprise – another beautiful church (ABC), in this case St. Martin’s Cathedral. This one was begun in 975 by the Archbishop of Mainz in the Romanesque style, intended to establish Mainz as the second Rome, and completed in 1009. However, on the day of its inauguration it was badly damaged by fire, and was then rebuilt and mostly completed a second time by 1037. It has subsequently been modified several times, adding elements of various architectural styles.

Fountains and Square in Mainz, Germany
St. Martin’s Cathedral, Mainz, Germany
Door to St. Martin’s Cathedral

After visiting the Cathedral, we proceeded to the nearby Gutenberg Museum, where we saw not only replicas of Gutenberg’s history-making movable-type printing press but also exhibits providing a comprehensive history of printing up to the modern age. Below you’ll see photos of a recreation of Gutenberg’s printing shop, including the case containing pieces of movable type. Since there were fewer capital letters and they were used less frequently, these were stored in the top part of the case. The non-capital letters were used more frequently and were thus placed within easier reach in the bottom part of the case. Hence, we still refer to them as “upper case” and “lower case” letters. The most special exhibit was in the so-called “strong room,” which contained several original copies of the famous Gutenberg bible – we were not allowed to photograph those, but I did take a ton of pictures of the other exhibits and have included a few samples below. (One thing I did not photograph – much to Pat’s surprise – was a large wall containing Tabloid newspaper front pages including many pictures of topless women. Gutenberg might have been shocked by what his invention has wrought.)

Our Guide Demonstrating the Gutenberg Press
Prototype of Gutenberg Type Case
Printing Presses at Gutenberg Museum
Early Music Book (at Gutenberg Museum)
Early Memo Pad using Wax and Stylus (at Gutenberg Museum)

After the tour, we strolled through the town, finding a sandwich for lunch at a nice Boulangerie, and then went to visit the world-famous Chagall windows at St. Stephan’s church. The church was heavily damaged in World War II, and its restoration was completed in the 1970s. The pastor wanted to include symbols for peace in the reconstructed church, and decided to hire Marc Chagall, a Russian Jewish artist, to create new stained-glass windows, thus symbolizing reconciliation between Germany and its wartime victims and international peace among the former combatants. In the design of his windows, Chagall drew inspiration from the Old Testament, evoking the common ground between Judaism and Christianity. From the outside, the windows don’t look like much of anything, but inside they emit a beautiful blue light – the photos do not capture their ethereal beauty.

Mainz, Germany
Mainz, Germany
Mainz, Germany
Some of the Chagall Windows at St Stephan’s Church, Mainz, Germany
Interior View of Chagall Windows

After returning to the ship, we attended an interesting lecture by a history professor, learning a bit about the long, difficult relationship of the French and German people. This region has been especially volatile, with Alsace and its cities being conquered and re-conquered over the centuries by French and German rulers, somewhat like pawns in a massive chess game.

OK, that’s enough for now. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland and along the Upper Rhine.

In Part 3, the ship will continue down the Rhine before take a big turn in Koblenz and heading up the Mosel River. Stay tuned …

Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper – PART 1: Switzerland

As past readers know, I’ve been documenting our recent travel experiences through a series of blog posts. (The most recent of these was Pat and Dave’s Eclectic Electric Road Trip, describing our travels in April and May of 2022, from Minneapolis to St. George, UT, and back again with our Tesla Model Y.) Now, just a scant four months later, here I go again, this time regaling readers with a totally different type of travel adventure.

First, a bit of explanation regarding the title: “Pat and Dave’s Post-Covid Continental Caper.” I think the “Pat and Dave” part is pretty self-explanatory, but new readers may not know that “Pat” is my lovely wife of 43 years and “Dave” is a world-famous writer of mystery novels, otherwise known as “me.” The “Post-Covid” part refers to the fact that we originally intended to go on this trip in 2020 but had to cancel due to the Covid 19 pandemic. We booked it again for 2021, but again had to cancel. This time we decided to go ahead with it, armed (literally) with five vaccinations each during the intervening years and a box of N95 masks. The “Continental” part refers to the European Continent, in that jaunty way that urbane world travelers such as Pat and I toss around travel terms. The “Caper” part was obviously selected to form a catchy, alliterative title, but after three years of banishment by Covid it did indeed feel like a real caper.

OK, so let’s get on with it, shall we? The trip was sponsored by Viking River Cruises, the number one rated river cruise company in the world according to their marketing materials – a claim no doubt intended to justify the rather steep prices they charge. We had taken a Viking cruise on the Danube back in 2014 (before I started travel blogging) so we knew that Viking is a quality travel company. I won’t quote the price in the article since you can go look at the Viking web site if interested, but I will say that both Pat and I feel we got excellent value for the money we spent. I will also add that Viking was very good about all the cancelling and rebooking; each time we cancelled we received a voucher for 125% of what we had paid for the original booking, so we ended up with a little more to spend on the trip as compensation for the two-year delay. (We elected to use the extra amount to upgrade our room from the lower-deck “steerage” class to a fancier one on the main deck with a little balcony, which we really enjoyed.)

The trip began with a Lyft ride to MSP International Airport at 9 AM on Monday, September 12. I won’t bore you with details of the plane ride except for a few quick observations. First, air travel sucks, in my humble opinion. After shuffling sheep-like through the TSA security line, followed by two hours of thumb twiddling at MSP, we boarded a United plane for a one-hour flight to Chicago O’Hare. Then we had another two-hour wait at a Lufthansa gate for a flight to Frankfurt, immediately adjacent to another Lufthansa gate for a flight to another German city scheduled to depart 30 minutes prior to ours. People continued to cram into the space between the two gates trying to hear the sporadic announcements from Lufthansa, which were mostly drowned out by general O’Hare announcements about parking, baggage vigilance, and other sundry issues that were mundane and irrelevant to our specific boarding instructions. Also, our tickets did not have a “Zone” indicated, so we were not sure what line to get in.

The Teeming Masses at O’Hare

Thankfully, after all this pandemonium, we found ourselves safely on board the plane, watching movies and eating snacks, dinner, and breakfast as we crossed the Atlantic. Thankfully, the transfer in Frankfurt to our flight to Geneva on Swiss Air was much calmer. Interestingly, both Lufthansa and Swiss Air required masks on the planes, while the United flight to Chicago did not. When we arrived in Geneva, the legendary Viking customer service began, as we were greeted by a Viking representative who escorted us and our luggage (along with about ten other Viking guests arriving from various locations) to a bus that took us to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva, where the “Continental Caper” officially began. So, with all this introductory stuff finally out of the way, the narrative begins!

Sep 13 (Tuesday): The first part of the trip involved travel by land through Switzerland, and the first two days were spent in Geneva. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel is located directly across the street (Quai Turrettini) from the Rhone River. The first thing we did upon arrival was to stroll along the river to get a feel for the city and find a place to eat lunch. We saw many interesting buildings along the way, as well as a large fountain called the Jet d’Eau that spouts 360 gallons per second of water some 460 feet in the air, a sight that can be seen from almost any point in the city. Perhaps the most interesting spot was the Brunswick Monument, a tomb built in 1879 to commemorate the Duke of Brunswick in exchange for bequeathing his fortune to the city. Nice way to cement one’s legacy, I’d say. We ate at a Lebanese restaurant before returning to the hotel via the narrow streets away from the riverfront boulevard, also discovering a local food market along the way. Our total walk covered 1.6 miles according to Google, and we were very impressed by the cleanliness and old-world charm of the area. Following a Tuesday evening briefing from our Viking hosts, we went to the hotel reception desk to obtain a free pass for riding the city trams and buses before retiring early.

The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Geneva
Marguerite, the Hotel Mascot
The Rhone River Flowing out from Lake Geneva
The Brunswick Monument

Sep 14 (Wednesday): In the morning, we joined the Viking group for a bus tour of Geneva, during which we saw sights such as the United Nations European headquarters, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, and the famous “broken chair” peace sculpture. We debarked in a large park near the old town of Geneva for a 1.6 mile walking tour. Along the way, we saw a large wall dedicated to key figures of the Reformation era before stumbling into a ceremony celebrating new police academy graduates, then strolled through charming, narrow lanes before returning to the wide boulevard by the Rhone to see a lovely flower clock. After the tour, we walked back to a nice café near the Brunswick Monument for lunch, then to the English Garden along the Rhone before rejoining the Viking group for a boat cruise on Lake Geneva (officially known as Lac Leman). With a total area of 224 square miles and a maximum depth of 1020 ft, the lake is quite large, its semicircular shape straddling the border between Switzerland to the north and a thumblike projection of France to the south. Our boat tour only covered a small portion within the city of Geneva itself, but we were treated to panoramic views of the city and a close encounter with the Jet d’Eau.

The Broken Chair Monument, symbolizing limbs lost to land mines. United Nations in background.
Monument to Reform Era Leaders
The new Police Academy Graduates
The Geneva Flower Clock
Fountain at the English Garden, with Jet d’Eau in Background
All the Fountains in Geneva have Potable Water (unless marked otherwise)

After the official Viking tours were done, we used our free tram pass to travel some four miles west from Geneva to Meyrin, where we visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). CERN operates the world’s largest supercollider, though we were not able to visit that. We did spend an hour or so in a free museum building with several interactive displays about particle physics. These were fascinating, informative, and more than a bit over our heads, but we really did enjoy the place.

Sep 15 (Thursday): After breakfast on Thursday morning, we boarded a bus and drove east along the northern edge of Lake Geneva to Lausanne, where we stopped to visit the International Olympic Museum. I thought this was going to be a bit silly, but I was wrong. The museum is built into a hill overlooking Lake Geneva, including about five levels with all sorts of displays documenting the history of the Olympics. There are extensive details about each and every one of the modern Games from 1896 in Athens to 2022 (the 2020 games) in Tokyo. We were able to see such things as: the torches, with film clips of the torch carriers (even one carrying the torch over the ski jump in Oslo and one with an exchange of the torch between hang gliders in Australia); film clips of the opening ceremonies; Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, leaving the pack far behind in Paris in 1924 with five gold medals and carrying the torch in 1954 in Helsinki; equipment donated by various Olympians, including Rafael Nadal’s shoes (a particular thrill for Pat); and much more than I could ever list. The grounds are also well-kept and quite beautiful, with stunning views of Lake Geneva, immaculate topiary, and inspirational sculptures. I left the place with a newfound respect for the ideals embodied by the Olympics, the inspiration they have provided to countless athletes and fans, and the impact the games have had on human history (though I’m still a bit skeptical about the huge amounts of money spent).

Fountain Beneath the Olympic Museum
Rafa’s Shoes!!!
An early Bobsled — apparently a lot has changed since 1952!
The Olympic Museum Grounds

After the museum, we set off eastward again along Lake Geneva to a village called Lutry, where we visited the Domaine du Daley winery. This is the oldest commercial establishment in Switzerland, founded in 1392 (a mere 630 years ago!) located in the heart of the terraced vineyards of Lavaux, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a bit of a challenge getting the bus in there since the winery is located on the side of a very steep hill – the grapes need to be hand-picked because mechanized equipment is not feasible with the steeply inclined vineyards. We got a brief tour of the processing facilities and then were treated to lunch and a tasting of three wines from different grape varieties: Chasselas (white), Vieilles Vignes (rose), and Plant Robert (red). All were excellent, and we left the winery with full tummies, a bottle each of the Chasselas and the Plant Robert, and smiles on our faces.

View from the Terrace of the Domaine du Daley Winery

The bus made its way generally eastward, following a winding route through the beautiful Alps as we continued toward Zermatt. Zermatt is a “green city,” with no internal combustion engines allowed, so the bus trip ended in Täsch, where we boarded a shuttle train for the final few miles. As we walked from the train station to the Hotel Schweizerhof, a number of small electric maintenance vehicles went zipping by on the cobblestone street lined with modern businesses of all types. After checking in at the hotel, we joined our Viking host for a walking tour of Zermatt with its narrow lanes, beautiful churches, hotels, homes, and shops, and a lovely park. Of particular interest to me were the houses in the old town, constructed with heavy slate roofs with logs at the eaves to prevent ice or the heavy slate tiles themselves from falling off and damaging a neighbor’s property (which would require payment for damages under Swiss law). Although the town lies at the foot of the famed Matterhorn mountain, we were not able to see it due to low cloud cover. Following the walk, we enjoyed a meal of Fondue and Raclette, the famous local Swiss cheese dishes, before retiring to our hotel room.

One of the Seemingly Countless Hotels in Zermatt
Old Town of Zermatt
Slate Roofs are Common for both Old and New Buildings (These are Old Ones)
City Park in Zermatt

Sep 16 (Friday): After breakfast on Friday morning, we walked to the train station and boarded the cog railroad which runs from Zermatt (altitude 5,314 ft) to Gornergrat (altitude 10,132 ft), an observation area with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. The climb is so steep that an ordinary type train could not possibly traverse it – leave it to those ingenious Swiss engineers to come up with the cog idea. The morning was foggy, and we were resigned to a cloud-obscured trip with only our imaginations to conjure up the vaunted scenery. After all, we were told, clear views of the Matterhorn happen on average only 95 days of the year. But then, about halfway up the track, the train burst out of the clouds and there we saw the Matterhorn in all its splendor! By the time we reached the top shortly before 10 AM, the sky had cleared almost completely, and we walked around with mouths agape at the spectacular views in every direction. In a small museum up there, we learned the story of the first climbers to reach the Matterhorn summit in 1865. Tragically, the least experienced climber fell on the way down, pulling three others to their deaths before the rope tying them all together either broke or was cut, saving the remaining three. (That mystery still has not been answered after all these years.) After nearly two hours of touristing, we shared an apple tart at the Gornergrat café, took a virtual hang glider trip called the ZOOOM (which was really fun), and headed down on the cog railway again at noon.

Historical Cog Railway Cars (display only, I think)
First Sighting of the Matterhorn, from the Cog Railway
Mountains and Glaciers, Viewed from the Gornergrat

We stopped at several points on the way down for more sightseeing and for lunch. At the stop called the Riffelsee Photo Point, we got out and walked down a treacherous path to a small lake (the Riffelsee) in which the mighty Matterhorn was reflected for our viewing pleasure. We then clambered up to the train again and rode down to the Riffelhaus Hotel, founded in 1853. After greeting the local mascot at the train stop, we walked to the hotel and had a nice lunch on the veranda with yet another great view of the Matterhorn. One especially neat thing in the hotel is an old, hand-written ledger that lists all the people who have successfully climbed the Matterhorn, kept under glass for protection, of course.

The Riffelsee, Seen Halfway Down the “Path” from the Cog Railway Station
The Matterhorn and the Riffelsee
The Riffelhaus Mascot Welcomes Me
Our Lunch on the Riffelhaus Veranda
The Matterhorn Climber’s Ledger

After lunch, we rode the cog railway to Zermatt again, rested up in the hotel for a bit while sipping our Plant Robert wine from the Domaine du Daly, and then headed off to a local church (St. Nikolas) for a concert by the Zermatt City Orchestra, one event of the annual Zermatt Music Festival. The program included a featured trumpet player from Spain for Haydn’s Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra in E-flat major, a string serenade by Suk, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 1 in C minor featuring the lead cellist. The trumpet player was excellent, and the orchestra was enthusiastic and competent (though no match for the SPCO), and we enjoyed it very much.

View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt, after we got back down

Sep 17 (Saturday): After breakfast on Saturday, we again walked to the train station, this time boarding the Glacier Express for our next destination of Chur (pronounced “Koor”). The train ride took approximately six hours, during which we were served a nice lunch and had a couple of opportunities to get off and stretch our legs during brief stopovers. Though there wasn’t much to actually do during the trip, it felt as though we were travelling through a fairy tale land, with mountains all around and picturesque villages nestled in the valleys. The grass was so green and the sky so blue, it almost felt fake – too beautiful to be real – making the journey pleasant and relaxing. At Chur we left the train and boarded another bus for a two-hour drive to Zurich. Again, not much happening, but the scenery was beautiful, the mountains gradually falling away as we began to follow alongside the Rhine River. We arrived at the Renaissance Zurich Tower Hotel shortly after 5:30 and, after settling into our room, walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. It was an odd choice – The Brisket Southern BBQ – but at least I had a Swiss beer.

View from the Glacier Express, on the Way from Zermatt to Chur
Lake Walensee, on the Way from Chur to Zurich

Sep 18 (Sunday): After breakfast, we had a brief bus ride to Lake Zurich and then boarded a boat for a cruise on the lake. During the cruise, we saw the Opera House, a popular public park, and then – as we drew further away from the city proper – some of Zurich’s tonier neighborhoods, including the house rented by Tina Turner. We learned that something like 90% of Zurich residents rent rather than buy homes. We saw a huge Lindt chocolate factory, which stimulated my sweet glands. The lake is very scenic, and the cruise was pleasant, although it was a bit chilly due to the wind. After the boat trip, we went on a walking tour of the city, mostly on narrow, cobblestone streets. We saw some beautiful churches (naturally), several interesting squares and fountains, including one where wine is pumped through the fountain during the annual festival, and a large park overlooking the Limmat River where dozens of people were playing bocce ball. Our local guide showed us how to buy tickets for the trams, busses, and water taxis at a machine, so we got one to use after the tour. She also pointed out a nice restaurant (Adler’s Swiss Chuchi) where we could try the local specialty, Zurich-style veal fricassee, as well as fabulous fondue and raclette dishes. After the official tour, we used our transport tickets to ride the water taxi down the river into Lake Zurich and back upriver again. I especially enjoyed how the water taxi had to zig and zag from one side of the river to the other so as to fit beneath the highest open sections of the various bridges. After the taxi ride, we had a LARGE late lunch at the Swiss Chuchi before riding the tram back to the hotel, with no need for dinner.

The Limmat River in Zurich
The Limmat River in Zurich (again)
View from Lake Zurich near the River’s Mouth
Church in Zurich
Zurich Water Taxi
The Water Taxi route is on the left, beneath the yellow marker
The Swiss Chuchi Restaurant in Zurich
A Lovely Home in Zurich

Sep 19 (Monday): After breakfast, we boarded a bus for about a one-hour trip to Basel. Once we reached Basel, a local guide boarded the bus and provided some commentary as we drove through the city for a while; my pictures during the bus journey were quite lousy as I tried to shoot through the windows, but then we got off and had a walking tour of Basel, starting at an interesting fountain outside the Opera House designed by Jean Tinguely using pieces taken from the original Opera house before it was “modernized.” We viewed the former cathedral, now a Reformed Protestant church. I found it interesting that the Reformers modified the original statue of St. Martin cutting his soldier’s coat and handing half to a beggar – in the new worldview the church should not be “encouraging” beggars, so the man was re-sculpted into a tree stump. We had some nice overlooks of the Rhine before returning to the Tinguely Fountain and reboarding our bus, enroute to our Viking boat.

One of the Remaining City Gates of Basel (taken from the bus)
The Tinguely Fountain in Basel
Basel Minster, the Former Cathedral, now a Reformed Protestant Church
Basel Minster with St. Martin statue (halfway up on the right)
St. Martin is now giving half his coat to a tree stump
Basel Rathaus, or City Hall
The Rhine River in Basel, its southernmost navigable port

So, dear readers, I will end Part 1 of the narrative at this point. Here’s a map of our travels through Switzerland.

The First Part of Our Caper — Geneva to Basel

In Part 2, we will board the boat and begin our journey down the Rhine River, so stay tuned …