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The 2015 Rhine River Cruise

Rick and Marla's Pre-Trip Itinerary 
   March 24: Day 1  Tuesday fly Houston to Munich
   March 25: Day 2 Wednesday drive from Munich to Fussen, Germany
   March 26: Day 3 Thursday Neuschwanstein Castle, drive to Lucerne
   March 27: Day 4 Friday Mount Tiklis overlooking Lake Lucerne
   March 28:   Saturday drive from Lucerne to Basel, Switzerland

Viking River Cruise Itinerary
   March 28: Day 5  Saturday evening departure from Basel
   March 29: Day 6 Sunday Breisach, Germany (Black Forest)
   March 30: Day 7 Monday Strasbourg, France
   March 31: Day 8 Tuesday Heidelberg & Rüdesheim, Germany
   April 01:    Day 9 Wednesday Braubach & Koblenz, Germany
   April 02:    Day 10 Thursday Köln (Cologne), Germany
   April 03:    Day 11 Friday Kinderdijk, Netherlands
   April 04:    Saturday Amsterdam, Netherlands, depart 8 am

Rick and Marla's Post-Trip Itinerary 
   April 04:    Day 12 Saturday Amsterdam Canals, Anne Frank House
   April 05:    Day 13 Sunday Keuchenhof Gardens, Netherlands
   April 06:    Day 14  Monday fly Amsterdam to Houston

2015 Rhine Trip Summary
Written by Rick Archer

Whenever Marla and I return from a cruise, the first question is “How did it go?”

I think I can keep my answer down to 20 pages, but probably not.

Our Rhine trip was easily the most ambitious trip Marla has ever planned. 

Lasting 14 days, we visited five different countries… Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Netherlands.

I have several stories to tell in depth at a later date, but for now this recap should handle most people’s curiosity.


 Day 1 and Day 2:  Airplane trip from Houston to Munich, Germany

We left Houston in the afternoon and landed in Munich the next morning.  The redeye plane trip was safe and uneventful.  Marla and I gambled that I would have enough stamina to drive our rental car to Fussen, Germany, which was located in southern Germany three hours away.

Lowlight:  Sorry to say, but we got very lucky.  I didn’t get a wink of sleep on the plane.  Consequently I dozed off three different times while driving on the German autobahn.  Fortunately Marla was watching me like a hawk and said something each time to snap me back.  In retrospect, I am not sure if this was a good idea.  We could have easily been involved in a fatal accident.

Highlight:  Fussen had a delightful park high up upon a hill which then descended into a riverwalk along the Lech River.  Our nature walk was followed by a marvelous meal in a quaint German diner.


 Day 3:  Visit to Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle

Highlight:  Every postcard of Germany features the famous fairy tale castle in the sky.  I was dying to see this fabulous castle up close in order to satisfy a longtime fantasy.  I could not have cared less that the trip required a mile trek up the long winding road.  It was worth it!  This castle is nothing short of spectacular.

Later on we had a surprise.  We accidentally met up with our friends Larry and Phyllis Beyer during our visit to the Hohenschwangau Castle down below.  This lesser known castle proved to be just as interesting as the impressive castle in the sky.

Lowlight:  Neither Marla nor I have a bit of experience with GPS systems.  During our long afternoon drive to Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, the GPS strangely ordered us off the freeway and detoured us straight into downtown Zurich. 

I still have no idea why the GPS did this.  What a colossal mistake!

Fighting weird turns, rush hour traffic, and pedestrians who crossed the street right in front of our car on two different occasions, a three hour drive turned into a six hour drive.

One pedestrian crossed when I had a green light.  I had no choice but to slam on the brakes.  Strangely enough, the jolt permanently knocked out our GPS system.  At the time I smugly noted that justice had been served.

Now Marla turned on her cell phone which didn’t do much better.  The cell phone GPS got us horribly lost while looking for our hotel in Lucerne. 

At the time, I swore that I would rather have a map.


 Day 4:  Visit to Mount Tiklis

Highlight:  Mount Tiklis is a Swiss Alp that looms high in the sky overlooking Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.  Marla got us on a bus tour that took us into a ski town.  This part of the trip was a real since the view of the Alps was quite spectacular.  From there we rode a series of gondolas to the top of the mountain.  Marla said she had three special activities planned up there as part of the tour.

Lowlight:  The moment we reached the top, it was snowing.  Fierce winds created the worst white-out I have ever seen.  Visibility was at best 10 feet.  Plus the temperature was in the teens.  All that work to get here and there wasn’t anything to do or see except listen to screaming babies in the cafeteria.

Oh well.  That’s travel for you.  Sometimes the weather cooperates, sometimes it doesn’t.  The previous day had been nothing but blue sky.  Just our luck.

 Day 5:  Drive from Lucerne to Basel, Switzerland

Highlight:  I can’t think of a single highlight.  This was an awful day.

Lowlight:  Since our car GPS was out of commission and we had no maps, we had to rely on Marla’s phone.  One problem… her phone was very low on juice due to our lack of a converter to European electricity, so she wisely kept it turned off till the end of our trip.

Although we didn’t have any maps, fortunately we did have a backup plan.   Marla had printed out directions for our drive from Lucerne to Basel.  One would think we were set. 

Yes, indeed, the directions did get us to Basel, but then our luck ran out.  The directions said to take Exit 5 into downtown Basel.  We took a long look at a sign that said “Downtown Basel and Zoo”, but there was nothing to indicate this was Exit 5.  So I had no choice but to keep going.  Maybe the next sign would say “Exit 5”.  No such luck.  By missing the correct Exit 5, I had to drive at least two miles further.

Now we crossed the Rhine going in the wrong direction.  Bad sign.  We both agreed our car rental place was somewhere behind us.  Complicating matters, we had to have the car there by 11:30 am or pay a hefty fine.  Despite how lost we were, we only had 30 minutes to figure it out.

I got off the freeway and made a U-Turn.  Now I was driving north on city streets with street names that had no meaning.  In other words, without a map, I was driving blind.  All I knew is we had to cross the Rhine first, then we would try to figure out our next step.

I eventually got us back over the Rhine and now Marla decided she would turn on her phone.  The directions were very confusing and I ended up going in the same circle two times in a row till I finally figured out what my error was.  I was using a European circle with four exit options and kept choosing the wrong option.  This wasted another 5 minutes.  The pressure mounted. 

Amazingly, we found the car rental, but now we remembered we had to get gas or pay double for each liter.  The man gave us directions… two kilometers away. 

We found the place without a problem and filled it with gas, but then came our next fiasco.  Neither of us could figure out where the button was to open the gas cap.  After an excruciating 5 minute search, finally we asked another driver to help.  After another precious 4 minutes, he was just as frustrated as we were.  Then he had an idea… maybe the gas cap had no lock on it.  Sure enough, it opened manually.  Good grief.  Who would have ever guessed we were driving a Mercedes Benz that had a manual gas cap?

Our next problem was that the gas station’s credit card machine rejected all three of Marla’s credit cards.  The problem was with his machine, not with our cards.  Fortunately Marla had enough Swiss francs to pay the man.

So off we rushed back to the rental place.  Sure enough, the guy was staring at his Swiss watch as I made an illegal U-turn to seal the deal.

We turned the car in at 11:29 am. 

Although we were able to get a taxi to take us to the riverboat without further fanfare, I was so emotionally spent that I went through the motions for the rest of the day. 

We took a walking tour through Basel with perhaps the worst guide we have ever had.  A native of Somalia of all places, this poor girl knew practically nothing about Basel.  Her idea of giving information went like this:  “This is a church.  Basel has lots of churches.  This is a museum.  Basel has lots of museums.”

When she wasn’t looking, Marla and I quietly disappeared and headed back to the boat.

I had a massive headache that night.  No surprise there.


Anecdote:  The name will be omitted, but I have to tell this story. 

The Rhine is interrupted by an extensive system of dams used to control the river flow and to generate electrical power.  Each dam uses a lock to raise and lower the riverboat to different levels. 

I have been told the Rhine River has many locks, but to be honest, I only remember going through one lock the entire trip.  This stood in strong contrast to last year’s Rhone River trip in France where we went through what seemed like two or three locks a day.  

Obviously this year’s riverboat transited the majority of the Rhine River locks while we slept.  There can be no other explanation.  And this accounts for my story.

One of our guests was brand new to river cruising.  Consequently she had no idea that the Rhine River is lined with locks or how they operate. 

On the first night of the trip, this lady was awakened by strange sounds.  She saw that a giant concrete structure had appeared outside her window.  Alarmed, she went out on the balcony to check things out.  By chance, just as she looked down, the lock opened.   As the waters escaped, the boat began to sink rapidly.

Considering my friend had no previous experience with how locks worked or what they were, she was caught completely off guard.  Now she screamed in panic.  In her pajamas no less, at 3 am in the morning she ran down to the front desk to warn the staff to sound the alarm that our ship was sinking.

 Day 6:  Rhine River Cruise begins, visit to Black Forest in the morning, Colmar in the afternoon

Highlight:  The Black Forest of Germany was a huge hit with everyone.  The beauty of the countryside was phenomenal plus we had an excellent guide. 

Marla and I took a walk into the Black Forest alongside a rushing stream furious with snow melt.  The setting was beyond beautiful.

After our walk, Marla fulfilled a dream and bought a cuckoo clock.  Wunderbar!

Colmar, France, in the afternoon was thumbs up as well.  This is a town in Alsace that has been swapped back and forth between Germany and France a half dozen times throughout the centuries.  This is also the place where Audie Murphy made his famous one-man stand against the Nazis.

Murphy’s company was attacked by six tanks and an estimated 250 German infantrymen.  Certain that his decimated company could not withstand the German onslaught, Murphy reluctantly decided to vacate his important position.  He ordered his men to fall back to safety deep in the forest.  

Murphy stayed behind to offer fire to protect his men’s retreat.  After expending all his carbine ammunition at the enemy, Murphy himself prepared to fall back.  Suddenly, he spotted a .50-caliber machine gun on the turret of a burning German tank.  Knowing that his position had to be held at all costs, Murphy raced to the tank, climbed on top and began firing the machine gun at the oncoming Germans.  The Germans were incredulous that Murphy was firing on them with their own weapon, but they had no choice but to fall back or be cut to shreds.  Murphy singlehandedly kept the Germans at bay until reinforcements could join the fight.

Lowlight:  It was a perfect day for me, but unfortunately my friend Larry had developed a serious ear infection.  After a doctor’s visit, he was ordered to go straight to the emergency room of the nearest hospital.  As Phyllis returned to the boat to pack their clothes, she whispered the stay was estimated at 5 to 7 days.  Marla and I were sick because we thought Larry and Phyllis had lost their vacation.


 Day 7:  Strasbourg, France

Highlight:  The town of Strasbourg was lovely. What a great place to walk through!   And the giant cathedral with its bizarre Astronomical Clock was amazing.  This was the sixth tallest cathedral in the world.  

As one might gather, like Colmar, Strasbourg is another town that has been swapped back and forth.  Our guide had shown us a heartrending statue.  It was a mother with a dead son, one in each arm.   At the start of the war, the French fought the Germans.  Each time the Germans captured French fighters, the Germans made these defeated French soldiers fight against their own people or be executed from behind.  There were stories of fathers forced to shoot at sons and brothers forced to shoot at brothers.  Some men simply put revolvers to their head.  They refused to fight their own people.  Europe abounds with tragic stories like this. 

At the end of the tour, Marla and I spent our free time with cappuccinos at a quaint café in a Strasbourg church plaza.  The scenery was postcard perfect of old Germany… or was it old France?  

After we returned to the riverboat, we had the late afternoon free.  This was my chance to take a long walk through a nature park where our riverboat was docked.  I climbed a tower that elevated 200 steps into the sky.  I had a view of everything… Strasbourg to the west, the Black Forest to the east, and the Rhine below. I took the best pictures ever of the surrounding area.


 Day 8:  Heidelberg, Germany

Lowlight:  As we got off the riverboat to begin our morning tour, the skies were dark gray.  I will never understand why it never dawned on me that gray skies sometimes become rain clouds.  It didn’t dawn on Marla either.  The two of us had brought raincoats and umbrellas 5,000 miles to protect us from the rain.  In addition, there were complimentary umbrellas on the boat.   So did we have the sense to bring them with us on today’s trip?  No.

Unfortunately, the message “RAIN” never once crossed my mind.

Part of my mistake was that I had been told we were visiting Heidelberg Castle.  Who needs an umbrella to visit a castle?  If it is raining, I will just sprint to cover.

No one bothered to tell me this particular castle had no roof.  It was destroyed by French troops during the infamous Thirty Years War and never rebuilt.  OMG.

It began to drizzle the moment we left the bus.  By the time we reached the gift shop for shelter, the rain was pouring hard.  Marla bought a cheap poncho in the gift shop and I got a sad little umbrella, but neither offered much protection against these pouring rains.

To our amazement, our guide insisted we leave the shelter and go see Heidelberg Castle.  Since I still had no idea the castle had no roof, I blindly followed her.

What was amazing about this woman… or maybe the correct is ‘bizarre’… she had no umbrella.  As she spoke, her hair was getting soaked.  Finally someone with an umbrella was kind enough to hold it over her.

As the whole group of us were standing in the rain out in this open courtyard trying to listen to the guide, suddenly a surge of violent winds whipped the rain into frenzy.  These winds were so powerful we could barely stand up!!  The rain turned sideways and several umbrellas flew into the air due to the force of the winds.   Our entire visit was just as ruined as the castle itself.  The morning was a total waste.

Later that night on CNN Europe, we learned that our area had been hit by hurricane force winds.  Good grief.

As Marla said, “I will always remember how we were almost blown away in Cat 1 Hurricane force winds at Heidelberg Castle.  Lol”

Highlight:  It was nice to share coffee and strudel with our friends Tracy and Ed in a Heidelberg café later on.  It was there that we thawed out and dried out.  Heidelberg was obviously a lovely town, but this just wasn’t our day.

Observation:  As we waited for our coffee, I took a long look at a German newspaper.  I studied German for four years back in high school and made excellent grades.  During those four years, I memorized a large vocabulary and was pretty good at translation.  Now as I stared at this newspaper forty years later, I was appalled to realize it was all gone.  I could make out perhaps 25% of the words, but this was hardly enough to comprehend what the articles were saying.  Imagine my disappointment to learn that here on my long-awaited visit to Germany, my knowledge of German didn’t come in handy a single time.  Boo hoo!


 Evening of Day 8:  Rudesheim, Germany

Highlight One:  Rudesheim is a small German village situated along the Rhine.  That evening the entire group went into town and enjoyed a delightful evening of dinner and dancing.  To my surprise, although the band was dressed in traditional German lederhosen and blouses, they played mostly American pop music.  I heard everything from ‘New York New York’ to ‘Hava Nagila’ to ‘Achy Breaky Heart’.

Did I mention I hate ‘Achy Breaky Heart’?

Here’s my favorite ABH joke.

Two men are on death row to be executed back to back.  The warden tells the men they each get one wish.

The first man says, “Please play Achy Breaky Heart before I die.”

The second man says, “Please execute me first.”

Imagine flying five thousand miles to Germany only to be haunted by ‘Achy Breaky Heart’.  Like an out of control weed, it’s everywhere!!

However I didn’t come up empty.  To my delight, the band finally played a German oompah song.  So I grabbed Kathy, an athletic lady in our group who loves to Polka.  I took Kathy for an energetic series of circle turns around the floor complete the characteristic hop of the German Polka.  Unfortunately other people crowded onto the floor and ended our parade, but it was fun while it lasted. 

Obviously I made a good impression because the manager sent over a complimentary beer for my efforts.  Jawohl!

Highlight Two:  Marla and I had a special moment together.  Walking from the riverboat, we had come late to the restaurant on our own to meet up with the gang.   But our group had to leave about 30 minutes after our arrival to catch their complimentary trolley ride back to the boat.  Then to our disappointment, once the group left, the band took their break.  Oh well.  The room was empty and there was no music.  We stayed long enough to finish our beers, but decided to leave soon after.

A block away we found another restaurant with music, so we went in.  A large group from a different river cruise ship was in there.  To our surprise, the band played a Waltz.  And it was a special Waltz… “The Last Waltz”… our favorite song.   

“The Last Waltz” has significance because Marla and I performed a Waltz to this song the night I closed my Bissonnet studio back in April 2010.   Tonight was unusually close to the Five Year Anniversary of this key date.

Seeing the song as an omen of sorts, Marla and I rushed to the floor.  As I hoped, once the people saw how good we were, they let us have the whole floor to ourselves.  The people were more than content to just sit back and enjoy the show.   Circle turns, Spirals, Shadows, Synchronized Sweetheart patterns, and swirling turning Box Steps were complimented by a beautiful dip at the end. 

When we were through, we received warm applause.  It was a triumphant moment.  What a nice treat!!

It is hard to believe five years have passed since those days of yesteryear.

Do I miss the studio?  Yes and no.  I miss the fun, friendship and spirit of the studio, but I certainly don’t miss the headaches and problems. 

What I always enjoyed the most about my dance studio was teaching.  Teaching is the joy of my life.  Today I am blessed with the opportunity to continue teaching.  Many years ago I had a large dance room built onto the side of my house.  This allows me to teach dance practically every night of the week. 

Here in my dance room surrounded by the Secret Garden, we have an outrageous amount of fun learning to Waltz, Jitterbug and Two-Step.

It is never work when you do something you love to do.


 Day 9:  Valley of the Castles

Highlight:  This morning was easily my favorite highlight of the trip. 

For the first third of the river cruise, the banks of the Rhine were not particularly high.  However, once we reached Rudesheim in the middle part of the Rhine, we entered a rugged canyon-like sector.  As our boat sailed down the river dwarfed by giant cliffs, it felt like we were river-rafting through a miniature replica of the Grand Canyon… except that a river raft doesn’t approach the luxurious setting of our open-air viewing deck!

High atop each towering hillside loomed an endless series of medieval castles.  This was the Valley of the Castles.  As I had hoped, these castles were absolutely spectacular to view from my post at river level.  My binoculars proved to be especially helpful at capturing the details.

A view like this can only be appreciated from the river.  Trains go too fast, a car or a bike will only see the other side.  I had the perfect spot.

Although it was chilly outside, that didn’t stop me from settling down in my rocking chair.  I had a big comfy blanket over my lap and a nice waiter to bring me hot chocolate for added warmth.  Plus I had my friends Marsha, Sam and Kathy for company (the rest of the gang preferred to watch from inside).

I loved the gray skies.  That gloomy backdrop was perfect to capture the somber mood cast off by these foreboding fortresses.  From my outdoor viewing platform, I snapped picture after picture of the castles as we passed by. 

I was certainly not alone under the spell of the castles.  Everyone in our group was mesmerized by these towering symbols of the violent past of the Rhine River. 

That afternoon we had the chance to stop and visit Marksburg Castle, the only castle along the Rhine that was never conquered and never damaged.  

Inside the castle we were treated to a fascinating tour of the rooms.  Every one of us gasped when we reached the torture chamber complete with all the original implements. 

Our guide had a taste for the morbid and carefully explained how each implement worked.  I squirmed with discomfort as she left nothing to the imagination. 

Medieval times were definitely a rough age to live in. 

Special highlight:  Right before I left the riverboat to begin the Marksburg Castle tour, Mira, one of the Viking coordinators, whispered to me that Larry had just been released from the hospital and that she was about to pick him and Phyllis up at the train station. 

I was shocked.  This was wonderful news.  Phyllis had told me the ear infection had gotten into his lymph gland system and the hospital stay was estimated between 5 and 7 days.  So far only three days had passed.  Wow!  Let’s hear it for German medicine.

I asked Mira not to tell anyone else.

When I returned from Marksburg Castle, Mira whispered they were in their cabin.  As Marla was busy talking to someone, I rushed to their room.  Phyllis answered the door.  I put my finger to my mouth and said, “Quick, here’s my room key.   Go down and hide inside our cabin!”

Then I returned to where Marla was and told her a serious problem had just arisen.  Marla asked what it was, but I said it was so serious that I couldn’t tell her with all these people around.  With a deeply worried look, Marla followed me to our room.  To her dismay, she exclaimed, “Oh no, Rick, our cabin door isn’t even closed properly!  Did you forget to shut it??”

Marla opened the door and suddenly inside our room she saw Larry and Phyllis waiting for her.  OMG!!  Marla screamed with delight!  Hugs and kisses quickly ensued.  It was a great reunion for all of us.  Marla could not believe Larry had made such a quick recovery.  Thank goodness their trip wasn’t completely ruined.

After Larry and Phyllis went back to their cabin, Marla gave me a big kick in the rear.

“Hey, what’s that for?” I exclaimed. 

“That’s for playing a sneaky trick on me, you stinker!”


 Day 10:  Cologne, Germany

Lowlight:  Believe it or not, just as my morning tour began, I was confronted by an angry man who was furious at me for dancing with his wife the night before.  This is an interesting story, but far too complicated for this summary.  Sad to say, I was so depressed over this incident that I had to return to the ship and miss my tour.    STORY OF RICK'S CONFRONTATION

Highlight:  Although my morning was ruined, my evening was sublime.  That night after dinner Marla and I participated in a Pub Crawl.  We tromped through several nearby beer halls in Cologne.  We were accompanied by Tracy, Sherry, Diane, Joan, Cathy, Mona, and Barbara.  This turned out to be a delightful trip.  The laughter and teasing increased with each stop.  Fortunately the portions of German beer were kept small or we would have been completely useless. 

I love getting drunk with friends.  It gives me a chance to tell at least one dirty joke before the night is through.  Sure enough, I told my favorite joke about the pig farmer and received great approval for my effort.  I had way too much fun.

As it was, at the end of the tour, we spent an hour in the Activity Room of the riverboat talking ourselves silly while we sobered up.  Considering I was the only guy in the group, I was privy to a style of conversation I had never heard before. 

To my amazement, the girls started talking about all the great loves of their lives.  Fascinating.  Too bad I can’t remember much or I would have made a fortune in blackmail.  Should have taken notes!!  Hmm, now that I think of it, I do seem to recall a couple stories that Sherry told…

Then the conversation turned to ‘best pickup lines’ that men had used on the ladies over the years.  One lady in particular had the girls rolling in the aisles.

“Well, there was this one guy at a country-western bar who came over and said he really liked my red and white checkered shirt.  This cowboy said my shirt reminded him of the red and white table cloth at barbeques.  Then he added with a leer, ‘And you know what, little lady?  I really like barbeque!   And what about you, Suzy Q, do you like barbeque?  Aren’t you hungry for some home-cooked barbeque?  Hey baby, let’s say you and me go home together in my pickup.  You can rattle my pots and pans while I make you some barbeque and we can use your shirt for our tablecloth!”

For a dollar, I will tell you who told the story.  For two dollars, I will tell you what happened next.  For ten dollars from the lady in question, I won’t say a thing!


 Day 11:  Kinderdijk, Germany

Highlight:  This was our chance to explore the world of Dutch windmills.  Our guide Daniel was a college student who was unusually gifted at explaining the history of windmills and the role they played in reclaiming land from the sea.

What a great young man!   He was so earnest and so brilliant at his explanations that everyone fell in love with him.  Later when he introduced his beaming mother in the gift ship, we all melted.  It was wonderful to see the pride his mother felt towards this exceptional young man.

However, Daniel did make one inadvertent mistake.  Daniel concluded his talk in the workshop by saying every dime spent at the gift shop next door went to a fund created to build their 20th windmill. 

Daniel’s mistake was stopping first at the gift shop before starting the tour of the windmills (everyone knows the gift shop should come at the end).  As we soon discovered, every single person in our group was so inspired by his talk that they bought something.  By this time, poor Daniel had realized his mistake, but there wasn’t much he could do about.  It took half an hour to proceed to the windmill. 

We had a ball climbing ladders inside the model windmill.  Apparently entire families live in each windmills… this was their home.  The father was the caretaker of this particular windmill. 

The walls inside the model windmill were lined with pictures of a family with thirteen children who had lived there in the 1920s!  Considering how small the living areas were, this was a shocking revelation.  I looked carefully, but could only find four beds in the entire structure.  Did the children sleep four to a bed?  Good grief.  I cannot imagine how the parents pulled it off. 

The Dutch have a long history of battling with water.  Both Belgium and the Netherlands are referred to as the “Low Countries” of Europe  ('Netherlands' literally means 'Low countries' or 'Lowlands').

In a manner similar to New Orleans and the Mississippi River, the entire watershed of the Rhine River drains through Belgium and the Netherlands.  Considering the amount of snow melt in the Swiss Alps to the south, both countries are lined with canal after canal to handle the endless deluge of water.

Currently 40% of the territory in the Netherlands lies below sea level.  I asked Daniel to explain how the Netherlands reclaimed all this land from the sea.  Daniel explained that they did it one section at a time.  In the beginning, all this territory was marsh land… reeds, waterbirds, ducks galore.  Nowhere was there enough solid land to walk on for any distance, just endless mud and muck inundated under a foot or so of water.  The Dutch desperately needed more space.  So they learned how to build a dike around a particular section of marshland.  Then they would build windmills to pump out the water into a canal on the other side.

 Slowly but surely the land inside the dike dried out and became farmable.   At this point, a new section of marsh land was targeted and new dikes were built.  One step at the time, the Dutch reclaimed this vast soggy wetland from the sea.  Today an extensive range of seawalls and coastal dunes protect the Netherlands from the North Sea while levees and dikes throughout the interior protect against river flooding.

Someone asked with global warming if there was any fear of renewed flooding.  Daniel shrugged and said not really.  Centuries upon centuries of practice had made his people the most experienced in the world at protecting their land from danger.  Thanks to their expertise, the Dutch feel totally secure. 

As he spoke, I had to wonder what defense they had against a terrorist attack on those ocean walls.  I decided not to ask the question. 

Europe is slowly healing the wounds from centuries of brutal fighting.  It doesn’t help that Russia continues to scare people to death and that a growing Moslem population seems vaguely threatening.  Of course 99.9% of all Moslems are decent people, but the remaining disgruntled ones are capable of great havoc. 


 Day 12:  Amsterdam, Netherlands

Lowlight One:  We left our riverboat at 8 am and checked into our hotel at 9 am. 

From the start, the list of problems was endless.

First of all, there was no ramp from the street to the Lobby of the hotel.  Nor were there any busboys.  I had to physically carry every suitcase up a flight of stairs to get to the Lobby.  There were no chairs in the Lobby so I had to stand while Marla checked in.  There was still no busboy to be seen, so I found a cart and loaded the suitcases on to it.

Now I squeezed the cart into the tiniest lift I have ever seen.  Major problem… the lift didn’t work and I was stuck behind the cart in the narrow lift.  So Marla went for help.   The lady came and said she had worked there for four months and never even knew that lift existed.  So now a busboy showed up and helped me get the cart back out.  Then he led me through a winding maze of corridors until we found an elevator that worked. 

That night at 3 am, Marla and I were awakened by some drunk pounding on a nearby door screaming to be let in.  I called the front desk.

Now that we were wide awake, we decided to watch TV.  It didn’t work. 

I called the front desk.  It took a while, but the man finally realized someone had unplugged the TV.  The cord was hidden behind the desk.

In the morning, Marla couldn’t get the hot water to work to take a shower.  I called the front desk.  It took the man five minutes to figure out someone had reversed the handles on the shower.

That morning we attempted to go to breakfast downstairs.   Only one problem – we got completely lost.  The hallways had no signs other than evacuation routes and there was no floor plan.  When we left our room, both Marla and I got lost trying to find our way back out.  We ended up on an emergency staircase outside the hotel.  It took us nearly ten minutes to find the correct door.

I made a joke.  “Now I know why this city is called Hamsterdam… we are wandering around like mice in a maze!”

At $400 per night, the Amrath Hotel has to be the most overrated hotel I have ever stayed at.  Truly, this weird hotel would be perfect for a European version of “The Shining”.   Our stay was certainly just as frightening.


Lowlight Two:   This was our version of “The Longest Day”.

Marla had booked us on the longest tour ever, 7 hours.  Except that our day actually stretched out to 11 hours!  

We wasted an hour and thirty minutes at the start and another hour and thirty minutes at the end plus the tour ran over by an hour.  1.5 + 1.5 + 1 + 7 = 11.

For starters, we struggled to walk one mile through the complicated streets of Amsterdam using her cell phone for directions.  Unfortunately her cell phone left us in the middle of nowhere with just five minutes left to find the correct location.  Panic-stricken, I approached a stranger to tell us where the Plaza Mall was.  He pointed to a spot a block away.

We rushed to make the spot just as the clock turned 10 am… but there was no guide.  Angry, Marla called.  The tour was supposed to start at 11 am.  The brochure Marla had been sent had deliberately forced us to appear an hour early.  I wasn’t happy about the cynical trick that had been played on us. 


Highlight:  Fortunately the tour itself was pretty good.

After killing an hour, a young bearded man named Aviv appeared.  Aviv, a former member of the Israel military, was a fascinating man.  He and I were clearly soul mates.  During our walk from one spot to the next, we began to discuss Israeli politics, Indian mysticism, terrorism, world peace, and the history of Netherlands independence.   I had the best time talking to him.

Unfortunately the tour itself was only partially satisfying.  We wasted half an hour on a city block lined with flower shops.  Then we wasted an entire hour at a flea market. 

By the time the river canal part of the tour began around 3:30 pm, Marla and I were already exhausted.  The half hour wait for the boat didn’t improve things.

That said, it was fun to float through the maze of different canals.  It was very similar to a canal tour we had taken in Copenhagen, Denmark, only much more complicated.

After the canal tour, we took the underground metro over to the Anne Frank house.  As you undoubtedly know, Anne Frank has become the heartrending symbol of the Nazi Holocaust.  Although 6 million Jews and many others as well died at the hands of Nazi genocide, the name we remember best is ‘Anne Frank’ thanks to her famous diary that told how she spent two years in constant terror up in her hidden alcove.

To make a long story short, the Netherlands was the most open-minded country in Europe and welcomed all Jews.  Sadly, during World War II, the Netherlands suddenly turned into a death trap as over 100,000 Jews were exterminated.  Otto Frank, a wealthy businessman, decided to turn the back part of his Amsterdam office into the “Secret Annex”.

Through the help of several loyal Dutch friends, eight people went into hiding.  During the two years they spent in the Secret Annex, Frank’s 15 year old daughter Anne passed the time by writing in her diary.

The invasion of Normandy on D-Day in June, 1944, gave the eight people trapped in the Annex new hope that rescue was near.  It was all for naught… two months later in August, 1944, the Nazis raided their house.  To this day, no one knows who betrayed them. 

Only Otto Frank survived the concentration camp.  Tragically Anne Frank died just one month before liberation at Auschwitz.

After returning to Amsterdam, Otto Frank found his daughter’s diary.  After editing the journal, he found a publisher.  Over the years, the Diary of Anne Frank would become the enduring story of the horror created by the Nazis. 

Strangely, there seems to be some sort of modern sentiment to deny or downplay the existence of the Nazi atrocities. One of the things I noticed at the Anne Frank house was document after document showing how the name of Anne Frank appeared in Nazi records complete with a death notice.  These records offer indisputable evidence that the fate of Anne Frank was no fairy tale, but rather the heartrending story of how an intelligent, sensitive young woman was sent to her death for absolutely no good reason other than her religious faith. 

The Anne Frank museum, in my opinion, was nothing short of brilliant.  I might add a lot of people agreed with me… the lines outside stretched three city blocks.  Even though it was 5:30 pm, I estimate 500 to a 1,000 people waited for any chance to visit.

It was only thanks to the cleverness of Marla that we were able to book a tour that bypassed this endless line.  Otherwise we would have never seen the place and that would have been a shame.  This visit was a major eye opener. 

Lowlight Three:   After the Anne Frank house, Marla and I decided to walk back to the hotel.  Marla and I have a tradition of taking at least one long walk on every trip.  This seemed like a good place to continue that idea.  Marla explained that her cell phone was very low on juice, but I said not to worry because the hotel had given me a map of the city.  Now that I had a map, finding our way back would not be a problem.

On the map, the distance didn’t look all that imposing.  Indeed, I later discovered that the length was around a mile.  One mile?  No problem.  Marla and I can walk a mile in 15 minutes. 

So why did it take us an hour and 30 minutes to make the trip?   To be honest, I don’t yet have the answer to that question.  I took pictures of street names along the way, so at some point I will be able to retrace our steps using my markers. 

Let’s just say I probably took a wrong turn or two… or three.

Marla was exhausted from the Longest Day.  The more tired she got, the less confidence she had in my navigating ability.  She grew so impatient that I finally threw in the towel and told her to use her cell phone instead. 

Twenty minutes later we found the hotel. 

At this point, I am dangerously close to admitting the map left me totally confused.  However, I reserve final judgment pending a review of the trip. 

I have lived my entire life believing I had the ability to read maps.  But after today, my confidence was badly shaken.

It hurts to admit I might seriously suck at reading maps.


 Day 13:  Keuchenhof, Netherlands

Highlight:  This day was one of the real highlights of our trip.  Located 16 miles south of Amsterdam, Kuchenhof Gardens are the second largest garden in the world.   We were told there were something like 4.5 million bulbs planted.

Oddly enough, Kuchenhof is only open two months out of the year during mid-March to mid-May.  Considering the incredibly beauty of these 80 acres of flowers, that seems like a shame.  But then someone pointed out that the Renaissance Festival is only open for two months as well, so I began to accept that it is okay to reserve certain areas for use once a year.  I was told the other ten months are put to good use planting and grooming for the next spring crop of flowers.

Kuchenhof Gardens will be easier to appreciate once I post the pictures, but for now take my word that this place is exceptional.  I thoroughly enjoyed my five hours of tiptoeing through the tulips. 

What a spectacular explosion of color to behold!


 Day 14:  Plane Trip back to Houston

Highlight:  The non-stop plane trip took 10 hours, but our watches only moved four hours.  It was weird leaving Amsterdam at 11 am and landing in Houston at 3 pm, but thanks to the time zones, that’s how it works.  Somehow a 10 hour flight is reduced to 4 hours when flying west.  That said, the jet lag is still just as fierce.  For example, Marla and I would awaken at 3 am for the next three nights. 

Indeed, it was 4 am as I reached this point in typing this story. 

Ah, guess what?  Marla just rose and is headed to make coffee.  It is 4 am and both of are wide awake.

No doubt our deeply confused bodies still think we are in Deutschland.   

But oh what memories!  From the Castle in the Sky to the Black Forest to dancing in Rudesheim to the Valley of the Castles to the Anne Frank House to the Garden of the Tulips…. this was an amazing trip. 
  For Pre-Cruise details about our trip, be sure to read Germany Information

Rick’s Overview of the 2015 Rhine Cruise

As I have made clear, this was Marla’s most ambitious trip to date.  She packed an amazing number of adventures into this two-week trip.  

As most Newsletter readers know, Marla and I took our first river cruise one year ago on the Rhone River in France.  To my surprise, this year’s Rhine trip often felt like a replay of last year’s trip.  The experience was virtually unchanged. 

The names of the towns were different, but the overall impression I formed a year ago about river cruising didn’t change one bit. 

To me, there is a vast difference between the ocean cruise experience and the river cruise experience.   The ocean cruise is typically low on cultural experience, but high on fun and entertainment.  The river cruise beats most ocean cruises hands down for cultural experience, yet comes up vaguely empty in the entertainment department once back on board.  

When you take a river cruise, you will marvel at some of the places you visit and the knowledge of your guides.  You will return home feeling like you intimately understand the foreign country you have visited.  For example, I spent weeks researching the history of Germany prior to this trip.  And yet I found myself confused about much of what I read.  After visiting Germany, I now understand events like the Thirty Years War and the Holy Roman Empire much better.

Several times I caught myself saying, “Ah, so that’s what they were talking about.”

The river cruise definitely brings the history of the region into focus.

Another value of the river cruise is the safety factor.  As before on the Rhone, we operated just like a family on the Rhine as well.  In particular, the ladies expressed delight at how safe they felt at all times because we always operated as a tight-knit group.  During our Pub Crawl, one lady marveled how we could walk fearlessly through the streets of Cologne at night because the group made us all safer.

I was pleased to see the closeness of the Rhone trip group replicated with the Rhine group as well.  It was delightful sharing so much time with a small group of friends.  Every meal was like a Thanksgiving reunion.  Over copious amounts of wine, we teased and bantered and misbehaved in many charming ways. 

The free wine helps dramatically.  Loose lips may sink ships, but in our case the loose lips simply encouraged people to divulge one amazing fun story after another.  The intimacy that can be developed during these wine-assisted mealtimes is beyond wonderful.

Here is a good example. 

One night I noticed a table of ten ladies nearby who seemed to be on the receiving end of an unending flow of Rhine wine.  Meanwhile the people at my own table experienced a wine trickle reminiscent of the California drought.  

As I stared at my empty wine glass, something seemed amiss.  Curious, at lunch the next day I began a series of questions to explore a hunch I had.  Sure enough, over copious amounts of wine, I got one of the ladies at the lunch table to confess she had bribed a waiter to give her these extra amounts of wine.  Loose lips sink ships, right?  Now that the secret was out, I had way too much fun teasing her. 

I told her to prove what she had done.  So she snapped her fingers and sure enough her Romanian boy toy appeared like a genie on the spot.  “Bring me some white wine!”  Moments later a glass of white wine magically appeared before her.

I was impressed.  Although I didn’t want to reveal my inner thoughts at the time, I don’t mind sharing that I appreciated the cleverness of her move.  For a lousy 10 euros, this lady was being treated like European nobility and I was being ignored like typical Euro white trash.  I definitely admired the results of her bribe!  

As much as I enjoyed the antics of mealtime, sad to say, there were only three meals a day.  Eventually there were down times when I needed to find ways to entertain myself.  The ship’s crew simply was not up to the task of providing much entertainment themselves.

Consequently many of the guests learned quickly to bring a good book along for those lazy afternoons.   Although the ship’s crew did try to offer educational lectures from time to time, the topics tended to be dry.  

For example, one afternoon I stared in shock as the head cook came up to the Activity Room to discuss the evening’s menu.  Sorry, but I didn’t need a ten minute lecture on the highlights of the food prepared for the meal.  If I had a question, I could save time and simply ask the waiter.

Another time some Viking staffwoman spent ten unbelievably boring minutes talking about the captain’s favorite brand of Norwegian booze.  I could barely keep my eyes open. 

I say turn the piano player loose and let me ask someone to dance.  That was usually the best entertainment they had.

I suppose someday Viking will discover more ways to entertain and involve their guests during the down times, but for the present this remains a chink in their armor.  Why they don’t have afternoon Trivia contests is beyond me.  With this super-smart crowd, I know this would be a big hit just like it is on ocean cruises.

I spoke to the hotel manager and the social director about the benefits of social dancing, but all they did was listen politely without really hearing me.  All they had to do was notice how much attention our group received when we danced to get the point, but they didn’t pay much heed.  Oh well. 

One morning one of the ladies in our group said she wasn’t joining us because her leg hurt from arthritis.  This struck home. In the past year I began to encounter the occasional nagging pain of arthritis for the first time.

This woman’s comment reminded me of the importance of being able to walk.   For our entire lives, we have taken the ability to walk for granted.  But those days may be numbered.  Considering how many of my friends here in Houston are starting to complain about foot ailments, aching knees, and hip problems, I realize more and more that no one is immune from the problems of aging. 

Marla and I agree our window of opportunity is slowly beginning to close.  There is no time to waste.  Now is the magic point in our life when we have the combination of leisure time and enough savings to explore the world.  That said, the sands of opportunity are running out as I write.  Use it or lose it. 

In my opinion, the river cruise experience has added a whole new dimension to the world of travel.  I prefer to use my savings to see as much of the world as I can while I still can.  As they say, there are no pockets in shrouds. 

So with that attitude in mind, every possible day here in Houston Marla and I make an effort to take a long walk.  Our motto is ‘have legs, will travel’. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to extend that same analogy to dancing.  Dancing should be part of everyone’s lifestyle both here at home and abroad.  Besides the exercise benefits, I can’t begin to explain how much praise the people in our group received for their dancing ability on board this cruise. 

Furthermore, there was not even one couple that approached the dance skill of any of us.  That made no sense to me.  It is unbelievable how few people in our society make an attempt to learn to dance.  Dancing… what better way to keep your legs in shape?   Or for that matter, what better way to keep the mind sharp and socialize as well?  Now that we have free time in our Golden Years, if anything a hobby like dancing should come to the forefront.

However, judging from what I saw in the general population of guests aboard, very few people outside our Texas group seem to get my point. 

For that matter, in addition to walking and dancing, I think it is a shame they don’t bring bikes along.  How about a bike ride?  Wouldn’t that be a great way to explore the nearby neighborhood on the afternoons when there are no tours scheduled? 

And how much fun would it be to ride a bike alongside the riverboat from one town to the next?  After all, almost every part of the river has accompanying railroads, freeways and bike lanes running parallel to the river.   Now that would be a thrill.  Wouldn’t it be fun to race the riverboat downstream on a bicycle? 

I have so many ideas.  Sometimes I really wish I could be the social director on a river cruise.  I would have so much fun.  What a perfect extension of my career as a dance instructor!   The only thing holding me back is how much I enjoy living here in Houston.   Thanks to Marla, I am more than content with my three trips per year.

Have I mentioned how much one can learn from the people you meet through travel?

One of the interesting aspects of a river cruise that isn’t often talked about is the quality of the new people one will meet.  We know that river cruises are not cheap.  Therefore the guests will typically be well-heeled and well-educated. 

In addition, many of these people are seasoned veterans to the travel game.  The river cruise becomes a forum of sorts.  Chance meetings with people from other parts of the world frequently lead to an interesting exchange of ideas.  Riverboat travelers are typically super-friendly and surprisingly willing to discuss even the most sensitive of subjects. 

A perfect example was the delight I had meeting a family of five Latino sisters traveling together (two of their husbands were along as well).  Nicknaming them “La Familia”, I was delighted by their unusual candor.  Practically from the moment I met them, we discussed social problems, government cover-ups, conspiracy theories and dirty politics.  In addition, I had a blast watching the dynamics between the two husbands and the five sisters.  The back and forth banter was a sight to behold.  Those husbands are master politicians because they have five women listening carefully to every word they say.  Talk about danger!  With five women listening, that’s like walking through a mine field every day!

Truly I admire those two guys more than one can imagine.

I absolutely loved the story of how one husband… a gringo no less… had to survive a tequila drinking contest with his future Latino brother in laws in order to gain admission to La Familia.  Best story I have heard in ages.

By the end of the trip, La Familia announced that they had decided to adopt me as an honorary member.  I beamed from head to toe.  That was the nicest tribute I received the entire trip!

Oh well, enough for now.  The bottom line is despite the headaches, despite the weather, despite getting completely lost four different times and despite the jerk that ruined my visit to Cologne, this was an incredible trip.

As always, all credit for the trip must go to Marla.  The planning involved – directions, hotels, transportation, different currencies, schedule changes – was unbelievable.

Here is one last anecdote.  So we are headed to Kuchenhof Gardens.  One woman in our group has accidentally printed the wrong form and has no voucher.

Although she has already paid for the trip, the tourist representative says without the correct ID number, she can’t issue a bus ticket.  Furthermore, the computer is not programmed to do a search by name, only number.  Without the correct number, the tourist agent claims to be helpless.  Our lady is fit to be tied.  Everything is at an impasse.

I was incredulous that the tourist rep is being so stubborn.

So I quietly went to summon Marla.   Marla appears and asks two questions, then says to her friend, “Why don’t you check your email using your cell phone and find the document I sent you that contains the ID number?”

Both the lady and the tourist rep look at one another.  Why didn’t they think of that?   It took all of one minute to find the document and solve the problem.

That’s Marla.

Once Marla figures out how to use GPS or keep her phone charged, she will be unstoppable.  The woman is beyond brilliant.  Throughout this trip, I was constantly reminded at how utterly competent Marla is at creating these adventures. 

Considering the 2015 Rhine River Cruise was our 32nd trip, Marla has taken me on the ride of a lifetime.  I could not possibly be more proud of her… or grateful.

Marla… I salute you.  You are a master of your profession.

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