Sailing the Historic River Rhine (Part 1)

A tour of the Rhine River takes travelers to four countries, including the gorgeous cities of Basel and Colmar.

You get an early impression of what you’ll see on a Rhine river cruise: gorgeous colorful villages and beautiful half-timbered buildings but the crowded piers at some spots show that successful tourism comes with a price — some loss of tranquility.

The Rhine, at 768 miles, is not a long river. The Volga, for example, draining into the Caspian Sea is 2,294 miles long and the Danube drags down into the Black Sea after what has to be Europe’s most exciting 1,760 miles on water. Uniworld has its special cruises on those rivers, too. Indeed, we have cruised with it, our favorite cruise line, on 10 European rivers, each one different because each river and its history is different.

The Rhine’s documented history goes far back — indeed to Roman times. Roman armies were moved around in these parts by Roman navies, and a millennium later prosperous land owners sailed the Rhine to conduct their business. Then the tourists came around the time Mark Twain launched Huckleberry Finn on the Mississippi and tour operators realized how much European history added cachet to a river cruise. And, of course, each port city realized the same, which made this cruise so stimulating — we’d never been to Basel in Switzerland before, the entry city for this cruise.

It turns out there is a lot to see in this city. The Merchant Marine of Switzerland has Basel as its home port and has even created nautical connections to the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Hard to believe as you walk around Basel that you are about 400 miles from the sea.

Near the docks in Base

The boat; it’s never called a ship! A Uniworld upscale coach is never called a bus! If after your flight, you want to stretch your legs, Uniworld offers bicycles — and river roads are usually flat.

The first day on board for most will be exploration of the boat. Passengers will check out corners they sense they will enjoy as favorites, and maybe confirm there really are books in the library and cupboards in the bar that do indeed have their favorite drinks free and accessible.

The first 24 hours are probably the most important for travelers working with a tour operator new to them. They have just spent considerable money on both an international flight and the cruise itself and even first-timers can sense on Day 1 if it’s going to go well. We appreciate how important it is for a cruise line to have well-trained professionals in charge — our safety requires it – and we are pleased to meet the ship’s officers but the importance of the chefs can’t be overstated and passengers can tell at a glance whether the chefs are happy in their work. And isn’t it great when we discover the tour manager has flawless, un-accentuated English!

The captain and his officers. Two of his chefs. The staff member with the greatest impact on how much you enjoy your river cruise: the all-important tour manager, Claudia

From fielding many questions, many times about our cruise, Claudia has answers even before we ask the questions. And she will have a lot to tell us about her continent and her country, Germany — although her talk was several weeks before US News and World Report gave the result of a survey that “Germany tops the world’s best countries list.”

Our tour manager, Claudia

Our cruise starting in Switzerland will take us through four countries: France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. It ends in Amsterdam, surely the city with the easiest airport for any European river port.

But who wants to be thinking about the end of this cruise when we are still at the beginning!

Our first stop, Colmar in France, claims to be the “prettiest town in the world” but does not tell us the source. This is as unsubstantiated an assertion as those seen in city magazines showing glossy photographs of “the best doctors in our city,” each dressed with flair in an Armani suit and a breast pocket flourishing a flamboyant silk kerchief.

Colmar — as pretty as anything designed by Walt Disney, but authentic!

Allied air force commanders knew of its beauty so it was undamaged in World War II. That is a hard-to-believe story. Dresden was beautiful, too, and was bombed as ferociously as London, and Coventry Cathedral in England as badly as Cologne Cathedral 270 miles downriver.

What visitors see is not window-dressing but unchanged homes from the Middle Ages, built the right way — to last.

Colmar is indeed beautiful: half-timbered houses with carnations tumbling from window ledges, Gothic churches, colorful shutters, cobbled streets, and little old ladies riding past canals on bicycles, all creating a scene that could never be American, an irony in a way since Frederic Bartholdi who sculpted our Statue of Liberty was born here.

Uniworld offers complimentary port excursions at each stop with optional choices at some. It also covers gratuities for lecturers and entertainment though that latter has to be simple on river boats. Covered gratuities have been introduced for staff and for specialty snacks and coffees and for airport to river boat and back transportations. Now, many cruise lines and river boat companies are starting to do that too but Uniworld, to its credit, was the pioneer because it wanted to do this; it leads to a happier staff. (Passengers on ocean cruise lines started to stiff the staff at their regular tables when companies brought in multiple specialty restaurants with extra charges to help the ship’s bottom line.) The guided tour of Colmar is on foot but you can access the river boat’s bicycles for a local ride or in your free time in town rent a horse ride.

Colmar shop signs in the Middle Ages. Statue of French hero, General Juan Rapp, done by Frederic Bartholdi; it was his first statue

Our Uniworld guide walks us past those differences, explaining the medieval shop signs for the butcher’s shop and telling us about General Rapp whose statue was the first created by Bartholdi at a time when the sculptor was aged 20. The general was born here in 1771, the son of the janitor of the town hall. He died of pyloric cancer in 1821, after an incredible military career as Napoleon’s favorite general. He was wounded badly eight times (at the Battle of Borodino four times in ninety minutes) but even then saved Napoleon’s life dramatically twice. Napoleon apparently selected his generals better than the French government did later as the Nazis advanced.

The Ancient Church of the Dominican Convent was built in the 13th century and the buildings abandoned after the French Revolution. In 1849 it was turned into a museum and even expanded to become the Unterlinden Museum. Statues of Jesus on a donkey are not commonly seen in Europe’s great cathedrals but this church is now a member of Musée de France.

The Unterlinden Museum is now the most visited museum in the county of Alsace with one fifth of a million visitors coming, mostly to view the Isenheim Altarpiece.

Bright window floral treatments contrasts with the stork symbolism in town. The storks of Alsace have been living among the village people here for centuries. For some tourists, walking on cobbles is a long, hot day but back on the River Queen a glass of champagne or a setting of afternoon tea can revive the soul.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.