‘There’s an awful lot of beige,’ whispered my husband as we watched fellow passengers embark for our 12 day Rhine cruise. He need not have worried: the crew of colourful characters from eleven different countries amply extended the palette. There was Daniel, our Romanian waiter and engineering graduate. He did a good line in Sting songs and comedy sketches as we discovered during one evening’s home-grown entertainment. Gregor, chef, amateur horologist and Russian history student and Ma-Lei, conservatoire alumnus and laundry maid, were also eager to practise their English and talk of life back home. This glimpse into a wider world was an unexpected bonus as our small, intimate ship slipped down the narrow channels of Middle Rhine.
We were looking forward to seeing robber baron castles sitting astride sloping, corduroy-striped vineyards; but these vistas, familiar as a Grimm’s fairy-tale illustration were not the only pictures to stick in our memories: the shifting kaleidoscope-shards of modern river life also made a deep impression.
Moving through towering, concrete walled lock-gates was a regular event. We were squeezed alongside the ubiquitous, articulated freight barges, Some carried dormant, miniature volcanoes of coal; on another, writhing heaps of scrap metal glistened like silver perch, while a little girl waved happily from the deck as she tri-cycled in her giant playpen.
Leafy river banks, having lulled passengers into a state of soporific calm would suddenly startle us awake with the unexpected: a Boeing 747, looming at an impossibly steep angle above the trees at Speyer. We later discovered this to be one of many ‘clamber-on’ exhibits in the city’s superb transport museum, a reminder that German tourism ‘caters for the youth market as well as yourselves’ as Phil, our tour manager, so diplomatically put it.
Phil did not impress either with local knowledge or geographical awareness. One of our first excursions revealed his limitations. Clutching his notes he announced ‘We are approaching Strasbourg, the only Rhine town in er,...’ there followed several moments of silence as the coach went through a dark tunnel... ‘France,’ he finished, once light was restored.
Thankfully, we did not need Phil in order to appreciate the legacy of stone masons and stained glass artists in the distinctive cathedral cities we visited: sunlight playing on the soft red sandstone facade at Freiburg; the echoing, shadowy nave of Speyer, or the grey filigree spires of Cologne. Here, local guides more than compensated for his lack of knowledge by revealing secret treasures beyond that city’s best-known monument: a magnificent Roman mosaic floor, glittering with a panoply of gods; excavations dusty with promise of the labyrinthine, eighth century Jewish quarter, due to be fully restored by 2015; the chilling EL-DE Haus, Gestapo Headquarters during WW2. And, if all that was too much history for some, the tantalising scent of the chocolate museum!
Nor was he missed as we sat sipping a Rudesheim coffee (the secret’s in the brandy) in the eponymous riverside town or when savouring melting chocolate torte in a Heidelberg cafe.
We even forgave him for misdirecting the hapless coach driver on our way to the Rhine falls; their spearmint green, foaming waters were worth the convoluted drive there.
We did wonder, however, whether the phrasing was deliberately ambiguous on the envelopes left in our cabin on our last evening.
“Gratuities for the ship’s crew”, but “Tips for the tour manager”.
‘Buy a map,’ perhaps?