Music At Sea July 24 - August 4, 2011

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 39th ‘Music at Sea’.

A River Rhine cruise onboard 

Ama Waterways ‘AmaDagio’ with Switzerland land tour

July 24 – August 4, 2011

Amsterdam, Holland - Cologne, Germany – Koblenz, Germany

Rudesheim, Germany - Worms, Germany - Heidelberg, Germany

Strasbourg, France - Breisach and Freiburg, Germany

Basel, Switzerland – Lucerne, Switzerland – Zurich, Switzerland

With guests from Malaysia, Australia, Singapore, China, Canada and the USA we were a truly cosmopolitan group for our first ever ‘Music at Sea’ on the River Rhine. Earlier in the year, with reports of unusually low water levels, I had wondered whether instead of gliding over gently flowing waters we might be bumping along a rocky river bed, but the cloud of fountainous spray erupting as we landed in torrential rain at Schiphol airport, seemed to send a message that the river itself had come to greet us with reassurances that there was more than enough water available.

‘You never get a second chance to create a first impression’ could be Ama’s motto. Their representatives greeted us at the airport and the ‘check in’ to board the ship was the fastest I have known.  From motorcoach to cabin took less than 15 minutes! Oh that it was always that fast!

Many so called ‘extras’ were to be included in our package. Specialty coffees, wines with the meals, most shore excursions and - a nice touch this - the loan of a personal wireless device to listen to the guide’s commentary when taking the shore excursions. What an excellent idea. 

Throughout our stay we were to feel genuinely welcome onboard with many staff adding their individual personal touches. I remember with affection a clever conjuring display performed by our waiter at table one evening and the imaginative towel sculptures created on a daily basis by the stateroom stewardess. 

 A Heart

Or how about:

 An Elephant!

The very personable Captain made it clear that if we wished to visit his domain in the ship’s wheelhouse we could drop by (try that on an ocean cruise!) and overseeing everything both onboard and ashore was ‘Superwoman’ Pili the Cruise Manager. She was amazing and we were delighted that she remained with us for our 4 day ‘add on’ in Switzerland, setting up her desk in the lobby of our two hotels, reassuring, knowledgable, unfailingly courteous, unlimitedly patient, indefatigable, never fazed and totally in control!

It was Pili who welcomed us to the ship that evening in a pre-dinner orientation gathering.  “It’s all a matter of meeting your expectations” she said “so do not expect us to be a floating city – think of us as a floating bijou hotel”

Oh, so right Pili and she might have added that since we would never venture into the rough waves of the open sea, those susceptible to ‘mal de mer’ could relax and enjoy a constantly changing scenario as we meandered past riverbanks frequently shaded by gently whispering trees and escorted by posses of regal swans. 

Our swan escorts take an ‘r and r’ break!

Another plus vis-à-vis ocean cruises, which the group appreciated, was the refreshing change of being able to dock in the centre of town rather than in an industrial port surrounded by cranes, containers, cargo ships, concrete and dust.

I wondered whether Pili would have any caveats for our experienced ocean cruise guests. Yes she had! River boats do not dock ‘nose-to-tail’ as ocean cruisers do but ‘side-by-side’ one another. i.e. One will dock alongside the berth. The next will tie up along the side of the berthed one and the next alongside that berthed one so the guest on the outermost boat goes ashore by walking through the other berthed ones. (A good way for the curious to peep at the other boats!) The point to bear in mind is that you could go to bed with open river outside your window but wake up next morning to find that, whilst you were sleeping, several other river boats have quietly snuggled up alongside and you are now staring straight into a stranger’s cabin  – and worse, that stranger is staring straight back at you! So Pili’s wise advice was ‘put some clothes on BEFORE pulling back the drapes’! 

Let me give you a brief description of the layout of AmaDagio.

She has three decks linked by a central staircase. There is also a ‘wheelchair friendly’ glass elevator which, combined with the small size of the vessel, means AmaDagio is a breeze for those with mobility problems. 

In the forward section the lower deck contains the dining room, the middle deck the main lounge with large side windows and a ‘lookout patio’, and the third or upper deck is furnished with Loungers, Shades, Jacuzzi - and a giant chess board!

 Upper deck of ‘AmaDagio’ looking towards the stern.

We settled in in no time and, after overnighting in Amsterdam, AmaDagio left the next morning having disembarked that day’s shore excursion which was to rejoin us at lunchtime a little further up river. Overnight, the rain had disappeared and we were to be blessed with sunshine for the rest of the trip. As we waited for the tour to return Rosemary, John and myself posed by the ship’s prow blissfully unaware of a drama unfolding at the other end of the ship. Police were removing an unattended car which had been left a little too close for comfort!

 Rosemary, John and myself – unaware this might have been our last photo.

After lunch we set sail again and it was time for the mandatory ‘evacuation drill’. As a non swimmer it was reassuring to be told that should the ship sink, the top deck would still be above water! 

The next day we arrived in Cologne and a miniature 4711 Eau de Cologne appeared in each cabin. I had not realized that ‘4711’ was the original town number of the house which which became the headquarters of the famous perfume company.  Cologne also has musical significance as the birthplace of Beethoven’s mother – something I bore in mind when planning our concert that afternoon in nearby Koblenz.  We had hired the historic Town Hall with its glorious Steinway and after the performance posed for our group picture:

Our group picture

Then it was on to the cobbled streets and souvenir shops of Rüdesheim. A holiday destination swarming with hikers and cyclists.  Yuck! Bier Kellars were everywhere but the local specialty Rüdesheimer coffee was something to sample – but not more than one at a time unless you had a friend prepared to carry you home! The recipe is as follows. Fill a large pottery mug with approximately two thirds black coffee, add Asbach brandy in liberal portions, top up with brown sugar and seal with a liberal dollop of whipped cream decorated with chocolate flakes.  Then the ‘coup de grace’ - set it on fire! Holy Moly!  Control your thirst until the flame goes out and you will have a memorable experience. (Do ‘health and safety’ know about this drink?) Yes I did sample one of these and it was so delicious I decided, purely in the interests of research, that another was required just in case my first impression had been incorrect. Oh happy day! OK, I know ‘He that indulgeth - bulgeth’ and some would claim ‘Nothing tastes so good as skinny feels’ but I’d bet a Rüdesheimer coffee would change their mind! That evening most of our group (having thoroughly tested Rüdesheimer coffee in the afternoon) joined the tour to Siegried’s Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments. Fortunately no walking was required!

The next day we were in Martin Luther country. ‘Protestants’ are so called because they ‘protested’ against the Roman Catholic religion. Call me dumb but I’d never made the connection! We drove through beautiful scenery to Heidelberg, the oldest university in Germany and the setting for Romberg’s ‘Student Prince’. Contemporary Heidelberg is a leading centre for cancer research and the alma mater of the chemist Bunsen (he of Bunsen Burner fame) but still retains its olde worlde charm. We explored the ruined castle and walked the cobbled streets wishing we had more time here. One of our guests in a wheelchair thanked another of the group – Vincenzo – for helping her over a particularly testing piece of terrain. I treasure his wise and gracious response: ‘In Italy we do not thank for water or for bread’.

Next stop was Strasbourg, home to huge numbers of European Union diplomats and then, the following day, Breisach, Colmar and the Black Forest – home of the cuckoo clock. Yippee! Our tour visited a cuckoo clock factory (of course) and the secret of the ‘cuckoo sound’ was revealed. It’s made by a very small pair of bellows! I have always wanted a cuckoo clock and there is room in our music room for one but, until now, the obstacle to possession has been our late beloved Brutus who, although adorable in many respects, was to birds what the Inquisition was to Protestants. That little bird would have carolled ‘Cuckk……..’ and that would have been his final utterance. Sadly, Brutus is now in pussy heaven which, in theory, should have meant the way was clear for me to acquire a cuckoo clock. Not so.  To quote an old movie poster:

“Just when you think its safe to go swimming……..JAWS 2” 

or, in this case ‘Pussy Jaws 2’ in the shape and form of a stray cat which miraculously materialised in the garden with one intent and one intent only i.e. to move in, which, of course, he has done.  This new interloper  - Orson is his name – bears more resemblance to a black panther than a domestic animal and my dreams of owning a cuckoo clock have once more gone out of the window. This monster wouldn’t be content with grabbing the poor little bird. He’d bring down the clock and wall with it! He stares at me with his big yellow eyes hoping I’ll pad around with bare feet – his cue for a little pouncing and teeth sharpening practice. His teeth have gaps between them so that when he eats it’s like watching a portcullis going up and down. I’ve been hoping he will move on but  watching he and Ann bond in the afternoon whilst enjoying ‘Deal or No Deal’ its clear he ain’t going nowhere and that the space on the wall I’ve reserved for my cuckoo clock will remain empty for a very long time. 

The next day we arrived in Basle and it was time to say ‘Farewell River Rhine’ and commence the land portion of our trip. Switzerland is one of the few countries to have legalized euthanasia and Basle was so quiet my first impression was that the whole town had been put down! But ‘No’,  soporific Sunday somnambulance is the norm! 

Our two nights in Lucerne coincided with Swiss National Day (The battle of Mogaten in 1315 against the Hapsburgs – the Swiss have long memories!) and the public holiday climaxed with a firework display lighting the placid waters of Lake Lucerne. Our tours there included Mount Pilatus (greatly enhanced by an impromptu singing and yodeling demonstration from 3 hikers who joined us in the gondola for the trip down the mountain) and a visit to the ‘Lion Monument’ commemorating the 760 Swiss guards killed protecting Marie Antoinette. Mark Twain called it he most mournful piece of rock in the world.

 The Lion Monument Lucerne

After two days enjoying Lucerne (oh for more time) we had to leave for Zurich and as our private boat traversed the dappled waters of Lake Lucerne we breathed in the pristine air, marveling as the early morning haze dissolved into bright sunshine and the surrounding mountains became clearly delineated. Standing on the bank was a statue of Jesus, his arms widely outstretched as though in blessing. 

 Our guide informed us that some of the local fishermen interpret the gesture as: ‘Look at the size of the fish in this lake’ and we were still considering this as an old paddle-steamer hove into view, plying the lake as it had done for over one hundred years. 

 Historic Paddle Steamer on Lake Lucerne

We continued our journey to Zurich in a coach equipped with television screens relaying images transmitted from a camera attached to the forward windscreen. In tandem with the huge side windows this gave everyone, no matter where they were seated, a 180 degree view of magnificent scenery reminiscent of parts of Norway and the Rocky Mountains. 

The order and neatness which characterizes Switzerland impressed me.  The farmers were harvesting the wheat from what appeared to be newly manicured fields and even the cows, silently grazing with their cowbells gently clanging, could have been carefully positioned by a film director. And everywhere we went - cherry trees! There are over 700 varieties of cherry in Switzerland. I know – most of us don’t get too excited about cherries unless they are turned into kirsch or cherry brandy but consider this: What if, instead of a chunky apple being placed on William Tell’s son’s head it had been a tiny cherry and the Swiss national hero had had to dissect that with his arrow? Methinks the story might not have had such a happy ending!

Our travels took us through Hirzel, inspiration for the Heidi books (Your ignorant scribe confessing not to have heard of Heidi was quickly put in his place!) Heidi is HUGE in these parts and my final memory of Switzerland was to be on the little train linking the terminals at Zurich International Airport. We entered a tunnel and suddenly we were in Heidi land – the tunnel walls were one long mural dedicated to Heidi and as we looked at the constantly changing pictures, the sounds of cow bells and mooing were piped into the train cabin! (It gave an otherwise rather bland airport a uniquely ‘Swiss’ feel) Anyway, I digress, back to our journey to Zurich! We passed Zug with its famous astronomical clock dating from 1574 and also the Victorinox factory exporting 25,000 Swiss Army knives daily and bringing joy to little boys – and some not so little boys – worldwide. 

 Zug astronomical clock

On arrival in Zurich the waiting Pili boarded our coach with a retinue of hotel staff bearing refreshments and room keys. Oh angel of mercy! The check-in process was performed ON THE COACH – and then all we needed to do was make our way to our rooms. Much appreciated as we were tired. It was here that a special personal experience occurred for two of our guests. The name Switzerland is derived from one of its cantons - Schwyz –and if you meet a person with the name of Schweitzer it’s a fair bet that they or their antecedents has a Swiss connection. Two of our group – Kathy and Bill now living in the USA - have this family name so I was curious to see if any of the locals picked up on it. Sure enough, when checking into the hotel in Zurich, the receptionist read their name, looked up with a smile, and then greeted them with “Welcome Home’! This hotel was typical ‘old style’ Swiss, comfortable, elegant with a touch of kitsch. I was so taken by the crockery at the breakfast table the next morning that I took a picture:

 Attractive crockery – and a linen (not paper) serviette!

The next day we held our concert in Zurich in the Blue Hall of the Volkshaus (Peoples Hall) We had hired a superb Steinway piano for the occasion and a touch of history was provided by the plaque on a rear wall reminding us that in this very room Lenin, campaigning on the communist ideals of ‘Land, bread, peace and freedom’ had addressed the Zurich citizens in 1917.  Given the political propensities of some of our participants I refrained from drawing attention to him!

We had the rest of the day to explore Zurich and say our Farewells. We had so many memories to share and, based on comments I overheard, this ‘Music At Sea’ rated high amongst all-time favourites. It was certainly so for me. My grateful thanks to all our loyal guests, to Rosemary and John for their outstanding organization and friendship and to you, dear reader, I will make a prophecy and suggestion. I believe that river cruises will be the next ‘big thing’ in the cruising industry – so, gather any spare cash you might have and grab some shares in Ama Waterways. You could make a fortune and cruise for the rest of your life!