ABOARD THE AVALON TRANQUILITY II - With each trip, I try to pack less; just the essentials in an ever-shrinking suitcase. I have a fantasy: perhaps if I can learn to schlep less from place to place, I can learn to pare my to-do list as well.
“Do less” does not come naturally. There’s a skill to shifting gears — with a yawning cavern between “gotta do it all” and “I’m watching the world go by.” Is stepping off the merry-go-round just crazy talk, or can I learn to embrace a laid-back chill?
That’s how I find myself on the deck of the Avalon Tranquility II, waving as we pull away from the cityscape of Strasbourg, France, for a cruise along the Upper Rhine River. Navigating one of Europe’s great rivers aboard a luxury small ship could be my ticket to that illusive chill. Travel on the ribbon of water is slow and steady with absolutely no chance I’ll get my hands on the wheel.
The Rhine begins as a trickle in the Swiss Alps, gathering steam and flowing northward until spilling into the North Sea. From the end of the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-17th century to the end of World War II, the line formed by the Upper Rhine was a contentious borderland between France and Germany. The land flipped back and forth under the two flags and, decades later, the mingling of cultures is stamped into the architecture and on the menus of small winstubs (wine lounges) — consider a foie gras appetizer and a hearty entrée of sausage and sauerkraut.
Downstream from Strasbourg, the Romantic Rhine is a procession of medieval castles, a system of tollbooths where rulers extracted taxes for passing through their fiefdoms. Upriver — to the south between Strasbourg and Basel, Switzerland —– the river widens and the shoreline slackens (gone are the deep gorges and steep vineyards of the Middle Rhine) and villages are set back from the edge. Out of sight, perhaps, but not out of mind.
Above: The spacious cabins that Avalon offers passengers make them feel at home.
“We haven’t moved so much forward in time,” says Nancy Parades, our onboard cruise director. “This is what makes the Rhine so romantic.”
In the Middle Ages, prudent town planners built small trading villages along the Upper Rhine on higher ground, away from the banks of the flood-prone river. On the French side, medieval, walled villages like Riquewihr, Eguisheim and Kaysersberg are a string of irresistible stops along the 170-kilometre-long Alsace Route du Vin, just a short hop from the boat docks and a popular half-day trip on the Tranquility II itinerary.
On the German side of the Rhine, an amazing side trip meanders through a landscape of farms quilted in lush squares of green, past villages of half-timbered Hansel and Gretel-style houses, into the dark conifers of the Black Forest. This countryside grandstands with cherry-topped gateau soaked with kirsch liqueur, cuckoo clocks and its namesake ham.
The Tranqulity II slips into the dock at Breisach, Germany, just long enough for us to parade down the gangplank and climb onto buses for the half-day excursions. To the west is France’s Alsace, a blissful region of sleepy vineyards, tucked beside the foothills of the Vosges Mountains. These slopes have the high cheekbones and lanky silhouette of vineyard pedigree, with perfect conditions for wine production: warm, dry weather and a fertile soil that produces some 12 million cases of wine each year.
Left: Craftsmen showcase their skills to Tranquility II passengers during shore excursions. Right: Seeing how legendary dishes are made is all part of the excitement.
The bus stops in tiny Riquewihr, a virtual showcase of renaissance and medieval homes, hemmed in by arrow-straight rows of vines blanketing the rolling hills right up to village’s stone ramparts. Riquewihr’s layout has not changed since the Middle Ages — fortified gateways control traffic to the town square and three sides of the 700-year old ramparts still mark its outer boundaries.
A pride of preservation is on full show and it’s no wonder that the entire town has been declared a historic monument. The cobbled main street is lined with family-run hotels, shops and small restaurants serving traditional Alsatian meals, including cheese-smothered tarte flambée.
Shingles announcing wine hang everywhere and there is no shortage of caves, the cellars where the winemakers pour glasses of the crisp white wines that make Alsace famous – Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat.
Left: Ancient cities and towns pass as Tranquility II passengers watch from the deck. Right: The Tranquility II slowly floats pass vineyards lush with grapes.
On the other side of the river, our bus winds along country roads toward the hills of the Black Forest. We pass fields of springtime asparagus and tidy orchards of cherry, apple and walnut trees (ingredients that show up on every local menu).
“The Romans came here 2,000 years ago and they saw this mountain range but didn’t enter because it was covered with trees,” explains Gerald Nill, our genial guide. “They stayed on the plain of the Rhine River and it was another 1,000 years before people ventured into the forested area and established villages.” Now they come to the forest in droves, mostly hikers looking to escape the cities.
The roadway narrows and twists and turns as it enters the forest of beech, spruce and silver fir, so thick that they make the woods look black from a distance. According to Nill, motorcyclists who want off the wide autobahn love the challenging curves of the Black Forest roads. In every village, small restaurants and shops have sprung up to service the tourist.
The cuckoo clock was invented in the Black Forest and at the Hornberger Uhrenspiele — The House of Black Forest Clocks — seventh-generation craftspeople still design, carve, glue and paint up to 5,000 clocks each year. The shop’s shelves are lined with every cliché of the Black Forest — beer steins, music boxes, felt alpine hats, folded pairs of lederhosen and hundreds of handmade cuckoo clocks.
Above: Passengers have plenty of time to wander the streets of historic towns.
The owner signals me over to his workbench and I watch as he deliberately, patiently chips away at a piece of wood that will become a timepiece. Behind him, a hundred of his creations keep up a rhythmic tick-tock but he seems immune to any suggestion of marching time. He has found his own version of the laidback chill I have been chasing.
And, with just a little bit of time, the magic along this waterway will show me as well.
The 128-passenger Avalon Tranquility II is the newest of Avalon Waterways’ suite ships. Some of the spacious staterooms feature floor to ceiling windows and a bed positioned to face the view, pictured left. Gourmet meals focus on regional dishes typical of the area. The Rhine River cruise season operates from mid-March until the end of October with special cruises through the Christmas market season. For info, go to www.AvalonWaterways.ca
/ For information on the wine route, go to www.alsace-wine-route.com
/ For informaiton on travel in Germany, go to www.germany.travel