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Rolling Up and Down the River, Masterpiece Theatre Style

August 17, 2016

Viking will take delivery of 12 new river cruise ships in 2015, including two "Longship-esque" vessels along the Elbe River. Rendering courtesy of Viking.

After years of lusting after one of those Viking cruises I see in the commercials on PBS, I finally scored one at a price we almost could afford. I think they realized we were never going to take them up on their occasional “specials,” so they just quit fooling around and made us a last minute offer we couldn’t refuse. Before we could think much about it, Mike and I, along with our best buddies, found ourselves slinging clothes into suitcases, preparing to cruise through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Hungary on one of those sleek, beautiful vessels you see during the breaks of Masterpiece Theatre, drifting through dramatic valleys lined with castles and cathedrals. A dream comes true!

Sailing on a Viking ship is a whole different, more wonderful experience than what we are used to, being as how all our past trips to Europe have been of the budget variety. Yes, it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. PBS doesn’t lie! Although our cabin, being the cheapest accommodations available, was in the bowels of the ship (one passenger called us “bilge swillers”), we did not mind that it was small and practically below the waterline. We only needed to sleep there. The rest on the time on board, we were free to hang out in the cozy lounge or the sun decks and pretend to be members of the idle rich. The meals were sumptuous and delicious, the wine flowed, we were treated like royalty, we met a lot of really nice and interesting people, and we learned a lot. Pretty much a perfect vacation.

This the first of several installments that will give you the lowdown on what it is like to make the grand tour through central Europe on a riverboat cruise.

Part One: The Netherlands.

canal bridge

We spent only 2 1/2 days here, but there was much to see and do, and I learned more interesting things here than I did anywhere else. Amsterdam was far more beautiful than I thought it would be. The light, even in midsummer, has that magical quality captured so beautifully by the old masters, and everywhere we looked, we saw water, light, and space. After the narrow medieval streets of most of Europe, it was surprising to see how much room Amsterdam has for wide streets, tram tracks, bicycle lanes, canals, and foot traffic. Later, I discovered that the streets are extra wide because there used to be more canals, and wider ones. Many have been filled in now, leaving lots of luxurious space

Amsterdam 1

The Van Gogh museum is full of wonderful art, and it also featured exhibits regarding the artist’s life: his gentle personality, his madness and death. Interested in the ear incident? Here’s what I learned: He really did chop off his whole ear. Not just a little bit of it, but somehow hacked off the whole thing off right up against his head, leaving only the little piece at the bottom with the earlobe attached.

This event marked the beginning of his madness—not just depression and acting a little weird, but stark raving lunacy, which lasted off and on for about a year and a half before his death. There were periods of lucidity, but the poor man was tortured for most of that time, finding a little peace here and there only when he was painting. While his doctor at the time was able to bring him some relief, the specific name for his illness has never been determined conclusively.

You might be interested to know  that there is also a debate about whether Van Gogh really killed himself. There is some evidence to suggest that he was accidentally shot by some boys who were nearby fooling around with a pistol. He told his brother he did it himself, but he may have said that to keep the boys from getting into trouble. That version is very compelling to me because it is in keeping with the personality of the kind and compassionate man we got to know that afternoon in the museum.

Van Gogh

Me and two of my main men, Mike and Vincent

I am researching the underground resistance movement of WWII, so was keen to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum. Even though they had almost no help from the Allies, since the Nazis had pretty much had buttoned everything up by 1940, The Dutch ran a very robust Resistance movement. Not only did these brave citizens aggressively fight the Germans by killing Nazis and blowing up bridges and factories, they also used other, less dramatic tactics to thwart the invaders. They forged documents for Jews, trapped Allies, and Resistance fighters, and burned down registry offices so that the Germans could not check the legitimacy of these forged papers. They developed underground railroads to smuggle Jews and downed Allied pilots to safety. They made sure plenty of “accidents” happened at the factories where they worked and managed to slow production by strikes or by producing armaments and explosives that were faulty and worthless. One woman who was arrested for being a constant monkey wrench in the works was put in jail and told to darn the officer’s socks. She still did her part. Pretending to be simple minded, she sewed them all shut.

They paid for their resistance with terrible retributions. They were starved, murdered, and put into brutal camps. During our trip, I met some people who had been children in the country at that time. They still remember how hungry they were and what a celebration they had when the Allied planes came flying overheard in 1945, dropping food supplies, which saved them from certain starvation.

I came away humbled, grateful, and terrified. We Americans are blessed, but the luxury of the precious democracy we enjoy is fragile and so vulnerable that it would be shockingly easy to lose it if we aren’t vigilant, if we don’t take our responsibilities of self-government seriously. When Hitler first started campaigning, nobody took this ranting nutcase seriously, even when he started amassing a large following. When he was elected Chancellor (equivalent to our President) in an official, national election, people were shocked that he actually had convinced enough people to vote him into office. But they felt they did not need to worry. Germany was a democratic republic, full of checks and balances, and besides, they reasoned, there were enough other decent people in government who could hold him in check. They were wrong. It took Hitler under three months to destroy the democracy and establish himself as Dictator.

I also met a man whose grandfather had been a member of the Resistance. He had worked for Coca Cola, driving a delivery truck. The Germans, being fans of Coke themselves, did not think to check for guns and ammunition to supply Resistance fighters hidden underneath the cases of Cokes.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke right now.

Of course, we visited the Red light district, which was surprisingly civilized, more genteel than The French Quarter on a Saturday night. Yes, there were lots of bars, crowds, and “coffee shops” on every corner where you can buy pot either in tidy cigarette form, or in cookies or brownies. There also are nearly naked girls standing or dancing behind big, bright, storefront windows hawking their wares. But oddly, the scene seemed less sleazy than Bourbon Street where the fully dressed hookers hide behind curtains. There were no aggressive hawkers or tough bouncers in the bars, no blaring music or that frantic atmosphere you see when people are out to see how much trouble they can find. No one was drunk, rowdy, or itching for a fight; everyone was chill and smiling, just strolling around enjoying the atmosphere. The prostitutes, all confined to their bright display cases, were just young women, not exactly looking like fresh-faced UNC freshmen rushees, but not depraved looking, either. They looked like your typical secretary or computer programmer, not miserable, not overly happy, maybe a little bored, just girls doing their job. Nobody seemed interested in them except a couple of ladies working for the Salvation Army who made their rounds to each of the girls, handing out tea, coffee and the occasional sandwich. They were greeted like old friends, with hugs and laughter.

I talked to the Salvation Army ladies, who told me that the girls do not consider prostitution a degrading profession. They are protected, closely monitored by the government, and are given free education and medical services. If they want to get out of the sex trade, they can, and the Salvation Army ladies and the government help them retool themselves for a different career. It was a far cry from the image that comes to mind when we think of prostitutes in the US, and it makes me rethink the way we do things in America.

We sailed during the night and woke up to a cheerful drizzle at the quintessential Netherland village of Kinderdjik, with 19 functioning 18th century windmills and canals that date back to the 13th century. The workings of the dykes and canals, and windmills to keep the water pumping away from the land is amazing. I found it interesting that the Dutch wrested 60% of their land from below the sea by engineering genius during the same time my own ancestors thought the best way to get their hands on a bigger chunk of land was to go hack their kinsmen and neighbors to bits, then move in.


We got to go into one of the working windmills and to talk to the miller. Although we think that a “miller” is someone who grinds corn or flour, to the Dutch, he is someone who takes care of the windmills. Back in the day, the miller lived in these 5 story buildings with a tiny footprint with his whole family, usually of a dozen children or so. He was not allowed to leave the mill at any time. No vacations. 365 days a year spent right there on the spot so that he could quickly change the angle of the sails anytime the wind shifted. But it was and is considered a very prestigious occupation.

miller family

A miller and his family who all lived together in a windmill back in the day. Note the bald heads of the children except the oldest girl. She was of marrying age, and thus needed to be pretty to enhance her prospects. The others no doubt are fighting lice.

windmill interior

Here are some interesting bits of fact I picked up in Kinderdijk:

  1. The country is called The Netherlands, not Holland. North Holland and South Holland are merely provinces. There are actually 12 provinces, but since North and South Holland border the sea, most of the sailors who came from the region came from one of the Hollands. When people asked, “Where do you come from?” the answer was always “Holland.” That gave the impression that the whole country was named such.
  2. How Americans (especially those from the New England region) came to be called “Yankees:”Two common Dutch boys’ are Jan and Kees. The Dutch pronounce them “Yan” (short a) and “Case,” but the English pronounced them “Yan,” with a long a, and “Keys.” Thus “Yankees.

After our windmill tour, we ate lunch on the ship and set sail, watching the gorgeous landscapes along the Rhine River from the sun deck. The weather was beautiful, the wine was plentiful. I got used to it in a hurry. Dinner was a glorious affair, and we began to meet gracious and interesting people who would soon become friends. No idle rich here! Everyone seemed just like us–excited and happy to be here, interested in everything and everybody they met.

We spent the night still drifting upriver until we passed into Germany, docking the next morning in Cologne, the home of Roman ruins, a spectacular cathedral, plenty of brauhauses, and first eau de Cologne ever made. The Netherlands was a success, and we looked forward to the rest of it! Stay tuned for Germany.


From → travel

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