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Cruise Ship Review
Grand Circle Travel

MS River Melody

by Rick Thorson

[River Melody]

Grand Circle Travel's MS River Melody 14 day cruise from Amsterdam to Vienna, July 2004

ITINERARY: 3 Night Pre Cruise in Brussels, Belgium. Amsterdam - Cologne - Koblenz - Mainz/Rudesheim - Heidelberg - Wertheim - Wurzburg - Main/Danube Canal - Bamberg - Nurnberg - Kelheim - Watershed Monument - Regensberg - Passau - Melk - Vienna. 3 Night Post Cruise in Vienna, Austria.

For the most part the cruise was great! The weather and our travelling companions were most co-operative and the scenery was out of this world.

In addition to sightseeing, we were on a mission: find a snowball, water globe, whatever. For about half the trip we had up to 12 couples who had begun this trip in Brussels with us searching and becoming as frustrated as we were until we finally found one. Even though we visited 18 charming ports in 14 days, their concept of a charming village scene captured in a water globe ranged from disdain (Ugh, Disneyland) to a photograph of a town taken at night so you couldn't see anything!

Speaking of 18 ports in 14 days, this is not your typical cruise. You simply go until you can't go anymore then you continue to go some more. I doubt that anyone has the stamina to follow that routine for long. By the time we reached Vienna, we could have cared less and napped in the afternoon.

This trip represented a bittersweet accomplishment. With this cruise under our belts, we have now visited, toured, whatever, every significant palace in the world. We started this quest back in 1990 so it only took 14 years but along with the joy of accomplishment there is a certain let-down and a feeling of what next?

The Rhine, Mosell & Main rivers have always been the route of choice when travelling in Germany because the woods could, and did, harbor bandits and other miscreants. Germany is surprisingly heavily forested. (The famous Black Forest is in Southern Bavaria and I won't see that until we return for Octoberfest in the Fall). Because the rivers were "open" most travellers used them, therefore the castles set up along the river to collect tolls were very early examples of a market-based economy. If you wanted to move goods (or yourself for that matter) you pay the tolls or else you risk great bodily harm (often the fatal kind) by using the forests.

The rivers also tell a political story about the Habsburg Family. (Yes that is the correct spelling of their name - they did not spell it with a "P" but rather with a "B". There were so many castles and Knights or Princes or even self-appointed Kings that the Prince-Bishops set up a structure to bring some sense of order to the chaos created by all of these "toll-collectors". The Prince Bishops decided to choose a very minor and weak "Emperor" to impose order. They selected Maximilian and elected him to this role primarily because they considered him too weak to get in their way.

Typical Castle Along the Rhine
Typical Castle Along the Rhine

Although Maximilian was indeed weak due to not having his own army, he established a principle that would allow the Habsburg family to continue to hold on to property and power. (I hope this little history lesson isn't boring you too much but it becomes an integral part of this cruise.) The principle that Maximilian established and future Habsburgs greatly enhanced was "marry well, outlive the spouse, inherit the property, and use the spouse's army to protect the family." By following this principle, the Habsburg Family reigned for 600 years and at one time a Habsburg was in every royal family in Europe. Even Marie Antoinette was a Habsburg!

To retain their lands, the Habsburgs allied themselves with the Pope in Rome (The Habsburg title is "Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nations"). In turn the Pope gave them the authority to appoint Prince-Bishops: Prince because they represented the power of the Crown, Bishops because they represented the church. Some of their residences are magnificent palaces. Now what makes this a "cozy" arrangement is the Prince-Bishops "elected" the Emperor! So much for a "weakling Emperor!"

The first Emperors spent all their time on horseback, riding from one town to another to make decisions that the local rulers were reluctant to make. When not on horseback they went by river as most of the communities were next to the water.

The Rhine was also the dividing line or boundary of the Holy Roman Empire until the Emperor got greedy and sent all of his relatives to subdue those peoples and tribes not already subservient to him. For 2000 years, the Rhine has played a very important part in the march of history.

Great Cathedral in Cologne

Our first stop on the Rhine was Cologne where we visited the magnificent Cathedral built in the Gothic style in the middle ages. We went back, after dinner, and got some great pictures of it lit at night. Cologne is also where we first got the opportunity to taste German beer. Each community along the river makes its own EXCELLENT local beer!

There is only one castle left in it's "pure state" along the Rhine and that is Marksburg Castle in Koblenz. It is furnished exactly as it always was and is a real medieval trip. Imagine, high on a mountain top with no defined path to get to it (a real struggle) and they don't even have indoor toilets! What were they thinking?

River Rhine viewed from Marksburg Castle
River Rhine viewed from Marksburg Castle

In Wurzburg we were able to tour the Prince-Bishop's residence. It was modeled after, and only slightly smaller than Versailles, but it was in the middle of town so the Prince-Bishop could be perceived as being from among the people.

 

At first the Prince-Bishops lived in castles across the river from the town to protect themselves from the people who often became upset at the taxation they were forced to pay. (A castle is a fortified structure whereas a palace is a luxurious residence.) It was only later that the bishops felt safe enough to build their residences to be among the people and in case the Emperor came to call. We visited the castle in Heidelberg where we saw the world's largest wine keg (58,000 gallons) in which the Bishop stored his taxes. Now the people, even then, weren't thrilled about paying taxes so they always gave the Bishop the worst of their wine. So much for living high off the hog.

Heidelberg
Heidelberg

An excellent example of this arrangement of castle and palace is in Passau where the castle literally looms across the river from the town.

In Rudesheim we took a cable lift over the vineyards. The various types of grapes are separated by fence rows of raspberry, blackberry, and currant bushes. We rode to the top of the mountain where there was a monument to a United Germany built by Kaiser Wilhelm in the late 1800's and now highly visited by the people since the re-unification of Germany in 1990. While in Rudesheim we also ate dinner off the boat at the Drosselgrasse which is a street dedicated to wine, women, and song and best described as one more reason to soak the tourists.

Vinyards from Rudesheim Cable Car
Vinyards viewed from a Cable Car in Rudesheim

A word here about the boat itself. The boat is self-navigating so tugs were unnecessary everywhere we went. Incidentally, your itinerary is dependant upon the appointment times established for going thru the locks. As such, you do not get a full day in some of the towns as the boat has 87 locks to go through on this trip. These locks are bigger and deeper than the Panama Canal, but our boat barely fit width wise in them. The Canal for instance was designed for the small Rhine freighter not the luxurious river cruiser.

River Melody AtriumThe River Melody has been completely renovated this year and is gorgeous! There is new carpet throughout, and the color scheme is now blue, yellow and green with lots of wood accents (dark wood in public areas, light wood in the cabins). The ambiance is CASUAL! There is no need for the gentleman to bring a sport coat or suit and tie. And ladies, leave the beads and sequins at home - absolutely no one was that dressed up. At the captain's welcome dinner there were maybe 6 or 7 men in coats and at the farewell dinner, none wore jackets. (Our weather incidentally was very pleasant the whole trip so it wasn't very hot at all.) A clean shirt (good luck on that one by the end of the trip!) and slacks were more than sufficient. Yes, a few even wore shorts in the dining room for all meals including dinner. The table cloths are sufficiently long enough to hide skinny legs.

All of the cabins are the same size with the exception of the bathroom which is supposedly smaller in the balcony rooms. The bathroom has a lighted magnifying mirror for shaving and putting on makeup while the regular mirror is set into a corner and is useless. The hair dryer in the cabin worked very well so you will not need to bring your own. We had a balcony and considered it money well spent. Other passengers complained that their rooms were stuffy because they could not open the windows.

River Melody Balcony Cabin Serenade DeckWeather is an important factor besides passenger comfort. Luckily, our weather was normal so the river depths were normal. Nevertheless, the bridges are so low that we only were able to use the sky deck 3 times in 14 days - thus we were grateful for the balcony. This is partly a design fault of this boat. There is no forward open deck unlike most other ships on the river so when they had to lower the pilot house everyone had to stay off the sky deck. It was lowered most of the time preventing access to the open deck.

The forward lounge is beautiful but sits right behind some of the ship's equipment, so the straight forward view left a lot to be desired.

Fair warning - this is a physically strenuous trip. You can be in excellent health and it probably won't matter - you will be exhausted at the end of the trip. We are of the opinion that adding a post cruise stay in Vienna, while beautiful, nevertheless was "over the top" for our knees and backs after 14 days of cobblestone streets and plazas in Germany and Austria.

Now for the most subjective part, food. It was very good. We are on the South Beach Diet and although we tried to be careful we did succumb to the breads and the desserts. The good news is I didn't gain any weight nor did my wife but the bad news is we both look like we are seriously pregnant so we are now back on phase one to get rid of the bellies. I was of the opinion that breakfast and lunch was buffet style. Breakfast always was, however every other day they also prepared to order omelets and other egg dishes and everyday they had a breakfast special (1 pancake for instance - tells you something about the size of the portions!) Only two or three lunches were buffet, the rest were sit-down meals with soup (all of them good, many of them very salty) plus main course and the ever popular dessert.

Both the lunch and the dinner menus mainly consisted of two entrees - a fish dish and a meat dish. At times they offered a pasta dish as a third option. You ordered your lunch and dinner selections at breakfast so be prepared to think about steak when you sit down to your breakfast eggs. Incidentally the bacon was literally burned every single day and so crisp (as well as black) that it was generally considered bacon crumbles by the passengers.

The service at mealtime was very personable as well as friendly as there were only 30 crew members and they had to double up on jobs. As an example, our bartender was sometimes our waiter.

I was concerned that this particular itinerary might end up being a 21 day drunk so I am pleased to say nothing of that sort happened. (I am not a fan of white wine but will tolerate it on occasion. Fortunately most of the vineyards produce only white wines so off the boat I did not drink as much as I had feared.) The dinners came with unlimited wine, both white and red, but the waiters served it without leaving the bottles on the table so at best we got maybe two glasses of wine at dinner. Dinner, being a single seating, lasted for upwards of two hours so that drinking after dinner was also limited and we ended up drinking maybe one bottle of wine a day.

Dinner takes about 90 minutes and since you sit with different people all the time, it is very relaxed and friendly. There are NO tables for two in the dining room which is at the back of the ship with a three-sided view of the scenery.

River Melody StaffThe staff was very personable both on the ship and when you ran into them on shore. By the second day, they made a point to always address you by name - that includes the Captain! He made no secret that his girlfriend was the hotel manager on board, even kissing her in public in the pilot house, and dancing with her in the lounge. He and she also did a cute act during the crew show.

Well, I seem to have jumped to entertainment. I must confess that the idea of regional entertainment was less than, shall we say, exciting to me before the trip. I am here to tell you that every single show was fabulous and should not be missed! The entertainers come on the boat at various towns and get off at that town or the next town. Ask anyone who has been on this trip and you will hear "Ya Ya" at the top of their voices followed by hysterical laughter.

Without notice, each passenger was given one Euro at Nurnberg and told they had to buy the bread for dinner that night. Well we ended up with lots of bread left over but a great time hunting down bakeries and trying to communicate with the locals for our purchases. The program directors advised the passengers that one of the options, Schloss Seehof, was not worth it based on the feelings of previous passengers. So no one went for it. So much for pushing the bill up!

I can't recommend this trip too highly but I would suggest that you read a biography of the Habsburg family before you go - this trip traces 600 years of Habsburg power in the region, and a biography will greatly enhance your appreciation of this journey through time.

And watch out for those cobblestones - they hurt my feet by the end of the first week!

Overall impressions

I was fascinated by all the modern bridges across the rivers. While there are very few actual bridges (perhaps every 50 miles or so) they are all extremely modern. One in particular comes to mind - it was a concrete suspension bridge and even the cables were concrete! I must admit it took me a couple of days marvelling at these structures before I concluded that "Of course they look new, after all, during World War II, the allies bombed all the old ones."

Modern Bridge over the Rhine

I was amazed at all the intact Medieval towns we saw. They were bombed during the war as well, but when they were rebuilt they were restored to what they had been - with the exception of Frankfurt, which is referred to as the Manhattan of Germany because of all of its high rises and skyscrapers.

For the most part during the war, we left the churches alone. The great Cathedral in Cologne (photo above) was the only thing left standing in that city because the allied pilots needed a landmark.

The Medieval churches all had the same floor plan and reflected the tenor of the times. The front door faced the west and came right off of the market place which also contained the City Hall. The altar was at the east end of the building. Thus when you went to Mass, you entered from the political end and walked towards the lighter end (the morning sun) which represented the power of the church and Christianity.

We assumed as we left Germany that we would be leaving the vineyards behind. Not so! They continued all the way to Vienna along the Danube River. The second to the last part of this boat trip was thru the Main/Danube Canal. This canal was actually a dream of Charlemagne's but it was not begun during his reign. This canal links the North Sea to the Black Sea. But it wasn't easy. Although designed and redesigned many times (Napoleon even had a go at it), no one could figure out how to link the last 900 feet at the continental divide. As a result, the canal was not completely finished until 1992! Unfortunately, the locks were built to the specs of the Rhinelander Freighter, and thus are barely wide enough for the luxurious Riverboats of today. When in a lock our boat was never more than 8 to 10 inches from one side of the lock and many times from both sides of the lock. The Panama Canal raises and lowers for 18 to 22 feet while the locks on the Main/Danube Canal were 25 to 82 feet! Imagine being the Captain and seeing your boat swallowed up by an 82 foot lock and you are only 10 inches from the wall at best....

I was in wonder at how platonic the scenery was along the banks of all three rivers, the Rhine, Main (rhymes with Rhein) and the Danube. Quaint LITTLE villages, lots of swans, and a largely rural enivironment. An exception to this was in Regensburg where there was actually surf and even whitecaps on the Danube. I have NO idea why!

One last impression. Germany was rebuilt to be a country-wide theme park for tourists - a German Disney World. Imagine, if you will, an antique mall covering the state of Texas!

Photos Courtesy of Rick Thorson & Grand Circle Travel

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Rick Thorson has been cruising all over the world since he fell in love with this form of travel on his first cruise in 1978. In addition to ocean cruising, Rick has cruised the Nile River in Eqypt, and once took a cruise in the USA from Cincinnati to St. Louis that took nine days. He's pretty sure he could have walked as fast! His most relaxing cruise, however, was a recent 14 day cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Southhampton, England that had only 2 port calls.... For comment or questions, Rick can be reached at: yakcir@att.net.


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