Category Archives: European River Ports

Arles: Van Gogh and Romans


While Donna went on the Van Gogh tour, I took the bike tour which featured the Roman Museum and entry into the stunning Arena. The small city of Arles sits where the Rhone River splits into two major tributaries at the north end of the Camargue wetlands on the coast of the Mediterranean. The Romans established Arles as a major outpost in Roman Gaul where trading with local tribes was established. Since 1981 it has been a UNESCO World heritage site because of the well-preserved Roman Arena at the center of the city.

Arles Bikers

The Romans established their settlement at Arles in the 2nd Century BC. When Julius Caesar and Pompey were struggling for dominance in Rome, Arles sided with Caesar while Marseilles took Pompey’s side. When Caesar won, Arles was awarded spoils and dominated the area of what is now Provence. After biking through the narrow winding streets of central Arles, we stopped at the Museum of Ancient Arles, which features Roman artifacts and models of how things looked during the Roman era.

Among the more interesting items on display at the Museum are a bust which the locals believe to be Julius Caesar (most experts dispute the claim) and the remains of a long narrow river boat.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles for 14 months from 1888 to 1889, producing a large number of paintings, watercolors and drawings including many of his most famous works. The city has posted copies of his paintings throughout the city from the viewpoint he painted. The most familiar may be the yellow cafe on a small city square which Van Gogh portrayed at night. The city also has it’s own small Van Gogh Museum. We stopped at the hospital where Van Gogh stayed after cutting his ear while his friend Gauguin was visiting. The courtyard of the hospital is another famous painting. Seeing the actual places and comparing the paintings hints at the refraction of Van Gogh’s troubled mind, which created beauty from mundane cityscapes.

We looked through a steel fence at the Roman Theater which was once impressive with seating for 8000, but was quarried for centuries to construct newer buildings. It is under slow and meticulous reconstruction.

Two blocks away is the jewel of Arles, the Arena or Amphitheater which was built at the end for the 1st century AD. Unlike the theater, the arena has been used continuously. After the Roman era, it because a town within a city. It remade into a fortress with buildings in the center and added towers with battlements. Three middle age towers which contrast sharply with the stately Roman design, but provide the best views of the Arena and the surrounding city. Today, the Arena is used for concerts and for a more humane variation of bull-fighting in which the bulls are not hurt or killed.

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One of the challenges of a bike tour is the difficulty of getting snapshots of the beautiful views along the way. The center of Arles is a scenic tangle of narrow alleys with flower boxes, barrel tiled roofs and windows with painted shutters. It is easy to see why Van Gogh stayed.

Arles Flowers



The Rhone River: Locks and Bridges


The Rhone was the entry point for Romans into France (Gaul at that time) and all along the river there are Roman ruins. But the flow of the Rhone which begins in the Swiss Alps can be turbulent so it was long considered dangerous. It was not until after World War II that the river was tamed with locks and dams which provided a degree of control to prevent local flooding and to river more consistently navigable.

Lock and Capt

So today, we can take a cruise down the Rhone and visit the historic cities between Lyon in Central France and the Mediterranean. Ships also often sail northward on the Saone into the Beaujolais region. Without these locks, river cruising would not be conceivable, since the river depth would more commonly be too high, so boats could not go under bridges, or too low, so there would not be enough depth for the boat to float. If you are going on a river cruise you should be aware that river conditions do sometimes cause the cruise lines to cancel or substitute a land trip for a river cruise. It is not common, but it does happen.

European riverboats are built to precisely fit into the locks and bridges on the river where they sail. One of the more dramatic evenings on the AmaCello was the night we went under the lowest bridges. A group of us went up to the top and ducked when going under these bridges. We also watched as the captain lowered the ship’s bridge so it could fit. The clearance was often no more than a few inches. There was a palpable tension as we watched these bridges approach. It was very clear that you could lose your head if you were not careful.

Between Lyon and the Mediterranean the Rhone has 12 locks which are part of the adventure of river cruising. Unlike on the Rhine cruise we did last year, we often traveled through these locks during daylight hours so we could observed the operation. But the deepest lock came after dinner and we were lowered more than 50 feet.

The locks are not actually built on the river, but on canal cuts parallel to the river. Locks are a part of dams which produce hydroelectric power. The French have built other kinds of power generation facilities along the river as well – nuclear (using river water for cooling), wind and even coal plants. However, virtually none of France’s electricity is produced in coal plants today.

For me the primary attraction of the European river cruise is the amazing history. But the technology was fascinating as well.

Amsterdam: 24 hours before our river cruise


There is no resisting the temptation of Amsterdam when your Rhine River cruise starts or ends there. How long since my last visit there? 39 years! And it’s funny what memory does to you. The last time I was there I visited the Van Gogh museum and very briefly, the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch. I was with a girlfriend and we wandered into the red light district. As I remembered it all that was very close together. Well, I remembered wrong. I guess I was walking faster then.

This time, Donna and I stayed at a funky hotel (The Exchange) above a cafe and across from the Beurs van Berlage (old exchange building) on Damrak. We could see the main train station from the entrance to the hotel. The room was tiny, but functional. Apparently each room was designed by a local art student, but our student was not very ambitious. After we arrived we walked down to the museum district which was about a mile and a half. We didn’t visit the museums this time, but took a canal boat ride, which was definitely worth the $20 per person we spent on it. Most of the time was spent on the narrow semi-circular canals that are the main routes in old Amsterdam, but we also spent time on the Amstel River and out in the large harbor. It is a great introduction to the history and layout of the city. We learned the history of how the city evolved, why the row houses are so tall and narrow and how the residents of house boats live.

We took a taxi back to the hotel and the route was much longer than our walk because of the road construction that is going on in Amsterdam. That night we went to an Indonesian Rijsttafel (Rice table) restaurant and had their specialty. There were about a dozen different spicy dishes about half vegetarian and half with meats. Aneka Rasa is a welcoming place with reasonable prices just around the corner from the Red Light district. We walked that area on the way back to the hotel. It was just as I remembered it – pretty tacky. It was a Saturday night so there were lots of drunk men wandering around having a good old time. Definitely not my scene, but to get the whole Amsterdam experience I suppose you have to do it.

After a restless jet lag night, we got up and wandered away from the bustle of the commercial district into Grachtengordel and Jordaan, with historic houses, small museums and great canal views. We had a nice late breakfast as a French boulangerie surrounded by French tourists. Inside the cafe the walls were typically non-perpendicular which we had seen from the outside during the canal cruise. The tall narrow buildings in Amsterdam are sinking unevenly into the swamp on which the city is built.


Grachtengordel is where you can visit the Anne Frank House. You should book online to avoid the long lines at the museum. It was a drizzly Sunday morning and the ticket line still went around the block. I took lots of pictures of the canals which I’m going to make into a collage. One thing that we saw in this area was a hotel I want to stay in next time – the Hotel Pulitzer. It is built from 25 different canal row houses, beautifully renovated and linked. Not cheap, but it gets incredible ratings.


After checking out of the hotel, we got a taxi for a very short ride to our riverboat – Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette.

Colmar, France in colorful Alsace


When I was in college, I visited Colmar with a college friend who was studying in nearby Freiburg, Germany. He wanted to see the Isenheim Alterpiece, an amazing creation by Grunewald from the early 16th Century. Our Rhine cruise gave me the opportunity to go back. I did not remember the town, which is considered one of the prettiest in France.

Alsace has been part of France since the end of World War II, but for centuries it has gone back and forth between Germany and France, creating a culture and setting which mixes influences. It was not bombed during the last World War, so many of the half-timbered houses from as far back as the 14th century are still standing. These houses were painted unique colors. Rather than numbers, the address of houses in Colmar were based on their colors. Like Strasbourg, Colmar has canals in the central town.

One place we visited was Colmar’s smallest house (above) which was built into the corner of two other townhouses. Cute, but no private bathroom.

The designer of the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Batholdi, was from Colmar and there is a small museum featuring his sculptures in Colmar. Local artist Hansi created many unique signs for businesses in Colmar.

At the Unterlinden Museum you can see the Isenheim Altarpiece and a fine collection of works by other local artists from the Renaissance and a nice collection of modern paintings. The Altarpiece itself is a dramatic and visceral work which includes many panels painted to commemorate a local “plague” which infected the local population until it was discovered to be caused by a fungus found in local cereals. Below is the main panel and a portion of one of the most horrific of the panels.

If you are in Northeastern France, Colmar is worth going out of your way to see.

Strasbourg: Old and New


Strasbourg, France is the seat of the European Parliament and Court of Human Rights making in one of Europe’s capitols (with Brussels). The entire center city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the early middles ages on it has straddled the German and French regions, but since the end of World War II it has been the capital of the French region of Alsace (now part of Grand Est).

We docked in Kehl across the Rhine in Germany and took a bus across to Strasbourg where we boarded a tour boat for a ride along the canals of the city. The canal boat avoids the road traffic and noise of the city. But unfortunately every picture is tinted blue from the windows of the boat.

Our tour began south of the city where dozens of old barges were converted into houseboats as in Amsterdam. After circling to the eastern portion of the city we entered the area where the European government has it’s starkly modern buildings, such as legislature above. Following the southern edge of Grande Ile, the historic center, we entered a lock and were in Petit-France, a colorful neighborhood of half-timbered houses. From there we headed to the Pont Couverts on the outskirts of the center with its square guard towers and headed back into town where we disembarked for a short walk to the Cathedral Square.

The gothic sandstone Notre Dame cathedral was the world tallest building during much of the Renaissance and is the sixth tallest church in the world today. We did not go inside, but the main entrance amply demonstrates the wealth of the city during the Middle Ages.


On the Cathedral Square were several other late medieval and renaissance building such as the wooden Hammerzell House (left).

Strasbourg is a wealthy city that blends old and new, French and German and with its large University has a very young population. If cruises are the Whitman’s sampler of travel, then Strasbourg was a confection we didn’t get enough of.



Black Forest and Freiburg


At every stop on our cruise on the Rhine there were one or two free tours that were included in the price. About half the stops offered premium tours at an added cost. We took the premium tour to the Black Forest which was about about 7 hours long and included a nice lunch.

The Black Forest was named by the Roman invaders of the first century. The dark and forbidding mountains were just a little too spooky for the Romans, so they did not go into the area. During the Middle Ages farmers settled the region and to this day it has many farms on the slopes and in the valleys. Through the mid-19th century the trees were harvested for lumber and heat. By that time the Black Forest was only about ten percent forest. Since then a concerted effort has been made to ensure that the trees are replanted so today the region is about sixty percent forest. Like much of densely populated Europe there is a tidiness to the forest areas that seems odd to those from the US.


Because of the intense Winters of the region, the isolated farmers came up with indoor activities. And one of those was making clocks…giving rise to the Cuckoo clock and other local handicrafts. We visited the House of Black Forest Clocks in Hornberg-Niederwasser where Herr Adolf Herr and his family make clocks. Outside the store and restaurant is the world’s largest cuckoo clock. Inside there are many beautiful clocks and other crafts. On the second floor they serve coffee and the world famous Black Forest Cake.

For lunch we stopped at the Hohengasthaus Landwassereck near Elzach which offered a beautiful cutting board with local sausage, cheese and breads and a nice fresh salad. Included was a glass of wine or a bottle of local beer. They called it a snack, but no one went away hungry, including hearty eaters like Earl and me. Perhaps the best thing about this restaurant were the views including some nearby Black Forest Cattle. Much in evidence was Germany’s aggressive move toward sustainable energy. Most roofs had solar panels and there were two huge wind turbines along the ridge across the way.


Our last stop that day was at the Schwartzwalder Freilichtsmuseum (Black Forest Open Air Museum) which features several different farm houses and other buildings from the region. Our guide took us into one huge farmhouse – barn and told us how the locals lived before electricity became available. These houses did not have chimneys so during the Winter the residents breathed in the smoke from the heating and cooking fires shortening their lives significantly. This is a great stop for children, too, with lots of farm animals. I petted one of the goats, forgetting that I had to attest to not being near farm animals on the immigration form. Oops!


Baby Goat practices fighting with his Mother

During the rides between stops our guide told about tourism in the Black Forest. It is one of the most popular areas in Germany and outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing, mountain biking, hiking and fishing are very popular. There are many inns throughout the region for overnight guests. The villages of the Black Forest have their own unique customs and fashions. One of the most famous and bizarre are the girls hats with 14 red balls.

Freiburg is the capital of the Black Forest. In 1976, my brother and I visited a college friend of mine who was spending a year at the historic University in Freiburg. We hiked and did day trips around the area and had a wonderful time. The small city is right at the foothills of the mountains and is famous for its Gothic cathedral and young population. Sadly the day we visited it was cool and raining so I didn’t take many pictures. The center of the city near the Cathedral is mostly pedestrian. We had a nice time window shopping and going inside the Cathedral.

It wasn’t the blast from the past I was hoping for. I hope to go back. Hopefully my friend Zack will read this. You showed us a great time, Zack!

Cologne: Germany’s Most Diverse City



I’m not sure why, but looking at Rhine River cruise itineraries, not much time is spent in Cologne. We were there for only five daylight hours, which limited what we could see. Since it is one of the great cultural cities of Germany it was disappointing. But we had a nice tour of the Cathedral and the old city with an excellent guide who was passionate about her city.

Cologne (spelled Koln with an umlaut in German) was founded not long before the birth of Christ and became a major Roman outpost in the early first century after Christ. The city was named for Agrippina the Younger – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensis – who was born there but left while still very young. The great granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, she was ambitious so she seduced and married her much older uncle, the Roman Claudius. While she was Empress she had her birthplace renamed. Claudius was plotting to disinherit his wife and her son Nero, but Agrippina managed to poison him. This was reputedly not the first time she had murdered a family member.  Her son Nero did not like having his meddling mother around, so he had her killed, though it took several attempts according to some sources. Despite this notorious history, Kolners still honor this fascinating woman as their founding mother.

The city was the largest city in Europe north for Alps for much of the Middle Ages which explains the stunning Gothic cathedral.

The Gothic Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark and features the world’s tallest twin spires. Construction was begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880 using the original design. It is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The vaulted interior is breathtaking as were the stained glass windows of many eras. These were hidden from the Nazi’s throughout World War II. It is also famous as the location of the relics of the Magi (the 3 kings of Christmas) which are housed in a stunning gold reliquary. As with many medieval buildings in Europe, the Cathedral is being repaired almost continuously.

Next to the Cathedral is the Roman-Germanic Museum, built over a near flawless Roman Dionysus mosaic, features archaeological items from early Cologne history. We viewed the mosaic from the outside window since the museum is closed Mondays.

The rest of our tour was a nice walk through the old part of the city and to the river which features many Romanesque churches and buildings, including the Great St. Martin Church, built between 1150 and 1250, which along with the Cathedral are the main features of the old city skyline.

The riverfront of the city offered parks and a mix of well taken care of ancient and modern buildings. Cologne is considered Germany’s most diverse city with almost 20 percent of the population non-German. Half of these immigrants are Turkish and there are large numbers of Italians, Poles and Serbians as well.

When cruising there are some places that you feel like you got a nice overview of the city, but some like Cologne deserve a longer visit. We will be back.