Tauck River Cruise Recap, part 1: The Beginning - Switzerland and Strasbourg

Rather than another gushing review of how great Tauck is, not just on land but also on the rivers, I thought I'd just do a recap of my trip with them up the Rhine and Mosel rivers.  I think, based on my descriptions & photos, you'll probably understand the fact that it was a really wonderful trip.  SO- without further ado:  Part one, the "upper" part of the Rhine, meaning the closest to its source in Switzerland.

I was to meet my Mom and Aunt on the ship in Basel, so I arrived there with plenty of time to wander the city and get my bearings before having to return my rental car & join the ship.  I'm really glad I took some extra time to wander through the center of town, because the next day we elected to take the full day excursion over to Lucerne, so otherwise I would've missed seeing this culturally interesting spot.  We were in the midst of a crazy heat wave, with temps nearing 100 - in SWITZERLAND!!  soo crazy - so I didn't do a ton of walking.  Luckily it's a small enough town that walking all up & down the main streets is do-able in an hour or two.  My three main highlights of the quick visit were the Rathaus (town hall), the Rhine itself, and the cathedral, or Minster.  The Rathaus was so colorful & bright, with every inch of the interior courtyard covered with decoration.  Then, after passing a few other rather large churches which were NOT the big Minster, I found it, and realized those other ones were just playing.  This thing is huge!  The roofing is brightly colored tiles, much like you see in nearby Burgundy, but the inside & outer wall decorations were all dark & Romanesque (with some early Gothic additions added on in the back, of course).  The best part of the minster though, was the little series of cloisters on the side & the back "patio", for lack of a better term.  The side cloisters, besides just being attractive, were filled with memorial markers, and then randomly - some bronze sculptures representing a marketplace, and then, creepily- death's mask & drum.  So odd!  That patio though, maybe because it was such a hot day and it was a lovely, shady spot overlooking the river, but I could've spent hours sitting in this peaceful little courtyard.  Again- it featured views high up over the river, which was filled with lucky people enjoying a float down the Rhine.  It really was impressive- there were TONS of people just flying down river, most with some sort of floating device, all tucked over to the far side of the river to stay out of the way of boat traffic.  There MUST have been a shuttle or something for everyone to head back up river because there weren't just hundreds hanging out down at one end of town, but it seemed like there was a constant flow of people headed downstream.  It truly looked heavenly, and I still wish I could've figured out my timing better to have joined them.  Here are some pics of Basel:

Alas, instead of swimming, it was time for me to find the boat, which turned out to be a much bigger hassle than it probably should have been.  First off, some background information.  Tauck is extremely great at taking care of their customers, in that they pick you up from either the airport or the train station, OR even the hotel where some people stay if they arrive a day before the trip starts.  Independent folks arriving with a rental car?  Well, they weren't quite sure what to do with me, and just told me to take a cab that would be reimbursed.  So- sure, no problem!  I even thought to ask the lady at the tourist office where the river boats are.  She, unfortunately, pointed out the spot where little day trips can be taken, but from that point in the river, I saw down by the next bridge what I looking for, or so I thought.  I mean- it was two big river ships, docked next to each other, just down from the center of town.  Perfect!  Second complication to understand- Basel is literally at the border of France, Germany, and Switzerland.  The airport has two entrances/exits - one actually in Switzerland, and the other in France.  (The whole thing is apparently in French territory, but is just leased to Basel.)  Third complication - my car needed to be returned to the French side of the airport, but signs on the Swiss side were not at ALL clear on the dual-sidedness situation.  SO- needless to say I arrived at the airport, tried to return my car, found out I had to exit the airport, get out on a highway, go through the border control (which, luckily, was nothing really) into France, and then go back into the airport to end up on the other side.  A pain, but no big deal - and the rental car return was a snap!  So, then I get a taxi who is French (hooray) and he takes me to the dock I'd seen back in town.  Super easy, and cheap too b/c it's in Euros instead of Swiss Francs.  Except, oops- when I open my wallet my careful cash planning has failed me & I only have 20 Swiss Francs left - no euros, and my cab is so cheap he won't take a card.  He will take my Francs though, and give me a smaller amount of change back in Euros.  Fine.  All of this is just funny complications at this point.  It stops being funny when I go down & try to board what I assume is Tauck's boat docked on the other side of Viking's boat.  (River boats often dock two-to-three-a-side, so it's not strange to have different companies next to each other.)  WRONG.  Everyone looks at me like I'm asking where Mars is when I ask where the Tauck boat is docked.  Also, even better, we're in the German part of Switzerland and my German skills are severely limited to even try to ask for help.  SOOO- long story short, I activate my cell to make a call to the boat (b/c Tauck doesn't provide a docking address, likely because they're not sure which dock they'll be given far enough in advance, and my French sim card won't work even though we're all of 10 minutes from France), get some directions, and then a nice guy quietly sitting by the river speaks enough English to understand what I need and calls me a new cab from his own phone (the Swiss really are the nicest people).  Once that Swiss cab arrives, I of course have to stop at an ATM to get MORE Swiss Francs out, since I'm now out of all cash, and again- I can barely understand him when he's trying to point out that we're passing through Germany on the way to the place where Tauck's boat is docked (across the river and a bit further downstream).  Keep in mind this is in at least 100 degree heat, and I have my ~30 pound pack, my purse, and all my various collected wine & souvenirs from my month in France.  Needless to say, when I finally got on that boat I was such a disaster that the head Front Desk gal (Nikki) never forgot my name & room number from that moment on!  I also very much enjoyed the free cocktails on board while waiting for my Mom & Aunt to arrive!  Loong day.  And could've all been avoided if Tauck had just told me: "We have a bus taking people from Hotel X to the ship at this time."  Grr.

Anyway - that's just a funny example story of what not to do when getting to your river ship on day one!  :)  It was basically also the last time I was frustrated for several weeks.  Like I said, after double checking with some of the tour guides on board - there were four "official" guides for our group of about 120 on board, plus two experienced guides who were along to learn the route - I decided that we would take the full day tour over to Lucerne the next morning.  I am SO glad we did because that is one adorable & charming little town.  It was still crazy hot that day, so unfortunately the weather was a bit hazy, so we didn't get the full effect of driving into the alps, but what we saw was enough still to impress me.  On the bus ride over we got to know a bit about Switzerland & Basel, and then got a crash course in Lucerne.  Other than a quick stop to see the lovely memorial to the Swiss National Guardsmen who were killed in the French Revolution due to their service to the French king, we were basically on our own for a few hours to run wild.  (See- not every moment of your time on an escorted tour is programmed!)  It was the perfect amount of time to wander around town, go over the adorable flower-covered wooden bridge, eat lunch, and take a GORGEOUS and relaxing boat trip around Lake Lucerne.  We saw beaches, villas (including where Wagner lived  & worked for a time), and of course towering mountains.  Again, even with the haze, it was impressive!  We aslo saw a bunch of swans, which would become a theme - they are seriously ALL OVER the Rhine.  Here are my highlights of Lucerne:

This is already getting long, and we're just now to day 3, so I'll try to keep it moving.  After a lovely evening on board (in the lounge of course because it was far to hot to spend it up on the deck!) and a nice quiet sail up the river (you seriously could hardly hear the engines, and my room was all the way in the back with them), we arrived into France.  Technically we docked in Germany, but as soon as we hopped on the bus & crossed to the other side of the river, we were in France.  It was time to visit Strasbourg!  I love this town, with it's mix of French & German influences - it's really super cool and charming.  This morning we had a local guide lead us on a tour of the town, first by bus so that we could drive by some of the big EU buildings and the more "modern" buildings built during one of the German-controlled periods.  (Alsace & Lorraine were both passed back & forth between the countries, depending on who won what war.)  Then we hopped off the bus, donned our little earpieces and headed off for a walking tour of the central, old part of town.  Now- a word on the vox systems.  I was VERY worried about them before this trip, but overall I think I have a favorable impression of them.  They allow the tour guide to speak at a normal volume, and just go about the tour without having to wait for the one slowpoke to catch up to the group so that they can hear what the guide's about to talk about next.  That said- if you're the slowpoke taking tons of pictures, you can, at times, forget that the person's voice in your ear is worth listening to, and therefore miss snippets of the tour.  Of course, you also can at any time just skip out on the guided tour if you want, but I do like hearing the tidbits guides have to say, and without exception the local guides Tauck provided for us were excellent.  SO- I grew to quite like the voxes (or "whisper" system), and I have to say the sound quality was surprisingly good as well.  

Anyway- Strasbourg's old town is adorable, and the cathedral there is truly spectacular.  They said it is the highest Gothic tower anywhere in the world (which I find hard to believe, but makes it understandable that they couldn't afford to build the second spire ever), and the double-facade is amazing.  Inside the church we crowded in with the mobs of tourists to check out the really insane astronomical clock - insane in that it's SO OLD, still functioning, and really ginormous.  Our guide timed it perfectly so that we got to see the changing of the hour, with different figurines moving & such.  Plus we were treated to a choir practicing as we exited, which was a lovely added bonus.  After the tour it was time for lunch and some shopping, and then we were ready to escape back to the ship to escape the heat.  (It was still super, crazy hot out.)  Because Tauck is awesome, on the way back to the bus we stopped for our second daily treat of the trip - free ice cream!  I was starting to realize that we would certainly never be hungry on this trip - the day before we'd been given some Swiss chocolates on the bus ride back from Lucerne.  YUMM.   Here are a few of my highlights from Strasbourg (most of the pics of the cathedral are vertical, so you don't get the best version with these horizontal shots...):

Once we were back on board our ship, we were treated to a really cute little troupe of traditional folk dancers from Alsace during cocktail hour.  Then we kicked them off & set sail.  The weather was finally pleasant enough to enjoy the top deck, and it stayed light out long enough for even an after dinner drink up there.  We really felt like we were on our way at this point!

Next time: Deutschland!  I'll get into the southern towns we visited: Baden Baden and Heidelberg.