by Bob Sparrow
The crew of the Jarl was outstanding – great customer service, attention to detail and always went the extra mile to accommodate our needs. The food was excellent – varied, plentiful and often times themed according to the country we were passing through. Our most frequent contact with the crew (with the exception of the bar tenders of course) was with Program Director, Rene Van Loon, a delightfully entertaining gentleman from The Netherlands who, each evening, gave us the next day’s itinerary along with a few amusing stories. I had a chance to sit down with him during the cruise to talk about his river cruising experiences (I had lied and told him I was a fairly well-read travel blog writer. It really wasn’t a lie; I am fairly well read and I do write a blog). He talked about his love of travel and people as well as his time with Viking River Cruises. He says, “Our CEO’s focus on customer service pervades the whole company. Our goal is to create an UFE for each passenger”. UFE? UnForgettable Experience.
When asked about amusing or unusual experiences he gave two:
1) Prior to his cruising days he was giving a tour of Rome, when he asked the group at the end of the tour if they had any questions. A tourist in the back of the bus asked: “Why did the Roman build so many ruin?”
2) During a cruise he got a call from an elderly lady who said she was trapped in her room. He told her that if her door was locked that she could unlock it from the inside. She hung up, but called back a few minutes later saying she was still unable to get out of her room. So he decided to walk her through the process and asked her to describe what she was looking at. She said, “I see two doors, I tried one, but that was the bathroom and I can’t try the other one because it has a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on it.”
The people we were cruising with were very fun (See Part 2) and the crew was incredibly accommodating, but if I’m being honest, the people at our ports of call, to put it as nicely as I can, seemed a bit tired of tourists. Maybe the summer had brought them too many ‘ugly Americans’, perhaps the fact that Germany had just finished it’s ‘Oktoberfest’ attributed to a ‘hang-over’ affect. Perhaps they’re still a bit miffed over losing a couple of world wars, I don’t know, we just didn’t see too many smiling, laughing, glad-to-see-you Germans. Whatever the opposite of ‘warm and fuzzy’ is may be a good description. And the French have never really had much time for us, to wit: We were in the town of Strasbourg, France and I was trying to find change for 10 Euro so I could tip our tour guide. After being refused in two stores I went to the tourist office to asked for change. I was told something in French, by the lady behind the counter, and while I didn’t understand her, I could tell from the body language I probably wasn’t getting any change. I said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand”, to which she replied something else in French. A British lady standing next to me in line interpreted and said, “She’s not giving you any change unless you buy something.” I said, “Why couldn’t she tell me that in English?” The Brit leaned toward me and whispered just loud enough for the French lady to hear, “I don’t know, but if it weren’t for British and American troops, she’d wouldn’t understand French either, she’d be speaking German.”
Viking offers plenty of ‘included’ (no additional cost) tours to castles, cathedrals, the Black Forest, etc., as well as additional tours you can pay for – which we did for 1) a pub crawl in Cologne (What a surprise!), and 2) a tour of World War II battle grounds. The latter was my personal favorite. Our guide, a gentleman from New Zealand, took us to the top of a hill and described the movement of American, French and German troops in the valley below. He was so passionate and created such descriptive word-pictures as he described the battles for the Colmar Pocket, that you could almost hear the tanks rolling and the machine guns firing.
It was in one of the battles for the Colmar Pocket that Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII, won his Medal of Honor. There is also a memorial museum in town where there are an incredible number of WWII artifacts.
A short cruise from Breisach, Germany to Basal, Switzerland concludes our romp up the Rhine. In summary, I had a lot of fun, gained a lot of knowledge, gained some new friends and gained a few pounds, and it was all well worth it.
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