A river cruise to remember

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Someone once said vacations should be looked at as hills and canyons. Expect and accept there will be highs and lows, no matter where you travel.  

I must say the recent vacation Tom and I took to see the tulips outside of Amsterdam at Keukenhof, Holland, was a definite high — more like a mountain instead of a hill. Perfect blue skies and sunshine made for the best day to view over 7 million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths in this 32-acre garden. It was easy to see why Keukenhof is described as the most beautiful spring garden in the world.

After this wonderful experience in Amsterdam our trip just kept getting better. 

We boarded Viking River Cruise Ship Lofn for a seven-night cruise down the Rhine River. Having taken a number of ocean cruises before, we found a river cruise much more relaxing. The ship had 195 passengers, with 53 crew. It was much more compact than a big ship with only one or two flights of stairs. All the passengers were American citizens, save four people from Nova Scotia, making it easy to communicate. 

Even before the ship left the dock in Amsterdam we could tell this was going to be a great experience. While sitting in the reception area waiting for our room to become available, we met what turned out to be our favorite couple on the ship — Risha Margolis and Richard Bardet. Risha who now lives in Miami was originally from New York City and Richard from Boston. 

Midwesterners sometimes think of people from the East Coast as not being friendly but that could not be further from the truth. This couple loves to travel and both especially like books. Already we had one thing in common and as the cruise continued we discovered even more commonalities.

Where was the canyon on this vacation? 

Tom worked very hard planning the trip and told me he had signed me up for a cooking class while on the cruise. When we received the pre-cruise documents listing our excursions there was no class listed. I called Viking and they said no class was available.  Talk about a low, but I did not give up. I took my Prairie Press pass along and told the concierge of the ship I needed to meet the ship chef as I wanted to do a story about the food. 

The press pass made me look official and I was not only able to interview Executive Chef Peter Cagandahan but also got a tour of the kitchen. I was even his sous-chef for a cooking demonstration when we reached Strasbourg, France. 

Chef Peter and I made Flammkuchen —  German for flaming cake. It is a pizza-like tart and can be savory using onion, chives and cheese or sweet using apples, cinnamon and sugar. The dish is very popular in restaurants in the Strasbourg, France-Alsace area. We saw it listed on menus everywhere there. 

If you are asking why a German cake is a specialty of this area, it is because Strasbourg has been a German city at least four times in its history. It became a French city after World War II. If your ancestors came from Strasbourg, you can say you are of German or French heritage or both.

Chef Peter thanked me and gave me a souvenir apron and chef hat. He said he was from the Philippines and would someday like to be a permanent citizen in the U.S. His parents are U.S. citizens and live in California, but he never had the time to settle here. 

Cooking was not his first career as

he went to school to become a nurse like his mother. He decided it was much more pleasant to be with people who are happy and on vacation than with people who are ill and distraught. Starting as an ice carver on a luxury ocean cruise ship, he eventually went to culinary school. This is his seventh year with Viking River cruises. 

He said the advantages of working on a smaller ship are getting to meet the guests personally because of the smaller environment. His kitchen staff was composed of only 11 people. Their food was delicious. 

In order to please most guests the chef keeps food in the middle range of spiciness. The ship usually docks during the day allowing him to buy fresh produce from the local markets. His fresh herbs are grown on the top deck of the ship between the shuffleboard court and the putting green. They looked especially healthy. 

Eventually, Chef Peter wants to open his own restaurant. 

Some of the other German cities we visited were Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Heidelberg. The trip ended in Basel, Switzerland. We had been to three of these cities before but it is always good to get another perspective. 

I especially loved Cologne as the cathedral that took more than 800 years to build, is breathtaking and was not destroyed in World II. I had to buy some cologne from there — where cologne was first made.  

Because Tom was having a canyon couple of days suffering from a cold, I visited an Apotheke in Cologne for some cold medicine. In Germany, you cannot buy even an aspirin unless you are at an Apotheke/pharmacy. It was helpful we visited Cologne early on a Saturday, as most Apothekes are closed Sunday and close earlier on Saturdays.

Fortunately for Tom, he was out of the canyon and up on a hill very quickly. We were able to view scenic castles atop hills in central Germany. Passing through the Rüdesheim area, I learned my new friend Risha and I shared another common interest. We both confessed we had always wanted to be a bartender because we thought the stories would be interesting. 

Risha was able to fulfill that role briefly as she assisted the bartender in a demonstration of Rüdesheim coffee. It is a popular drink in Germany coffeehouses made of strong hot coffee mixed with brandy and sugar flambée, topped with whipped cream and garnished with dark chocolate shavings.

Due to the medicine I take, alcohol is not on my diet so I could not taste Risha’s creation. That did not let me miss out on one other thing she and I both dearly love — dancing. 

River cruises, unlike the massive ocean cruise boats do not have a large stage production each night. Entertainment is usually low key. Most nights it was the same pianist who played and sang while people danced in the lounge. I shared with Risha about our Dancing with the Stars event in Paris and how it helps fund the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. She thought it sounded great and told me about volunteering in a library in Miami. 

We made sure the dance floor was not empty and especially enjoyed dancing with another passenger on the ship. Gloria Vancko was 87 and while during the day she did the excursions in a wheelchair, at night this diminutive lady danced quite happily. 

Truly a delightful time and I only shared a small part of our trip. 

Getting back home we were pleased to see the crops up and thriving and the warm temperatures were so different from when we had left. 

What more could anyone wish for?