Two years ago, when the COVID epidemic shut down the tourist industry in Europe, we canceled the Rhine River cruise that we had booked. This January, when it appeared that restrictions were being lifted everywhere, we used our vouchers for a low-priced cruise this June. Of course, the rules changed and changed again, then we had three flight changes in the last twenty-four hours, but we made it to our almost-below-water stateroom and hoped for the best.
We started in Basel because I knew that the departure from Amsterdam would be much less rushed than if we had to take a connecting flight from Basel to a regional hub. I won’t say much about the flights, since United and KLM had different good and bad points, and nowadays all economy seats are designed for tiny people. So we were tired when we were met at the Basel airport (technically in France) and swiftly transported to our ship—the Mani, which carries 190 passengers and a crew of 50. We were down in the rear half of the ship, with wealthier patrons on the deck above, and the super-rich above them. I never could identify who the super-rich were, the passengers all being at or past retirement age, casually dressed, and not caring whether anyone knew that they were important or famous; if I had hung out at the bar, maybe I would have learned, but I like to remember where I’ve been and what people have said. Forward there was a large dining hall below the slightly smaller lounge with a bar, with outside stairs to the open deck for those who like sun and don’t mind the occasional bursts of cool wind.
The afternoon guide for Basel was very good in his knowledge of the history and customs, but with all of his group suffering from jet lag and general exhaustion, his walking tour became a death march. The excellent meal for supper revived us somewhat (all the meals were first-class), and we began to meet our fellow passengers.
We were very lucky in meeting four people so congenial that we only occasionally dined with anyone else. Most tables were round and seated six, which meant that we were not limited to talking to whomever we chanced to be next to, though we often changed places to hear better. My hearing aids picked up background noise better than the conversation, but without them I wouldn’t hear anything.
Jackie loved it. She always meets people easily and can project enthusiasm, while I don’t mind opportunities for reflection. That works for me—I’m a writer. Listening and reflecting, then organizing thoughts is, alas, not the way to be known as a conversationalist.
We started out physically weaker that we would have liked. In April Jackie came down with a 10-day cold; I caught it from her and had 18 days of constant coughing. Not COVID, just a dreadful cold. I had already lost five pounds in anticipation of the tempting meals on board; then being sick took off another five. So I reached my goal of several years, but was now too weak to properly enjoy it.
Fortunately, we don’t need to worry about anything at home. Our daughter and her family were there, friends looked in on the dog, and we had our granddaughter’s boyfriend was a house-sitter. Our Chicago family kept the car and took us to the airport (and picked us up).
Nor did we have anything to worry about on the Viking Mani. The crew was super-organized, polite, and always willing to respond to the needs of the passengers. So I can recommend the Viking Cruise line to anyone who understands that you have to have a roll of five Euro notes to tip the guides and a pocketful of two Euro coins for the bus drivers. I used to read about monarchs who would travel through their kingdoms, flinging coins from their carriages as we see done with candy in our local parades. Going first-class isn’t cheap, and if you’ve been reared to be satisfied with iced tea, a beer budget can seem expensive, and champagne beyond imagination.
There was a strict mask policy until there wasn’t. Obviously, no one could eat while wearing a mask, but we had to keep them on while walking around. We had daily COVID tests at first, but soon enough German requirements were relaxed (and happily, our flight home was on the first day a negative test was not required—I don’t know what we would have done if we had had to stay in isolation in some hotel for ten days or so). Instead, our trip was more or less a normal vacation, except that it was better.
William Urban is the Lee L. Morgan Professor of History and International Studies at Monmouth College.