Tales from the River MS Bellejour's Inaugural Titan Sailing
On 4 August, we welcomed our first paying guests aboard MS Bellejour for the ‘Riverside Cities of Holland and Germany’ cruise. Supporting the cruise director and tour managers on board were a handful of extra Titan staff, myself included. This report covers the journey from Amsterdam to Koblenz.
I’ll be honest from the start – I’ve never been on a river cruise holiday before. This was all going to be a brand new experience for me with very little to compare it to, but we all have to start somewhere and I hope that this travelogue will encourage you and others to enjoy the delights of river cruising, perhaps for the first time also.
MS Bellejour is our newly chartered ship. When I joined it on Friday 3 August, it was still adorned with its previous tenant’s flags and other bits and pieces. So, like a fly-on-the-wall TV DIY documentary, we had less than 24 hours to make it look ‘Titan’. No worries at all! By the time guests arrived the following afternoon, you’d have thought Bellejour had been ours for years – new flag, new Titan sign on the side and a few more personal touches inside. Handsome!
During my time on board, the itinerary would take us from Amsterdam (one of my favourite places) to the Rhineland’s city of Koblenz via Rotterdam and Cologne.
In Amsterdam, guests were welcome to join two excursions – a guided walking tour and an evening canal cruise – and also had access to a shuttle bus from the ship to Centraal Station. We were moored a little way out from the city centre, perhaps a little too far to walk, but if the shuttle bus wasn’t to customers’ tastes there was a local bus stop near the quay and a tram stop a short walk away. One of the many great aspects of ‘The Dam’ is its great value, easy-to-use public transport. An Amsterdam Travel Ticket (they have 24-, 48- and 72-hour variations) covers your buses and trams and even includes the ferries across the Ij (pronounced “Eye”) River to Veer Buiksloterweg in the Noord district. I was keen to give this a go because, despite this being my 6th trip to Amsterdam, I’d never been across the water. The main attraction over there is the A’DAM Lookout, a tower giving visitors amazing views of the city from 20-floors up (all for an entry cost of about €14, payable locally).
Shortly after 10pm on Sunday, Bellejour glided away from its mooring and began the relaxing chug down one of the country’s countless canals (the Rijnkanaal, I believe) to Rotterdam.
Having done a couple of ocean cruises before, I’m aware that one of the big draws for customers is not having to pack and unpack your suitcase at every new destination. You hotel room travels with you, essentially.
As such, opening my curtains the next morning and seeing a brand new vista brought back some great memories from my previous visit to Rotterdam. That trip was in 2002 and back then it was already clear that Rotterdam’s Planning Department had a big rubber stamp specially reserved for architecture that throws away the rule book and encourages fun-looking buildings. If you take a look at London with its Gherkin, Shard, Cheese Grater and Walkie Talkie buildings, Rotterdam will dismiss this with a wave and tell you that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Perhaps the oddest of these is the Cube Houses, an ‘estate’ of houses built as cubes on their points propped up on concrete foundations. The new kid on the architectural block, however, is the impressive Market Hall, described by its creators as “a sustainable combination of food, leisure, living and parking.” It’s well worth a visit just to marvel at its scale.
In Rotterdam, guests on this river cruise were welcome to do as I did – walk around the city at their leisure, soaking up the sights and enjoying a coffee – or join an included guided excursion to the world-famous Delft Blue Factory where they could learn about the pottery’s 365-year history and see some of its hand-painted masterpieces. Most people chose the latter and thoroughly enjoyed the experience (and shopping).
Life on board
We had a long journey ahead of us to Cologne, so our departure from Rotterdam was shortly after midday. As we made our way down the Nieuwe Maas river, I was keeping my eyes peeled for Feyenoord FC’s stadium but discovered that the old ground had been bulldozed back in 2006 and a new one put in its place behind a smart development of riverside apartments. Never mind. The scenery was a little better for it, and improved dramatically further upstream when we sailed past the lovely, windmill-dotted Kinderdijk.
We were on the move for the rest of the day, transferring onto the Waal River and passing countless long barges hauling anything and everything along this truly ‘working’ waterway. Other than Nijmegen, towns or cities of any note were few and far between but the flat industrial landscape certainly held a majesty of its own.
On board, things were going well. Guests were mingling and getting along, and there appeared to be plenty of laughter and chatter in the restaurant at lunchtime – this might have been helped along a little by the unlimited wine and beer included with lunch and dinner, all served flawlessly by the ship’s charming waiting staff, but I couldn't possibly say for sure.
On the afternoon sailing through the Dutch flatlands, our executive chef, a dry-humoured, lovely Sicilian called Salvetore, gave a live risotto cooking demonstration (and tasting) full of tips from a lifetime of delicious cooking. The tour managers also found time to entertain the guests with evening entertainment including a game of Call My Bluff and a pirate-themed quiz night.
My air-conditioned cabin was spacious and featured a bathroom with a walk-in shower, and a French balcony which allowed me to enjoy the sounds of the river while relaxing in bed. Having had a look at the lower-deck cabins with portholes (all cabins are exactly the same size, by the way), I think I’d regret not paying a little extra for the upgraded ‘view’. It really is worth it.
Shortly after lunch on Tuesday, we pulled into Cologne, a city dominated by its breath-taking twin-spired Gothic cathedral – a cathedral that I hasten to add is FREE to enter. St Paul’s, take note!
After disembarking, I walked along the riverside path into town, even though there was a transfer available in the form of a Bimmelbahn ‘Noddy Train’. We were in town until 10pm that night so there was no rush, and that was just as well because Mother Nature had delivered the hottest day of the year so far (about 38 degrees) – back on board we ALL said thank goodness for Bellejour’s air conditioning!
The majority of people visiting Cologne will head straight for the cathedral. When I crossed the threshold, visitors were being treated to a spine-tingling organ recital. My reason for visiting was to get a good look at its wonderful golden Shrine of the Magi, arguably the cathedral’s most valuable relic. It dates back to the Middle Ages and is covered in fire-gilded figures, precious stones and all sorts of other ornamentation, and there was no shortage of visitors frozen in their tracks admiring it.
Back outside, I took a quick amble through the cobbled streets of the Old Town. I found it hard to believe that it had been more-or-less reduced to rubble during WWII and then painstakingly rebuilt. The city is certainly a more enjoyable place for the restorers’ efforts.
On Bellejour that evening, we were all invited up on deck for a ‘sundowner’ (alcohol-free versions were available) during which we could enjoy Cologne’s sunset skyline as we continued our journey upstream.
The following morning, my last day on board, the ship arrived in Koblenz, the city where the Mosel and Rhine meet. Here, I joined an optional excursion with Hartmut, an amiable and knowledgeable local guide.
There is no shortage of history here, including visits from the Romans, Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm I, and its almost-complete destruction during the Second World War due to its geographical importance. On our tour, Hartmut walked us through squares, alleyways and churches, and also introduced us to the symbol of Koblenz, a statue/fountain of a child who spits water at unsuspecting tourists from his mouth every two minutes.
He also showed us a wall-mounted clock that includes the mechanical face of local robber baron Johann von Kobem. Johann’s shifty eyes dart left and right (presumably) with the clock’s mechanism, and every quarter of an hour his tongue pokes out of his mouth! Apparently, if you see the tongue you’ll get some good luck, so that’s something.
As well as the town itself, visitors may wish to take the cable-car across the river to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, a vast stronghold gazing down on the city from its eyrie.
After finding a souvenir shop and picking up a fridge magnet and snow globe, I returned to the boat to collect my suitcase, quickly said cheerio to staff and guests, and made my way to the local railway station for my train to Frankfurt airport.
Find out more about our river cruises on MS Bellejour.
Article published on: 13th August, 2018
On the same day in 2005, Al gasped in awe at the Great Pyramids of Giza in the morning and ate with locals in a small, cheap, back-street grill in Cairo in the evening. He still can’t decide which memory he cherishes more. When it comes to travel, perfect moments come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.