Smooth sailing during family trip to the Old Country

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2012 - 9:51 AM

River cruises can simplify a trip to Europe for seniors.

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Al and Jill Burger along the Rhine.

My parents always did their best to give my sister and me what we needed. Now we wanted to return their generosity and fulfill their fondest wish.

They wanted another vacation in Germany.

We were apprehensive because, at 77, they both face health challenges. Dad walks with a cane, while my mother has balance problems as a result of losing vision in one eye.

The last time they visited Germany, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and they were middle-aged. They twice criss-crossed the country as enthusiastic sightseers, dragging luggage, jumping into trains and sampling sausages.

They came home with more than memories. My father, a first-generation American, made a deeply satisfying connection with "the Old Country" that he'd grown up hearing about. His desire to return was bound up in a bittersweet longing to connect with his long-dead immigrant parents.

"There's a clock ticking inside me, telling me it's time to go back," he told me.

After some research, we struck on a mode of touring that could make Europe manageable: river cruises. Getting from one city to the next would not be a hassle. We'd eat meals on the boat, so no tourist-trap restaurants would lure us in. And with tour guides offered by the cruise line, we wouldn't have to muddle through language barriers to find the highlights of each city.

We booked an eight-day, all-inclusive Rhine River cruise for the four of us. Departing from Amsterdam, we floated down a Dutch canal before turning onto the Rhine in Germany. Carrying 138 passengers, our boat then meandered upstream to the border with France and ended in Basel, Switzerland. The price included staterooms, three meals a day and daily excursions -- by bus, canal boat or on foot -- at stops including Cologne, Koblenz, Rüdesheim, Mainz, Heidelberg, the Black Forest and Strasbourg.

Off the boat, a gentle walk

Far smaller than sea cruise ships, riverboats offer no onboard putting greens or water slides. But the four-level Felicity, operated by Avalon Waterways, provided pleasant amusements. We observed barge traffic on the working sections of the Rhine and traveled through 14 river locks; we twice watched the boat lift while dining.

My extroverted parents enjoyed meeting fellow passengers, all of whom spoke English. After patiently accompanying his three female companions to shops featuring perfume, Christmas decorations and dirndl dresses, Dad, a retired coach, enjoyed dinnertime chats with a Chicago sportswriter.

We befriended another intergenerational family group on the riverfront in Cologne, the cruise's first German port. While waiting to begin a walking tour of the old city, Nancy DeLisio and I quickly bonded over our mutual worry about the rigors of sightseeing for our aging parents. DeLisio accompanied her 84-year-old mother.

"Gentle Walk!" the local tour guide called, her English accented with German.

"That's us," my father smiled.

The passengers on our boat divided into six walking tour groups. While the other five charged forward, our guide handed out individual wireless devices with earpieces to help us hear her commentary and advised us to beware of the uneven cobblestones.

"There's a place to rest on the way to the Cathedral," the guide promised. "We take the short route."

As we ambled, DeLisio told me about her last European trip with her mother. Two years earlier they traveled to Krakow, Poland. The hotel room that she lined up turned out to be on the fourth floor, and the building did not have an elevator. Male and female guests shared a common bath, and DeLisio said they quickly realized that some rooms were rented by the hour.

And then a pickpocket snatched her mother's wallet.

"I said that I would set up the next trip for the three of us," said her mother, Peggy Cawrse. "As you get older, you're not so willing to take chances."

"It's nice to be taken care of," DeLisio said. "This way we can stop when she needs to stop."

Cruise made all the difference

My parents had been prepared to stay onboard the boat if they found themselves fatigued, but their energy seldom flagged. Together we spotted a stork's nest atop a turret in Koblenz, waved at the statue of the Lorelei in the Rhine, and pulled in for a sentimental four-way hug as we overlooked the Black Forest valley, where my grandfather was born.

Every city we stopped at had cobblestones, charming to look at but uneven underfoot. We consistently partnered up, with Mom stabilized on my arm and Dad on my sister's. At some stops, my sister and I settled them in seats and took off for a speedier stroll. We didn't mind a rainy hike through the famed university in Heidelberg, while they shared the "kaffee und kuchen" that my father ordered in German in a corner cafe. Twice after dinner, my sister and I trooped back into the town where we were anchored while our parents relaxed in the onboard lounge, listening to pop standards played by Emil the Bulgarian pianist.

Both of my parents struggle with steps, and we quickly saw that we were spoiled by the accessibility that we take for granted in the United States. We often could not find elevators, and the ones that did exist were frustratingly slow. It took us so long to get to an upper floor of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz that we hardly had time to study a page of the famed Bible on display before our tour took off. And several times, my parents could have used a bathroom break, but managed to hold on rather than mount the stairs.

These minor problems do not come up when we talk about our trip. The pleasure of recalling and reliving our shared memories has been a dividend of the cruise.

"The cruise was the difference between going and not going," my mother said. "We unpacked once and that saved our energy."

Although Mom calls the trip "our once-in-a-lifetime vacation," my father mentioned that another European cruise, perhaps along the Danube, would be the perfect way for us to celebrate their 60th anniversary, in four years when they are both 81.

"The alarm on that clock inside me may ring again," he said. "I will not let myself think that was the last time we will make it."

Kevyn Burger of Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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