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Sunday, 13th October 2013
It was unearthly quiet on the Saturday (12th) when we had dropped Tabitha and Amelia off at the Country Cattery in Waterbeach, at the end of a long one car wide rippling road. It always feels like betrayal abandoning them to be in a cage while we're away. But it did simplify packing the cases and getting ready for an earlier start on the Sunday than I usually have.

Sunday was pouring it down everywhere we went, the Panther taxi came promptly at 9am which I was disappointed at. Even with what seemed to me like a scenic tour through Cambridge we arrived at the coach stop opposite the Arundel House Hotel with nearly an hour to stand in the downpour until the coach was due to come! Virginia found a bus shelter not too far away, but happily the Shearings feeder coach was running well ahead of time and arrived about 9.30am. She had booked a 'Rhine Inclusive Cruise' on the MV Virginia so we could sample a river cruise as opposed to the ocean cruises we've done.
We drove down the M11 to 60s 70s hits like "Space Oddity" and "Pinball Wizard" and "Sunny Afternoon" and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again". There was plenty of leg-room in the gold coloured Setra coach - sadly we got blue-coloured Setra coaches after that which have more seats squeezed into them, and so not enough leg-room. There's a lot of organisation behind what Shearings do, and a lot of people backing it all up. Sometimes the best-laid plans don't work out, we stopped at Thurrock for six more passengers but the taxi bringing four of them had broken down. So we set off to Shearings Hythe Interchange base and had a burger before changing to a different Shearings coach, our tour bus for the 'Rhine Inclusive Cruise' driven by a guy called Vance. I wondered about how Vance and the tour guide June and the staff on the MV Virginia handle their (to me) strange lifestyle, the strange pattern of days.

A short run to Dover port where a French customs officer came onto the coach to make sure we hadn't forgotten our passports. The port staff directed us and other vehicles onto the P&O ferry while trying to stop a trio of French students who were trying to sneak on the ferry by hitch-hiking. We found a good place to sit at on the ferry and I started my intense session of reading Edgar Wallace novels on the iPad. I got through nearly twenty in all by the end of the holiday.
Vance drove us through a sodden and depressing looking France to the Novotel Lille hotel at Lille Aeroport. Room not bad though it felt odd to me having a separate toilet and bathroom. They gave us a decent 3 course meal with cloying chocolate pudding as the coup de grace. The other (gold) coach of the two for the 'Rhine Inclusive Cruise' stopped at a better hotel - at that stage the people on board seemed to have benefitted from booking later.

The next day (Monday the 14th) most of us had advanced our clocks so making breakfast before re-boarding our blue coach. The plates for breakfast were rectangular with 3 sections, the scrambled eggs didn't taste quite right to me. We crossed from France into Belgium, an event marked by a sign with 12 stars and mobile phones receiving welcome texts as they changed to cells in a new country. I did manage to doze on the coach making up some sleep, despite the roads in Belgium being less well maintained. Stopped at a smelly and child-infested services in Belgium (toilets free anyway) before resuming our odyssey to Germany. We stopped again to allow the gold coach to get to the boat first, and by now the sun was in evidence!
This second stop near Cologne allowed the Zoll (German road tax officers) to pounce and check we were legal. Apparently an accountant of National Holidays bungled paying the tax, and the German Zoll impounded a coach leaving drivers and passengers high and dry!

We boarded the MV Virginia safely, not being given the cabin we had booked. Cabin not very wide, twin beds. At lunchtime had to make a big decision - what table should we sit at? Where we choose to sit would be where we sat for all the meals which followed. A decision I felt reluctant to make! We sat with Mary and Raymond and Brenda and Dennis who were nice and friendly people, in fact everyone on the cruise was pleasant. Everyone apart from Virginia and I seemed to be retired. I knocked over my water that lunchtime but managed to avoid a repeat performance. The restaurant was on the lowest deck and weirdly the bottom of the windows was at the ship's waterline. It would have freaked me out to have a cabin on that deck!
After lunch we wandered to see the Dom (cathedral) in Cologne, a Catholic church with stylish modern looking stained glass and arrays of hard to photograph flickering candles. The outside of the Dom looks dark and gothic and massive. We also saw a curious artificial stream with stepping stones in concrete, and some of old style Cologne where the outside cafes were putting blankets on chairs so patrons could wrap up if they felt cold!

Dinner was four courses, the main having chicory smothered in cheese sauce, I guessed leek and others aubergine. Again to my surprise at certain times beer and wine and soft drinks were free on the ship, including dinner time. Entertainment in the lounge bar area was a well-built guy playing an electronic keyboard - a medley of Sinatra and other similar tunes. He was Eastern European as were a lot of the staff on the boat.
On the Tuesday (15th) it was an odd day so sausages rather than bacon on offer for breakfast. I didn't sleep well, there was activity on past midnight and the cabin walls were thin so I could hear snoring from our neighbours. The MV Virginia had set off at 5am to get to Koblenz from Cologne, disturbing when the engines fired up early in the morning. The boat is quite old, built nearly 50 years ago.

We reached Koblenz early afternoon, June our tour guide giving a running commentary as we floated past ruined castles and pretty churches and vineyards on steep hill slopes. As I watched them taking on water for the ship it struck me it wasn't so different from being on the Broads, only bigger. The ships still need pumping out, still need to take on water, still need to find moorings. Virginia and I wandered round Koblenz on our own, seeing an odd layered fountain representing different ages.
During the evening meal Dennis set me puzzles which I disappointed him by answering. They were enigmas I had come across before like the coin swapping where you have only one free space. We also admired the medals on three WW2 veterans who were on the cruise - I couldn't stand it when they were loudly rerunning WW2 in the lounge area. There was a raffle and Virginia won the first prize of Kir champagne - we almost never win things. We weren't sure what to do with our prize, whether we could bring it back home.

Another early start on Wednesday (16th) to get down to Rudesheim. Our bathroom smells a bit, and the water gurgles as if it's trying to get back up the shower drain. Rudesheim is very pretty, and cosier than the cities. I posted some postcards in a yellow postbox, and we wandered round a toy museum and a Christmas ornament shop (better). In the evening had an excursion by land train to see Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinets museum which was the highlight of the tour. A peek back at how time was. We skipped the wine tasting.
On Thursday (17th) we started our way back down the Rhine, dropping into Andernach where we had an excursion to the walled town of Ahrweiler. Very pretty with a range of olden architectural styles. We had a German guide Toni who was very good. On the way we went through a village with loads of skulls and crossbones signs - evidently the villagers are demanding a bypass and capturing coaches in protest. They were happily taking a rest that day.

And so we came to Friday (18th) and time sadly to say goodbye to the people we had met. Vance our blue coach driver took us to the naff Maasmechelen shopping village. Hard to find anywhere to eat, and the kind of stores which pay the stars who advertise their wares more than the sweatshops making them. But it was a mandatory stop apparently. We stopped at another Novotel Hotel Novotel Valenciennes, a clone almost of the one at Lille. This time the gold coach with the late bookers fared much worse - the manager walked out apparently of their hotel because of having to deal with two coaches leaving a poor girl to do everything.
Saturday (19th) we had a relatively short trip to Calais after some frozen scrambled eggs for breakfast, took a long time to get through British passport control, then onto a big car ferry where one queued ages for food and then couldn't find anywhere good to sit. Back to the Hythe interchanges and goodbye to Vance, I should have tipped him more or not at all, never judge these things well. Virginia and I found ourselves on a feeder coach with just six passengers on it! Absurd. The Satnav broke down and the driver had to get it exchanged at Birchanger services. He kindly dropped us within walking distance of our front door, meaning we didn't need to get a taxi home!

Would we do this again? Not as it stands. The scenery was pretty, our fellow passengers agreeable, but I found it very hard to sleep (easier when the engines were going). The four days we spent getting to and fro the cruise itself were tedious and arduous.