Cruising Amsterdam’s harbor

Long before the coronavirus rocked the travel industry, Barbara Barton Sloane had the great good luck to visit Amsterdam and attend Viking River Cruises’ historic launch of 10 Viking Longships.

Biking, busing, tramming or hoofing it, Amsterdam is a city easy to get around in.  It has beauty, charm and hundreds of canals connected by 500 pretty bridges — and flowers everywhere. These 17th century canals enjoy the honor of having been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010 and they’re perfect for a romantic stroll. Long before the coronavirus rocked the travel industry, I had the great good luck to visit Amsterdam and attend Viking River Cruises’ historic launch of 10 Viking Longships as the line expanded into a new era of European river cruising. This was an auspicious occasion because, for the first time ever, a river cruise company was launching 10 ships all at once.

As that wise gentleman, Mark Twain, once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines and sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore. Dream. Discover.” That is precisely what happens on a Viking Longship. Although my stay aboard the Viking Aegir was brief, I nonetheless was able to debark a few times and explore parts of Amsterdam, experiencing some of its special treasures and causing me perhaps to dream? Yes, indeed I did.

Amsterdam — My short but sweet visit

In Amsterdam’s medieval center, there stands the Gothic basilica Nieuwe Kerk, the coronation church for Dutch royalty.  Its intricately carved oak alter was stunning and the stained-glass windows handsome despite no sun shinning through that day.  I sat in a pew hoping that perhaps I’d hear some notes from the massive, gilded organ. After some 20 minutes or so, my optimism was rewarded with the thunderous peal of Bach’s Organ Fugue in G minor.  Could there be a more perfect end to my Gothic church visit?

Another outing took me to the Amsterdam School Museum Het Schip, so-called because its shape somewhat resembles a ship. Designed by architect Michel de Klerk, the museum is a former apartment building (1919-21) that remains both an important symbol of dignified housing for the working class — revelatory for its day — and the city’s finest extant example of Brick Expressionism. The Amsterdam School also paid a great deal of attention to the applied arts, designing in such a versatile and expressive way that the style is often seen as the Dutch version of Art Deco. Inside the museum, there’s a charming little post office and an interior that is decorated with furniture and objects that were available to the working class in the ’20s.

At Concertgebouw, (Royal Concert Hall), opened in 1882, I attended a concert of Brahms, Chausson and Ravel with violinist Tosca Opdam and pianist Victor Stanislavsky, their music at times bold and regal, at other times poignant and tender; at all times rendered gorgeously by this world-class duo.

Although our ship had no plans to stray afar of the ceremonial christening and launching — which was by turns decorous and dazzling — we did take a brief cruise down the Ijsselmeer River to Hoorn, an ancient harbor town founded in 716. This is a pretty community with monumental building façades and inviting sidewalk cafés. Sadly, no sidewalk sitting this day — way too cold. However, the experience of leisurely making our way down the river was picturesque.

The godmother

For more than 4,000 years it has been a maritime tradition for each ship entering service to have a ceremonial godmother who is entrusted with the guidance of the ship to her destinations. In Amsterdam, there were 10 godmothers, one for each of the ships to be launched. Distinguished, remarkable women are historically chosen to become godmothers and this time was no exception. The group was drawn from representatives of a number of Viking’s valued partners and significant port and privileged-access destinations. They gallantly smashed Champagne bottles against the ships’ hulls, after which there was a post-christening reception held in the Amsterdam cruise terminal.  We guests then enjoyed a divine dinner and a maiden voyage around Amsterdam’s harbor.

As evening drew near, I thought on the words of a poem by Hendrik Marsman called “Memory of Holland:”

The sky hangs low and slowly the sun
by mists of all colors is stifled and greyed,
and in all the regions the voice of the water
with its endless disasters is feared and obeyed.

With the Viking Longships’ meaningful and heartfelt ceremonies and the godmothers’ blessings, there will be no endless disaster. The mists were banished, the gray skies cast out and, at close of day in the far distance, a rainbow appeared.

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