Wendy Squires lets art be her guide on a journey down the Rhine.
It is taking everything in my power not to burst into tears. I am in Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum staring into the harrowed eyes of one of the legendary master's famous self-portraits.
Seeing the piece so close is an almost spiritual experience. The painter is so alive in the work, it's as if he's trapped in the agony of his self-hatred for eternity, and I want to dive in and rescue him.
I defy anyone to remain cool when seeing their first van Gogh. It's impossible not to be affected, sight and soul. The bipolar manic highs and unbearable depressive lows of the tragic short-lived Dutch painter's life are all there, in paint, from his earliest dark-shadowed The Potato Eaters to those familiar irises and sunflowers so radiant they set off their own heat.
It may come as no surprise to hear I am a van Gogh fan. After all, I have travelled across the world from Australia to the Netherlands in devotion to the great man's work. Yet my pilgrimage has been far from tough.
Imagine a luxurious cruise ship purring down the wondrous Rhine for eight days from Amsterdam to Frankfurt in Germany (you can also take the trip in reverse direction). Think of a five-star boutique hotel named the River Empress, only with moving postcard views, constant fine dining and a standard of service thought to be extinct along with flappers in the '30s.
Picture some of the greatest architectural and other-worldly natural treasures of Europe within a short walk of the ship, and appreciating masters such as van Gogh on an almost daily basis, and you may start to gain an idea of just how decadent Uniworld's Springtime Tulips & the Rhine cruise is.
For someone like me, who has visited Europe before and has ticked off certain tourist must-sees, the cruise is even more ideal. Day one in Amsterdam, for example, I forfeit visiting the Anne Frank House for the Van Gogh Museum. Then, still not sated, I spend the afternoon on my own, gluttonously taking in even more masters at the Rijksmuseum, (van Goghs, Rembrandts and Vermeers) before walking back to the dock along Amsterdam's labyrinth of canals and flower markets via its infamous red-light district.
As exquisite as van Gogh's brush strokes may be, Mother Nature wins the beauty contest hands down the following day during a visit to Keukenhof gardens. Situated between Amsterdam and The Hague, in Lisse, 7 million flowers make up this world-renowned kaleidoscope of colour that began life as a castle herb garden in one-time hunting grounds of the 15th century.
Today, it is the most photographed place on the planet and the largest bulb flower park in the world, featuring 4.5 million tulips in 100 varieties. I take more than 200 photos and still could keep clicking, every turn more breathtakingly brilliant than the last.
Another easy excursion decision is made upon arriving in Arnhem - the Kroller-Muller Museum. Housing the second-largest collection of van Goghs (collector Helene Kroller-Muller bought 91), including the recently verified Still Life with Meadow Flowers and Roses, Kroller-Muller is a siren song I simply can't ignore.
The 55 square kilometres of the National Park De Hoge Veluwe (hogeveluwe.nl) hosts not only the Kroller-Muller Museum and its sublime sculpture gardens but the deer and wild boars the wealthy art collector Anton Muller so enjoyed hunting in the 1900s.
Muller enjoyed his forays into the forest so much he decided to make himself a little more comfortable by building the St Hubert Hunting Lodge, which still stands like a grand startled elk in its silent park surrounds today.
A visit to the hunting-themed home is an interesting precursor to the museum, icing on an already rich cake. Housed in yet another modern architectural masterwork, this time by esteemed Henry van de Velde, the Kroller-Muller (kmm.nl) collection ranges from Seurat, Picasso, Mondrian and Leger to the renowned contemporary European artists of today.
Featuring sculptures from the 19th century to now, including Rodin, Moore, Hepworth, Merz and Dubuffet, the gardens are so vast it takes me a (complimentary) meandering bike ride through the lush surrounds to fit it all in.
Cruising on to Cologne and taking a walking tour of this 2000-year-old city, I once again branch off to visit its museums on my own (or as many as I can - there are 42). Standouts are the Museum Ludwig, which houses the biggest pop-art collection outside the US (Warhols and Lichtensteins at every turn); the Romano-Germanic Museum (check out the famous Roman floor mosaic); and the surprisingly vast and varied collections at the Kolumba and Wallraf-Richartz museums.
The visit isn't complete without stopping in and smelling the original cologne formula created in Farina House, now a fragrance museum.
It is past Marksburg that the Rhine begins to resemble fairytales and fables, with castles and forts perched high on cliffs, and there's no better place to see it than sitting on deck with a champagne cocktail or lying in your stateroom with the windows open, the cyclists on the nearby banks so close they wave.
We move on once more, to Frankfurt and another Germany altogether. But rather than settle back into this century, I opt for an excursion to nearby Heidelberg to tour its castle. The history of the castle, built before AD1214, is a fascinating ride from grandeur to rubble and back again.
It is only fitting that the last day is rooted back in reality, wandering the modern money mecca that is Frankfurt (home to the euro). But what Frankfurt lacks in quaint charm it makes up in museums and galleries, the Stadel being its ultimate.
Featuring 700 years of art from old masters (Raphael, Rembrandt and Vermeer), modern (Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Degas, Picasso and Munsch) to contemporary (Bacon, Richter, Warhol and Baselitz), something magical and profound happens to me within its walls.
His name is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, one of the German leaders of expressionism in the 20th century, and I fear it is love. Another true tragic, Kirchner had more than 600 of his works destroyed by the Nazis in 1937, leading him to commit suicide the following year.
And so, I find myself once again obsessed with an artist. Re-stack my mini bar ... I shall be back.
The writer was a guest of Uniworld.
On board the River Empress
Some of the world's greatest cities are outside waiting to be explored, but leaving the River Empress is not easy.
Actual disembarkation is a breeze - a mere stroll down the gangplank and you are within walking distance of each port's main attractions.
It is leaving the dining room that I find hardest, as each meal is memorable, from the lavish breakfast and lunch buffets (yes, there is Vegemite) to the a la carte dinners with matching regional wines.
The bar is also hard to leave, a constant hub of energy day and especially night, where live entertainment and dancing picks up where dinner leaves off.
There are also lectures on each coming port, encompassing its history and art, in the afternoons.
The main deck also has a gravitational pull of its own. Basking in spring sunshine while overlooking each city and the always buzzing Rhine river life is hard to pass up.
But perhaps the part of the ship I will miss most is my stateroom, with its sliding windows opening on to the river, plush bed worthy of a princess and bathroom as large as some bedrooms I've had back home.
The ship also has a fully equipped gym and sauna, which I did manage to see, if not actually use. It was right beside the massage room near the boutique and media centre, which required numerous visits - in order to check emails, of course.
Three other things on shore
1 Amsterdam While taking in this classic city on foot is great fun, nothing beats seeing it from its 160-odd canals on a boat ride. The waterways reveal some of the 7000 houses classified as historical monuments, 2100 bridges and some of the 2000 houseboats that make the city so unique. Uniworld also offers a hidden-garden tour of Amsterdam, which involves a look at the life of locals past and present by viewing the backyard areas of their houses, which are rarely seen from the street. Near the Keukenhof gardens (which no one should miss) is Zaanse Schans, a step back in time showing how the Dutch lived a century ago. This is the place to see traditional crafts being made and to buy clogs.
2 Arnhem Pass by the graveyards of 1759 World War II Allied soldiers who were killed trying to take the famous bridge at Arnhem (as told in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far) to reach the Hartenstein Airborne Museum in a 19th-century villa that served briefly as British Army quarters. Today, it houses military weapons and photographs of the failed Operation Market Garden, in which 10,000 men died.
3 Frankfurt As the ship is moored two nights in Frankfurt, take a luncheon tour of nearby Heidelberg to see the unforgettable castle. This city has the romance and history contemporary Frankfurt lacks, and its shopping strip is one of the longest in Europe.
Singapore Airlines flies to Amsterdam daily from Sydney. singaporeair.com.
Get on board
Priced from $3095 a person, twin share, cruise only, including port charges and taxes. Uniworld is offering savings of up to $1000 a couple until October 31 if paid in full at time of booking. The next Springtime Tulips & the Rhine cruise will depart in March next year.
(02) 9028 5199, uniworldcruises.com.au