Brothers Arno and Robert Reitsma were introduced to their future career in the river cruise industry at a very early age, spending more time on water than they did on dry land. Arno laughs when he tells Our Man On The Ground that it was only when he went to school that he started to realise other youngsters didn’t live on boats.
The story of Swiss shipping company Scylla AG is very much a family affair, and the brothers have plenty of anecdotes to share as the business, which spearheaded modern-day river cruise vessels celebrates its 50th anniversary. Guests gathered on board a cruise from Vienna to Bratislava to mark the milestone, which culminated with a spectacular light show on the Danube.
The brothers’ parents, André and Martha Reitsma, started the business in 1973 when river cruising was still in its infancy. They bought a tugboat, Damco 21, and transformed it into a passenger vessel named the MS Scylla to sail on the Rhine.
Arno, who now runs Scylla with his brother, recalls:
“Things were very basic then. There were sinks in the bedroom and public toilets and showers that were shared with other passengers. My parents’ idea was to have river vessels that could compete with regular hotels. While the journey itself has always been a big part of river cruising, they wanted to have floating hotels with restaurants and other facilities.”
Arno and his brother were first-hand witnesses to the industry’s evolution as they spent the early part of their childhood living on the river.
Arno goes on to explain:
“My parents did not have a home on land, and we lived on the ship. It was not until 1978 that they got a house. We had a two-bedroom area in the stern of the ship, and we played in a corner of the public lounge and went into the crew area. It was really only when I went to boarding school that I realised not everybody lived like this. Looking back, it was very special.”
Arno smiles again as he says the family learned as they went along, initially not even realising the name Scylla was not a beautiful sea nymph from Greek mythology, as they first thought, but the name of a monster from Homer’s Odyssey. However, none of the passengers seemed any the wiser and the name stuck.
Fast forward to today and Scylla has a fleet of more than 40 vessels sailing across the rivers of Europe and 2,500 staff. Ships are chartered to lines such as UK favourite Riviera Travel and upmarket US line Tauck. This year also marks the 5th anniversary of Viva Cruises, Scylla’s tour operator arm which offers international English-speaking river cruises throughout Europe. Scylla’s 50th anniversary celebrations were held on the Viva Cruises’ flagship Viva Two.
Since its inception, Scylla has pushed the boundaries with river ship design. It was the first company to introduce vessels with two level sun decks, so one section could always remain open to passengers when the other has to be closed when ships pass beneath low bridges. Viva Cruises was the first line to offer year-round European river cruises and Viva Two showcases a new-to-industry split level interior, creating a feeling of light and space, and three separate restaurants with flexible dining times.
“Each of our ships is designed, constructed and operated from one single source. Because we are involved in every stage of the process and have developed long-standing relationships with partners we are at an advantage and can keep innovating. With Viva Two we wanted to create a vessel that has a different feel, with a bar that is on a separate level to the lounge and a more fluid passenger flow between the different areas. We are constantly looking at how we can do things differently.”
Passengers can look forward to the latest chapter in the Scylla story when the company unveils its next-generation Viva Cruises’ ship in September 2024. The 190-passenger Viva Enjoy will sail on the Danube.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Scylla