|River cruises: What A Great European journey|
With growing numbers opting to take a river cruise, John Wilmott provides a guide to the best of what’s on offer in Europe.
The Moselle, which is usually combined with a voyage along the Rhine
River cruise lines are offering new twists on popular itineraries as well as the chance to navigate previously forgotten rivers.
A river cruise holds obvious appeal for those seeking an unhurried holiday. As well as providing the opportunity to visit historic towns and cities, it allows you to enjoy beautiful scenery while relaxing on board a luxurious floating hotel.
Europe’s key rivers, the Rhine, Main and Danube, are connected via a canal to form a continuous stream from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Forming the “veins” of France are the Rhône and the Saône, while Portugal is bisected by the Douro. The well-travelled can explore tributaries of the Rhine and Danube or the rivers of north-east Europe, such as the Elbe and Oder.
While the most scenic stretches are saved for daytime cruising, river ships often sail at night to give plenty of time in ports, and as they usually dock at the heart of a destination, sightseeing can begin the moment you step ashore.
We’ve suggested highlights for each, although remember that the main waterways are covered by most operators. Itineraries may operate in reverse. All cruises are full board and many include shore excursions and wine with meals, so check when comparing prices. Prices are subject to change and are per person, based on two sharing a cabin, and include flights unless otherwise stated.
Rising in the Swiss Alps and emptying in the deltas of Holland, the Rhine is Europe’s most popular river for cruising and an excellent choice for the first-timer.
Although a delightful journey, it is a busy route in high summer, and walking through or over other cruise ships moored alongside yours to get to shore is common (and not as onerous as it sounds).
Several itineraries offer trips on the Rhine from Amsterdam through Germany to the Swiss border (usually eight days), while others take in the Main, which branches off to the east and connects with the Danube. Rhine-Moselle cruises add more options.
The attractions are many – and often Unesco-listed. In the lower reaches, there are the windmills of Holland, the enormous cathedral (and bierkellers) of Cologne and views from the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress at ancient Koblenz.
As the land rises, the scenery becomes more dramatic, with the narrow, 40-mile Rhine Gorge the highlight, marked by the 400ft-high Lorelei rock.
The towns and villages that follow are medieval gems: Rüdesheim, with Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum; Speyer, the resting place of eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings; and Breisach, a gateway to the Black Forest and Alsace wineries.
All along the way, passengers can expect gourmet tastings of wine, cheese and beer, guided walks around cobbled streets lined with timber-framed buildings, trips up to castles and monasteries and, at Speyer, a tour that visits an exceptional technology museum.
Several Rhine cruises take a small detour up a tributary, the Neckar, at Mannheim, to visit Heidelberg, a university town with the ruins of an imposing Renaissance castle, reached by funicular. A few operators run ships farther south on this pretty river, towards Stuttgart.
Continue upstream on the Rhine from Koblenz and the river splits at the town of Mainz, with the left-hand channel becoming the Main. After passing through Frankfurt, it slips through a series of attractive medieval towns before becoming the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, only completed in its current form in 1992.
The Main is usually explored in conjunction with the Rhine and occasionally the Moselle, with an Amsterdam to Nuremberg cruise taking about eight days, although many cruises continue to Vienna or Budapest on the Danube.
Miltenberg is the first of the picturesque Bavarian towns, huddled between the river and steep hills and replete with gabled houses fronting charming squares.
Würzburg boasts the baroque architecture of the enormous Residence palace, many notable churches and the impressive Fortress Marienberg overlooking the Old Bridge.
Hilly Bamberg is where the river turns into the canal and has one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval centres, dominated by Michaelsberg Abbey and Altenburg castle. There are nine breweries for the beer enthusiast.
Although it rises in France, the Moselle flows east into the Rhine near Koblenz, and it is the lower German section that features on most itineraries. As it is quite short, a cruise on this charming waterway is usually combined with a stretch of the Rhine.
From the narrow end, the city of Trier is said to be Germany’s oldest, and features several significant Roman monuments, including the Porta Nigra gate and an amphitheatre.
As the river passes through steeply terraced Moselle wine country, Bernkastel beckons with its pretty market square, narrow timber-framed buildings and hilltop castle.
Cochem is the other place of interest; fairy-tale Reichsburg castle is the key attraction, although the whole setting is beautiful.
The romantic “blue” Danube is, in reality, often a dull grey, but Europe’s greatest river, which flows almost 1,800 miles from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea, supporting four capital cities and with a shoreline in 10 countries, is Europe’s second most popular river for cruising.
A journey from Bavaria to the Danube Delta in Romania starts with romantic medieval towns, passes the grand cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, then runs through beguilingly empty countryside separating Romania and Bulgaria to the bird-filled estuary.
Typical routes are from Vienna or Budapest to the Black Sea, lasting two weeks, but slightly longer itineraries from Passau or Nuremberg are also available.
Regensburg is another picturesque jewel with a Roman background; Passau is home to the world’s largest cathedral organ, with more than 17,000 pipes; Melk has one of Europe’s largest abbeys; and Dürnstein is postcard perfect.
The centre of the Habsburg Empire, Vienna invites a full day to explore its architectural treasures, while Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava, a short distance downstream, is an unsung gem, with castles and atmospheric squares.
Moving on, Budapest has seven bridges crossing the Danube and one of the finest castle complexes in Europe.
Depending on the operator, the experiences may include a private classical concert in Vienna, folk dancing in Bavaria and beer tastings, as well as guided tours explaining the historic sites.
Coach tours to Ottoman-influenced Pécs in Hungary and the wineries of Ilok in Croatia are likely to provide diversions before Belgrade, on the confluence with the Sava, which cherishes its fortress and neighbouring park.
Leaving civilisation behind, ships pass through the deep gorge of the Iron Gates, then Vidin is within easy reach of the strange rock formations of Belogradchik in Bulgaria.
Some cruises terminate before the Danube Delta, but if ornithology appeals, choose one that includes a boat trip from Tulcea, in Romania, around the wetlands.
Rising in the Czech Republic and feeding into the North Sea near Hamburg, the Elbe hosts a small but increasing number of river cruises.
The proximity of Berlin and Prague at either end increases the appeal, and itineraries often include stays in one or both cities, although the actual river passage is usually from Magdeburg to Melnik.
There are many attractions as the ship sails upstream: the palaces and parks near Dessau; Wittenberg and its association with Martin Luther; the Renaissance architecture of Torgau; and Meissen’s porcelain.
Dresden is the largest city on the route, and guests can expect to see palaces, churches and the castle, with its crown jewels.
Probably the most scenic stretch is through Saxon Switzerland, a national park in Saxony noted for its spectacular rock towers, then the route continues to Litomerice, with its handsome buildings from various periods.
The Rhône and the Saône
A magnet for Francophiles and oenophiles, these two French waterways flow from the Swiss Alps and north-east France to converge at Lyon, from where the Rhône heads south through splendid vine-infused scenery to spill into the Mediterranean via the Camargue delta.
A typical eight-day trip will begin at Chalon-sur-Saône, giving access to the wine routes of Beaune and Burgundy.
Lyon is the largest city on the route; first-timers can head for the vast 19th-century Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, formidable St Jean Cathedral and the cobbled old town.
Vienne, usually the next stop, is a former Roman wine port and has several Roman monuments; downstream lie the quaint towns of Tournon and Viviers, where more wine tastings beckon.
Arles, almost at the end of the Rhône, is a highlight. As well as Roman ruins, including an outstanding amphitheatre, it has Romanesque churches and art galleries.
Avignon’s historic centre also rewards a walking tour, although there may be the option to visit the cellars of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
For those who have travelled the waterways of central Europe, the delightful Douro in Portugal seems the default option.
This river is enjoyed more for its green landscapes and the chance to dip into the heritage of port wine than for any great historical significance, although the start point of Porto and the Spanish town of Salamanca – to which an excursion is usually offered – are fine places to explore. Lunches or dinners at old quintas (country houses) are often included.
Sailing east from Porto, medieval Guimarães – the original Portuguese capital – is a popular excursion destination, then the port cellar visits start at Bitetos.
Mateus may be well known as a wine brand, but the baroque Mateus Palace, with its glorious gardens, is a highlight of this journey. Pinhão, sharing the slopes of the riverbank with vineyards, is the centre of port production, while Barca d’Alva is the gateway to Castelo Rodrigo, a picturesque walled town.
Ships usually dock at Vega de Terrón for a coach ride to Salamanca, a university town boasting one of Spain’s grandest squares.
By John Wilmott