Cruising Europe’s great waterways is more popular than ever, reports Peter Needham
YOUR European tour is under way. After three days in Prague, you’re lounging on your bed in Nuremberg, contemplating the scenery through your floor-to-ceiling window and preparing to attend a lecture on German wines. You’ve unpacked your suitcases and hung your clothes in your walk-in wardrobe, knowing you won’t have to pack again for the rest of your trip. The next few days will take you to Melk, with its baroque and cavernous Benedictine abbey; then on to Vienna and Budapest.
The only way to do this, without packing and repacking, is by taking a river cruise. This tranquil way to explore Europe is growing at an unprecedented rate as more travellers discover its advantages. Rivers deliver a taste of the cruising experience on a smaller scale, using vessels usually carrying 100 to 200 passengers. Europe’s river craft are intimate and highly specialised, built long, low and broad to fit under bridges and through canal locks. Instead of distractions such as casinos and discos, cruises provide fine food, top wine and plenty of shore excursions.
The Prague-to-Budapest itinerary outlined above takes place on the Danube, location of 35 per cent of the world’s river cruises. Cruising is booming on the Danube and on other European rivers, sending operators scrambling to build new ships. River cruise lines report that Australians are buying fivestar, top-of-the-range river cruises of nine days or more, as well as shorter, four-to-six day cruises. The latter, often operated by fourstar vessels, are easily added on to European land holidays.
Seasickness and cabins without windows are virtual unknowns on river cruises. Engine vibration is minimal and shore excursions are frequent: perhaps one or two a day, unless you choose to stay aboard. Tours can involve anything from tulips in Amsterdam to the quirky Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum in Rudesheim, Germany.
More tour companies are incorporating river cruises in longer, round-Europe itineraries. Some operators offer early-bird savings for people who book early, before the end of September for cruises in 2008, for instance. It’s worth inquiring.
Danube: For a first-time river experience, the Danube is hard to beat. Value is high because the vessel is likely to dock conveniently close to the action, in places where equivalent hotel rooms are expensive. In the evenings you can often walk straight off the boat and explore.
In Vienna, for instance, you may dock by the Imperial Bridge (Reichsbrucke), a short stroll to Vorgartenstrasse underground station, from where you can reach the heart of the city in just four stops.
CroisiEurope runs a five-night Beautiful Blue Danube cruise (Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Passau), costing from $1995, cruise only, for sailings this year. (Next year’s rates have not yet been released.) One of Europe’s longest established river cruise companies, CroisiEurope concentrates on shorter cruises (usually three to eight days) on 10 European rivers, using a fleet of 30 cabin cruisers. Fine French wine aboard starts from $21 a bottle: the passengers, about 70 per cent of whom are French, insist on it.
Tempo Holidays’ Majestic Blue Danube cruise, eight days from Passau to Budapest, costs from $1827, departing most Sundays between March and November 2008 aboard the Mozart.
Other cruises head much farther along the Danube. Avalon Waterways, a five-star luxury operator, runs a 20-night Grand Black Sea Cruise starting in Prague and heading through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hun- gary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. It costs from $6672, including an intriguing full-day excursion into Transylvania to visit Bran Castle, once the temporary residence of Vlad the Impaler, the Transylvanian prince at the heart of the Dracula legend. Romania’s highly publicised plan to dedicate a theme park to Dracula (with underground tunnels, wooden stakes, real bats and fake blood) foundered on environmental concerns. Bran is an acceptable substitute.
Tauck World Discovery will run a new 19-night Prague to the Black Sea cruise in 2008, with prices starting at about $8900 plus air fare.
Rhine and Main: An engineering wonder completed in 1992, the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal takes ships across the Franconian Alps over aqueducts and through a series of giant locks. The Main (pronounced Mine) is a tributary of the Rhine. Compared with road transport, the canal is positively eco-friendly. Its operators generate electrical power from the river, sell it to the grid by day, buy it back at night when it’s cheap and use it to power the locks. As the locks operate by gravity rather than pumping, they require little power, which is a smart situation.
The Rhine, known for the castles lining its banks between Cologne and Mainz, runs from the Swiss Alps through France, Germany and The Netherlands. Peter Deilmann River Cruises, which runs eight deluxe river cruise ships in Europe, operates Rhine trips between Amsterdam and Basle on the 109-passenger Heidelberg, and Rhine and Danube trips on the 91-passenger Casanova. Most cruises last seven nights, with low-season prices starting from about $2000.
Another cruise operator, Scenic Tours, is taking delivery of three additional luxury European river cruise ships in 2008 and 2009. The company’s Jewels of Europe cruise heads through Amsterdam, Cologne, Nuremberg, Vienna and Budapest, calling at medieval villages along the way. The cruise fits in with various land tours covering much of Europe. Scenic’s 28-night Paris to Budapest itinerary, including the 14-night Jewels of Europe cruise, costs from $13,850 ($1425 extra if you take a three-night Prague extension.)
Moselle, Rhone, Saone, Seine: Paris, Normandy, Burgundy and lavender-filled Provence: rivers run through them all. France is a fabulous country for cruising, with highlights ranging from village cafes, fishing boats, van Gogh’s Arles, Monet’s Giverny, Cote du Rhone wines and mellow landscapes.
Viking River Cruises offers a seven-night Burgundy and Provence cruise between Avignon and Chalon-sur-Saone from $2136, low season. Avignon in Provence is a warren of picturesque medieval alleys guarded by great towers. The Palace of the Popes, vast and gothic, is a must-see included in shore excursions. Avalon Waterways’ new 10-night Flavours of Burgundy and Provence cruise traverses the Saone and Rhone, from Paris through the Beaujolais region to Lyon, Avignon and Arles before ending in Nice; from $2531.
Volga: Here’s an excerpt from TheSongof the Volga Boatmen , an old Russian river shanty suiting bass voices, particularly in the bathroom. As the barges float along, To the sun we sing our song. Ay-da, da, ay-da! Volga boatmen hauled barges, a far cry from today’s luxury vessels. European river operators are extending into Russia in a big way. Trafalgar offers two Volga cruises for 12 or 14 nights. The 12-night Waterways of the Czars costs from $3325 aboard Litvinov, complete with ‘‘ hearty Russian cuisine and international favourites’’. Guided sightseeing includes the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (occupying six ornate buildings along the River Neva embankment) and a Moscow city tour.
Viking River Cruises’ selection for next year includes a 15-night Russian Rhapsody cruise-tour through Russia’s ‘‘ most Soviet cities’’, from $4142. It includes Stalin’s bunker in Samara, the Lenin Museum in Ulyanovsk and two Kremlins (the second is in Kazan).
Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey: The River Douro, flowing from Spain to the Atlantic Ocean in Portugal, runs through rugged valleys fringed by vineyards growing on steep rock faces; the region’s most celebrated beverage is port. Trafalgar offers a sevennight cruise on the Douro Queen plus a twonight stay in Lisbon from $2250.
Venice is a popular highlight of Italian cruises. You can sail between Venice and Cremona on a six-night CroisiEurope cruise for less than $2500. CroisiEurope runs threenight river cruises on Spain’s Guadalquivir between Seville and Cadiz.
You can even visit Gallipoli in association with a river cruise. A 25-night Amsterdam, Gallipoli and Istanbul holiday from APT World Discoveries includes a three-week river cruise from Amsterdam to Bulgaria aboard the newly launched boutique ship Sound of Music. It’s followed by excursions to Anzac Cove and Istanbul; all up, from $9995. Unless otherwise stated, all prices given are for one person on a twin-share cabin basis. www.aptouring.com.au www.avalonwaterways.com.au www.croisieurope.com www.classicvoyages.com.au www.scenictours.com.au www.traveltheworld.com.au www.tempoholidays.com www.trafalgar.com www.russiabeyond.com.au www.vikingrivers.com
Smooth sailing: Luxury river cruiser Avalon Poetry plies the River Danube, main picture; the vessel’s chic bar, above right; beautiful Passau in Bavaria