RIVER RHAP­SODY

Cruis­ing Europe’s great wa­ter­ways is more pop­u­lar than ever, re­ports Peter Need­ham

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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

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