Fairytale castles, picturebook historic villages and multicourse menus are all part of the charm for Judy Bailey as she takes a leisurely cruise down the Rhine River.
on the Rhine
It’s the ultimate de-stresser, we’re told, a sure-fire way to relax and forget the worries of the world. Who can argue with that? We are cruising virgins, my husband Chris and I, so when the opportunity comes up to discover the mighty Rhine by river boat, we leap at it. The opportunity to explore the Rhine on a five-day cruise from Weisbaden (about an hour’s drive south of Frankfurt) to Basel in Switzerland is too good to miss.
We fly into Frankfurt on a Saturday morning in springtime. If you’ve only got a day or so to kill in the city, Saturday is a good day to sample its delights. We find two great markets – a busy farmers market at Konstablerwache, where you can sample a vast range of German sausage and cheese, not to mention liberal amounts of the local tipple,
apple wine, and a bustling flea market beside the river on Lindleystrasse, where I indulge my love of rummaging for treasures. Even if your cases are full to bursting, it’s worth browsing, just for the joy of being here.
The following day we are collected from the hotel for the short drive to Weisbaden, where our ship awaits.
I say short, because there is no speed limit on the German autobahn and we hurtle along at 170km an hour. But it feels perfectly safe, as slower motorists are, in their orderly Germanic way, sticking to the inside lanes.
The Avalon Imagery II is an elegant, four-deck river cruiser, which takes a maximum of 128 passengers. The public areas – the restaurant, bar, and lounges – are all comfortably spacious. But the pièce de résistance is our cabin. Now I understand the attraction of river cruising. The bed is king-sized and dreamily inviting with the lightest of feathery pillows. Avalon has foregone an outside balcony in favour of turning the entire cabin into an optional open-air space by having floor-to-ceiling doors. This works well, as the weather is often fresh on the Rhine, and the space that would have been given to a seldom-used balcony has instead been used in the cabin. Joy of joys, we unpack and stow our gear, ready to lie back and watch the world
drift by for the next five days.
While we wait for other passengers to arrive, we join a group visit to Neroberg Mountain. It’s a hill really, overlooking Weisbaden, and it’s here we sample the classic Rhine riesling for the first time, poured outdoors, picnic style, by a local vintner. Very good it is too!
We come down the hill on the funicular railway. Built in 1888, it’s powered by gravity and the weight of water. It reminds us of a slightly steeper version of Wellington’s cable car.
The thing about these cruises is that you can tailor them to suit yourself. Chris and I decide to peel off in the afternoon and explore Weisbaden.
The city is one of Europe’s oldest spa towns. Two thousand years ago the Romans would come here to wallow in its hot springs as they recovered from the rigours of battle. Much of the old town was levelled in the bombing raids of WW2 but there are still beautiful examples of neo-Gothic and Renaissance style architecture to be seen.
We wander among the daffodils in the grounds of Biebrich Palace, as the locals run their dogs and soak up the last golden rays of the afternoon sun.
The city of Mainz lies just across the river and within its streets is a kind of holy grail for people like me – the Gutenberg Museum. It was in Mainz that Johannes Gutenberg, a former blacksmith, created the moveable type printing technology, an invention that would revolutionise the spread of information and transform the lives of millions around the world. It is fascinating to see how he did it.
Back on board our river cruiser, we dine like kings, enjoying a five-course degustation menu with wines to match. I’m putting the diet on the back burner.
The Rhine, of course, is famed for its castles, and one of its most memorable is Marksburg. I feel as though we’ve time-travelled to the Middle Ages. Marksburg is fully furnished and fascinating. From its faithfully re-planted “poison garden”, from which enterprising sorcerers concocted potions to kill off their enemies, to the exquisitely painted frescoes in the sleeping quarters, it’s a glimpse back in time into the lives of those who once called it home. Originally built to protect the town of Braubach, it was later used as a post to collect taxes from the river craft, and later still as a prison in Napoleonic times. It is now owned by the German Castles Association, which is charged with its preservation.
The Rhine cruise allows you to explore the many picturesque historic towns bordering the river. The
Imagery II is equipped with portable sound systems, so you can listen to guides while exploring at your own pace. It’s the best of both worlds. The guides are witty and knowledgeable, without being pedantic. We wander around the “Hansel and Gretel” style half-timbered houses in Koblenz before heading back to the ship for dinner (another five courses). Then we dance into the night to the onboard DJ, in an effort to work off some calories. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve had a couple of wines and the inhibitions have taken flight!
The following morning we wrap up and take to the sky deck for the stunning cruise down the Rhine
Gorge. It’s easy to see why they call it the “Romantic Rhine” – this is the most famous and arguably most beautiful stretch of the river. There are 42 castles in the Rhine Valley, the highest concentration of castles in the world. A number of them have been refurbished and turned into five-star hotels. They cling, imperiously, to the sheer cliffs of the gorge, interspersed with steep vineyards and tiny, “toy town” villages.
Dragan, our cruise director, is an able historian and the morning passes in a flash with his dramatic retelling of the German states’ violent struggle to repel the French invaders.
Castles cling, imperiously, to the sheer cliffs of the gorge, interspersed with steep vineyards and tiny, “toy town” villages.”
Here you can indulge in that most heart attack inducing of French/Swiss cuisine…”
It’s on this stretch of the river that we pass the famous rock of the Lorelei. Here, on a treacherous bend where the river narrows, legend has it that a siren lured sailors to their graves with her haunting song.
Germany is famous for its
Christmas markets and although it’s a bit too soon to be Christmas shopping, I’m keen to pick up some festive decorations to take home. It’s become a tradition when we travel that we seek out something tiny to take home for the grandchildren to hang on the Christmas tree. The little wine town of Rudesheim is the perfect place to find them. Famed for its Drosselgasse, a quaint alley devoted to wine bars, it also sports a fine Christmas store in its main street. We come away clutching a handful of little felt reindeer and angels. Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Cabinet Museum, which houses an amazing array of self-playing instruments, is just down the road and well worth a visit.
We enter a number of locks on our journey up the river towards the Swiss city of Basel. These are a miracle of modern engineering and we stand on deck watching in fascination as our captain deftly manoeuvres the vessel into what looks like an impossible space. There’s less than an arm’s length left on either side as we pass through each lock.
Our Rhine cruise takes us through three countries – Germany, France and Switzerland. One of my favourite stops is the French city of Strasbourg, seat of the European parliament. The city is enclosed by two branches of the River Ill. The Romans first established a camp here in 12BC. Situated on the border of France and Germany, it manages to seamlessly combine the cultures of both countries.
One of the best ways to get a feel for the city is to take a cruise down part of its river system in a glassdomed bateau mouche. We pass ancient houseboats converted into trendy bars, and head to the old quarter with its covered bridges and half-timbered tannery houses. Swans cluster hopefully waiting for tasty morsels from the tourists. Here you can indulge in that most heart attack inducing of French/Swiss cuisine… raclette. Basically it’s melted cheese, scraped off a huge round, served with the three p’s: potatoes, pickles and prosciutto. A heavenly combo for a chilly evening.
On our last day, I head to the
Black Forest to explore its ancient farmhouses while Chris cycles through the local villages and vineyards.
The cruise has been companionable without being overwhelming, just organised enough to have been easy and interesting, and relaxed enough to accommodate our innate need to do our own thing.
We leave feeling relaxed and rejuvenated –and ain’t that the sign of a good break?
LEFT, FROM TOP: Biebrich Palace in Weisbaden. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets. A decorative sign that depicts the region’s castles and vineyards. Quaint Drosselgasse alley in Rudesheim.
The historic Ponts Couverts (covered bridges) over the River Ill in Strasbourg.
FROM TOP RIGHT: The River Ill, Strasbourg. Farm buildings in the Black Forest. Rich, cheesy raclette. A vineyard above the mid-river fortress at Kaub.