Cruis­ing

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.

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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.

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