Our Travel Editor lists his top waterway picks
Top river cruises in Europe (and the order I’d tackle them)…
- Amsterdam to Budapest. It was, really, the original river cruise in Europe and in many senses is still the best. Usually about 15 days following the Danube, Main and Rhine journey through vineyards and past castles, passing or calling at Cologne, Nuremberg, Passau, Melk, Durnstein and Vienna.
- Or slow down, spend more time on shore, and get to the heart of the matter, with the 12-day itineraries that start in Prague, finish in Budapest and have local and cultural experiences.
- Prague to Budapest is very good, but the Rhone and Saone in France may just be my favourite. The itineraries are usually over about 11 days, and I prefer to start from the south, usually from Monaco or Nice on the Mediterranean, then being taken to Arles by coach to join the ship. From there, it’s north to Avignon and Lyon, and on to the Saone into Burgundy before a road and rail connection through Dijon to Paris.
- The Rhine, particularly including the castles and vineyards in the Rhine Gorge, in Germany, and old cities such as Strasbourg and Koblenz.
- The Seine heading north-west from Paris to Giverny and Rouen, with visits to Honfleur and the Normandy beaches.
- Itineraries in the Netherlands and Belgium which include Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Antwerp and Ghent. This offers medieval towns and castles, Gothic cathedrals, the art of van Gogh and Rubens, a fenland landscape laced with rivers and canals, historic and still busy industrial ports the like of which we don’t see, and windmills in big clusters.
- Voyages of about 13 days from Moscow to St Petersburg: from the onion domes of Red Square to the massive Peterhof Palace.
- Itineraries of about 10 days on the Douro River in Portugal. This continues to rise in popularity, with time in Porto and visits to monuments and monasteries.
- And after that, there are specialist itineraries for those interested in wine, jazz or art, and itineraries further into Eastern Europe.
LIFE ON A RIVER…
The French town of Lyon is 162m above the Mediterranean Sea, so to travel the Rhone from south to north on an itinerary between Monaco and Paris, a ship requires a little help.
Some 15 locks do the trick — and entering a lock is usually a moment when guests come on to the sundeck to watch this interesting and gentle passage.
The Bollene Lock is the biggest lift on the Rhone, at 23m. The system also drives a hydro electric power station, as about 35,000 litres of water fill or empty in seven minutes.
On the Saone, there are three more — at one stage just 20km apart.
In these, a ship might have just 20cm between its side and the wall.
There are also currents and sometimes strong winds to contend with, and at any one time there may be 25 passenger ships, six container ships and 40 cargo ships on the Rhone.
Ships are built as “tall” as they can be — so the deck just fits under bridges. That gives the most height to cabins and other rooms inside. But it means the wheel house stands proud — higher than the deck — and has to be lowered to go under some bridges.
For all the technology, this is to explore rivers in rather an old-fashioned sense. A captain recently told me how his ship had to be steered by hand. “It has to be driven all the time, so I can’t put it on autopilot and go for a coffee. The only thing we have are our eyes and our feelings of the ship.”
YOU CAN BANK ON A TOP VIEW
There is the parade of green river bank and first I draw back the curtains and then slide back the floor-to-ceiling glass door.
The advantage of some river-cruising ships is that the bed is “across” the ship… the head of the bed is in the centre of the ship; feet pointing towards the bank.
In other words, on a still, sunny spring Saturday morning like this, guests can settle back on the comfortable bed, propped by voluminous, soft pillows, and watch the riverbank pass, with its forests, villages and locals.
At this moment, I’m on the River Danube, travelling through Austria, on the way from Prague, in the Czech Republic, to Budapest, in Hungary.
Fresh air floods the suite, along with sound… the music of water passing, and a chorus of birdsong.