RHine Castle

Europe by River

Europe is teeming with exceptional rivers that are worthy of your time and consideration as you plan a European river cruise. The Rhine, for example, is one that deserves a placement at or near the top of your list. Although the river served as an important trade route during Roman times, it wasn’t until the Romantic period—from the late 18th century through the second half of the 19th century—that the Rhine became a popular tourism destination, attracting writers, artists, and wealthy world travelers who wanted to see and find inspiration from the river valley’s natural beauty.   

We begin our journey with a few days on our own in Paris, after which we sail from the Swiss city of Basel, meeting fellow passengers in the bar before dinner. Each guest has the chance to dine in the smaller, private Italian restaurant one night; otherwise, it’s open seating in an attractive dining room with views of passing scenery. Cuisine tends toward nouvelle presentations of classic dishes — fancy works of steak, veal, pheasant, pork and numerous kinds of fish with beautiful side dishes. Each lunch and dinner brings an impressive selection of wines, most from Germany and France.

There’s no casino or theater; after-dinner entertainment ranges from live classical music performances to dancing.

Sailing usually happens at night, but one lazy afternoon we move slowly through the Rhine Gorge. Sipping champagne on the sunny deck, we gawk at one hillside castle after another, some 40 or so in a three-hour stretch. Those wanting narration about the warring families, who often built their fortresses right next to each other, tune in to GPS-enabled handheld devices with earpieces.

Heidelberg Bakery

Pastries beckon everywhere, especially in Heidelberg. Photo by Marshall Harri.

Rudesheim Memorial

A stop in Rüdesheim gives visitors a chance to ride a cable car to see Niederwald, the mountaintop monument built to commemorate German nationalism. Photo by June Naylor.

Downtime onboard is good for grabbing a catnap on cushy feather beds in the well-appointed cabins and taking tea on our private balcony (one of the butler services), where we read about upcoming points of interest. In the late afternoons, our cruise director — part professor and part Rick Steves-level expert — delivers an entertaining talk on the history, diversions and trivia related to the next destination.

Each day in a new location offers options for adventuring off the boat. Wander around on your own or join a small group (usually no more than 15 people) for a guided walking tour. You can even check out the villages from one of the ship’s compact electric bikes, which are particularly handy on hills.

Among memorable stops, there is the Cathedral de Notre-Dame, an exquisite Gothic church in the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, followed by a tasting of the region’s wines in the hilly medieval village of Mittelbergheim and an opera performance at a baroque palace.

All of which brings us to Heidelberg. After our tour of the Altstadt, or “Old Town,”and its castle and ruins from 1300, we sail on to Rüdesheim to shop for local wine, wander through museums and ride a cable car to a formidable mountaintop monument called Niederwald, built to commemorate German nationalism in the 1870s.

In Koblenz, a tasting at a small family-owned winery leads to a lunch of bratwurst and soup on a lively plaza in the old town, then a walk along the Rhine to its confluence with the Moselle River.

In Cologne, we buy sweets from a petite chocolate studio and wander the famous cathedral with thousands of other tourists, the biggest crowds we encounter until our arrival in Amsterdam at trip’s end. There, we ogle the wares of endless cheese shops, tour the canals on a sightseeing boat, admire portraits of Dutch society in the Hermitage Amsterdam and, not to be missed, visit the Van Gogh Museum.

Saying farewell to the Ruby, we spend another day on our own exploring Amsterdam and enjoy an exotic dinner at the canalside Indonesian Café Kadijk. Over spicy beef stew, we tune in to the unfamiliar languages around us. We know we’ll hear accents from Muleshoe again soon enough, with Europe’s rivers murmuring far behind.

Rhine Sea Cruise boat

The Ruby is part of the river fleet from Scenic, an Australian-based luxury cruise company. Photo courtesy of Scenic.

By June Naylor, 360WestMagazine