There’s no doubt the ancient Romans knew a thing or two about prime waterfront real estate when they nabbed the most fertile land along the left bank of the Rhine River in Germany. They knew something about wine too, introducing viticulture to their Germanic territories over 2,000 years ago and many of the techniques and principles that were first developed in ancient Roman times are still found in modern winemaking.
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Their legacy in Europe is something I got to see for myself when I joined friends and a group of discerning travellers for a Rhine river cruise, starting in Basel, Switzerland, and ending in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. And, as it would turn out, along the way I got to try quite a few bottles of the local product that started with their endeavours – cheers to the Romans!
On arrival after a gruelling 20-hour flight from Australia via Singapore, we transferred by coach from Zurich Airport to our ship, Imagery II, one of Avalon Waterways’ new Suite Ships, which was waiting for the last passengers to board and ready to cast off.
Shown to my luxury Panorama Suite on the top deck, I was pleasantly surprised by the size and furnishings, which included a plush and comfortable lounge, and small table right next to the wall-to-wall windows that opened right up to provide an indoor balcony – perfect for a few of those afternoon glasses of vino while watching the passing scenery. The rear lounge with its open observation deck is just a few steps away, and with tea, coffee and snacks available 24-hours a day, I would have no trouble at all settling in for the coming week on the water.
Meandering down the Rhine and stopping off to visit historic towns and cities along the way is the stuff of dreams and the Avalon Waterways cruises offer multiple excursions, all fantastic and accompanied by professional guides. There's plenty to see and do along the way (including an excursion to the Black Forest), but on day two I opt for exploring the historic town of Colmar in Alsace, France.
A town of fairytale proportions, walking through its pedestrianised historic centre is like walking into an 800-year time-warp of half-timbered houses painted in a kaleidoscope of vibrant colours and adorned with overflowing pots of lipstick-red geraniums. Restaurants and cafes line its watery canals, and even though it’s a blustery autumn day, I decide to take a seat and people-watch while sipping on an espresso.
Alsace (continued) and Strasbourg
Watching the small boats glide by with their excited passengers, and seeing their faces so animated by joy as they passed, I got a glimpse of why this lovely town is such a popular tourist destination. It’s not just the charming streetscape – although it does look very much like what you would see in a child’s storybook. It’s the sense evoked of being in another era, a time when Hansel and Gretel might walk down the street dropping breadcrumbs, that, to me, seemed to set it apart from anywhere else I’d been before.
The next day we visit another lovely French city, Strasbourg, which is the headquarters of the European Parliament and also home to one of Europe’s most beautiful gothic churches, the Cathedral de Notre-Dame (1190AD). It’s worth coming here just to walk through its incredible halls and gaze in wonder at the stained glass windows (12th to 14th century), the beautiful tapestries and the 17th-century astronomical clock with its perpetual calendar, planetary dial and display of the real position of the sun and moon.
Heidelburg, Mainz, Rüdesheim, Koblenz and Cologne
Visits to Heidelberg and its incredible castle ruins; Mainz and the fascinating Gutenberg Museum; the impossibly-pretty wine-town, Rüdesheim, with its dozens of wine-taverns and open-air beer gardens; 2,000-year-old Koblenz and amazing Cologne with its renowned and must-visit cathedral, are all on our itinerary, so every day is one of delight and discovery.
On day five, we reach the pinnacle of our cruise, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, which runs for 65-kilometres from Rüdesheim to Koblenz. Made famous as a fashionable destination for wealthy tourists by painters, writers and poets in the 19th century, the landscape on both sides of the river is of lush, forested mountains, terraced vineyards, and charming wine-growing villages.
The Rhine and Amsterdam
Almost every passenger is on the top deck, heads swivelling from left to right as Hans, our cruise director, gives a running commentary on the history of each castle we pass. Rugged cliffs sport around 40 crumbling or restored castles which bear witness to the rise and fall and rise again of Germany, perched up high to provide a birds-eye view of the shipping lane where the “robber barons” of centuries past would halt shipping with cables strung across the river to claim their taxes.
At the narrowest stretch of the gorge we come to Loreley Rock, soaring 125 metres above the river. Legend has it that a golden-haired water maiden named Loreley sat on the rock singing, her voice so captivating it lured lovesick sailors too close to the rocky cliffs where they crashed and died. The statue is quite small and a bit of a letdown really, but a traveller should never let reality get in the way of a good legend! Finally, we dock in Amsterdam, the city of canals in the country of tulips and windmills.
Like every town and city we’ve had the pleasure of visiting over the past week, what we need is more than one day to delve into the mysteries and wonders of this fascinating city. Time to walk the back streets, enjoy a long, delectable dinner over a bottle of local wine and interact with the locals. Unfortunately, time is one thing you don’t have to spare on a river cruise as there’s so much ground to cover, but these short visits do get you thinking about your next trip to Europe and to where you want to return. And you really, really should.
Thinking back on my week on the Rhine, I’m reminded of something I learned about the Romans and wine that really tickled my fancy. They believed that wine was a daily necessity and made it available to everyone including slaves. Now, I may or may not be descended from the Romans, but let’s just say that nobody has ever seen me turn down a glass of wine.
About Avalon Waterways European River Cruises
Imagery II is one of two new additions to the youngest fleet on Europe’s waterways and continues all of Avalon’s outstanding Suite Ship traditions. Passengers can choose from two full decks of Panorama Suites, featuring wall-to-wall panoramic windows that transform the living space into a unique open-air balcony. Panorama Suites are more than 30% larger than the industry standard, affording the incomparable opportunity to awaken each morning facing the splendid passing scenery. On-board amenities include complimentary WiFi access, a small fitness centre, hair salon, an elevator and expansive Sky Deck with whirlpool, premium lounge chairs, a shade system, and deck games.
Breakfast and lunch are buffet affairs with a wide variety of choices, and if weather permits, a barbecued grill lunch is also served on the top deck. Dinner is a four-course banquet with accompanying wines. Do try the Panorama Bistro Dining option served in the lounge on one night. It is more of a tapas-style menu of local delicacies, served with paired wines for each course; all included in the fare. Avalon Waterways European River Cruises for 2018/19 include a variety of multi- night cruises on the Danube, Moselle, Rhine, Seine, Rhône and Saône rivers. For more information, visit the Avalon Waterways website here.
Thinking of going on a romantic cruise? Find plenty of inspiration here...