1 JUNE 2020


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Article from BTNews 1 JUNE 2020

ON TOUR: The Waterways of Europe

When putting together the JUNE CRUISE ISSUE: River Ships it quickly became apparent that what was being written about was only half of the European rivership tale. There was a requirement to tell the story of the rivers themselves and ON TOUR was the perfect place to set the scene.

This overview covers the rivers travelled by BTN over the years but does not include Russia (See ON TOUR: St Petersburg to Moscow on the inland waterways), nor the Danube from Budapest to the Black Sea.  It is on the “Wish List”.

For a more detailed insight into the rivers of continental Europe Douglas Ward’s ‘River Cruising in Europe & the USA’ is to be recommended.  We have also concentrated on the English-speaking market in the main, which rules out the Elbe and its tributaries, also the Loire, with very limited offerings and perhaps something for the future.

There are no details on the ships with this report (See BTN Cruising) but we must mention here the Christmas Markets.  Hopefully these will be up and running for December and are particularly popular for the German rivers.  Do make sure you take warm clothing as often these are evening affairs. Hot malt wine will keep you warm.

Some holiday river trip packages are totally inclusive and you do not have to spend a penny once on board, others less so. Usually there is a choice of tours, sometimes two in a day, and also off-ship evening activities with local entertainment. Bikes are often on offer for energetic holidaymakers, electric powered ones as well.  You are on water and a safety briefing will be made before leaving the port.  Covid-19 will definitely be noted and virus protection will be a must for the future although without exception health and safety has always featured on river cruises.  Small numbers make it easier.  In the past medical provision has been limited with a hospital never far away.  This will be clearly under review by all operators.

A river cruise provides a unique landscape of Europe passing by ancient castles and ruins, wonderful gorges, vineyards stretching for miles up the steep hillsides, and very modern cities rebuilt since WWII.  At every stop (and lock) there is history to be told.  European rivers encompass the Austro-Hungarian Empire at one end and England’s mediaeval ambitions into France and its dealings with Napoleon at its western edges.  Prague is not linked to the rivers of central Europe but it does feature on itineraries as a ‘before’ or ‘after’ linked by coach or private transport.

Dutch and Belgian Waterways

Sad to say there will be no ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’ this year, but mark it on your calendar for 2021.  That is the best time to visit the Netherlands (Holland does not actually exist today as a country as such but is the name given to the most westerly regions including Amsterdam) than the spring, when the flowers are at their best. The Keukenhof Gardens, just outside Amsterdam, has surely the world’s greatest collection of tulips.  With the distances short the cruising season too is restricted from late April until early June.

There is of course more to see than the daffodils and Antwerp, at the head of the Rhine, is a port of call, served by sea-going ships as well as river craft.  By the time the season comes around again a brand-new cruise terminal should be ready.  It is a converted castle. At the 17th-century Rubens House, period rooms display works by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. It is a very easy flat walk from the ship, an alternative being an open top hop-on hop-off bus tour, which also takes you past the Antwerp zoo, one of the largest in Europe.

Your itinerary should include the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in Oosterbeek, highlighted in Richard Attenborough’s epic ‘A Bridge Too Far’, a perspective of the disaster which cost nearly 2,000 British and Polish military personnel their lives and also dented the reputation of several generals including Montgomery. Delft and its porcelain should be on the trip and also Bruges, another picturesque Dutch town with its canals and graceful bridges

See ON TOUR EXTRA – Cruising the canals

The Seine

There is no better way to be introduced to river cruising than joining the Seine at Paris for the 277mi journey to Le Havre.

It is a voyage full of history, whether it be our own Richard the Lion Heart, Napoleon, John of Arc, the painter Claude Monet, or in times still recalled by some, the Normandy landings and D-Day.  Add to that Honfleur, with its narrow half-timbered houses, cobblestone streets and charming old harbour set in a sheltered cove off the tidal estuary. Over the years, many renowned painters and writers have been attracted to the village.

At Rouen, about half way to the sea, you might find yourself moored besides a sea-going cruise ship.  This is as far as they can navigate up the river. As with most towns and cities along the rivers many of the points of interest are but a short walk from the riverside, typified by this city with its massive Gothic cathedral, the final spire, in black, still under construction with completion said to be 2024. It hosts a light and music show providing free entertainment.

See ON TOUR: Paris to Paris on the Seine

Bordeaux – The Garonne and Dordogne

Bordeaux, one of the great cities of France, is the hub of the famed wine-growing region. A city completely re-built in recent times, it is 40mi along the tidal River Garonne from the Bay of Biscay. Full-size cruise ships can now visit a new cruise terminal built on the site of old dockland wharfs after emerging under the vertical-lift Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas. The largest of its type in Europe, it is an impressive way to arrive.  Rivercraft dock a little way up, nearer the city centre and a fine tramway provides transport for those indifferent to walking.

The Cité du Vin exhibition, opened by President Hollande in 2016 is probably the world’s greatest wine exposition. A river cruise out of Bordeaux is a wine taster’s paradise.  Pauillac, on the left bank of the Garonne, is the home of the great estate of Baron Phillipe de Rothchild.  The Dordogne tributary hosts the small town of Libourne, and not far away Saint-Emilion, an impressive ancient fortified town with narrow cobble stone streets, the centre of an area said to host 65 wineries.

The Garonne is one of the few rivers in the world that exhibit a tidal bore.  River cruise ships can make their way as far as Cadillac, linked to an American car brand once thought of as a competitor to Rolls-Royce.   

See ON TOUR: Bordeaux

The Scenic Rhône

The Rhône, southern France, is a very practical river cruise possibility with the current limited accessibility from the United Kingdom.  Eurostar from London St Pancras to Lyon, and back from Marseilles or the reverse routing.

It is not one of Europe’s best known waterways but it stretches for over 500mi from its source in the Swiss Alps, into Lake Geneva, passing by some of France’s finest vineyards, before emerging into the Mediterranean at Port St Louis near Marseilles. For the river ships Avignon, with its bridge featured in the children’s nursery rhyme, is its southern most access port.

Joining your ship at the northern end will probably be at Chalon-sur-Saône a delightful riverside town mostly pedestrianised with the old streets containing a very wide range of shops and cafes including medieval half-timbered houses.  It is a 90min drive and you are in Beaujolais country.

Mâcon and the remains of the massive Benedictine Abbey at Cluny will be on the itinerary before the river joins the Rhône itself at the great city of Lyon, well worth a full visit another time (see ON TOUR: Loafing through Lyon). Châteauneuf du Pape is also on the itinerary and another excuse for a tasting.  Besides the bridge Avignon is famous for the Pope’s Palace dating back from the time when Rome was considered not safe for His Holiness (1309-1377).  It is a massive citadel just a short walk from the dock.  Just further downstream is the little town riverside town of Tarascon with the Roman Arles Arena, now a bullfight centre.

See ON TOUR: The Scenic Rhône

The Douro (Portugal)

Porto is easy to reach by air from the United Kingdom (in normal times) and can be combined with a visit to Lisbon, the two linked by a good road with some nice stopping places (200mi), by air (60min airport to airport), and by train, city centre to city centre (3hr).

Porto is in fact two cities with six famous bridges across the Douro, connecting Porto itself, to the north, with Gaia, essentially the home of Port wine, to the south.

The history of Port is another story with very strong British connections, Taylors were established in 1692 and many other popular brands followed including Dow, Cockburn and Sandeman. Dine and wine in Porto (or Gaia across the river from Porto itself).

Under development is a celebration of Porto’s history by the family owners of the 5-star Yeatman hotel.

The Douro is one of the great rivers of Europe, not that well known, and whilst over 500mi long is navigable for just 130mi.  It is a river of wineries, which stretch up the escarpment for as far as one can see.  Traditionally, the wine was taken down river in flat-bottom boats called rabelos, to be stored in barrels in cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia.

It was here the British merchants from places such as Bristol established themselves from the 16th century onwards.

During the 1970s and 1980s the Portuguese Douro was changed for ever with the building of five massive dams, the Pocinho, Valeira, Régua, Carrapatelo and Crestuma-Lever.  Vessels with a maximum length of 83m (272ft) and width of 11.4m (37ft) pass through the five locks with the Carrapatelo Dam the largest and a maximum lift of 35m (115ft).  It is very impressive.  Smaller ships than on the rest of Europe’s rivers, but with all the same amenities, make for a more intimate cruise.  It is possible to go one way via Madrid and Salamanca in Spain joining your ship at Vega de Terron on the border.  No formalities and you will not know if you are in Spain or Portugal.

Porto is still developing as a river cruise centre with the ships moored on both sides on the river.  You have to make a choice of operator and whether Porto or Gaia suits.  The friendly rivalry continues.


The Rhine Main and Moselle

The Rhine rises in the Swiss canton of Graubünden near the Austrian border and flows for 760mi through Switzerland forming part of the Swiss-Austrian, Swiss-German and then forming the Franco-German border before entering the North Sea in the Netherlands.  It is the second longest river in Western Europe after the Danube.

In 21st century terms it is a motorway on water carrying essential commercial traffic, and leisure ships.  Passageway is not always on the river itself, man-made locks and canals assisting what nature has created.

If you have the time a 14-night trip from Amsterdam to Budapest via the Nuremburg Canal that links the Rhine and Danube is a true European experience.

has cruised in both directions, from Basle (Switzerland) to Amsterdam, and in reverse, disembarking at Koblenz (Germany), where it is joined by the Moselle, the river that leads towards Luxembourg, navigable by river ships and in some operators’ itineraries.  Reichsburg Castle, high up and overlooking the river was rebuilt by a German industrialist in the latter half of the 19th century and thankfully a coach takes visitors to within a short distance of the gates. You will pass by Trier, said to be Germany’s oldest city and Piesport noted for its wines.

The voyage from Basle takes in some of the great European cities and memorable places.  Make sure your choice of ship and operator offers the sort of tours that meet your requirements. Dusseldorf, Cologne, Koblenz, Mannheim (for Heidelberg), Karlsruhe (Black Forest) and Strasbourg are but some of the places you will pass and may well visit. There will be castles galore and diverse activities including chocolate making, toys and clocks.  At either end the cities themselves are fascinating and well connected.

See ON TOUR: The Scenic Rhine

The Danube

It is Europe’s longest river with 1,500mi of it navigable.  It passes through Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before draining into the Black Sea. In 1992 the Nuremburg Canal was completed, 106mi and 16 locks. Ships could then voyage from the Black Sea to the North Sea.  A whole new market has opened up.  Due to the lock limitations the ‘wide-bodied’ AmaMagna is limited to cruise between the Vilshofen (Germany) and Budapest (Hungary) section.

The Danube has been the artery of Europe since time immemorial.  King Richard the Lionheart, born in England but not an English speaker, was taken prisoner in Vienna and despatched to Dürnstein, on the river, for ‘safe keeping’ and a King’s ransom.  He was on his way back from the Crusades, where he had apparently insulted Leopold V Duke of Babenbury, the Austrian ruler. Perhaps Richard had the last laugh as Leopold was subsequently excommunicated by the then Pope.

Amongst the many riverside towns to visit on the central Europe section of the Danube is Linz with a choice of three possibilities.  Linz itself, an interesting Austrian university town; Ceský Krumlov, a gem of a tiny city, or better described as a ‘large village’ virtually an island surrounded by water; and Salzburg the city of Mozart, made famous by ‘The Sound of Music’.

Further along the river the Benedictine Abbey of Melk is massive and dates back to 1089.  These days it is the home of but 15 pious monks but also houses up to 900 students of both sexes in various disciplines of study. Vienna deserves more than a one day visit and Bratislava, the miniscule capital of Slovakia is also on the Danube, with some ships stopping.  Budapest is either the start or stop of your tour.  Stay for a few days and remember that Buda, is in the west and on top of a hill, whilst Pest is the flat part.

See ON TOUR: The Danube in winter

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