David Denton travels from Western to Eastern Europe on a river cruise that retraces the history of Germany and Austria.
Peacefully cruising down the Rhine and into the Danube, while watching the world drift by from the luxury of the recently launched MS Jane Austen, had seemed such an idyllic way to spend two lazy weeks in an early summer holiday.
Perhaps, when I booked the holiday. I should have taken more time to read Riviera Travel’s itinerary, for there, in every tempting detail, was a diary of the walking tours we were expected to take each day into the historic towns and cities where the ship would be moored.
It came as a welcome relief when, before departing from Cologne, the cruise director explained that the next 13 days was all about doing as much or as little as each of us wanted to do, though by now my better half had decided we were going to take part in everything on offer.
So the following morning I was dragged out of bed at some unearthly hour to see the imposing junction of the Rhine and the Moselle, and the immense walled fortress that surrounds the once heavily guarded Koblenz. What followed after breakfast was an intense feeling of euphoria when our first walking tour was little more than a gentle stroll as our local guide related the history of a city that dates back over two millennia.
Jane Austen certainly lived up to its description as the Rhine’s most beautiful ship, and having previously taken ocean cruises, we were delighted to find spacious cabins with floor-to-ceiling sliding patio-style doors opening onto a French balcony, and with plenty of room remaining for a king-size bed.
That feeling of shaping your own holiday extended to breakfast, lunch and dinner which could be taken when you wanted within two-hour time frames, and if you still felt peckish, there was an afternoon tea with gorgeous cakes you would find hard to resist. Well we could walk it off the following day, couldn’t we?
Budapest being our eventual destination, the first two days were dominated by the sight of fairy-tale castles precariously dotted along the verdant hill-sides that so beautifully frame the river, with the second morning requiring an early breakfast to take full advantage of our journey through the imposing Rhine Gorge. There the steep sides soar over a thousand feet, crowding in and narrowing the river as we passed by the Lorelei Rock where, legend has it, enchanting maidens lured sailors to a watery grave.
Our tours, both guided, and those self-generated with the help of the tour manager, had begun to take on a familiar pattern of visiting historic churches, town halls and fortresses, though, as our highly informative guides reminded us, we were often seeing reconstructions, the original having been destroyed in the Second World War.
There was the small and charming Bopard, where we made our first effort to say a few words in German to a rather bemused local who asked: “Do you want directions to the town hall?” After the city of Mainz it was on to Wurzburg where all that we had seen was dwarfed by the Residenz, one of Europe’s finest Baroque palaces. Yet even that was superseded by our tour of Bamberg, the town centre, with its network of canals having affectionately become known as Little Venice, and even totally breathless we managed the long and steep climb to the imposing Altenburg Castle.
That our tours were not all about ancient history came with the remains of the massive buildings constructed in Nuremberg to stage the Nazi Party rallies. They sent a shiver down the spine, for it was all too easy to visualise just how the mass hysteria had been generated.
Regensburg and Passau, taken at our own pace, and onto the massive Melk Abbey with its panoramic views, the exterior so magnificent that it was a bitter disappointment to find the interior commercially geared to the tourist trade.
It seemed a general consensus that the sheer size and beauty of the Danube overshadowed the Rhine, and having in years past spent so much time in Vienna, we opted out of the extended walking tour so that we could enjoy in full our first visit to Budapest the following day. It was a wise decision, for the Hungarian capital, is now so elegant, with our guided coach tour offering more than a passing view of its many formal buildings, including the massive neo-gothic Parliament. Then over to the opposite side of the river to the Buda Castle with a guided walking tour of its Royal Palace and the Matthais Church.
Tired, but feeling very self-satisfied and triumphant, we had just completed our “Cruise the Heart of Europe”, the most extensive, both in distance and duration, of the many different ones offered throughout the year on Riviera Travel ships.
David Denton was on a Riviera Travel package cruise. Prices for 2016 holidays range from £1,399 to £2,999, depending on date of departure and cabin choice (no single supplement on some cabins).
Guided tours are included, with town-centre transfer coaches provided for self-guided tours.
Scheduled flights outward and return: Manchester, Heathrow, Stansted, Gatwick, Edinburgh. Also outward by Eurostar.
Jane Austen and an almost identical sister ship, Lord Byron, offer sailings in 2016 from April to October (www.rivieratravel.co.uk)