Cruise, explore, moan!

Some individuals are just not people you want to travel with, well, not for long anyway as they seem to just cruise, explore and moan. I met some of them on a river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest: fortunately they were not part of the small I was with as their tour leader.

A virgin-cruiser, I was looking forward to two weeks on a longboat. I could see me unpacking, shoving the bag under my bed until it was time to leave, then lying on the sundeck. I imagined watching life pass by as we leisurely sailed through five European countries; exploring old cities; world heritage sites, and watching water pour into, or gush out of, locks. It’s not often a dream trip exceeds expectations but this one did.

I join the Njord in Amsterdam

I loved this ‘Grand European Tour’ with all the connotations the name suggests, luxury, leisure and indulgence, such as the traditional tours of Europe undertaken by rich, upper-class young men. Their grand tour served as an educational rite of passage, precursors to the “Cook’s Tour” that later allowed people of lessor status and money to travel. Those grand tours could last from many months to several years and was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.

Our Cicerone came in the form of Darinka, a constant ball of energy who, as programme director, co-ordinated all excursions and our on-board activities. When anyone lagged she reminded us, ‘this is a cruise, not a holiday’ – we had places to see, things to do!

Perhaps Torstein Hagen (CEO, Viking Cruises) was right when, earlier in the year (April 2012) at the blessing of this longboat, he defined ocean cruises as ‘a drinking man’s cruise’ and river cruises as ‘a thinking man’s cruise’. Our lectures and demonstrations put old and current Europe in context. Many of the moaners did not attend these talks, or else talked throughout them.

The Viking Njord, named for the Norse god of the wind, was on its 5th trip and I savoured life on this fabulous 5-star floating hotel. Early each morning I joined a few others on deck where, with our cameras, coffee and straight-from-the-oven, pre-breakfast pastries, we watched Europe come to life: fishermen on the banks; cyclists using riverside trails and birdsong welcoming the new day. Others on board were doing the same from the balcony in their cabins.

We had walking tours daily with local guides, while others came on board to give talks, demonstrations or concerts. Some did not value them ‘We live near Las Vegas and can see better shows than this any night of the week’ one couple told me.

So, it seems river cruising is not for everyone, and some passengers who take regular ocean cruises told me will not do another river cruise. It’s personality-driven. If you like to be entertained all the time with movies, dances, casino, and 24 hour food, river cruising may not be for you. I also heard complaints about ‘no beauty-shop or hairdresser’ and even, ‘too many cobblestones’ on our excursion and, ‘too many locks’. Perhaps they had not read the website, or didn’t realise that water cannot flow uphill.

Travelling up or down about sixty locks was for most of us, fascinating. I often heard someone say ‘there’s a boat going down ahead of us’. Luckily it was merely being lowered into the next part of a river or canal – not sinking! The trip was some 1600 kilometres up the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers, and along the Main-Danube Canal. Over the 600 kilometres that needed locks we climbed over 400 metres.

As communities grew around rivers, and the dock was the heartbeat of the area, Europe is perfect for cruising as we usually stopped right in the centre of the old city or town. This meant as we crossed the gangplank our guided walk started immediately; sometimes we travelled by buses to fairy-tale castles perched on hills overlooking the river.

On tours and with our guide equipped with a microphone that bought their voices right into our ears meant we did not need to stay very close to hear the history, stories, and cultural or personal anecdotes along the route. Some of the fabulous places we stopped at included Würzburg’s Bishops’ Residenz, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate baroque palaces, and Bamberg with its medieval city centre and picturesque city hall on a tiny island.

It’s easy to get overloaded with history but with the past balanced with other activities it’s not over-whelming and in Passau, with its narrow streets and Italianate architecture we listened to a concert on Europe’s largest pipe organ. And Vienna – well what can I say – it’s a fabulous city: the Opera House, a concert, and of course a coffee with the famous Austrian chocolate cake, sachertorte at Hotel Sacher are on all must-do lists.

Nightly, just before dinner, Darinka tells us about the next day’s excursion. She peppers her language with words like ‘most appealing, delightful, delicious, divine, scrumptious, yummy, gorgeous, delectable,’ I used the same words for the food!

The evening meal was fine dining at its finest and always started with a tasty appetiser such as a carpaccio of salmon and caviar – daily these unexpected little treats whetted our appetites for the three courses that followed, and unlike ocean cruises, wine is included with all meals. Tables seat four to eight and we were free to sit where we wanted – the moaners on the trip didn’t like that either.

Food is essential to culture and the choice of a more informal lunch setting on the front deck appealed to me: these meals specifically focused on the local regions food: sausage, kraut, and beer featured one day and of course on other days, strudel or black forest cake appeared mid-afternoon. We’re told ‘Hungarians, Austrians and Germans do not count calories. Butter and full-fat milk rules.’

On these eco-friendly vessels, as well as the chess set and sun loungers on the upper deck, there are solar panels and an organic herb garden where I often met one of the chefs cutting a few herbs for our next meal. The little group of grouches were also very upset that this sundeck was lowered for a few days so the boat could sail under low bridges.

As a nosey writer, just as I’d asked fellow travellers about their cruising preferences, I also ask the crew. Not one favoured the sea-cruise. With low passenger numbers on the longships they get to know their guests better. They also tell me ‘at sea there are queues for everything. You never get to talk to passengers; we just deal with an issue and onto next person in the long line.’

The flat-bottomed ship was amazingly quiet and most of us did not read as much as we’d expected as we were always watching life along the river. There’s a saying that ‘it’s the journey not the arrival that matters’ and river cruising epitomises that. This is life in the slow lane, sailing along at a gentle pace, soaking up the scenery, and learning as you go, seeing the highlights of places and meeting, mostly, great people.

So, if you fancy dawdling down the Danube, relaxing on the Rhine, or meandering along the snake-like Main, I can well-recommend this way of exploring. Perfect.

Fast facts:

Viking River Cruises:

Cruises available in Europe, Russia, Asia.

River cruising in Europe – wonderful

Now that my compression stockings have been put away – ready for my next overseas travel – here’s a brief summary of my ‘Grand European Tour’ with Viking River Cruises. (of course more blogs and print articles will follow)

Arriving in Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, we quickly transferred to Viking Njord (for only its 5th trip since being launched in April 2012) dropped our bags and went exploring.

For a second time (the last one in 1996) I did a boat tour of the city before exploring the inner city on land, then back to the boat to unpack and explore this fabulous floating hotel. I loved being able to unpack and know I didn’t need to use my case for 2 weeks! (See the itinerary here)

Next morning, we arrived at Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My alarm was set for a very early morning sunrise shot with windmills in the foreground but this was foiled by 2 things … my geography and therefore facing the wrong direction, and light rain, which was to follow us for much of the trip. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the tour of this fascinating network of windmills and learning of other ingenious flood management technologies.

Many of the places along the route are UNESCO World Heritage sites which give you an indication of the level of history we were exploring, and this even includes part of the Rhine.

We had walking tours (and free time) daily and each day we had food from the region and often demonstrations about local culture or activities – this included music, dancing and one night  we also learnt about the region’s glassblowing traditions during a wonderful live demonstration.

I know it will take ages to sort through my five and half thousand plus photos. Some favourite places include:

  • Würzburg’s Bishops’ Residenz, one of Germany’s largest and most ornate baroque palaces
  • Bamberg, with its medieval city centre, was a great walking tour which included a visit to the magnificent 11th-century cathedral, reworked in late-Romanesque style in the 13th century, and the very picturesque city hall built on a tiny island in the middle of a river
  • The wonderfully preserved medieval city of has structures dating back to the Roman times; 13th- and 14th-century patrician houses; and the splendid St. Peter’s Cathedral.
  • Passau’s narrow streets and Italianate architecture is great – especially listening to a concert on Europe’s largest pipe organ in St. Stephan’s Cathedral, while the abbey at Melk,- a 900-year-old Benedictine monastery featuring Austria’s finest Italian baroque architecture
  • Vienna – what can I say: a fabulous city: the Opera House, St. Stephan’s Cathedral and Hofburg Palace, cafés and museums and classical composers – this city has it all!
  • Slovakia’s charming capital is Bratislava with medieval fortifications at Michael’s Tower, a baroque Jesuit Church and Gothic St. Martin’s Cathedral. This is also home to several baroque palaces from the Hapsburg Dynasty.
  • Our last day was arriving into Budapest – I have now decided that the only way to arrive there is by river, at night. Magic.

This is my first river cruise and Viking was a great way to start. The luxury of unpacking and then travelling in a 5-star hotel was perfect. All the staff were attentive and friendly, the tours informative, lectures interesting, and the food perfect! What surprised me was the quietness of the travel and no rocking of the boat – I loved the docks too, fascinating – all 60 odd of them.

From early morning to late at night we had something to do … even if the ‘something’ was relaxing over a book as it was for some! As a travel writer I had no time to read and have many stories to write – a Grand European Tour indeed.

So, if you are considering a river cruise, I say consider no more – book your ticket and enjoy – I’m not surprised this is the fastest growing form of travel and that Viking are adding more ships to their fleet next year, and that they are a booking out quickly.

Now, how can I get to do the river cruise in China?

quintessential Amsterdam
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