The Rhine is Europe’s most important commercial waterway, linking Lake Constance on the border of Austria, Germany and Switzerland with the North Sea.
A journey along any stretch of this mighty river is a fascinating contrast between the dense, commercial traffic ferrying everything from coal to containers and the river’s romantic side, which has inspired legends, fairytales and folklore, from the operas of Wagner to the famous myth of the Lorelei, beautiful but dangerous sirens who lured many a sailor to his death with their haunting singing.
There are countless combinations of Rhine cruise, as many include stretches of the Main, the Neckar and the Mosel, three of the river’s main tributaries. Wherever you cruise, though, you’ll see medieval castles, steep vineyards, historic towns and the gentle pace of life on the river bank, from hikers and cyclists to sleepy villages and wood-beamed houses.
Voyage time depends on the number of stops, but a classic Rhine cruise from Dusseldorf to Basel or the reverse takes about five days. Amsterdam to Basel takes eight days, with a different port of call each day. Needless to say, a shorter distance will mean more time ashore; for example, a typical seven-day cruise from Basel to Frankfurt spends more time in the beautiful Rhine Gorge and on the Moselle, visiting Rudesheim, Braubach, Cochem and Koblenz.
A Rhine cruise almost has too many highlights to mention. The architecture, canals and art museums of Amsterdam; the busy cities and elegant shopping boulevards of Germany’s industrial heartland, from Dusseldorf to Cologne and Bonn; Koblenz, Boppard and Rudesheim, in the midst of the winegrowing districts; and exquisite Heidelberg on the Neckar, its ruined castle considered to be the most magnificent in the whole of Germany.
Following the river’s flow, from south to north, there are highlights all the way. Quite a few Rhine cruises call at the medieval city of Strasbourg, capital and cultural centre of the Alsace region of France. Alsatian café culture dominates the lifestyle of the locals, attractive squares surrounded by lovely old half-timbered houses. The focal point of the city is Place Gutenberg, named after Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, who lived here for a while in the 15th century. A highlight of any visit is the massive hulk of the Cathedral de Notre Dame, the highest medieval building in Europe, its viewing platform 332 steps up inside the tower. It’s worth the climb for the vista of the Black Forest beyond the colourful roofs of the old town.
The river flows north from here through the Black Forest to Speyer or Mannheim, both jumping off points for the historic university town of Heidelberg. As it approaches the city of Mainz, the banks are lined with sun-drenched vineyards.
Near Rudesheim, the Rhine enters its most beautiful stretch, carving a deep valley through two mountain ranges, the steep slopes flanking the river used for large-scale wine growing. You’ll see strings of pleasure boats on day trips, as well as the slightly incongruous sight of heavily-laden industrial barges ploughing through the water past quaint little villages with ornate weather cocks and graceful church spires, scarlet geraniums cascading from wooden balconies on the immaculate old houses.
There are several ‘musts’ in this area and most Rhine cruises feature the most popular ports. One of them, Rudesheim, in the heart of the Rheingau wine growing area, is famous for the wine estates on the surrounding hills, the products of which are celebrated in the famous Drosselgasse, a pretty, narrow street packed with bars and wine taverns.
Look out for Rheinstein Castle, on the west bank. The steely-grey castle actually appears as though it’s part of a huge, jagged slab of rock, high on the hillside. Close by, the attractive little town of Boppard, originally Roman, is a popular call for river cruise vessels, which tie up right in front of the centre. Eight of the original 28 Roman towers are still standing, as well as the medieval town gates and many old, half-timbered houses. If you’re here in summer, take time to enjoy a glass of wine in the garden of one of the many wine taverns.
The river broadens at Koblenz, a former Roman trading settlement that grew up at the point where the River Rhine meets the River Moselle. This year, all summer long, Koblenz will be the focal point of Germany’s biggest garden festival, transformed in to a riot of dazzling blooms and themed gardens. Tours of the exhibits are included in ships’ itineraries all summer long. Make a point of taking the cable car across the river to Ehrenbreitstein Castle, a solid fortress high above the valley, itself one of the settings for the flower show.
Ehrenbreitstein Castle is also one of the sites for the annual Rhine in Flames celebration in August, when the castle is drenched in red light with smoke billowing from all sections and fireworks displays are set off all along the river. Several river cruises incorporate this festival.
The next important stop beyond Koblenz is Cologne, although the river continues to pass through stunning scenery with castles, both ruined and intact, lining the banks at every curve. Towards Cologne, the passing landscape flattens out, but is interesting nonetheless, particularly at weekends, when the whole city appears to take to the river banks for dog walking, cycling and jogging.
Cologne’s best-loved feature is its soaring gothic cathedral, which thankfully survived the bombing of World War 2 that devastated much of the city. You can climb to the top of the south tower (there are more than 500 steps), for sweeping views of the city and the low, rolling hills beyond, your cruise vessel moored alongside the old town, far below. The rest of the city has several interesting sights, not least the chocolate museum and the brewery taverns of the Altstadt, which produces its own beer, Koelsch. Needless to say, you’ll see countless establishments offering Eau de Cologne, the city’s famed toilet water.
From here, it’s north to Amsterdam, where there are usually a couple of days to explore the canals, galleries and museums, and to sit in a traditional ‘brown café’ (the Dutch version of a convivial pub) and reflect on a journey that’s taken you right across the heart of a continent.
Why not find out which cruise lines travel to The Rhine?