River Cruising on Europe's Great Rivers: A Movable Feast through Centuries

My two-week sojourn through the great rivers of Europe, from the Rhine to the Main and Danube, crossed 66 locks rising as high as 1,332 feet. As I traveled along the 106-mile canal, connecting the North and Black Seas, my eyes gazed upon the ancient towns and architectural masterpieces from the Netherlands through Germany, as far as Austria.

This movable postcard revealed the well-preserved pearls of Bavaria, cobblestone cities entrenched in lavish Renaissance and baroque art that survived the throes of wars.

One of several advantages of river cruising is visiting smaller villages.

"This particularly attracts those who have roots in Germany and are then able to visit their birthplaces," said Arjan de Geus, program director.

Mr. and Mrs. Geisenhiemer, from New Orleans, made a stop at the town of Geisenhiem during the tour, while passenger Heinz Stiert took a taxi on his side trip to Heidelberg to a small village of Wiesloch to visit long-lost relatives.

Another advantage to this style of travel is the intimacy that develops. Krisztian Kozma, senior hotel manager of Grand Circle Cruise Line, said, "We want to create a family feeling. The staff, who have diverse backgrounds and cultures, interact with the passengers in a personal yet professional way. Since the ages of our passengers range from the late 50s through 80s, these people represent parent and grandparent figures to the staff, who are far from their homes."

History came alive through the many onboard lectures, the knowledgeable tour guides during our city walks and the films shown daily in my cabin masterfully timed with our ports of call, from "The Diary of Anne Frank" while in Amsterdam to "Judgment at Nuremburg" while in Germany, and "Amadeus" and "The Sound of Music" before our arrival in Austria. What a strange feeling to view fairy-tale scenery on the screen that actually reflected the scenery outside my window - fantasy became reality.

Even the tastes of the countries were enlivened with Bavarian specialties for lunch and dinner and a strudel demonstration by our chef. The tasting was the best part.

Once we arrived in a city, most of our time was spent outdoors wandering through thousands of years, reflected by chiming clock towers, turreted roofs and colorful market squares as the aroma of baked breads and pastries escaped the myriad of Konditoreis.

After Amsterdam was Cologne with its famous Gothic cathedral outreaching the more modern dwellings. Bicyclists zoomed passed the tree-lined riverside, while my group eyed the 12th century Romanesque St. Martins Church where a Turkish wedding was taking place. I was invited by the wedding party to join the street dance and received a token with the couple's names as a remembrance.

The next day, we disembarked in Koblenz. Situated at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine Rivers, Koblenz has a lovely pathway along the quay that leads into a picturesque park near 14th century bridges and churches. Most enjoyable was the town folks' sense of humor cleverly portrayed on such sites as the 15th century Mittel Rhein Museum with the eye roller, a sculpture of a little man moving his eyes, just above the clock tower.

Once past this city and the Rhine River Gorge to the Main River, some 70 castles, terraced vineyards and fields of cows and sheep along stretches of farmland awaited me. One of the highlights was the famous Lorelei Rock, a 440-foot statue of a mythical siren known to seduce sailors to their deaths with her sweet song.

Home of Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, Mainz was our first city on the Main and ideal for walking. I climbed to St. Stephen's Church to view the nine stained-glass windows, the final creations of artist Marc Chagall, who finished the last window at age 97.

The villages along the Main were most memorable. Wertheim, a glittering gem at the juncture of the Main and Tauber Rivers, is known for its glassblowing. Our ship invited the town's sixth-generation glassblower Karl Ittig to demonstrate his art form. While in Wertheim, I walked up winding steps of Hohenburg Castle's watchtower for a view of the ancient city and the distant Odenwald Forest. In the afternoon, our group visited a host family in one of the neighboring villages of Reicholzheim to enjoy a drink and tasty pastry.

Though Wertheim is considered the Little Heidelberg, my side trip to the stunning city of Heidelberg on the Neckar River still remains with me. The challenging Philosopher's Walk up the slopes of the city is a worthwhile trek to view the captivating scenery below, as well as a visit to the castle, setting for the opera "The Student Prince."

The Apothecary Museum, with endless rows of antique bottles, and the 58,000-gallon wine barrel are worth a visit while enjoying the breathtaking views from the castle walls. I managed to find the student prison (the karzer) near the Old University, off the main thoroughfare. Still apparent on the prison walls were the graffiti and photos of disobedient students and pranksters, from 1712 to 1914, retained for several days due to drunkenness, dueling or chasing squeaking piglets.

One favorite stopover was Wurzburg, which suffered severe damage during World War II, but since has been remarkably restored. The 15th century Old Main Bridge is reminiscent of Prague's St. Charles Bridge with its carved Baroque saints. Also impressive was the Marienberg Fortress and 18th century Residence (palace of the bishop of Wurzburg), which features an ornate staircase and elaborate ceiling fresco with each room.

An unexpected jewel, Bamberg is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and home of philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Founded in A.D. 902, this dollhouse city touts some 2,000 historic monuments. Quite spectacular, the Old Town Hall stands over a bridge on the Regnitz River. To top off the day was evening zither music. This haunting, 42-stringed medieval instrument is a cross between a guitar and harp.

The next evening's event was one of the trip's highlights, as our boat rose to 1,331 feet above sea level and past the highest European watershed before descending into the Danube River. Watching this technological marvel was quite eerie as the boat was sandwiched between two walls with no land in sight as it traveled through the locks.

Feeling claustrophobic, I was relieved to see the open waters once again reflected by the moonlit sky. The last leg of the trip, and the most scenic, was to the romantic towns of Regensburg (Germany's largest medieval city), Passau, Melk and finally through the architectural grandeur of Vienna, steeped in the musical genius of Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, Beethoven and Haydn.

As we entered Austria, the scenery became more densely green and forested. During my final evening on the boat, I remember gazing up at the stars and being captivated by the complete stillness of the water. I could have been anywhere, until I turned to the right and noticed an illuminated castle and turreted rooftops. I knew then that, for the moment, I was thousands of years away.


For more information, contact Grand Circle Travel, www.gct.com,
800-248-3737. Cost: 16 days at $3,795, with an added $625 for an optional three-night stay in Vienna.

Beverly Mann is a freelance travel writer.

© Copley News Service

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