Europe by boat: Cruising the great rivers

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Most of Europe’s famous and beautiful cities, industrial areas, and picturesque landscapes are located at or near the great rivers of the continent. This is only logical if one considers that these rivers were and are Europe’s major ways of transportation and the supply of sweet water. So cruising these rivers is becoming popular among tourists who want to see the best of Europe in a leisurely way. It offers the opportunity to have a relaxing holiday and visit the beautiful places at the same time, without the trouble and annoyance of ordinary travel, going from one hotel to the next, packing and unpacking all the time, crowded airports, delayed trains and queuing up on motorways.

Several European countries offer river cruises that can last from a few days to several weeks, like the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain), France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and Russia.

The ‘Serenity’: a typical cruise ship for Rhine, Mainz and Danube

It is not surprising that the romantic and majestic Rhine, Moselle and Danube rivers are the most popular for tourist cruises. And since the Rhine and Danube are connected by the Mainz river and the Mainz-Danube canal, it is even possible to cross the entire European continent between the North Sea and the Black Sea – a trip of almost a month-  passing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans and Rumania – or the other way around – and all the time enjoying the pleasures and luxury of a modern cruise ship.

Many Rhine and Danube cruises start in Amsterdam where the cruise ships are conveniently moored directly behind the Central Station, so in the city center and only 20 minutes by train from Schiphol Airport. These cruise ships have dimensions that are adapted to the bridges and locks in the European waterways. So the ships are low in the water, with a length of up to 120 meters, and relatively narrow with a width of only 11 meters. The protruding steering bridge is retractable, like the railings on the upper sundeck, in case low bridges have to be passed.

The first day one passes the Dutch city of Nijmegen with its large bridge over the river Waal. This bridge played an important part in ‘Operation Market Garden’ during WWII because it was the last large bridge on the road to Arnhem. On 17 and 18 September 1944, the American 82nd Airborne Division under Brigadier General James Gavin landed near Nijmegen and succeeded to occupy the bridge intact, but only after heavy combat and with considerable losses.

Waalbrug, the bridge at Nijmegen at night, an American military landmark.

A remarkable feat was delivered on September 20, when American paratroopers in canvas boats crossed the river under heavy enemy fire and managed to occupy the northern exit of the bridge. In the movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ Robert Redford played Major Cook, the officer who led the crossing. The 48 American soldiers who lost their lives during that heroic crossing are commemorated every day during the ‘Sunset March’, where a veteran slowly marches over the bridge while 48 pairs of special streetlights are ignited one by one at the slow marching pace of the veteran. All veterans who fought for freedom and liberty are welcome to perform this daily ceremony, but American veterans are especially invited (see

Cologne is the first large German city on the cruise. This historic town dates back to pre-Roman times and its cathedral – the largest in Germany – is world famous. During WWII the town was destroyed for 90 percent, but the cathedral miraculously survived without major damage, although it was hit by several bombs. Cologne is now a bustling business center with beautiful shopping streets and interesting museums, including a chocolate museum.

Further South one first passes Bonn, the former capital of West Germany, and then the small town of Remagen, famous for its former railway bridge over the Rhine. When Allied forces occupied the Rhineland after WWI, this was one of the bridges that was guarded by American troops. But the bridge became famous during WWII, when it was captured on March 7, 1945, by soldiers of the American 9thArmoured Division. This unexpected luck made it possible to move six American divisions across the Rhine in just a few days, which shortened the war and saved many lives. The severely damaged bridge collapsed ten days after it was captured and it was removed altogether after the war. The original four stone towers that guarded the entrances to the bridge on both sides of the Rhine still stand, and one now houses a Peace Museum.

After Remagen begin the stretch that is called ‘the Romantic Rhine’. First comes Koblenz, where the Moselle river joins the Rhine. This meandering river is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, with the many historic towns and villages along its borders and the vineyards on the sloping hills.

After Koblenz, the Rhine passes the famous and mythical ‘Lorelei’ rock, still considered a dangerous point by skippers, because the Rhine is small there and the water velocity is high.

Next comes the picturesque town of Rüdesheim, with a unique museum for mechanical musical instruments, and also the origin of Asbach Uralt, Germany’s most famous brandy. And then comes the large town of Mainz, where the Mainz river joins the Rhine. From here one can continue all the way up to Basel in Switzerland, underway making visits to beautiful cities like Heidelberg – after WWII the headquarters of the US zone in occupied Germany. The last 200 kilometers the Rhine is the border between Germany and France, and it passes the town of Strassburg, a city with a long and interesting history and many tourist attractions. The townhouses the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and several other European institutions, so it is considered the capital of Europe by many.

However, at Mainz, one can also make a left turn and continue on the river Mainz, which passes the large business town of Frankfurt – the house of the European Central Bank. After Frankfurt come other interesting towns like Würzburg and busy Nuremberg, where one can visit not only the buildings that were important for Nazi ideology but also the court where the Nuremberg Trials were held after WWII.

After Nuremberg, there is a stop at Regensburg, the last large city in Germany, and then the river heads towards Austria, where dynamic Linz is the first town to be visited. And although it is not situated near the river, all cruise lines offer bus trips to beautiful Salzburg, the birth town of Mozart. Between Linz and Vienna also a visit is made to the magnificent Melk Abbey that dates back to 1089, with a world-famous library with religious books from the Middle Ages, written and illustrated by hand on parchment.

The last stop in Austria is made in Vienna, beyond question one of the most beautiful, lively and lovely cities in the world. Soon after Vienna, the Danube enters Slovakia, with a visit to the beautiful and historically rich capital Bratislava.

And some 100 miles after Bratislava the Danube enters Hungary, where it soon reaches the impressive Budapest that is not only a bustling business town, but that also has retained the historic beauty and grandeur of a capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is usually here that most travelers end their journey over Europe’s great rivers. The Danube still continues for another 900 miles to the Black Sea, but that stretch, although interesting, is considered not as culturally ‘dense’ as the first part from Amsterdam to Budapest.

Top photo: Budapest, a Danube bridge in the evening