From dream vacations to dazzling day trips, Europe’s rivers offer endless possibilities

From dream vacations to dazzling day trips, Europe’s rivers offer endless possibilities

by Karen Bradbury
Stars and Stripes

Stretched out on the deck of a well-appointed ship, sunshine on shoulders and drink in hand as vineyards and castles slip past might sound like the epitome of the European river cruise experience. And while first thoughts (and a considerable amount of what we ourselves wax lyrical about on these pages) might well transport you to the UNESCO-listed Upper Middle Rhine Valley, the Rhine is just one of many rivers upon which stellar cruising experiences are yours to be had. Here’s a trio of other European river cruises and shorter riverine excursions to consider as your next vacation destination:

Danube:  Europe's second-longest river after Russia’s mighty Volga has the distinction of flowing through more countries than any other of the world’s rivers. It rises in the town of Donaueschingen in Germany’s Black Forest and passes through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine in a southeasterly direction for 1,770 miles before emptying into the Black Sea. A trade route since time immemorial, some 1,500 miles of its total length are navigable.

The river once a frontier of the Roman Empire offers riverboat passengers not just liberal lashings of history but culture and nature aplenty. Travelers embarking near Passau, Germany, just a few ticks west of the Austrian border, will pass directly by the vibrant capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Slovakia, Budapest and Belgrade, Serbia. Highlights to see and experience en route include the Baroque beauty of the Melk Monastery, the vineyards of the Krems wine region, the majesty and scale of Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, spa culture and folklore in Budapest and the imposing Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade. Nature enthusiasts will revel in the chance to pass through the so-called Iron Gates, a massive, steep-walled gorge forming the boundary between Serbia and Romania.

Energetic travelers who’d feel more comfortable cycling than aboard ship day in, day out might wish to consider a barge and bike tour. These itineraries offer the chance to cycle alongside the Danube by day and once evening falls, board ship for a hearty meal before falling into bed.

For a baby step into the Danube life, it’s possible to travel from Bratislava, Slovakia to Vienna by means of a high-speed catamaran. The Twin City Liner offers departures from both cities throughout the year, and the 1.5-hour journey costs from 30 euros and up.

Douro: one of the major rivers of the Iberian Peninsula flows westward from its source in north-central Spain and through Portugal until it reaches its outlet in the Portuguese city of Porto. 70 miles of the river form the border between the two nations. The Douro’s total length is some 557 miles, and although regulated with multiple dams, the 130-mile stretch through Portuguese territory is navigable in its entirety.

Tourists flock to the Ribera area in particular, where a microclimate allows for the cultivation of olives, almonds and grapes. Wine from the vineyards along the Douro was traditionally transported downriver in casks carried by the flat-bottom boats known as rabelos and brought to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it was stored in barrels. The region got its big boom back in the 18th century when a blockade disrupted the flow of French wine to consumers in Great Britain. To fill the gap in the market, Portuguese vineyards stepped in. To help the wine survive its long journey, brandy was added as a stabilizer. The resulting product, port wine, caught on quickly and the production of port remains an integral part of the local economy.

Highlights of a Douro cruise typically include taking in the sight of the steep, horizontally terraced vineyards and bizarre rock formations, along with side excursions to Régua, site of the beautiful Mateus Palace fans of a certain brand of Portuguese rosé wine will surely recognize, along with Castelo Rodrigo, a well-preserved village with centuries-old facades and traces of a Jewish community whose members resettled in the region centuries ago in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition.

Several cruise companies allow tourists to experience a cruise along the Douro as part of a day trip. Guests travel from Porto by rail to Régua and then board ship for the return journey, enjoying a tasty lunch and passing through two dams along the way. Such a trip sets one back to the tune of some 60 to 70 euros. Another fun option is to take a short hop on a Rabelo cruise departing from Ribeira and sailing beneath Porto’s six towering bridges and past the port wine cellars until reaching the mouth of the river as it pours into the Atlantic. Such a cruise typically costs around 15 euros.

Elbe: Germany’s second-longest river clocks in with a length of some 725 miles. Approximately one-third of its length runs through the Czech Republic, where it’s referred to as the Labe. From its source in the mountains of Bohemia, it flows northwest before emptying into the North Sea, passing the cities of Dresden and Hamburg along its way.

Far fewer cruise lines traverse this route than the aforementioned Rhine or Douro Rivers, as only smaller vessels can navigate through its often shallow waters and beneath its low bridges. Guests opting to travel along its waters can look forward to highlights including the bizarre rock formations of the Sandstone Mountains, also known as the Saxon Alps, and the region’s pretty vineyards. Historical towns such as Meissen, known for its quality porcelain, and Wittenberg, where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to a church door and thus kicked off the Protestant Reformation, also beckon. Although neither Prague nor Berlin is located directly on the Elbe, both of these culture-rich capitals are often included on a typical Elbe cruise itinerary.

For a quick taste of Elbe culture, one could opt to spend a few hours aboard a vintage paddlewheel boat. From Dresden, Elbe River Steamboat Cruises offers a number of trips on their flotilla of 19th-century paddlewheel steamers. A number of excursions are available, including an eight-hour tour crossing the Czech border and into Bohemia. Themed cruises incorporating Dixie jazz concerts or leisurely brunches are also among their many offerings.

With so many options out there, why not start humming “Anchors Aweigh?”

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