By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination Specialist and Europe River Cruise Expert
Do you love flowers? Do you like wine and food? Do you want to see historic sites? Do you like luxury accommodations? Do you like traveling with a small group on a smaller ship instead of a mega ocean liner? Would you like to be active? Do you like easy travel, with the details handled for you? Then, a European river cruise is the answer! This the second of a two part blog. Last week I covered the Rhine and the Danube. This week, I will cover French river cruising and the Douro, in Portugal and some of the lesser known river routes of the Volga, Elbe and the Po.
The river cruise season in Europe is March to December (some extend into the first week of January). With the exception of Tulip Time cruises (they are only in the spring), you can enjoy any of these routes during the whole sailing season. If you can swing it, the best time to visit Europe and take a river cruise is either spring or fall (or both)–prices are better and there are less crowds.
As I wrote last week, we are often asked “What is the best Europe river cruise route?” My short answer is “I would sail on all of them!” While this is a great response, it really does not answer the question, since most folks want to know what the best river to sail as a first time cruiser on a river in Europe. So for new river cruisers, by far the two most popular rivers are the Rhine (Amsterdam to Basel or reverse) and the Upper Danube Rivers. Before you just chose one of these routes, let’s explore together what the rivers of France and Douro and lesser known European rivers offer.
So where are the typical 7 day river cruises on these rivers? Here goes–
French River Cruising
There are 3 distinct rivers in France that provide exceptional river cruising opportunities. These rivers are the Seine, the Rhone and the Garonne. The Seine, a slow flowing river, is 485 miles long, is the longest navigable river in France, and empties into the English Channel. The Rhone links northern and central France from the Burgundy region to the Mediterranean Sea. The Bordeaux region consists of Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde (actually Europe’s largest estuary) and is in the southwestern part of France.
The Seine-this is a 7 day round trip cruise into Normandy, starting and ending in Paris. The cruise highlights are Monet’s village of Giverny, the harbor town of Honfleur, Rouen, the historic capital of Normandy and the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 (also of special note the 700 restored half-timber buildings in the old quarter), as well as a chance to visit the medieval towns along this scenic route and visit the D-Day Normandy beaches. This is a gentle voyage along farmland and meadows, historic towns and good food such as brie and camembert cheeses, Calvados (apple brandy) and Normandy cider. If you like history such as the 100 Years War between England and France, want to learn more about the largest amphibious landing in history at the D Day beaches, and like impressionist paintings, this is the cruise for you.
The Rhone– this cruise goes from Lyon to Arles (or the reverse). Starting in Lyon, the gastronomical capital of France, you cruise through France’s legendary wine growing regions of Beaujolais and Cote du Rhone, observe medieval villages in the Provence region of France; then on to the Papal town of Avignon and finish in Arles, where Vincent Van Gough spent much of his time. You will sample great wines, visit Roman ruins, and learn about the cuisine of Provence, among stunning scenery—fields of purple lavender, yellow sunflowers and vineyards. We have sailed on this route 3 times and each time it was awesome—we are ready to return anytime. LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS CRUISE
The newest river cruise in Europe for most lines is in the Bordeaux region of France on the Garonne River. It is a round trip cruise out of Bordeaux and features wine tastings, chateaux’s and abundant vineyards along the Garonne and its tributaries. Usual port cities of Cadillac, Pauillac, Bourg and Libourne are included in most sailings of this region. This is an important wine region of France and you will experience tastings of some of the most distinguished wines including Sauternes, Medoc and Bordeaux wines. If you like wine, cognac, oysters, truffles, chateaux and the grand buildings of Bordeaux, this is the cruise for you. We are going this November (2017) on an AmaWaterways cruise and would love for you to come with us!
Portugal River Cruising
The only river cruising in Portugal is along the Douro River. This river starts in the high hills of Picos de Urbion and flows west to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Douro offers a Northern Portugal round trip adventure, usually starting and ending in Porto, Portugal. Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and famous for Port wine and seafood. The Douro is an unspoiled river decorated with deep gorges, lush vineyards and sleepy fishing villages. Also many manor homes and wine growing estates are waiting for cruisers to explore, along with the small fortified village Castelo Rodrigo. Many cruises offer a chance to visit the Spanish villages of Salamanca and Vega Terron, two important medieval towns. This is a cruise for wine lovers, especially the dessert wine port, also a cruise for those who want to sample and learn more about Portuguese cuisine, and for adventurers who love new destinations.
The Elbe and the Po
Lesser known routes include the Elbe (Germany) and the Po (Italy). The Elbe is a good route to see eastern Germany and parts of the Czech Republic. The Elbe River is shallow in many parts and sometimes this results in more of a bus tour than a real river cruise because of low water situations. It also has low bridges and during any high water situations, the trip again becomes more a bus trip. Other authors claim the Elbe is the most cancelled river cruise due to water levels. Only two major river cruise lines operate on the Elbe. They are Viking and CroisiEurope. Highlights of this cruise route include Berlin, Hamburg, Wittenberg (where Martin Luther started the Protestant Revolution) the palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam (Fredrick the Great’s Prussian palace) and Prague. For some, the outstanding sites to visit make this a great trip, but as they say, be prepared to go with the flow if you choose this cruise.
The Po is in Northern Italy but this route is also more a bus tour during the day as only part of the river is used. Again, the changing water levels make this a difficult river to navigate. Most of these cruises center on Venice. Uniworld is the only major cruise line to offer this tour. The boat is really more a stationary hotel, with minimal cruising. Cruise and bus tours visit Venice, the Po River Delta areas, the islands around Venice and Verona (Roman amphitheater and Romeo and Juliet fame). It also offers a good chance to sample the local cuisine, including Bologna (cold cuts) and Parma (hams and cheese).
We would recommend these only for really experienced river cruises or those with a very special interest in these limited river cruises.
The 2,294-mile-long Volga is the largest river in Europe. The river is often referred to as “Mother Volga”, because it is so important to the lives of the Russian people. Due to Russian laws, cruise lines can only lease their ships, so sometimes the normal comforts and high standards of Europe cruise lines are not always available on Volga River cruises. One cruise line, Scenic, has built a new vessel that really approaches the expected standards of Europe river cruises. Currently, Scenic, Uniworld and Viking sail the Volga.
On a typical Volga cruise, the route is from St. Petersburg to Moscow (or reverse) and these two cities dominate the cruise itineraries. In Moscow, a visit to the Kremlin, shows the power of the largest country of the world. In St. Petersburg, the most western of Russian cities, the Hermitage museum, Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof are a unique look at the lives and treasures of the tsars of Russia. There is more to see than these two great cites. They include Kizhi Island, an isolated tourist destination set at almost the center of Lake Onega, home to an open-air museum made up of more than 80 wooden buildings. In the small river town of Goritsy travelers can visit the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery, which was built in 1397 and is home to a vast collection of Russian Orthodox icons. Yaroslavl, a city located at the intersection of the Volga and Kotorosl Rivers, is another important site for Russia. It is one of eight principal cities that make up the Golden Ring, a group of ancient cities and towns that were instrumental in the founding of the Russian Orthodox Church.
A Volga cruise offers a chance to see Russia’s two largest cities, learn about rural Russia and the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. It also offers a chance to sample some Vodka and caviar. The Volga is famous for its caviar—4 species of sturgeon live in the river and make many very happy with this gourmet delight. This is a great cruise for the experienced traveler.
Our Final Thoughts
While there are some variations, many lines cruise essentially cruise the same routes on the most popular European rivers. The river routes may be very short or may cover larger distances, depending upon the route you select. While I have covered only 7 day cruises, many of these routes can be combined for longer cruises of 14 or 21 days or more. River cruising is about the destinations, in my opinion, so the correct itinerary is critical to provide you the river cruise experience you desire for these special trips. We hope this quick summary will provide you a good overview of what is possible in Europe river cruising.
Every major cruise company also offers pre/post stays so along with the river cruise you can get some extended time in some of the best of Europe’s cities. We have been to almost all major cities in Europe and have developed our own guides for 49 top cities, so not only can we provide information on pre/post stays, we can also plan your stays to customize your trip.
With all this variety, does it make you want to go? It sure does for me—why not give us a call (Hank at 713-397-0188) or email me at email@example.com so we can help you plan a great European river cruise by matching you to the right river cruise for you. There is a lot to know and we are the experts who can answer your questions from which route, to which river cruise company and what to see on the pre/post stays. We will help you find the right river cruise in Europe to help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!