French, Douro and other Europe River Cruises

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.

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Omaha Beach D Day Monument

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

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Pont du Gard, Provence

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!

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Bordeaux, France

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.

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Before your Douro cruise, maybe you could visit Pena Palace, in Sintra, Portugal

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. 

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Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany

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).

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Venice, Italy

We would recommend these only for really experienced river cruises or those with a very special interest in these limited river cruises.

The Volga

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.

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Samson Fountain, Peterhof

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 hschrader@dreamdestinations.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!

 

 

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A Wine Lover’s Route–Provence River Cruise

By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, European Destination and River Cruise Expert  www.dreamdestinations.com
Imagine sailing on the Rhône River through the legendary wine growing regions of Provence, getting the chance to sample Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône! So let’s sail together on the Rhône from Arles to Lyon on the AMADagio—a cruise we have done twice and will sail again this April (2016)—it is that good!

While this description is from Arles to Lyon, you should realize that one week starts in Arles and the next week starts in Lyon and the sights and experiences remain almost identical regards of whether you sail north to Lyon or south to Arles.

Your First Day of the Cruise

Your wonderful cruise starts in Arles. First up is a visit by motor coach to the hilltop village of Les Baux de Provence. The town was founded by King Balthazar, one of the 3 wise men of the Bible. The village’s castle has a fascinating exhibit of medieval siege weaponry replicas. These big war machines are cool—it is said to be one of the best collections in the world—you will be surprised how large these weapons are! Les Baux has had a stormy past and because of an unsuccessful Protestant revolt, the castles and its wall were destroyed in 1632, but the ruins and views are magnificent! Great, old village—well worth the trip. Want to see more—we have 32 pictures on our Pinterest site board Les Baux de France.

Later, visit an olive farm, which is family run by a brother and sister, to learn about this age-old Provençal farming tradition. The tour includes tastings of olive oils made at the farm. Anne bought some olive oil here and really like the tour and olive farm. As an alternative, take the “Impressionist Experience” tour to the Saint Paul de Mausole Asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh painted such well-known works as The Irises and Starry Night. You will also visit the Carrieres de Lumieres, a stone quarry that projects European artwork on its walls, including many of Van Gogh’s famous paintings.


In the afternoon, there is a walking city tour of Arles. You will see the Romanesque cathedral and the Roman Amphitheater. The Roman Amphitheater is well preserved (it could hold about 25,000) and there are other Roman ruins in the town.

Avignon

Early in the evening, we cruised to Avignon, arriving late at night. We docked near a famous bridge that spans only half of the Rhone—it is the illuminated Avignon Bridge made famous by the French children’s song “Sur le pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”).


After docking overnight in Avignon, you have 2 great tour options. First, you can tour the Papal Palace, which is part of a city walking tour. The tour starts off by entering the town through the well-preserved medieval walls surrounding the historic center of town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Seven popes once resided in the magnificent Gothic Papal Palace. My favorite room was the huge banquet hall, where at one end is the fireplace used to communicate to the people outside a new Pope had been elected. Again, to see more about this interesting palace, we have 30 photos on the Pinterest site.

Palace of the Popes

 

 

Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct

 

Another cool alternative, is a motor coach ride to the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct that is a masterpiece of engineering and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking on the aqueduct was an experience I will never forget–it is huge and up close, you will really understand how talented the Romans were at building things—how did they get the water to flow with gravity alone by such minute changes in slope?. Your tour will also visit Uzes, a lovely Provencal town known for its castle (still occupied by the Duke of Uzes and his family), medieval streets and picturesque town square. There is free time for shopping in Uzes before returning to the ship.—I was there on market day and this is always a fun way to see how and what Europeans shop for, especially the food stalls.. I have done both tours and really enjoyed them—this is one of the many highlights of this cruise.
Although there are really good tours, Avignon also has some great shopping and Anne took advantage of this to buys some gifts for family back home. One of the great things about a river cruise is the chance to do what you want, since you dock right in the heart of the cities and can go off on your own easily since AMAWaterways provides port maps of each docking location with key sights clearly marked.

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After sailing overnight to Viviers, you next adventure is a visit to Grignan, a magnificent hilltop village surrounded by lavender fields. The village’s Renaissance castle provides a commanding view of the area’s beautiful countryside. We enjoyed the free time to explore local shops for confections, home-made lavender soaps and other crafts—Anne bought a snappy beret. You also get to see a truffle dog in action—really cool! That dog really got after those truffles and he was a true favorite of our group.

The truffle dog in action!

Tournon

The ship sails to Tournon and there is a really good chocolate and red wine pairing in Tournon’s castle—we had 3 different chocolate candies paired with 3 different reds. I thought they were all good and went well together. Next morning, there is a visit to Cornas, Tournon’s “twin” town located across the Rhône River and linked by a 19th-century suspension bridge. The fertile soil and ideal climate of the region has made Cornas the premier producer of Côtes du Rhône wines. We stopped at a vineyard, and then the best part was sampling some good local wines. After lunch, the ship sails to Vienne, situated between the wine regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais, arriving early evening. The ship moors overnight in Vienne.

Our Wine Tasting in Tournon

Vienne

Next morning, I took a guided walking tour of Vienne (it starts with an open-air tourist train ride up a big hill for a good view of the Rhône) and then our group see the 1st-century Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, the ruins of a Roman theater, and the medieval churches of St. Andre-Le-Bas and Abbey St. Pierre. For me, the best part was the Roman museum—there is a good collection of items used in this former Roman colony. As an alternative, you could choose to visit the Chateau Roussillion and Pottery but I have never been on this tour.

Roman Temple in Vienne

Lyon

It is then off to Lyon. Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France. There is a visit by bus to the historic section of town known as Vieux Lyon (“Old Lyon”). Lyon is fun, we really enjoyed the old town area and its narrow streets and colorful bouchons (small bistros) with their trademark red and white checkered table cloths. Sometimes this cruise offers a choice of tours. You can visit Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse market place and sample gourmet food & wine in around 70 stalls (highly recommended by us—another great tour we enjoyed very much). On a wine cruise, we also got the chance to have a champagne tasting—it was awesome!

Lyon Hill Top Church

Another option is a sailing on the Saône. The ship departs after noon and cruises to Collonges for an excursion through the Beaujolais wine region, the Pays d’Or (“land of the golden stones,” named for the ochre limestone used to build local homes and castles). It stops at the medieval hilltop village of Oingt and the home of a local vintner, where, of course, you will get to enjoy a wine tasting and vineyard tour, and learn about the history of wine production in the region. Rejoin the ship in Belleville and return to Lyon, arriving late tonight. You will stay overnight in Lyon.

Disembarkation

Sadly, the cruise is over the next morning but what a wonderful experience that will make memories of a lifetime. As with all river cruises, the option for pre-cruise or post cruise stays either offered by AMAWaterways or arranged by us is a great way to extend your vacation a few more days. We always extend on our trips—Lyon is a particular favorite and you could visit Nice or other French towns—we are happy to help with suggestions and to make arrangements as necessary.

My Final Thoughts

This is a trip that should be on everyone’s bucket list, in my opinion. Please let us know if there is anything we can do to help you to start this or any other river cruise trip.

We have a wealth of free information about all Europe river cruises and really useful river cruise tips on our website www.dreamdestinations.com, so check us out—you will be glad you did.
Savor life . . . make memories . . . visit Dream Destinations . . . Your journey begins here!