When you cruise Europe’s rivers and canals, you wind through farmlands and medieval villages, past terraced vineyards, and historic castles and sometimes straight to a city’s heart. Like other water vacations, river cruises come in all sizes from luxury ships that accommodate 100-150 passengers to small boats and barges carrying 6-12 people.
Barges and houseboats move languidly along the canals and inland waterways. On a basic voyage, you rent your own craft and double as your family’s cook and navigator. A full-board charter comes with a captain and crew, including a cook. Depending on the chef and the fee, the food ranges from average to gourmet.
The larger cruise ships sail the Danube, Loire, Rhine and other of Europe’s major rivers, often docking in the city center, thus making it easy to explore. Cruise ships offer full service meals and organized shore tours too.
We have to admit that barging, while wonderful, takes some work, and planning, especially if you serve as your own crew. After all, at some point you must “park” something that’s much bigger than your driveway, find groceries, and periodically think about your water tank and bilge pump, all without crashing.
The scenery, however, is beautiful. On a barge trip through Burgundy visit medieval basilicas, pedal along wildflower dotted bicycle paths and visit well-known vineyards. A Burgundy barge trip, however, also comes with a big beware: 30-plus locks. Aficionados call navigating a lock an aerobic activity; it involves climbing ladders, tossing ropes, and opening gates in a swift pas de deux designed to test the mettle of any marriage. Having a crew and captain, of course, makes the lock transit painless, but also ups the price for the barge cruise.
In Ireland, on a week-long barge trip along the Shannon river between Athlone and Killaloe, visit a 5th century monastery, stroll back roads and blooming gardens, and in the evening, down a Guinness at the village pub where the locals have been known to break into song.
Popular European cruises on the big (100+ passenger ships) float along
the Danube, the Rhine and the Loire. The Danube, Europe’s second longest river, flows for 1,770 miles from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea. The river’s crown jewel, Vienna, reigns as a cultural center for music, art and architecture. Durnstein, another typical port, is a picturesque village with cobblestone streets and cafés serving the local specialty, Gruener Vetliner, a white wine made from the area’s Riesling grapes.
Meandering for 850 miles from the Swiss Alps through the mountains and valleys of Germany to the Netherlands, the Rhine River is one of Europe’s most important waterways serving as a trade route for more than 2000 years. The stretch from Wiesbaden to Rudesheim forms the heart of the Rheingau, Germany’s fertile wine growing region, producers of Riesling as well as Spatburgunder, a red wine brought by monks from Burgundy. A high point of a Rhine cruise is Cologne (Koln), whose cathedral is one of the grandest in Europe as well as the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany.
Flaubert called the Loire River, “the most sensual river in France” because it flows through lush forests and verdant farmland, before reaching the Atlantic. France’s longest river at more than 1000 km, the Loire and its tributaries-- the Mayenne, the Sarthe, the Cher, the Loir, and the Erdre–define a region known for its magnificent chateaux built by French royalty and for its mellow wines.
Whichever you choose-- inland canals or major rivers--a European waterway cruise transports you through scenic countryside where the hillsides bloom with castles, wine is a local product and the history is as real as the centuries-old stone walls.