I recently discovered what all the fuss was about when it comes to a European River Cruise. As a first-timer, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was an incredible experience on board the Travelmarvel Diamond… From personalised, attentive service, to amazing food (my waistline will testify), plenty of time to relax on the ship and make new friends, and enjoy the spacious and stylish facilities on board, including my own stateroom.
But of course, we spent plenty of time OFF the ship too. While it was unbelievably relaxing sitting up on the top sun deck, with 360 degree views so you could simply watch life along the river drift by with a front row seat to its history and culture, we all looked forward to the shore excursions each day where we would wake up, dock in a new port and discover a brand new place.
The journey began in Amsterdam, and I wasted no time getting out and discovering this city. I was mesmerised by the bikes, the canals and the architecture. There are more bicycles than people and locals ride them alongside more than 100km of canals and over more than 1200 bridges which link the 90 islands the city is spread upon.
The city was alive with bustling cafés, canal boats and water taxis, and historical landmarks mix with cutting edge architecture… From the Rijks Museum to the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank’s house and Dam Square with its Royal Palace. There was so much to see and do here, I began my time with a canal boat tour.
We cruised many of the navigable canals which curve like a horseshoe around the heart of the city. We passed locks, the Gentlemen’s Canal, lush shady streets and busy, tourist thoroughfares. The 17th century canal houses looked down upon us and bicycles navigated their way all around us.
We ended the cruise at the Bloemenmarkt – the world’s only floating flower market, specialising in, you guessed it, tulips. Vendors floating on the canal sold every kind and colour of bulb imaginable, and with tulip season in full bloom here in the Netherlands at the moment, I was keen to see more.
By adding some extra time in Amsterdam, I was able to arrange a visit to the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens. With 32 hectares of gardens boasting more than 7 million bulbs and 800 varieties, this is an absolute vision. Open for the tulip season, roughly two months of every year, these gardens attract visitors from all over the world and is one of the largest gardens on the planet.
With a sea of colourful flowers imprinted on my mind, it was then time to board the ship to start our river journey, merging onto the Rhine River before long, and heading towards Germany.
It is a unique experience going to sleep in one country and waking in another – especially after a fantastic night’s entertainment on board and a soundless sleep in my extremely comfortable suite. We were all excited about our adventures in Germany and the city of Cologne was first on our agenda.
The towering spires of the Cologne Cathedral warmly welcomed us into the city as we cruised towards it… We all gathered on the ship’s sun deck to watch one of the most famous churches in Europe sit proudly on the river bank and soon after breakfast we were docking for our experience on the shore.
Firstly though, we were headed slightly out of the city to visit the Augustusburg Castle & Hunting Lodge for a Travelmarvel Insider Experience – excursions designed to get you away from the standard tourist trail and immerse you in the local culture.
The sumptuous residence, its idyllic garden landscape and the hunting lodge, were awarded UNESCO World-Heritage Status in 1984 and I was immediately struck by one of the best examples of Rococo architecture in Germany. I met local guide Marcus for a tour, who told me that the palace we see today replaced an earlier castle which was destroyed in the 17th century. The building we could now see was the residence of the prince-archbishops of Cologne and the hunting lodge was where Prince-Elector of Cologne, Clemens August, could practice his favourite hobby of falconry.
The palace, hunting lodge and grounds were spared during the World War and today, exploring it took me right back to the 1700’s… I am told even Mozart was a special guest here back in the day.
Some free time in the city of Cologne afterwards found me standing right before the imposing Cathedral. It is hard to get around how the enormous church was not destroyed in World War 2, but thankfully it was spared and remains a beloved landmark of Germany and Europe.
As we continued to make our way east along the Rhine through Germany, our next few shore stops take us to smaller towns and villages full of medieval architecture, passionate locals and traditional German customs. At our stop in Rüdesheim am Rhein, I made the most of our free time and took the local gondola to the highest point above the town for a bird’s eye view of the region and river.
Back in town, I had been told about ‘Rüdesheimer Kaffee’ – the town’s specialty coffee and I made my way to Café Edel to try it. With brandy and sugar flambéed, coffee is then added before sweetened whipped cream. It really is a specialty (with a bit of a kick!) and I loved experiencing something that is so special to this particular town and its residents.
As our river ship merged onto the Main River, which links the Rhine with the Danube, we headed towards Miltenberg where our Insider Experience is all about the local people. I met Manfred and Monika, local residents who open their own home to small groups of Travelmarvel guests and I was warmly welcomed with home-made rhubarb cheesecake.
I’ve got to say, there have been plenty of times in my travels where I have peered curiously at the local homes in foreign countries and wondered what life was like inside. This was the perfect opportunity to find out and I was invited to ask Manfred and Monika all about their lives, their home, their culture and the local area.
For Manfred and Monika, opening their home to strangers is all about meeting new people from different countries and sharing their stories, plus learning new languages. Thanks to experiences like this, we can walk away with a deeper insight into the culture here and everyday life, something that is not always possible on holiday. We toasted our meeting with some traditional schnapps and left as friends, with promises to keep in touch.
A little further along the river I was lucky enough to stumble upon another incredible cultural experience. The town of Rothenburg, situated along the famous ‘Romantic Road’, was celebrating Whitsuntide with their annual festival and performance of the historical play ‘Der Meistertrunk’.
We were greeted with hundreds of locals in the old cobblestone streets and beautiful town square, dressed in medieval costume and participating with abandon in the festivities. It didn’t take long before I was swept up in the celebrations and was warmly welcomed into the singing and dancing in the streets.
One of the final German cities on my cruise was the northern Bavarian town of Bamberg. One of the most beautiful cities in Europe, it has been given UNESCO world heritage status and its architecture alone makes it worthy of a visit. I worked up a thirst admiring the well-preserved half-timbered buildings, the old town hall which sits in the middle of the Regnetz River accessed by two bridges on either side, and the cathedral whose bells have been ringing for more than 500 years, and headed to Schlenkerla Brewery, famous for its Bamberg smoked beer.
Bamberg is actually home to the densest concentration of breweries in the world – there are hundreds of small breweries here brewing beer in the traditional way – with more variation in style here than in the rest of Germany. Schlenkerla was first mentioned in 1405 and has been brewing ‘smoked’ beer ever since. It is still tapped directly from the wooden barrel and I met the manager Hans for an obligatory taste – I must say that smoked beer is certainly for the adventurous palate!
It set me up for my last evening on the ship, as the captain and my fellow passengers toasted our experience. I was disembarking the following day in Nuremberg but for my fellow river cruisers, their journey was still continuing towards Budapest.
After a sad farewell to my floating hotel and new friends (and one last amazing breaky) I prepared myself for my final shore experience exploring Nuremberg. Famous for the role it played in Nazi Germany, we began at the Zeppelin Field, the site for the huge conventions called the Nuremberg Rallies which became Nazi propaganda events after Hitler rose to power. As I stood on the tribune where Adolf Hitler himself stood as he addressed one hundred thousand people, I was overwhelmed with the history.
Down the road is the Palace of Justice, famous for Courtroom 600 where many of the Nazis who rose to power in this town, met their demise in the famous Nuremberg Trials for war crimes in 1945-46.
Though fascinating, I chose to end my journey on a happier note and on the back of Nuremberg being the home of the Bratwurst sausage, I headed to Bratwurst Roslein, the largest sausage restaurant in the world!
The bratwurst sausage has been made here in Nuremberg since the 14th century, and only select butchers were allowed to make them. I tried to nudge the secret recipe out of the restaurant’s chef Michael, but they are as protective of their sausages today as they were in the past, and I was left to simply sit back and enjoy them. Served almost always with the same accompaniments of horseradish, sauerkraut and potato salad, the sausages are a little taste of Germany and the perfect way to cap off an extraordinary journey immersed in the local culture.