Travellers on a Rhine cruise sample the history, culture and beauty of the countries on both sides of the river that continues to be an artery of life to central Europe, writes SEÁN MACCONNELL
Visiting Germany these days is somewhat like the experience of visiting the home of a rich relative: the Germans are kind and tolerant, but somewhat superior when they learn you are from one of the poorer parts of the European Union.
That did not, however, detract from the enjoyment of a three-day cruise on the magnificent river Rhine. Short three- and four-day cruises are to be offered on the Irish market later this year, and will have themes such as Tulip Time, the Romantic Rhine, and Christmas markets.
We began our tour in Switzerland and, from the airport in Zurich, it was a two-hour bus ride to join our luxury vessel, the MS Amacello, docked near Basel, where we stayed overnight after being welcomed on board despite being after midnight. Most of the other passengers had settled down in the 148 luxurious rooms on board the vessel, basically a floating luxury hotel with well-appointed rooms, wi-fi, restaurants, lounges and around the clock service.
What a magnificent river the Rhine is, running from Switzerland to the North Sea at the Netherlands. It was for centuries, and still is, a highway of commerce, a boundary between countries, a source of power as it cuts its way through the central plain of Europe, passing medieval castles, beautiful villages and towns with red tiled roofs. Despite the strong current, our ship was steady even when other giant ships sped past, throwing out big wakes.These did not even shake the marbled bedrooms, or put a tilt on the whirlpool or walking track on the upper deck.
The morning after departure found us docked in Breisach, on the German side of the Rhine, across from the Alsace region of France. We were given the choice of a visit to Colmar in France or a jaunt to the Black Forest and Lake Titisee in Germany.
Our guide pointed out second World War bunkers on the edge of the river and some of the damage caused when Allied guns destroyed 85 per cent of the town as they crossed the river into Germany.
Our group opted for a Black Forest tour, taking us up the Hollental valley which is very beautiful and has a spectacular railway line that runs up the valley. Under its viaduct we found the village of Hofgut Sternen, which boasts the largest cuckoo clock in the world, featuring life-size figures of couples dancing a waltz.
We stumbled across a Christmas market there, with exquisite wood carvings, very drinkable mulled wine, and despite the snow and ice, it was a most pleasant experience. There, too, was the inn where Marie Antoinette spent a night on her way to Paris from Vienna to marry the King of France.
We were then taken up to the lake of Titisee, which the Roman emperor Titus named after himself because it was so beautiful. The lake, at an altitude of over 2,000 feet, is a summer playground for Germans and a winter wonderland when it freezes over and becomes a giant skating rink.
Two days later, while on a tour of Speyer, we discovered this is where the word Protestant originated, in 1529. This was the town where five German regional princes had objected to a change in the law that forbade them follow the teachings of Martin Luther, a reversal of an earlier decision.
Speyer, a town of 50,000 people, is a very ancient and pleasant place to visit, dominated by the largest Romanesque church in the world. It was consecrated in 1061 and was only completed in 1111.
We visited the ruins of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Germany, where the synagogue has been excavated with its ritual bath house. These are the oldest visible remnants of such a building in central Europe, dating back to about 1080.
We were not short of churches on the French side of the Rhine either. We had come to Speyer from Strasbourg, which is dominated by its huge, gothic cathedral. Like Speyer, this is a Unesco world heritage site.
Strasbourg is a very impressive town where the European Parliament sits and its strategic position on the German/French border has placed it at the centre of European and world history. It has a wonderful old French district, Petite France, a pedestrianised fairyland for the tourist, crammed with good restaurants, bars and shops, and where prices are not excessive.
The food on the boat was exquisite and regional food and wines were served as we passed through the areas that produced them. Overall, the cruise was a delightful experience allowing the traveller to sit in comfort and traverse the most interesting waterway in Europe and sample the history, culture and beauty of the countries on both sides of the river that continues to be an artery of life to central Europe.
SEÁN MACCONNELLtravelled on the Rhine cruise with AMA waterways courtesy of Sunway Holidays, sunway.ie,
tel: 01-2886828. A seven-night luxury cruise including flights, transfers, cruise, escorted sightseeing, all meals and wine at dinner, starts from €1,929 per person. Shorter cruises will be available later this year.