The sun beats down gloriously and the Rhine shimmers in a heat wave. I’ve just joined the throng boarding the Brabant, the latest addition to the Fred. Olsen family of cruise ships, eagerly awaiting a voyage along two of Europe’s most iconic rivers. I’m surrounded by a host of loyal Fred. Olsen fans but this is the first river cruise for many and the ship is abuzz with a sense of anticipation and adventure.
Recently acquired by the Fred. Olsen company, the sturdy 156 guest Brabant has had a smart make over prior to the company’s first offering of river cruises on the Rhine, the Danube, the Moselle and the Main. Fresh from its face lift, the Brabant is stylish and comfortable with well-kitted out cabins, an elegant lounge and dining room, a library, gym and beauty salon. The vast top deck is perfect for sun bathing and leisurely strolls and for relishing a bird’s eye view of some of Europe’s most entrancing scenery which is soon on display.
Our cruise, the seven-night Romantic Rhine and Moselle Marvels, will take us through Switzerland, France and Germany and to a galaxy of gorgeous, historic towns that flank the river’s shores. First off is Basel where we explore the city’s lovely medieval heart and stock up on chocolate. Then we’re off, cutting a regal swathe through the broad waters of the Rhine to Strasbourg, a delectable, fairy-tale city ribboned with canals, gently arching bridges and flower decked timbered houses. The monumental Strasbourg Minster towers over the surrounding square which is ringed with eateries offering the delicious local tarte flambe.
If the landscape steaming out of Switzerland on our first day was a tad underwhelming, we are soon in picture-perfect Rhine country. Vine-clad hills tumble down to the river and pretty villages nestle amid the greenery. Speyer, founded by the Romans and one of Germany’s oldest cities, turns out to be a true delight. Garlanded with leafy parks, it’s presided over by a massive Romanesque cathedral where eight Holy Roman emperors and German kings lie. Compact with a languid atmosphere, its broad main street is crowned by an ancient gate. But Speyer’s surprise lies nearby – the Speyer Tecknik Museum – a vast assortment of vintage cars and planes, worth a whole day of exploring itself.
The Rhine is famous wine country so at Rudesheim – noted for its Riesling – we take a wine tour and try to emerge from the taverns that line its narrow streets sober before settling in a cafe for an invigorating coffee. But this is castle country too and we are soon cruising through the steep gorges of the Middle Rhine Valley, a stretch of river justly known as the `Romantic Rhine’, gazing up at a host of castles that crown hilltops at every turn. At Braubach we explore the renowned Marksburg Castle, perched high on a mountainside with panoramic views. With its massive walls and broad halls, it feels like little has altered since its medieval heyday. Further on, at Koblenz, the Rhine and the Moselle and several mountain ranges converge in dramatic style. We stroll around the elegant town in the twilight and gaze up at the monumental statue of Emperor William I which towers over the meeting of the rivers.
Though there are plenty of tourists about on shore, we can enjoy the peace of the Brabant which offers plenty of space. We make friends and the ship has a country-house feel about it. A singing duo serenade us in the Panorama Bar every evening and the food is delicious. Up on the top deck we all star gaze and marvel at a spectacularly bright moon. Swinging into the Lower Moselle Valley, we are even more bewitched by the landscape; heavily wooded hills encircle us and the riverscape feels decidedly mysterious. On a sweeping bend on the river, we arrive at Cochem, a town replete with half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and sunny squares. We climb the steep, winding streets to the 11th century Reichsburg Castle where we pause in the cafe to admire the spectacular vista of the river and town far below.
The blistering heat has eased, and we make the most of the top deck, immersing ourselves in the views from our loungers before we reach Cologne. The city’s mighty cathedral miraculously survived the last world war and is justly known as one of Europe’s finest with its soaring naves and spires. Broad paths line the river and the locals are out with their pooches enjoying the sun. We say farewell to the ship in Dusseldorf. By now, many of our fellow travellers are eager to enjoy more river cruises.
It’s not hard to understand why. Crowded airports, bag packing and sea sickness pills become bad memories. Coasting through some of Europe’s most engaging attractions in total comfort could be habit forming. If that’s the case, the Brabant can take the credit.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines