All aboard Brabant – a brand new venture launched by the well-known ocean line
The pretty German town of Rudesheim might be famous for its creamy coffee made in special glasses, but even though it’s not long after breakfast I’m sitting outside a wine tavern on an autumn morning getting ready to sample its other famous product with intrepid fellow travellers.
With just half a day in Rudesheim we eschewed the option of a scenic cable car ride above the vineyards – nice though it sounded – to actually taste some of Rieslings made from the so-called ‘king of grapes’ making up the bulk of wines produced in the Middle Rhine region. It might only have been 9.30am by our watches – and 8.30am in the UK – but we took our first sip with the justification that it’s always after 5 o’clock somewhere.
Not surprisingly, it turned out to be a jolly morning as we visited three winemakers and learned about wine and the history of Rudesheim as we walked through the cobbled streets from place to place, perhaps a little more unsteadily as time wore on. By lunchtime we were back on Brabant, our floating home for the week. Other Fred. Olsen passengers were already swapping stories about the cable car ride to get a close up view of the imposing Germania monument, commemorating both the unification of Germany and the country’s victory over France in the 1870-71 war, or successful shopping trips down the atmospheric Drosselgasse street which is the buzzing hub of the town centre.
Nothing too unusual in that you might think, but until this year you wouldn’t find Fred. Olsen passengers floating down the Rhine. However, the ocean cruise line has now branched out into the world of river cruising on the former Amadeus Princess, a very comfortable vessel owned by Amadeus River Cruises. Chartered by Fred. Olsen for 2018 and 2019, it has been renamed Brabant – fitting in the Balmoral, Braemar, Black Watch and Boudicca initials of its ocean ships – and been given a friendly Fred. ‘feel’.
For starters there’s an English cruise service manager, the on board currency is sterling and mealtimes are a blend of time-honoured favourites – think marmite and full English at breakfast, cucumber sandwiches and scones served with cream and jam for tea and dishes such as chateaubriand at dinner – alongside regional fare. A particular fun lunchtime was a Bavarian buffet with all manner of German meats, flowing beer plus, rather charmingly written on the menu, “lovely vegetables” for non-carnivores.
Our journey took us from Basel to Dusseldorf on the Romantic Rhine & Moselle Marvels itinerary, taking in diverse cities such as Strasbourg and Cologne along the way.
Many river cruises include excursions in the price, but Fred. Olsen caters for free spirited Brits by providing the option to sign up for shore tours at extra coast or explore under their own steam. Trips can be purchased singly or as a discounted package and this a la carte programme means fares are very reasonable. The only thing to note is that tours require a minimum number of takers and some might be cancelled if numbers aren’t met.
That aside, I enjoyed having the freedom of choice. The tours I did take were excellent and led by informative and entertaining local guides. In Mannheim, a city often passed by on other river cruise itineraries, I set off on a walking tour in the footsteps, or tyre marks to be exact, of pioneering Bertha Benz. Extensively bombed during the war, some of Mannheim’s modern buildings wouldn’t win prizes in a beauty contest but there are some unique sights, including the world’s first automobile close to the main square. We were amazed to find you can even sit in it.
More astonishing was the story behind Karl Benz’s 1885 ‘devil’s engine’ which was openly ridiculed by horse and cart drivers who overtook it when the inventor tested it in the streets of his hometown – limited to a pedestrian 3mph by concerned local authorities. When it failed to sell his 39-year-old wife Bertha took to the wheel and, with the couple’s teenage sons, drove on a 112-mile round-trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim and back. As well as completing the world’s first long distance car journey she convinced sceptics that it was the future of transport, as can now be seen by the omnipresent modern-day Mercedes Benz models lining the streets. On the way back to Brabant we had a quick look inside the impressive modern art museum, where a clock in perpetual motion circles the ceiling of the vast lobby.
Back on the 156-passenger ship our leisurely cruise sailed through the scenic high spot of the Middle Rhine Valley, lined with castles and vineyards and home to the legendary Lorelei Rock where a siren is said to have lured passing sailors to their doom. We also branched off down the Moselle, which joins the Rhine at Koblenz, and is a lesser-explored twisting waterway leading to the lovely town of Cochem with half-timbered buildings and, in keeping with the rest of the region, overlooked by a castle perched on a 300ft crag and the highest on the Rhine.
In between meals, which also included a light lunch option in the lounge, there was plenty to keep us occupied on the ship. In addition to the panoramic main lounge, the smaller Amadeus Club at the back of Brabant is a lovely spot to watch the world drift by or enjoy a board game or book from the library. If you’re feeling energetic there’s a small gym, and if you’re not there’s a massage room and a hairdresser.
Each night we’d repair to our comfy cabins to find the Daily Times newsletter outlining the next day’s schedule. Today’s calm and beautiful river, often referred to as the Romantic Rhine, is a far cry from the time the Romans viewed it as the outermost border of civilization, beyond which they feared mythical creatures and wild Germanic tribesman.
Whether you want to sip wine or delve into history, Brabant offers a new way to explore Europe’s best-known rivers in style – and enjoy a taste of home at the same time.
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