FOR YOUR NEXT HOLIDAY, TAKE A LAID-BACK APPROACH AND CONSIDER A RIVER CRUISE THROUGH PICTURESQUE EUROPE.
By Carlos Edery
You’ve strolled the Boboli Gardens in Italy, biked the Majorcan coast in Spain, hit the slopes in Courchevel, France, but if you’re looking for a new way to explore Europe’s most popular and well-trod destinations, here’s a unique option you may not have pondered: a river cruise through the canals and rivers of Europe.
The vast majority of these boats are as lavish and pampering as a top-rate hotel, and while the typical European river craft is smaller in stature than the big-name cruise ships that sail the Mediterranean and other larger waterways, they boast many of the same amenities—from hot tubs and hair dryers to skylights and sundecks. They offer the same level of personal service as high-profile luxury liners as well, but are renowned for their intimacy, as most carry less than 100 passengers.
Another big difference is that a river cruise is decidedly more laid-back than your typical cruise, so if you’re someone who likes to jam-pack every minute of your itinerary with various activities and events, a river cruise may not be the right choice for you. Of course, there are activities, if you want them, but the main focus is on simply sitting back, relaxing, and soaking up the scenery.“There’s no see-and-be-seen,” a wise operator once said. “It’s about solitude, countryside, culture, and food and wine.” What better place to take advantage of that than on a luxury river cruise leisurely circumnavigating its way through the intimate valleys, sleepy villages and even some of the most exciting cities of Europe? There are river cruises on canals in various parts of the continent, and most are characterized by a postcard-perfect patchwork of historic hamlets, medieval castles, Romanesque churches, rolling pastures, and lush vineyards.
Sampling the award-winning wines produced from area grapes is high on the agenda aboard a river cruise, with meals generally plucked from the local roadside farmer’s markets including several choice vintages. Some cruises also offer visits to local wine cellars for tours and tastings. Of course, with great wine comes great cuisine, so you can expect your onboard menu to include tasty entrées in champagne, sabayon sauce and foie gras and leeks smothered in a delicate prune sauce. It’s truly surprising the fanciful feasts they can whip up in those small galley kitchens.
When you want to try to work off some of the many calories you’ve consumed, or you’re just in the mood to venture off the boat for a bit, you’ll have plenty of exciting options to choose from. For instance, most cruises have bikes you can use to tool around on, either pedaling through the picturesque countryside on a towpath alongside the boat, or zipping ahead to explore the next town. The choice of guided excursions may be catered to include visits to Europe’s monuments, museums, and traditions significant to Jewish history. In Budapest, visit Europe’s largest synagogue, its Jewish Museum, and hear about the tree of life; enjoy a walking tour of Jewish Vienna; visit Prague’s Jewish Quarter, Jewish Museum and Cemetery, and synagogues; and in Regensburg, visit the remains of ancient synagogues beneath Neupfarrplatz. You may even enjoy shopping among the locals at an outdoor market and having your catch served onboard later that day. Best of all, many of the cruise operators are intimate with the people and places along the route and offer you access and opportunities you won’t normally have at select restaurants, wineries, and other attractions along the way.
Another benefit of a river cruise is the chance to interact with the locals, especially if you’re traveling a stretch of a canal where the boat has to go through a lock. Locks are used to raise or lower the cruises from one water level to another, and residents often seem to pop up out of nowhere when a boat gets there. One cruise-goer mentioned how they were greeted by the cigar-chomping town mayor at one lock. Another related how her favorite part of the trip was being serenaded, in French, by a group of young schoolchildren they ran into who were out on a field trip. It doesn’t get much more adorable than that.
After all is said and done and you’re headed back home on dry land, you’ll no doubt understand the many pleasures of taking a slow cruise down a scenic canal or river.
BARGE CRUISING 101
The canals and rivers are controlled, static waterways, and the cruises only travel about 4 to 5 miles per hour, so there’s no need to pack the Dramamine. Most cruises provide you with basic toiletries such as soap and shampoo, but don’t expect hotel-style luxuries and services such as newspaper delivery and dry cleaning. Dress aboard the boats is relaxed casual, although some include a captain’s dinner or visits to upscale restaurants where nice dresses and sports coats are recommended. Rates vary from cruise to cruise and are dependent on the season and length of the trip, but the price typically includes all of your meals, drinks, transfers, guided excursions, museum admissions, and if it has them, use of the ship’s bicycles. Kosher cruising is available.