Our gracious home for 12 days, the Amadeus Royal was a welcome sight after daily excursions ashore. Alison Gardner
By Alison Gardner, Editor
Travel with a Challenge
Looking at a map of Continental Europe, it is hard to imagine the possibility of navigating any decent-size passenger vessel from the North Sea to the Black Sea. But thanks to a piece of engineering magic completed in 1992, I was able to experience more than half of this picturesque waterway that showcases such a wealth of European history and culture. In a leisurely 12 days on the water with plenty of time to step ashore and explore new destinations each day, I sailed several of the continent’s great rivers and its most modern, complex canal from Amsterdam to Vienna aboard the 150-passenger Amadeus Royal.
On the Main River, Wuerzburg proudly showcased its stunning Gothic and Baroque architecture. Alison Gardner
Taking advantage of a rare springtime window when river levels and lock traffic make such an epic journey practical or even possible, Canadian-Austrian tour company, Special Travel International, www.sticanada.com, booked the entire ship 18 months in advance for this extended voyage on the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers. We were mainly Canadians along with two dozen Austrians who spontaneously added their own rich traditional singing and accordion accompaniment to the mix!
Launched in 2005, the 110-meter/361-foot Amadeus Royal quickly became our comfortable home base for daily town and countryside excursions. Built deliberately low to slide neatly under numerous medieval stone bridges and lock barriers, it still offered three decks of spacious, elegantly-furnished staterooms, all equal in size and furnishing. The only differences in the rooms are the price as you move higher and the windows (from large portholes on the Hayden deck to cabin-width picture windows on Strauss deck to walls of glass and French doors on the topmost Mozart deck).
Staterooms on three decks were roomy and finely furnished. Alison Gardner
With suitcases unpacked into wardrobes and drawers, gourmet dining treats from breakfast to dinner, and every need catered to by an entertaining and attentive Austrian and Eastern European staff, we soon fell into the rhythm of shipboard travel, but without that sense of disengagement from the destination that so often accompanies larger ship voyages. The fact that anywhere on the vessel you could practically reach out and touch bridges, castles, sheep grazing near the water’s edge, and people fishing along the banks, kept us thoroughly connected to the surroundings. Sometimes we sailed through the night; sometimes we tied up opposite a farmer’s field or at an historic town dock. The three captains exercised a lot of discretion in their daily decisions.
Meals were a highlight of each day, with breakfast and lunch served buffet-style and dinner an elegant full-service treat. Alison Gardner
Whether cruising through Franconian and Bavarian Germany or through western Austria, we awoke each day to a fresh city, town or village to explore on foot or by bus. You could do this independently or with knowledgeable local guides on pre-booked morning or afternoon excursions. Any presumption that, after a few days, one medieval town would look and feel much like the next was quickly set aside by the distinctive personalities, colorful histories, and architectural signatures.
Each town or village on the route had its own personality and distinctive history. Above: Rothenburg by evening. Below: Miltenberg by day. STI Canada; Alison Gardner
On our trip, one great grandmother had last traveled to Cologne in her late teens immediately after World War II as part of a British ballet company that quite literally performed amidst the bombed devastation. She was deeply moved by the perfectly restored city that greeted her on her return visit. For many of us who associated Nuremburg exclusively with modern Nazi history and the post-war Nuremburg trials, we were surprised to discover how ancient and rich is this city’s history, showcasing many centuries of settlement before Adolf Hitler adopted it as a favored place for his largest rallies.
We witnessed visible evidence of conquering and re-conquering in centuries and millennia past as well as more contemporary catastrophes, including tales of spectacular floods in the 21st century that have sometimes inundated beautiful towns up to the second floor of many buildings before receding into springtime tranquility along the natural shoreline. Over pre-dinner drinks in the ship’s comfortable lounge, we each put forward our candidates for most interesting excursions on the journey thus far, only to find them displaced by the next day’s equally-intriguing and original offering.
Even for those of us who are artistically challenged, having two fine Canadian artists aboard our cruise added an exciting educational dimension. Caren Heine and her brother Mark Heine are not only gifted artists but also experienced teachers as they proved during occasional workshops as we sailed along and during their sketching expeditions ashore for those who wished to participate. Some guests had brought their sketching and painting supplies, while others, like me, were happy to sit in on a demonstration workshop or admire a fresh sketch or painting captured by the artists during our time in port. Following lively bidding on the last night, most of the Heine paintings went home in guest suitcases as unique remembrances of a beautiful journey.
Canadian watercolorist, Caren Heine, offered painting workshops on board and painting ashore. STI Canada
The piece of engineering magic that made possible our uninterrupted journey across Europe’s Heartland is the Main-Danube Canal, a multi-billion dollar construction project joining the northwest flowing Rhine with the east flowing Danube. This was accomplished through a series of 16 sophisticated locks over the mountainous watershed that peaks at 406 meters/1,332 feet above sea level near Hilpoltstein.
A large Main Danube Canal lock can drain or fill in a matter of minutes, smoothly raising or lowering the ship 25 meters or 82 feet. STI Canada
Some low medieval stone bridges spanning the river mean that chairs, awnings and umbrellas on the ship’s top deck must be flattened to barely slide under these barriers. Alison Gardner
Several locks changed water levels at more than 25 meters apiece, dramatically emptied or filled in 30 minutes or less. Our canal days were a navigational and engineering exercise not to be missed. Opened on September 25, 1992, the 171-kilometer canal from Bamberg to Kehlheim has created a seamless 2,175 mile/3,500-kilometer-long commercial waterway that had remained only a dream since Emperor Charlemagne’s time in the early Middle Ages.
Though you will see no super tankers, it is a very busy and interesting waterway. Modern traffic consists largely of flat-bottomed mini-freighters whose single decks are crammed with cargo similar to that carried by North America’s 18-wheel tractor trailers across the continent. From atop our open observation deck or out each stateroom’s picture window, it was always worthwhile to see what was going by and exchange a friendly wave, often just metres from our own vessel. There were a small number of passenger cruise ships like our Amadeus Royal, each built in this decade exactly to the width of a modern canal lock, but they offered itineraries of fewer days covering shorter distances of the river system. We were clearly on the Grand Tour by comparison!
Carefully-restored castles and fortresses dot the riverside while cruising through southern Germany. STI Canada
Dozens of fellow guests disembarking with me in May 2007 declared “See you next time, it’s on to the Black Sea!” I am expecting to see a lot of familiar faces when I step aboard in Vienna for my next uncommon adventure that only a small number of travelers will have accomplished in my lifetime. The Danube/Black Sea segment will be fresh territory for me and for many western travelers, including as it does an introduction to Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Amadeus Royal usually tied up near town centers, making daily walking explorations and pre-booked tours easy. Alison Gardner
Located between Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, the great 18th century monastery, Melk Abbey, welcomes all visitors to tour its grounds and impressive buildings. Alison Gardner
In May 2009, Special Travel International, www.sticanada.com, again made European river cruise history by leasing the even more elegant sister ship, Amadeus Princess, launched in 2006. STI offered a first in travel: back to back itineraries from Amsterdam on the North Sea to Vienna and – this time – right on to the Black Sea. Participants chose to do one or both segments of this epic river journey, comprising a total of four weeks.
In 2020, STI is offering a number of European river cruises with several routes and different themes. See the STI tours page for the latest line-up.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.dev.cc. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org