A river cruise is the perfect way to relax as Anna Hyman discovered. What’s not to like -cruising along beautiful rivers at a gentle pace, mooring at quaint riverside wine towns and villages, and on board ship fabulous food and a great crew.
We were standing in the Pfaiz Historical Museum in Speyer gazing somewhat in awe at a showcase containing the oldest known bottle of wine in the world. It dates back to the 4th century – give or take the odd year sometime between 325 and 359AD.
The world’s oldest known bottle of wine
It’s called the Römerwein, or the Speyer wine bottle, and was discovered during the excavation of a Roman nobleman’s tomb close to the German city of Speyer.
There still is a substantial amount of the liquid, which would once have been wine, left in the 1.5ltr glass bottle before it was ‘sealed’ with a generous amount of olive oil to exclude the air.
The olive oil would have ensured the wine’s preservation for several years. However today, 1700 years later, it looked far from appetising. museum.speyer.de/startseite
One of Germany’s oldest cities
The historical museum and its little café are most definitely worth a visit, as indeed is the entire historic city of Speyer.
Speyer is one of Germany’s oldest cities. Not far from the vast and imposing Romanesque cathedral containing the tombs of eight German emperors, we discovered the Jewish synagogue and ritual bath dating back to the 12th century.
Leading off the square in front of the cathedral, we spotted Maximilianstrasse which that day was a hive of activity with tables being set up along its length in preparation for the annual weekend of feasting known as the Kaisertafel.
Strasbourg, capital of Alsace
Speyer was actually our second port of call following embarkation on MS Brabant at Basel a couple of days earlier for our river cruise which was to take us along parts of the scenic Rhine and Moselle rivers.
Our first port of call had been Strasbourg, capital of Alsace and also home of the European Parliament. It’s a great city to visit lending itself to one of the city’s own cruises along its waterways taking in the sights and the many different architectural styles ranging from medieval half- timbered to 21st century.
A wine cellar and a cathedral
Having seen the oldest bottle of wine in the world I for one was keen to see the medieval cellar of the Hospices de Strasbourg.
It dates back to 1395 and since the latter part of the Middle Ages has been used to store wine.
The cellar and the casks fell into disrepair but are now back to full working order –most of the barrels are new but three of them date back centuries with one containing wine from 1472 – the oldest wine in the world in a barrel.
Unfortunately for me however, the hospice closes at lunch time so I took the hint and found an excellent pavement café for lunch, which also allowed me enough time to marvel at the cathedral with its exquisite almost pink façade before returning to Brabant.
Castles on every hill top
Oberwesel proved to be a pretty, small town specialising in wine and famous for the many towers on its medieval walls, as well as Schönburg Castle standing high above the town.
By now we were cruising through the beautiful Rhine gorge stretch of the river where castles punctuate the skyline with their towers and turrets, and where in places the river is about 9m deep, and about 135m wide. Some of the castles date back to the Middle Ages, several of them once home to robber barons and often with strange names like the Cat and the Mouse or the Hostile Brothers.
The Loreley rock
For many visitors intriguing as the castles are it is the steep headland of rock on a bend of the Rhine that they have come to see – the legendary Loreley rock – where an enchantress, or so the legend goes – sang her song luring sailors and ships onto the rocks.
Should you miss the statue – don’t upset yourself, the present one at the foot of the rock is fairly new and really not worth looking at.
The river is dangerous in places but the Brabant was in good hands. Captain Reinier Dekkers’s parents sailed their own cargo barge, on which he was born and grew up.
He then went on to have his own barge before working on river cruise ships – he must know every bend, rock and lock on the major rivers of Europe.
Outstanding food on board
Meals on board Brabant were definitely not to be missed. In charge of the Galley and with a team of eight was the talented, and charming Executive Chef Julia Baranovska from the Ukraine.
Food on board was seriously good – the breakfast buffet porridge was rated as superb, and if you didn’t want the buffet scrambled eggs – no problem the breakfast chef cooked eggs to your choice.
Lunch was either buffet style, soup, baguettes, paninis or pasta or full service three course meals beautifully cooked and served, I could live on the vegetarian Chili con Verdura .There was always a queue for afternoon tea. And dinner was even more spectacular, and again superb cooking.
The meat dishes were cooked by Julia herself. Meat, she told me, was what she liked cooking best of all, and my goodness she was good at it –perfectly cooked to the diner’s request.
Not being much of a dessert fan I would usually opt for cheese and biscuits but on the farewell night I succumbed to the Baked Alaska. Quite simply it was the best cruise ship – river or deep sea – Baked Alaska I have ever eaten.
…and relaxing days and evenings
Evenings were spent in the Panorama lounge bar either chatting, or maybe taking part in a quiz (even Bingo) or listening to a guest performer or a cruise talk, and later to the delightful duo who played and sang whilst some of us took to the dance floor.
I loved spending time on Brabant’s Sun Deck watching the massive cargo-carrying barges and other river craft, whilst revelling in the glorious scenery or simply gazing into the water enjoying the reflections. There was always something to watch.
Pretty wine towns like Trabach
With stops at a number of pretty river side wine towns we had plenty of opportunities to stretch our legs and explore narrow cobbled streets and town squares like those in Trarbach where vines real or manufactured festooned doorways and railings.
If you have time call into the little church, whilst I could see no evidence of vines I was captivated by its stunning modern stained glass windows.
Bernkastel on the Moselle river and right in the heart of the Moselle wine region was also new to me, and what a pretty little town it is. In its centre a medieval market place with half-timbered houses vying for the attention of photographers along with the ornate Alte Rathaus -and yes the Spitzgiebelhaus really is crooked.
A wine tasting had been organised for us in Bernkastel . It was interesting enough, but I realised I had made a mistake – I should have been out exploring the town’s narrow cobbled streets, going into one of the cafes for a pastry or indulging in a little gentle retail therapy – the shops were enticing.
Cochem and wine tasting
Next stop was Cochem another chocolate box pretty town dominated by the Reichsburg Castle perched high above the town.
Conveniently close to where Brabant was moored was the family run H.H. Hieronimi wine cellar and where we spent a happy and interesting hour tasting and learning about the wines of the region. hieronimi-wein.de/
Almost without us realising it Brabant left the Moselle and made her way back to the Rhine. We moored at Cologne just a few yards from where I particularly wanted to be.
However, I didn’t want to appear to keen and eager, and as I was so early I wandered off to admire the exterior of Cologne’s cathedral and pay my respects to the busy railway station which I had been in and out of so many times in the past.
However, I could delay no longer. I retraced my steps to the river esplanade, passing Brabant before turning into what had been my original goal – the Chocolate Museum. The museum in the Rheinau harbour looks remarkably like a moored ship, and I love it.
It had though been some years since my previous visit and the museum had had a serious makeover. Inside over nine sections visitors learn about the history of chocolate from Mayan and Aztec times to the present day and all the processes in between needed to produce it; the tour also includes a tropical greenhouse with cocoa plants.
The museum, which also features a Lindt chocolate fountain in the shape of a stylised cocoa pod, makes its own chocolate and it’s fascinating to watch the process.
And, on the way out there is also a well-stocked Chocolate Shop – perfect for souvenirs. schokoladenmuseum.de/en/
Our last afternoon was spent in Dϋsseldorf. For a week we had been immersed in the wine culture of the region but that all changed in Dϋsseldorf. Beer!
As I walked along I was aware that the pavements had occasional bottle caps embedded in them. They’ve been brewing Altbier (the local brew) in Dusseldorf since the mid -19th century.
It was a pleasant stroll from where Brabant lay at her mooring along the river promenade and into the Altstadt – to our right the sweep of the Rhine punctuated by the modern bridge and high rise buildings. The Altstadt is not known as the longest bar in the world for nothing -its half square mile is lined with bars, and even in mid-afternoon was positively heaving.
Great art galleries and shopping
If you have time there are some superb art galleries and museums in the city.
And if shopping, and especially fashion, is your thing then Dusseldorf really is your city – by all means head for Königsallee – but be warned with its upmarket labels and designer shops it is said to be one of Germany’s most expensive streets, though luckily part of it is home to some of the high street chain stores making it slightly more in-budget.
Dϋsseldorf is also home to a local liqueur – Killepitsch. It has a bitter sweet slightly herbal taste, which for some of us could become addictive! Try it very well-chilled, and in small quantities – its 42% proof. Also look out too for shops selling the local mustard.
Sampling the local beer
We took a slightly different route back to Brabant and came across an intriguing statue close to a little river. The river was significant – it was the Dussel which gave its name centuries ago to the small Roman settlement built on the bank of the Rhine.
Tired by now and in need of a sit-down plus something cold and refreshing we found a bar and decided to try the local Altbier. It’s a top-fermented beer, with a clean fresh, moreish taste and was delicious.
As I walked back to MS Brabant for what unfortunately was our last night on board, my thoughts turned not only to what a splendid cruise it had been, but also to the Roman wine bottle in Speyer.
Was there the possibility I wondered, that perhaps somebody centuries in the future, might unearth a buried, forgotten fragment of an ancient pavement – embedded in it a few discarded beer bottle tops – and exhibit it in a local museum for visitors to ponder over!
79 rooms, 154 passengers, 40 crew
At 360’ long Brabant is slightly smaller than some river cruise ships but what she lacks in length she compensates for with her ability to moor in stretches of rivers and ports of call that other ships can’t access.
There are plenty of chairs on the Sun Deck with its Lido Bar, but if you want a little activity it is equipped for games of shuffleboard or chess; whilst at the bow on Mozart Deck, conveniently close to the Panorama Bar, there is also a nice seating area with comfortable rattan furniture.
The outstanding meals are served in the elegant Panorama Restaurant at tables designed for six, and, for slightly less formal meals, in the Panorama Bar.
Most cabins have a Juliette balcony and all are thoughtfully and well-equipped – including a hospitality tray; also on board is a lift, a massage room and hair salon, gym, some bicycles and a deck plunge pool.
For relax time there is the comfortable Panorama Bar and Lounge as well as the cosy Amadeus Club room.
Iconic Landmarks of the Rhine & Moselle
There will be four similar ‘Iconic Landmarks of the Rhine & Moselle’ fly-cruises with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines in 2020. Ports of call include: Basel, Switzerland – Strasbourg, France – Speyer, Germany – cruising the Middle Rhine Valley and by Lorelei – Koblenz, Germany (overnight stay) – cruising the Lower Moselle Valley – Cochem, Germany – Cologne, Germany (overnight stay and disembarkation).
Prices for all four departures start from £1,599 per person, and include all food and entertainment on board Brabant, return flights from London and Manchester airports, port and airport taxes and transfers.
For further information on Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, visit fredolsencruises.com.