Cruising Through the Landscape of the Soul

Cruising Through the Landscape of the Soul photo

There's something timeless about cruising on the River Rhine. Today, there are hundreds of boats plying dozens of European rivers, but none is quite like the Rhine. Whether you choose to sail aboard a Rhine steamer, making every stop along the way, or in the luxury of what can only be described as a "floating hotel," you'll experience some of Europe's finest scenery on the river cruise.

Many choose to sleep in well-equipped cabins, eat first-class cuisine, served by attentive staff. But there's something to say for traveling the way the Germans do, aboard a local Rhine steamer, today made even easier with the Rhine River Pass, enabling you to travel for 24 hours, getting on and off along the way.

The Rhine is one of the world's most famous and longest rivers, flowing 820 miles (1,320 kilometers) from the Alps to the North Sea, as it passes near or through Austria, Switzerland, Germany, France, and The Netherlands. Along the way it flows through three distinct regions — the Lower, Middle and Upper Rhines. While the first and third feature flatter landscapes, the landscapes of the Middle Rhine rise dramatically from the river's banks between Koblenz and Rudesheim. For 40 miles, the river narrows as it flows through a steep-walled gorge.

Let's face it, not everyone has the luxury of spending three to five days sailing up or down the Rhine. By choosing to sail along the river's scenic mid-section — home to no less than two dozen medieval castles and fortresses — you'll take in the best it has to offer.

The Middle Rhine between Koblenz and Rudesheim defines most people's perception of this legendary waterway. On most cruises, you'll visit a different port every day, sometimes two. Most include walking tours, canal rides, and tours of museums and churches as part of the cost. Most of the ports are in town, so once the boat docks, you can walk to most places.

Most Rhine cruises feature lectures, musical evenings, and wine tastings. The small size of river ships — carrying no more than 200 passengers — is another plus. For a truly memorable cruise, you might want to book a "Rhine in Flames" cruise in July or August, when fireworks from some hilltop castles and palaces light up the night.

You'll begin your Middle Rhine cruise at Koblenz, a city that has stood at the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel Rivers for more than 2,000 years. Surrounded by vine-covered hills dotted with old castles and fortresses, it's the perfect embarkation point.

But before you embark, you may want to take the chairlift up to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, known as the Guard of the Rhine, across the river from town. Built on a rock 400 feet above the Rhine, the Prussians built the present walls on the site of the 10th-century fortress of the archbishops of Trier. From its terrace, you can see for miles up and down river.

About halfway down river from Koblenz the famous Lorelei Rock soars 433 feet (130 meters) above the water near the town of St. Goarshausen. Legend says a siren, sitting on top of the Lorelei Rock, distracted sailors with her mesmerizing song, causing shipwrecks when they ignored the dangerous rocks and currents at its base. The view of St. Goarshausen from the Lorelei outlook point is breathtaking. You'll also delight in the numerous medieval villages with their half-timbered buildings that line the river's banks.

At the opposite end of the cruise stands Rudesheim, the epitome of the Rhine wine towns. With its old courtyards and winding alleyways lined with half-timbered houses, Rudesheim is everything a wine town should be. Here, you can visit the enchanting Siegfried's Mechanical Music Cabinet Museum, featuring self-playing instruments dating back to the 18th century or take a cable car to the top of the steep, grapevine-covered hills and enjoy a magnificent view of vineyards and the river.

Though July and August are the two most popular months for Rhine cruises, you may prefer to sail during May or September when there are fewer crowds.