While cruising down the picturesque rivers of Germany, Graham Bright enjoys spying vineyards, castles and historic towns from the comfort of his floating hotel.
The old railway bridge loomed ever closer as the ship’s captain advised me: “Please mind your head sir.” I sensed it was only a precaution, but the underside of the bridge was a mere six inches above the top of my head as I stood on the top deck while we passed underneath, so he was probably right to issue the warning.
It was another lesson in how river cruising differs markedly from the maritime variety. Forget those long days at sea with nothing on the horizon - on the river you are assailed by new sights at every turn. These include bridges of every design and age - we must have passed beneath a couple of hundred on our journey from Luxembourg through Germany to Nuremberg on the rivers Moselle, Rhine and Main.
And then there are the locks - a total of 53 to be negotiated at regular intervals, each posing a test for our Hungarian skipper as he nursed the 360ft long Amalegro into and out of the chambers with just a few inches to spare on each side, watched every time by fascinated passengers.
But the most stunning views were of the steep-sided river banks of the Moselle and Rhine where countless vineyards snake upwards at seemingly impossible angles, and Gothic castles peer down from their defensive positions at the top of the valleys.
This was the essence of our voyage, and it is easy to understand why European river cruising is such a fast-growing sector of the holiday market, attracting passengers from all over the globe to the wide open river road that stretches all the way from Amsterdam to the Black Sea, connecting 15 countries over its distance of 2,220 miles. Add in the numerous stops at historic villages, towns and cities along the way and you have an experience that will increasingly give sea cruising a run for its money.
But if you seek a vessel packed with facilities and amusements, then perhaps it’s not for you. The four-year-old Amalegro, one of 11 ships operated by AMA Waterways, carries just 150 passengers and the emphasis is very much on eating, sleeping, relaxing and frequent disembarkations.
A real sense of camaraderie builds up as guests meet at regular intervals in the main lounge and bar, or in the very comfortable restaurant where you can select your own table with as many or as few fellow diners as you please, and enjoy complimentary (and excellent) local wines.
At the end of the eight-day cruise we were on first-name terms with at least 30 fellow passengers and on nodding acquaintance with perhaps 50 more.
There’s no need for climbing walls and the like when there’s good conversation to be had. And there’s no possibility of even attempting a climbing wall after you’ve enjoyed the generous amounts of very good food on offer, with the three main meals supplemented by mid-morning snacks, afternoon tea and late-night titbits.
Joining the Amalegro in the small Luxembourg town of Remich on the Moselle, we were immediately made welcome by our Bulgarian cabin stewardess Teddy (short for Teodora), a hugely likeable mother hen who installed us in our ample “stateroom” and even arranged for my jackets, creased from the suitcase, to be pressed free of charge.
She’s married to Arthur, the charming hotel manager with a permanent grin and that knack of making everyone feel special. That night we were invited to dine on the captain’s table - I’m not sure why but I’m glad we were because it was the start of several good friendships.
Our first port of call the following day was Trier, the oldest city in Germany with an impressive array of Roman remains including an amphitheatre, baths and the famous Porta Nigra, the best preserved Roman city gate in the world. It was the first outing for what the cruise staff called our “devices” - mobile phone-sized units with headphones which pick up the tour guide’s words of wisdom within a range of about 30 metres - so you don’t need to stay close by her side.
Back on board we positioned ourselves in comfy chairs on the top deck for an afternoon cruise along the idyllic Moselle valley, its lush vine-clad slopes ascending from the meandering waterway. The Romans first planted vines in the fourth century, and these days some top-quality Rieslings originate here.
By teatime we had tied up at Bernkastel, surely the most picture postcard village in the whole of Germany with an abundance of 16th century half-timbered houses clustered higgledy-piggledy on narrow streets. Wine shops abound here, many selling the famous Bernkastel Doktor, which an ancient archbishop believed could cure all ills.
Next day we completed the Moselle leg of our cruise in Koblenz, where the river flows into the mighty Rhine. After a visit to the annual flower show next to a fortress situated on a bluff high above the city, we took a cable car across the Rhine to explore the beautiful old town before rejoining the Amalegro for one of the highlights of the week - a cruise through the Rhine Gorge past more than 30 castles and the famed Lorelei rock which soars 120 metres above the waterline.
The most unexpected sight was the large number of commercial barges plying their trade along this wide waterway, some almost 100 metres long and skippered from wheelhouses at the very stern. Not for the faint-hearted!
After dinner that night we left the ship in Rudesheim and piled into a mini-train for a visit to Siegfried’s Kabinett Museum, which houses a truly amazing collection of mechanical musical instruments, many dating back to the 19th century and all in working order. The sound from the orchestrions, huge structures as large as minibuses which play all the instruments of an orchestra, was deafening.
The following day we joined the Main river, which has undergone extensive canalisation work to make it navigable for shipping all the way from the Rhine in the west to the Danube in the east. It’s narrower than the Moselle and the Rhine, and its low bridges forced the closure of the Amalegro’s top deck from time to time.
Armed with our “devices”, we toured the city of Mainz and marvelled at its Romanesque cathedral before, a short hop later, we moored slap bang in the middle of Frankfurt - known as “Mainhattan” because of its towering modern buildings. It felt strange to be in such an urban environment but after a quick walkabout our floating hotel was off again.
More traditional riverside treats lay in store the following day when we visited charming Miltenberg and Wertheim. In the more industrialised city of Wurzburg we signed up to a cycling tour, using the Amalegro’s guest bikes, and followed the riverbank trail for a few miles as we burned off a few of those excess calories.
Our last full day included a tour of historic Bamberg, designated a Unesco world heritage site, which is home to nine old-fashioned breweries. Their most famous product is “rauchbier”, a strong dark ale with a smoky flavour and an aftertaste of bacon. I downed a half-litre without much trouble but others in our party (Australians included) were struggling to appreciate its charm.
After a farewell dinner and some furious packing of suitcases, it was time to enjoy a few nightcaps in the bar with newfound friends from English-speaking nations around the globe. At the crack of dawn the ship berthed just outside Nuremberg and the adventure was over.
Key facts - German river cruise
:: Best for: Beautiful scenery and plentiful stops at historic venues.
:: Time to go: Spring, summer or autumn.
:: Don’t miss: The sights of the Rhine Gorge.
:: Need to know: Be prepared for plenty of walking (and cycling).
:: Don’t forget: A good map to get your bearings.
Graham Bright was a guest of AMA Waterways, whose eight-day cruise between Remich and Nuremberg costs from £1,624 per person in a stateroom for two. Visit www.amawaterways.co.uk or call 0800 389 9811.