The rivers of most countries flow with stories of its history, culture, and way of life. And so it was with the Mosel, Rhine and Main. Cities and towns along these rivers form much of the foundation of Germany, as we discovered on our recent river cruise.

Our journey was on the Viking Idun, one of the newer ships in the Viking’s extensive offerings of cruise ships around the world.

Its itinerary would take us from Trier to Bamberg, offering some of the best sites and experiences the country has to offer. Taken together they present a cohesive collage of what Germany is today, and why it has such meaning to Europe and the rest of the world.

Our ship was the Vilking Idun

Trier is Germany’s oldest city.

During the Roman Empire, it became a power center of its own as the capital prefecture of the Gauls, with responsibility for governing over much of the Western Roman Empire.

Today there are vestiges of Roman baths and a Roman amphitheater which still look much like they might have centuries ago. As Christianity took hold, massive cathedrals were built, which to this day form an important part of the fabric that is the daily life of the Germans living there.

This is an important city as relates to religious history in a more meaningful way as well. The Trier Cathedral is where the Holy Tunic is kept. Purportedly, this is the garment worn by Jesus when he died. It is exhibited only every few decades. It is therefore no wonder that Trier today is predominantly Catholic, as are many of the cities along these rivers until you get to the region around Heidelberg.

The region going north of it, for the most part, was influenced more by Martin Luther’s leadership, when he and the Catholic Church parted company after his 1517 Ninety Five Theses, which lead to the Reformation Period.

Trier itself gave the world its own revolutionary of a different sort. It is also the birthplace of Karl Marx.

Our ship's director gave really good descriptions of the Castles on the Rhine.
Many of the castles on the rhine are now hotel propertries.
On Germany's Rhine River there is always lots to see.
The views from atop German castles are always great!

As we begin our cruise, castles and vineyards dominate much of the landscape as the ship moves past the quaint traditional towns and villages that punctuate the shorelines, creating exceptional photographic opportunities seemingly around every bend of the rivers.

Wine exports are an important contributor to the economic base of many of the cities we would visit along all three rivers. We would sample the different ones that helped make their regions known throughout the world as often as we could.

Day trips into some of the more prominent communities like Cochem, lead to fascinating explorations of places like the 1,000 year-old Reichsburg Castle. To this day it still appears like an imposing fortress dominating the region from its steep hilltop location.

At the end of each day a fine dinner, taken with some of the fine wines of the region, lead to enjoyable conversations with newfound friends in the ship’s only bar.

Entering the Middle Rhine, it is the preponderance of castles that capture our attention. It is an added bonus to have the ship’s program director explain the background of those that have greater historical significance.

While all of these castles give us a glimpse of the past, perhaps the must-see of the trip is the Marksburg Castle near Rudesheim. It is a most physically demanding tour to take because of the uneven terrain, narrow passages and significant climbing. But it is one of the few castles that has remained virtually intact since the Middle Ages.

While the communities near the rivers we sail are interesting and most accessible, a side trip through the countryside affords an entirely different view of the German farm economy and lifestyle.

Vineyard tours and wine tastings are extremely popular, as are excursions that take us to cities like Heidelberg, not on the three rivers we sail upon, but rather on one of its tributaries. It is the home of Germany’s oldest university, evident from the age of the majority of young people we pass on the streets.

While its castle is one of the prime tourist draws in the region, Heidelberg offers some of the best shopping opportunities on our trip. A number of streets have been closed off to vehicular traffic. The shops along them range from international brands, to unique local and regional outlets selling products, and especially women’s and men’s clothing that also make the area a fashion leader.

Sailing along the Main River, our last stop will be near the city of Bamberg. While my wife shopped, myself and a number of fellow travelers from the ship chose to go on the optional beer tasting tour.

Our timing coincided close to the major Oktoberfest that takes place annually in Munich, so celebrating vicariously in this way seemed somehow just.

One of the samplings, a specialty of the region handed down over centuries, is a smoked beer with a hint of bacon taste. While it may be a recipe that comes down from the Middle Ages, it is also one that takes North American palates some time to get used to, but it is to this day a favorite of the locals.

On river cruise ships it is so easy to make friends.

So at the completion of the cruise, it is always sad to leave newfound friends behind, but we know we will keep in touch with many. Others will become memories that will keep with us forever. We will treasure the sights we have seen, the places we have visited and the experiences gained sailing on a river cruise.

River cruising is a unique experience. I am often asked to compare it to ocean cruising. My answer is always the same. It is like comparing New York to Tokyo, downhill skiing to bicycling, or NASCAR to the 100 yard dash. Each must be judged on its own merits.

There are no opulent halls or multiple entertainment options on river cruises, but the service on a river cruise is every bit as good as on an ocean voyage.

On a river cruise you are often steps away from the destination city you wish to visit. On an ocean cruise it can be up to a couple of hours away.

 

River cruising is a unique experience. I am often asked to compare it to ocean cruising. My answer is always the same. It is like comparing New York to Tokyo, downhill skiing to bicycling, or NASCAR to the 100 yard dash. Each must be judged on its own merits.

There are no opulent halls or multiple entertainment options on river cruises, but the service on a river cruise is every bit as good as on an ocean voyage.

On a river cruise you are often steps away from the destination city you wish to visit. On an ocean cruise it can be up to a couple of hours away.

There is something to do every hour of the day on a cruise ship during those long and often continuous sea days when the ship doesn’t touch land. People keep busy in spas, casinos or fitness rooms. On a river cruise there are no sea days. You are able to go ashore every day and experience the places that motivated you to choose your itinerary in the first place.

And while most excursions are add-on charges on ocean cruises, they are included on river cruises. While they tend to be short half day motor coach or city walking tours, the guides are excellent and give you a full perspective of the places you have seen.

Experienced ocean cruise passengers find the single bar and structured dining seating of river voyages a hard reality to get used to at first. But with fewer than 200 passengers, friends are made quickly, and it becomes evident this is the only way small ship meals can be served.

For the similarities, or the differences, for people who have yet to try river cruising, I heartily recommend it; and the three rivers of Germany may be a perfect start for you.

It was Bismark who was the real unifier of Germany