THE WATERWAYS of Europe have always been unifying force and have always been used to transport both people and goods across the continent. For many decades travellers have enjoyed the scenery of the Rhine River basin and parts of the "Blue" Danube from the decks of passenger vessels that are specifically designed to cruise these waters. However, over the last couple of decades we have seen the popularity of this form of travel simply explode. For many years the middle section of the Rhine was considered a part of the Grand Europe experience. Today we can enjoy cruises on all of Europe's major river systems, from the tiny Douro River in northern Portugal to the mighty Volga of Russia and the Dnieper River in the Ukraine.
River cruising takes many forms, with ships varying from small barges, carrying just ten passengers, to large vessels designed to carry more than 300 passengers. On the small rivers of France, we find barges that gently pass through the tranquil countryside, offering passengers the use of bicycles and the enjoyment of delightful cuisine and wine tasting. The pace is slow, ensuring a most relaxing environment and the distances covered measured in metres rather than kilometres. The programs are designed to introduce you to particular wine region, to visit a chateau and to enjoy leisurely pace of life in the countryside.
In England (and in other areas), you can hire a small barge that you operate yourself, exploring the tiny canals that lace across the British landscapes. You can set your own pace, subject of course to the traffic conditions that you find en route (yes, you can experience traffic jams in rural English canals).
At the other end of the scale are the river boats found in Russia and the Ukraine. Built in the former East Germany, there are literally dozens of these river boats sailing the Volga and the lakes between Moscow and St Petersburg, along the mighty Dnieper to the Black Sea and the other rivers of Eastern Europe. In fact it was the Russian Waterways cruises that sparked the renewed interest in river cruising about a decade ago. These two-week journeys between Russia's most important centres provided travelers with an opportunity to experience the dramatic changes that were overtaking this country from the relative comfort and security of a self contained floating home. Passengers are able to explore both Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as a host of small centres between them while never having to pack a bag or change a hotel. Travellers should always remember that while many of these cruises claim to be deluxe, the cabins are best described as extremely cozy and Russia is at best a Third World country with all the limitations that entails.
Throughout the heart of Western Europe, there are literally dozens of companies operating the more traditional fiver cruises, on ships that carry from 80 to 180 passengers. Rivers on which we can now find such cruises include the Po (Italy); the Seine, Saone and Rhone (France); the Rhine, Main, Moselle, and Elbe (Germany) and the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea. Indeed with the spectacular Main/Danube Canal, it is now possible to cruise all the way from the North Sea to the Black Sea via the heart of Europe. …