Riverside cities, vibrant towns and cobbled-street villages have all grown up and developed over centuries next to Europe's waterways, whilst magnificent mountain vistas, perched castles and lush vineyards await exploration by river. Relive history as we gently cruise to evocative destinations, where Europe's past can be sketched out on the banks of the 'natural highways' of the Continent's rivers.
The River Rhône
Originating in the Swiss Alps the Rhône flows south to the Med, through some of France's most important cities, the gorgeous Provençal scenery of stunning jagged cliffs and gorges of the Ardèche, and beauty of the Camargue Delta. The banks of the Rhône contain some of the most productive vines in the world, and wine-producing villages are liberally sprinkled along this mighty river.
Sites not to be missed include:
- Lyon, where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet. Lyon's old town, perched on a peninsular between the rivers, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The spectacular Basilica Notre Dame de Fourvière watches over the city from its hilltop vantage
- The rolling vineyards of Burgundy
- Avignon, known as the 'City of the Popes', which was the capital of Christendom in the 14th century, with seven successive Popes residing here rather than Rome
- The natural beauty of the Camargue, home to wild white horses and pink flamingos
- Arles, the city that provided Van Gogh with the inspiration for many of his great works
The River Rhine
Europe's most important waterway, the Rhine, links Austria, Switzerland, France, Germany and Holland, and with its tributaries of the Main, the Neckar and the Moselle, offers some of the most scenic river cruising imaginable, with fairytale castles and steep vineyards. Germany's longest river has more castles along its length than any other river in the world, which have been used over the centuries as much as defensive strongholds as lucrative customs posts. Highlights of cruising the Rhine are many and varied, however, experiencing the Rhine Gorge from the river is truly special, with its steep hillsides, perched castles, cobble-streeted villages with timber-beamed houses and even haunting legends. Beyond the Gorge, Germany's industrial might has rested on the flow of the Rhine - Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn amongst others; whilst at its mouth, Amsterdam's canals and art museums await.
Highlights of the Rhine include:
- Basel, located at the point where Switzerland, France and Germany meet. A tour of the charming Swiss city includes a sculpture at the point where the three countries meet
- Freiburg, home to an impressive Gothic red sandstone cathedral and charming market place
- Colmar, one of the prettiest towns in the Alsace, with half-timbered and brightly coloured houses sitting on cobbled lanes
- Strasbourg, a city with French and German influences. The historic Old Town is dominated by the spectacular Notre Dame Cathedral, with its famous astronomical clock
- Heidelberg, situated not on the Rhine but on the nearby River Neckar. Heidelberg is one of Germany's most attractive towns, famous for its university and castle. The castle dominates the town's skyline and after suffering over the centuries it is now restored to its former glory. The picturesque Old Town, or Altstadt, contains many fine old buildings and a bustling market
- Rüdesheim, located in the heart of the Rhine Valley at the southern entrance to the Lorelei valley. It is home to the world-renowned Drosselgasse - a street lined with traditional pubs and wine cellars - and is one of the area's most popular wine towns
- Koblenz, situated in the picturesque landscape of the Rhine and Moselle. The town is surrounded by four low mountain ranges and boasts an abundance of cultural monuments and historic buildings
- Cologne, one of Great Rail Journeys favourite destinations, with its historic streets, elegant squares and medieval churches - not to mention the impressive Gothic cathedral that stands out as the city's most famous landmark
The River Danube
Rising in Germany's Black Forest, the Danube flows eastwards for 1,700 miles, through Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania before arriving at the Black Sea. Europe's second longest river offers visitors the full spectrum of vistas - from Austria's countryside or the lush wine region of Wachau, right through to the mighty imperial cities of Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest. One of the many highlights of cruising the Danube occurs just before reaching Budapest, where the river is forced through a narrow twisting valley known as the "Danube Bend", an extremely scenic area with green valleys and hills rising up from the river, picturesque market squares, and commanding fortresses with sweeping views.
Sightseeing highlights on the Danube include:
- Nuremberg, whose Old Town dates back to medieval times. Within the city walls of the Old Town there are several Gothic Churches, including the beautiful Frauenkirche
- Regensburg, situated at the confluence of the Danube and Regen rivers. The city has one of the best-preserved medieval town centres in Europe. St. Peter's Church, Regensburg's landmark, with its impressive stained glass windows from the middle ages, is the greatest Gothic cathedral in Bavaria and took over 600 years to build
- Passau, a delightful Baroque town situated on the Austrian border, and dominated by the imposing Veste Oberhaus. The castle, which has never been conquered by military force, offers commanding views of the mighty river and rolling countryside
- Melk, situated in Austria's wine-growing region, is the gateway to the scenic Wachau Valley. Its magnificent 11th century Benedictine Abbey stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Danube and town
- Vienna, one of the great European capitals and the seat of the Habsburg dynasty for centuries. Vienna is full of opulent palaces, grandiose public buildings, world-class museums and beautiful churches
- Budapest, known as a 'city of two halves', with stately Buda set on one bank, and its lively neighbour Pest just across the water. Admire the wonderful views of this incredible city from the Fisherman's Bastion and take the funicular up Castle Hill to explore the enchanting Buda Castle complex
The Volga-Baltic Waterway
Whilst the Volga heads south to the Caspian Sea and is the longest river in Europe, the Volga-Baltic Waterway heads north, linking Moscow with St Petersburg through a series of rivers including the Volga, the Svir and the Neva, and a number of lakes, reservoirs and canals. With the opening of the Moscow Canal in 1937, Russia's capital became connected to no less than five seas - the White, the Black, the Caspian, the Azov and the Baltic. Aside from scenery straight from Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, the tremendous feats of engineering and architecture encountered whilst cruising the Volga-Baltic Waterway are breathtaking, not least the 22 soaring onion domes of the Church of the Transfiguration, built entirely of wood and without the use of a single nail!
Don't miss these terrific Russian destinations:
- Moscow, a vibrant 24-hour metropolis with much to see and do - no other city in Russia offers such a rich variety of cultural delights. From medieval cathedrals to Stalin's neo-Gothic skyscrapers and the commanding presence of the Kremlin, you'll find plenty of sites to visit
- Uglich, the historic city destroyed during conflicts following the death of Ivan the Terrible. The city was gloriously rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries and now boasts some of Russia's most beautiful religious architecture
- Yaroslavl, a city rich in monuments. The city square's finest feature, the Church of Elijah the Prophet, is a must-see, with its ancient pews, icons and unique frescoes
- Lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. In the middle of the lake is the island of Kizhi, one of the most ancient inhabited sites in Russia. Kizhi was an early pagan centre and is now an open-air architectural museum and reserve, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site
- Svirstroy, an unspoilt Russian village full of little shops selling handmade trinkets and artwork
- St Petersburg, the former capital of Russia that was called Leningrad during most of the 20th century. Sightseeing in St Petersburg includes Nevsky Prospekt, the city's main street, St Isaac's Cathedral, the battle-cruiser Aurora, the oldest commissioned ship of the Russian Navy, and Palace Square which features the Alexander Column. The Hermitage, once the Winter Palace home of the Tsars is one of the most splendid and opulent museums in the world