Scour the internet hard enough and you'll find guide after guide about not only where to take your holidays, but when. There are swathes of people out there who think they know best when it comes to giving advice about which destinations are best at certain times of year. Some are fairly self-evident, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone recommending a Christmas market break in the middle of summer, some offer genuine insider insight, and some are just filled with plain old nonsense. And one area of travel where such assistance is becoming ever more ubiquitous as popularity surges is river cruising.
At Great Rail Journeys, we've recently dipped our toes into the world of charter cruising, hiring out entire ships for a season so customers can enjoy the full Great Rail Journeys experience. This has made us somewhat an expert in river cruising; we've created hand-picked itineraries that allow natural attractions to be admired in their full glory, added touches on board that will make you feel right at home, and organised events that are truly one-of-a-kind. (Fancy having the green-fingered Charlie Dimmock giving you insider tips as you experience the tulips of Keukenhof Gardens or a private recital from members of the world-renowned Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra? Then look no further!)
However, each European river is nuanced, with its own subtle differences that, in times of yore, were once attributed to different ancient river gods such as the mischievous Nixies - German water sprites who would lure men to their deaths when rivers were high, or the Tarrasque dragon, whose moods were fabled to affect water levels. But today we know better, with all our planning and research we perhaps know better than most, and we want to share our expertise with you so you can plan your cruise holiday based around what's most important to YOU.
Best for: The Rhine
A lot of industry insiders will tell you (well actually they probably won't because they want to keep things all to themselves) that May and early June are two of the best times to embark on a European river cruise. The weather can be glorious, just look at the last two bank holidays we've had, but a lot of people are cautious and opt for a summer trip instead, a time of year when tourist numbers are at their highest across the continent. It's May when the Netherlands are at their most vibrant, with millions of tulip bulbs sprouting, and it's the season extoled by Friedrich Hölderlin in his poem dedicated to the Rhine River;
"In the dark ivy at the forest's gate
I sat, as golden noon, visiting
The spring, descended from Alpine stair-flights."
River levels during spring can be at their highest without even a drop of rain falling thanks to snow melt at higher altitudes. This means the valleys they flow through are at their lushest and most vibrant even when the weather is clear and fine. Flooding and lock closures though are topics that feature heavily on cruise forums, as levels on certain waterways such as the Rhône can mean ships aren't able to pass through as expected due to either too little or too much water. These incidents rarely affect the quality of the cruise as a whole, and is something experienced operators will have a back-up plan for, whether that's a coach to make sure no excursions are missed, or even a local hotel room if the ship is unable to meet the group at a certain destination. Cruising is such big business; it would be foolish not to prepare for eventualities like these.
Spring specialties on board include lamb and leafy vegetables such as carrots and spinach. A real treat to sample this time of the year is the Douro's green wine, so named not because of its colour, but because it's made from very young grapes.
Best for: The Danube
Imagine summer in Europe and you'll most likely picture late-evening, al fresco dinners in some sandstone piazza or perhaps looking out across a Mediterranean beach. Unfortunately though you might have to share it with more people than you'd like. But not so on a river cruise. Whilst across the country parents are shuttling their children across the channel before the school term starts back up, river cruising usually attracts a more mature set of clientele. River cruise ships do not as a rule boast any kid's clubs, playgrounds or swimming pools, they do however have a perfect, ready-made sun bathing spot in the shape of a sun deck. After a busy day touring an ancient medieval city or wandering through the Austrian Lake District, there's no better retreat to return to, watching your nimble crew unmoor your floating hotel as you drift off in to the peace and quiet of river life.
Summer is the season of white asparagus in Germany and Eastern Europe, a more delicately flavoured version of its tastefully boisterous cousin, with a sweet aftertaste.
Best for: The Douro
Early Autumn is all about one thing. Grape harvests. The geographical nature of rivers means the ground surrounding them is often rich in nutrients and extremely fertile, whilst their sloped banks act like a suntrap. Irrigation systems are easy to set up (comparatively) and by their very nature there is a readymade way of transporting goods right at your fingertips. All of this goes to show exactly why vineyards have thrived beside Europe's rivers over the centuries, the Rhine and the Douro in particular. Whilst these regions make the most of their local tipples all year round, offering tours and tastings at riverside wineries, come September and October they really come into their own. Watch in awe as you sail through the Douro Valley, the tiered inclines rising up beside you awash with local workers who deftly traverse the contoured hillsides, cutting down bunches of as they go. In fact, visit the right Quinta at the right time and you may even find yourself involved in a good old-fashioned grape stomp, a traditional Portuguese excuse for a party.
The weather at this time of year is still pretty reliable, and while the days themselves may feel a bit cooler, the locked in heat from neighbouring summer months still rises up from the ground, and the sight of Germany and Hungary as the leaves change could rival any number of New England landscapes. If there is a slight nip in the air however, combat it with a visit to one of Budapest's thermal baths for a dip in the naturally toasty waters and a fantastic session of people watching. On board your ship, root vegetables will begin to make an appearance on the menu alongside hearty meat stews.