Sunset in the Moselle Valley, Germany, with a view of the town of Cochem and surrounding vineyards, from Reichsburg Castle. © Olena Mykhaylova/Shutterstock
Between Paris and Prague on the “Cities of Light” river cruise by Viking Cruises is a steep valley with world-renown vineyards whose beauty caught the author by surprise.
By Clark Norton
Originally published: March/April 2016
Every memorable trip produces at least one major surprise. For me—and for many of my fellow passengers aboard Viking Cruises’ “Cities of Light” voyage from Paris to Prague—the talk of the ship last fall was the Moselle River’s array of autumnal, golden-hued vineyards, clinging to miles of German hillsides that angled sharply up from the river banks.
The Viking Odin—which served as our floating hotel for more than 400 miles, including the Moselle Valley—is one of the first of Viking’s fast-growing fleet of “Longships” that ply European rivers. Scandinavian-sleek in design, the four-deck ship carries a maximum of 190 passengers.
The Aquavit Terrace, aboard the Viking Odin, is a spacious outdoor seating area at the bow of the ship for a meal al fresco, drinks with friends, or reading a book. Courtesy Viking River Cruises
Almost all shore excursions—medieval-era German towns with half-timbered houses, bustling market squares, inviting specialty shops, and winding, cobbled streets—were included in the cruise price. On some occasions, the Odin docked right in the center of town, so that we could simply walk off the boat, take a stroll around, do some shopping or people-watching, sample the local food or drink if we wished, and re-board before the ship sailed.
Trier, our first port along the Moselle, is Germany’s oldest city, founded more than 2,000 years ago by the Romans. A number of impressive Roman ruins remain today. The Black Gate is the largest remaining Roman city gate in northern Europe. Another, a colosseum overlooking the river, was fashioned from earth rather than stone. A colorful vineyard planted on the edges of the earthen colosseum was just the first of many we would see during our cruise along the Moselle, known for its white wines, especially Rieslings. The grapes are mostly picked by hand, just as they have been for thousands of years. Machines simply can’t negotiate the sharp slopes.
Two fairytale villages along the Moselle followed Trier. The Odin’s genial head chef, Andreas, led a sausage-tasting tour during a late-afternoon stop in Bernkastel, where the lights of the market square formed a magical glow as darkness descended. The following day, we toured the equally enchanting village of Cochem, which lies at the center of the Moselle Valley wine trade and features an attractive waterfront lined with taverns dispensing young “green wine.”
We reached Reichsburg Castle—which looms atop a hill over the town—via a narrow, winding road. Razed by French soldiers and restored in the 1800s, the castle displays an incongruous mix of architectural styles, but with knockout river views in clear weather.
Leaving the Moselle the following day, we entered the Middle Rhine valley, one of Germany’s signature attractions. With dozens of centuries-old castles perched high above both sides of the river, passengers gathered in the lounge—where floor-to-ceiling windows offered exceptional views—on their private balconies, or on the open sun deck (blustery that day) to take in the scene.
About halfway through the valley, we sailed past the area’s most celebrated landmark, the Lorelei Rock. According to legend, a maiden dwelt there singing siren songs to unwary sailors and luring them to their deaths—“in throes of desire and love,” as German poet Heinrich Heine wrote—as the waters sent their boats crashing into the rocks. Thanks to Captain Csabai’s skill at steering the ship, we managed to avoid that fate.
But unknown to us at the time, the Captain had an extra burden to contend with. Following a long regional drought, the water level on the Middle Rhine was so low that he had to navigate carefully to avoid scraping bottom. (Two other German rivers, the Danube and the Elbe, were so shallow during the summer and fall of 2015 that cruising there was disrupted for months.) The Captain’s expertise was also evident during our passage through more than 40 locks during the cruise—often only inches separated us from the walls as we slowly made our way through.
Clark Norton is a regular contributor to EnCompass. Norton reports on trends in Baby Boomer travel at clarknorton.com.
Some shore excursions were all-day affairs. One of the best was Heidelberg, a university town, where we toured a castle and had lunch with students who discussed the basics of Germany’s educational system (including free college tuition). Another was an optional tour via the “Romantic Road” to the almost perfectly preserved thousand-year-old walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a favorite of 19th-century Romantic poets and 21th-century gift shoppers.
But my favorite shore excursion came on the last full day of the cruise, in Bamberg, where the modern city’s medieval heart—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—beats with urban amenities like cafes and produce stands. One striking sight was the City Hall, which is built right in the center of a river. I also liked a brewery that produces Rauchbier (smoke beer), a local specialty that’s said, with perhaps slight embellishment, to have been invented by a miserly brew meister who didn’t want anything to go to waste after a fire charred his hops.
The Cities of Light cruise includes several leisure days in Paris. Visit the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay, and the Georges Pompidou Center. Take a Seine cruise aboard a bâteau-mouche and see some of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On the second day, in the morning, you and other guests will take a half-day city tour.
A guided walk takes you through Old Town to the famed Charles Bridge. Then, travel to Hradčany for a guided tour inside Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. The rest of the day is leisure time; see the Town Hall’s 15th-century astronomical clock, linger in historic Wenceslas Square, and discover the city’s Jewish heritage in the Josefov Quarter.
Viking Cruises is a AAA Travel Preferred Partner, and offers river cruises on several continents. Ask an AAA Colorado travel agent for details about your dream trip in Europe or Asia. You’ll find a friendly, knowledgeable agent at any of AAA Colorado’s retail store locations.