The most relaxing way to see Europe

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 74 of the October 2008 issue.

by Lew Toulmin

Schloss Johannisburg in Aschaffenburg on the Main River in Germany, with the &Viking Danube& in the foreground. The castle was completed in 1614. Photo courtesy of Viking River Cruises

Do you want to see Europe but in a way that minimizes your outlays of expensive euros and maximizes your relaxation? Consider a delightful cruise up the beautiful Danube, across the fascinating Main Canal and down the glorious Rhine.

My wife, Susan, and I did just that, Oct. 14-29, 2007, sailing as guests of Viking River Cruises (5700 Canoga Ave., Ste. 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367; 800/304-9616) aboard their luxury vessel Viking Danube on a terrific 15-day voyage from Budapest to Amsterdam.

The advantages of this type of river cruising are many. You get to see a big part of Europe and sample the delights of many countries. You minimize your time on buses. (I don’t know about you, but buses always put me to sleep!) You unpack only once, minimizing your schlepping of heavy luggage.

If you are feeling active, you can take a vigorous walk every day through each river town. The vessel almost always docks in the most interesting and beautiful part of town. Or, if you want to relax a lot, you can just watch the beautiful scenery scroll past the huge lounge windows.

Your fare is all inclusive (except drinks) and paid in dollars, so you can say good-bye to money and euro worries.

Also, there is no rolling of the ship and no “mal de mer.”

Memorable stops

Every day of our Viking river cruise brought another stunning highlight, so picking only a few is difficult, but, for us, the super-highlights were the towns of Bratislava, Nuremberg and Rothenburg plus cruising by the Rhine River castles.

BRATISLAVA was impressive because it had transformed itself so well. When I last saw the city, in the early 1990s, it was run-down and sad, but Bratislava and all of Slovakia has become an industrial powerhouse, focusing on car manufacturing. Unemployment is down to just four percent and incomes are rising fast. Much of the resulting wealth has been used to restore the Old Town to its former glory.

Excellent restaurants and beautiful architecture delight the palate and eye. Playful Bratislava street statues, like Napoleon casually peering over the shoulders of people sitting at a park bench, surprise even the most experienced traveler.

NUREMBERG reminded us of the history of “the greatest generation.” Viking provided us with an excellent young guide who knew a tremendous amount about the Nazis and World War II. He took us to the huge Zeppelin Field parade ground, where over a million Nazi faithful saluted Hitler in carefully orchestrated rallies that stretched over an entire week.

We learned about the Nazi plans to build the largest enclosed stadium in the world, seating 405,000, three times larger than the current largest stadium. We were stunned to hear how Hitler planned to force the Olympics to be held in Nuremberg in perpetuity, after he had conquered all of Europe.

We also visited the famous Room 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice, where the Nazi atrocities were revealed and its perpetrators judged. According to our guide, the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg,” with Spencer Tracy and Burt Lancaster, did a good job of summarizing one of the secondary trials, where Nazi judges were themselves judged and found guilty.

ROTHENBURG is one of the most complete medieval towns in Europe, with an entire city wall, glorious churches and a fabulous city clock with two moving figures. This clock tells the story of the town mayor who saved the town from destruction during the Thirty Years War by winning a bet that he could drink three liters of beer in one go within two minutes. Talk about a Big Gulp!

Cruising the Rhine River castles area is one of the greatest cruise experiences on the planet. There are castles in many areas along the river, but the highest concentration is in the 35 miles from Bingen to Koblenz. Along this stretch, the hills march down to the river, the scenery and even the vineyards are almost vertical, and a castle appears on almost every promontory. Some are only a half mile apart.

The ship

On board, our cabin was attractive and measured about 11 feet by 12, with a small closet and bath. The décor included beige walls and burl walnut-style surfaces, a large 3-by-6-foot window (with great views!) and two twin beds (combinable into a king bed).

There was not a lot of storage space, but dress was casual to “smart casual,” so a big wardrobe was quite unnecessary. Individually controlled air-conditioning systems are provided for each cabin. Wall sockets are 220 volts with European-style plugs.

Our fellow passengers aboard the Viking Danube ranged in age from 50 to 75, and there were no children aboard. Children under 12 are allowed, but children ages 12 to 18 are allowed only if accompanied by an adult. The passengers were easy to meet at the open-seating meals and in the lounge. Those I met were interesting and well traveled — like typical ITN readers!

Viking River Cruises’ sailings in 2009 similar to this voyage last for 15 days and go from Budapest to Amsterdam or the reverse. There are sailings in every month from April through November, and prices range from $3,499 to $7,599 per person, depending on cabin category.

These prices include all meals, daily shore excursions, fees, transfers and port charges. Airfares are additional and, round trip in economy class, range from $1,195 from New York or other Northeast cities to $1,795 from Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.

Lew Toulmin is the author of “The Most Traveled Man on Earth,” available for $16.95 plus $5 shipping from The Village Press (13108 Hutchinson Way, Silver Spring, MD 20906;