The experience of a cruise on picturesque rivers in Europe is enhanced by the various side trips to visit charming towns and historic sites along the route. And there are too few superlatives to describe them adequately.
I sailed from Amsterdam, now a major cruising hub, to Basel in Switzerland on the inaugural voyage of Scenic Crystal, the latest addition to Scenic Tours' fleet, which cruises many European rivers.
Scenic's roots are in tour operating so the company pays a lot of attention to its land excursions. You can cycle, walk with or without guides, take a bus tour to nearby towns or other points of interest, or attend a local concert.
Passengers are provided with individual receivers to pick up the guide's commentary on walking tours. The company is expanding its GPS-activated system, which describes points of interest along the rivers and is introducing self-guided tours using iPad-style devices.
Major rivers in Europe tend to be busy water highways carrying many cargo vessels as well as pleasure craft. We sailed on the Rhine River, stopping first in Cologne, before a side trip along one of its tributaries, the Moselle.
- Moselle Meandering *
The Moselle is smaller than the Rhine, which it joins at Koblenz. It winds through the beautiful Moselle Valley, negotiating a number of locks along the route.
Many lovely towns adorn its shore and vertical vineyards growing the famous moselle grapes rise up from the river's banks, where white swans are frequently seen fossicking for food.
The medieval town of Cochem, with its half-timbered houses, is one of these. It was first settled by Celts in about 5BC. As in many European towns, the market square is the focal point.
Reichsburg Castle, built about AD1000, towers above Cochem. It was restored in 1868 and contains stunning works of art and furnishings.
Further along the river is a similar town, Bernkastel, which is well known for its ideal climate for growing grapes. Roman pressing stations have been discovered in the region in positions indicating that they too knew how to choose the best sites for the vines.
Trier, the oldest city in Germany, is just a 30-minute bus trip from Bernkastel. Built by Romans, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site with Porta Nigra (Black Gate), St Peter's Cathedral and Church of Our Lady being particularly notable structures.
Forty per cent of the city was destroyed by bombs in WWII.
- The romantic Rhine *
The Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe. Its source is in the Swiss Alps then it travels about 1200km to the Netherlands, where it breaks into three and flows into the North Sea.
It is fast flowing and in some places as wide as 1.5km but in Middle Rhine, between Bingen and Koblenz, it narrows and winds through the Rhine Gorge for about 65km.
This stretch is known for its continuous panorama of turrets, defensive walls and towers of ancient castles and fortresses perched high on the cliffs overlooking the river below.
Many are ruins but some have been restored and are open for tours.
Terraced vineyards climb up the steep banks here too and dozens of picturesque towns adorn the shores of this section of the Rhine, also designated a World Heritage site.
One of these, Rudesheim, was first settled by Celts and followed by Romans.
Like much of the Rhine region the town is famous for wine, especially riesling.
This quaint spot is popular with tourists who crowd the narrow cobblestone streets, particularly the Drosselgasse with its wine bars and restaurants.
Many ride the gondola which gives a bird's-eye view of surrounding countryside, eventually arriving at Niederwald monument 225m above the Rhine.
Rudesheim has several museums including Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum, which has an amazing collection.
Travelling south from there, our next port of call was the city of Mannheim where we boarded buses for a short trip to the attractive town of Heidelberg on the Neckar River, another tributary of the Rhine.
Once again the dominant landmark is a big castle on a cliff behind the town. The original castle was built by Romans in the 13th century with other sections being added over a period of 500 years.
There are some stunning houses along the banks of the Neckar, reportedly with some famous owners - Steffi Graf and husband Andre Agassi, ex-German chancellor Helmut Kohl and, until his death, Marlon Brando.
Heidelberg has the oldest university in Germany and is still known as a university town, with 25,000 students.
- A taste of France *
Our one stop in France was Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.
Known as the "crossroads of Europe", this beautiful city has changed hands between France and Germany many times over the years and has a mix of both cultures. The historic city centre, Grande Ile, with its La Petite France area, is another World Heritage site.
Strasbourg is the seat of the European Parliament and, as in many European towns and cities, the cathedral, Notre Dame, dominates the surroundings.
The stork, the city's symbol, features in a variety of guises on many of the souvenirs on offer. After wintering in Africa, 50 of these majestic birds, which are considered to bring good luck, return with the same partner to the same nest in Strasbourg in March each year.
Scenic Crystal then headed to Breisach. From there passengers had the chance to take a day tour to the magnificent Black Forest, then continue on to meet the ship, which had sailed to Basel, for one last night aboard.
·Pat Tighe travelled courtesy of Scenic Tours.