Wednesday 26 July 2017

Cologne: Going with the flow

Cologne, Germany
Cologne, Germany
Amsterdam canal

Liam Fay

It's a sunny afternoon, and the tourists in city-centre Cologne are working up a sweat. As hotspots go, you couldn't get damp under the collar in a more congenial place.

With typical Teutonic efficiency, the founding fathers of Germany's fourth largest city concocted an impressive range of indigenous elixirs to refresh the overheated holidaymaker's clammy brow.

Eau de Cologne is sold everywhere, while the ubiquitous beerhalls stock 19 varieties of Kolsch, the locally brewed pale ale served in frosted glasses.

Getting steamed here is easy, but there's no excuse for getting steamed up.

Cologne is a perfect day-tripper destination, a city whose attractions are custom-made to simultaneously broaden the mind and sate the senses.

Confectionery, booze and fragrance are its specialities, and there are further invitations to scoff, swig or sniff wherever one looks.

As with most tourist experiences, however, there comes a moment when Cologne's charms start to pall. The relentless refreshment becomes overpowering. One yearns for fresh air, elbow room, a change of scenery.

Fortunately, my floating hotel is parked just around the corner, waiting to transport me to the calm of the countryside.

The hotel is the MS AmaLegro, the AmaWaterways cruise ship on which my partner Anne and I are enjoying a stately, seven-night journey along the Rhine and Mosel rivers.

For those who have learned the hard way that the secret of a good holiday is variety, and lots of it, the river cruise is a smart way to go.

A relaxed, and relaxing, voyage through a scenic region, taking in several countries and cultures en route, it encompasses a diverse mix of the pastoral and the cosmopolitan, the highbrow and the hedonistic, terra firma and terra incognita.

On paper, the chief selling point of the Rhine/Mosel cruise is the district's rich hinterland of castles, cathedrals and vineyards, and there is much to savour on this front.

However, the cruise itself is the real highlight.

Within minutes of the Ama-Legro's departure from Cologne, we're sailing through the lush landscape that is the trademark of the Rhineland, the heart of Germany's wine country.

By 6pm, as complimentary Champagne cocktails are served in the lounge while passengers compose themselves for dinner, the hubbub of the city is a distant memory.

My rapid conversion to the joys of maritime holidaying came as a considerable surprise.

Like most right-thinking folk, I had long viewed cruises as the plaid golfing slacks of the holiday industry, a naff indulgence fit only for vulgar Americans or filthy rich pensioners.

Just as youth is wasted on the young, ocean cruises have always struck me as wild goose chases for the aged; opportunities to see the world that come just when the sightseer's eyesight is failing and their curiosity has curdled to crankiness.

More recently, ocean cruises have assumed an even more treacherous association.

Following the disaster involving the Costa Concordia, the 4,000-passenger cruise ship which capsized off the Italian coast, justifiable concerns have been raised about the safety of large pleasure craft.

The sheer enormity of ocean-cruise vessels has become off- putting for many.

River cruises are a very different proposition. Their smaller, slower, less grandiose character eliminates most of the perceived downsides of cruising -- specifically, the confinement, congestion and seemingly endless queuing.

The majority of passengers on the AmaLegro were Americans in their mid-50s and older, the silver-surfer generation.

Many were seasoned cruise aficionados, and the comparative merits of ocean and river holidays was a recurrent conversation topic.

"No seasickness and no unpleasant surprises," is how one creosote-tanned Texan dame summed up the superiority of the river cruise.

Also, no overcrowding. A river-cruise ship carries far fewer passengers than an ocean liner, with the AmaLegro transporting around 150.

At an average size of 160sq ft, the cabins are redeemed by clever use of storage space and good bathroom facilities. Deluxe cabins and so-called 'junior suites' (with balconies) are also available.

Meanwhile, the ship's public areas boast all the amenities and comforts of a compact mid-market hotel.

The Rhine/Mosel cruise begins in Amsterdam, where the cruise ships are berthed behind the central train station.

After a night in the Dutch city, during which you can either have a knees-up onboard or go ashore and push the boat out, the first full day begins with a canal cruise followed by a coach tour.

Like all the week's excursions, these are included in the cover price but participation is optional.

By lunchtime, everyone is back onboard the AmaLegro and the cruise proper has commenced.

The first thing you notice is the smoothness of the sailing. Though the ship travels at a steady lick, you barely registers the movement.

Men in blue overalls regularly materialise to perform technical tasks but passengers are never inconvenienced by the nautical mechanics.

The bar and restaurant staff are attentive and friendly, and have evidently been coached to offer American-style service.

All scenery comes with an inherent design flaw: viewed from a fixed point, even the most breathtaking vista can outstay its welcome.

As anyone who's ever spent a rainy day staring out the window of a hotel bar will know, picturesque surroundings are no guarantee of a pleasant view. The beauty of river cruising is that the scenery changes constantly

On all but one of the seven days, the AmaLegro docks for several hours at a village, town or city. Guided walking tours are provided at each locale, with one group always reserved for those who favour a "gentle" pace.

Twenty-five bicycles are carried onboard for passengers who wish to venture beyond the beaten track.

A common complaint about ocean cruises is the time-consuming hassle involved in embarkation and disembarkation.

River cruising operates at a more human-friendly scale, and going ashore simply means a few steps across a footbridge.

Among the most memorable ports of call was Rudesheim, a quaint town at the southern mouth of the Lorelei valley.

The centre of Rudesheim is what Temple Bar would look like if it was administered by Germans: a warren of spotless and neatly ordered cobbled streets, crammed with reasonably priced wine bars, restaurants and cafes.

Rudesheim is essentially a tourist trap, but one in which it's a pleasure to be ensnared for an afternoon.

Back onboard the ship, life assumes the rhythms of a self- contained civilisation, with its own rituals and traditions.

The outside world is easily and eagerly forgotten. Nevertheless, TV, internet access and pay-per-view movies are available in every cabin, and the reception is excellent except when the ship is passing a bridge or lock.

For newsprint junkies, there's a daily selection of international news digests. Pretty soon, however, the only news source that matters is 'The Daily Cruiser', an in-ship newsletter outlining the next day's itinerary.

Wherever the ship took us, however, the highlights of each day were undoubtedly the meals. To cruise is to eat, and the food aboard the AmaLegro is worth the ticket price alone, with restaurant- quality fare proffered in canteen quantities.

The range is remarkable -- with a particularly delectable array of seafood -- and no dish appears twice in any guise. The wine accompanying dinner is included in the package, and flows abundantly.

On the seventh morning, we awake in Luxembourg, the last stop. After an early breakfast, there's a bus tour of the capital with a couple of hours of free time afterwards.

Luxembourg rarely appears on lists of must-see holiday locations, but it's an attractive and congenial city wherein even the street-side bars serve quality food.

From Luxembourg, we take the TGV high-speed train for the two-hour, 20-minute journey to Paris, where some of the group have paid for a few nights' stay while the rest head for the airport to continue homeward.

After a week of leisurely gliding up the Rhine and Mosel, the very notion of 'high speed' comes as an abrupt shock to the system, as does the racket of the train station.

Once taken, a river cruise is not lightly forgotten -- it is, after all, one of the few modes of travel that allows the traveller to venture forth while kicking back, to get somewhere while doing nothing.

GETTING THERE

Liam Fay travelled on the AmaWaterways Rhine cruise from Amsterdam to Luxembourg with Sunway Holidays (01-288 6828; sunway.ie).

Their seven-day cruise, including flights, sightseeing, meals and wine at dinner, costs €1,657.

FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO

Make the most of the night in Amsterdam.

Grab a bargain in the outdoor markets of Cologne.

Take a walking tour of the German village of Bernkastel, with its narrow streets and 16th-century timbered houses.

Explore Heidelberg's unmissable castle.

Visit the small and colourful town of Cochem.

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