River Cruise: Recline and dine on the river Rhine
A river runs through it
Anna Coogan joins the AmaCerto for her first river cruise - a voyage down the River Rhine through France and Germany.
It is an effortless affair to tour the AmaCerto.
In fact, most things on this river ship require little or no exertion, and right down to how we're handed warm damp towels whenever we return from our guided excursions, so that our hands are clean should we wish to tuck into the freshly-baked pastries which are constantly in supply.
We board the AmaCerto in Basel in Switzerland, and over the next few days - most river cruise trips are booked on a weekly basis or longer - we will cruise along the Rhine on the second-longest river in central Europe after the Danube and has France on one side and Germany on the other - and we visit Freiburg in Germany, Strasbourg in France, and finally Heidelberg in Germany.
A certain romance pervades a river cruise - and the captain presents every woman at our welcome dinner with a red rose - and every evening after dinner the lights are dimmed and romantic music soars, and cakes with sparklers light up the room to mark a couple's milestone anniversary, or a passenger's big birthday.
It is my first cruise, and at first sight the AmaCerto looks a bit like a luxury floating multi-storey barge-style ship - or is the word 'barge' derogative in cruising terms? I mean it in the best possible way, as it is gorgeous (it has a heated pool on deck at which you can be served drinks, for starters).
Because it's all about the ship on a river cruise, and the AmaCerto was launched by AmaWaterways in 2012, and is 443 feet in length and carries 164 passengers in 82 staterooms. You'll have invented a story for every passenger by the time you leave - and to get a head start, we do a different type of cruising after our welcome dinner, and of our fellow passengers.
The Ponts Couverts and Cathedral in Strasbourg
They are mostly in and around the age of retirement, though there are some younger couples, and some adult children in family groups, though not a child under the age of 18 is in sight.
River cruises in Europe appeal greatly to Americans and Canadians, of which there are many - yes, both on the North American continent, and on the ship.
Touring the river ship requires little time or energy - so you won't miss out on any of the day's meals if that's what you're worried about, as this cruise prides itself on its endless supply of tasty food, and starting with early risers' pastries at 6.30am, and then along the lines of breakfast at 7.30am, lunch starting at 11.30am (because excursions are early afternoon), and on to afternoon tea, and then dinner at 7pm, and on to midnight snacks at, well, midnight, and which of course you don't think you'll be able to eat, but then there are meatballs in spicy sauce, so say no more.
They say the average cruise passenger gains between one and two pounds a day while cruising, and for half a second there I had hoped this was down to becoming waterlogged - and going on a cruise on a narrow-ish river would lead to far less weight gain than if ensconced on a boat on a vast blue ocean.
But I discovered this isn't exactly scientific.
So for a quick and much needed walk around the dinky cruiser - it has to go under bridges and down locks after all - and before we tour the European cities on our route, and to find that the AmaCerto is a fresh and well-maintained ship, and that the carpets are soft and the walls are warmly decorated, and the bedrooms have sliding floor-to-ceiling windows or French balconies for enhancing the views of the river banks, and that mattresses are firm and pillows pleasantly squashy.
A small gym has internet screens on machines to avoid boredom, and there's a chess set with giant pieces on the ship's deck, a sun deck with lounge chairs, and back inside there's a beauty salon and a small reading library which included well-thumbed books by authors Jeffrey Archer and Danielle Steel.
Our first stop off is Freiburg, which is known as the "Jewel of the Black Forest", and is a cosy German university city which is filled with picturesque half-timbered houses with geranium-filled window boxes. Rosy-cheeked children ride happily by on bicycles, and you can't help but feel it would be a great place for families to visit.
We're told Freiburg has more millionaires than any other city in Germany, and is home to the "Clinic for Unfulfilled Children Wish" - a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week clinic, helping couples with fertility issues.
Freiburg has more twins and triplets than any other city in Germany. It is also home to the Münster Cathedral, a famous Gothic cathedral with a spire of perforated red sandstone which dominates the old town. Farmers sell their local produce outside it, including cuckoo clocks for which the area is famous.
Anna Coogan getting ready to embark
Before leaving the AmaCerto for each excursion, passengers are given a choice of three levels of physical activity for their afternoon outing - you can go for a gentle walk around a city, a slow walk around it, or indeed choose to stroll around the streets. Still, it's nice on returning to recline on the bed and watch the TV which is a perfect distance from the pillow. There's a selection of recently released films to choose from, and for free. I recommend The Railway Man and Words And Pictures.
The next trip on land involves a stroll around Strasbourg, the principal city of the Alsace region in eastern France, and which is immersed in Franco-German culture - having belonged to both countries at different times in history. A man could be born in Strasbourg and start life speaking French, then have German as his native tongue, and then back to French.
Strasbourg has an all-go feel to it, which isn't surprising seeing as it is home to the European Parliament, the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe. It's also a city which oozes wealth, from its well-maintained balustrades and balconies on its many elegant buildings, to the coiffed hair of its predominantly middle-aged and middle class denizens, of which I don't think I have ever seen so many in one place.
But it is a city which was created for "la haute bourgeoisie", and hundreds of splendid mansions were built in its centre in the 18th century, many of which are hotels today, yet some are still lived in. It's still incredibly posh. It's also famous for its pain d'épices, a kind of gingerbread, which we were lucky enough to be offered a sample of while passing one of the city's many tempting patisseries.
The famous Strasbourg astronomical clock in the Cathédrale Notre-Dame dates back to 1843 and is considered a mechanical triumph -by including a planetary dial and a display of solar and lunar eclipses, and a procession of 18-inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs every day at half past midday. If this is your kind of thing, be prepared to elbow your way forward for a good look in spite of its grand size, because of the number of tourists you'll find admiring it.
We dined one evening at the Chef's Table on the ship and enjoyed a fabulously themed dinner, and overall the food was very good, from Eggs Benedict for breakfast, to the chilli prawns tagliatelle for lunch, and hake and roasted vegetables for dinner, with an array of desserts to choose from, and unlimited wine at meals which is included in the price of the cruise.
Last but not least, we stopped off at Heidelberg in Germany, a university city which lies in the shadow of the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, set on a hill and with intriguing winding staircases and turrets out of which you could tumble long hair should you feel that way inclined - and all while enjoying beautiful views of the Neckar Valley and Heidelberg below. You can give your river legs a good stretch in Heidelberg too, as its main street goes from Bismarckplatz across to the old town, and is approximately one mile in length, and thought to be the longest pedestrian shopping street in Germany.
We travelled in November, when the weather was pretty nippy, but with spring upon us, you're more likely to get use of the lounge chairs on the ship's deck should you choose an upcoming AmaWaterways cruise.
Before this, I hadn't even contemplated a river cruise, yet found it a very stress-free and relaxing way to get to see a selection of cities. Next time I'm going to have a birthday or anniversary, so I can have my sparkly cake and eat it.
Anna travelled with Sunway who are the sales agents for AmaWaterways River Cruises in Ireland - and on their Christmas on the Rhine Cruise on the AmaCerto. Tulip Time, A Cruise through Holland and Belgium in the Springtime, will depart on March 31, and is a seven-nights cruise on a new ship, and will include all meals on board, a gala dinner, and a daily sightseeing programme to places of interest including Amsterdam, Volendam, Edam, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. Prices start at €1529 per person sharing.
Other European cruises to consider include Paris and Normandy, Provence and Spain, Melodies of the Danube, and Black Sea Voyage. Or you might fancy Discover Africa, or Vietnam, Cambodia and the Riches of the Mekong.
For more information log onto www.sunway.ie