The MS Lafayette on the Rhine River - Pict /CroisiEurope

“Five minutes to get another fruit juice,” I tell my Canadian cruise mates on the sundeck of CroisiEurope’s MS Lafayette and race downstairs to the bar and back. Just in time for the next castle to loom on top of the hill. We are in the middle of one of Europe’s most popular river cruising routes, watching amazing landscapes and at least forty castles and fortresses from the Middle Ages go by from our chaises. Can you ever take enough pictures of castles? No, of course not.

This UNESCO heritage stretch of the Rhine River is famous for its beauty, and it doesn’t disappoint. Heading north from Strasbourg on Lafayette, a 43 cabin river boat which also features fine French dining, we pass by a seemingly endless series of pretty riverside towns, vineyards and forested peaks and almost every hilltop has a crumbling castle, some over 1000 years old. The winding river and sprawling villages mean you’re only a short boat ride away from your next breathtaking view.


This was also one of the most important battlefields in the many wars over the territories around the mighty river, and many of the castles are damaged and in ruins. I realize that Germany’s most popular tourist route didn’t arise by itself – the industrious population on the banks of the Rhine planted vineyards and rebuilt its castles and churches many times. So much so that the cities along the river have two dates on their buildings – one for when they were first built, and one for when the people had to start all over again.

Day One: On the mighty River

I am not the first visitor to appreciate the Rhine’s beauty, of course. For thousands of years, monuments, statues and castles were erected along this river, and plays and operas written about it. Wagner, Goethe, Beethoven, Turner and Byron were all inspired by trips along the Rhine. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein after a visit to a Rhine town where a local man was rumored to be experimenting on dead bodies, and both the car and the bicycle were invented on the river’s banks. In the 19th century, as German patriots searched for symbols to unite their country, the middle Rhine emerged as an important source of pride. “Memories of what the Germans once were and could be in the future are evoked nowhere so clearly as on the Rhine,” poet Friedrich Schlegel wrote in 1803.

Lorelei Rock

Right in the middle of all this splendor we get our cameras ready for the legendary rock of the Lorelei, where it is said the song of an enchanted siren lured sailors to their doom. More scientifically, the cliff – whose name means murmuring rock – probably made a sound because of the heavy currents, and a small waterfall in the area creating a murmuring sound. This combined with the special echo the rock produces to act as a sort of amplifier. In any case, the place became famous when, in 1824, Heinrich Heine wrote one of his most famous poems, "Die Lorelei". It describes a sort of siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracted shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks.

Day two: The Wine of Rüdesheim

Two thousand years ago, the northern section of the river served as the outer boundary of the Roman Empire. Roman soldiers drank wine instead of water - two liters a day, according to some accounts and much healthier than the often polluted water. As the Roman Empire expanded, the Roman armies brought vines with them to plant wherever they started a settlement. Many vineyards ended up on the banks of the Rhine - the garrison towns here were a place to stop before crossing the water and trying to take over the lands of the Germanic tribes. Cistercian monks also imported vines from Bourgogne in the 1100s.

Pict/Gregory Gerault

Apart from enjoying the view on the sundeck and great food, we also go on excursions. To the centuries-old wine-growing and shipping town of Rüdesheim am Rhein for instance, today a busy river-cruising tourist port, to enjoy German taverns and traditional local drinks. Here is the 15th century Drosselgasse street, once used by boat owners to move items from the river to homes in the town. We see the most prestigious vineyards in the Rheingau wine region where some of the best Riesling wines of the world are produced, and get a tasting of the light sweet white wine in one of the caves of a family of winegrowers since 1647.

The estate also produces the rare and prestigious Eiswein, we learn, made from the juice of grapes frozen on the vine. Producing it is quite an enterprise, as grapes need to be harvested in winter in temperatures of at least eight degrees below zero, often in the dark. The grapes are pressed in frozen state, so that the ice stays in the press during pressing and hence a concentrated juice flows off the press leading to higher potential alcohol levels, which in turn generally result in sweet wines.

Musical Instruments Museum

The industriousness of the people here can also be seen in the many small museums along the river. In Rüdesheim am Rhein, there is Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum. This sounds stuffy until you go in and see the brightly painted automatic instruments, which come in all shapes and sizes and were built in three different centuries. The guide gives a warning that some loud music is coming up before he turns on the machine, and the mechanical sounds of a full orchestra takes us by surprise. This museum was created by Siegfried Wendel, who in the 1960s started rescuing and repairing the automatic musical instruments that were being discarded from music halls and private houses. He managed to collect 350 of them, now on view in this 15th-century manor.

At the end of the day, we dock in Koblenz and walk up to the Deutsches Eck, where an impressive statue of Kaiser Wilhelm sitting on a stone horse stands at the confluence of the Moselle and Rhine rivers.

Day three: The Printer of Mainz

River cruising is a delight. There’s no packing and unpacking, no hassle finding a hotel, no waiting in long museum lines as you move around. Instead, we walk off the ship and are taken around by a friendly local tour guide. In Mainz, we learn all about the region’s most famous inventor, Johan Gutenberg, inventor of the movable type printing press. Just like in Strasbourg, Gutenberg’s statue is in the middle of the main square. Born in Mainz, he came back here after having lived in the French city down the river, full of ideas of starting a printing workshop. He was able to convince the wealthy moneylender Johann Fust for a loan of 800 guilders, the equivalent of a million euros.

Deutsches Eck - Pict/Blue Hour/Getty Images Plus

On his newly invented movable printing press, which is demonstrated in the museum, he managed to print 180 bibles. We admire the predecessors - Middle Age books that were written and decorated by monks, who would spend up to three years to produce one work. And we see how Gutenberg’s bible differed. Today, 50 of his printed bibles still exist, and two of these mid-15th century books are the most valuable treasures of the Museum. When they were printed, the average price for one Bible is believed to have been 30 guilder, equaling three years wages for a clerk. The last time the museum bought one at an auction in 1978, it paid $1.8 million.

Gutenberg himself had big problems selling his printed work and the printing shop was taken by the moneylender. The inventor himself could have died in poverty, but Gutenberg's achievements were recognized and he was given the title Hofman, an honor which included a stipend, an annual court outfit, as well as free grain and wine.

Gutenberg Museum - Pict/CroisiEurope

When it comes to rebuilding and German tenaciousness, nobody beats the Archbishops of Mainz. One of them, Saint Willigis was regent of the empire between 991 and 994 and one of the most influential politicians of that time. Shortly after his installation in 975 he ordered the construction of a new cathedral. This giant building was part of his vision of Mainz as the Second Rome and he planned to crown kings here. But on the day of its inauguration in 1009, the cathedral burned down. Undeterred, the bishop gave orders to rebuilt, and the impressive cathedral which we admire now has been damaged by fires and reconstructed six times.

Day Four: The Lovers of Heidelberg

The red-stone ruin of Heidelberg castle has never been restored, but still stands strong as a symbol of the region. This was a provincial defensive fortress until Prince Elector Frederick V wanted to marry Elizabeth, princess from London, daughter of James VI of Scotland and England. To make her feel at home, Frederick built a copy of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on top of the watch tower, an enormous garden next to it and a palace for dancing on its simple walls. For her birthday, Elizabeth also got her own gate. This way, she wouldn’t have to share her entrance with commoners, who came through the prison gate, nicknamed the ‘never empty’.

At Heidelberg Castle

The couple had 13 children and they would have lived happily ever after, were it not that the prince took up an offer to become king of Bohemia and the family left for Prague. Here Frederick became known as the Winter King, as he reigned for only one winter before the Imperial House of Habsburg regained the crown by force. The couple fled and lived their lives in exile in the Netherlands, while the beautiful castle in Heidelberg was destroyed. People from the village used it as a quarry and there might not have been any ruin at all, if a French count called Charles de Graimberg hadn’t decided that he loved Heidelberg Castle. He served as a voluntary warden, and lived for a while in the Glass Wing, where he could keep an eye on the courtyard and start to make plans to preserve it.

There is another important person here: Elizabeth Charlotte, better known as Princess Liselotte, who is estimated to have written 60,000 letters, vividly describing life at the court. In its heydays, 600 people lived in this castle and since each person had the right to four liters of wine a day, giant wine barrels were stored in the cellar. They are still there, and one of the main attractions of Heidelberg castle. We climb to the dance floor on top of the biggest cask and look at the statue of the court jester, an Italian dwarf who died the day he drank water instead of wine.


Day Five: Back to Land

We end the cruise where we started: in Strasbourg, the capital of the French Alsace region. This is also the headquarters of CroisiEurope, Europe’s most famous cruise company with over 40 years and three generations of family management. It’s clear that the company has managed to hold on to its great French service. The over 50 ships it operates are small enough to be cozy, and you can take them on rivers, canals and the sea, ranging from France’s Seine, Rhone, Loire, Dordogne and Garonne Rivers; to the Danube in Croatia, the Tisza in Hungary, the Guadalquivir in Spain, the Douro in Portugal, the Nile in Egypt, the Mekong in Vietnam, the Ganges in India and even Lake Kariba in Africa.

On the MS Lafayette, I pack my bags in the cute, functional cabin. The meals have been delicious, crew members friendly, evening entertainment fun, and the castle scenery breathtaking. What more can one ask for? Well, perhaps only to stay onboard a bit longer.

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