Spiritual Seductions of the River Cruise

Through Europe’s ancient waterways flow culture and timeless dreams.

A cruise ship travels through the Rhine Gorge in Germany, approaching Katz Castle. The edifice was first built in the 14th century, but was heavily damaged by Napoleon’s armies. It was rebuilt in the late 19th century. Photo courtesy of Viking River

I have travelled on many river cruises, and when I’ve looked at the rippling water horizon, I’ve often thought of two ways rivers have been described: as liquid highways, and as liquid histories.

As we follow the ancient routes of these fluid highways — alternately winding and straight — we approach, then pass, homes, churches, ancient castles, abandoned hotels, vineyards, farms, graveyards, schools.

Rivers were indeed some of the first pathways for human exploration and inspiration. I recognize the same shoreline and horizon Julius Caesar saw when he

travelled up the Loire in the first century B.C., or the same that Charlemagne saw on the Elbe in the eighth century, or those that Napoleon saw as he travelled up the Seine in the 19th century.

In my mind, I strip the shores of their modern garb — the cars, new buildings, people on cell phones — and clothe them again in the robes of the Roman or Napoleonic eras. This way, they become timeless.

One of the outdoor dining areas on a Viking River Cruise longship. Photo courtesy of Viking River

The Danube was an inspirational symbol in the medieval German epic poem, Das Nibelungenlied. The Rhine was the inspiration for Wagner’s opera, Das Rheingold.

The advance of European history and culture have been defined by the movement of rivers. Oxford University historian Norman Davies, in his 1999 book Europe: A History, writes, “Rivers to the geographer are the bearers of sediment and trade. To the historian, they are the bearers of culture, ideas, and sometimes conflict. They are like life itself.”

A view of Dresden, Germany, from the Elbe River. TTstudio / Shutterstock.com
Right: The 16th-century Château de Chenonceau in France, seen from the Loire River. pedrosala / Shutterstock.com
The Pont Alexandre III bridge, built in the late 19th century, spans the River Seine in Paris. Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock.

We 21st-century river cruisers travel on the same rivers now. While travel books or our education may tell us which historic events took place where, it takes a subtle sense to perceive the quieter river histories we cannot easily know without having been there.

I sail past the Wachau woodlands of Austria and hear a Neolithic axe ring out as the first manmade clearings appear. I hear distant chanting echo down to the river from the ninth-century monasteries that first cultivated the slopes lining its shore. The vine terraces that pattern the landscapes today are part of the monks’ viticulture legacy, resonating through time.

As I fast-forward through history, a mental time-lapse film depicts the growth and contraction of these cultivated areas, reflecting the ebb and flow of the area’s prosperity. Similar histories accompany my journeys towards the northern Ring Cities on the Volga, towards castles on the curving Rhine, towards country chapels on the Danube.

But it isn’t only history that flows through these river cruises; my ideas, too, seem more fluid.

The Hungarian Parliament Building on the Danube. Datsenko Maryna/ Shutter
The Rhine was the inspiration for Wagner’s opera, Das Rheingold. Kanuman/ Shutterstock.comPortugal’s Douro River.Photo courtesy of Scenic Luxury Cruises

On the cruise vessels — the AmaCerto, the Viking Forseti, the Emerald Liberté, the Scenic Jasper, and so many others — I am aware of being in a different milieu. Routines that usually define my life are gone. I am now a river explorer who has the advantage of seeing the past through the eyes of the present.

The gentle movements of the water, the soft sounds and changing colours of river and sky, too, have the power to convert — the inactive mind becomes creative, the cautious heart becomes bold.

Terraced vineyards along the Douro River. hermitis / Shutterstock.com
The Emerald Star cruise ship travels through Koblenz, Germany, on the Rhine. Photo courtesy of Emerald

I awake at 5 a.m. and go to my balcony to see the dazzling sunrise. I walk outside to the bow of the ship, where many fellow travellers sit in a peaceful quiet with their coffees and teas. We acknowledge each other, but we don’t speak.

Rather, we look towards the horizon, immersed in a dual flow of memory and anticipation — of yesterday and today, of past and present. We allow the flow of the river to become part of us.