"Guut moooooooorning! Zis is Hans!"
It's 8.30am – in Bavaria, I think - and Hans Beckert, our ever-smiling, patience-of-a-saint cruise director, is doing his best to hustle 150-odd passengers from boat to bus. Instructions rattle cheerfully from the intercom as the passengers of the Avalon Tranquility clatter off the gangplank and head into town for a day of exploring.
The Tranquility is one of a number of cruise ships plying the rivers of Europe, offering a stress-free way to criss-cross the continent. Routes range from a few days to over two weeks, but when it comes to the classic cruise through Europe it's hard to beat a week on the legendary Danube.
After an optional three-day visit to Prague, the cruise itself begins in the quaint German town of Nuremberg. The town is perhaps most famous for hosting the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals, but that sad chapter has been largely washed from the city, and the cobbled squares and lively village market makes it a wonderful place to spend a few hours. The town is also famous for the lebkuchen and festive finery for sale at the Christkindlmarkt, held each December.
Sailing out of Nuremberg, Lutheran church steeples rise above the terracotta roofs of villages dotted amidst a sea of cornfields. With locals waving from the riverbank and rolling hills of ploughed fields, the slow stream of scenery is mesmerising. A hypnotic procession of countryside where you're left wondering what ruined castle or quaint village lies in wait around the next bend.
Danube means 'deep river' in Celtic, but from the rooftop viewing deck of the Avalon Tranquility the river looks shallow and peaceful. No waves to splash over the deck, no rolling swell to make you seasick... the Danube is, on the upper reaches at least, the river mild.
Alcohol and religion
One of the highlights of the journey downstream is the medieval town of Regensburg, which is famous for two things: alcohol and religion.
The town dates to AD 179, when the Roman fortress Castra Regina ('fortress by the river Regen') was founded during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Fought over and conquered throughout its history, the town's dramatic stone bridge over the Danube rattled to the hooves of the Crusaders, who gathered here on their way to the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th century.
Nowadays though it's a peaceful sort of place; a university town home to 20 000 students who no doubt enjoy the labours of the monks at the Weltenburg Abbey outside town. Tucked away amongst the cliffs of the Danube Gorge, Weltenburg's beer taps started flowing in the year 1050 making it the oldest monastic brewery in the world. So that's alcohol, what about religion?
The town was, until 2005 when he moved to Italy, home to one Joseph Alois Ratzinger. Ratzinger's house is now a popular stop on the tourist route, although nowadays he's better known as Pope Benedict XVI. Popes aside, the magnificent Gothic cathedral of St Peter is the highlight of a wonder through the old town.
The excursion to Weltenburg Abbey is just one of a number of historical sites to be seen along the Danube. Cruising has long been a favourite pastime of the older traveller, but if you like to get out and about each day and still have a comfortable cabin to return to each evening, then river cruising is ideal.
The itinerary changes each day, but most mornings will see you waking in a new town, setting off to explore after a generous buffet breakfast. In each town there is an included tour, along with a variety of optional excursions (at an extra cost). Passengers return to the ship for a buffet lunch and the ship sets sail sometime in the afternoon for the next port of call.
Dinners are smart-casual affairs, served in a single sitting, with local wines included. Although most of the cruising is done at night to allow time to explore the towns en route, a few sections are sailed during the day allowing passengers to enjoy the passing scenery.
The hills are alive...
From Regensburg the Danube heads to the south-east, where it crosses the border into Austria and heads through the town of Passau. The town made its fortune from the trade in wine, wheat and salt, and the city's St. Stephen's Cathedral houses the world's largest church organ with over 17 000 pipes! However, it's also the spot where most cruisers hop on an optional excursion to Salzburg, the birthplace of Mozart where the Von Trapp's found the hills alive with the sound of music.
Whether you sing-along through the Austrian Lake District or drift downstream on-board, your next port-of-call is Linz; a take-it-or-leave-it city that's most famous as the industrial heartland of Austria. Enough said.
Setting sail from Linz at sunset, the new day brings you to the most spectacular part of the journey; the Wachau Valley. After a morning visit to the 18th century Melk Abbey your floating hotel pushes out into the current and motors slowly downstream through the heart of Austria's wine-producing region. With cliff-top castles and towering spires, the Wachau combines the beauty of Franschhoek with 1000 years of history.
Page 2: On to Vienna