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Bald kings and would-be tsars

Join Jane as she explores the rivers of Europe on a river cruise

River Cruises

Posted on

06 Feb 2018

I’m starting to feel a tad sorry for Louis XIV, the French Sun King, as I wander around the Palace of Versailles. He might have owned this gran pad on the outskirts of Paris (700 rooms, more than 67 staircases and acres and acres of manicured gardens) but life wasn’t all champagne and gala balls.

Maria-Theresa of Spain was really u-g-l-y (according to my guide, Sabrina); for another, he lost all his hair by the age of 20 and took to wearing a wif. Smart courtiers followed suit (wearing a wig, not going bald) and lo, a new courtly fashion was born.

One of the things I love most about river cruises is the fascinating, and often quirky, things you discover. In this instance, I was sailing the Seine River, a cruise from Paris that took me from Impressionist painters (Monet’s famous lily ponds in his garden at Giverny) to Richard the Lionheart who owned the once-magnificent Château Gaillard in Les Andelys in the days when Normandy was part of England. These cruises also visit the Normandy beaches where Allied troops landed in June 1994, marking the start of the Second World War.

Scenic has a one-off cruise next June to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day that includes two days in Honfleur for the parades and commemorations. If you can’t get away then, check out its 11-day itinerary on the Seine and, new for 2019, 8-day sailings for those tight on time.

Discovering the Danube

Richard the Lionheart pops up again on the Danube but here ‘his’ castle was actually his prison. It’s on a rocky crag above the village of Dürnstein and a steep climb up but storyboards along the way tell how and why he was captured (in a nutshell, he insulted Leopold V, Duke of Austria). More importantly, they are a good excuse to stop and get your breath back.

Emerald Cruises has a guided hike to the castle, now a ruin, on an 8-day classic Danube cruise between Nuremberg and Vienna that’s new for 2019. It’s a great itinerary that visits Regensburg, a delightful city with tall towers that merchants built to show off their wealth (mine is bigger than yours syndrome) and narrow medieval streets that once doubled as sewers.

Cat and mouse

The Rhine Gorge is famous for fortresses - more than 40 line the cliffs - but who knew there was one called Burg Maus (Mouse Castle)? Which is said to have gained its nickname from the Counts of Katzenelnbogen, who built nearby Burg Katz (Cat Castle). And they say the Germans don’t have a sense of humour! You’ll see both castles on two new festive-themed cruises from APT in November 2019. If, like me, you feel it’s a bit too early to think about Christmas, how about booking one of APT’s magnificent Europe cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest instead?

The itinerary is, well, magnificent and includes a journey through the Rhine Gorge and calls at Rüdesheim, a pretty town with a museum devoted to hurdy-gurdy machines. It is better than it sounds, as there are great guides and the fairground organs, music boxes and gramophones are just about able to blast out a tune despite their advanced years.

Murder most horrid

APT’s 2018 Russian river cruises sold like hot cakes so I’m not surprised it has put on more departures in 2019. Two APT and four Travelmarvel sailings have just gone on sale and I am sure they will be snapped up. You have been warned!

Moscow and St. Petersburg are the big hitters for their museums, palaces and art galleries but there’s plenty to discover on the voyage between the two cities: a wise prince who fought a bear in Yaroslavl; a wooden church with 22 domes built without nails and a church erected where Ivan the Terrible’s young son Dmitri had his throat cut (I’ll let you work out which is a legend).

Clue: It wasn’t the Uglich story. The lad was indeed murdered, most likely on the orders of Boris Godunov, who was regent to Dmitri’s brother Fyodor, a sickly boy expected to die and pass the throne to his sibling. Enter Boris, who wanted to be Tsar. That’s when the stories start to get a bit fanciful. My favourite is that when the boy’s body was found, a chapel bell was rung and the murderers caught. As punishment for sounding the alarm, Boris had the bell flogged and its ‘tongue’ (the clapper) exiled to Siberia.

Big and even bigger Buddha

River cruising in Asia adds an exotic twist to the quirky stories, like the King in Myanmar who never finished building his giant pagoda because he was told he would die if he did. Spoiler alert: he died anyway. Or how about the statue of Buddha in the Maha Muni Pagoda in Mandalay that is growing because so much gold leaf is added to it by eager worshippers?

I see Emerald Cruises is cruising the Irrawaddy for the first time in 2019 sailing between Yangon and Myanmar on what is sure to be a fascinating itinerary. I’ve been there several times and just love it. Why not check it out and see how many fun stories you can come home with?

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