Cruising Europe's rivers reminds Pamela Wade of having front row seats at a travel documentary.
You wonder whether they thought it through. Dutch smugglers during World War II wore clogs with heel marks carved backwards on the soles, so it would seem to investigating police that they had come from Belgium, not Holland, when crossing the border to shift contraband.
It's the sort of dodge that would surely fool only the Keystone Cops; but it's a good little story, and typical of the width and depth of information that's shared on an Avalon Waterways river cruise.
On a 15-day Magnificent Europe route between Budapest and Amsterdam, along the Danube and Main then down the Rhine, there are centuries-worth of similar shenanigans to get your head around, so it's just as well people like Andrzej were there to sort through it and present it in manageable portions. He was the cruise director for my trip on the Panorama, which plies this river system most of the year on itineraries ranging from five to 17 days.
The Panorama is the first of the company's fleet of a dozen Suite Ships on which the accommodation is 30 per cent larger than standard - so they get twitchy if you call your space a room or, horrors, a cabin. The correct terms are suite or stateroom. Mine was a suite, with a spacious marble bathroom, sofa and coffee table, and a supremely comfortable bed which, in a stroke of design brilliance and use-of-space ingenuity, is on an angle to the wall-to-wall window. This means that you can lie slothfully back to view the passing scenery framed only by your feet instead of being blocked by your partner's recumbent body. Then, when you eventually force yourself to get up, the glass slides open to turn the whole cabin, er, suite, into a private balcony.
This is a real joy. What could be nicer than sipping a drink, close to the water, watching swans and herons, listening to songbirds - nightingales after dark - and watching the passing scenery? There's always something to see on a river cruise: pretty little villages with churches and waterfront restaurants, people fishing on the banks and walking their dogs along towpaths, woods, vineyards and farms, bridges, historic cities.
There are 46 locks on the Magnificent Europe route, and though many only register as bumps in the night, there's plenty of opportunity to watch some in action during daytime cruising. Locks limit the length and width of the river boats, although the Panorama pushes that to the limit. It was initially unnerving to see how little leeway we had on either side, but that was before the captain showed his skill and control of this 135m ship. Even so, the people on little boats sharing the lock with us looked understandably nervous and scooted out ahead when the gates opened, visibly relieved.
The Rhine is Europe's busiest waterway, and though there are increasing numbers of river cruisers as the industry continues its meteoric growth, the main traffic is barges. The one called Insomnia hinted at a pressured lifestyle, and the double-length barges, loaded with all sorts of goods, obviously demanded concentration at the wheel; but the living quarters always looked cosy, adorned with flower troughs, and usually with a smart car perched on the roof.
Panorama's roof is the Sky Deck, with a giant chessboard, whirlpool and the wheelhouse, which can limbo under particularly low bridges. There's also an open-air bistro on this deck, provided especially for the company's many Kiwi and Aussie clients, who appreciate an outdoor barbie even - or especially - when the grilling is done by someone else. Downunder passengers are a big portion of Avalon's market, and often occupy more than half of Panorama's 83 cabins. We come further, so we spend longer seeing Europe's sights.
This cruise traverses five countries, and Budapest is the ideal introduction to what follows.
It has everything: grand buildings, ornate bridges, an inviting Old Town, an impressive cathedral and castle on a hill, shops, restaurants and history. So much history! So long, so complicated - for someone whose remnants of school history have shrunk to the First Four Ships and the Wairau Massacre, it can all be a bit overwhelming, so to have local guides able to condense and clarify it all on coach and walking tours is perfect.
Once the overview is done, then the personal exploration can begin: for me, in Budapest, that meant discovering a bookshop that also sells wine, an indoor market with more sorts of paprika than you could shake a stick at, the Gellert thermal baths under an Art Nouveau ceiling - and a stainless steel willow tree engraved with Jewish names, a chilling row of empty iron shoes on the riverbank, and the accurately named House of Terror.
War, and especially World War II, is never far away wherever you go in Europe. Everywhere there are monuments, museums, ruins and reconstructions. It's unavoidable. It's also, while sobering, deeply fascinating. Although many of the titles listed in the Panorama's movie library - including Schindler's List, Judgement at Nuremberg, The Great Escape, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas - at first seemed a touch insensitive for a cruise that spends most of its time in Germany, it actually turned out to be yet another need met.
There's also, of course, so much beauty to discover: Bratislava's charming Old Town with its pervy brass Man at Work statue, the ceiling fresco in the monastery in Gottweig, a private concert in Vienna featuring Mozart and Strauss, the fabulously picturesque little town of Cesky Krumlov, where the river's horseshoe bend is best seen from the castle above where bears live in the moat. Located in the Czech Republic, this is one of the optional excursions that are available at most stops, which cater for different tastes.
At Rudesheim, everyone went on the visit to Siegfried's Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum, where a slightly manic woman in a lace cravat said so emphatically, "You will enjoy this!" that no one was quite sure if it was a promise or an order. Either way, we did: exquisite musical boxes that produced perfect birdsong, a creepy mechanical band of monkey puppets, a violin-playing machine, a gold pistol with a singing bird that pops out, a marquetry cabinet phonograph with a balled sock in the trumpet as the volume control (hence the phrase "put a sock in it").
Every town and city brought new delights, and Cologne's glorious cathedral, 600 years in the making, was certainly a highlight. Those who made it up the spire's 555 steps needed the restorative effects of the 4711 Cologne shop's fountain afterwards.
The climax of a Rhine cruise for most, though, was the 40km section from Rudesheim to Koblenz through the Rhine Gorge, where 28 castles perched on cliffs and hilltops have earned the river World Heritage status. It's like Wimbledon, as everyone's heads swivel from left to right and back again to view the next variation on turret, tower, drawbridge and arrow-slits. Wimbledon, with every creature comfort laid on.
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Budapest via its Dubai hub.
The cruise: Avalon Waterways offers dozens of river cruises in Europe, including its popular itinerary between Amsterdam and Budapest, the 15-day Magnificent Europe, from next year operated entirely by Suite Ships. Prices for 2016 start from $6786pp twin-share including all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks at dinner some excursions and activities. Book by June 30 for a 10 per cent earlybird discount.
The writer was a guest of Avalon Waterways.
Christine Hopkins, House of Travel - Ferrymead, shares her top tips on how to make the most of your Avalon cruise.
1) Enjoy a Rüdesheimer coffeeon-board the top deck as you cruise the Rhine Gorge.
2) Review your optional excursions before you go and pre-book any highlights you do not wish to miss.
4) Old towns with lovely cobble stone walkways makes comfortable walking shoes a must!
3) Laundry is available on board and is great value returned same day hung and pressed.
5) Pick up a local bottle of Riesling and take on-board to enjoy from the comfort of your panorama suite.
For more information visit houseoftravel.co.nz