Ewan McDonald discovers Europe on a slow boat.
The night was young; me, maybe not so much. Outside my bedroom window, baroque streetlamps picked out the graceful lines of the Chain Bridge; sodium floodlights magnified the vast bulk of Hungary's royal castle. Coat, wallet, key. There'd be a bar, beer and music just a few yards walk away.
That's one of the great attractions of a European river cruise: your ship is moored in the centre of a city or village — in this case, Budapest — offering the chance, and charm, of getting into the heart of the place.
River cruising is enjoying a boom. It's easy to understand why: you arrive in the city where your ship is moored, get to the boat, unpack, settle into your cabin, and orient yourself to the vessel's layout. You find out where to eat, drink, and relax on board.
For the next week or more, life slows down to the pace of passing cyclists on a riverbank, a fairytale castle or glorious cathedral off the bow, an ancient forest astern. As you'll quickly realise, some of the best views of the cityscape and countryside are from the water.
Each evening aboard the ship, you'll savour gourmet meals and fine wines before going to sleep in one city and waking up in another, quite likely in a different country.
Life aboard a European river cruiser is a far different experience from a typical cruise liner. The ship's size is limited by the locks and bridges it has to pass through and under, so it's far smaller and less intimidating than a giant ocean-going ship. European river cruisers generally host 100 to 200 passengers; many are far smaller.
That means it's easier to meet and mingle with your fellow travellers — and the crew.
From the waiters to the front desk, they'll know your name and how you like your coffee.
And because most staff are locals, they're your best guides to the cities, villages and countryside you're passing through, and stopping off in.
Get to know them — especially the cruise director — and ask for recommendations for places to explore (and eat) in your free time. Local knowledge and insight will save time and stress, and help you see the best of each destination.
Though river cruisers' staterooms can be compact, they are perfectly fitted out, and many boast balconies where you can enjoy a snack while people- or sight-seeing, and floor-to-ceiling windows (pro tip: make sure the curtains are drawn at appropriate moments; many a passenger has realised, belatedly, they are moored next to a footpath).
Pack light, but pack smart for a river cruise because you will meet a variety of situations — you might like to take a hike (in the nicest possible way) during the day and return for dinner at the chef's table. You might get caught in the rain in the Paris spring.
It's worth repeating an outfit or two if that leaves precious room in your airline baggage allowance for souvenirs.
River cruising is a good way to visit Europe for the first time. If you've not been to the Continent, it can be difficult to know where on the patchwork quilt of a map France ends and Belgium starts, or whether Hanover is in the Netherlands or Austria (trick question: it's in Germany).
You'll have clear and well-planned itineraries, knowledgeable crew, and can take in the sights at a slower pace than the hurly-burly of a coach tour.
Most cruises stop for a full day or longer, in each port — and that means from breakfast to night-owl — so you will have the feeling of getting to know each city, or sight, where you're berthing.
As well as enjoying the delights of historic waterways like the Rhine, Danube, Seine and Moselle, and centuries-old centres such as Prague, Lisbon, Madrid and Avignon, experienced cruise operators such as APT offer themed cruises based around special interests — food and wine, art and culture, history.
Because passenger numbers are smaller, they can also offer "money can't buy" experiences. In Vienna, I've enjoyed a chamber orchestra's private concert of Strauss waltzes and Mozart sonatas in a 500-year-old gallery with fewer than 100 guests; along the Danube from Budapest to Vienna, bought trinkets from the Christmas markets for the grandchildren's tree.
The more energetic can climb 300m to the ruins of Durnstein Castle in Austria's Wachau Valley or bike 40km between the riverside ports of Melk and Krems. It'll make you feel less guilty about those four-course gourmet dinners served to you each night.