Travelers who love wine certainly have plenty of big-city experiences to consider this year and in 2015 in Europe. But river cruisers often prefer to float along terraced hillsides of vineyards and explore smaller cities and towns with a bit slower pace of life. Here are four wine hot spots where Bacchus rules.
Halfway between Paris and Geneva, Switzerland, lies Beaune in the heart of Burgundy’s wine country. Considered the Cote d’Or’s “wine capital,” this quaint town is also home to France’s primary wine auction, annually benefitting the Hospices of Beaune, which still owns vineyards in the area. What’s special? The historic hospices building is now l’Hotel-Dieu museum, drawing travelers who “ooh” and “aah” at its 15th century Burgundian/Flemish architecture.
Pictured: Beaune in France is the heart of Burgundy’s wine country and considered the Cote d’Or’s “wine capital.”
Viking River Cruises takes guests to see this historic building during its “France’s Finest” itinerary. On day nine of that 15-day itinerary, guests take a scenic drive along France’s Burgundy wine route through Pommard, Volnay and Meursault. Arriving in Beaune, they tour l’Hotel-Dieu, learn about local viniculture and enjoy wine tasting at a local cellar.
In Beaune’s fortified city center, travelers will see ramparts, battlements and even a moat. Throughout the surrounding countryside are vineyards with such prestigious names as Romanee-Conti, Corton-Charlemagne and Pommard. One quirky attraction? Chateau de Savigny-les-Beaune has an eclectic collection of old machines, motorcycles, firefighting equipment, antique cars and historic aircraft displayed in and around the chateau; that includes 2,500 aircraft models on the second floor. Hobbyists really love to visit but it’s not a traditional chateau experience.
When it’s time for a break, we’d saunter over to Les Caves de l’Abbaye, a local wine bar, to order one of Burgundy’s top red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes or perhaps a glass of Chardonnay, becoming more popular of late in Beaune. That said, dry white wines identified as Montrachet (or any form of that name) are among the world’s priciest.
Among Beaune’s culinary specialties are frog legs and escargot with butter, garlic and parsley. For a casual yet savory meal, we recommend Loiseau des Vignes, a Michelin-starred restaurant with wooden beams, stonework and 70 or more rare wines by the glass.
Many travelers visit Beaune before or after their cruise, some as they’re headed to Chalon-sur-Saone for embarkation. That’s the case for those taking the 16-day, wine-themed “Grand France” itinerary operated by Avalon Waterways; guests take a Seine River cruise roundtrip from Paris, then travel south via train to Dijon, and enjoy either a tour of l’Hotel Dieu or a wine tasting at a local cellar. Then it’s on to the second river vessel in Chalon-sur-Saone, before time in Lyon and on the French Riviera.
For those traveling this fall, the Soane/Rhone cruise that departs October 21 (part of the longer Grand France itinerary) has been themed around wine. A “Master of Wine” will lecture onboard and guests will be treated to wine tastings, visits to wineries and a special dinner onboard with food-and-wine pairings, plus other perks.
For a voyage with fewer fellow guests, France Cruises and others offer slower-paced barge sailings that often include Beaune.
This lovely Rhine River town is often abuzz with travelers but it exudes charm just the same. Cruisers will find the town center an easy, flat walk from the river cruise docking points; some are located adjacent to a pleasant park where residents walk their dogs, sit on benches or converse with friends.
Pictured: Viking Longships have a unique Aquavit Terrace indoor/outdoor viewing area with grills for al fresco dining. Budapest shown here.
Once in town, it’s a “must” to stroll along the narrow, pedestrian-friendly Drosselgasse, often bustling, day or night. Here’s where travelers will find cute souvenir shops, gourmet stores, restaurants and wine bars with excellent Rieslings. We typically emerge from Drosselgasse with Rhine regional handicrafts and something more fleeting, a cup of creamy gelato. Also savory to sample? The town’s signature “Rudesheim coffee” is concocted with German brandy, whipped cream and chocolate flakes.
While the Drosselgasse is a “must do” walking experience, it’s advantageous to walk a few blocks out on either side to escape the crowds and see more of the town as the locals experience it. Jewelry buffs might head to the Studio of Walter G. Schroder, a master goldsmith who designs jewelry in silver, gold, and platinum with precious stones and fire enamel. Intricate brass or artistic signs above the entryways of many Rudesheim businesses indicate the type of business within, such as a butcher or baker; wine shops often have grape designs.
A-Rosa Cruises operates multiple cruises that visit Rudesheim this year on the A-Rosa Silva’s “Rhine North and South” itinerary. Once guests reach Rudesheim, they disembark for a complimentary half-hour excursion onboard the “Winzerexpress” mini-train. Then A-Rosa guests will head to Straußwirtschaft, a wine tavern run by local winemakers and growers. Finally, guests will stroll with a local guide along the Drosselgasse.
Some lines that call at Rudesheim include a visit to Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Museum in the town’s upper area. This is highly recommended for first time visitors, and many repeaters come back just to see and hear the quirky musical instruments. Housed in a historic castle, Siegfried’s collection of 18th or early 19th century automated instruments is superior to what we’ve seen elsewhere; one instrument is comprised of six violins that play themselves.
Active travelers might walk up the hill through the vineyards overlooking the town. Atop the mountain is the Niederwald war monument, highly visible from the river. The climb is fairly steep, however, with hundreds of steps at one point, so some travelers may prefer to take a cable car. An easier to reach attraction along the river, just on the outskirts of town, is Bromserburg Castle, now a wine museum.
Many Rhine River itineraries visit Rudesheim. For example, Scenic Cruises offers such cruises including a 15-day Amsterdam to Budapest sailing on many 2015 dates. Guests explore the town by day and at night; the line includes an evening tour of the 12th century Marksburg Castle near Koblenz. Personal audio devices are provided for the guided tour and, afterward, a musician and court jester entertain cruisers during a banquet feast.
Celts planted the first grapes in Austria’s Wachau Valley and the Romans cultivated the region’s first vineyards. Today, grapes are still big business here. From the river docking point, it’s a relatively easy walk into town. Alternatively, active travelers might reserve a bicycle (carried by many lines for guest use) and explore independently, either within Durnstein, or along the river to nearby villages.
Pictured: On the Danube: Bicycle Tours are one of the ways active travelers can explore Durnstein, Austria and its nearby villages.
Those with mobility issues might hop onboard a tiny, motorized train for a ride into town; AmaWaterways is among river lines that will arrange space on the train for guests registering in advance. One plus is that the “toy train” also takes guests through an adjacent village, makes a photo stop at a historic manor house, and passes by vineyards and the wine processing facilities of Domane Wachau, a famous winegrower society in Austria.
Once in Durnstein, we recommend strolling the narrow, cobblestone streets and just “getting lost.” It’s a small town with something of interest around every corner. It’s also simple to retain one’s directional bearings given two highly visible landmarks—Kuenringer Castle atop the adjacent mountain and the 15th-century riverside Stiftskirche, a parish church formerly part of an Augustinian monastery, with its tall blue Baroque tower along the river.
Small shops sell handicrafts, Austrian dolls and “everything apricot” including apricot cake (strudel), dumplings, jelly and Marillenschnaps or apricot brandy. Wine shops have a range of vintages but 85 percent of the Wachau Valley region’s wines are white including Riesling and Gruner Veltliner.
We recommend a stop at “Taste & Beauty”, a Durnstein wine shop and café. Two yummy gifts to purchase for friends and family back home are “Schoko-Sahne Likor,” a chocolate-crème liquor, and chocolates trimmed with edible bits of rose petals. Depending on the ship’s sailing time, those wanting a relaxing late breakfast or lunch with a view might head for the terrace restaurant of Hotel Schloss Durnstein, a Relais & Chateaux property built in the early 17th century.
Guests traveling on AmaWaterways’ designated “In Celebration of Wine” themed cruises can look forward to private wine tastings, onboard lectures by U.S. vintners, and shore trips to vineyards and private wine cellars. This November, Danube wine-themed cruises that call at Durnstein feature either Holly Howell of Finger Lakes Wine Alliance in Corning, NY, or Gerry & Mick Wilson of Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula, CA.
While Danube Cruises attract many adults seeking to explore viniculture, including guests of Tauck, families too enjoy visiting Austria. During Tauck Bridges’ “Blue Danube: Family River Adventure” this summer, families might explore Durnstein or a close-by village on bicycle. Fit teens and parents might make the steep climb to Kuenringer, the fortress in which Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned after the Third Crusade. Then as the vessel sails to Vienna, families will participate in fun “Sound of Music” karaoke.
In the heart of the Douro wine region, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Pinhao, most active from mid-September to mid-October when hundreds of workers arrive for the autumn harvest; they pick grapes used to create port wine, originally a creation of the British in the region. How is port made? A simplistic description is that wine is fermented for two to three days, brandy is added and the liquid is aged in wood barrels.
Pictured: Wine Tasting can be enjoyed at several vineyards in the countryside around Beaune.
While in Pinhao and surrounding communities, travelers might try different kinds of sweet port wine—white, ruby, tawny, late bottle vintage (LBV), and vintage. Some are very sweet, others only lightly sweet. That said, the region is rapidly adapting to also produce premium red table wines and some whites. We’d recommend sampling a few regional culinary specialties including fish poached in olive oil with risotto; bola de Lamego, or bread filled with smoked ham; and octopus carpaccio.
Much of the fun in traveling in this region is visiting local quintas or wine estates, some offering hotel accommodations. One quinta less than a mile from Pinhao is the family-owned Quinta de la Rosa, which produces top quality port wines, table wines and olive oil.
Through early November, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection offers an 11-day “Portugal, Spain and the Douro River Valley” itinerary that includes a seven-night cruise on the new Queen Isabel, three nights in Lisbon at the Tiara Park Atlantic Lisboa (or a similar hotel) and many included tours. For example, Uniworld’s guests will tour the Douro Museum in Regua and visit the Mateus Palace and Gardens, depicted on labels for the famed Mateus rosé wine.
On the tour, Uniworld passengers will also visit Quinta da Avessada, which produces premium Moscatel; they’ll stroll into the vineyards with the quinta’s owner and learn how grapes are cultivated. Inside the winery, a rustic local dinner with wine and traditional music awaits. The next morning in Pinhao, guests will be transported via road to another hillside quinta for wine tasting and Douro Valley views.
If cruisers have time to wander around Pinhao, the 1930s-era Pinhao Train Station has lovely blue and white Azulejo tiles reflecting scenes of past life in Portugal. The town is also known for its magnificent iron bridge designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel.
The Mosel River town of Cochem retains a fairytale-like look. It’s the Old-World Germany that many travelers seek. In addition, the Mosel as a river has less commercial traffic than the nearby Rhine, so it’s more scenic in many ways. Vineyards cascade down to the river and river ships sail close to the banks. So it’s easy here to sit out and watch the scenery unfold while enjoying a glass of wine.
Most major river lines sail the Mosel, but canal barges sail here too. For example, Abercrombie & Kent offers sailings on the eight-passenger La Nouvelle Etoile during September and October when the grape harvests are under way.
When the canal barge arrives at Cochem, guests head out on an excursion to Castel Burg Eltz atop a nearby hill. Inside, there’s an amazing array of Renaissance furniture, suits of armor, jesters’ masks and a 1600-era mechanical toy, “The Goddess of Hunting” by Joachim Friess. Outside, visitors will have superb views of the town and river below; it’s a great place for photos of the Mosel Valley.
Back in Cochem, it’s a good idea to soak in the town’s history. We enjoy strolling the cobblestone streets, looking at half-timbered buildings and viewing the 1332-era Endert gate tower and its adjoining guardhouse. Other Cochem attractions of interest include the Romanesque-style Catholic Church of St. Martin; the more modern interior is worth a look for the gorgeous stain-glass windows that tell Bible stories.
For wine tasting, we’ve enjoyed the tastings and friendly service at Walter J. Oster, Felsenkeller zu Cochem, a downtown Cochem wine shop. Family wine making traditions go back 15 generations here and, despite being in a touristy area, the shop staff make travelers feel at home. Wines for tastings and sale include Riesling and Gewurztraminer, as well as a rosé and large selection of reds.
Another specialty of Cochem is mustard. One good option for browsing, tasting and buying is at Historische Senfmuhle; the varieties include everything from Riesling wine mustard to garlic, honey and curry flavored mustard.
One of the most rewarding activities on a visit to Cochem is just to stroll The Promenade, a green space with flower gardens and seats along the river’s edge. All the wine destinations mentioned in this story provide similar intimate experiences for guests who immerse themselves in the local culture, stroll a bit independently and try the local culinary specialties and wines. Fortunately, it’s easy to get to these places via an inclusive river cruise. Travelers just float along and savor the vineyard views while enjoying a glass of vino from a private balcony or outer deck.