Aboard the MS Serenity, a river cruise from Mainz in Germany to the French medieval city is a leisurely affair
I’ve never been on a river cruise before but, after sailing to Strasbourg, now I understand why they’re so popular. Cocktail of the day in the panoramic lounge bar of MS Serenity is a Margarita, and I’m happy to go with the flow! The handsome Italian on-board manager Michele is singing Volare and everyone is joining in with the ‘oh oh oh oh’.
I arrive in Germany by train from the UK and many of my fellow passengers travel by coach. If you don’t enjoy flying, then an organised road or rail journey to your embarkation point is just the thing.
In the city of Mainz the MS Serenity awaits and smartly-uniformed captains Leo and Roland warmly welcome guests before casting off during dinner to sail down the Rhine.
It’s a real family atmosphere on the boat, a floating 4-star hotel with room for 190 passengers – many travelling alone, others in groups. I soon make new friends and get chatting.
Before sunrise we arrive at Mannheim, sited where the Rhine and Neckar rivers join. After a buffet breakfast with lashings of bacon, egg, beans, sausage and toast, I’m off to sightsee and shop.
It’s simple to get around as the city, nicknamed ‘die Quadratestadt’ because avenues are laid out in a grid, with the 1886 Romanesque water tower easy to spot.
Mannheim Palace was damaged by WW2 bombs, but this luxurious18th Century Baroque building has been restored and is used by the university. On display (Tuesday to Sunday) are tapestries, furniture, paintings, porcelain and silverware.
In summer the peaceful Luisenpark, a municipal green space, offers an arboretum, lush greenhouses and a Chinese garden with tea house.
After lunch, we head by coach to nearby Heidelberg, bordered by the Königsstuhl and Gaisberg mountains and overlooked by the city’s castle. Ramble along the Philosophers’ Walk for wonderful views and you may spot a Siberian swan goose.
It’s nice to kick off our boots, enjoy a hot power shower in our cabins and dress up for dinner at the end of the day. We’re ready for the chef’s 4-course meal and I opt for smoked duck breast with raspberry dressing, tomato soup, braised lamb and panna cotta.
Then in the lounge there’s a music quiz and a fun evening with musician Dusan who performs sing-along favourite such as Amarillo and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. If you fancy getting on your feet, the dance floor beckons.
Overnight we sail into France and, negotiating two locks, join the river I’ll to reach Strasbourg, where the historic city centre, the Grande Île (Large Island), is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The narrow buildings with high roofs and tiny skylight windows offer great character and charm.
Prettiest of all is Petite France, where the city’s tanners, millers and fishermen congregated during the Middle Ages in waterfront houses.
As Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament, I decide to walk to the Wacken district to see the controversial Louise Weiss building.
This iconic modern 60m hemicycle edifice has been intentionally left with an unfinished look one side – like an abandoned Roman amphitheatre. The steel and glass design is certainly bold but, ironically, has been dogged by bits falling down.
To revive myself, I escape to the bright yellow décor of café Gagao (www.gagao.eu) and enjoy a deliciously rich organic Café Choco (hot chocolate with a shot of expresso coffee).
The must-see before leaving is Strasbourg Notre-Dame Cathedral, an ornate and very imposing example of 15th-century Gothic architecture, built in rose-coloured sandstone.
It boasts a medieval astronomical clock which can be seen in action each day at 12:30pm. I consider climbing the 468-feet spire but as my visit is in December, I decide instead to explore the Christmas Market, the oldest in Europe dating back to the 1570s.
Bagged baubles in hand, I return to MS Serenity in time for afternoon tea and home-baked cakes and the strudel doesn’t disappoint.
Next morning I’m off back to the UK by rail via Cologne, a very scenic route along the Rhine Valley. We pass miles of sloping vineyards and towering cliffs with turreted castles high in the trees. It’s a shame to nod off…
The River Cruise Line (www.rivercruiseline.co.uk) offers a choice of cruises aboard the MS Serenity in 2018, including the Dutch bulbfields, Rhine Valley and Danube. A four-day Strasbourg Christmas Market cruise is from £449 per person, inclusive of meals.
Great for food lovers
Try the savoury choucroute garnie, a mix of sauerkraut, salted meats and mashed potatoes or spätzle (little sparrows), a popular soft egg noodle. If you have a sweet tooth, taste kugelhopf, a cake with raisins and toasted almonds.
Great for tranquil travellers
Crisscross the water and wander over some of Strasbourg’s beautiful bridges. There are covered originals from the Middle Ages and the 1858 Passerelle des Juifs footbridge is adorned with love padlocks.
Great for crafters
A Stitchtopia group, on a crafting holiday learning new tips and techniques, joined our little voyage. If you like playing cards, there are also Bridge holidays. Details at arenatravel.com.