It’s safe to say we all tend to overuse the word unbelievable. When you think about it, when we say something is “unbelievable,” we’re talking about something that is real but still not to be believed; something so unexpected and remarkable that, for a moment, you have to ask yourself: is this really happening?
While these moments are hard to come by, they’re not impossible to find, especially when travelling. River cruising in particular lends itself to jaw-dropping moments, from sceneries to interactions to activities. Canadian Traveller explores a few of our favourites.
1. Viking River Cruises: Magic kingdoms
Fairy tales are, by their very nature, pretty unbelievable. However, when you find yourself in Passau, Germany looking up at the fantastic Neuschwanstein Castle with its white limestone façade and deep blue turrets, it’s hard not to think that just maybe you’ve entered into a real-life magical kingdom.
That’s because this Bavarian marvel is credited for inspiring the design of Walt Disney’s famous Sleeping Beauty castle. Built by the eccentric and reclusive King Ludwig II, the planned three-year build could never be completed during his lifetime because of the bold and fanciful architectural features he commissioned for his flight of fancy.
Speaking of flights, the whole experience, available when you set sail on Viking River Cruises’ Grand European Tour, is made even more magical as you take it in from the sky, flying in on a short plane ride from Passau through the German countryside to arrive at the storybook structure where you’ll stroll through the inner garden, explore the castle and enjoy a carriage ride through the enchanting Hohenschwangau Valley.
2. Uniworld: Royal encounters
Here’s something you might be surprised to find yourself doing (assuming you’re not one of those rare individuals who are accustomed to running in regal circles): chatting with real royalty, face-to-face. But that’s exactly what Uniworld has in store on the Portraits of Eastern Europe sailing, where you’ll get the chance to swap stories with a member of the Habsburg Royalty in their 13th-century castle.
You’ll dock in Spitz and make your way to Artstetten Castle, located near the Wachau Valley in Austria, for a private cocktail reception with a member of the Habsburg royal family – a direct descendent of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.
The seven-towered castle, parts of which date back to the 13th century, remains the private property of the Hohenberg family. It is the final resting place of the archduke and his wife, who are entombed in the family crypt – which you can explore. A museum within the castle walls is dedicated to Franz Ferdinand; you might be surprised to discover that he, a stern military man if one judges him by his portrait, actually renounced his descendants’ claim to the Habsburg throne to marry for love. Who would have thought the Archduke was a real romantic? Just imagine what else you could learn from this royal encounter.
3. Scenic: Moved by genius
Any live performance of the great classical music masterpieces anywhere in the world can move you in formidable ways. Still, when you’re hearing the greatest works in history being performed by world-class musicians in a private concert in “the city of music,” you might be inclined to pinch yourself just to make sure the beauty of the moment isn’t all a dream.
The Palais Liechtenstein, or the ‘Liechtenstein Garden Palace,’ still privately-owned by the princely family of Lichtenstein, is the scene – a stunning 17th century palace that has been at the heart of Vienna high society for more than three centuries now. Here, on a selection of Scenic’s European river cruises, don’t be surprised if you can't believe your eyes or ears for a moment as you enter another era, stepping back into the time of some of the world’s most genius composers, such as Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven for a classical evening concert.
In 2020, Scenic celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven with a special dedication paying tribute to his talent through performances of his world- renowned compositions.
4. European Waterways: Idyllic scenes
Sometimes a moment is simply so perfect that you don’t want to blink for fear of missing any part of it. That’s what European Waterways’ La Bell Epoque classic cruise in northern Burgundy has in store – or rather, in cellar – for you.
Visit the Maison Alexandre Bonnet for a private Champagne tasting in the only wine growing area of the Champagne region to have three Appellation d’Origine Contrôlées. The family-owned Champagne house is renowned for its stunning yearly harvest of Pinot Noir, which you’ll sample ahead of the short-drive to the Château de Ricey-Bas to enter into its 12th-century vaulted cellars.
Rural châteaus and rolling vineyards paired with Champagne aperitifs and a gourmet lunch with the Baroness herself couldn’t get any more quintessential. The halcyon experience might just make you wonder if your afternoon spent strolling through the regal rooms and idyllic gardens isn’t just make believe.
5. Tauck: Unparalleled insight
There’s not much that hasn’t been written about Winston Churchill at this point. As one of the ultimate figures in 20th century history, the statesman, orator and author is one of the most chronicled and studied individuals in modern history – which is why it might seem downright impossible to believe there’s anything fresh left to be discovered about Britain’s great wartime prime minister.
Yet, on Tauck's Cruising the Seine Plus Paris & London itinerary travellers can get a unique perspective into the life and times of Sir Winston, thanks to an exclusive presentation by his granddaughter, Celia Sandy. Celia became interested in writing about her grandfather when she found a treasure trove of his letters from ages six to 20 that had been previously undiscovered by historians. It showed another side of the man that only those closest to him could ever have access. Since then, she’s been helping to paint the fullest picture possible of her late grandfather.
In addition to being his granddaughter, Celia was also his travel companion on a number of unique trips throughout his life, so during this talk, she provides insight – in a way no one else can – into who Sir Winston was and how he experienced the world.
6. Avalon Waterways: Channel the masters
The presence of towering artistic figures like Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Jan Steen is still felt in a city where countless masterpieces have been created through the centuries. Because of that, if you’ve ever day-dreamed of becoming an artist, or even if you just like the romantic notion of the European painter, donning a smock in one of Amsterdam’s airy studios for an art class of your very own can feel rather surreal.
The country’s artistic history is dominated by the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, a period that spanned the 17th century as the masters created wholly distinct new styles and new types of paintings.
In joining a painting class as part of Avalon Waterways Active & Discovery on the Rhine, you’ll be inspired by the masters’ techniques as you turn your own canvas into a masterpiece to take home. Yours may not quite be Starry Night but you may just find yourself channeling the masters in small compelling ways that you never thought possible – until you find yourself there.
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