Julie Peasgood: On Board MS Serenade 1
We are all gathered on deck to witness a decapitation. Silent, whispering, we shuffle into place. We are on tenterhooks - straining to see, even though we know it might be ugly. The tension mounts as passengers jostle for a prize view, but the executioner commands us to stand back - the huge sabre being wielded demands space. And respect.
We count down in unison, ‘Three, two, one…’ and the raven-haired Alina, our glamorous hotel manager, handles the weapon with a zealous confidence. There’s a crack, a mass intake of breath, and we see that she has sliced the top off a champagne bottle with alarming speed and precision. We all cheer with abandon (and relief) that the only neck receiving the chop today is mercifully a bottle of Moët…
The MS Serenade 1 crew are, without exception, one of the friendliest and most welcoming we have ever encountered. Nearly all Romanian (except for Alina who is Spanish) they are attentive, kind and constantly good-humoured. Cruise Director Richard Fryett, Senior Entertainer Simon Candlish and Tour Manager Ron Disney complete the Titan team for this outstanding cruise along the Rhine, and we set sail from Cologne after witnessing the wonders of its spectacular Cathedral, Germany’s most visited landmark.
Our first port of call is pretty Königswinter, half an hour from Cologne, where we travel to the castle of Schloss Drachenburg courtesy of the Drachenfelsbahn, Germany’s oldest cog railway. More like a tram than a train, it’s a steep, swift and short ascent, although if you’re fit and determined to walk off the generous breakfasts onboard then you can hike it in about an hour (or better still take the tram up and walk back – downhill!)
The schloss is an archetypal fairytale castle, straight out of a Disney film, complete with turrets and perched half way up to the Drachenfels - the legendary Dragon's Rock at Konigswinter. Set in lush, manicured gardens, it’s an intriguing medley of Medieval, Gothic, Roman and Moorish styles, which is apparently called historismus (or ‘mish-mash’ as our knowledgeable local guide informs us). Built in a record two years at the end of the 19th Century by Baron Stephan von Sarter (who acquired his grand title to accompany his new castle) it has a past as mixed as its heritage, but is now lovingly restored to its former glory with spectacular views over the Rhine gorge.
The Rhine is a remarkably tranquil river, considering it’s so active, and I love lying on deck playing private I-spy; sailing boats, speedboats and paddle boards pass by, runners and cyclists tear along on the towpath, there are paragliders overhead, gradient-defying rows of vines arranged with military precision on the steep river banks, campsites with huge tents sporting satellite dishes (seriously) and picturesque little villages peppered with detached, gabled houses, standing proudly like toy homes adorning a model railway.
But we have the added bonus of sailing the Moselle too - a tributary of the Rhine and one of Europe’s busiest inland waterways. We arrive at our second destination, Cochem, cradled in the high, wine-yielding slopes of the Moselle Valley, and almost in unison we all grab our cameras and mobiles to capture the splendour of medieval Reichsburg castle, crowning the half-timbered townhouses below.
With fabulous photo opportunities at every turn, MS Serenade 1 is a lovely vessel to travel in. Refurbished in 2018, she is elegant, comfortable and intimate, and I am amazed to discover that every cabin boasts a bath as well as a separate shower. This is a rarity on board river cruise ships (other than occasionally at suite level) so it’s a highlight if you’re a lover of baths like me.
As we are cruising from Cologne to Basel, our excursions take place in the mornings (and if you’re sailing from Basel to Cologne they are after lunch). Our leisurely afternoons are supremely relaxing; we play quoits and games on deck, bask in the sunshine, or read in the lounge – serenaded by the piano whilst we enjoy tea and cakes or witty quizzes.
One evening we are entertained by a dance folklore troupe, and on another we are entertained by the soothing Jalousie string quartet. I am also intrigued by an impromptu pre-dinner talk given by our tour manager, Ron Disney, at the special request of the passengers. He is such a popular and experienced guide that we all want to learn more about his fascinating background (and yes, he is related to Walt!)
One of the great benefits of river cruising is that we are able to enjoy a destination in the evening as well as in the day, because we often sail late or even moor overnight. Our itinerary is packed with a well chosen mix of optional as well as included excursions, but my husband Patrick and I also love wandering ashore by ourselves, and in Rudesheim am Rhein we have a very special encounter.
We love Trier with its wealth of Roman monuments and magnificent St Peter’s Cathedral; stylish Speyer and Strasbourg; picture-book pretty Breisach and Triberg with its charming Schwarzwald museum and awe-inspiring variety of cuckoo clocks - but it’s in ancient, spellbinding Rudesheim where the magic happens.
Blessed with the delightfully cobbled Drosselgasse in the heart of the old town, this is where visitors flock to sample authentic German cuisine, the best bars and the most celebrated live bands. We head for nearby Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Cabinet though, where we just happen to meet lovely Lena, granddaughter of the museum’s founder. We haven’t booked an official tour (though this is possible) but with great kindness and enthusiasm, Lena offers us a private tour where we admire a host of delicate music boxes, huge piano-orchestrions, mechanical violins and prized snuff boxes that open to reveal the sweetest songbirds.
The following day we enjoy a tour to the magical, centuries old Rheinstein Castle; ensconced on a rocky ridge overlooking the Rhine, with glorious stained glass in every window and as romantic as it gets. But what I’m most thrilled about are the two tiny musical carousels I buy for my granddaughters from Siegfied’s - perhaps one day I can even bring Anjelica and Saha in person to delight in the magic of this enchanting Rhine cruise.
Article published on: 12th February, 2020
Julie has a multi-faceted career as an accomplished actress and TV presenter, an award-winning author, travel writer and columnist. She has worked extensively for the Travel Channel presenting Cruise Today, and she regularly writes about travel and lifestyle for the Mail on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, Femail and Best magazine. An avid cruise traveller, Julie is currently Contributing Editor for Cruise International magazine.