21 February 2017

Cultural cruises - music, art, churches, castles and wine!

From the time my late parents retired at 60, until their 85th birthday, they went on a different cruise each year that was filled with music, literature, art, architecture or history. Thank you to Jeremy Seal for beautifully writing up one of the trips my parents loved.

In Wurzburg, guests on the Renaissance Tours river voyage were being treated to a private concert by the University of Music Wurzburg’s Baroque Orchestra. In a programme that included Handel and Vivaldi, Carlo Tessarini and Giuseppe Alberti, the orchestra’s period instruments and the intimate pavilion-style surroundings brought the audience close to the authentic spirit of mid-C18th chamber music.

And most of the orchestra accompanied us back to our luxury cruiser, MS Amadeus Elegant, to spend a few days on board. The programme secured us our own classical music troupe as we journeyed down Germany’s Main and Rhine rivers towards The Netherlands. It is no surprise these adjoining rivers, historic trade arteries on the great transcontinental waterway between the North and Black seas, should draw cultured types; the Main and Rhine valleys are positively crammed with the art and music of Central Europe.

Those who voyaged down these famously scenic waterways were spoiled for choice when it came to renowned Philharmonic orchestras (Munich, Cologne), national opera and ballet houses (Amsterdam) and world class art collections (Nuremberg’s Germanic National Museum, Amster­dam’s Rijksmuseum). Plus architectural highlights such as Cologne’s soaring Gothic cathedral!

Also important was the expertise and approachability of the accomp­any­ing lecturers, a distinguished Australian trio comprising two leading art critics and a music broadcaster.

Then there was the engaging and erudite company of the 80 or so guests, including architects and academics, a retired ballet dancer and an antiquarian bookseller. Plus excellent dinners and local wines.

After Wurzburg, the 110m Amadeus Elegant wound smoothly through the Franconia region. Beyond the expansive windows we admired the neat riverbank vineyards of the white Silvaner grape and a skyline studded with fairytale castles. One such castle tottered above Wertheim, where we put ashore to explore this delightful town of half-timbered houses at the confluence of the Main and the Tauber rivers. The town, with its maze of medieval alleys and rose gardens, was regularly devastated by floods, so there are old high-water marks etched in meticulous Gothic script.

MS Amadeus Elegant 
1. cruising down the Rhine
2. enjoying a guided tour in a Rhenish city
Photo credit: The Australian newspaper, 27th Aug 2016

The ship squeezes its capacious beam into the 40 locks that punctuate the descent from Nuremberg to Mainz.

After breakfast we left the Main for the wider expanses of the Middle Rhine, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed region where romantic valley landscapes inspired Wagner’s operas, Heine’s poetry and Turner’s paintings. Most passengers gathered on the upper deck to admire the churches and monasteries. Note the spectacular castles, among them the ship-shaped and bay-windowed Pfalzgrafenstein, which was constructed midstream, the better to extract the tolls from passing vessels.

At the picturesque Lorelei, where the pinched current boils beneath the legendary siren's home, wonderful Wurzburg musicians capped the moment with their own arrangement of the famous eponymous folk song. Passing barges, carrying coal and scrap iron, brought us back to reality.

Next stop was Bonn where our mooring was mere metres from Beethoven’s birthplace. The city is also home to architect Axel Schultes’s cel­ebrated Kunstmuseum. This idiosyncratic building has a comprehensive collection of the city’s own artist, the acclaimed Rhenish Express­ionist August Macke, and a focus on contemporary German art. That evening, the acclaimed Beethoven Bonn Trio set up in the ship’s lounge to perform a series of magnificent piano pieces (Beethoven, Shostakovich, Brahms).

In the night we docked at Cologne; I disembarked at dawn to visit the Dom/great Gothic cathedral where German artist Gerhard Richter’s magnificent 2007 stained-glass window dominates the soaring south transept. There was more of the compelling Richter at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig.

We saw the art at the city’s Wallraf-Richartz Museum, with its wonder­fully vivid collection of medieval devotional paintings. And noted the altarpiece treatments of popular martyr narrat­ives such as St Ursula, who was hacked to pieces along with her virgin retinue at the gates of Cologne while on pilgrimage to Rome. The Australian’s art critic Christopher Allen was on hand to mediate the visit with a stream of welcome insights.

In the evening, speakers previewed the next day’s packed programme. ABC Classic FM’s Christopher Lawrence extolled Tchaik­ovsky’s The Queen of Spades at Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera; Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald spoke about Franz Hals, whom we’d encounter on a visit to Haarlem. When we reached the town, just a short drive from our berth in Central Amsterdam, Haarlem appeared to have dissolved beneath a quintessentially Dutch sky. We took shelter in the Great Church, where Mozart and Handel once played the celebrated organ, and where artist Frans Hals was one of about 1500 local notables to have been buried beneath the numbered grave slabs that cover every last centimetre of the floor.

McDonald discussed Still Life, the Dutch Golden Age's memento mori, particularly Pieter Claesz, C17th Haarlem artist who liked to include a skull and other emblems of mortality in his tableaus. A visit to the nearby Frans Hals Museum soon cheered us up. The gloom of Claesz could not compete with the sheer energy of Hals’s famously vivid group portraits, notably of Haarlem’s Civic Guard. Hals’s works, brimming with unguarded life, confirmed him as a genius to rank with Vermeer and Rembrandt.

The range of cultural cruises is wide. Late last year Renaissance Tours did a 17-night art and music-themed tour called A Panorama of Eastern Europe: From Poland to the Black Sea. The October 2016 itinerary included Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania and covered a chartered seven-night Danube cruise aboard MS Amadeus Royal. Plus there was a series of presentations and talks by leaders Christopher Lawrence of ABC Classic FM.

Concert in the Imperial Hall of the Würzburg Residence.

Photo credit: Ombiasy Tours

In April 2017, Mediterranean Opera and Music Cruise will offer a luxury cruise filled with opera, music and art. The ship will set sail from Lisbon and will stop at the Spanish ports of Cadiz, Malaga, Valencia and Mallorca, before arrival in Nice (9 nights). On board, guests will enjoy a special programme of opera and music. Ashore they will indulge themselves in art, history and culture around the Iberian Peninsula and across the Mediterranean.


Train Man said...

Luxury train trips and ship cruises seem to appeal to an older group of travellers. I love that... no drunken footballers and no bucks parties with strippers.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, As tempting as you make this cruise/tour sound, I still don't know whether cruises are for me. The idea of being on the water for long periods bothers me, and I'm not sure if I want the constraints of a set tour. On the other hand, spending most of my time in Taipei and Cleveland, I find myself becoming complacent and not even taking advantage of all that these two places have to offer.

Pat said...

Loved our lectures on Rhine River cruises. Time to do it again.

Andrew said...

While it wasn't a cultural cruise, we saw many places you mention here, including the high water marks on houses in a small town. Fortunately flood protection is now much better.

Hels said...

Train Man

Younger people might also be interested in cruises with packed programmes on and off the ship, but I suspect it might a a financial issue. Only people well established in their careers, or indeed retired, can afford the fares.

By the way, I have seen awful drunks and strippers on the tv programme Don't Tell The Bride.

Hels said...


If you are not sure if you want the constraints of a set tour, don't go on one of these cruises. Certainly you could sit in the ship's casino all day and night, or play lots of deck tennis, but what would be the point? These cruises are specifically designed for people who want lots of historical experts or lecturers in the arts on board, then tour guides to take the visitors to castles, palaces, wineries and medieval towns in port.

Probably most people would agree with you and would prefer to design their own travel arrangements.

Hels said...


I loved it too, especially the Rhineland white wine tasting session at lunchtime :)

Hels said...


I actually thought of not calling this post Cultural Cruises because it might have sounded artificially posh, but educational cruises sounded too elitist and Specialist Themed Tours may not have given enough information.

Parnassus said...

Hi again, You got it turned around! The lectures and historic sites would fascinate me, what I would have problems with are the remaining casino and deck tennis. Also, as stated, motion on the water bothers me, and unless you are really going deluxe, I imagine the cabins are rather small.

Hels said...


Sorry.. ��

You should meet my beloved. He won't even cross from Victoria to Tasmania by ship, because of the rocking motion on the water.