Forging upriver against the Rhine’s quicksilver flow, “between the banks which bear the vine, and hills all rich with blossomed trees”, to quote Byron, I came to understand that a week is a long time in politics.
Before boarding the Inspire for a four-day Rhine cruise from Dusseldorf, the UK Government introduced a blanket FCO travel advisory urging against all forms of cruising. Already booked, I defied this directive and recalled a past cruise on the River Sepik when, during a riverbank excursion, violent skirmishes broke out among the Papuan villagers and our guide hurried us back to the safety of our riverboat. That truly had felt dangerous.
And while I understood that this belated advisory expressed concerns over fraternising in a confined space as coronavirus lingers, failing to differentiate between smaller riverboats with access to land-based emergency services and colossal ocean-liners far out to sea, felt misguided. A genteel river cruise seemed significantly less biohazardous than a debauched night out with the lads in Magaluf.
Two-days into my voyage, the Government performed another abrupt volte-face and updated its advisory to exclude river cruises. Such uncertainty might explain why I am the sole Briton among 84 passengers on this departure with Viva Cruises, which restarted its Rhine program in late June with vessels capped at 70 per cent capacity toenable social distancing on board.
Within this extra space I am asked to wear a face-covering when moving from my cabin to the restaurant and forward lounge. Arrows lead me around a one-way system, and I occupy the same allocated table at every meal sitting. As a single voyager, this guarantees that I dine alone, which does feel isolating, no shipmates ahoy. My engagement comes solely with staff who wear masks throughout, ensuring I never see the full extent of an effervescent smile from the Javanese barwoman, Henrawati.
“We’ve distanced the furniture rather than put tape everywhere. We don’t want to keep reminding guests about coronavirus. We want them to relax,” outlines the appositely named Andrea Kruse, the line’s chief operating officer, on-board to supervise procedures. She says test kits are on board if needed and passengers’ temperatures are checked daily by the ship’s doctor.
Unused rooms are available in an emergency to isolate any passenger displaying symptoms.She also identifies a trend likely to create a bumper summer for river cruising while ocean liners remain in dock. Anticipating greater demand, Viva has added 70 extra summer departures, all selling fast.
“We’re seeing a dramatic change with a lot of younger passengers who would normally go to sea. Last year’s average age was 62 but this summer we are welcoming 35 to 45-year-olds”.
On the first excursion around the historic Andernach, 26 miles east of Bonn, Nicole Lechtenboehmer explains that she is an inveterate ocean cruiser who is desperate to get back on to water. “I chose the Rhine because right now I would not feel safe at sea confined with so many people”.
Like Nicole, I love the ocean’s rocking swell and vast untainted horizons. Thus, my greatest fear before boarding Inspire was that I might find the experience tame by comparison. Yet I was wrong. The Rhine doesn’t allow for those soporific days you might experience as sea; it demands attention throughout the 305-mile voyage.
For a start, I’d never slept so low to the water – close enough to hear the wingbeats of skimming cormorants and with my suite’s patio door wide-open, day and night, catching the piercing early calls of curlews, before the Rhine’s conveyor belt of cargo boats drowns them out.And when the sun shines, she reveals the face Byron waxed about when writing The Castled Crag of Drachenfels in 1816.
Riesling vines still cast vertical stripes down the river terraces and Byron’s “scatter’d cities crowning these, whose far white walls along them shine” remain represented by fairy-tale castles with impregnable towers that only Rapunzel’s prince charming might dare to climb.
And then, when overcast and rainy, I see solemn hues of liquid mercury and steel, emblematic of the elements that forged trade, industry and wealth along the Rhine. The unceasing flotilla of commercial barges proves compelling yet sinister, like watching Crimewatch, as motor-tankers – the Rhine’s evil Mother Gothel, if sticking with the Brothers Grimm – hammering by with glinting chrome pipes and hazardous toxic warnings.
Yet there has scarcely been a more peaceful time to see the Rhine, insists Tommy van der Meijden, the ship’s Dutch captain. “Coronavirus has been a disaster economically. I would say Rhine traffic is down 35 to 40 per cent,” he opines from his wheelhouse, the best view on board.Our eastern progress ends in Mainz. Here the captain performs a U-turn as deft as a political backtrack on an FCO advisory, spinning the 440ft Inspire on a pfennig to return to Dusseldorf.
Beforehand, I visit a museum dedicated to Johannes Gutenberg. It was in 1450s Mainz that Gutenberg invented the letterhead printing press, consigning the monks who hand-wrote bibles and missals by quill and candlelight to the footnotes of history.
By evening in Rüdesheim-am-Rhein, I raise a glass – OK, several – to riesling country, as wine producer Jens Wagenitz, who cut his teeth on Mendoza’s malbec, hosts a tasting on board of wines from his family-run vineyard, including a memorably minerally 2019 riesling lagenwein, as dry as the surrounding slate soils.Has coronavirus been a disaster for him, I wonder, twizzling my glass, subconsciously angling for a top-up?
“The opposite,” he suggests. “We have an online business and Germans have been drinking non-stop”.
There’s a final excursion before the fast current tugs us back to Dusseldorf with now unwanted haste, because I could have carried on. Vienna or Budapest would have been nice.
We have two hours in Koblenz, scarcely doing justice to two millennia of history. Yet it is not touristic highlights that resonate with me, like a remarkable Jugendstil house with a façade featuring the Greek goddess Hygeia – tut-tut, she’s not wearing a mask – or the brooding ultra-nationalist statue of Kaiser Wilhelm, portending troubled times ahead.
Instead I savour Koblenz’s re-emergence into normal life. Bustling outdoor cafés where Black Forest cake is eaten without fear. A wedding party with scarlet-dressed bridesmaids hoisting heart-shaped balloons. And toot-toot… the tourist toy train rides again. In coronavirus’s zeitgeist, such prosaic moments are among many precious gifts this dynamic artisanal river can offer.
The four-night Rheingau Experience with Viva Cruises on Inspire costs from €450 (£415) per person in a double cabin, full-board (flights not included).