“River cruising is a great alternative to touring the world on huge ocean vessels. Small ships carrying only 20 to 40 passengers offer a more authentic, individual travel experience.
Cruising along inland waterways you only travel short distances a day and dock frequently to learn about the country. What you will see is small-scale sights, medieval towns and open countryside. And a lot of waterways.
River cruising is a truly relaxing way of travel, and today you can do it in luxury, on a floating hotel.
I got a chance to travel through Belgium and the Netherlands, cruising the canals from town to town and going on daily excursions to nearby sights. It was a cooperation project with Cultural Cruises Europe, a company offering luxury cruises along inland waterways of the Low Countries.
I will show you what luxury river cruising is like but first some background on Low Countries waterways.
Dutch and Belgian Waterways
Like the photo shows the Low Countries are exceptionally rich of waterways, natural and man-made.
Both countries have some big rivers. The main Belgian rivers are the Scheldt, Meuse and Yser. The Meuse runs on the Dutch side as well and the other big Dutch rivers are the Rhein and Eems. In addition there is a whole lot of smaller rivers.
But this was not enough for the people of the Low Countries. They built hundreds of kilometers of canals to interlink their rivers, to make goods transport and travel possible in a time when nobody could imagine there will be trains and cars.
All these canals still exist and so do the locks they built to raise and lower boats between stretches of different water levels. So Belgium and the Netherlands have a complete network of waterways offering a fantastic setting for outdoor recreation – and touring the countries by boat.
Why not travel slowly along waterways instead of taking the fast six lane motorway? And to really drift back in time, why not try an old-style river barge?
Low Countries, Rich History
If you’re a culture lover then Belgium and the Netherlands might be your thing. As the former artistic center of Europe and the home of the famous Flemish painters the Low Countries offer a huge amount to see. In addition there are the great medieval cities with ornate gabled buildings, still standing there as if nothing had changed with time.
The Cultural Cruises Europe company has combined water travel and culture. They offer a Wealth of Culture Tour where a luxury ship takes you from town to the next, including daily excursions to the Low Countries’ main culture sights.
So at nights you travel by boat and sleep in your cabin, on days you explore the destinations the boats stops at, and the rest of the time you keep mingling with your fellow passengers, having all meals together around one big table.
Sounds perfect, but is it really that? To let you decide what you think I will show you what my cruising experience was like.
To begin with, the cruising itinerary:
Wealth of Culture Tour Map
This is the Wealth of Culture Tour itinerary. The tour covers Flanders, the northern part of Belgium and Holland, the western region of the Netherlands.
The trip is arranged either south to north or the other way. In the south it starts in Bruges and follows inland waterways to Ghent, Antwerp, Dordrecht, Kinderdijk and on to Amsterdam. Whichever the direction the tour is about 9 days long.
That’s the normal. We instead only made a five day trip between Bruges and Dordrecht. From Dordrecht me and my husband Clas who was traveling with me took the train to Amsterdam, after biking to Kinderdijk windmills which also is a Wealth of Culture Tour destination.
So that was the itinerary. What was the vessel like then?
The Ship, Magnifique III
This was the ship we traveled on. The Magnifique III looks like a traditional freight barge from the outside, which it in fact is.
Cultural Cruises Europe’s all vessels are made from freight barges, there are three in use and a fourth one is being built. The ships are called Magnifique I-III and they all look pretty much the same.
Turning Freight Barges into Passenger Ships
The owner of the ships is not the cruising company but a ship builder, Walter van Berkum. His passion is to convert old cargo ships into beautiful passenger barges. On the outside he wants to retain the traditional cargo ship look but he totally changes the inside.
So before getting a new life as a luxury passenger ship the Magnifique III was serving for years as a freight barge, carrying cargo on Dutch and Belgian inland waters.
For centuries this kind of barges were the way to transport heavy goods. Then came the trains and barges were forgotten, until people started renovating them for private use or to be floating hotels.
Inside the barge there are two floors. The lower floor is all cabins and the upper floor which you enter when boarding is dominated by a big open lounge divided in a dining area with long dinner tables and a bar and sofa corner. This floor, too, has cabins.
This table is the place for breakfasts and dinners – and lunches in case there’s no excursion at lunch time. As all meals are enjoyed around one long table, all passengers together, it’s super easy to make friends during the cruise.
Delicacies on the Plate
The company says they have a world-class chef on board which I think they have. Every night he prepared locally themed meals, three or even four courses and paired his Dutch, Flemish, French – and sometimes Italian – specialties with matching wines and Belgian beer.
Dinner discussions with our new friends from all over the world were one of the best parts of the trip and so were the after dinner chocolate and beer tastings.
Then there is a bar, made out of a wooden boat. And bubbly welcome drinks waiting for the travelers after a day on land. Perfect! With a drink in my hand I’ll be now trying a relaxing soak in the hot tub..
Top Deck Views
Yes, the barge has a hot tub, on the top deck. A jacuzzi with steaming hot water offers pleasant views to the calm bay. What more would you need after a walking day?
Clas didn’t want to lose any time. Here he is in the bubbles, only five minutes after coming back from the day’s excursion.
The decks also contain outdoor sitting areas for the passengers which makes them the right place to get the evening sun.
Kind of fun to be docked in a central location in a big city, people-watching from a steaming bath. Or enjoying a Belgian beer on the deck.
Good Night Sleep Tight
What about the cabins? They all have a private bathroom, air conditioning, wifi and TV. The cabins on the lower deck have round portholes, upper deck has suites with big windows.
Our cabin looked like this, nothing to complain. I really liked my cabin and above all slept well.
Before going to the cabins every evening ended in some background information on what was coming the next day. Since every day there was an excursion.
As the excursions are included in the cruise fare normally the whole group goes together. Most tours are partly carried out by bus or canal boat and there always is a few hours walking in a group with a local guide. The guides explains the sights and artworks and tells about the history of the places the group goes to.
The destinations are those marked on the cruise map, beginning from Bruges. What is Bruges like?
It’s a real gem of a city. Bruges has the best preserved Belgian old town where 95 % of buildings are medieval. That’s really exceptional and the reason why UNESCO took Bruges on their World Heritage list.
On the map you can see that Bruges old town looks round like an egg and you can also see a ring of canals around it. The old town was built around a 9th century fortress that was there to defend the region against Vikings from the north. The fortress since then disappeared but the rest of the city still stands there like an open-air museum.
Bruges is narrow cobbled lanes, winding canals and great mansions of medieval cloth traders. You just have to see Bruges:
Bruges became a cloth trading city and then came the Flemish artists.
The city’s cathedral Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is a culture treasure with oil paintings and carved woodwork, mainly by famous Low Countries artists. They also imported art from Italy, like Michelangelo’s world-famous marble statue Madonna and Child from 1505.
The northern part of Belgium where Bruges is located is called Flanders, and Flanders also has the small town of Yper surrounded by Flanders Fields.
Yper and Flanders Fields
To get to Yper and Flanders Fields you need a bus ride. Just like Bruges Yper (also called Ypres and Ieper) was a medieval cloth trading city but Yper was way bigger, the same size as London and Paris in those days. Afterwards it was an industrial city – until the First World War changed it all. One of the worst fights of the war took place in Yper after which there was nothing left of the city.
Then after the war they built back Yper to its earlier glory. They even rebuilt the 13th century cloth hall which today contains the touching museum In Flanders Fields that tells us what the war really meant to the lives of people of those days.
At the other end of the cloth hall is Yper Museum opened in 2018. That again tells the story of the city of Yper. The photos below are from both museums.
After what happened in Yper there are 250 war graveyards the biggest of which is Tyne Cot with 35.000 names. 12.500 men are buried there, 70 % of them unknown. Tyne Cot is the world’s biggest war cemetery.
Ghent is less known as a tourist city than Bruges but an equally interesting place to see. It’s mainly an industrial and university city but has an old town with many great buildings from different time periods.
There are the Graslei and Korenlei guildhouses, the whitewashed Begijnhof buildings and the Gothic style Stadhuis and Belfort that look like fairy-tale castles.
As Ghent always was and will be a city of art it also respects modern art. In Graffiti Street street artists are free to create spray-can art:
Once in Ghent, the tour took us inside Saint Baaf’s cathedral. The huge Gothic cathedral contains one of the most important paintings displayed in North Europe, Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan van Eyck, the first of the great Flemish artists. It’s twelve oil painted oak wood panels almost all of which are original.
Antwerp amazed me a little bit, I had thought it’s just a busy port where cargo leaves to all corners of the world. Yes, there is a port but Antwerp also has an old city core with some amazing architecture.
Or what do you say about this, Antwerpen Centraal, Antwerp main train station?
Antwerp is the second city of Belgium and has 500 000 inhabitants. The main square Grote Markt is framed by carefully decorated guildhouses and many nearby squares look the same.
A walk around the city center took us to the Rubens house, where the famous painter lived and worked. Unlike most other painters he was a wealthy man and his house gives a good insight to what aristocratic living was like some hundred years ago. More of Rubens works are on display in the impressive Onze Lieve Vrouwe Cathedral that we also visited.
Tasting Antwerp Beers
What more places did we visit in Antwerp? We went to a chocolate factory and saw them make Belgian chocolate, and we also went to a brewery, to see Belgian beer being made. And even better, they let us to taste their beers, these:
One of the beers of this company, Seef, has an exceptional story. As the traditional beer of Antwerp it used to be made by 100 local breweries, until 80 years ago when international brands took the market. Everybody was drinking pils and all knowledge about traditional Antwerp beer was lost – until the Seef recipe was found in grandfather’s wooden box. So the beer was relaunched in Belgium, won international awards and here we are: tasting traditional Seef beer, rediscovered after 80 years of non-existence. Good job!
The company started producing other traditional beers as well, and so do the more than 200 other breweries that are active in Belgium today. Belgium if any is a beer country where almost every village has its own beer. The Belgians produce and consume hundreds of different kinds of beers: trappist beers, dark and light beers, fruit beers – and they all taste so good.
Back on the ship there was a lecture on the Dutch Deltaworks engineering project to protect the Netherlands against flooding. The next day we were going to cross the border to the Netherlands.
The Netherlands: Fighting the Sea
The Netherlands is the country of canals, dams, dikes, polders and a thousand windmills, both old and new ones. The Dutch first explored other countries. They sailed to all continents and built their trading settlements in Africa, America and Asia. Then they conquered their own country. As the population was increasing land was needed and the only way to get it was to take it from the sea. So the Dutch built dams to hold the sea back and surrounded all coastal flatland with dikes, this way:
The red lines are dikes, earth barriers built out of soil and sand. Dikes follow almost all Dutch coastline and surround most waterways and canals. The dikes were needed to gain more land from the sea. The idea was to drain the wet marshland areas that were left behind so they pumped water out of the wet areas with windmills. The wet areas are called polders and they are marked green on the map.
A large part of the Netherlands is made this way and 9 million of today’s total population of 17 million live on reclaimed land. The blue areas on the map are those below sea level, protected from the water by man-made constructions:
The biggest construction is the 9 kilometers long Oosterschelde dam, so there we went. The huge construction is there to separate inland waters from the sea. The dam has adjustable gates kept open to allow tides flow in and out. When a storm is approaching and water levels getting high the gates are closed to protect the lowland.
Oosterschelde dam was built since there was a disastrous flood that hit South Holland. In 1953 a winter storm broke through and dikes failed. As a result much of South Holland was flooded, 32 000 people had to leave their homes and 300 citizens lost their lives. Watersnoodmuseum in Ouwerkerk in the delta area has a permanent exhibition on what happened in the nineteen fifties and how Holland is dealing with rising water levels now and in the future when the global climate change affects sea levels.
Photos of the museum and the nearby town of Zierikzee that was badly hit by the disaster:
The museum is in a row of bunkers originally brought to the place to build barriers against the sea. The simple concrete bunkers as a museum and a highly visual exhibition make a strong contrast.
From the Zeeland lowlands the river journey goes on to Dordrecht, the oldest town in Holland.
Dordrecht in the south of Netherlands got its town rights in 1220, because of its strategic location in a place where Holland’s biggest waterways meet. Since that Dordrecht has been a big inland port. It also is a city with many canals.
The historic center is like from a postcard, hiding in it over a thousand architectural monuments. Yet Dordrecht is small enough to explore on foot from where river cruising ships dock. And so did the Magnifique III, it docked along a canal and we walked to the city.
Our press trip ended at this point and we left the tour. The next destination on the Cultural Cruises Europe tour is Kinderdijk with the world-famous windmills which we also explored, this time on our own.
Kinderdijk is Netherlands as its most typical, an open marsh area with a lot of water everywhere, and a lot of windmills. The place is half way between Dordrecht and Rotterdam and easy to reach from both cities by waterbus.
Kinderdijk has 19 well-preserved windmills that are named a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are no other areas like this left in the Netherlands which makes the windmills an immensely popular destination for international tourists. To avoid the crowds we explored the area the Dutch way, by bike, and got a bit further in the beautiful area.
The 19 windmills were used to drain the marshland, and as draining wet areas is a never ending job in Holland these ancient windmills are still kept working. Their sails are turned to catch the best winds and on windy days you can see windmills rotate with noise and speed. These old workhorses of Kinderdijk are still going strong.
I wish somebody was selling modern windmills that wouldn’t be white, tall and narrow but looked like these original Dutch windmills. In that case I would consider investing in wind power on my back yard and that would also always remind me of the Low Countries.
The Wealth of Culture Tour ends at Amsterdam and that, if any, is the city of canals. There are 165 canals in Amsterdam.
Herengracht, Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, the names of Amsterdam canals derive from history. Look at the map and you will see how they planned Amsterdam. They drained land and built a circle of canals round the city, in fact not just one circle but five or six. They lined the canals with narrow gabled townhouses, many of them only two windows wide. To get furniture upstairs you will have to lift it from the outside using the hook at the top of the building that most canal houses have.
The canals are spanned by hundreds of beautiful bridges most of which are full of bikes, of course. Black, blue, yellow, pink bikes. The Dutch have bikes in all models and colors.
Even in late autumn Amsterdam was like a painting. No wonder the city attracts so many artists, not to forget that the great painters were from the Low Countries.
River Cruising from Bruges to Amsterdam
So that was it, Bruges to Amsterdam along waterways. Art, culture, history and windmills. Rivers, canals, locks, docking and sailing. Pretty towns, marshland, cheeses, chocolates and beers.
I have to say I like this kind of travel. There’s no hurry whatsoever, just a lot of time, time to enjoy life and learn about a country in the company of like-minded fellow passengers, being looked after by a smiling staff.
Would I recommend river cruising in Belgium and the Netherlands? Yes I would. Even when I’ve been countless times to these countries I never had time to examine their culture treasures the way I did this time.
For me as an independent traveler, normally planning my trip details myself, it felt different to be taken care of by others. Following a tour group is something I mostly avoid. Yet it felt so good just to trust these travel experts. They know their country and they know what they are doing, having done it many times before. All I have to do is follow the group and enjoy my trip.
Is a Wealth of Culture Tour for You?
To spend more than a week on a cruising ship you will need both time and money. River cruises are not cheap. Trip costs are comparable to ocean cruises, or any other arranged tours that include travel, accommodation, meals and excursions.
How much does a river cruise like this cost then? Cultural Cruises Europe trip fares are between € 2000 and 2500 per person which of course is a lot of money. But what you get compared to ocean cruises on huge vessels is a lot more individual travel experience. With a dose of culture and history.
If you got interested in luxury river cruising, look for more information on the Cultural Cruises Europe website. The website also lists other tours arranged by the same company, the Holland Culture Tour and the Battlefields Cruise.
My trip through Belgium and the Netherlands was made possible by Cultural Cruises Europe cruising company but like always all opinions shared in my blog article are my own.”