Seven active and immersive river experiences in Europe

River cruises have long been a slow-travel option for reaching some of Europe’s historic valleys, but new itineraries are bringing a host of fast-paced experiences to the table. Here’s our pick of the best.

Locally known as the 'European Grand Canyon', the limestone Gorges de l'Ardèche in the south west of France reach heights of 980 feet.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Samantha Lewis
Published 2 Aug 2022, 15:00 BST

1. France

Kayak through a scenic canyon

The Gorges de l’Ardèche is a series of limestone cliffs carved by the Ardèche River over millennia, forming an 18-mile canyon in the south west of France. Much of this nature reserve is only accessible by water: paddle past the Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge that serves as a gateway to the canyon, and along the clear waters of this Rhone tributary, keeping an eye out for otters and kingfishers, as well as vultures, falcons and eagles soaring above.

2. Bulgaria

Climb up to a monastic complex carved out of rock

A UNESCO World Heritage Site in northeast Bulgaria, the 20 medieval churches and chapels forming the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo monastic complex were dug out by Christian hermits from the rocky banks of the Rusenski Lom River. Although visitors won’t have to follow in the footsteps of devout Christians and climb ropes to the site, there’s a bit of an upwards hike to reach Holy Virgin’s Rock Church, the only cave open to the public, but its beautifully preserved 13th- and 14th-century frescoes are worth the effort. 

3. Serbia

Hike and refuel around Europe’s largest gorge

Stretching along the banks of the Danube, Serbia’s Djerdap National Park is place of superlatives: it’s the country’s largest national park, home to the wondrous Iron Gates — the river’s longest, deepest gorge, snaking through the heart of the Carpathian Mountains. Discover this UNESCO global geopark on a scenic hike, refuelling with traditional specialities along the way: located in the north-eastern corner of the country, the region’s cuisine has influences from Turkey, Hungary, Romania and Greece.

Left: Top:

The 14th-century frescoes adorning the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo, in Bulgaria's Rusenski Lom Nature Park, reveal an exceptional artistry for medieval Bulgarian art.

Right: Bottom:

Golubac Fortress, a medieval fortified town on the Danube, Serbia, marks the entrance to the Djerdap National Park.

photographs by Alamy

4. Hungary

Canoe along the Danube Bend

Jump aboard a five-person canoe to explore the area where Europe’s second-largest river makes a dramatic, horseshoe bend. Just 25 miles north of Budapest, this is one of the Danube’s most beautiful stretches, with riverside beaches, limestone hills and wooded mountains. As you paddle, admire the stunning scenery, including the former Roman stronghold of Visegrád, then navigate the narrower Szentendre branch on the west bank, past thatched roofed houses and herons perched on willow trees.

5. The Netherlands

Take part in a bike safari

At the Netherlands’ Hoge Veluwe National Park, 25 miles of cycle trails weave through an ever-changing landscape, from deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests to shifting sand dunes, and wet and dry heaths. Cycling is the best way to discover this 13,750-acre park, home to a wide diversity of plant and animal species: pedal pas black woodpeckers and nightjars, keeping your eyes peeled for the park’s ‘big four’: red deer, wild boars, mouflons and roe deer.

6. Germany

Head underground to a volcanic mine

When the Laacher See volcano erupted 13,000 years ago, it sent a stream of lava flowing towards the small German town of Mendig. In the Middle Ages, locals would mine the area’s caverns for basalt left over from the eruption; 500 years later, brewers took to using the tunnels as cool warehouses. Fast-forward to today, and visitors can walk down 150-odd stairs to the German Volcano Museum Lava-Dome, exploring dark galleries and shafts 100ft below the surface while learning about the town’s fascinating history.

Ghent's Graffiti Street is one of few places in the Belgian city where authorities turn a blind eye to street artists — and where everyone can have a go at leaving their own mark on the walls. 

Photograph by Alamy

7.  Belgium

Take a graffiti-focused urban walk

A key player in the Flemish Renaissance, in recent years Ghent has expanded its cultural credentials to include a thriving street art scene. Take a guided tour of this Belgian town’s art scene, including Werregarenstraatje, aptly nick-named Graffiti Street. One of Ghent’s street art sanctuaries, where authorities turn a blind eye to graffiti artists, it’s a canvas for muralists. Before leaving, make sure to leave your own mark on the walls; the only rule here is to respect work finer than your own.

Plan your trip

All experiences featured in this piece are available via Avalon Waterways’ Active & Discovery river cruise concept, which offers customisable itineraries with activities for travellers of all fitness levels.

One of the world’s largest cruise companies, Avalon Waterways offers a relaxed, luxurious experience along Europe’s rivers, with its spacious Panorama Suites and a limited number of guests on each vessel.

For more information, visit avalonwaterways.co.uk

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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