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Across Europe by boat

The Rhine/Main/Danube Waterway is the realization of a 1200-year-old dream



Six days out of Amsterdam the Viking Spirit nosed into the Hilpolstein lock and began her final 81-foot lift to the European Continental Divide between the Rhine and Danube drainages. Beyond the gates of the Hilpolstein lock it's all downstream to the Danube and on through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria to the Romanian port of Constanta on the Black Sea.

The Rhine and Danube rivers have been major transportation routes since ancient times and the dream of connecting them to form a continuous water route across Europe goes back more than a thousand years. Charlemagne, the visionary Frankish leader, made a futile attempt in 793. In 1846 Ludwig I of Bavaria cobbled together a makeshift set of wooden locks that could lift small boats from the Main, a tributary of the Rhine, into the Danube drainage but it was unreliable and abandoned in 1950. The present Main-Danube canal with its 16 modern locks, five pumping stations and massive hydroelectric generators did not open until September 1992. Ships were literally lined up at both ends when the first gates opened and today the inland waterway between Rotterdam on the North Sea and Constanta on the Black Sea is a major trade artery between Northern Europe and the Balkan States.

We boarded the Viking Spirit in Amsterdam and moved into one of her comfortable staterooms for our 1,800 km cruise to Budapest. 140 metres long and only 11.4 m wide, the Spirit is long and skinny - built to negotiate the 68 narrow locks ahead of us. She is powered by three diesel motors, two in the stern and one in the bow, and each prop can be rotated 360 degrees, providing precise control in the locks where clearances are often no more than a few inches.

By today's standards the Spirit is a small cruise ship with accommodation for 140 passengers, a large dining room in the stern and a comfortable lounge and bar in the bow. Except for the wheelhouse, a large chessboard and a few folding lawn chairs, the upper deck is a flat expanse of rubberized carpet - a great place for a few laps of power walking or an early morning jog. And when passing under one of the many low bridges the lawn chairs are folded down, the captain moves to an outside control panel, and the entire wheelhouse is lowered out of sight until its roof is flush with the deck.

The first lap of our journey, the 72 km Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, starts a few metres below sea level. Its four locks lift the Spirit out of Amsterdam's artificially lowered canal system and into the Rhine, where we are joined by a flotilla of other long skinny boats and tugs pushing long skinny barges on their way to or from Rotterdam, the world's largest port.