KOBLENZ, Germany | We are heading upriver on the Rhine, one of Europe's mightiest and most important waterways, but aside from the quiet whirl of the bathroom fan in my room, there is no noise. To port, on a hilltop, Marksburg castle glides soundlessly past.
I'm lying abed aboard the Premicon Queee (renamed the Tui Queen this summer), admiring the castle through my cabin's floor-to-ceiling windows. From my guidebook I learn that the fortress was begun about 1100 and expanded over the next six centuries, that it was the only one in the region to escape the depredations of the French king Louis XIV's invasion in 1689, and that its armoury, kitchens and torture chambers are all intact. Having absorbed these facts I toss the book aside and return to watching the river go by.
If I were so inclined I could slide open the room's double doors and listen to the gentle slap of water against the ship's hull, or I could rouse myself and go topside, to the Skydeck. Maybe I will around two this afternoon, when they serve the riesling as we pass Lorelei Rock.
For those used to the monster-sized ocean-cruise ships, the Premicon Queen is rather underwhelming, except for the almost monastery-like quietness it achieves thanks to a form of construction that separates its engines from the "hotel" portion. But if you only know other river-bound sightseeing boats, this one is a delightful revelation. Launched in 2008, it's the most luxurious cruise ship on the Rhine. More than 20 vessels offer overnight cruises on some portion of the river, especially the 65-kilometre-long portion between Koblenz and Bingen that's been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (and includes 28 castles). But only the Premicon Queen comes with a sommelier, a concierge and a butler.
Arian Schneider is the butler. For those passengers in one of the Premicon Queen's four Queen Suites, Schneider is on 24-hour call. This morning, for example, he was roused from sleep at 5:30 a.m. by a request for coffee and extra pillows. Eighteen minutes later, suited, clean-shaven, tie beautifully knotted, he arrived with steaming mocha and fluffed pillows.
"My task is to fulfill wishes," he says. That can be anything from polishing shoes and doing laundry to arranging in-suite dinners with fresh-cut flowers. On shore visits he'll lead his charges to the best shops and carry their purchases.
Those not in the four Queen Suites will still feel pampered. With only 102 passengers served by a staff of 58, the Premicon Queen seems to have someone every few metres to greet you by name and ask after your needs. Mealtimes in particular are orgies of being fawned over by the staff. Those needing more attention can visit the ship's small spa with its sauna, Jacuzzi and treatment rooms.
The Premicon Queen's six-day Rhine River itineraries change year to year, heading upriver from its Cologne base to Basel, Switzerland in 2009, for example, and downriver to Amsterdam in 2010. The World Heritage section of the Rhine, with its castles, vineyards and little riverside towns, is always on the menu, though.
The opulence of "intimate" Augustusburg Palace
BRUHL, Germany | "Clemens August built this palace," our guide, Vanessa Krohn, tells us, "because his palace in Bonn was too big." This one, called Augustusburg, is a mere 120 rooms. The Bonn one, now used by the University of Bonn, was much larger.
August (1700-1761) was the prince-elector and archbishop of Cologne. He had 21 palaces altogether; this one was used mainly as a summer residence. But while the prince may have regarded Augustusburg as a cottage, to the modern world it is one of the marvels of that over-the-top style of craftsmanship known as rococo, and has been recognized as such since 1984 when it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
August ordered the creation of Augustusburg, about 30 kilometres from Cologne, when he was just 26. He commissioned some of the most famous European artists of his day to create its splendid rooms, and "he always made his craftsmen use the most expensive materials," says Krohn. The chambers vie with each other to be the most magnificent, with their leather wallpaper, Dutch tiles, Venetian chandeliers and endless amounts of swirling golden plasterwork.
The masterpiece, though, is the ceremonial staircase, designed by Balthasar Neumann. It looks as if it's all made of marble, but, in fact, some of it is stucco marble, "which is even more expensive than marble," says Krohn, "because you can choose your form and colour." The pillars at the base of the stair, for instance, were made from stucco marble to give them a particular pattern and palette.
The ceremonial staircase was the first thing the prince's visitors, disembarking from their carriages in the porte cochère, would see. It was meant to impress and it certainly does. Once the sheer opulence of the materials had sufficiently dazzled newcomers, they could cast their eyes heavenward and take in the ceiling fresco. The expansive scene that appears to be painted on an oval dome exists, in fact, on the walls and flat top of a rectangular room. This trompe d'oreille is even more impressive when you know that it was painted by the Italian artist Carlo Carlone, 60 at the time, and two assistants in just 13 days.
The palace as a whole, however, took much longer to complete. Clemens August never lived to see its final glory, dying seven years before it was finished in 1768. He had better luck with nearby Falkenlust, a hunting lodge where he indulged his love of falconry. It (also a World Heritage Site) was begun in 1729 and done by 1737. A mere 15 rooms, it is, nevertheless, of the same exquisite quality as Augustusburg. It has a bathing room, or kabinet, of tall mirrors surrounded by rich gilt that Mozart admired as a boy of seven.
Another famous visitor to Augustusburg was the French conqueror and noted art connoisseur Napoleon, a man who filled the Louvre with items he liked. "When he saw Augustusburg," relates Krohn, "he said, 'I'm sorry the palace has no wheels.' If it had, he would have taken it to Paris."
The Premicon Queen's Rhine season runs from April to July. For more information visit premiconqueen.com
For information on theAugustusburg visit schlossbruehl.de
For information on travel in Germany visit the German National Tourism Organizations' website at cometogermany.com