Alternative Europe river cruises: Nine lesser-known rivers to cruise

The Rhine and Danube are by far Europe's most cruised rivers, but those with a liking for something different might be surprised at the number of other rivers that provide just as much culture and history and a far greater feeling of adventure.

VOLGA RIVER

There are plenty of reasons to sail the Volga River, which holds a central role in Russian history and the Russian imagination. While regular Russian river cruises head northwards from Moscow to St Petersburg, alternative travellers can sail southeast instead. Along the riverbanks lie old trading cities Yaroslavl​ and Nizhny Novgorod, frescoed churches at Uglich and a fortified kremlin at Kazan. Scenic offers this unusual Russian itinerary on just two dates in the northern autumn of 2018 on Scenic Tsar, finishing with three days in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), best known for WWII monuments dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad. See scenic.com.au

DNIEPER RIVER

One of the great rivers of Europe, central to Viking and Cossack history, flows mostly through Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea, providing sweeping views of agricultural lands and island-dotted lakes along the way. This is a culture-dense cruise destination, starting in ancient, golden-domed Kiev and taking in cave monasteries, old trading town Kremenchug​ and imperial summer residence Dnipro. Many towns were founded under Catherine the Great. Viking river cruises sail an 11-day Kiev to the Black Sea itinerary, finishing in Odessa, which sits across fortified hills in a blend of Russian and Mediterranean architecture. See vikingcruises.com.au

ODER​ RIVER

If you're after something entirely different from predictable German cruises down the Rhine, start in uber-cool Berlin and sail into Poland along the Oder, an important Central European trade route. Visit flamboyant baroque Lubiaz​ Abbey, the planned 1950s East German town Eisenhuttenstadt and fortified WWII tunnels at Miedzyrzecz. Historic Wroclaw​ sits on 12 river islands lined by 130 bridges. Boutique company Saga Cruises has a seven-night Journey into Poland along the Oder River that finishes with three hotel nights in Krakow, one of Poland's most beautiful cities, especially noted for its splendidly restored old town and former Jewish quarter. See travel.saga.co.uk

SAVA RIVER

Float down the Danube from Budapest and you're following an established river-cruise route as far as Belgrade in Serbia, but that's where your cruise takes an unusual turn onto this Danube tributary. You sail across the fertile Vojvodina​ plains, stop to visit old Orthodox monasteries, and arrived at Brcko in Bosnia, where Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian influences collide. The Sava then defines the Bosnian-Croatian border before reaching Slavonski Brod with its impressive citadel. CroisiEurope has an 11-day Sava River cruise on which shore excursions include Lonjsko Polje Nature Park for migratory birds and Varazdin for baroque architecture. See croisieuroperivercruises.com

TISZA RIVER

The Tisza River, which flows north-south through Hungary before joining the Danube in Serbia, has only recently been developed for river cruising, again by CroisiEurope, which runs a nine-day Authentic Hungary itinerary on its ship Victor Hugo. There are great reasons to go, not least a chance to visit the vineyards of Hungary's legendary Tokay dessert-wine region and one of its most lovely towns, Szeged, noted for its art deco architecture and flamboyant synagogue. You can also explore park-pretty Serbian town Novi Sad, with its riverside citadel and lively shopping streets, before finishing in Budapest. See croisieuroperivercruises.com

ELBE RIVER

This compact river winds through the Czech Republic and eastern Germany, and its soaring sandstone cliffs provide stunning scenery of gorges and rock pillars that have given it the nickname Saxon Switzerland. The riverbanks also pack in palaces, gothic cathedrals, cobbled old towns, the bohemian town of Litomerice, beautiful baroque Dresden and historic Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. You can also visit the porcelain factory at Meissen. The only mainstream river-cruise company to tackle the Elbe is Viking River Cruises, which offers a 10-day itinerary that includes land visits to Prague and Berlin. See vikingcruises.com.au 

MEUSE RIVER

The Meuse River and its interconnecting canals and waterways provide a slow meander through the big-cloud landscapes of Belgium and the Netherlands. Avalon Waterways has numerous cruises here, such as a nine-day Enchanting Belgium itinerary between Amsterdam and Namur. You'll get to explore some of the Low Countries' highlights such as medieval towns Ghent and Antwerp and the superlative Keukenhof gardens, but also have time for alternative destinations including Rotterdam, Ypres and the battlefields of Flanders. Charming university city Maastricht and Namur, which has a large fortress and history dating back to Roman times, are other agreeable sights. See avalonwaterways.com

PO RIVER, ITALY

Although only a 60-kilometre section of this notoriously low-water river is sailed by cruise ships, itineraries from Uniworld – the only mainstream company operating here – also spend plenty of time on the Venice Lagoon, where you can visit islands such as Torcello and Burano​ and "mini Venice" fishing town Chioggia, plus cycle along lagoon beaches and join a mussel-harvesting experience. Tour excursions offer options to history-rich Bologna or Ferrara. The eight-day cruise, return from Venice, also provides ample time to explore the fabled floating city, with fabulous sail-by views from the water that land-bound visitors miss. See uniworld.com

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GUADALQUIVIR RIVER

Passengers on all but the smallest ocean ships face a long shore-excursion transfer to inland Seville, but its river provides a convenient port on round-trip itineraries along the Guadalquivir and smaller Guadiana​ rivers. Go for the top cultural experience provided by Andalusia, which supplies many of the Spanish stereotypes from flamenco to bullfighting and offers heritage highlights such as Seville, Granada, Cordoba and fortified Mediterranean port Cadiz. You also get to cruise World Heritage listed Donana National Park whose salt marshes are home to huge flocks of migratory birds. CroisiEurope has eight-day cruises from Seville. See croisieuroperivercruises.com

See also: Cruising the happiest river through cities of slow pleasures

See also: I used to snicker at the cruise crowd, then I joined them

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