A newcomer to river cruising, the 575-mile Meuse River flows through France, Belgium and the Netherlands before meeting the North Sea. Almost the entire stretch of river is navigable and major ports along the Meuse include Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Namur.
While La Meuse is the river's French name, it is called Mouze in Walloon and Maas in Dutch and German. The river runs through both sections of Belgium, Flanders and Wallonia, and so a variety of languages are spoken along its banks.
From roughly 1300 until the 1550s, the upper portion of the river marked the western boundary of the Holy Roman Empire, bordering France. The German national anthem, "Deutschlandlied," mentions the Meuse -- calling it the Maas -- because the river was the country's western boundary when the words were written in 1841. More recent history saw the Meuse as the site for some of the last millennium's deadliest battles, including Ypres, where poison gas was first introduced in World War I, and the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
When sailing the Meuse River, cruisers will enjoy natural and man-made beauty. Small villages line the river banks, some rising starkly from the river's edge. The tall, usually narrow, buildings with flat fronts painted in warm colors are enchanting. Cruisers will also visit the larger town of Liege, the birthplace of Emperor Charlemagne. As travelers sail toward Namur, the landscape includes rolling hills like the Rochers de Freyr, crags of limestone popular with rock climbers who test their skills here before heading to Chamonix to climb the Aiguilles. The opposite bank offers forests and fields seemingly untouched by modern times. It's a calming, soul-warming ride.
Avalon Waterways offers river cruises on the Meuse in the spring to take advantage of tulip season. Since spring weather in this part of the world can be unpredictable -- temperatures can range from the mid-30s to the mid-60s -- travelers should pack clothes they can layer for warmer and cooler days. It's also smart to pack an umbrella, raincoat and comfortable walking shoes. Many of the towns along the Meuse have a fair share of cobblestoned streets that can be rough on unprepared walkers.
The Meuse promises a smooth ride at any time of year. Travelers need not worry about the river becoming too shallow to pass.
Avalon Waterways is currently the only line offering cruises on the Meuse River, namely a nine-day "Enchanting Belgium" program. (CroisiEurope previously offered four Meuse River cruises -- two southbound between Ostend to Dinant and two northbound from Dinant to Ostend -- but discontinued them in 2015.)
In 2016, Avalon offered four departures and has plans to increase departures to six in 2017. If the cruises prove popular, Avalon will consider having them during other months.
The southbound nine-day cruise leaves from Amsterdam and wraps up in Namur. The northbound cruise is just the opposite, starting in Namur and ending in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam: There's an Old World feel to Amsterdam with its towering townhomes lining canals and bridges that lead to small streets ripe for wandering. It's a very green city, thick with trees -- including 75,000 elms, many of them between 80 and 100 years old -- and blooming flowers in the spring, including Holland's famed tulips. There's also a year-round floating flower market and the world's largest flower auction is a quick bus ride outside the city.
While Amsterdam is continuing to expand outward, the charming old city is easily walkable or bike-rideable -- rentals are available outside the main train station. Visitors here flock to the outdoor flea markets as well as the more upscale boutiques and enjoy taking a look at the city's famed red light district.
Art lovers rejoice: The Rijksmuseum features the work of Vermeer, Steen and native son Rembrandt, including his "Night Watch." (A reconstruction of the home where Rembrandt lived at the height of his career in the 1600s is another popular tourist spot.) The Van Gogh Museum contains the largest collection of the Dutch master's works, including the oft-reprinted "Sunflowers" and "Self Portrait with Pipe and Straw Hat." A branch of Russia's Hermitage, featuring treasures from St. Petersburg, has two permanent collections, including one that explores the historic relationship between these two cities.
For something more contemporary, try the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, situated on the Museumplein alongside the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. See works by some of the biggest names in modern art -- including Kandinsky, Pollack, De Kooning, Warhol and Mondrian -- and fine examples of pieces representing the Bauhaus movement, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and the Amsterdam School.
More than 70 years after World War II's final battle, the house where teenage Anne Frank wrote her famous diary attracts thousands of visitors each year. Climb the steep stairs to the attic where Anne and eight others hid for more than two years. The group was found and captured by the Nazis in 1944. Only Anne's father survived the camps and returned to the house after the war.
For those who want to look beyond the city, Avalon Waterways also offers an optional bike tour through a nearby nature reserve a trip to the town of Zaanse Schans. This traditional Dutch village, a short drive from downtown, features open land spotted with farm animals, windmills and traditional architecture. Visitors can see how wooden clogs are made and learn why locals created these unusual shoes in the first place.
Dordrecht: This picturesque Dutch fishing village sitting has served as artists' inspiration for hundreds of years. There are no canals here, but the picturesque Voorstraatshaven in the Old City is a body of water that winds through the city to the port and was once crucial to trade. The "New Bridge," built in 1849, is considered the city's most beautiful. Dordrecht is also home to the oldest rowing and sailing clubs in the country, both founded in 1851.
A former city gate (Groofthoofsdspoort), built in the 1600s, stands where three rivers -- the Meuse, Merwede and North -- meet. The facade is adorned with a replica of the "Dordrecht Maiden," the human personification of the city. (Holland is often represented by the Dutch Maiden in art, usually wearing a Roman toga and accompanied by a lion). The Dordrecht version carries the city shield in her right hand and a palm branch in her left. The Latin inscription on the wall reads, "Unity and peace are the best defense for a city. My God protect me."
The best-known landmark here is the Great Church (Grote Kerk), which dates back to the 11th century. Built in the Brabantine Gothic style with a single tower topped by a clock, the church has an interior that is surprisingly light and airy. The building so dominates the village skyline that it's been featured in multiple paintings of the city, including "View of Dordrecht" by Salomon van Ruysdael. Fit visitors might want to climb to the bell tower for a spectacular view, but remember, it's 275 steps up with no landings to take breaks. Still, the view from the top includes nearby Rotterndam. After the climb, enjoy a treat in the church's cafe, which serves schapekops, ginger cookies made in the shape of a sheep's head. "Schapekops" is a term for locals as well.
From here, consider a visit to Keukenhof, a 79-acre park that is one of the most popular tourist spots in Holland. Spring is the best time to visit these dazzling gardens, when the more than 7-million tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and other seasonal flowers are in bloom. Avalon offers this as a tour option.
Maastricht: This bustling university town straddling the Meuse is the cosmopolitan capital of the Limburg province. The influx of international students adds to the energy. Visitors will enjoy the unique blend of old and new here -- old townhouses and towering citadel and more modern buildings like the town's library and "Siza's tower," a 177-foot tall white-marble residential building built in 1992. The city relies on its service economy, and streets are lined with cafes and shopping opportunities.
Maastricht takes its name from the Latin phrase meaning "Crossing the Meuse." Some hold this is the oldest settlement in Holland, and Neanderthal remains were discovered just west of here. The town of 122,000 residents has nearly 1,700 national heritage sites; only Amsterdam has more.
Maastricht is considered the birthplace of the European Union, established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.
Ghent: The busy Flemish capital of Ghent -- home to a major port, university and multiple national and international businesses -- has the beauty of Amsterdam without the crowds. Laced with canals and much untouched medieval architecture, the city of 250,000 people is Belgium's second-largest municipality. Tourists here often enjoy walking through the historic, car-free town center. The Gothic-style St. Baafs Church, which dates to the 900s, is still a functioning church as well as an unofficial art gallery. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was baptized here in the 1500s. One of the country's most acclaimed paintings -- "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb" by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, completed in 1432 -- is the altarpiece here. Works by artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Lucas de Heere also hang here.
Gravensteen, which translates to the "Castle of the Counts," has a fairy tale look that belies some of its darker history. Construction on this medieval bastion with multiple buildings began in the 900s. For hundreds of years, this was a government hub, once serving as the meeting place for the Council of Flanders. As the Council heard criminal cases, the castle's horrifying dungeons held those on trial. Some were tortured into confessions.
One notable day trip offered by cruise lines from Ghent is Bruges, the medieval city of narrow, twisting streets and canals that is sometimes called "the Venice of the North." Small in size but not importance, Bruges is the capital of the Belgian province of West Flanders.
Antwerp: Once most famed for its ancient seaport and for being the home of painter Peter Paul Rubens, Antwerp -- Belgium's second-largest city, with a population of 510,000 -- now features fun and fashion, hosting an annual jazz festival and seeing students from its Royal Academy of Fine Arts explode on the international clothing scene. While the city has all the Old World charm one would expect from a settlement dating back to Roman times, it also offers modern amenities -- cafes and shopping -- with cultural treasures, including museums and historic monuments.
A walking tour of Antwerp can start in front of City Hall, where a statue of the giant Druon Antigoon stands. Legend has it that the city gets its name from Antigoon's unpleasant habit of cutting off the hands of boatmen who refused to pay him a toll to cross the river. Across the square, visitors can admire the Brabo Fountain, built to honor the Roman soldier who beat the giant in a fight, cutting off his head and hand and throwing them into the river.
City Hall (Stadhuis), too, is worthy of a tourist's time. Anchoring the west side of the Great Market Square (Grote Markt), this Renaissance-era building incorporates both Italian and Flemish influences and served as a model for many buildings built after it. The interior features rich murals depicting key events in the city's history and other art, earning it a place on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Construction on the Gothic-style Church of our Lady began in 1352, but the building wasn't consecrated until 1521. The interior features works by Rubens, and the cathedral's belfry is one of the ones singled out for inclusion as France and Belgium's UNESCO-cited belfries.
And speaking of UNESCO World Heritage status, Antwerp's Museum Plantin-Moretus also has the designation. Once home to the world's first printing press, this medieval building has a library dating back to the 1640s, priceless manuscripts including one illustrated by Rubens, original type sets and a center courtyard garden. Check out the leather walls in some rooms.
Namur: Sitting at the juncture of the Meuse and Sambre rivers, Namur is the capital city of Wallonia, one of the three regions of Belgium, and was home to some of the earliest Roman settlements. It's the embarkation/debarkation point for Avalon's river cruises, so passengers may end up spending some time here.
The walkable city is home to 110,000 people yet still has a small-town feel with its cobblestoned streets and lack of chain restaurants or stores. Visitors should check out the Church of St. John the Baptist (Eglise St. Jean Baptiste de Namur), located on the old city's main square, with a spire that has towered over the city more than 500 years. Another must is a trip to the city's 2,000-year-old Citadel (Citadelle de Namur). The view from the top alone is worth the trip but visitors can also head to the new tourist center, take a guided catacomb tour or learn about the royals who lived here in the Middle Ages.
Bastogne: Avalon offers an optional full-day excursion from Namur to Bastogne. There, the featured attraction is the Bastogne War Museum, which details the events leading up to World War II's Battle of the Bulge, the conflict itself and the aftermath.
Another tribute to the American soldiers who fought here, the Mardasson Memorial, is within sight of the museum. This outdoor monument honors the 78,690 American soldiers injured, missing or killed during the Battle of the Bulge.
Ypres and the Battlefields of Flanders: The Western Front was the main theater during World War I, with several offenses here between 1914 and 1918; millions from many nations died fighting here. Ypres was one of the first places the German army used poison gas to eliminate foes. Visitors here will visit the battlefields and pay tribute at the war graves and commemorative memorials for the fallen. They can also visit the In Flanders Field Museum, which has recorded and filmed first-person accounts from citizens and soldiers who witnessed the horrors of the Great War.
While most of Ypres was destroyed during the war, there are still signs of its time as a commercial hub during the Middle Ages. It's a walkable or bike-able city with all the Belgium "bests" in terms of food and drink.
Know where to shop. There are many edible and drinkable Belgium "musts." Take home a taste of chocolate, beer or waffles. To save money, avoid the tourist shops, and buy the same products in a local grocery store.
Read up on the river. The 2012 documentary "The River People" ("Les Gens du Fleuve") tells the stories of lives that have been shaped by the Meuse. Eurochannel produced the program and sells a version with English subtitles on its website, www.eurochannel.com.
Study some history. Before visiting Bastogne, consider beefing up on your World War II knowledge with a book like "The Longest Winter: The Battle of the Bulfe and the Epic Story of WWII's Most Decorated Platoon" by Alex Kershaw or "Battle: The Story of the Bulge" by John Toland. You can also watch the 2001 TV series "Band of Brothers," which follows the men in one U.S. Army company assigned to the 101st Airborne Division. The soldiers take part in the Siege of Bastogne.