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The Volga: Russia
It is said the Volga flows through the heart of every Russian. And this historic river, Europe's longest, nourished the development of the Russian state. The snowmelt-fed Volga springs to life in the Valdai Hills north of Moscow, winding slowly south before emptying into the Caspian Sea 2,200 miles later. A thousand years ago, Viking longships and Arab dhows in search of trade plied the waters of the Volga, which still carries half of all Russian goods. Thousands of sightseers also cruise the Volga every year as it flows south from dense forest in the north though forested steppes, open steppes and semi-desert lowlands. The Germans and Russians fought history's biggest and bloodiest battle along the Volga's banks in what was then called Stalingrad (since renamed Volgograd). And one of the most unforgettable sights of a Volga cruise is the city's Soviet-sized monument commemorating the Russian victory — Mother Russia — a 150-foot-tall statue of a woman brandishing a sword high in the air.

The Rhine: Germany
Medieval castles, twisting gorges and charming villages, a journey down the Rhine offers a virtual tour of the Brothers Grimm's tales. The inspiration for innumerable songs, poems and stories, the Rhine retains the power to transport the visitor to another place and time — real or imagined. It's no accident that this vital European artery boasts more celebrated cities than any other river on earth. Basel, Strasbourg, Mainz and Wiesbaden are but a few famous metropolises built along its banks. The Rhine only runs some 850 miles from its source in the Swiss Alps to its North Atlantic delta in the Netherlands, but packs in plenty along the way. After sprinting down the Alps, the Rhine empties into eastern Lake Constance and resumes its journey into Germany at the western tip of the lake. Several hundred miles later, it enters fairy-tale territory at Bingen: the world-famous middle Rhine. For some ninety miles, this storied section of the Rhine winds through meandering gorges blanketed with vineyards and crowned with castle after castle. Roman fleets used to ply the Rhine, but have since been replaced by sightseeing ships that stop at each village, allowing you to pick and choose where you want to explore. Stop for a glass of liebfraumilch or spend a night or two in one of the many castles converted to hotels. And if you really want to experience the Rhine from river level, arrange a barge trip and spend a few days with the families who still make their living ferrying goods up and down this legendary river.

The Danube: Austria
Any river that inspired one of the world's most beloved waltzes — Johann Strauss' "An der schvnen blauen Donau" (The Blue Danube) — must be worth experiencing. From its origins in Germany's Black Forest, the stately Danube winds its way through country after country, including Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea. Along its 1,700-hundred-mile course, the Danube gathers the lion's share of its strength from Alpine tributaries and passes through two famous gorges, the Hungarian Gates and Romania's Iron Gates. The castles, fortresses and great cities that pepper the banks of this fabled waterway bear witness to the Danube's longstanding strategic importance as the buffer between great powers, including the Roman and Ottoman empires. Two of Europe's most charming capital cities, Vienna and Budapest, were built on its banks over the remains of ancient Roman forts. Budapest actually straddles the river, with more modern Buda on the west bank and ancient Pest on the left. Vienna, the cultural capital of central Europe, can claim more splendid architecture, museums, and classical music than any city on earth. Long the imperial capital of the Habsburg's, Vienna is arguably the best-preserved of Europe's great cities. So take the time to wander down the cobblestone streets that once echoed with the footsteps of Mozart, Beethoven, and, of course, Strauss.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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