PHOTO: The outstanding half-timbered architecture and cobblestone courtyards of Miltenberg, Germany. (photo by Jason Leppert)

On previous river cruises, our ships have often passed by small towns along the banks in favor of well-known ports.

Still, these quaint village scenes beckon with their timeless architecture.

To my delight, our recent Avalon Waterways’ Central European Experience heading eastbound stopped at many such locales. I would go so far as to say the itinerary should really be titled the ‘Gems of Germany’ instead.

Despite its actual moniker, the 12-day schedule is simply sublime. Bookended by land extensions in Paris, France; and Prague, Czech Republic; the 8-day sailing portion is comprised primarily of German ports, plus a first stop in Luxembourg.

Of course, the City of Lights is a wonderful opener to any trip, but the cruise itself is definitely the highlight.

Visiting the grand duchy—admittedly a term I had never before heard of—alone is travel time well spent. It’s not unlike seeing Vatican City as far as fascinating micro-countries are concerned. Despite its small size, it remains a pivotal part of the European Union with Luxembourg City being one of the EU’s three official capitals.

It’s also a highly lucrative location for its wealthy citizens.

From a visitor’s perspective, the radical topography of the city center and multi-level edifices above it are particularly intriguing before reaching a high viewpoint. Suffice it to say, the beautiful terrace vista of the UNESCO World Heritage Site old quarters and fortifications below makes for a perfect panoramic photograph.

As the itinerary leads to Germany, one enjoys Trier, Bernkastel, Rudesheim, Wurzburg and Bamberg on the agenda.

Trier fascinates with ancient Roman ruins in the form of baths turned barracks. Some have been restored to show the original scale above ground, but the preserved underground corridors below really convey the maze-like nature of the former facility.

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Meanwhile, Bernkastel is a perfect example of one of the towns right along the riverbank often seen but bypassed on other routes. The scene here is like a scale train kit and model in full size. In fact, we enjoyed an exceptional meal at the Bahnhof Cues brewhouse that was formerly a depot. This restaurant is not to be missed, nor are its hearty pork dishes, craft beers and apple strudel to finish.

Rudesheim is one of the few ports I had already been to, but it too is a great gem. Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Instrument Museum on the included tour is a marvel, to say the least. Think: player pianos on a level of complete automated bands built within a cabinet fully operational to still be seen and heard. For a distinct vantage point, a cable gondola ride is also suspended over the town.

Our particular cruise also included Miltenberg, where we enjoyed even more great German beer and sausages this time around. Again, the exquisite architecture here of half-timbered homes and cobblestone courtyards is like something straight out of a movie.

As it turns out, Wurzburg and Bamberg indeed did service the filming of “The Three Musketeers” from 2011. The palatial Wurzburg Residence was featured in the movie as were a number of sites in Bamberg where tour guides are proud to recall Orlando Bloom’s previous presence.

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Besides Hollywood’s utilization of the city, Bamberg’s Altes Rathaus famously sits on a small island, smack dab in the middle of the fast-flowing Regnitz River. The Old Town Hall’s mural-adorned architecture fascinatingly bridges and cantilevers above.

Only after the cruise ends does the trip conclude with two final days in Prague.

Yet another span of much grander scale and sizable length—the Charles Bridge—here welcomes travelers to walk its mighty path. Its location and communist history makes the city feel somewhat like a cross between Germany and Russia—really a melting pot of many cultures, as is all of Europe.

Avalon Waterways certainly has a winner on its hands with this itinerary, and the Avalon Visionary was a comfortable home away from home for the bulk of it.

This post first appeared on TravelPulse.

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