When we planned our Viking River Cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam, we thought about a lot of things, including what to pack, what expeditions to take, and what museums to visit. One thing we never thought about was how many locks our Viking Longship would pass through on the journey.
Logically, of course, I might have realized that the Danube and Rhine Rivers traverse uneven topography .A system of locks must compensate for these differences in elevation. If asked I could have said that the Rhine flows north while the Danube flows south and streams flow in different directions on opposite sides of a mountain. But that’s it. I didn’t know about the European Watershed: It just didn’t appear on my radar screen.
It surprised me to discover that, because of the European Watershed, Viking Modi would pass through 68 river locks along the journey. First, we would go up from Budapest to Hipoltstein and then we would go down to the Low Country. Woo-hoo! That added a whole new dimension to our linear trip.
The European Watershed
This drainage divide separates the basins of rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea from those that drain into the Mediterranean Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. Again, perfectly logical. The Danube River flows into the Black Sea (Aha!) while the Rhine empties into the North Sea. The two are connected by the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal. So we had to go up, over the top of the watershed and down the other side. Got the picture?
To cross over the European Watershed, Viking Modi rose from an elevation of 380 feet / 116 meters at the first lock at Gabcikovo in Hungary to a peak of 1,332 feet / 406 meters at Hipoltstein in Germany before dropping us back to 161 feet / 5 meters at Wijk in Holland. We encountered the tallest river locks on the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, at the peak of the European Watershed. Our Program Director, Mieke, explained that we would find this process interesting for about the first 14 locks and then it would become routine. I always found it interesting and the really big river locks exciting. I became a lock geek.
Entering the River Locks
The first indication of approaching a lock comes when your Longship slows from its usual smooth glide. That may or may not be followed by a small bump. The skill with which our captain and crew handled the 433-foot vessel never ceased to amaze us all.
Viking Cruises makes its lock reservations a year in advance but the Lock Master runs the show and determines what happens at the gate. Sometimes we had to wait for another boat to come along so they could put two of us through at once—which conserved water and energy. At other times—usually at night—we zipped through because we hit the locks just right, like when all the traffic lights on the road ahead are green.
In the big river locks, we went through alongside other river cruise boats, commercial barges, and a few smaller ships. Now picture two enormous vessels fitting side by side into a long, narrow concrete trench and you have an idea how good the Viking crews are.
Viking Longships are designed to pass through locks and under low bridges (more on that later). For example, the width of locks along the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal is 12 meters so river boats can have a maximum width of 11.40 meters, which leaves one foot of space on either side. We often had much less than that, especially in the big double locks. The walls dripped only inches away from Viking Modi’s railings. You could easily reach out and touch them, although that’s not recommended. Also, they’re just wet concrete—nothing special, except to say that you’ve done it. (I did it.)
Ships in the Lock
Once the ships are in the lock, the gates close behind them and the pumps go to work. Smoothly and quickly the vessels rise from the bottom of the concrete lock to the top (or lower from top to bottom). We could watch the elevation markers and ladder rungs move down as water filled in and we finally reached the top of the lock. Then the doors at the other end would open and we would power out into the next level of the river or canal.
Some of the river lock doors swing into niches in the lock wall. Some pull sideways into the lock structure like pocket doors. And some raise and lower. I enjoyed going up more than down because it was more enjoyable to emerge from the dark empty lock into bright sunshine at the top and see a whole new stretch of sparkling water ahead.
We didn’t get to experience all 68 river locks. Viking Modi went through many of them while its passengers were sleeping. Sometimes we would wake up to find our cabin totally dark with a concrete wall two inches away from our veranda railing. This sudden darkness could take us by surprise if we were eating and looked out to see lock wall instead of river.
I watched us go through some of the river locks while I was doing Yoga on the Sun Deck in the morning before breakfast. We cruised through others while I sat talking to friends on the Aquavit Deck at the bow of the boat after dinner while the sun set slowly and lights came on along the bank.
At the Ybbs Lock just north of Melk in Austria, I stood on the Sun Deck and watched water blowing off the top of the lock gate ahead of us and shining in the sun as we rose to meet it.
My Father’s Daughter
I kept thinking how much my Dad, the engineer, would have loved doing this. He would have been taking pictures with his movie camera and talking to the crew whenever he could. Dad would have considered visiting the pilot house the highlight of his trip.
Experiencing the European Watershed with its 68 river locks added another dimension to our Grand European Cruise. I love learning and experiencing new things; it adds to my enjoyment of Viking river cruises .
I usually focus on art, history, and museums but I enjoyed the engineering component as well. That must mean I’m my father’s daughter.
Thanks for your article. It is extremely unfortunate that over the last years, the travel industry has had to fight terrorism, SARS, tsunamis, flu virus, swine flu, and the first ever real global economic collapse. Through it all the industry has proven to be sturdy, resilient and also dynamic, acquiring new ways to deal with difficulty. There are often fresh problems and the possiblility to which the sector must yet again adapt and behave.
Thanks for this entertaining article. My dad would have enjoyed talking with your dad while this was going on. Calm Winds and Following Winds!
Thank you for your excellent article. We just completed the same trip. Where can I find a link to your page or publicaton on “68 Locks with Elevations” to read more of the details?
The best information is in the Viking magazine “Explore.” Try their web site to get the information.
I just finished a very similar trip, One of the lock doors was damaged by a boat in front of ours. point.The boat trip ended there. It became a bus trip from that point on. Once that happens everyone on the canal at that time is stuck. Thousands of tour passengers become bus tour people. The bus takes you to over crowded bath rooms and restaurants. Your trip is ruined and there’s nothing you can do. So be very careful booking this trip.7/9/2019
I’m sorry you had this experience, Jon. We just came back from river cruises on the Rhone and the Seine and all was well. I hope you have a better experience next time.
Thank you so much for your “lock” review.
My wife and I will sail with Viking in October this year from BUD to AMS and I look forward to the locks.
Several years ago we went through the Panama Canal, this will be on a “different level”.
We’re leaving for France’s Finest in a week. I’m looking forward to more adventures. I hope you love your Grand European tour as much as we did.
Thank you so very much for the article. We are hoping to do this ‘bucket-list’ cruise later this year and you have really whetted my appetite for the trip. We have done the Panama (while they were constructing the second set of locks and that was fantastic too, but this information you have provided is priceless… thank you!