In our last post, we learned how in 1966 the first barge with cabins debuted in France. Known as Palinurus, the then-40-year-old barge had been converted from a cargo-carrying barge towed by mules to a hotel barge propelled by an engine. Heavily reconfigured since 1966, it still operates today as Luciole. Another canal cruiser with cabins made its debut nearly a century earlier. It too still operates today. What follows is the story of a voyage across Sweden on Göta Canal Company’s Juno.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been on a quest to learn the history of river cruising. We started our inqury in the 1700s, when a young Frenchman successfully steamed up the Saône in Lyon. Though the Frenchman’s feat may be hard to appreciate today, it was something that had never been done before. For rivers worldwide, that first steamboat success represented a turning point. What followed was a slew of ships cruising the rivers under steam, both in Europe and in a young America. Few, if any, of these ships had cabins for overnight accommodations, though. All were used for transport, not tourism. Slowly but surely, however, cabins began to appear on vessels. River cruising had begun to take shape.
Before going any further, we might ask why cabins are important? For starters, consider this: Without private rooms for sleeping and with private baths, river and canal cruises would have never grown to such popularity. The ability to pack and unpack once while visiting several destinations is one of the most appealing aspects of barging or river cruising in Europe – not to mention having a place to comfortably sleep on board. Can you imagine traveling by river the way people once traveled Europe by motor-coach (and, in fact, on some of the early river cruises)? Visiting different cities and staying in different hotels required that you pack and unpack daily, a laborious chore for those on holiday that meant rising early and setting luggage outside your door.
The idea of installing cabins where people could comfortably sleep seems like a no-brainer. But like most things that seem that way, it was an evolution that required some creativity. Who first thought of adding cabins to ships? For the answer to that question, we’ll head to a place that you don’t often think about when you think of river cruising. Let’s buckle up and head to Stockholm, Sweden, where we’ll step aboard the world’s oldest registered cruise ship with sleeping accommodations, the “Grand Old Lady” of the Göta Canal, the m/s Juno.
From Stockholm To Gothenburg Via A Canal
When you think of European river cruising or canal cruising, you normally think of Central Europe. But it is possible to take a canal cruise across Sweden, between Stockholm and Gothenburg. My daughter Britton and I have done it. The four-day journey was remarkable and beautiful – and a bit quirky too.
After an early morning breakfast at Radisson Blu Strand Hotel, we rolled our luggage for about five minutes to our ship, Juno, docked on the waterfront at Stockholm’s Royal Palace. Greeted by the captain and crew, we were on board within three minutes. We set off around 9 a.m. under cloudy skies, past Stockholm’s Old Town (Gamla Stan). Within 15 minutes, our guide, a retired journalist from Gothenburg, announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, in a few minutes we will transit our first lock. After that, we have only 65 more to go.”
The traditional route between Gothenburg and Stockholm has been operated since the Göta Canal Company was founded in 1869. The ship Juno is the world’s oldest passenger ship still in operation, built in 1874.
Small Cabins, Shared Bathrooms
Juno is capable of carrying 54 guests, but for comfort, the company limits capacity to 48. The three categories of staterooms are on three decks, and even the top categories are small, as the pre-cruise documentation explains it. “The size of the cabins is comparable to a smaller sleeping compartment on a train, but unlike the train, most guests are only in the cabin while sleeping. They are small and cozy, giving the guest an impression of how people once travelled.”
Cozy indeed. Our stateroom was so small that exiting the lower bunk bed (yes, we slept in bunk beds) was a bit like doing the limbo, because of the lack of headspace above me. And, in order for my daughter to get out of the top bunk bed, I had to leave the room. Standing room only took on a literal meaning all throughout the ship.
Passengers are advised to pack lightly, although luggage can be stored – and retrieved on a regular basis. We kept our two, 24-inch bags in our room, along with a few smaller bags. That left us with little floor space. Sometimes maneuvering, when we were both in the room, became a matter or acrobatics – or awkward dancing.
Though small, the room is designed smartly. There is a closet that allows for hanging six to eight items. A sink basin with running water is situated in a cabinet that also has storage underneath for small bags, such as purses and camera bags. The cabinet opens and closes to expose or hide the sink basin. Closing it creates extra space on top, which is where we found our complimentary bottle of champagne and strawberries upon boarding (included only in the top-deck categories). The bed linens were clean and crisp, the decor appealing.
One of River Cruise Advisor’s regular readers was sold on the Juno experience until he read this on the company’s website: “Because it is an old ship, no cabin has its own toilet or shower. However, there are shared toilet and shower facilities on each deck, so they are nearby. The toilets and showers are cleaned several times a day so they are fresh and clean for the next guest to use.”
Though we’re not fans of shared bathrooms, the arrangement worked well for us. There was never any waiting in lines. Still, as we age and find the need for middle-of-the-night relief, nothing beats having a bathroom in your stateroom.
Running Behind & Aground
During our four-day transit, we would cover about 500 nautical miles, navigate more than 60 locks that lifted Juno more than 300 feet above sea level. Starting Wednesday in Stockholm we would end our cruise in Gothenburg on Saturday at around 2:30 in the afternoon. There would be lots for us to see and do along the way, including guided tours, as well as opportunities to get off the ship to bicycle or walk.
Juno’s timetable is more of an aspiration than a rigid schedule. The reason: the canal’s shallow draft, maximum 2.8 meters. Juno’s draft, 2.82 meters. Will we drag the bottom, one passenger asked. “Oh yes,” the captain said, “many times.” He assured us that we need not be alarmed, though. “They can’t afford to build ships with steel this thick any longer,” he told us during the welcome. Juno may be old and small, but she’s sturdy.
The captain also told us that the pitch propeller sucked up everything, such as “bicycles,” he said jokingly, but which was probably true. Stolen bikes are sometimes thrown into the canal. The captain said we would see divers from the ship now and then clearing the propeller. Dragging bottom, clearing the propeller, transiting 60-plus locks, all the reasons why the timetable is only an aspiration.
Our fellow passengers were from Sweden and other parts of Europe – as well as North America. One woman from Lulea, in Sweden’s north, is traveling with her cousin, a Swede from the United States. They had another cousin who lived along the canal, and as we passed, we all waved to him from the ship. Britton and I met with a friend for ice cream near the locks at Berg. He lives within a few minutes of the canal.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in two smallish but attractive rooms, the main dining room on the second level, and a lounge on the top level. All meals are included in the fare, but beverages, with the exception of tap water, cost extra. There is an Honesty Bar, where you retrieve and account for self-service beverages, on the top deck.
Dining is pleasant, and the food good, beginning with a starter and followed by a main course and dessert. Fresh breads are served tableside. Seating is assigned, but guests can request to change tables. We are seated with a couple from Stockholm and a woman from Germany. English is our common language, but we three non-Swedes are eager to learn a few Swedish words and phrases.
Our first stop and chance to go ashore was in Trosa, a charming town with a canal running through the center. It was Sweden’s National Day, so most of the shops were closed. We watched a parade and explored the town, stopping for coffee, before heading back to Juno. On the dock beside Juno, an 87-year-old man serenaded us with his accordion and Swedish songs. It was a sweet moment from someone who appeared to enjoy giving people the gift of song.
Up The Staircase
The next day we transited the staircase of seven locks at Berg, situated near the town of Linköping. It was fascinating to watch for an hour or so as Juno worked her way up the staircase from Lake Roxen, at 33 meters (108 feet) above sea level, to eventually arrive at Lake Boren, 73 meters (240 feet) above sea level.
Sweden’s long summer days imbued our cruise with an aesthetic element that is hard to convey in words. The sunlight, and the canvas on which it displays its rich colors, makes it hard to go to sleep at night. Sure, our ship has blinds that darken the room, but who wants to miss the spectacle of nature happening through the threshold of our stateroom door? Idyllic days were marked by brilliant blue skies, cotton-ball clouds and fields of wildflowers on either side of the ship as we made our way along the canal, through forests and past charming Swedish villages.
One evening we had quite the show. Juno’s belly ran aground while transiting a bend of the canal as we were having dinner. The captain explained our predicament and said that we needed more water to lift the ship, so he phoned a lock-keeper to release water from the locks upstream. His phone call worked, and we were soon under way.
At the next lock, however, the captain thought it prudent to have a diver check the propeller, which had been eating mud as Juno struggled to loosen herself from the canal bottom. One of the crew members dove in to remove a few items that had wrapped around the propeller, nothing significant, but enough to keep us entertained for 15 minutes or so. We all applauded when the young once again stood ashore and toweled himself dry.
We had an early breakfast the next day and joined an included guided tour of Karlsborg Fortress, built nearly 200 years ago but made obsolete for defense shortly after becoming operational. The tour was well-done, with the use of multimedia and special effects, and knowledgeable English-speaking guides.
After sailing from Karlsborg, Ingemar, our cruise director, told us to be on deck for something we would not want to miss at the next lock. There, at Forsvik, a Swedish spiritual group greeted our ship with flowers and song. It was a sweet gesture, and the greeting is extended each time a ship passes.
We were at the lock for a good 10 minutes, the captain intent on safely maneuvering Juno through, while we enjoyed the show and warm hospitality from our serenaders ashore.
Arrival In Gothenburg
We arrived in Gothenburg about four hours late according to the published schedule. That was fine with us. We weren’t ready to leave our old ship.
Despite the speed bumps along the way, or perhaps because of them, our Göta Canal cruise certainly was a memorable one, as charming as Sweden itself. It’s difficult to find fault with the cruise, particularly when you consider you are cruising on a museum piece. We recommend it for any avid cruiser wanting to cruise on a piece of history itself, our ship Juno, and for those desiring an immersion in Sweden.
Like a meandering river, the history of river cruising is full of twists and turns. In our quest to find the oldest river boats with cabins, we’ll head 3,628 miles south of Stockholm. British writer Agatha Christie wrote a murder mystery about the river that runs through this city. Next week, our journey takes us to the Nile to board a river boat that was a gift to a king.