Is this river Europe’s most underrated?
The Elbe river rises from a bubbling spring of crystal water high in the beautiful Bohemian mountains
German soothsayers proclaim that the Elbe carries the ashes of history, with all the dark Wagnerian glamour that implies, yet none of Europe’s great rivers has a more Elysian source.
The river rises from a bubbling spring of crystal water high in the beautiful Bohemian mountains, winding through silent forests before splashing down the rock face near a pine-scented hiking trail.
On its 680-mile journey to the North Sea, the Elbe and its tributaries link knocked-about historic cities (Berlin, Wittenberg, Dresden and Prague), a necklace of baroque gems that have suffered serious persecution, which may explain why the river has not been celebrated in romantic rhapsody like the Danube and the Rhine.
It was the fiery friar Martin Luther who, in October 1517, ignited the Reformation in Wittenberg with his protests against the Catholic Church, setting Christianity at war with itself.
It was this that first caused the Elbe to be known as a metaphor for drama. That theme was endorsed more than 400 years later during the Second World War, when Red Army and American soldiers first met at Torgau on the river’s banks in their opposing thrusts through Nazi Germany, before Stalin brought down the Iron Curtain on much of the Elbe, marking the divide between East and West.
Happily, this Teutonic heartland, long restored as a ribbon of peaceful towns with cobbled streets and gabled houses, lorded over by Colditz-like castles, is more accessible than ever for those who wish to see it by river.
The Elbe is notoriously tricky to navigate, and shallow as a puddle in dry periods, which has restricted sailing for most modern ships. Thanks to new technology, the ship we were on, Viking Astrild, can sail in little more than three feet of water.
Built with a flat bottom, she has no keel, and is powered by jet propulsion instead of propeller or paddles (which can become stuck in the ooze).
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s attack on the church and the pope. With this in mind, there was no better place to embark Astrild than Wittenberg — where the spire and dome of the castle chapel, shaped like a Prussian officer’s spiked helmet, peep above the trees.
It was on this church door that Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, the list of challenges that questioned theological practices such as the sale of indulgences as a path towards salvation.
A ship makes its way over the partly frozen Elbe river in Dresden, eastern Germany.