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.

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