The Elbe river rises from a bubbling spring of crystal water high in the beautiful Bohemian mountains
The Elbe river rises from a spring of crystal water high in the Bohemian mountains, winding through forests before splashing down the rock face near a pine-scented hiking trail.
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.
our guide, who led us like the Pied Piper through courtyards unchanged since the Dark Ages, pointed to the heavy black iron indulgence box with its slot for payment. “The bishops opened it recently for the first time in many years and found several thousand euros inside,” he said. “It seems even modern-day sinners hope to escape hell if they pay up.”
The banks of the Elbe are lonely here, neglected by communist rulers whose Cold War watchtowers still stand as a reminder of the fate of those who attempted to swim to freedom.
We sailed at a lazy pace through countryside where only wild boar and stags now make the watery crossing, while turreted castles loomed out of spooky woods as if in a Grimms’ fairy tale.
The passing panorama was viewed through Astrild’s floor-toceiling picture windows, amid cool Nordic ash-blonde decor in her staterooms and restaurants. The latter served delicious meals of light Mediterranean cuisine — except on a Bavarian-themed night when stodgy dumplings were accompanied by a lederhosen-clad accordionist.
Astrild is smaller than most of Viking’s other river boats, the
On its 680-mile journey to the North Sea, the Elbe and its tributaries link knockedabout historic cities, a necklace of baroque gems that have suffered serious persecution.
“Longships”. Carrying no more than 98 passengers, she has an intimate atmosphere. A homely herb garden nestles among games on the sun deck.
Viking Astrild’s staterooms feature floor-to-ceiling picture windows, amid a cool Nordic ash-blonde decor
We hurried through Meissen, the crucible of “white gold” pottery, where the burghers are so proud of their ceramics that even the church bells, ding-donging the Westminster Chimes, are made of German china. But it’s the ker-ching of cash registers in the shop that is real music to their ears.
At Dresden the graceful curve of the river is lined with baroque palaces, which have been painstakingly rebuilt since squadrons of Allied Second World War bombers reduced this fabled city of culture and exotic architecture to smouldering rubble. The casualties included Dresden’s proudest building, the Frauenkirche, but the stones of this Lutheran church were carefully saved and put back in place. The dome was then topped with a mighty gold cross, created by the son of an RAF pilot who had helped to destroy the building and presented to the city by the Queen as a remarkable symbol of reconciliation.
In this city where Schiller wrote the words in the summer of 1785, a clarinet busker was playing Ode to Joy. Beethoven later wrote the music, and in 1972 the founding fathers of the European Union, in a spirit of optimism, chose his tune as their anthem.
We reached Prague after passing through the area of Germany known as Saxon Switzerland, a hilly national park featuring distinctive rock formations such as the towering Bastei, which provides a spectacular viewpoint over the Elbe.
We also passed Königstein Fortress, an eagles’ nest atop 800ft cliffs, where Dresden’s old master paintings, gold carvings and Mughal jewels were hidden from the Nazi clutches.
Although Prague suffered bombing raids during the Second World War, the damage to its historic centre was slight compared to that suffered by many other cities. Its medieval skyline, an operatic stage set, is dominated by Gothic spires, a dazzling time capsule untouched by the plague of high-rise development that has ruined so many western cities.
We strolled across the 15th-century Charles Bridge, adorned with 30 baroque statues, with the hulking St Vitus Cathedral rising imperiously above the city. This is architecture as entertainment.
Trailing behind us was a maze of higgledy-piggledy alleys where Mozart caroused and composed, leading to Staromestske namesti, the old market square. Here enthralled tourists gather to watch the 15th-century astronomical clock strike the hour: wooden saints emerge from trap doors, while below them a lesson in morality is enacted by figures of greed, vanity and death. Legend has it that the clockmaker’s reward was to be blinded so he would not be able to recreate his genius elsewhere.
Competing with this medieval cabaret across the square is a church with such extravagant decoration that it is said to be the model for the Disneyland castle.
Prague and Berlin, where we had a whirlwind tour of the city’s greatest hits, bookend the cruise with hotel stays because they are both on tributaries of the Elbe too shallow for even our ship.
It was Kafka who said: “Prague never lets you go … this dear little mother has sharp claws. There is nothing for it but to give in.” This might also be said of the new Elbe, once the ugly duckling of rivers but now a charismatic swan at last.
A ship makes its way over the partly frozen Elbe river in Dresden, eastern Germany.