Ger­many:

The Elbe river rises from a bub­bling spring of crys­tal wa­ter high in the beau­ti­ful Bo­hemian moun­tains

China Daily - - WEEKEND LIFE - By ROD­ER­ICK GILCHRIST

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.

SE­BAS­TIAN KAHNERT / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A ship makes its way over the partly frozen Elbe river in Dres­den, east­ern Ger­many.

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