The Elbe’s waterways may be quiet, but they drift through some of Europe’s most historical spots, as Anthony Pearce discovers.
European river cruise has exploded in popularity in recent years, but on the Elbe, you wouldn’t know it. To say this river, which we join on the Czech-German border, is quiet is a huge understatement: on our five-day cruise with Viking Cruises we barely see another ship. Our captain quips that, if the Rhine, Europe’s most popular river, is a motorway, this is a country back road.
A famously difficult river to navigate, the Elbe can only be sailed by the likes of our home for the week, the low-draft Viking Astrild, one of Viking’s two ships sailing it. The Astrild is based on the design of the celebrated Viking Longships, but is far smaller – an entire deck and 46 cabins smaller, to be precise. It carries a maximum of just 98 guests at double occupancy (compared to a Longship’s maximum of 190 guests). Designed with the company’s Scandinavian heritage in mind, the Astrild is clean, functional and elegant; its understated style is a million miles from the chandeliers and gilded staircases of some ocean ships.
The company used to sail further down the Elbe, but lower water levels meant regular late changes to the itinerary, which irked guests, so they instead decided to bookend a five-day cruise with hotel stays in Prague and Berlin, with a trip to Potsdam on the way to the German capital. The result is an innovative itinerary that offers a surprising amount of diversity given the two cities are only 500km away – just four hours by train.
This being the start of the season the weather is, as is often the case in Europe in March and April, a little patchy. I get sunburnt one day; the next, I’m reaching for a hat and scarf; then the umbrella – and that’s just in Prague. In the city, Viking puts us up in the five-star Corinthia (Kongresová 1655/1), one of the few high-rise buildings in the city, and runs a shuttle service to and from the Old Town every half hour (although the Vyšehrad underground station is so close it’s basically attached). It’s good to have a few nights here: the capital of the Czech Republic remains one of Europe’s most pristine and beautiful cities, made up of cobbled lanes, grand medieval squares, Gothic churches and Renaissance palaces – perhaps only Paris can rival it for beauty. While its tourist-heavy Old Town offers countless architectural delights, including the famous Charles Bridge and the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn with its astronomical clock, the New Town offers a more realistic insight into Czech life. Here you can enjoy some of the world-famous Czech lager for as little as £1.50 and hearty, simple dishes such as goulash at similarly wallet-friendly prices. It’s just a case of following the locals.
After the river you will find Prague Castle, which dates back to the ninth century. Said to be the largest ancient castle in the world, it attracts more than 1.8 million visitors annually. Visible from across the river, the complex was once the home of the Kings of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperors; today it houses the Czech president, and also contains the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral, built over 600 years. Letná Park, which offers views of the city, including seven of Prague’s bridges (one of which is the impressive Charles Bridge), is also worth taking in.
After leaving Prague, we join the ship in Děčín, in the north of the Czech Republic and once part of
the Sudetenland, given to Adolf
Hitler’s Germany in 1938 as part of the Munich Agreement. From there we sail to Bad Schandau, a pretty German spa town in Saxony. Viking includes a tour each day (as well as offering optional, more extravagant excursions), and today we head to Bastei, a rock formation 194 metres above the river in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, which is also home to the impressive Bastei Bridge, built into the rock in 1851. The area is known as Saxon Switzerland, named by two Swiss artists as it reminded them of the dramatic landscape of their home country. It makes sense when you see it: it’s a mystery that it isn’t more famous.
That evening we sail to Dresden, a city I last visited a decade ago and which has changed considerably since. Decimated by allied bombings in February 1945, which killed 25,000 people, the city has been slowly and lovingly rebuilt, mostly since the fall of communism in 1990. The city was once known as the Jewel Box because of its baroque and rococo – or “late Baroque” – city centre, and the project to restore it is a story of endurance: each year, Dresden edges closer to its former glory. The head chef on board our ship, Patrick, who grew up and lives in the city, gives us the chance to learn more about the region’s overlooked cuisine. It’s as hearty and potato heavy as you might expect, but no less delicious for it. In fact, the food and wine all week is exemplary.
From Dresden, we take in Torgau, where Soviet and American troops met while liberating Europe in 1945; Meissen, famed for its porcelain, red-roofed houses and hilltop Gothic cathedral (so beautiful is the town, Viking’s room key card across its fleet bears its image); and Wittenberg, where Martin Luther taught, preached and posted the Ninety-five Theses to the All Saints’ Church in 1517. One of the clever things about the itinerary is the chance to take in Potsdam after we leave the ship in Wittenberg on the way to the German capital. It breaks up our coach journey and gives us the chance to explore Potsdam’s lively, charming town and remarkable architecture. There’s the Cecilienhof Palace, built in the style of an English Tudor manor house, which hosted the Potsdam Conference in 1945, where the Soviets, British and Americans planned a post-War world; as well as Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, built in breathtaking rococo style.
Later that day we check into the beautiful Grand Hyatt in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, and head out immediately to explore. Many of Berlin’s most recognisable sites, such as the impressive Brandenburg Gate; the restored Reichstag parliament, featuring Sir Norman Foster’s now-iconic glass dome; and Museum Island, home to the Berlin Cathedral and the neoclassical Altes Museum, are relatively close together, so many walking tours will take in these in a morning. For history buffs there are, of course, few cities that compare: Berlin is elevated and burdened by its history. Whether it’s Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s imposing Prussian architecture, Weimar Republic-era Bauhaus, Albert Speer’s Nazi neoclassicism or Soviet brutalism, every building tells its own story.
It is a city that has been forced to address this history and has done so in subtle, intelligent and moving ways. Take the stolpersteines, brass cubes inscribed with family names and dates of Jewish people murdered by the Nazis, found on pavements throughout the city. Or the memorial that marks the site of the Nazi book burnings outside Humboldt University (Bebelplatz), a glass window set into cobblestones, giving a view of empty bookcases large enough to hold the total of the 20,000 burnt books. Or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Cora-Berliner-Straße 1), designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Made up of 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights over a sloping 200,000-sq-ft site, the memorial is said to provoke uneasiness as you enter it and represent an ordered system that lost touch with reason. For those wanting to learn more, the Topography of Terror (Niederkirchnerstraße 8), built on what was the SS headquarters during the Third Reich, provides an unflinching and detailed examination of the period.
Outside the museum is also one of the best places to see a stretch of the Berlin Wall, although the most popular place to see the construction that divided the city from 1961 until 1989 is the East Side Gallery (Mühlenstraße 3-100), a 1,316-metre-long stretch of the Wall where artists from across the world have painted murals. Checkpoint Charlie, a Cold War-era border check, is worth seeing, but, with its uniformed “guard”, feels a little tacky in comparison to the city’s other, more subtle markers of history.
But there is much beyond Berlin’s historical sites, too: the neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg are bursting with creativity and culture, including in the art galleries, the city’s famed nightlife and its burgeoning restaurant scene. Some of the best new restaurants are to be found in Mitte – central Berlin, but north of Museum Island – such as Katz Orange (Bergstraße 22), Lokal (Linienstraße 160) and Pauly Saal (Auguststraße 11). It’s also well worth seeking out the best Turkish and Vietnamese food throughout the city.