From Berlin to Prague, a cruise on the River Elbe shows you some of eastern Germany’s most impressive historic cities and finest scenery. Sue Dobson is your guide
Topped and tailed by two spectacular capital cities, Berlin and Prague, a cruise on the River Elbe introduces you to ancient towns and grand historic cities of the former GDR (East Germany), pretty villages, meadows, vineyards and forested hills, with the dramatic crags and rocky outcrops of ‘Saxon Switzerland’ for contrast near the German/Czech border.
Berlin is an exciting city, packed with grand buildings, superb museums and some spectacular modern architecture. Splendid boulevards such as the tree-lined Unter den Linden and the Kurfürstendam provide smart shopping opportunities.
Among the top city sights are the legendary Brandenburg Gate and the restored Reichstag (Parliament) building with its spiral ramp and massive glass dome designed by Sir Norman Foster.
Berlin is on the River Havel and river ships moor up on the outskirts of the city at Potsdam, where the prettily Rococo, 18th-century Schloss Sansouci, built by Prussian King Frederick the Great, has magnificent terraced gardens. Alternatively, a coach may take you to join your ship moored on the Elbe at Magdeburg.
The architecture of Magdeburg spans Romanesque monastery cloisters, a great Gothic cathedral, Baroque on the old market place and much reconstruction after its almost complete devastation in World War II. Ships overnight here, so there’s time to explore the Old Town before sailing on next morning to Dessau, centre of the innovative Bauhaus art and design movement.
But the real reason to moor at Dessau is to visit the wonderful Wörlitz Park, beautifully landscaped with statues and a lake, where the castle is fashioned in the style of an English country home.
Next morning you’re in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther lived and worked. Tours in his footsteps are popular options. It was on the door of the Castle Church that he posted his 95 Theses that were to cause a religious revolution, the Protestant Reformation, and it is where he was buried. You’ll also see the St Marien Church where he preached and there’s a museum dedicated to the Reformation in the Luther Hall where he once lived.
Watched over by the fortified Hartenfels Castle and with streets lined with lovely Renaissance homes from the 16th and 17th centuries, the historic town of Torgau, just a few hours’ sailing away, also has Luther connections. His wife, Katharina von Bora, died there and is buried in St Mary’s Church on the Market Square.
On the banks of the Elbe at Torgau, look for the monument ‘Denkmal der Begegnung’ which commemorates the meeting of American and Soviet Russian troops in April 1945 and its significance in bringing the Second World War to an end.
Meissen and Dresden
There’s plentiful bird life to watch out for on the cruise towards Meissen, home of the most famous and sought-after porcelain in the world. A tour of the Meissenware factory reveals how the ‘white gold’ is hand made. The museum tells its history and displays some of the finest examples.
Sturdy 16th-century Albrechtsburg Castle and the spires of the fine early Gothic cathedral dominate this lovely town of Renaissance and Baroque houses.
It’s beautifully scenic cruising along the river to Dresden, surrounded by Saxony’s forests, villages and vineyards draped along the sloping hills. The Elbe cuts right through Dresden and river vessels moor up at the feet of this magnificent city, known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’, its centre a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Castle with its breathtaking, treasure-filled Green Vault, the superb Semper Opera House and the splendidly Baroque Zwinger Palace museums with their Old Masters and porcelain, are all must-sees. So, too, the magnificent Frauenkirche, rebuilt to its former glory.
Beloved symbol of the 800-year old city, the Frauenkirche (Our Lady’s Church) fell when the rest of the city was razed to the ground by Allied bombing in February 1945. Its ruins were left as a memorial until, after the reunification of Germany, local people demanded its rebuilding and the great dome once again features in Dresden’s skyline.
Saxon Switzerland to Prague
After sailing past vineyards and romantic ruined castles in the hills, the scenery changes dramatically as the Elbe snakes its way towards Saxon Switzerland and the border with the Czech Republic. Sandstone cliffs tower above the river, weathered, carved and gouged by the elements into strange shapes and formations.
Ships moor at the spa town of Bad Schandau for excursions among soaring, bizarrely shaped rocks, deep gorges and panoramic views in the Bastei district and to the mountaintop fortress of Königstein Castle.
Litomerice is a pretty Czech town in northern Bohemia. Surrounded by orchards, vineyards and farmland, this former royal city, dominated by St Stephen’s Cathedral, has a grand collection of attractive townhouses in styles spanning Gothic to Beidermeier.
Cruises use Bad Schandau, Decin or Melnik as the departure point for Prague, but all should get you to this fairytale city, whether on a day trip or for a post-cruise hotel stay.
Known as the ‘City of a 1000 Spires’, Prague wears its history proudly. From the hilltop castle and its magnificent cathedral overlooking the Vltava River to the statue-lined Charles Bridge and the winding cobbled streets of the Old Town, beautiful colour-washed buildings delight the eye and capture the heart.
From its source in the Czech Republic, the Elbe flows for 725 miles (1165km) to the North Sea coast of Germany and some river cruises start and end in Hamburg. A large and busy port, Hamburg is also a very attractive city that’s great for shopping.
Between Magdeburg, from where there are tours to Berlin, and Hamburg, these cruises call at Tangermünde, an old Hanseatic League town with Gothic brick, gabled and half-timbered merchants’ houses and Lauenburg for a tour to Luneburg.
Also a former Hanseatic League town, its wealth based on salt, the streets of Luneberg’s restored Old Town are a pleasure to explore and the medieval City Hall on the Market Square is hugely impressive.
The low water levels, and some very low bridges, mean that the River Elbe demands special vessels to ply this attractive route. At just two decks tall, they may not look as grand as those on say the Rivers Danube or Rhine, but there are some higher quality, luxurious ships to choose from and their smaller size make them more intimate.
The popular route for Elbe River cruises is Berlin to Prague, and vice versa. There are 10- and 12-day holidays that include hotel stays in both Berlin and Prague to top and tail the seven-night cruising itinerary, giving you the opportunity to explore these two great cities at more leisure.
Alternatively, seven-night Elbe cruises between Hamburg and Dresden are available. On these, Bad Schandau is used as the base for day tours to Prague, but it is a two-and-a-half hour drive away.
Some cruise companies include daily tours in the price of the cruise holiday. Others leave you to book and pay for the excursions on board. This can be useful for people who may not want to do too many tours and like to go ashore and explore on their own, especially as the ships are usually moored up within easy walking distance of the centre of town.