A culture-filled cruise from Prague to Berlin
As I posed tentatively for a photo next to the giant urn I was extra vigilant about keeping my elbows and bag close to my side. I’d already seen price tags running into hundreds, if not thousands of euros, and was conscious that any breakages that had to be paid for here would be a very costly business.
Earlier we’d marvelled at a table laid with the opulent Swan Service, part of a 2,000 piece 18th dinner set designed for 100 guests, along with a very posh chamber pot and organ with china pipes, two of the more surprising items in a new exhibition at Europe’s oldest and most prestigious porcelain manufacturer which was founded in 1710.
The tour of the Meissen factory in the namesake town followed by time to wander carefully around the museum and shop were among many highlights of our cruise down the Elbe.
Although the Elbe is one of Germany’s most economically important rivers, with the country’s largest port of Hamburg situated 68 miles from its mouth at the North Sea, it remains pretty much off the radar of holidaymakers heading to the Rhine, one of the most popular rivers for cruises.
Rising in the Czech Republic’s Krkonose Mountains, and winding through open landscapes, cities that played a pivotal role in Germany history and the contrasting capitals of Prague and Berlin, the Elbe takes passenger on a fantastic voyage through times past and present. At one time it acted as a border between East and West Germany.
The reason it remains relatively undiscovered is that few cruise lines venture there due to its notoriously low water levels. However, CroisiEurope came up with a novel solution in 2016 when it launched a modern paddlewheel vessel with an ultra-shallow draft to cope with the vagaries of the river. The 80-passenger Elbe Princesse has proved such a success that a sister vessel, Elbe Princesse II, will debut in 2018.
Of course, the whims of the waterway mean itineraries can sometimes be subject to change. but this added to the sense of adventure. We only saw one other hotel boat during the cruise and our sleek vessel was mainly sharing the river with working barges nudged up and downstream by tugs.
The journey began in Prague with a generous two-night stay that provided ample time to discover sights such as the world’s largest ancient castle, which dominates the skyline. In striking contrast is architect Frank Gehry’s curiously entwined ‘dancing house’ building nicknamed Fred and Ginger after the dancing duo. We stopped at one of the many inexpensive cafes for the ultimate no-waste lunch of soup served in a hollowed out loaf. Helpful hint: finish the soup and lid first before tackling the edible bowl!
The birthplace of composers including Dvorak and Janacek, and creative home of Mozart, the sound of music spills out of windows throughout the city. That night we bought tickets to see woodwind players from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra for a fraction of the price it would cost at home.
Next morning the paddles on the Elbe Princesse started turning and in an ethereal dawn mist we set off along the Vltava, the tributary of the Elbe flowing through Prague.
Home of the first pilsner, the Czechs are the world’s biggest beer drinkers and we boosted that statistic on the first excursion to 10th century Litomerice, one of the oldest Bohemian cities. Sitting in the Labut micro-brewery’s snug cellar we sampled three very different beers and quickly got the hang of saying cheers – na zdravi!
Unlike many river cruise lines CroisiEurope doesn’t include shore tours in the fare, which keeps costs down and means you don’t end up paying for trips you don’t take. We enjoyed the freedom of being able to dip in and out of excursions, sometimes opting to wander around towns and villages under our own steam.
The next day brought the rugged scenery of Saxon Switzerland, named after its resemblance to the mountainous country, minus the height. Our guide told us that early experiments to introduce alpine-loving edelweiss and chamois goats to the region were a failure. However, we enjoyed fabulous views from the unconquerable 13th century Konigstein Fortress, perched high on a rocky outcrop, with the unexpected bonus of an aerial view of the Elbe Princesse sailing to collect us further down the river.
Another high spot, in every sense, was the stop at Dresden. Dubbed the ‘Florence on the Elbe’ before it was devastated by allied bombing in 1945, the baroque cathedral was left in ruins for decades before being meticulously restored and reopened in 2005. We took an early stroll around the city centred around the landmark Frauenkirche. It was well worth the €8 entry fee and ensuing effort to climb to the 221ft viewing platform at the top of the tower to be rewarded with far-reaching 360 degree views across the river and cityscape.
Our cruise coincided with a fitting time to visit Wittenberg, known as the ‘cradle of the Revolution’. It was here, 500 years ago, that monk, professor and theologian Martin Luther nailed 95 points of discussion to the door of his local church challenging Catholicism and triggering the Reformation that changed the course of history. Whenever you visit you will find Lutheran sights at every turn, including his house and the Augustinian monastery, now a museum, in which he lived.
Back on the ship days were punctuated by mealtimes – and being a French-owned line lunch was always a leisurely four-course institution – and mingling with fellow shipmates in the comfy lounge. Sometimes there were visiting entertainers, including singers, dancers and, most notably, magician Florian Steinborn who amazed us with his tricks and joined our table afterwards to share more illusions and tell us about his forthcoming career as a teacher. Doubtless he will have no trouble maintaining students’ attention.
Finally we sailed into the expanse of Lake Tegel in Berlin’s northwest borough of Reinickendorf. After spotting a red telephone box and pillar box we discovered it’s twinned with Greenwich. There was another overnight stay to make the most of the dynamic city that’s an easy train ride away from the docking spot for those not taking the excursions.
It was a wonderful end to a week of new sights and experiences. Although I was extra careful in the Meissen factory, I had an absolutely smashing time discovering the essence of the Elbe.
CroisiEurope offers an eight-night cruise along the Vltava and Elbe from Prague to Berlin, or in reverse, from £1,794pp. The fare includes all onboard meals, a choice of five wines with lunch and dinner and an open bar – excluding Champagne and wines on the premium list – tea, coffee, water, welcome cocktail, gala dinner and services of the English-speaking CroisiEurope host. Excursions can be purchased in advance as a package or individually during the cruise.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope