Berlin, Dresden & Prague
Many of us don’t want to fly these days, due to the hassles of airport security, airline baggage restrictions and cramped conditions on board. Rail travel however has seen a revival as we rediscover what it was like travelling around Europe over 50 years ago, when the journey was very much part of the holiday.
We’re accustomed to using Eurostar to Paris and Brussels, but what’s it like to travel further afield? I join a Great Rail Journeys escorted tour to Berlin, Dresden and Prague to find out, and as with nearly all its European holidays this starts at Eurostar’s elegant terminus at London St Pancras.
I settle into my luxury Standard Premier seat – first-class by another name – looking forward to the two-hour journey to Brussels, with a light breakfast served en route as the Kentish countryside flashes by. Within an hour we’re through the tunnel and in France, a far cry from the early 1990s when you had to take a train to Dover, clamber on board a ferry and repeat the whole process in reverse at a French or Belgian port two hours later.
You can connect into other European high-speed networks at either Lille or Brussels, and there’s just time for a drink at Brussels Midi station before joining the Thalys train for Cologne, a journey of just under two hours. There are no passport or security checks anywhere after leaving St Pancras, and catching an international train on the Continent is usually just the same as embarking on a local journey.
From Cologne it’s another four hours on to Berlin, but we’re really into the swing of things now and German rail operator DB’s Inter City Express (ICE) trains are very comfortable and efficient. We enjoy the countryside and glimpses of historic cities, before settling into the comfortable Maritim Hotel in Germany’s capital for three nights.
Berlin has gone through a major reconstruction programme since the infamous Wall dividing West from East was torn down in 1989, and although reconstruction continues it is a pleasanter place to visit than 20 years ago with landmarks including the Reichstag (Parliament) and Brandenburg Gate gaining new life.
From here it’s a pleasant two-hour rail journey through sparsely populated farmland to Dresden, the “Florence of the Elbe”, a city that has changed out of all recognition in the last 20 years. One of the joys of rail travel is that you depart and arrive in city centres rather than airports often many miles away, and from the main station in Dresden it’s only a few minutes to the luxurious Maritim Hotel, a former riverside warehouse.
The baroque city of Dresden was almost totally obliterated by Allied bombing in February 1945, and a start wasn’t made on restoring Frauen Kirche church until 1993, as Communist East Germany didn’t have the money for reconstruction. I marvel at how skilfully the old city has been restored, with many of the “old” buildings now housing art treasures. Very few were spared by the bombing or the fires that raged afterwards, and comparisons are often drawn with Coventry, whose cathedral and historic centre were obliterated by German bombing in 1940. The cross atop the tower of Frauen Kirche was donated by Britain, and inside is a cross made of nails from Coventry cathedral as another symbol of reconciliation.
Two excursions to castles are included as well as a guided city tour, and I’m chuffed to see that our trip from Dresden to Moritzburg castle is by historic steam train. The Loßnitzgrundbahn or Loßnitz Valley Railway, nicknamed the Lößnitz Dachshund, is a year-round tourist attraction operated by chunky steam locos built in the 1950s, and one of many scenic narrow gauge lines in Germany. It’s a short but pretty ride through the woods to Moritzburg, the summer residence of notorious Saxon ruler Augustus the Strong (1674-1733), who allegedly fathered over 300 children.
Our second excursion, by road, is to the notorious Colditz Castle, an infamous prisoner of war camp for Allied officers which was far from secure as the Germans claimed. I marvel at the ingenuity of hundreds of escape attempts, 31 of which succeeded, with prisoners even planning an escape by glider as Allied forces closed in.
The same train that brought us from Berlin now takes us over the Czech border to the fabulous city of Prague, a journey taking just over two hours, again with no passport or other formalities. After three nights here I travel home via an overnight stop in Nuremberg, marvelling at how easy and relaxing rail travel is. Will I ever go back to flying? Of course I will, but for any of the closer countries in Europe I will now let the train take the strain, with all kinds of sights and experiences along the way.
Great Rail Journeys offers an 11-day escorted group holiday Berlin, Dresden and Prague from £1,745pp. Price includes first-class rail and coach travel, hotel accommodation with Maritim Hotels, city tours of Berlin, Prague and Dresden, a journey on the Loßnitzgrundbahn steam train to the Palace of Moritzburg, and a guided tour of Colditz Castle.
Great Rail Journeys Independent can tailor-make holidays for those inspired to visit Germany, but who prefer not to travel with a group.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Great Rail Journeys