Jeannine Williamson was one of the first to join CroisiEurope’s all-new river cruise taking in a river less travelled in the Czech Republic. Castles galore and a warm welcome – ashore and aboard – can all be found on this unique river cruise.
An incongruous sound of bells and horns suddenly breaks the hum of gentle chatter and water lapping rhythmically past the bow of MS Elbe Princesse II. With a dense emerald mantle of trees covering both banks of the Vltava River, at first it’s hard to see where it’s coming from. Then we spot people waving from small wooden chalets and holiday homes dotted in the verdant backdrop.
“They’re excited to see us,” smiles our purser Erika. “Until now there’s only been one other boat from Prague which does day trips twice a week.”
Indeed, later on we pass the small steamboat and once again we’re the centre of attention as passengers turn their cameras away from the beautiful natural riverscape to the sleek lines of the head-turning 330ft MS Elbe Princesse II propelled by a pair of modern paddlewheels at the rear of the vessel.
A pioneering river vessel
Enterprising CroisiEurope broke the mould when it introduced a contemporary lightweight paddlewheeler to navigate the notoriously shallow waters of the Loire where no other river lines sail. This was followed by two near identical ships to sail on the Elbe – also affected by low levels – through Germany and the Czech Republic. Recently CroisiEurope launched a new sailing that takes in part of the Vltava, hence the animated greeting by locals who have long-known about the gorgeous green area. While it’s only a relative hop and a skip from Prague as the crow flies it’s a hidden treasure for visitors, and this new castle-themed cruise is a spectacular way to experience it.
It is time for us to focus our cameras as we sail round another sinuous bend to be faced by an awe-inspiring sight; this one man-made. Erika explains the Vlatava was once a turbulent river and was transformed into today’s tranquil waterway through locks and the 200ft Slapy Dam that towers in front of us. Later, an informative video in the ship’s lounge provides a fascinating insight into the manpower that went into the extraordinary project that took 10 years to complete.
The dam is among many highlights on this six-night sailing which starts and ends in Prague. Once again, CroisiEurope is unique as it’s the only line that moors in the heart of the city and within walking distance of many of the main sights, including the landmark Charles Bridge topped by statues. Since my last visit some years ago it’s heartening to see Prague has mostly lost its appeal to the often, quite literally, staggering stag parties and their hen counterparts. It’s pleasant to explore the city without the large rowdy groups that used to congregate on the bridge and other popular areas.
Mooring overnight in Prague there’s plenty of time to head out on optional excursions, explore independently or have a mix of the two. I enjoy the flexibility and, as always, Erika is on hand with maps and detailed suggestions of things to do. Armed with her tips some passengers head off on the historic circular tram line (she helpfully points out there are discounted fares for Silver Travellers over 65), others track down the entwined ‘dancing house’ nicknamed Fred and Ginger and several visit the poignant Jewish quarter which is one of the largest in Europe. The sound of music spills into the streets of a city that was the birthplace of composers Dvorak and Janacek and it’s also easy to book very reasonably priced tickets for an evening concert.
I join other English-speaking passengers on a tour around Prague Castle district with Tereza, an entertaining and informative guide from Prague City Adventures. As the world’s largest castle complex it can be daunting to variously delve into it on your own and risk missing some of the most interesting areas. We come away filled with a mix of historical facts and amusing tales. In narrow Golden Lane, part of the castle which resembles a film set, we venture into 16th century homes and businesses, such as an apothecary with a wonderful celestial globe and a tiny pub. There’s a grisly dungeon, too.
Capture the castle
Other days bring more castles and we file through fabulous rooms and, in contrast, the grim hunting hall at Konopiste. It was home to Franz Ferdinand, a fanatic hunter and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne whose assassination sparked the First World War. There’s also Dresden, where the cathedral, painstakingly rebuilt and finally reopened in 2005, is a moving symbol of wartime bombing that reduced Dresden to rubble.
Back onboard the 81-passenger MS Elbe Princesse II there’s a convivial cosmopolitan atmosphere. This is partly due to the complimentary open bar which includes the eagerly anticipated cocktail of the day that makes an appearance before lunch. You sit at the same table for meals and there’s a buffet and cooked-to-order breakfast followed by a set menu for lunch and dinner; with dietary options such as vegetarian.
In the lounge there’s daily music and a fun entertainment programme that’s more extensive than you’ll find on many ships including quizzes, visiting performers and a game involving dangling socks (you’ll have to go if you want to know what’s involved!).
It’s another surprise on a river cruise that visits a beautiful part of the world from a new and different perspective.
Find out more
Elbe Princesse II sails on the six-night Prague, Dresden and the Castles of Bohemia itinerary from May to September. Fares include all onboard meals, drinks and Wi-Fi. A package of five shore excursions – Prague Castle district, Prague Old Town, Dresden, Konopiste Castle and Nelahozeves Castle – can be booked in advance or passengers can book them individually.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends CroisiEurope. To book a sailing with CroisiEurope and get further information call 01756 691 269..