The MS Elbe Princesse II, the 55th ship in the CroisiEurope fleet, will be joining us in the port of Tegel, north of Berlin, for an inaugural cruise that will take us to Prague, along the Havel, Elbe and Moldau rivers. On the programme: excursions to sites steeped in history.
Our ship will travel 614 km through Germany and the Czech Republic, passing through 17 locks. We are the first passengers to discover this 101 m long paddle-steamer, with its very contemporary lines. We are greeted by the purser, Erika, who is all smiles.
After a night on board, we're off by coach for a quick tour of Berlin. The tour takes in all the must-see sights of this vast, green and historic city: the Brandenburg Gate, Check Point Charlie and its gadget merchants, the Reichstag and its glass dome, and the remains of the Berlin Wall transformed by artists.
Opposite the French Embassy, you can see a Berlin that has turned towards modernity: the Axica conference centre and offices belonging to the Deutsche Zentral-Genossenschaftsbank, the work of architect Frank O. Gehry.
Berlin is known for its culture, but it is also known for the originality of its architecture.
Potsdam: the weight of Franco-German history
The afternoon is devoted to a visit to Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg. A stroll through the gardens of Sanssouci, the summer residence of Frederick II of Prussia (also known as Frederick the Great - 1712-1786), will give you an idea of the bucolic life devoted to the pleasures of this king, who moved his family to a palace away from his pavilion to better enjoy his peace and quiet, preferring the company of his greyhounds to that of men.
In this baroque building, Frederick II received Voltaire during his exile in 1750 and famous musicians such as Bach and Mozart. His wish to be buried simply in Sanssouci was not respected, but in 1991, for the 250th anniversary of his death, his coffin was transferred and buried in his park alongside his dogs, as he had wished. His grave, a simple slab engraved with his name, has no flowers or wreaths, just potatoes that people lay in tribute to the man who introduced potato cultivation to Prussia.
Before rejoining our ship, which continued on to Nedliz on the Havel during our excursion, we stopped off at Cecilienhof Castle, where the Potsdam Accords between Truman, Stalin and Churchill were ratified in August 1945. This was the last residence built by the House of Hohenzollern.
Back at the boat in Nedliz, our vessel sets off again on the Elbe-Havel junction canal towards Wusterwitz, where we spend the night, as the locks are closed at the end of the day. We passed a number of pleasure boats, as well as dredging and riverbank development barges.
The banks are paved for a few kilometres after Nedliz. Then the waterway widens from about forty to a hundred metres. Tidy little houses dot the banks, which are dotted with dried rushes, alders and willows. In early April, the trees are still leafless. Clouds of aquatic hues hug the river in shimmering reflections. Through the bare foliage, the twilight reveals its variations much better than in midsummer, when the foliage is lush. The atmosphere is soft and soothing. From the cabins, you can hear a gentle splash. When the boat changes speed, you feel a sort of vibration, which is not very disturbing. " It's a problem of adapting the paddlewheels to the water level, explains the captain. In places, the river bottom varies in height, which causes it to jerk. "
A few dozen kilometres before the lock at Wusterwitz, the canal widens, joined in its channel by numerous ponds and marshes. But don't panic, as Commander Myklin Martin, who has been sailing for 32 years, knows the Havel and Elbe rivers and the canal that links them very well. From an early age, he accompanied his father, who worked in the merchant navy. At around 8pm, everyone is on deck for our first lockage.
Sailing on the Elbe
Early in the morning, sailing resumes for several hours.
At around 10.30 am, we pass through the Niegripp lock, where the gradient varies according to the height of the Elbe. The landscape gradually changes. Along the banks, fields of soft green wheat give way to meadows where a few pheasant hens and geese frolic. At the end of the morning, we leave the canal to turn onto the Elbe.
The Elbe is very shallow in places, especially between Torgau and Meissen. " Its depth can vary from 20 cm to 2 m depending on rainfall ", explains the chief officer of the Elbe Princesse II. Hence the choice of paddlewheels, which enable the liner to sail in virtually all seasons.
Magdeburg, the town of Till the Mischievous
The afternoon is dedicated to a visit to Magdeburg, capital of Saxony-Anhalt. The city is the birthplace of Otto von Gvericke (1602-1686), inventor of the vacuum pump, and of Till the Mischievous (Till Eulenspiegel), famous for his wicked tricks, depicted on the town hall portal. The cathedral of Saint-Maurice-et-Sainte-Catherine is well worth a visit. Designed in France, it is the first Gothic cathedral in Germany and also the largest. Construction began in 1207 and took 3 centuries to complete. The monument is home to some remarkable sculptures, including a Renaissance-style alabaster pulpit, which fortunately escaped the ravages of the Wars of Religion.
This Virgin is still venerated today, which is surprising for a building that has been Lutheran since 1567, when the first Protestant service was held. Inside the Portal del Paradiso, in the north transept, a group of 13th-century statues illustrate the parable of the ten virgins (based on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew). Five of them carry full oil lamps - the wise ones - and the other five carry the same lamps but empty - the foolish and careless ones, who will not be able to take part in a wedding feast.
This building of 55 homes and shops, inaugurated in 2005, evokes the fantasies of Gaudi, with facades adorned with windows of all shapes, surrounded by blue or purple, undulating railings, towers topped with golden balls, and brightly coloured pillars.
After Magdeburg, our boat heads back to Wittenberg. Most of the 113 km of night-time sailing, as there are no locks on this stretch. The stretch of river as far as Schönebeck is lined with pretty houses. Hundreds of groynes, some of them cobbled, protrude into the water, serving as promontories for fishermen. They were installed to stabilise the Elbe channel and force the current, making it easier for boats to navigate. During low-water periods, when the Elbe is shallow, they help to concentrate the water in the riverbed.
Wittenberg, cradle of the Reformation
After an overnight sail, we dock in Wittenberg. Two years ago, this town of 47,000 inhabitants celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation advocated on 31 October 1517 by Martin Luther (1483-1546). It was here, on the portal of the Castle Church in the historic centre, that this Augustinian monk and theologian is said to have posted his "Dispute", 95 theses calling into question the excesses of certain princes of the Church and the Pope, as well as the trade in indulgences and the notion of salvation. He asserted that a Christian could only gain paradise by his faith in God and not by buying a "paper" that would absolve him of all his sins, including those not yet committed. His words were to have a major impact on the heart of Europe, and led to his excommunication by Rome.
Housed in part of the cloister in which Luther lived, first as a monk and then with his wife Katharina von Bora, herself a 'defrocked' nun, and their six children, the museum contains exceptional paintings by his friends Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger. It mainly features biblical scenes and portraits, while the other nymphs, Graces and nude Venuses are in the Louvre.
It was the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III of Saxony, known as Frederick the Wise (1463-1525), who brought Cranach senior to Wittenberg after his training in Vienna. From 1505, he became an official court painter. His sons Hans and Lucas (known as the Younger) took over after his death. A shrewd businessman, Cranach also owned a printing works in which Luther's works were printed, and bought the court apothecary's shop that still stands in the main street. Having realised that the water flowing in the stream along the street (which still exists today) could make people ill, he advised the inhabitants to drink beer. On the eve of the beer-making day, an attendant beat the streets chanting: "Tonight, don't pee in the stream, because tomorrow we'll be brewing beer!"
The main street leading to the Town Hall Square is lined with fine Renaissance-style houses and pretty shops. It leads to the castle and the church of all Saints, whose portal depicts the Lutheran theses.
The afternoon and night are devoted to sailing, as our next stopover, Meissen, is 128 km away. At a speed of 10 to 15 km/hour, we have plenty of time to listen to the murmur of the river, relax on the sun deck or take part in one of the activities offered by the crew: quizzes, sea knots or Zumba classes, backgammon games, etc.
Meissen, Saxony's most famous porcelain
It was a sunny Sunday when we discovered the pretty town of Meissen. Everything is closed. Except for the state porcelain factory. Founded in 1710 and housed in the old medieval castle, to better protect the secret of porcelain manufacture (workers had to have a passport to enter), the factory is now located in the town. " It is just about the only company in Eastern Europe to have survived the fall of the GDR (german democratic republic) ", explains our guide. The museum exhibits some exceptional pieces and you can watch the painters at work.
In the afternoon, we leave by coach to visit the city of Dresden. As we travel along the river, whose former towpath is now a cycle path, we come across many walkers and horse riders. Vast meadows border the Elbe, which is not canalized. They help to absorb floods.
Shelled by the Allies in 1945 and more than 60 % destroyed, Dresden no longer bears the scars of this tragic moment that claimed some 25,000 lives. Completely rebuilt, its buildings restored, Dresden has once again become the Baroque city painted by Canaletto, where tourists flock.
We visit the Zwinger Palace from the outside, and stroll through the historic city of Saxon King Augustus II, known as "the Strong", before admiring the Procession of the Princes, a fresco of 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles that miraculously escaped the bombardments. " Many monuments were rebuilt under the GDR because labour was cheap ", explains our guide. You would think they were original, such is their splendour. The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady of Dresden) was rebuilt after German reunification thanks to donations from all over the world. The stones that were saved were numbered and included in the building in the place where they were supposed to have been before. " These black scars are seen as a memorial to the war ", reveals the guide.
The day draws to a close. We return to our ship at the quayside in Loschwitz, regretting that we don't have several days to explore this charming town.
Visit to Saxon Switzerland
The next day, the boat sets sail at dawn for Bad Schandau. After a hearty breakfast, we take the bus for a half-day excursion to Saxon Switzerland, and in particular to the Elbsandsteingebirge, a massif with astonishing sandstone rock formations.
We continue with the fortress of Königstein, which held several famous prisoners, including General Giraud. Taken prisoner at Sedan in May 1940, he was the only prisoner to escape (in April 1942) by using a rope to climb down a 45 m drop. On the way back to Dečin, where the boat is moored, we pass through pine forests and small, prosperous, well-kept villages.
We have a whole afternoon of sailing ahead of us, as far as Litomĕřiice in the Czech Republic, where we will be making a mandatory stopover, as the locks close at 3pm at this time of year (April). In the Czech Republic, the scenery changes. The slopes of the Elbe are dotted with large blocks of sandstone, between which the dark shafts of conifers and a few birch trees peek out. The houses lining the banks are far less well-maintained than in Germany.
On board, time flies. Between the ever-popular meals, the local folklore or conjuring shows, the games, the gala evening, etc., passengers have no time to get bored.
Comfortably seated on the sofas, the passengers chat about the day's events or the next day's excursions. They can count on the talent and good humour of Michael and Aurélia, who are in charge of the entertainment and have something for everyone.
Royal towns of Bohemia
The penultimate day includes a visit to Litomerice. Situated at the confluence of the Elbe and Ohre rivers, Litomerice is one of the oldest royal towns in Bohemia. We linger in the historic centre, lined with Baroque and Renaissance houses and surrounded by preserved Gothic fortifications, before enjoying a tasting of local beers. The region is also renowned for its wines, but it seems that the quality is not always up to scratch. " There are good wines, but you have to look for them "as the local saying goes.
In the afternoon, our ship sets sail again for Melnik, where we will spend the night due to the early closing time of the locks. However, we will have the pleasure of passing through the Ceske Kopisty lock before rejoining the Elbe-Moldau Canal. Our programme called for us to arrive in Prague by boat. This will not happen due to the opening hours of the locks at this time of year. The next day, the MS Elbe Princesse II resumed her navigation to reach the city of a hundred spires. As for us, we left Melnik for Prague by coach: a two-hour journey in the morning traffic jam! However, our disappointment was soon swallowed up by our day in Prague.
In this romantic, baroque city, magic happens around every corner. From St Wenceslas Cathedral, where you can admire the stained glass windows, including one in the Art Nouveau style by Mucha, to the "clock square" crowded with tourists, via a lunch at the Municipal House, our journey comes to an end in style, under a mild spring sun.
A classy liner
Designed by the Nantes-based design office Stirling Design International and built by the Neopolia consortium, the MS Elbe Princesse, 3e CroisiEurope's paddle steamer, was christened on 3 April 2017 in Berlin.
The boat has 45 spacious cabins, all with exterior views, with capacity for 90 passengers. The upper deck cabins have floor-to-ceiling sliding glass windows. The boat offers maximum comfort on board, with a very contemporary and refined décor in shades of absinthe green and fir. Wi-Fi is available throughout the boat.
Text and Photos: Brigitte Postel