“Dear Viking Guest,” the email began. “Thank you for choosing Viking Cruises for your upcoming European voyage. This message is to let you know that the Elbe River is currently experiencing low water levels.”
The message went on to say this may mean a change in ships and, perhaps, “abbreviated sailing where we may need to visit certain itinerary destinations by motor coach.”
I knew I would still have a great time because of the scheduled excursions. I was hopeful we would sail, but I also knew the probability, like the water level, was low.
The adventure began in Prague. Our walking tour guide led us into Old Town with its 600-year-old astronomical clock, Jewish Quarter and lovely pastel-coloured buildings. From Old Town, we walked across the famous Gothic Charles Bridge.
On the other side of the Vitava River was the Church of St. Nicholas, known as the most beautiful Baroque church in Prague. I certainly couldn’t argue; it was breathtakingly beautiful and, according to our guide, centuries in the making.
It was announced when we were leaving Prague that we would be stopping at Saxon Switzerland National Park on the way to the ship docked in Dresden. I knew then we wouldn’t be sailing. The schedule had called for boarding the ship in Decin, Czech Republic and visiting the national park the following day.
Was I disappointed? Sure. But I also knew Viking would make sure I saw all the promised cities, villages and historic sites.
Saxon Switzerland is a region along the Elbe River spanning the German and Czech Republic border. It was first referred to as Saxon Switzerland in the 18th century when two Swiss artists, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, coined the phrase while attending the Dresden Academy of Art.
In addition to two easily accessible terraces for panoramic views of the Elbe River and the villages that line its banks along with the park’s famous sandstone formations, there was an easy walking trail. The suggested walk was along a series of well-maintained stairs with hand rails. Just beyond the park’s famous Bastei Bridge, built in 1850-51 for tourists, was evidence of Neurathen Castle strongholds. There were also remains of a medieval settlement dating as early as the 14th century.
After leaving Saxon Switzerland, our coach driver made his way to Dresden and our ship Viking Beyla. That evening it was officially announced that we would stay two nights on the Beyla before being transferred to its sister ship, Viking Astrild, for a three-night stay while docked in Wittenberg.
Dresden was heavily bombed during WWII. Instead of rebuilding with modern structures, citizens began to recreate the historic buildings that were destroyed.
Our walking tour took us to Zwinger Palace, Semper Opera House and the Frauenkirche Cathedral of Our Lady. The highlight of the morning was a visit to the Green Vault housed in Dresden Castle. The largest collection of treasure in Europe was started by King Augustus the Strong in 1723. It features a wealth of Baroque to Classicism artworks made of gold, silver and other precious metals; many encrusted with exquisite gems.
The following day, we travelled a short way to Meissen; its highlight a tour of the Meissen Porcelain Factory. The first high-quality porcelain to be produced outside of China and the Orient, it was first manufactured in 1708 in Dresden by decree of King Augustus the Strong.
Mining and smelting specialists worked together to successfully create the first European white porcelain and soon moved its production to Meissen. The tour showcased artists and craftspeople in the process of creating the porcelain by molding and sculpting pieces as well as painting intricate designs. At the end of the tour were gift shops and the company museum.
Wittenberg is famous as being the city where Martin Luther lived and preached. On October 31, 1517 he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church, best known as Castle Church, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
Wittenberg was easy to navigate with its long and narrow pedestrian zone linking most of the significant historic sites. At one end of the zone was Castle Church. One of the doors is engraved with Latin text of Luther’s 95 Theses. Inside the church are the tomb of Luther and portraits of Luther and other reformers by Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Younger.
Further along was Wittenberg Market Square bordered by shops and cafés; many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. In the centre were statues of Luther and Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon was a theologian, friend of Luther, Wittenberg University professor and supporter of the Reformation. Just beyond the square was 14th century St. Mary’s Church where Luther often preached. Luther and former nun Katharina von Bora were married here.
The last stop on the walking tour was UNESCO World Heritage Lutherhaus, Luther’s home for most of his adult life. The museum houses the world’s most important collection of objects related to the Reformation, including Luther’s desk, the pulpit from which he preached at St. Mary’s Church, his teaching robe and first editions of his books.
From Wittenberg we also travelled to Wörlitz, a charming little German town that became famous in the 18th century when one of the earliest landscape parks of Continental Europe was created here. From the very beginning the garden was open to the public.
The Wörlitz garden and palace complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We were invited to either tour the palace housing a collection of antiques, paintings of Old Masters and contemporary works of art, and artistic furnishings or take a gondola ride. As moored river cruisers, we all chose the gondola.
Across the lake past beautiful buildings including a church and synagogue, our boatman rowed. He also took us on an enchanting journey along winding canals through forests, under bridges and past flowers growing along the waterways.
Potsdam and Berlin
Potsdam is known as being home to Prussian kings (in particular, Frederick William I and his son Frederick the Great) and the German Kaiser until 1918. Its palaces and parks have UNESCO World Heritage status.
The highlight of our tour was Sanssouci. Built as Frederick the Great’s summer residence, the one-story, three-wing complex is located high above a terraced vineyard designed especially for the palace.
Transported to the 18th century through Brandenburg and Prussia art, and cultural and architectural elements of the palace, we began our tour in the rear courtyard entering a long hallway lined with paintings and sculptures. Each room featured gold-plated decorative elements, crystal chandeliers, ornate columns, priceless paintings and Meissen porcelain, and original furnishings.
From Potsdam to Berlin we crossed the Glienicke Bridge, which connects the two cities. This is where East and West exchanged secret agents and spies into the 1980s.
Berlin, with a population of approximately 3.7 million, should be toured by bus if you only have a short stay in the city.
Heavily bombed during WWII followed by Communist control of East Berlin until Germany’s reunification in 1990, most of the city, at a glance, is modern. But on the bus tour of the city, we gained a great appreciation for its history and were able to make stops at Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate.
The joy of cruising along and seeing the beauty of the countryside and arriving in port cities on the ship would have been ideal, but Viking Cruises did the best they could under circumstances that were not within their control. For me, my 10-day adventure was a complete success – memorable, fun and educational.