River cruising: Nostalgia on the Elbe

Colin Nicholson returns to his childhood with a journey along one of Europe's great waterways

The Elbe is a notoriously difficult river to navigate. Until the 1940s, steam ships still pulled themselves along a chain that at one time stretched the 500 miles from Melnik, outside Prague, to Hamburg, on a river that is on average 2.7m deep. Our ship was no less a feat of engineering, as we learnt on the wheelhouse tour. Despite carrying 112 passengers and 32 crew in style, the Viking Fontane can sail in 1.3m of water.

"Don't worry," the cruise manager said jovially at the safety briefing. "Even if the ship runs aground we'll still be high enough to serve cocktails on the sun deck." Instead of propellers it has pump jets that suck water into the hull and spit it out again. It does this quietly and without vibrations, so it is only on the lower deck you notice the ship is moving at all.

I had joined the Fontane at Melnik after an afternoon exploring Prague, which I was revisiting with a sense of trepidation. I'd moved there as a three-year-old, shortly after the crushing by the Soviet Union of the Prague Spring uprising. My memories – admittedly constructed from the comfort of diplomatic surroundings – were of a repressed orderliness in an enchanting city. How had my Prague reacted to the arrival of unfettered capitalism? Happily, although my childhood home had become a lap-dancing club, I found the city of a thousand spires was as attractive as I remembered it.

The Fontane is a positive product of the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the year it was commissioned. It started the tradition of pleasure cruising on the Elbe. Along with its sister ship the Schumann, the vessel underwent a major refurbishment last year, with the addition of larger cabins with double beds upon one of which I soon fell asleep.

When I woke, I lay for a moment, watching the sunlight bounce off the water and play on the ceiling before joining the first of the daily tours, advertised on the bulletin which had been slipped under my door.

These were uniformly stimulating events with excellent guides. In the Baroque town of Litomerice, we were taken to a micro-brewery for a delicious beer-tasting. Later in the trip, walking tours of Dresden and Torgau, where the US army met the Red Army in 1945, were laid on, and we passengers explored the Art Deco suburbs of Dessau, birthplace of the Bauhaus movement, on our own – there was never a hint of cabin fever.

On board we were encouraged to bring wine we had bought locally to complement the superb food – there is no corkage charge. We typically had a choice of four main courses that changed every evening, including refined offerings of scallops and duck. (As we crossed the border with Germany, the crew dressed up in national costume and served a profusion of sausages to the accompaniment of oompah music.)

My fellow passengers were a fascinating crowd. A third British, two-thirds American, some were interested in the Reformation – in Wittenberg we learnt of Martin Luther's spiritual journey – others in the area's Jewish heritage, thoughtfully commemorated in all the cities.

The area known as "Saxon Switzerland", was particularly memorable: a never-to-be-forgotten landscape where an elegant stone bridge links sandstone pillars that drop into the Elbe 600ft below. The heights are dotted with climbers; this is where the sport of free-climbing was born.

The history of the former Communist bloc was also revealed by fascinating evening talks, interspersed with music recitals. For me, it all found focus in Dresden. The city was flattened by Allied forces shortly before the end of the war, yet it invited the son of a British bomber to craft the cross on the Frauenkirche cathedral, recently reconstructed from thousands of shattered pieces.

Communist Party chiefs had wanted to raze the ruins of Dresden to create a Communist idyll, but apparently never had the money to achieve their goal. Now, after half a century, Dresden is regaining its reputation as the Florence of the Elbe, with its Renaissance architecture rebuilt and a treasure chest of gold, jewels and precious tableware on show in the Green Vault museum. A trip to Meissen, a few miles downstream, to see how exquisite items are handmade at Europe's original porcelain factory, was another highlight of the trip.

In Magdeburg I bade farewell to the Fontane. It was the autobahn that carried me to the palaces of Potsdam and to Berlin, the divided heart of Germany. I was so taken with the east of the city, that at the excellent DDR Museum – with its Trabants and stories of a life of certainty, order and community – I found myself transported back to my youth behind the Iron Curtain, experiencing what Germans call ostalgie – nostalgia for the old Osteuropa. It was time to leave.

Getting there

Colin Nicholson travelled courtesy of Viking River Cruises (020 8780 7900; vikingcruises.co.uk), which offers a 10-day Elegant Elbe itinerary from £1,695pp, based on two sharing a standard stateroom cabin with a night in a hotel in Prague and Berlin. The price includes return flights, all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks, nine guided tours and all port charges, airport taxes and transfers.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Sport
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Sport
Karen Dunbar performs
Entertainers showcase local wit, talent and irrepressible spirit
Sport
Members of the Scotland deleagtion walk past during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
News
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
news
Life and Style
Listen here: Apple EarPods offer an alternative
techAre custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?
Arts and Entertainment
Top guns: Cole advised the makers of Second World War film Fury, starring Brad Pitt
filmLt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a uniform
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
News
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game