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.

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