VIKING RIVER CRUISE - ELEGANT ELBE CLARA SCHUMANN AUGUST 27 - SEPTEMBER 6, 2010
After 25 sea cruises, we decided that our "cruising life" would not be truly representative of the genre until we did a river cruise. "We" are my wife Edith, a homemaker and retired health care worker from Phoenix, AZ and I am a retired city attorney from that City also. We considered the many standard cruises down the Rhine or Danube, but chose the Elbe cruise from Prague to Berlin for several reasons. We liked the cities on the trip; Prague, Dresden, Meissen and Berlin in particular. Edith is German born, and enjoys a language advantage in the German portion of the trip. All of the stops (until West Berlin) were under Communist rule until the wall came down in Germany in 1989, followed by the "Velvet Revolution" in Prague, which liberated the former Czechoslovakia. All of this promised a unique experience which was largely borne out by our trip.
Preparations and Getting There
Viking is the only cruise line offering this trip. They offer a discount if paid in full by wire transfer, and we opted for this. Due to the fact that one day in Prague is included as well as one day in Berlin; we thought it better that Viking make the air arrangements, which probably were slightly cheaper than if we bought "open-jaw" air tickets going to Prague and returning from Berlin.
Fortunately I remembered to check the weather reports, and found out that the temperatures would run between the low 50s and low 60s, with the strong probability of rain for at least the first 6 or 7 days of the cruise. This led to a thorough reconsideration of what we would bring as clothing, which proved to be a blessing. The last time we had been in that neck of the woods, in 2003, the temperatures had been in the 80s and 90s, in early August. It is really important to check the weather on any river cruise because the chief attraction is the time spent ashore.
Our outgoing flight involved only one stop in Atlanta and then on to Prague, arriving at about 9:30. While we had early wake-up call, our flight to Atlanta left Phoenix at 7:20 A.M., this was a pretty straight forward and routine trip.
We were met by a Viking representative and taken to one of the two Hilton Hotels in Prague. It is a new structure, slightly outside the "Old City", but within easy walking distance of that part of town. For a review of this hotel, you can go to Tripadvisor.com; but suffice to say - do not eat at the hotel restaurant The prices are outrageous, unless you like to pay more that $5.00 for a bottle of water. The breakfast brunch, included as in all European hotels, was quite good however.
Viking provided us with a nice tour of the Palace area and the Old Town the next day after arrival. This was our introduction into being divided into three groups, and being provided with Viking's Quietvox tour audio system, in which we were provided with a small radio receiver and an earpiece connection for listening to our guide. It works pretty well, although it requires a short warm-up period. Each guide "broadcasts" on a different frequency. The next day we had lunch at a local restaurant suggested by Patrick, one of Viking's staff assisting at the hotel. It was hearty Czech food, quite good and very reasonable, about half what we had paid at the Hilton. Patrick also had led a non-scheduled, informal walking tour the night before which Edith enjoyed, but I skipped.
We were instructed to mark our luggage with one of three different colored ribbons, and they were transferred to one of three busses by color. At about 3:30 we started departing for Melnik, Czech Republic, mostly by freeway, which took about 45 minutes. There we were simply handed real keys to our staterooms - no plastic, thank you
When we entered our cabin, which had been designated as Class A Deluxe, we were shocked to find out that it was not the enlarged cabin pictured and described in the Viking brochure. Instead of a reasonable sized, 180 square foot cabin with a double bed and space for a dresser and decent sized closet, we had a standard 120 square foot cabin. The other seven couples who had purchased and expected the same accommodations were similarly outraged. We were told that the refurbishment was still In the future, even though the brochure had said the ship and cabins were "Fully Refurbished". The upper third of the window tilted open, but with the cold weather we hardly ever opened it.
But the only other choice was to take a taxi back to Prague and fly home, so we were stuck with our cabins.
Clara Schumann is small for a river cruiser, and is specifically designed for the Elbe River. It has no propellers, only a "water-jet" system which sucks in river water and spins it back out. This is a design attributable to the fact that the Elbe is a very shallow river in parts, and could be getting shallower each year. On some occasions the actual cruising has been abandoned since the ship had insufficient water and would have become stranded. Bus trips were substituted. Fortunately 2010 had a somewhat rainy summer, and we never experienced a problem.
The ship has two fully enclosed decks and an open deck topside, which also held the wheelhouse and was partly covered. The upper deck had cabins aft, the reception area and the lounge, with bar forward. The lower deck had cabins aft, a small sauna, and the dining room forward. One could not go from the lower cabin area directly to the dining room, but was required to go up the stairs to the reception area and then down to the dining room.. We were told that this was a safety design decision. The dining room and lounge would each hold the full complement of passengers.
The cabins all had a couch which turned into a single bed, and another bed opposite which pulled down Murphy Bed fashion. There was a small table between beds in front of the single window. There was one small closet and two shelves. The pull down bed had a narrow shelf above it, and there was another overhead shelf towards the door. The bathroom was small and the shower had a curtain with no division between the shower floor and the rest of the bathroom, so that water would flow out into the general bathroom area. One had to put the floor mat up on the toilet, and then put it back down when one emerged from the shower. There was some room in a cabinet, which proved to be sufficient for most toiletries. There was no room for suitcases, but ours were taken away by our room attendant and returned the last night for packing. We asked for and got a few extra hangers.
We met at 6:45 for a safety briefing that had an aspect quite different from our prior cruises. We were told that if the ship sank, simply go to the upper deck, since we would still be high and dry as the boat rested gently on the bottom of the shallow Elbe River. Our "Cruise Director" Martin Caco, is called "Program Director". He introduced the Officers and the other major players. With all the kitchen and attending staff, the crew amounted to only 34 people. Our next day tours were outlined, as they were every day, by Martin, who is from Slovakia, and speaks six languages
We then went to dinner, which of course is open seating. The dinner menu included a specific vegetarian menu, which pleased Edith. For everything else there were basically two choices for salad, "starters" which included a soup, entrEe and dessert (with a cheese plate option). Beer and wine were served without charge at dinner, and not limited to one glass, but freely poured as requested. Edith said the wine was not bad, but since I do not drink I have no opinion.
Luncheons we partly buffet, with a few options which could be ordered. The buffet had sandwiches and one hot entrEe, as well as a salad bar.
The breakfast buffet was very good indeed, with several hot options, lots of fruit, cereal, and the ability to order pancakes, waffles and egg dishes including omelets. The coffee was pretty good by cruise ship standards. I would like to single out the baker for the highest marks, well up there in the tradition of fine European bread and pastry making.
Overall I would rate the dinner meals at three stars+, the lunches at two stars+ and the breakfasts at four stars+. These ratings are by way of comparison with our prior cruising experiences, which include the superlative Crystal Serenity experience (twice), ten Celebrity cruises and three Oceania trips; all at four+ to five stars, not to mention Princess and HAL, both at four stars in most cuisine categories. If one was to compare Viking with normal restaurant dining, their rating would be higher. The main reasons for my opinion are the limited selections available (a necessary result of the ship's size) and a certain lack of imagination. The dining room service was largely cheerful and pleasant, hampered, as is so often the case, by some language difficulties, varying from one staff member to another.
But I imagine that no one goes on a river cruise expecting cordon bleu cuisine, so I would not downgrade our overall experience too much by the limitations in the food area.
The Riverboat Cruising Experience
This is what we came for, and this is where we had the best experiences, despite the poor weather. With one exception, an optional visit to a concentration camp near Litomêrice, Czech Republic, our first stop, all tours are included in the cruise fare. The various stops are governed by the distances between the towns involved, and to some extent by the sights available. The ship does not exactly move with lightning speed, and I would imagine the trip back up the Elbe from Berlin to Prague varies a little in its timing of stops and sailing because that portion is against the river current, while we went with the flow. In some instances we spent a morning traveling, in others the afternoon, and on other occasions, all day in town.. Sometimes we remained docked overnight, but sometimes we sailed at night.
The Elbe is not very wide, varying from probable less that 100 yards across (my estimate is calculated by what golf club I think I would need to get across this "water hole") to perhaps 250 yards. As noted, it is very shallow. One can stand behind the wheelhouse and see the depth gauge, which normally read about 2 to 3 meters, with the draft of the ship being one meter. While there are a number of towns, ranging from hamlets to one large city (Dresden), there are many stretches in which we were gliding in absolute silence between farm lands, hearing sheep bleat, to forests where one passenger spotted a deer, and we all saw lots of waterfowl, egrets, cranes, ducks and swans. The silence of our passage was due to our unique propulsion system, which had no turbine whine or propeller noise. It was extremely restful, albeit a tad chilly and damp, sitting on the upper deck watching everything flow quietly past us.
Ports of Call
Our first stop was LitomErice in the Czech Republic. As in every stop, we landed close to the center of town, and we simply followed our guide on a walking tour of this pretty little place. The guides were evidently supplied by local tour companies, and met us at each stop. Dagmar, our first guide was extremely talkative and repetitious, (we really did not want to know the history of her name) and we were pleased when the weather, for which she was not dressed, persuaded her to return to her bus early and left us to wander around on our own. I was even able to spend most of the 100 Czech korunas left from our supply exchanged easily for euros at the Hilton in Prague. This was about a four hour afternoon stop.
The next day we crossed into Germany and stopped at a small town called Bad Schandau in a hilly region called the Saxon Alps. Just a trifle ambitious since the hills maxed out at about 800-900 feet. However we rook a bus ride of about 40 minutes back and around into the hills until we arrived at a tourist stop with a hotel and restaurant close to the ruins of a fort overlooking the river from about 850 feet. Here many of us paid all of 1€ to extend the tour over some steel grate bridges and up stairs out into the escarpment where we had stunning views of pinnacles rising up from the ground, and then into the ruins themselves. The views out across the river were also grand. We went back to the main part of the site and had coffee in a restaurant with a panoramic view of the countryside. This was really a high point of the cruise. When we returned and cruised away, for a few minutes, we could look back at where we had been, and even see the restaurant. The sun came out briefly and the whole experience was delightful.
The next day (and in fact the next night) were spent in Dresden. This is the city which was almost destroyed completely in a fire bombing air raid in January 1945. The rebuilding has been virtually completed, and it is certainly worth visiting. A highlight was being able to listen to a ½ hour organ recital on a magnificent instrument in the Dresden Cathedral. We also had the chance to do some shopping in a new shopping area, and to buy some euros at a Deutsche Bank ATM. It started raining very heavily on us, but with Edith's umbrella and my rain jacket, we got by pretty well.
Edith and I both love good china ware, and we looked forward to Meissen, our next stop and the home of Meissen porcelain since about 1708. The factory "tour" was a staged trip showing us a few details about how the china is painted and prepared, but not really how it is produced. This was disappointing, but the Porcelain Museum attached was not. The work that has been done here over the centuries is amazing. There also was an "outlet" store and a regular store. One or two of our fellow passengers actually made a purchase. The prices are quite high to say the least. We also had a chance to walk around town for a short while.
After a brief afternoon trip we came to Torgau, a town noted for the meeting between the American and Russian armies in late April, 1945, the virtual end of the European phase of WWII. We had a quick tour and although we remained docked there overnight, I do not think anyone went back into town.
The next day, after amorning of travel, we reached Wittenberg, the seat of Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation, including the church where he nailed the 95 theses. The original wooden door has not survived. The tour of his home was interesting and the town has a large central square with a strikingly beautiful Rathaus, or City Hall.
The next stop, Dessau, was marked by a tour of a striking, 17 square mile garden built by a ruler in the 1800s. This visit included what was called a "gondola" ride, powered by a pleasant young oarsman, around a lake forming part of this park. Actually, in lieu of the gondola trip, one could enjoy a tour of the main castle building.
Our next stop was Magdeberg, but only for docking purposes since we arrived in the early evening with just time for the Captain's Farewell dinner and re-packing. This last exercise meant we had to take turns in the cabin to deal with our own suitcases, since there was nowhere nearly enough room for both of us to operate at the same time. We did have the Baked Alaska parade however.
The next morning we boarded our buses to travel to Potsdam, about an hour away, for a tour of that suburb of Berlin. We viewed a couple of castles including a short tour of one castle, the last home of "Kaiser Bill"; Kaiser Wilhelm II who led Germany through WWI and fled from this building in 1918 (with 20 boxcars of furnishings) to exile in Holland where he died in the late 1930s. After that we were dropped off in town to have lunch on our own, which we did at a nice, reasonably priced, sidewalk cafe, Afterwards we visited (but did not enter, the castle where the 1945 Potsdam Conference between Stalin, Truman and Clement Atlee took place in August 1945, effectively dividing up Europe into East and West. This building is now partly a hotel, but it was occupied by Kaiser Wilhelm's son until he fled the Russian Army in the spring of 1945. The Hohenzollern family is still around.
After this we drove into Berlin which began virtually next door to this site, and to the Hilton Hotel in what was once East Berlin. This was a much nicer hotel that the Prague Hilton. After dinner on our own (where we ran into and joined some fellow passengers) we went on a walking tour guided by Patrick from Viking. He had been on vacation for a week and went to Rome to assist our departure.
The people joining the ship for the return trip to Prague had actually passed us in the parking lot in Potsdam. The walking tour took us to Check Point Charlie and down a nearby street where we could see a remnant of the Wall.
After a good nights sleep, and an excellent buffet breakfast we left for the airport at about 8:45 for our return to Phoenix via JFK, again with only this one stop.
A note on "castles". This term simply means a building which served as a residence, usually one of several residences, of the family which happened to be ruling at one time or another. The buildings were not the fortified warrior homes that we usually associate with the word castle, and which are more common in England and Scotland. Our "castles" were usually only palatial residences constructed in the 1700s and 1800s, with a few being occupied until the end of WWI, which signaled the end of Central European Royal family ruling dynasties. One exception was the Konigsberg castle near Bad Schandau, high above the Elbe, which was a true fortification, at least when viewed by us from the river.
There were 108 passengers out of a possible 110. With the exception of two couples, the median age was somewhere in the 60s (to be kind). We discovered that nearly everyone we talked to had done other river cruises. The open seating enabled us to meet a large number of fellow travelers, and this was very enjoyable, although we could not meet everybody. The homelands ranged from New Zealand and Australia to Canada, Germany, the UK and the United States, with the last being the best represented of course.
I should note that some people had taken advantage of Viking's pre-cruise two day tour of Prague and more remained for their two day extension in Berlin.
Attire is quite casual. Only a few of the men wore jackets and fewer yet wore ties for the Captain's Farewell Dinner. The ladies dressed up a bit more for that event. As you might imagine, good walking shoes, an umbrella and a lightweight rain jacket are necessities. I often wore my Tilley hat, but wearing any kind of headgear in Europe immediately identifies you as a tourist from America.
Tipping was suggested at $9.00 to $11.00 per person per day. I paid by credit card, but since the on-board currency was the Euro it ended up as an odd figure.
Tipping of guides at the rate of 3-5 €s per couple was the norm. My guide book said that a 10% tip for restaurant servers in the Czech Republic was the norm, but in Germany a service charge is often included in the bill.
The Crew and Other Matters
As noted, Martin was a very good program director and was visible and available almost all the time. The Captain spoke little English, and was pretty inaccessible and distant. Most of the restaurant servers and cabin attendants had a working knowledge of the English needed for their jobs, There was entertainment in the form of Vladimir, who played an electric type piano in the lounge in the afternoon. Tea was served every afternoon, with a few goodies, but all other food was available only at regular meal times. Coffee and tea wer always available at a station in the lounge.
River cruising is distinctly different, and to enjoy it you must be prepared to do a lot of off-boat touring which will involve walking and listening to guides talk a lot. Like any cruise, there is some free time, and not much by way of on-board entertainment. The actual "Cruising Down the River" part is relaxing, and you have countryside to look at, not just ocean. Our cabins were exceptionally small according to fellow passengers who had done more river trips, and we did not sleep all that well on our narrow beds. But this (and the weather) were the only significant drawbacks to what was otherwise a very pleasant, relaxing and refreshing cruise as well as being a very new experience. We believe that we will do at least one more river cruise, in Europe rather than Russia or China, in 2012, since 2011 is pretty well planned already. We would definitely recommend river cruising.
Phil and Edith