Germany's Elbe River doesn't have the fame of the Rhine or the Danube, yet it rivals these better-known routes for beautiful destinations and surroundings. Grand Circle's "Essence of the Elbe" cruise attracted us (along with many fellow "been there, done that" river cruisers), chiefly because this part of Eastern Germany was new territory. The first surprise was the absolutely stunning scenery, starting with the peaks of "Saxon Switzerland" near Bad Schandau, where we boarded the ship. An enticing list of stops began with Prague and included major visits to Dresden, Berlin, Wittenberg and Hamburg. Another highlight of river cruising is discovering small and less-touristed villages, and the Elbe delivers with visits to the charming towns of Tangermunde and Meissen.
One reason fewer lines sail this route is that the Elbe is a shallow river, requiring smaller ships. The intimate size of Grand Circle's River Allegro turned out to be a big plus, making for a very congenial atmosphere onboard. With set meal times and open seating, we soon knew many of the 90 passengers. Having just one lounge meant more opportunities to mingle, and many friendships formed. Informal dress aboard added to the relaxed, friendly ambience.
The enrichment on this cruise was a highlight, with many chances to meet and talk with local people. Another feature we enjoyed was ample time to explore independently. Every day offered a guided tour in the morning (on foot, except in larger cities like Berlin), with afternoons free to follow your own interests.
Here are some highlights of our Elbe River experience.
Our trip began with two nights in Prague. Spared from bombing during World War II, Prague, known as "the city of 100 spires," is an open-air gallery of architecture and elegant squares, spanning seven centuries. First stop was Prague Castle, the fortress atop the city, to watch the changing of the guard and visit the cathedral. The castle vistas were shrouded by fog, but we got photos later from the Charles Bridge, where the vendors and views make for one of the city's most popular stops. Meandering Prague's shop-lined narrow lanes topped off a wonderful afternoon. Many opted for a tour of Prague's Jewish Quarter, dating to the 13th century; it's one of the best-preserved in Europe.
After a long bus ride and a lunch stop, we reached the spa town of Bad Schandau, which we saw first from the spectacular heights of the Saxon Switzerland National Park. Everyone was wowed by the park's fantasy of limestone peaks, including the Bastei, towering 636 feet above the river. The ship was waiting for us in town, looking shiny and new from its recent renovation. The Captain's Dinner boded well for the days ahead: cold roast duck salad, warm sauteed shrimp in lobster sauce, an entree of grilled loin of veal on creamy spinach, generous complimentary wine and creme brulee for dessert. The meals lived up to this promise, and they were a high point on the sailing.
Onboard River Allegro, we found that the ship's intimate size was a big bonus. The one lounge is where everyone mingled onboard during the day, as well as in the evening. During cocktail hour, the pleasant melodies of our resident pianist often drew couples to the dance floor. Later, seats were set into rows for entertainment. One night, the star of the show was our captain, Juergen Luderer, who was introduced as the "German Johnny Cash." He lived up to the hype, gaining loud cheers for his excellent songs and guitar. In the lounge and throughout the ship, a passenger-staff ratio of 3 - 1 meant outstanding service.
Sailing into sight of the baroque domes and spires of Dresden is an indelible memory. It was even more moving knowing that this city has literally risen from the ashes after being destroyed by Allied firebombing in 1945. Now rebuilt just as it was, with its treasures safely returned from their hiding places, Dresden boasts art, architecture and cultural riches that are amazing for a city of 500,000.The city's Semper Opera is one of the most beautiful in the world, and the Green Vault of Dresden's Royal Palace holds an eye-popping collection of jewels and treasures. Raphael's Sistine Madonna is one of many masterpieces in The Old Masters Gallery, set among the pools and pavilions of the Zwinger complex.
Meissen is best known for the hand-painted porcelain that has been there since 1710. Our day began with a visit to a porcelain workshop for a demo. You can't help but admire the patience and skill of the artisans creating these rare pieces of hand-painted porcelain china and decorative sculptures. The town itself is small and quite charming, with a big market square and colorful small shops on the side streets. We bought our souvenir gifts there -- fanciful nutcrackers and hand-carved wooden Christmas ornaments made in the nearby village of Seiffen in the Ore Mountains. We stopped in a bakery for a slice of the local specialty, eierschecke, a cheesecake with custard topping.
The steep hills and terraced vineyards along the southern portion of the Elbe made for wonderful scenery as we sailed. We were lucky with the fabulous October weather, and we enjoyed the views from the spacious top deck of Allegro and from the wide picture windows in the lounge and dining room. We learned a lot of World War II history on this cruise in places like Torgau, where we saw the memorial to the spot where the Russian and Allied troops first met and merged, proclaiming that victory was near. World War II buffs were fascinated by a small museum in town that displayed rare photos and films from that era.
In Wittenberg, we followed the footsteps of Martin Luther. We saw the door where his 95 Theses were posted, challenging the papacy and establishing Protestantism. Then we visited the church where he preached and the monastery where he and his family lived after his excommunication. Later we divided into small groups to visit with local families. Our hostess was one of several people we met during the trip who surprised us by saying she was better off under the Russians, lacking freedom but without the unemployment and hard times they are now experiencing. This changed our perception of today's East Germany.
A bus tour showed us the most famous sights of Berlin -- the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the moving memorial to the Holocaust and the remains of the Berlin Wall, where we had a stop for photos. After lunch, we were on our own to stroll the fine buildings of the boulevard known as Unter den Linden or to visit one of the five museums on the city's unmatched Museum Island. A day was not enough to take in Germany's reborn and booming capital city and its many sights. Future Elbe cruises have a changed itinerary to allow two nights in Berlin.
A village like Tangermunde is why we love river cruising. Our visit there offered a chance to meander the non-touristy streets of a tiny jewel dating back to 1009. We admired quaint, half-timbered houses, took pictures and stopped in a local pub. Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city, was our last -- and one of our favorite -- stops, with a magnificent harbor, a mix of old and exciting new architecture, plentiful shopping, a lake and promenade in the city center, and 50 museums. But the Elbe becomes shallow approaching Hamburg, requiring a bus ride to reach the city and a stay on land. It has been made an optional pre-or post-trip on future cruises -- one we would highly recommend.
Future cruises with two nights in Berlin will correct one problem on our cruise: not enough time in that city. Our other negative was the hotel locations on land. One way Grand Circle keeps trips economical is by using hotels away from the city center, making it difficult to stroll into or have dinner in town. We'd have preferred to pay a little more for convenience. However, the cruise portion on River Allegro was definitely a winner, with interesting stops, a congenial ship, good service and exceptional enrichment. We had many chances to interact with local people and felt we had not just toured but gained unusual insight into the places we visited.