The French line’s new shallow-draft ship can get right to the centre of the ancient capital of Bohemia. Jeannine Williamson sails through the historic Czech lands and along the Elbe to Berlin
We were standing on rocky plateau outside Königstein, one of Europe’s highest fortresses, engrossed by our guide’s tales of lavish parties thrown by Augustus the Strong, the 17th century King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.
As well as building a colossal 240,000-litre wine barrel to ensure the bar never ran dry, he also measured the success of his banquets by insisting guests were weighed on the way in and out. If they hadn’t piled on the pounds they were blacklisted from future revelries. As we listened to more colourful tales about the history of the impregnable castle, which dates back to the 13th century, a fellow passenger pointed to the Elbe winding around the foot of the outcrop 240m below.
We were delighted to spot our floating home for the week – CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princesse – gliding around the bend with only the motion of the paddlewheels disturbing the water’s silvery blue surface as it headed downstream to meet our coach after the excursion. What made the sight even more remarkable is that it was the only river vessel we’ve seen since setting sail from Prague. And we were to see only one other ship, at the very end of our eight‑night cruise.
For anyone who has experienced the Rhine and Danube, rivers which are undoubtedly beautiful but plied with an ever-increasing number of hotel boats, this was a real voyage of discovery.
The Elbe, rising in the Czech Republic and flowing over 1,000km through Germany to the North Sea beyond Hamburg, runs between the show-stopping cities of Prague and Berlin, taking in the dramatic craggy scenery of Saxon Switzerland – where Königstein is a high spot in more ways than one – sleepy countryside and a string of Baroque cities. Yet it remains one of Europe’s lesser‑known and least exploited rivers. This is because the low water levels in dry periods make it notoriously tricky to navigate and so the majority of river cruise lines steer well clear.
However, CroisiEurope came up with the innovative idea of building a vessel with an ultra-shallow draft of just 90cm, and incorporating modern paddlewheel technology to propel it through the shallows. Launched in 2016, the 80-passenger Elbe Princesse has proved so successful that a sister vessel, Elbe Princesse II, debuts this spring.
Gabrielle Alam, CroisiEurope’s head of UK sales, explained: “It was the Mississippi’s paddlewheel ships that triggered Patrick Schmitter, CroisiEurope’s operational director and co-owner, to take a closer look at this design. The line is continually innovating and searching for ships that can navigate rivers with occasional very shallow waters, at the same time adhering to modern ecological concerns and the company’s quest for delivering inspiring river-cruising experiences in high-class comfort.
“After pioneering with Europe’s first paddlewheel ship on the Loire in 2015, placing another paddlewheel ship onto a river with similar challenges was a natural progression. The ambition was to provide river‑cruise travel from Berlin to Prague all year round. The region is really very scenic in winter and CroisiEurope’s festive and New Year’s Elbe cruises are proving to be just as popular as the rest of the year’s sailing.”
It’s unusual to find a cruise book-ended by two great cities, but for the first two nights the Elbe Princesse was moored on the Vltava, the tributary of the Elbe, which runs through the heart of Prague. This amounted to a mini-city break, providing ample time to explore. CroisiEurope bucks the trend of the majority of lines by not including excursions, allowing passengers to dip in and out as they want, which is perfect for clients who are on a budget or prefer some independence.
As we had already visited Prague in the past, my companion and I waved goodbye to our fellow shipmates as they headed on tours of the city’s highlights, including statue-lined Charles Bridge, the 15th century astronomical clock in the old town square, which comes to life on the hour and Prague Castle, an imposing structure overlooking the city, which is the world’s largest ancient stronghold. With the city centre and main attractions within easy walking distance of the ship’s jetty, we stopped at one of the many surprisingly reasonable cafés for lunch before meandering along narrow streets lined with small shops selling local crystalware, puppets and even absinthe.
The ship was moored at the foot of a steep hill, with steps to Letná park that we climb for a close-up look at the curious giant red metronome that silently marks time over the city. Standing on the site of a monument to Stalin, the former Soviet leader, which was destroyed in 1962, it was erected in 1991 after the fall of communism and to mark the rhythm of growing democracy. Adding to the rather surreal sight was a line strung with shoes left by skateboarders who congregate in the concrete plaza in front of the structure.
This was only the start of a trip that brought new sights and experiences every day. Casting off from Prague the next morning we reached the royal city of Litoměřice, packed with Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance buildings. The excursion included a visit to a micro-brewery to sample some of the beers for which the Czech Republic is so famous.
Ensuing days brought us to Dresden, where the landmark Frauenkirche cathedral, painstakingly rebuilt and finally reopened in 2005, is a poignant symbol of the Second World War bombing that reduced the city to rubble.
We learned that party animal Augustus the Strong also made his mark in Meissen, home to Germany’s revered fine porcelain of the same name. Obsessed with uncovering the secret of Chinese porcelain that was imported at eye-watering prices he charged his alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger to produce a similar “white gold”. The results were revealed on our tour of the Meissen factory, although you will need to dig deep into your pockets if you fancy a souvenir from the shop.
Back on the Elbe Princesse we relaxed in the bright, contemporary surroundings. Being a French-owned ship, mealtimes were always a highlight, starting from delicious bread and pastries at breakfast through leisurely four-course set lunches and evening meals. Free‑flowing wine at mealtimes and an open bar added to the convivial onboard atmosphere where we mingled with cosmopolitan guests from France, Belgium, Germany and Japan – the latter even organising an impromptu origami folding class one afternoon.
In Berlin we moored on Lake Tegel, Germany’s second largest lake, and again decided to do our own thing, taking a short train ride into the city centre and the cultural hub of Potsdamer Platz. After seeing sections of the wall that once divided the city we headed to the relatively new German Spy Museum, an intriguing attraction filled with James Bond-style gadgets and gizmos.
Nearby is the restored Reichstag building, featuring Sir Norman Foster’s iconic domed roof; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a vast maze-like structure made up of 2,711 columns; and the 12 Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s best-known landmark, which leads on to the pretty Unter den Linden boulevard. It was a fitting end to a cruise along a river that really is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.