It’s no wonder that many of the world’s great cities — Paris, New York, Rome, London — are located along rivers. Long before the world had superhighways, rivers were used to move people and products from one place to the next. Before long, natural stopping points along the banks had become markets, which soon grew to villages, and, later, cities.
Until the end of the Cold War, many of the waterways that flowed through countries formerly held by the Soviets were generally off limits to Americans. Running through both the Czech Republic and Germany, the Elbe is one such river. In 2001, Viking River Cruises launched its Elegant Elbe itinerary, a 10-day sojourn that travels between Prague and Berlin, exploring mid-sized marvels like Wittenberg and Dresden along the way.
Although some regions are best toured by land, the region around the Elbe is particularly well suited to river cruising. Not only are the river’s banks strung with historically significant destinations, but views from the river, such as those of Saxon Switzerland’s golden sandstone cliffs and hulking monoliths, are remarkable. Even better, changing destinations without changing rooms makes traveling via the Elegant Elbe a breeze.
Blending history, architecture, foodways and music, Viking’s excursions, many of which are included in the fare, are as immersive as they are diverse. In Berlin, for instance, a “welcome walk” held within a few hours of arriving provides a quick overview of the city. Although this particular tour is mentioned on the itinerary, ad hoc strolls are known to pop up throughout Viking itineraries as a way for staff members to share some of their favorite discoveries with guests.
Viking’s five Berlin excursions during the Elegant Elbe highlight the company’s commitment to providing guests with a choice between immersing themselves in a specific area of interest or taking in an overview of a city or region. The included excursion, Panoramic Berlin, examines the city’s history into a fascinating four hours. The optional Berlin: Divided City excursion dives deeply into the Cold War, providing tours of everything from the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and a section of the former Berlin Wall to the city’s now-closed Tempelhof Airport, site of the 1948-1949 Berlin Airlift, which allowed blockade-busting Allied planes to deliver more than 2.3 million tons of food and other necessities to West Berlin. Other options for the day include an optional food tour or have dinner the German way — in a brewery, where deeply flavored sausages and other hearty fare are a perfect complement to German beers and ales.
Music and History
Prague may be best known for its Bohemian charm, captivating skyline and atmospheric cobbled streets, but music lovers know that the city’s close ties to Mozart, Dvorak, Mahler and other rock stars of classical music have made it one of Europe’s most music-centric destinations. With that theme in mind, one of Viking’s elective excursions pairs a private classical concert within the 16th-century walls of Lobkowicz Palace with the opportunity to view the manuscripts from both Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies and a version of Handel’s Messiah that was marked up by Mozart. Guests can also opt to explore Prague’s rich Jewish history — Hitler was said to have preserved the city’s synagogues and Jewish cemetery so that the city could serve as a reminder of his destruction — or dig into a traditional Czech dinner, followed by folk dancing.
Martin Luther made the German town of Wittenberg famous in 1517 when he nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of All Saints Church and began a movement that changed the world. Viking’s two days in Wittenberg include a tour of Sanssouci, one of Frederick the Great’s palaces in pretty Potsdam, as well as an in-depth exploration of Luther’s many footprints within the city. Dresden’s stop allows for free time to explore the canals and biergartens in this Baroque-style city that has been beautifully restored, street by street and building by building, after being nearly leveled during the war, although motorheads might prefer taking part in the optional Viking excursion to the nearby Volkswagen manufacturing plant, which houses a nearly mile-long assembly line.
What sets Elegant Elbe and other Viking excursions apart is the company’s dedication to providing guests with an extra element of interest. The historians, curators and architects that lead Viking tours not only speak nearly faultless English, but are passionate about their subjects and eager to make them interesting.
Excursions are also planned to be as immersive as possible. Leaders taking small groups on in-town explorations, for instance, may utilize city trams and subways, giving guests a sense of the city without the stress of figuring out which line to take, when to get off or how to operate the ticket machine. Food market tours are studded with stops for tastes of local specialties; a walk through the city might take a detour to see a wedding procession or local fair.
As the region surrounding the Elbe is not as well-known as some other parts of Europe, Viking stokes passenger interest for each day’s itinerary with an outstanding on-board cultural curriculum. Beyond providing informative printed materials, each evening’s nightly gathering includes a lesson on local culture. Led by engaging program directors, these programs are chock-full of funny stories, fun facts, language tips, etiquette and history. There are enrichment activities, too, including a demonstration (and tasting) of quarkkäulchen, the fried dumplings that are eaten throughout Saxony; a presentation of the centuries-old lace-making technique that’s been passed down through generations; exclusive concerts and traditional dinners set to local music. Viking hosts also like to surprise their guests, often out bringing local delicacies, a cheese, perhaps, or a traditional brandy, in the evenings.
In between Elegant Elbe stops, life on board is relaxed and convivial. Meals can be taken in the dining room or on the Aquavit Terrace, where pared-down menus invite more casual dining. The open top deck provides a 360-degree view of the scenery; guests are alerted when the ship will be passing a particularly notable site. There’s also a reception desk that’s staffed 24 hours a day; free maps, beverages and Wi-Fi; loads of books about the region and nightly entertainment.
Best of all, Viking’s commitment to their guests begins long before the excursion begins — planners will adore the informative lists that begin arriving almost immediately — and doesn’t end until they’re safely buckled in for the flight home.
(Traveler Winter 2019)