By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It doesn’t take long to appreciate CroisiEurope’s small-ship river cruise concept, and how, since its founding 40 years ago, it has grown into fleet of 55 ships sailing 170 itineraries in 37 countries.
CroisiEurope offers an outstanding onboard experience, marvelous river cruise itineraries through Europe, the Mediterranean and as far flung as Asia and Africa, and an all-inclusive pricing policy that affords exceptional value for money. (The mega-ship cruise lines use the tag “all-inclusive” but nickel-and-dime for drinks, shore excursions and the like). On CroisiEurope, the excursions offered in each destination, the wines and beers and cocktails, are in fact included at no extra charge (okay, the exception are premium liquors you might choose to order).
The ship, the MS Elbe Princesse, specially designed to navigate the low-draft canals and Elbe River, which carries me on an eight-day river cruise from Prague to Berlin, is delightful.
The excursions are for the most part very well done – they even arrange our own English-speaking guide for the four of us who are not French – though I would have preferred more time to explore on my own after the excursions.
River cruising is one of the best ways to travel and see and do the most in maximum comfort, and CroisiEurope’s value-for-money concept puts this experience within reach of more travelers.
The Elbe Princesse, 95.4 meters long and 10.5 meters wide, is a perfect size, with 40 cabins accommodating 80 passengers – not too small to feel claustrophobic or crowded and not too large to feel overwhelmed and anonymous – a village versus a floating city. The ship – which was built in 2016 precisely to sail along these relatively shallow rivers and canals and slip through the locks and under the low bridges with mere inches to spare- is actually a 21st century paddleboat.
The main deck cabins have large windows, and the upper deck cabins have French balconies. The cabins have an amply sized private bathroom (shower!), a really comfortable bed, TV, windows and daily maid service.
The dining room on the main deck is surrounded by large panoramic windows that give fantastic views of the scenery as it flows by (though I spend most of the time sailing on the rooftop deck), so you don’t feel you are missing anything as you dine and the sun sets.
The lounge and bar on the stern of the upper deck has outdoor access so you can have a drink while enjoying the feel of the open air, and is where each evening there is some sort of entertainment.
The sun deck, with chairs and sun loungers, spans almost the full length of the ship with part under an awning, and is where I spend most of the time as we sail to enjoy unobstructed views of the scenery.
Equally important is the ambiance created by the crew – as friendly and fun with a ready smile as they are efficient and helpful. In fact, within no time, the wait staff anticipates your preferences – two coffees at lunch, one decaf after dinner; sparkling water with lime; who prefers red, white or sparkling wine.
I had just come from a “wild camping” and hiking trip in Utah, followed by my three days literally hiking around Prague, so this opportunity to just sail place to place, not have to pack/repack, be taken on marvelous sightseeing excursions, and have three fabulous meals served with such panache each day is a true vacation.
The first evening, after a welcome in which we are introduced to the crew, there is a marvelous dinner (CroisiEurope has a fixed menu for its four-course dinners and lunches; breakfast is buffet with the opportunity to have omelettes made to order), rather than the choice of two or three items for each, but special dietary requirements are satisfied and there is always enough to enjoy. The food is fabulous – flavorful but not too saucey, rich or seasoned, wonderful variety, stunning presentation and service – and wine and beer are served pretty much throughout the day (premium bottles are extra).
All but four of us on this particular cruise are French or French-speaking (half of CroisiEurope’s clientele are French and half are international).
The English speakers who become my dining and traveling companions include two ladies from Vermont (one is originally from Montreal) and a woman from Munich, Germany who wants to practice her English (she reads the New York Times every day so is more knowledgeable about American current events than most Americans), and me. We become the “four individuals.” They send an English-speaking guide along for our excursions just for us, rather than half the French-speaking guide re-translate everything.
On our first day, we are taken by bus up to the entrance of the Prague Castle for our tour (the day before, I hiked up). Our guide, Vladimir, points out aspects that I never would have thought about – including pointing out the windows of the famous 1618 Defenestration of Prague.
We return to the ship for lunch, and then go out again for a walking tour through the Jewish Quarter (a short walk from where the Elbe Princesse is docked, where we encounter a climate action protest just outside the university), to the Old Town Square.
We walk through a university where Vladimir points out where Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer, mathematician, astrologer, natural philosopher and key figure in 17th century Scientific Revolution, who figured out the movement of planets around the sun, used to live and where meterological observations have been taken daily since 1775. (Interesting to note Kepler, a Lutheran, came to Prague after being banished from Graz for refusing to convert to Catholicism, and later was excommunicated by the Lutheran church). Kepler’s house on Karlova Street in Old Town where he lived 1600-1612 is now a museum.
We walk to the Charles Bridge (Karlova Most), stopping inside St. Francis of Assisi (where Mozart played the organ in 1702) and then over the Charles Bridge, where Vladimir points out the statue of St. John, the martyr we learned about at Prague Castle, and where people touch to guarantee their return to Prague). At my suggestion, we walk down to the Lennon Wall on Kampa Island. On our way back to the ship, Vladimir walks us through the garden at the Senate complex.
After dinner, there is a marvelous folk music band and dance troupe that performs on the ship.
The ship departs Prague early the next morning, at 6:30 am, and I’m up to watch. We immediately go through the first of 17 locks on our way to Berlin. The ship was literally built for this route –the ship is powered by what looks like two water wheels because the water levels are actually pretty shallow – and we make it through the lock with just a few inches on either side.
The sail is picturesque and peaceful, as we float by charming villages and farms – stunning scenes of yellow fields of canola (cultivated for biofuel) juxtaposed against the blue water and white fluffy clouds – a very leisurely morning.
The route for today is to dock at Melnik and be taken by bus to Litomerice (which I mentally note on the road sign is but 3 km down the road from Terezin, the concentration camp).
The highlights of Litomerice include the Renaissance architecture of the city square; Mostria Horna, a tower that rises up 20 meters on a hill 272 meters above the water; and a medieval castle of Litomerice that dates from the 13th century, then converted into a brewery and today a wine tasting facility and museum. It is across the street from the brewery we are here to visit.
The bus takes us back to the ship which has sailed ahead to Roudnice, driving by the Roudnice Palace where (as I learned in at the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague) the Lobkowicz family has a vast and important art collection, Unfortunately, we do not have time to visit.
As soon as we are back on board, the ship sails on to Litomerice (!), as the late afternoon sun casts golden light, where we dock overnight.
After a marvelous dinner (gazpacho, salad nicoise, quail with potato, asparagus, a cheese course and ice cream) so beautifully presented and served, we thoroughly enjoy the evening’s entertainment of Martin the Magician, who does “close magic” (sleight of hand). It is marvelous fun.
Sailing again in the morning toward Bad Schandau – which means we will be leaving the Czech Republic and entering Germany – we are invited to do “gymnastics” (actually calisthenics) on the rooftop deck. It’s fun, but I keep running over to the rail to shoot photos of the scenery. We are given the heads up that we will be sailing by some of the most beautiful scenery of the cruise between 11 am and noon. Indeed, the scenery as we sail through Swiss Bohemia and Swiss Saxony (very popular tourist areas) is stunning, with dramatic rock formations, cliffs, a castle.
This is the Bastei Rocks formation in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany. It is part of the Saxon Switzerland National Park, with 400 km of stunning landscape, so popular with hikers. Together with the Bohemian Switzerland in the Czech Republic, the region forms the Sandstone Mountains.
The only way we could tell when we sailed across the border between the Czech Republic and Germany was that a crew member changed the flag and (now that I think about it), a bell was rung. But it is hard to tell just looking out onto the shore, though we strain to read signs.
From the numbers of inns and cyclists and people we see along the shore (we often sail so close we can shout out greetings and people often wave to us), it is obvious that these are popular places to visit. Three of the most visited landmarks are Lillenstein Rock, Bastei Bridge, which we will see from the river, and Köningstein Fortress, which we visit after lunch.
Next; Koningstein Fortress
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