By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Berlin is a surprise. The last time I was here, which was just after the fall of the Wall, it seemed dark, grey. Berliners were literally chipping away at the Berlin Wall, selling the graffitied pieces (the first act of Capitalism).
Now, I find the city bright, bustling and building. And an interesting amalgam of how Germany’s various historical époques, even the Soviet era, have been integrated in the reconstructed city after World War II.
What is most interesting to me, especially as we stop at the Brandenburg Gate, is how Nazism seems to have been ripped out from the roots, like weeds from a garden.
There is still some evidence of Soviet control, especially as we go through what would have been East Berlin (later, at Potsdam, we will learn the backstory of how Berlin was divided).
The Elbe Princesse is docked in a lovely neighborhood park in one of the city’s 12 districts. We have a bus-tour today, which I am grateful for because the city is really vast and I only have one day here, but it is soon obvious, you need to spend at least two or three days.
Our guide, Sylvia, gives us a bit of history as we travel from district to district, neighborhood to neighborhood.
We drive around the Victory Column – Hitler had it moved in the 1930s as part of his plan to make Berlin the capital of the World, Germania. To cement his dictatorship, the Nazis set fire to the Reichstag, and blamed the opposition as an excuse to exert martial law.
We get out to walk around, stopping first at the new memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust. Out of 2.5 million Sinti & Roma, only 5000 survived (the German word for gypsy, Zigeuner, means trash and is forbidden).
Very close to the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag – the Parliament Building. People are lined up to tour the building, and can go up to a modernized glass dome.
The Brandenburg Gate, which dates from 1791, was part of the original wall around Old Town, and is the only one of 18 historical gates still remaining. “It survived 300 years, 2 world wars, 2 dictatorships, 1 wall.”
In 1806, Napoleon arrived in Berlin after defeating Prussians, entering through center of gate. He promptly “expropriated” the sculpture on top of the gate.
For 20 years, the Gate was in a no-man’s land between East and West Berlin, and could not be visited. Then, in November 1989, the wall came down.
All the buildings that flank the Gate were built after 1989, Today, the US Embassy and across from the embassy, a Holocaust memorial that opened in May 2005, 60 years after the end of World War II in Europe.
New York architect Peter Eisenman, who won a design competition to establish a central memorial site, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, placed 2,711 concrete slabs of different heights that appear as graves or coffins (the heights, Sylvia said, are supposed to represent the number of Jews killed in a place). The 19,000 sq. meter area is open day and night. The memorial is intentionally set on a slight slope and its wave-like form is different wherever you stand.
The memorial to the Shoah is supplemented by the underground information center, also designed by Eisenman. In a space covering 800 square meters you can find information on the victims and the locations. Themed rooms such as the Room of Dimensions, the Room of Families, the Room of Names and the Room of Sites deal with the fates of individuals, with photographs, diaries and farewell letters. Short biographies take the victims out of their anonymity. Historical photographs and film footage show the sites of persecution and extermination. (Cora-Berliner-Straße 110117 Berlin, www.stiftung-denkmal.de/en)
In the Museum Island complex we see where there are still holes from bullets and artillery fire in the Roman columns are the city’s most important museums (which were in the Soviet zone, so that the Allies had to build comparable museums): the Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Neues Museum (New Museum) the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery). The collections in these buildings encompass over 6,000 years of art and cultural history.
Sylvia tells us that because all the city’s important museums wound up in the Soviet zone, the Allies built comparable institutions in their quarter.
As we pass the Royal Library, Sylvia relates that on May 10 1933, Nazis entered Royal Library, stripped the shelves, and burned the books in the square. “It’s important to keep people stupid to impose dictatorship,” she remarks. I mutter something about a Tennessee legislator who, when asked what they should do about banned books, said, “They should burn them, I guess,” to which one of my traveling companions from Munich recoiled in horror. (Max Planck and Albert Einstein gave lectures here, Sylvia notes.)
We go by Alexanderplatz, which was a market in the Middle Ages. (I spot “Stop Wars” as graffiti painted on a nearby building. There are also Ukraine flags on many buildings.)
We drive down an avenue that leads toward Frankfurt and the border with Poland. After WWII, Stalin renamed it for himself, but when Stalin died, it was renamed Karl Marx Allee (a German Jew and the ideological founder of Socialism).
The mark of East Germany’s time as part of the Soviet bloc is very clear when we arrive at a long, long wall – Sylvia said that the “first generation wall” was built in less than 24 hours. “Germans went to sleep on the night of August 12 and woke up on August 13 to find a 43 km wall built in middle of night, to separate east from west.”
Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of East and West Germany, 118 artists from 21 countries were invited to paint murals along a 1316-meter long stretch of the wall – the longest continuous section of the Berlin Wall still in existence. It officially opened as the open-air East Side Gallery on September 28, 1990, and a year later, was made a protected memorial.
Sylvia points us to the mural that is very possibly the most famous: “The Kiss” by Russian painter Dimitri Vrubel in 1990, It depicts Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time, and Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, based on a photograph taken in 1979, on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the GDR. “The photographer got two years in prison.”
Sylvia also points out Berlin’s pride and joy, the Berlin Television Tower, built in the 1960s. At 368m, it is the tallest building in Berlin. (You can go to the top for a 360° panoramic view of the city.)
Potsdam, UNESCO World Heritage City
We are returned to the Princesse Elbe for lunch and then set out again by bus to Potsdam – famous as the place where the Allies decided Germany’s fate, split Europe, Germany and Berlin into sections, and launched the Cold War.
Potsdam, about a 45 minute drive from where we are in Berlin, is one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, and a UNESCO Heritage site.
We stop at Glienicke Bridge, known as the“Bridge of Spies”. Built in 1907, it was used as an exchange point between the Soviets and the Allies. In 1961, during the Cold War, no civilians were allowed on the bridge, only military, diplomats. To distinguish between the American and German Democratic Republic sides, you can see the dark green versus light green colors. The first exchange came in 1962: Francis Powers, who was taken prisoner in 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down over Ukraine and sentenced to die, was exchanged for Soviet Colonel Rudolf Abel, a senior KGB spy. (The 2015 Tom Hanks thriller, “Bridge of Spies” depicting the events was actually shot here – they closed the bridge for a week).
We stop at Cecilienhof Palace, where the Potsdam Conference took place in 1945, and are able to walk around the grounds. The palace was built in 1917 by Crown Prince Wilhelm, grandson of Queen Victoria, who would have been next emperor if Germany had won World War I. It hardly looks like a palace – he built it in Tudor style of a country manor to honor his grandmother. Today it is a hotel and museum.
What I hadn’t known before is that Harry Truman, who had just become president after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, got a phone call while here, ‘The baby is born,” code for the atom bomb was ready. He gave the order from here to bomb Hiroshima, seemingly as casually as that.
The Potsdam conference also lacked another major leader, Winston Churchill. In his place, a new Prime Minister. Clement Attlee. Stalin took advantage of them both.
Sylvia relates the back-story of how Stalin snuckered Truman and Atlee: on the last morning, Stalin drew a line in red pen through Germany and basically, said, “That’s mine.” “Potsdam set up the Cold War, a proxy war,” she says.
We next go to Sanssouci, Frederick II (Frederick the Great)’s fabulous palace. (We wander the outside, but do not have time to go into it).
Sanssouci Palace is like a mini-Versailles, with stunning formal gardens. The gardens were Frederick’s passion, and he built them even before the palace. It was the first royal park ever to be open to the public, and for free. (Versailles Palace was built first then garden, but was solely for royal use.)
Frederick loved this place – it was his private refuge and he even banned his wife from visiting. He wanted to be buried at Sanssouci and had a crypt built, but his nephew buried him elsewhere; then, 200 years later, Frederick was reburied here, as he wanted, with his 11 dogs. We notice that people leave potatoes at the gravesite. “The Seven Years War was under his administration. Potato, brought from the Indian countries of America, was a fast solution to hunger.”
Potsdam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, became the residence for Prussia’ royal family, spawning many fabulous buildings and palaces, making Potsdam one of the most-visited cities in Germany and deserves a full day visit (you can get to Potsdam by train from Berlin).
Our tours of Berlin and Potsdam have been a very good introduction, but I would have liked to spend another two days in Berlin and a full day in Potsdam. But I am doing what many American travelers to Europe are doing this year and doubling up on trips from my bucket list. So the next morning, I get myself to the Berlin railway station, heading to Bruges. for my BoatBikeTours bike trip from Bruges to Amsterdam by bike and boat!
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I must confess to never having heard of Magdeburg before we were bussed from our ship, the MS Elbe Princesse, on the morning of Day 7 of our CroisiEurope river cruise, but, as in the case with the best travel experiences, it turns out to be marvelous to discover.
Our tour starts in the Market Square, renowned for its architecture and a City Hall with bronze doors that relate the city’s history – its 1,200 years is one of the longest in Germany – in 14 panels. Our guide also points out the golden “Magdeburg Horseman,” which dates from 1240 and is believed to be the first equestrian statue north of the Alps.
After visiting so many churches, the St. Mauritius and St. Katherine Cathedral is an absolute surprise – and not because of lavish gilded decoration (it is relatively simple) but more because of what it contains. Built from 1209-1520, it was the first cathedral to be built in the Gothic style in Germany, it is the largest church in East Germany, and its towers the highest. It was destroyed twice – in 1631 during the Thirty Years War, and in World War II, when 90 percent of Magdeburg’s buildings were bombed. And oh, yes, the church for some reason was used as a horse stable by the French during Napoleonic War.
We see where Germany’s famous son and Holy Roman Emperor, Otto the Great, and that of his first wife are interred inside the cathedral.
But what is immediately clear is the revolutionary spirit at the heart of this place – and Magdeburg.
Here we see a wooden chest with locks that was used to collect Indulgences – a symbol of its transition to a Protestant church. Indeed Magdeburg’s wholesale conversion to the Protestant faith was one of Luther’s greatest victories. (It is more impressive having just come from Luther’s House in Wittenberg the day before.)
A memorial in front of nearby St. John’s Church (which can be visited) erected by the renowned sculptor Emil Hundrieser in 1886 serves as a reminder of Luther’s influence on this historic city. Martin Luther attended boarding school here for a year when he was 13; he returned to the city on June 26, 1524 to give a sermon at St. John’s Church about “true and false righteousness” that was so powerful, it inspired almost every church in Magdeburg to convert to Protestantism in a matter of days. From this point onward, Magdeburg became a leader in the Reformation and a forerunner in school reform. Our guide tells us suggests that Magdeburg was fairly liberal and its law was adopted in other places.
This cathedral is adorned with gorgeous sculptures and wood carvings that strike me as unusual. For one, I notice the statue of St. Morris, a black saint from Namibia who was officer in Roman army, became Christian and refused to take part in pagan ceremony.
To my eye, the Church is ecumenical – it has Hebrew and Greek letters, doors from Greece that seem to depict Dionysus, and I see a fund-raising brochure from the congregation to help raise money to replace the synagogue destroyed by the Nazis (the cornerstone has just been laid). Our guide informs us there were 3000 Jews here before the Holocaust; today there are 600.) And in the pavement is a memorial to the Holocaust.
We see a beautiful World War I memorial, which dates from1929. When the Nazis came, they had to take it away. The statue was returned to artist’s family and then returned to church 1955.
We also visit the Unser Lieben Frauen monastery which has a sculpture park that was created in 1989, and is the venue for concerts. The monastery, the oldest building in Magdeburg, was constructed in two phases – the east section and nave were built in the second half of the 11th century; the western section between 1129 and 1160.
But most remarkable to me is the Green Citadel of Magdeburg, an apartment building that is literally a work of art and (amazingly) also a model for new urban design.
I can’t take my eyes off of it. We wander around this fascinating and magnificent structure, so colorful, whimsical. It exudes happiness and optimism, a Dr. Seuss-like quality and playful spirit. It is literally green – greenery grows from the roof, down the walls – none of which have straight angles. It is an “ensemble’ of buildings taking up a full square block, and is in such stark contrast to the other buildings in the vicinity, which range from Gothic to steel-and-glass modern.
The Green Citadel was designed by architect and artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser in Vienna , he adopted Friedensreich, meaning peace, freedom, and Hundertwasser, meaning “100 Waters”), who died in 2000.
The Catholic Church underwrote the cost of building the building (27.1 million Euros) and it is now owned by a Swiss investor. It contains 55 rental apartments (the rental fee is based on the square meter, 10-12E/sq meter, which is cheap), a 200-seat theater, parking garage, day care center, and a 41-room Art Hotel (that’s what it’s called).
You walk into this breathtakingly beautiful courtyard and there are bird houses of all different shapes and colors (a Guinness record? Not sure). Within the courtyard are cafes and delightful shops (I can’t resist). The tower is 32 meters high, constructed as a spiral – a symbol of life – with a walkway all the way up to the top.
The structure exemplifies Hundertwasser’s ”commitment to a more human architecture in harmony with nature and his visionary ecological commitment developed from his belief in the power of nature and individual creativity,” the The Hundertwasser foundation writes. “Since the 1980s, he has been realizing architectural projects in which there is the window right and tree tenants, the uneven floor, forests on the roof and spontaneous vegetation. His buildings testify to his commitment to diversity instead of monotony, for romanticism, for the organic and for unregulated irregularities, for spontaneous vegetation and for living in harmony with nature.
“At the center of his ecological activities were tree planting and greening campaigns, the restoration of natural cycles, the protection of water and the fight for a waste-free society. He disseminated his socio-critical and ecological positions with manifestos, letters, speeches and public demonstrations in which he criticized the pure functionality of all areas of life, the uninhibited growth doctrine and the adaptation to social conformism.” (https://hundertwasser.com/en).
It’s interesting to learn that key industries here include the manufacture of wind turbines and small generators. Just saying.
Magdeburg was a fortress town and one of its favorite sons, memorialized with a statue, was Steuben, who helped the Americans win the Revolution. We are told that he also was the originator of “OK” –“He couldn’t speak English well, and this was his way of signing off ‘all correct’”. (Another famous son of Magdeburg, I learn, is the composer Georg Philipp Telemann).
That evening, as we sail to Berlin, our final port, we have a gala dinner, and it really is – cream of cauliflower soup; foie gras; veal; cheese in puffed pastry, and for dessert, dramatically served Baked Alaska flaming with Grand Marnier, accompanied by special wines selected by the chef. All the cuisine has been so flavorful, rich but not too rich, with gorgeous presentations.
We have asked for a tour of the kitchen, and they have complied – so we get to walk through. It is remarkably unbusy, unhectic, uncluttered. In the evening, we also are invited to tour the wheelhouse (I am told there is no auto pilot, which makes me think it is easier to “fly” to the international space station than to navigate the river because of the changing depth, hazards, currents.
We arrive in Berlin, overnighting at a dock in a neighborhood park.
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
We sail on to Dresden, where CroisiEurope’s MS Elbe Princess is supposed to dock for the night, and we are invited to take a 9 pm walk through Dresden’s historic city center. We are all excited and standing around, when we just sail passed. It seems that the docking spot which is reserved for us was occupied by another ship, and because it is Sunday night, there is nobody to complain to or address the issue. So we sail on to Meissen while the ship’s manager scrambles to arrange for a bus to take us back to Dresden for the morning’s excursion.
Our excursion the next morning is first by bus for an overview and then walking, and between the two, we get to see – from the outside at least – Dresden’s highlights and get a sense of its history, but this is certainly a city that deserves more time and a more immersive experience.
Most of Dresden’s city center was destroyed in World War II, but the “suburbs” survived the so-called “moral bombing” in which 25,000 out of a population of 650,000 died. But you would hardly realize it – except that our guide, Alexandr Klein, pulls out black-and-white photos of the destruction so we can compare.
It’s fairly amazing, then, that the bombing could not stamp out Dresden’s extraordinarily rich history, heritage and culture, which in so many instances, have risen literally from ashes. They have restored and reconstructed the architecture, saving the facades where possible and in many cases reusing the stones;.
It was here, August 26-27, 1813 at the Battle of Dresden that Napoleon had his last big victory in Germany. It was fought on the outskirts of the Saxon capital of Dresden, between Napoleon’s 120,000 troops and 170,000 Austrians, Prussians, and Russians under Prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg. Alas, victory was short lived – a week later, Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig.
Dresden is a “green city’ boasting more trees (600,000) than humans (550,0000). We drive through an enormous park – like Central Park – where among the sites is the intriguingly named German Hygiene Museum, Europe’s only science museum to focus on the human being and body within the context of the environment and society, culture and science.
We drive by the New Synagogue, built in 2002 to replace the 1840 synagogue designed by the revered architect Gottfried Semper, that was destroyed on Kristalnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. At its peak, Dresden had 5000 Jews; today there are 700. “Most had escaped before World War II, so we have Jewish life again.” The New Synagogue has Star of David finial from the old synagogue. “A fireman who put out the fire in 1938 saved it, then gave it to survivors after the war.”
We pass Fletcher street. “The Soviets arrived May 8 1945. 200 soldiers had died in combat; Hitler had already committed suicide. Fletcher took white flag to surrender to the Soviets. The SS shot him in the back. He was martyred,” Klein relates.
Dresden also shows its history under Soviet occupation. There is probably no sight that better encapsulates the Soviet era than “The Red Flag” mural and wall fresco, “Our Socialist Life” on the exterior of the Dresden Kulturpalast. It was the pride of GDR architecture when it opened in 1969 as a “House of Socialist Culture”. Today it is the home of the Dresden Philharmonic.
“The revolution against Soviet rule started in Dresden and Leipzig churches in 1989. It was the only successful revolution in German history. Then the Berlin Wall came down a year later.”
We get off the bus and start a delightful walking tour through this beautiful city.
We start at Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. Completed in 1743, the Baroque church was considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. After it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, the ruins were catalogued and stored for its reconstruction. 4,000 of the original stones were used in the rebuilding, which began after Germany’s reunification, in 1990 and reopened in 2005. Great Britain, which was responsible for the bomb that had caused so much of the devastation, sent a gold cross to place at the top.
We see the famous Fürstenzug – the Procession of Princes – a 102-meter-long portrait of the Dukes, Electors, and Kings of the house of Wettin, together with leading German figures from the arts and sciences. Commissioned in 1870, it consists of 25,000 Meissen Porcelain tiles.
Our guide, Alexandr Klein, points out Taschenberg Palace, built in the 18th century by the Saxon King, Augustus the Strong for his mistress. (Augustus “had ambitions to be like Henry VII”; a mistress was an actual official position, he tells us). There is a bridge, reminiscent of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, connecting it to the Royal Palace. The original building burned down and was faithfully restored in 1995 and transformed into the luxurious Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden, owned by the Thai royal family (rooms can cost as much as 10,000E/night). A member of Historic Hotels Worldwide since 2017, it is within the historic city center, steps away from the most renowned sights, such as Semper Opera House, Royal Palace, Zwinger, and the Frauenkirche. (Famous past guests of the Taschenbergpalais include Prince Albert II of Monaco, designer Karl Lagerfeld, and President Jacques Chirac of France, https://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/hotel-taschenbergpalais-kempinski-dresden)
We walk along a Tuscan-style arcade with 22 rounded arches leading to the Court Stables.
One of my favorite parts of this delightful walking tour is strolling along Brühl’s Terrace (Brühlsche Terrasse), also known as the “Balcony of Europe.” Our guide explains that by the 19th C, Dresden already popular for European tourists. This half-mile long promenade is built on the old city ramparts and was laid out in 1738 as a private garden; it was opened to the public in 1814.
Klein points to where novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who fought with Americans in World War II, was held as a POW in the slaughterhouse district. He wrote “Slaughterhouse 5,” a science-fiction infused anti-war novel, based on his experience.
Klein leads us to the Zwinger, a magnificent early 18th-century palace and a stunning example of Baroque architecture. Inside is The Old Masters Picture Gallery with 750 paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries, among them Italian Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Tintoretto, and Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Vermeer.
Also worth visiting (we don’t have time) is the Royal Palace, which houses some of Dresden’s most important museums, including the Green Vault and the Numismatic Collection. You can also visit the State Apartment, a suite of rooms that have been faithfully restored to their original condition.
The tour gives us an overview, but I wish we had the afternoon to explore on our own.
(You can get a Dresden museum card with gives two days and free admission to the city’s must see museums and exhibitions: Old Masters Picture Gallery with Sculpture Collection until 1800; Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments; Collection of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Porcelain Collection; The Royal State Apartments of August the Strong and the Porcelain Cabinet, Coin Cabinet; New Green Vault; Renaissance Wing; Giant´s Hall of the Armoury; Turkish Chamber; Albertinum with Art from the Romantic Period to the Present Day; Lipsiusbau Exhibition Hall; Museum of Saxon Folk Art and Puppet Theatre Collection; Special Exhibitions in the Japanese Palace; Joseph Hegenbarth Archive; Hausmannsturm, 22E pp).
Meissen: World Famous for Porcelain
We are returned to the ship for lunch, and in the afternoon have a walking tour of Meissen.
We ride an elevator to the hill top, and visit the Cathedral, a three-nave Gothic hall church built between 1260 and 1410 and preserved in its near-original medieval state. We buy a ticket to see inside where there are paintings by the renowned Lucas Cranach., and stained glass windows from the 13th century.
We walk around Albrechsburg, a palace built between 1471 and 1500 by Duke Albrecht of Saxony that dominates the city and the beautiful historic square.
After our brief walking tour with our guide, Brigetta, we are taken by bus to the Meissen “manufactory,” where you go room by room to see demonstrations of the remarkable artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making these porcelain treasures.
It is remarkable to realize that they have been doing this very same thing for over 300 years, the oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe, founded in 1710 by King Augustus the Strong, who put together a team of physicists, alchemists and metallurgists to come up with the new technology. There’s also a museum with some 2,000 Meissen items.
Back on the ship, we sail from Meissen through the late afternoon and overnight to Wittenberg.
We are always a stone’s throw from shore. We sail by people’s backyards and front yards, close enough to exchange greetings. Bicyclists keep pace and even go faster than boat, as they ride along a path beside the water. I see one man on horseback as the sun goes down. The scenery is beautiful, and the cruise so peaceful.
Dinner this evening is spectacular, beginning with an olive paste on toast, salmon with cheese, filet mignon, goat cheese with salad, raspberry/cream pie.
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.
by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
It may not feel right to cruise on a mega-ship just yet, but there are wonderful alternatives, well adaptable to the “new normal” of travel at a time of concern for COVID-19. But for those who appreciate the lure of sailing: Expeditionary-style cruises, small-ship cruises, riverboats, barge hotels, canal boats (you can even self-skipper your own), and for the real talented, skippering your own yacht can meet the bill. And if you want to stay domestic and avoid an airplane ride or immigration, there are loads of alternatives here, including Blount Cruises (we took a delightful small-ship cruise among the New England Islands), Erie Canal Adventures which rents the sweetest self-skippered canal boats on the Erie Canal in upstate New York, and Maine Windjammer Association historic vessels that let you sail in the waters of the Penobscot Bay, as just a few examples.
The entire cruise industry has instituted stringent procedures to sanitize vessels and keep passengers and crew healthy; many are adapting itineraries and even shore excursions. UniWorld, for example, is conducting health screenings, new cleaning protocols, removing items like magazines from public use, having disinfectant wipes available throughout the ship, contactless payment, assigned seating in the restaurant. American Queen Steamboat Company is doing pre-boarding screenings and temperature checks, deploying ionizer systems to purify cabins, thermal imaging to scan temperatures as passengers come on and off the boat, limiting the number of guests dining or watching shows at one time, and hand-washing stations.
Avalon Waterways, looking to a September re-start to river cruising, plans to implement screenings, touch-free temperature checks, luggage disinfection, electrostatic cleaning and UV disinfecting systems, and supply guests and crew with masks. There will also be social distancing measures, including reducing ship capacity and providing alternative dining venues, and buffets and self-serve stations will no longer be offered. Cabins and ship will undergo deep-cleaning and disinfection during each turnover; plus dining areas and shared items (bicycles, umbrellas) will be disinfected after each use. (See their policy, https://www.avalonwaterways.com/peace-of-mind/; avalonwaterways.com)
These cruise operators are also being extremely flexible, and even generous, about cancellations, refunds and changes, and offering enticing discounts. Windstar, for example, is allowing cancellations within 48 hours of sailing and you can either get 100% of your money back or a credit worth 125%. (windstarcruises.com)
“Most of the major cruiselines are making it worth your while to reschedule by giving additional percentage of value of the voyage, if they have to cancel the voyage. Cruiselines are making it worth your while to book.” says a spokesperson for CruiseCompete.com, a kind of LendingTree for booking cruises where cruise agents bid for your business.
If you are not comfortable to get on an airplane, there are scores of ships and variety of sailings from some 30 North American ports within driving distance of the vast majority.
But the biggest trend will be in the segment of small-ships cruising and expeditionary ships. Not only are these ships smaller, with fewer passengers and crew, but they ply less trafficked waters, visit uncrowded ports, and, in the case of “expeditionary” cruises, voyage to remote wilderness places and exotic corners of the globe.
Destinations that are popular for expeditions, like Alaska (which had imposed a requirement for a 14-day quarantine for any visitor) and the Galapagos are loosening their restrictions so that cruising can begin again, possibly by late June or early July. And Smith is already getting calls from intrepid travelers, hoping to take advantage of deep discounts.
These small-ship, expeditionary vessels, hotel barges, riverboats, canal boats and the like afford all the advantages of a cruise vacation – packing/unpacking just once, camaraderie, great food, interesting/exciting destinations to explore, not being cramped in a car driving place to place – and avoid the chief risks to contracting infection because of crowds and density.
People need to have confidence, though, that not only can they travel safely, but that the other passengers and crew they are sailing with are healthy – something that is even more important for a ship than a hotel or restaurant. Perhaps one of the changes the industry could institute is requiring passengers to show they have been tested for COVID-19, or have the antibodies. This would eliminate the need for the draconian policy instituted, for example, by Maine and Alaska, which are requiring any out-of-state visitor to quarantine in the state for 14-days before they can go anywhere, like on one of the historic sailing vessels of the Maine Windjammer fleet (sailmainecoast.org).
The state could even set up stations at the toll booths into the state and at the airports that ask visitors to show the document, and if not, to go to a mobile testing station. It seems staying overnight in a hotel to await the result is a better alternative to being quarantined for 14 days.
“We can provide a safe environment,” commented Todd Smith, president and founder of AdventureSmith Explorations. “Small ships, expeditionary ships are lower risk inherently – with only 12 to 80 guests – so the risk is already reduced. And expedition cruises – river cruises also – passengers are spending more time off the boat in wilderness settings, where the risk is low.
“But the industry still has some questions needs to address – I’m not sure we are there yet: How do you social distance on a small ship, do you stagger meal times, paint spots on deck, so people are consciously standing apart? What is the protocol for crew helping passengers get in and out of zodiacs which requires physical contact? Operators are working hard to do that. But when all is said and done, small ships, expeditionary cruising will be very appealing.”
Also, if passengers show that they have a test result to begin with, and the cruise company takes temperatures each day, that should also relieve a lot of the risk of sailing.
“Testing will be a part of the solution,” he agreed.”Whether the passenger takes a test at home before coming, or you can test on arrival the night before sailing and you have a test that gives result in a matter of hours, that would be the best solution. Testing means that travelers will feel confident. The traveler wants to know everybody else on the ship is healthy.”
One source of good news is that expeditionary cruise-goers tend to be adventurers, who see the opportunity to explore as a reward worth a mitigated risk.
“Our customer base is small and motivated. We’re getting calls now for intrepid travelers saying willing to go now and looking for deals. That’s encouraging.
“It is the draw of nature, wanting to spend time in a place that brings people close to nature, to rejuvenate. I believe there will be a lot of pent-up demand, but only if people feel comfortable.”
“North America offers 9.54 million square miles of diversity, and its northernmost territories showcase some of the most remote and pristine landscapes on Earth,” Smith said. “We pride ourselves in introducing our passengers to regions along the Pacific and Arctic oceans. Our fleet of small ships and wilderness lodges access hard-to-reach and often remote regions where guests can step back millennia into a natural world.” (AdventureSmith Explorations, 800-728-2875, www.adventuresmithexplorations.com).
A global leader in responsible tourism, Lindblad Expeditions has become the first self-disinfecting fleet in the cruise industry. In keeping with their legacy of sustainability and protecting the places they explore, they have announced that they are now implementing Premium Purity fleetwide, a unique cleaning system which creates a cleaner, healthier ship while drastically reducing the impact on the environment.
The new system, ACT CleanCoat™, is a photocatalytic process that works when illuminated, breaking down unwanted microbes such as bacteria, viruses, mold, and airborne allergens. It can be applied to all surfaces which become self-disinfecting after application. Created by ACT.Global A/S, a Copenhagen-based company, the antibacterial spray is transparent, odorless, and activated by light, and protects a room like an invisible insulation – plus purifies and deodorizes the air for up to one year.
Chemical free, the product uses the ACT ECA water system created by electrolysis of salt and water, to clean the rooms, which is completely harmless to guests, staff and the environment.
“As the oldest and most experienced expedition travel company in the world, we go to some of the most pristine places on the planet. We are very conscious of the waste we produce, and how the cleanliness of our ship and protection of our guests onboard is vital to a healthy environment,” said Bruce Tschampel, Vice President, Hotel Operations for Lindblad Expeditions.
“Premium Purity is unlike anything we have seen out there. Our ships are truly pristine and healthy, and we already have measurable results to prove it from our initial pilot program on one ship. We reduced guest reported illness by 50%; eliminated over 1,000 plastic bottles of cleaning products; and dramatically reduced water usage by 1.1 million gallons per year. The crew is raving about how much healthier the ship is and how effective it is to use this solution,” he stated.
The fleetwide rollout is another step in Lindblad’s commitment toward defining travel industry standards for sustainability and environmentally responsible operations. In 2019 they become a carbon neutral company, offsetting 100% of emissions from their ships, all land-based operations, employee travel, offices in New York and Seattle, and other contributors. They successfully eliminated guest-facing single-use plastics fleet-wide in 2018 and have operated a sustainable seafood program aboard the fleet for many years. Other related sustainability initiatives include building new ships that reduce emissions while increasing efficiency; mandating supply chain solutions to eliminate plastic; sourcing and serving local, organic produce; and making crew uniforms from recycled plastic.
Lindblad’s ships, including the National Geographic Venture, National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Orion, National Geographic Endeavor II, National Geographic Islander, National Geographic Sea Bird, Sea Cloud, National Geographic Quest, Delphin, Jahan, Lord of the Glens, and Oberoi Philae operate around the globe, in Arctic, Antarctic, Galapagos, Baja, Pacific Northwest, Patagonia, South Pacific, Russian Arctic, Alaska, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Amazon, Vietnam and Cambodia and Scotland, Caribbean and Mediterranean and Egypt.
Lindblad Expeditions was set to launch the National Geographic Endurance on voyages in the Arctic and beyond, but has delayed the grand entrance of the 126-passenger polar expeditionary vessel.
“While we are all social distancing at home, the team on board National Geographic Endurance have been prepping and polishing every inch of the ship’s gleaming new surfaces so when guests can finally explore on her this remarkable ship will exceed their every expectation. From the bridge and the observation lounge to cabins and suites, to new features like the glass-walled yoga studio, infinity Jacuzzis and the first igloos at sea, she’s an extraordinary ship for next-generation exploring,” the company stated.
“Our cruise ship fleet consists of nimble, intimately-scaled expedition ships, able to safely venture where larger cruise ships cannot,” Lindblad Expeditions CEO Sven Lindblad wrote. “This allows us to offer authentic, up-close experiences in the planet’s wild, remote places and capitals of culture. More than comfortable as your base for exploring, our National Geographic luxury cruise ships are outfitted with cool tools that enable a genuine connection with the places we visit and offer inviting private accommodations, and gracious public spaces for our expedition community to gather.”
To ease travelers’ concerns, Lindblad offers flexible options, allowing passengers to cancel a 2020 expedition up to 24 hours before departure to receive 100% future travel credit through 2021. (Lindblad Expeditions, 800-Expedition, www.expeditions.com).
Blount Small Ship Adventures checks off all the boxes for me. Its two, specially designed ships carry just 84 guests, and are designed so they can sail into ports that are uncrowded and into waters that are less traveled.
Blount’s specially designed small ships make it possible to visit islands that would not be accessible by bigger ships. Their ships are nimble, even have a patented bow ramp (ideal in places like Belize and Guatemala) and a retractable pilot house (so they can go under bridges on the Erie Canal), both inventions of Luther Blount, who founded the company and was one of the innovators of “small ship cruising” more than 50 years ago, and can come close to shore. The cruises are enhanced with local historians, culinary experts, naturalists and entertainers who provide their expertise.
Blount is offering major discounts on select 2020 cruises, for example, a 14-day cruise that sails from New York City up the Hudson, onto the Erie Canal, to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, to Quebec City and Montreal. We experienced Blount’s New England islands cruise (888-368-2240, www.blountadventure.com).
Historic Sailing Ships
The Maine Windjammer Association fleet hopes to be sailing again this summer (Maine has imposed a 14-day quarantine on visitors to the state), and are small enough and nimble enough to provide a safe environment for passengers.
“The Maine Windjammer experience celebrates the pristine coast of Maine and the rare exhilaration of wind-powered freedom. Our itineraries are determined by the wind, tide and the wisdom of the captains. We call ourselves the “un-cruise” because of our small groups, our sustainable philosophy and eco-travel ethos combined with freshly prepared and sourced meals, picturesque destinations and wind-in-your hair freedom. By day, we explore the seas, islands and villages. By night, dramatic sunsets and star-filled skies. These are the makings of exactly the vacation you’ll need when the pandemic passes. Let your shelter be aboard our sturdy ships on Penobscot Bay.”
In response to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, the Maine Windjammer Association fleet is taking the following actions:
Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and continue to adhere to all federal, state and local directives.
Monitoring the Coast Guard’s notices to mariners and taking additional steps to meet and exceed any further guidelines for the safety of guests and crew.
“Each one of our vessels already follows strict guidelines for sanitation and cleanliness; we’re reviewing all those procedures and will implement increased cleaning protocols as advised by the CDC and Coast Guard. It is worth noting here that the vessels of the Maine Windjammer Association have an excellent safety record.”
“We trust that most guests share our optimism for the cruise season to commence as planned, as we have received very few requests to change or cancel bookings. These requests are being handled on a case-by-case basis by each boat individually. Should you need to make a change to an already reserved trip, contact the boat you’re planning to sail on directly.”
Some of the ships are small enough they can be taken over by a single family or group.
Each of the ships that belong to the Maine Windjammer Association and three that belong to Maine Windjammer Cruises has its own character and personality, and each also reflects their captain/owner, but there are some universals about the experience – a sense of freedom and peacefulness. Many of the departures have special themes or are oriented to some special interest.
“The ships of the Maine Windjammer Association, whether Schooner, Ketch, Historic Landmark, or purposely built for passenger service, are individually owned and operated, each as different as those of us who sail them, all with essence unique to their design.”
In addition, there are three ships in the Maine Windjammer Cruises fleet, the Grace Bailey, the Mercantile (which carry 29 passengers), and the Mistress (the smallest, it accommodates just six people so is ideal for one family unit). (P.O. Box 617, Camden, ME 04843 , 207-236-2938, 800-736-7981, www.mainewindjammercruises.com)
The French company launched a river cruise on the Loire in 2016 with a new, revolutionary boat equipped with a paddle wheel to carry passengers into the interior. In 2014, the company also launched the MS Lafayette class of intimate vessels with only 82 guests.
CroisiEurope plies the the French canals in Alsace, Burgundy, Champagne, Provence, and Paris with a fleet of new, modern and comfortable hotel barges, with just 12 cabins. In someplaces, you go through locks that are just inches higher or wider than the barge, making for exciting experiences. The barges have bikes, so you can get out and bike along the canal, handing the bike back and jumping back onto the barge. (CroisiEurope, 800-768-7232, https://www.croisieuroperivercruises.com/)
Barge hotels – literally barges that have been reconfigured for passengers – are so small, one family or group could book up the entire vessel. CroisiEurope, which has a fleet of river cruising vessels, also has a fleet of European barges, which have a maximum passenger capacity of just 22 passengers, offering itineraries in Alsace, Champagne, Ile-de–France, Burgundy, Provence and Loiret. (www.croisieuroperivercruises.com/destination/european-barge-cruises).
Another company that offers barge hotels (in addition to river cruises) and boat-and-bike tours is France Cruises. It was on their barge cruise through the canals of Burgundy – each day featuring marvelous excursions and sensational meals – that I first saw canal boats that you could rent. (866-498-3920, www.francecruises.com).
You can rent your own canal boat to ply the canals of Europe, but you don’t have to go so far: discover the charming villages and towns and see unfold before you the making of America as you sail your own Lockmaster canal boat on the Erie Canal, stretching from Buffalo to Albany. It is thrilling to have the lock master’s open the locks or raise bridges for you. The experience is made possible by Erie Canal Adventures (formerly Mid-Lakes Navigation, whose founder specially designed these charming canal boats). You can rent a boat suitable for a couple, up to a family. You get to float (the boats go a maximum of 3 mph), tying up pretty much where you like, to these charming small and uncrowded canal towns, take a bike to ride the Canalway. The boars are pretty self-sufficient, with galley, fuel, water, even a bbq, but there are plenty of picturesque outdoor cafes if you prefer. The company has an intense COVID-19 safety plan, describing its enhanced cleaning/disinfecting procedures. (Erie Canal Adventures, 315-986-3011, www.eriecanaladventures.com.).
And as the cruise industry attempts to recover from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, another change might be for these small-ship, expeditionary, and historic sailing vessel operators to extend their season like the mega-ships do, and sail to another cruise destination for part of the year, offering “repositioning cruises” in between, so they are not so dependent upon a three or six-month season.
According to CruiseCompete, “Extra Small Ships” (201-499 passengers) offer a private, exclusive ambiance, along with personalized service and the advantage of being able to port almost anywhere. Passengers get a feel for the water and experience destinations in a very close-up, personal way.
Some benefits of XS ships:
The most important benefit of small ship cruising is an immersive experience in the destination. Very small ships allow an in-depth exploration of nature, culture, history and learning not possible on larger ships.
Passengers tend to be a well-traveled, worldly crowd who enjoy the pursuit of education and exploration of the destinations they visit
Very personal attention from the crew; with luxury cruises this translates to personal attendants who see to your every need
More solitude and the opportunity to relax and pursue your own interests
CruiseCompete.com, an online cruise marketplace, is an excellent source for all sorts of cruising. You can find specials and discounts, cruise and ship reviews, shore excursions, and search for cruises based on ship size, cruise length, destination, type of cruise like river cruises or adventure cruises, weddings at sea, and a score of other parameters. Then, member cruise agents bid for your business. (Visit CruiseCompete.com and try the Virtual Cruise Advisor.) _________________________