Viking Cruises - Elbe River Travel Journal

Church of Our Lady before Týn in Prague

TripSavvy / Linda Garrison

European river cruises have deservedly become one of the most popular means of travel in this century. Cruise lines like Viking River Cruises have rapidly grown with the demand, and river cruise ships are opening up more of Europe to travelers. The Danube and Rhine Rivers have the most European river cruise ships, but waterways in France, Italy, Russia, and Portugal are also perfect for exploring on a river ship.

Less well-known rivers in central Europe are also a great choice for river cruises. The Elbe, Moselle, and Main Rivers in Germany are three that offer gorgeous scenery, interesting ports of call, and a peek into the history of the region. 

Sailing the Elbe River with Viking River Cruises

Viking River Cruises purpose-built two new ships for its Elbe River itineraries and launched them in 2015. These "baby" Longships, the Viking Beyla and Viking Astrild, float in shallower water, are shorter in length, have one less deck, and carry about half as many guests as the Viking Longships sailing on most other rivers in Europe. 

This article provides a detailed look at the itinerary and experiences of a trip along the Elbe River with Viking River Cruises. Our 10-day voyage, "Elegant Elbe" runs between Prague and Berlin (or vice-versa) and includes six nights on a ship, two nights in Prague, and two nights in Berlin.

We started in Prague, which is a fascinating eastern European city and one of Europe's most popular destinations. Prague is filled with history and is a great city to explore on foot. As a plus, Prague is well-known for its beer and hearty food. Our Viking Cruises' tour included a half-day guided walking tour of the Old Town and Prague Castle. We also had time to explore Prague on our own and walk across the famous Charles Bridge before we left for the Viking Beyla, which was docked in Dresden, Germany.

The Church of Our Lady before Týn is one of many spectacular buildings on the Old Town Square, which is the hub of the old city of Prague and one of the city's top sights.

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Prague - Old Town Square

Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic
Linda Garrison

Colorful buildings surround the Old Town Square in Prague. One wall of the 250-foot-tall clock tower of the Old Town Hall, which dates back to the 14th century, has one of the world's most famous clocks, the Astronomical Clock seen in the next photo.

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Prague - Astronomical Clock

Astronomical Clock in Prague
Linda Garrison

The Astronomical Clock on the wall of Prague's Old Town Hall, dates back to the early 1400's. Even in the 21st century, its design and operation is very complex. It has multiple dials and moving figures. Although the clock was damaged during World War II, it was rebuilt with its original design. Be sure to be in front of the clock at the top of the hour when it chimes and the statues move. It's so difficult to believe that it was built over 700 years ago.

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Prague - Castle and the Elbe River

Prague Castle and the Elbe River
Linda Garrison

The view of the massive Prague Castle complex on the other side of the Vltava River from Old Town Prague is spectacular, isn't it? The first castle was built here in the late 9th century and, the current one dates back to the 16th century. Kings of the Czech lands have sat on the throne, and the Prague Castle was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The president of the Czech Republic resides in the Prague Castle now.

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Prague - St. Vitus's Cathedral

St. Vitus's Cathedral in Prague
Linda Garrison

St. Vitus's Cathedral is one of the main features of the Prague Castle complex. Construction of the Gothic cathedral took over 500 years, and it was only finished in 1929. St. Vitus's has a spectacular rose window and other stained glass, and it's an amazing place to tour. Be sure to check the times it is opened; for example, the Cathedral is closed on Sunday morning for church services.

After visiting Prague for two days, we were off to board the Viking Beyla on the Elbe River in Dresden. Unfortunately, as discussed on the next page, we learned that our cruise had become not-a-cruise.

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When Is a Cruise Not a Cruise?

Viking Beyla river cruise ship on the Elbe River in Dresden, Germany
Linda Garrison

A week before our Viking Cruises' river cruise tour on the Elbe River of the Czech Republic and Germany, guests got an email from Viking announcing we would not be able to sail due to low water. As an alternative, the company said we would take a bus from Prague to Dresden, where the Viking Beyla was docked. After spending three nights on the Viking Beyla, we would re-pack and move to the identical cabin on the Viking Astrild, where we would spend four nights before heading to Berlin to complete our tour. The two river cruise ships would be floating boatels, never leaving the dock.

Viking gave passengers the option to either cancel or to get a generous discount on a future cruise. About half the guests ​canceled, the other half took the discount. Almost all those who stayed on the tour (I can't really call it a cruise) were surprised at how well everything went. Viking made the transition from a river cruise to a bus tour seamless. Some guests were more downcast than others, but we all saw what we came to see--two bookend cities (Prague and Berlin) and some memorable historical sights along the way.

Although the worse news was that we would not be sailing the Elbe River, the good news was that we would see all of the places promised in the brochure, plus have a day with other included tours. Everyone was disappointed, but the crew of both river ships really went out of their way to make our not-a-cruise a memorable vacation. They included additional activities and tours at no extra cost, plus delivered the expected terrific service, food, and cabins.

The rest of this article provides details on some of the amazing places we visited. Although the river cruise would have given us more time to relax on the ship and look at the slowly passing river scenery, we did get to see the beautiful Czech and eastern German countryside from a bus. Not as good, but we had more time in each place since the bus was much faster than the ship would have been. I still wished we had cruised, but the tour and use of the ships as boatels far exceeded my expectations.

The rest of this article provides photos and details of our adventure on Viking Cruises "Elegant Elbe" itinerary.

Leaving Prague, two buses headed for the Viking Beyla docked in Dresden. The day before, we signed up for an included tour to either the Czech town of Litomerice or the former World War II concentration camp at Terezin. The two excursions were both about half-way to Dresden (an hour and a half ride). 

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Terezin - Village in the Czech Republic

Village of Terezin in the Czech Republic
Linda Garrison

Terezin was a concentration camp and jail for Jews and political prisoners in the 1930s and during World War II. It was a "model" Jewish "town" that the Nazis used as showpiece to demonstrate to the Red Cross that they were segregating the Jews and not murdering them. It was sad to hear/see the horrors they endured, since Terezin was really just a stopover on the way to the gas chamber. A handful of Nazi guards were able to control the 58,000 Jews who believed that the village of Terezin was an administrative stopover to settlement in their new ghetto. Very sad, horrible story, and I think all of us who went will remember it. 

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Terezin - World War II Cemetery in the Czech Republic

Terezin Cemetery in the Czech Republic
Linda Garrison

We toured the prison at Terezin since it's the only place still open to visitors. The ghetto/village was nearby, and the crowding/filth/poverty/starvation there for the "normal" Jews who had been quarantined there was horrific. The living conditions of the political prisoners and/or Jews who disobeyed some arbitrary law/regulation were much worse.

Someone asked why they didn't just kill those who were transferred to the jail. The guide said that trains to the gas chambers only ran when full, and the Germans kept detailed records of those in the ghetto and those in the jail. Very weird, but evidently they didn't want to waste precious bullets killing the Jews and anti-Nazis.

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Terezin - Bathhouse in Fortress

Bathhouse in Terezin concentration camp
Linda Garrison

The bathhouse at the prison was particularly sad since we all thought of the bathhouses at the concentration camps that actually were gas chambers. This one was actually a bathhouse for the prisoners in the jail, not the non-criminal (political or otherwise) Jews who were in the village ghetto at Terezin.

We left Terezin at 5:15 and arrived at the Viking Beyla by 6:30, with dinner at 7 pm. We had a delicious dinner, and most of us cleaned our plates (always a good indicator). I had a salmon carpaccio, Chateaubriand, and lime mousse dessert. Very nice. After dinner, 

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Dresden - Academy of Fine Arts

Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in eastern Germany
Linda Garrison

Our first morning on the Viking Beyla in Dresden, we had some free time to relax after three busy days. We all attended the "welcome aboard" briefing and safety drill, although the Captain recommended that if there were an emergency that we do not jump in the river feet first since the water was only about 3 feet deep at the dock.

After a fresh salad for lunch, we had our choice of three afternoon tours--the classic tour, which featured a driving tour of the city, followed by a walk around the old town; the leisurely tour, which featured a driving tour of the city and the old town; and an up-close tour, which involved walking from the river cruise ship to the old town, a walk around the old town, and then walking back to the ship. All the tours used the audio devices we had used in Prague and at Terezin. I chose the walking tour. 

Dresden is a city of about 525,000 and is the capital of the German state of Saxony. The city was considered a center of art and music in the early 1700's when King Augustus the Strong was the ruler. (He got his nicknamed when he broke a horseshoe in half with his bare hands.) 

The walking tour had a great guide, and I was amazed how gorgeous the old town area of Dresden was. The city was 90% destroyed during World War II, and most of the historic downtown was destroyed during a two-day firebombing​ by the Allies in February 1945. In addition, between 25,000 and 600,000 people were killed by bombing raids during the war (depending on who you ask--the numbers are very different since the city was packed with refugees from other towns who had fled to Dresden).

Since Dresden was part of East Germany and under the influence of the Soviets after the war, I expected a bunch of boxy, post-World War II Soviet-looking buildings in the old town. However, the city has been almost completely restored to its original splendor. We were all amazed how the buildings looked like they were built in the 18th century rather than the late 20th and early 21st century. 

We walked by the Albertinum, which is the New Masters Picture Gallery, but it was closed on Monday. Since our river ship would be docked in Dresden for another day, those who wanted to see this museum were able to visit on Tuesday. 

The walkway along the river is called Brühl's Terrace. The day we strolled along the terrace, it was filled with people enjoying the warm, late summer weather.

The Dresden Academy of Fine Arts seen in the photo above is a complex of three buildings, all significantly reconstructed after 1991. The building with the glass dome is often called "the Lemon Squeezer" due to its shape.

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Dresden - Cathedral of the Holy Trinity with the Dresden Castle

Cathedral of the Holy Trinity with the Dresden Castle
Linda Garrison

Everywhere you look in old town Dresden, you see examples of magnificent reconstructions. It's difficult to understand how much rebuilding was done on the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Katholische Hofkirche in German) on the left and the Royal Palace on the right of this photo. Reconstruction of the Cathedral was started in 1945, but not completed until 1987.  Rebuilding the Royal Palace did not begin until 1987, and it has been transformed into a museum complex called the Dresden State Art Collections.

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Dresden - Procession of the Princes

Procession of the Princes in Dresden, Germany
Linda Garrison

The Procession of Princes is located on the outside of the Stallhof building, on Schlossplatz Square in Dresden. The mural is over 100 yards long and represents the history of Saxony’s ruling family, as a larger-than-life procession of riders. Although all the riders are royalty, not all are princes. Thirty-five are margraves, princes, and kings, and fifty-nine of the figures are scientists, artisans, craftsmen, and farmers.

The procession was originally painted between 1872 and 1876 on a long wall. However, since it was outdoors, it soon became damaged. In the early 20th century, the mural was transferred to 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles to preserve it. 

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Dresden - Zwinger Palace

Zwinger Palace in Dresden, Germany
Linda Garrison

We also enjoyed seeing the buildings in the Zwinger Palace arts complex of museums and theaters.

We could see large blue and white porcelain vases through the window of one of these buildings in the Zwinger Palace complex. Augustus the Strong, who loved fine arts and porcelain, once traded a regiment (about 500) of his best soldiers to Saxon's rival state of Prussia in exchange for 151 large vases, which are now called "soldier vases".

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Dresden - Frauenkirche - Church of Our Lady

Dresden Frauenkirche or the Church of Our Lady
Linda Garrison

​The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) is one of the major symbols of Dresden. After it collapsed during the fire bombings of February 1945. The Frauenkirche remained a 42-foot-high pile of rubble for over 40 years. In the late 1980's, it was a popular place for anti-East German government demonstrations. After Germany was reunited, reconstruction of this city landmark began in 1994 and was completed eleven years later. Most of the 180 million euros used for rebuilding the church were from private donations. 

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Dresden - Piece of the Church of Our Lady Destroyed in World War II

Piece of the Church of Our Lady destroyed during World War II bombing of Dresden
Linda Garrison

The famous Lutheran Church of Our Lady, which was completely destroyed during the fire bombings, was not finished until 2005, but today looks like it did in paintings from the 18th century. 

In the photo above, a piece of the original church can be seen in front of the reconstructed building.

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Dresden - "The Birthday of the Grand Mogul" in the Green Vault

The Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aurangzeb in Dresden
Linda Garrison

A Dresden highlight for most of us on the Viking tour was touring the Green Vault at the Dresden Royal Palace, which is mostly done in the baroque style. All that remained after the 1945 bombings was a roofless shell, but most of the treasures had been stored at a nearby fortress, the Koningstein Fortress, prior to the beginning of the War. The restoration of the palace was completed in 2013.

Although the Royal Palace has many collections/museums, we only toured the Green Vault, which was so named because the column bases and capitals of the rooms were once painted malachite green. The Green Vault is a museum that was founded by Augustus II the Strong in 1723 and features a unique variety of priceless exhibits from the period of baroque to classicism. In total it has one of Europe's largest collections (over 50,000 pieces) of unique items. The Green Vault is older than the British Museum in London, which dates back to 1759. 

After completion of the Green Vault in the Royal Palace, Augustus the Strong exhibited his entire collection of valuables, including bronze statues and works of art in silver, gold, amber, and ivory. For example, a huge ivory frigate sailing ship stands about 2 feet tall and was very intricately carved. It was done in 1620 and was a spectacular replica. Not sure how the artist managed to carve the sails so thin. We also all admired a golden baby rattle given to a young prince (hoped he didn't ​teethe on it). Another piece was a golden coffee set, which was really 45 pieces (cups, teapots, etc) all in gold with many precious stones.

The work in this photo was done by the court jeweler and was one of Augustus the Strong's first commissions. The "Royal Household at Delhi on the Occasion of the Birthday of the Grand Mogul AurengZeb" is a favorite of children since it has dozens of intricately carved and jeweled pieces and figures that can be moved around on an elaborate setting (they are in glass now--no touching!). It features 4,909 diamonds, 164 emeralds, 160 rubies, a sapphire, 16 pearls and two cameos. 

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Dresden - Green Diamond in the Green Vault

Dresden Green Diamond in the New Green Vault
Linda Garrison

One of the other most famous pieces in the Green Vault is the Dresden Green Diamond, which is 41+ carats. It is green because of natural exposure to radioactivity. Surrounded by two large clear diamonds and many other smaller ones, it is still set in its original setting as a hat ornament and is considered the most valuable piece in the collection. 

The detail and intricacy of all of these pieces and precious stones included in the art at the Green Vault are amazing. What's even more amazing is that although the Russians confiscated all these magnificent pieces and took them back to Russia after they occupied East Germany in 1945, Khrushchev returned them to Dresden in 1958. This historical fact was a major topic of discussion on our tour. Since Khrushchev was never known for his generous spirit, we all guessed that he never thought about East Germany reunifying with West Germany, but expected it to remain as the GDR, under the control of the USSR. I'm sure everyone in Germany was delighted to have the Green Vault re-open in 2006.

After the walking tour of Dresden, we returned to the Viking Beyla for dinner, which was another excellent one. Over dinner, we all raved about how marvelous Dresden was. I think most of us were delightfully surprised at this city, which has often been compared to Florence, Italy since it is full of art.

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Bastei - Lookout at Saxon Switzerland National Park in Germany

Bastei lookout at Saxon Switzerland National Park in Germany
Linda Garrison

We had a delicious breakfast before our early morning (8:30 am) tour to a national park about a 45-60 minute scenic drive from Dresden. I had seen photos of the "Saxon Switzerland", which is also called the "Elbe Sandstone Mountains" area, and it looked spectacular. It's sometimes called "one of Germany's most incredible natural wonders. We were not disappointed. 

The scenic ride to the Saxon Switzerland National Park was through lovely farmland and hilly area, with fields of hay and sunflowers. This region got its name due to two Swiss painters who said it looked like their home. Nowadays in Germany, the generic term "Switzerland" is synonymous with any place that is scenic. Small towns along the way featured many homes overlooking the Elbe river, and our guide Christina said they were mostly vacation homes. They were stucco with small windows facing the road. Looked like they either have lots of cold weather or don't like to see/hear the traffic on the two-lane road that runs very close to their front doors. 

Arriving at the national park, we had to walk on a flat trail to see the red sandstone rocks, which line a giant valley and tower over 600 feet above the Elbe River. The giant rock formations soar into the sky like jagged teeth and look much like Sedona or other places with red sandstone. The line of rocks extends into the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic where we started our adventure. The rocks form walls that once served as a natural defense barrier for the rock castle of Neurathen so are often called the Bastei, which means "bastion". 

While in the park, we didn't have time to take all the many trails that snake through the rock formations or to walk all the way down to the river. None of us requested any extra time to join the many who come here to scale the rocks since it's become a very popular climbing spot in Germany. Many of the rock pillars have small boxes on top where those who complete the climb can sign a journal. When the journals are filled, they are taken to a nearby library where the "proof" of your climb is retained. I'm never planning to climb, but love the "official" record keeping.

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Bastei - Elbe River View

Elbe River view from the Bastei
Linda Garrison

We looked over the valley from the main overlook, which reminded me of Rock City near Chattanooga. Next, we walked down about 100 steps to walk across a 250-foot-long narrow bridge that led to the remains of the Neurathen Castle. The Bastei has been a popular tourist spot for over 200 years, and the first bridge was wooden and completed in 1824, but it was replaced by this sandstone bridge structure with seven arches in 1851. 

The castle was small and mostly in ruins, but we could see why it would be easy to defend. As a travel writer, it was interesting to see the rock tablets commemorating the first mention of the rocks by a travel writer in 1797, and the first landscape photographs taken in 1853.

It was a very interesting place to spend the morning, and we rode back to the ship on the main road, so were easily back in time for lunch.

After yet another nice lunch on the Viking Beyla, we actually got to ride the Elbe River on a boat! I know the Viking team felt bad about us staying on a boatel rather than a boat, so they arranged for us to take a 90-minute ride on one of the historic day-trip paddle wheelers (appropriately named the Dresden) up the river and return to Dresden. I thought this was a very nice gesture, and those who didn't want to take a boat ride could take an included tour to the 750-year old Konigstein Fortress, which we could see from the Bastei rocks in the morning. It's often called the German Bastille.

The boat ride passed by three lovely mansions/castles overlooking the river. These three castles were once owned by the 1893 inventor of mouthwash, Karl August Lingner. The Odol mouthwash is still sold in the original style of bottle. Lingner bought the three palatial mansions overlooking the Elbe near Dresden. One of these is now a hotel and catering school. 

After the boat ride, we had time to pack our bags to leave the Viking Beyla and do a ship swap with the guests on the Viking Astrild docked in Wittenberg. It was easy to pack since everything would be coming back out of the bags at the end of the next day.

Dinner was delicious--a shrimp fried egg roll, rack of lamb, and a chocolate souffle with ice cream.

Had some entertaining classical music after dinner--a local trio of cello, flute, and violin. 

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Meissen - Painting Meissen Porcelain

Painting Meissen porcelain at shop in Meissen, Germany
Linda Garrison

Two big motor coaches awaited us the next morning for the bus ride to Meissen and then onto the Viking Astrild at Wittenberg. I was delighted to see that we had two big coaches, even though there are only 52 of us (the ship holds 100). That meant everyone had a seat to themselves if they chose. The buses would take us first to Meissen for a couple of tours and lunch, followed by a three-hour ride to Wittenberg, where we would board the Viking Astrild, the Viking Beyla's identical sister.

We had breakfast, said goodbye to the excellent staff on the Viking Beyla, and were on the bus by 8:15. Our tour director came with us, providing continuity from the welcome in Prague to the farewells in Berlin. The 45-minute ride to Meissen was through the Triebisch Valley along the Elbe River and was scenic. Since we followed the Elbe River, we got to see the same scenery as if we were on the river! 

I think we were among the first visitors to the Meissen Porcelain workshop and museum since we arrived right about 9 am. This was a fascinating visit to Europe's oldest porcelain factory. China made porcelain for hundreds of years, and it was exported to Europe and beloved by the rich and royal. Johann Friedrich Bottger managed to finally replicate the Chinese porcelain-making process in 1708 (under the reign of Augustus the Strong) in Dresden. Augustus was worried that someone else would kidnap Bottger in order to steal the process, so he moved Bottger to the Albechtsburg Castle in nearby Meissen, and set up his porcelain factory there in 1710. Those of us from Georgia can appreciate that kaolin is one of the primary ingredients of fine porcelain. 

Meissen Porcelain was among the first to mark its products with a signature trademark -- two crossed swords that were copied from the coat of arms of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, where Meissen is located. We visited three rooms where craftsmen/women demonstrated three different processes--the making of the porcelain pieces by either pot making or using molds, painting the porcelain before firing and painting the porcelain after firing. Very interesting and such talent. You have to have a steady hand to do the intricate compiling of figurines and/or painting of the porcelain clay pieces. Many of the molds can only be used 20-30 times. The craftsmen/women have to be very talented, but also fast. I think they have 400 such craftsmen working in Meissen.

Meissen has sold all sorts of things made from porcelain, from a tiny thimble to a 2,000-piece dinner service, where each place setting was thousands of dollars. Every piece Meissen has ever produced (over 175,000 in all) is still available in production or on order since they keep the molds.  

The history of the ownership of the Meissen Porcelain factory is very interesting. After the German reunification in 1990, the company was restored to the State of Saxony in Germany, which is now the sole owner.

Our local guide said the products were "price-intensive", which seemed to be a favorite term of hers. We learned how to identify first quality from pieces that were not. A second quality piece is scored with a short line over the trademark. This slight scoring can be felt and/or seen. In the shops, the price tag of the lower quality items ends in a "3", while first quality ends in a "1". (Not sure why there is no "2" and neither was our guide.) Normal people cannot tell the first quality from the seconds sold in the outlet store, but experts can, and the Meissen factory has a quality control shop that checks every piece and marks those that are considered seconds before the final firing.

If you wonder why I didn't buy a bunch of second "discount" items, the price still kept me away. One plain white porcelain coffee cup/mug with no special work or painting was priced at 79 euros (almost $100) without the saucer. Porcelain jewelry items were mostly over 1,000 euros although some small pendants were about 100-200 euros, but didn't look much better than white glass. No wonder the factory is state-owned since I doubt if a private manufacturer could keep it going. However, it's good that the skills required to make fine porcelain are being retained. 

After a short video about the history of the Meissen Porcelain and a tour of the workshops, we had an hour of free time to visit the large museum (on two floors) and the shops. The museum had amazing priceless porcelain figurines, chandeliers, light fixtures, and tableware. They even have an organ with porcelain pipes. 

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Meissen - Walking Castle Hill

Meissen, Germany
Linda Garrison

We left the Meissen Porcelain workshop and rode the bus up a hill to get some spectacular views of the town of Meissen and to see the outside of the Albrechtsburg Castle and a church that overlook the city and the Elbe River.

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Meissen - View of Old Town

View of old town Meissen, Germany
Linda Garrison

The views from Castle Hill of Meissen were interesting and scenic. The walk up was a little difficult for some in our group, but the view was worth the walk.

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Meissen - Cathedral or Church of St. John and St. Donatus

Meissen Cathedral or Church of St. John and St. Donatus
Linda Garrison

This Gothic-style Cathedral on Castle Hill overlooking Meissen was built between 1260 and 1410. The cathedral has been a Protestant church since the Reformation in 1581 and is the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Saxony.

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Meissen - Church of Our Lady

Church of Our Lady on the town square in Meissen, Germany
Linda Garrison

We saw churches or clock towers with porcelain bells in both Dresden and Meissen. We got to hear them ring in Meissen. The 37 playable porcelain bells in the clock tower at the Meissen Church of Our Lady were added in 1929, and it was the first church to feature them.

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Meissen - Central Market Square

Central Market Square in Meissen, Germany
Linda Garrison

After touring Castle Hill, we walked down about 100 steps to the Central Market Square of Meissen, where we had about an hour's free time to shop or explore before enjoying lunch at a local restaurant on the square. 

After lunch, the drive to Wittenberg was mostly on the motorway, and the three hours passed quickly (maybe because I was napping some). We had a potty stop at a gas station/McDonalds where it cost 0.70 euros to use the toilet (coin-operated turnstile), but you got a ticket that gave you 0.50 euro off anything bought in the store or the McDonalds. Don't mind paying if the toilet stall is clean, and this one was.

We arrived at the Viking Astrild a little after 5 pm and had time to unpack (in our same cabin) before the briefing with the Captain and meeting with the crew. It was so easy to unpack--we just put stuff exactly where it was before. Nothing seemed different in our cabin.

Dinner was a giant German buffet, with pretzels on the table, and lots of German specialties (like sausages and potatoes) on the buffet and in the galley. The meatballs and roast pork were especially good, and (only because I was working) I tried the beer, schnapps, and wine.

The ship swap went seamlessly, and my friend and I were especially impressed to find that we both had sheets on our bed as well as the duvet, which is what we had requested on the Viking Beyla. The next day, I spoke to two different passengers who found the extra pillows they had requested on the Viking Beyla already present on the Viking Astrild. Guess those cabin stewardesses must have talked about us!

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Wittenberg - Luther House

Luther House in Wittenberg, Germany
Linda Garrison

After our busy day with the ship swap, we had just a half day of scheduled tours the next day--all in Wittenberg, which was a 10-minute bus ride from where the Viking Astrild was docked on the Elbe River. 

We had two tour groups of 25-26 each. The first group left at 9 am, and the second group at 9:30 am. We used the same bus, which took us to Martin Luther's house. We walked one way from there through the center of town, with an hour or so free time at the end of the tour. Our group B left at 9:30, and we returned to the ship at 12:30. We had another great guide.

Religion is a major component of the things to do and see in Wittenberg. The year 2017 is a big year for Wittenberg since it is the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther penned his famous 95 Theses attacking the Catholic Church’s corrupt practice of selling "indulgences" to absolve sin by those who purchased them or by their family members who were in purgatory. The practice even allowed the purchase of "indulgences" for future sins. The money raised by selling indulgences was being used by the church to build St. Peter's Cathedral in Vatican City. Luther was concerned that people felt they did not have to repent their sins since they were buying indulgence (not forgiveness) from the church (and not from God). Luther's protests were one of the bases of the reformation of the Christian religion in the 16th century.

The city has construction ongoing in many historic sites since they are expecting many notables and even more ordinary citizens to visit. 

We started the tour at Luther's house but didn't go inside. A statue of his wife Katharina, who was a strong woman who raised 6 children with Martin, is in the side yard. Martin moved to the home when he was still a monk since it was an Augustinian monastery, and continued living there after he married. They were an interesting couple. Since Martin believed that the church shouldn't forbid or permit anything that wasn't in the Bible, he disagreed with the tenet that priests could not marry. He was a monk who took a nun as his wife. That would even be somewhat scandalous today, but it must have been the talk of the town in the 16th century. Since Katharina was a former nun, she could read and write (and speak her mind), a rarity for many of the 16th-century women.

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Wittenberg - Town Square

Town Square of Wittenberg, Germany
Linda Garrison

Our local guide in Wittenberg also talked a lot about Philip Melanchthon, the other major leader of the Reformation movement. He was the head of the Wittenberg University and translated Luther's writings from Latin to German. Melanchthon was also an educator and a leader.

The guide stressed that it is important to remember that "reform" doesn't mean break apart or split. Luther always considered himself a Catholic, and many of the early Lutheran churches had (and still have) names that sound "Catholic" like the Church of Our Lady.

We walked down the main street of Wittenberg as our guide talked about the reform movement and Wittenberg. Very interesting. He gave us over an hour of free time in the city center to explore. Wittenberg has equal-sized statues of Luther and Melanchthon in front of the city hall to stress the importance of both men to the movement.

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Wittenberg - All Saints Church

All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany
Linda Garrison

After our free time, the tour group met at the All Saints Church, which is also called the Castle Church. 

The exterior of the Castle Church is topped with a Prussian "pickle crown" since the Prussians were the last to renovate it. The interior reflects all of Luther's and the earlier reformers beliefs. Very interesting, with a large collection of Lucas Cranach's paintings inside. Our local guide believes that Cranach would be better known today if his work had been featured more in western museums rather than in Wittenberg, Prague, and St. Petersburg in the east.

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Wittenberg - City Church

City Church of Wittenberg Altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Linda Garrison

Luther (or one of his associates) may or may not have posted the 95 Theses on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. It is known that he sent them to the Bishop, but there is no proof they were attached to the door, although this was a common practice to notify the 5 percent of citizens who could read in 1517. 

We had a free afternoon, followed by a chef's dinner on the Viking Astrild of lobster/shrimp bisque, a shrimp egg roll, veal, and another chocolate souffle. A fun local medieval show with two musicians and two actresses followed the dinner.

The next day was an easy day for me. Since we had saved time by using a bus rather than sailing, the ship had two complimentary tours, not on the original/usual schedule. The first was a full day tour to the city of Leipzig, one of Germany's largest cities. The second was a half day tour in the afternoon to the Technical Museum in Dessau. Although most guests on the Viking Astrild took one of the tours, a few of us stayed behind to spend time on the ship, go shopping, or see more of Wittenberg. 

We had a "past cruisers" party at 6:30, followed by dinner at 7:15. I had a duck appetizer, steak with fried onions and stracciatella (chocolate chip) ice cream.

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Worlitz - Castle Gardens

Worlitz Gardens in Germany
Linda Garrison

The next day we had a morning tour to the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Worlitz, which was Germany's first English-style landscape gardens. Leopold III, the Duke of Anhalt-Dessau, brought the English garden concept to Dessau in the 18th century. He was an Anglophile and took on this major project so that his surroundings would look like his beloved England.

Today the park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its exceptional illustration of 18th- century landscape design.

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Worlitz - Castle

Worlitz Castle in Germany
Linda Garrison

Built between 1769 and 1773, the Worlitz Castle was the first Classical castle built outside of England. We toured the inside of the Castle and especially appreciated the David Roentgen furniture and design throughout the building.

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Worlitz - Roentgen Furniture in Palace

David Roentgen Furniture in the Worlitz Palace in Germany
Linda Garrison

David Roentgen was a famous German cabinet and furniture maker, and some of his pieces are on display inside the Worlitz Castle. His use of inlaid wood is especially good, and he is also well known for his use of hidden mechanical drawers in the furniture. The pieces at the Worlitz Castle were specifically designed for the rooms where they are placed.

We all returned to the Viking Astrild for lunch. After a delicious meal, we reboarded the buses for the ride to Torgau, where we had a fascinating walking tour of the old town.

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Torgau - Fountain in Central Square

Fountain in central square in Torgau, Germany
Linda Garrison

Torgau was having their annual fall fair on the afternoon we visited. It was fun to stroll the streets, watch the people, or sniff the variety of tantalizing smells waffling from the many food carts set up around the square and in the pedestrian area.

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Torgau - Bear at Hartenfels Castle

Bear at Hartenfels Castle in Torgau, Germany
Linda Garrison

Hartenfels Castle is done in the Renaissance style. As seen in the next photo, the building is lovely. However, the three bears who live in the Castle's moat probably get more attention! 

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Torgau - Hartenfels Castle

Hartenfels Castle in Torgau, Germany
Linda Garrison

Hartenfels Castle is one of over 500 historical monuments from the Renaissance period. Those who are more interested in recent history may remember that Torgau was the meeting point for the Soviet and USA forces on April 25, 1945. The Americans had arrived in Torgau from the west and the Soviets from the east, which meant that Germany had been cut in two pieces.

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Torgau - Soviet Memorial

Soviet Memorial in Torgau, Germany
Linda Garrison

Our local guide told us that most citizens of Torgau hate this Soviet memorial, which celebrates the friendship between the locals and the occupying Soviet forces after the war. Given the animosity most East Germans felt toward the GDR government and the Soviets, our group was a little surprised that the memorial had not been torn down like the Wall. However, our local guide said that one requirement of the Soviets leaving East Germany was that all monuments to the Soviet occupiers would be maintained. So, this monument and others in eastern Germany are kept up by the unified German government.

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Potsdam - Cecilienhof Palace

Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, Germany
Linda Garrison

The next morning, we sadly left the Viking Astrild with our luggage and headed towards Potsdam, which was our last stop before heading into Berlin. Like leaving the Viking Beyla, it was very sad, but I think most of us appreciated the effort put into making sure our tour was (almost) as good as a cruise would have been.

We left the ship on the two buses about 8:30 am for the 3-hour drive to Potsdam. Our first stop in Potsdam was at the Cecilienhof Palace, part of which is now a hotel. The palace is famous because Churchill, Stalin, and Truman used Cecilienhof from June 17 to August 2, 1945, as a place to work out decisions on how to deal with Germany after the war. The conference room and meeting rooms of this Potsdam Conference have been conserved and can be visited. 

After our visit to Cecilienhof Palace, we had free time in old town Potsdam for lunch. We explored a little and settled on an outdoor spot for a light lunch. After lunch, the bus reconvened, and we went to see Sansouci Palace, also in Potsdam.

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Potsdam - Sansouci Palace

Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany
Linda Garrison

Our last stop in Potsdam was at the spectacular Sanssouci Palace, which was built in 1774 as a summer palace by Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia. The palace sits on 700 acres of manicured gardens, fountains, and pools. The resemblance to Versailles outside Paris is not an accident. 

The inside of the palace is grand and ornate. The outside is spectacular. One interesting spot is the prominent burial place of several of Frederick's dogs next to their master. He requested to be buried on the grounds of his beloved palace, but this wish was not fulfilled until 205 years after his death. Visitors often place potatoes on Frederick's grave since he introduced them to Germany.

Our group with Viking Cruises left Sanssouci on the bus, headed towards Berlin, where we had a night in a hotel included in the basic fare. Many on the tour (like my friend and I) planned to stay a few extra days in Berlin to explore the city on our own. Others had purchased a cruise tour extension with Viking. 

The bus crossed Germany's famous Glienicke Bridge on the way into Berlin. This bridge is more commonly called the Bridge of Spies since it was used as a place to trade prisoners (some who were spies) between the East and West during the Cold War. There's even a line (painted pink) in the middle of the bridge to show the former demarcation line between East and West Germany. 

We had a scenic tour of Berlin as the bus passed through western Berlin towards our hotel in the former eastern zone. The first monument that everyone on the bus recognized was Berlin's iconic Brandenburg Gate.

The next morning when my friend and I started our all day walking tour of the city, we started at the Brandenburg Gate. Over the next two full days, we saw much of Berlin on foot but also used the excellent subway system. The next nine photos show just a few of the highlights.

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Berlin - Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Linda Garrison

Brandenburg Gate is one of the old city's 14 gates that led through the city walls. It's the only city wall gate remaining. Its name comes from the state of Brandenburg, which is west of Berlin, so this gate marked the start of the road to Brandenburg. Although the gate was built between 1788 and 1791 as a symbol of peace, most of us remember its role as a symbol of the division of East and West Berlin from the 1960s up to when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989.

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Berlin - Reichstag

Reichstag in Berlin
Linda Garrison

The Reichstag was built in the late 19th century as a meeting place for the Imperial Diet, Germany's Parliament when it was an Empire. A fire burned much of the building in 1933, and the Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend most human rights in the country. The building was not used by the Socialists and was heavily damaged during World War II and remained unused during the Cold War. After the reunification of Germany in 1990, the new government moved the capital from Bonn to Berlin, and the Reichstag was restored. It reopened in 1999.

Today, it is one of the city's most visited sites, and many travelers love to go up into the glass dome to see the views of Berlin. The Reichstag is in a beautiful setting near the Brandenburg Gate, with a large grassy square and adjacent Tiergarten Park.

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Berlin - Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler

Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler in Berlin
Linda Garrison

The Memorial to Politicians Who Opposed Hitler is near the Reichstag. This small monument reminds us of the 96 members of the Reichstag who died because they opposed Hitler and the Nazis. 

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Berlin - Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe
Linda Garrixon

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe was Germany's first government-sponsored Holocaust memorial. Opened in 2005, its 2,711 hollow concrete pillars are a memorable sight. The number of pillars doesn't represent anything particular; it's just the number that fit into the 4.7-acre site, which is just a couple of blocks from the Brandenburg Gate.

Walking through the site is quite moving since the ground slopes to the middle. As you walk around, the pillars (stellae) almost form a maze from which it's difficult to escape. 

The name of the memorial is quite thought-provoking. The use of the term "murder" shows that Germany acknowledges that the Jews were killed as part of a criminal act, not just as a tragedy of war. 

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Berlin - Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Linda Garrison

Museum Island in Berlin is home to five of the city's great museums. How convenient for them to be concentrated in one location and to sell combo-tickets that allow admittance to them all. Several days could be spent on Museum Island, but we only had a few hours, so focused on two of the museums--the Pergamon Museum and the Neues Museum.

Currently several of the museums are part of a major renovation project, which should be completed in about 2019. Some museum pieces are not available for viewing, and others have been moved to a different location or building. Patience is required, but it's worth the visit. And, those who go now have a good excuse to return in a few years.

I've visited the Pergamon archaeological site in Turkey so was excited to see this museum. Unfortunately for me, the gigantic Pergamon Altar, one of the museum's showpieces, is not available for viewing until 2019 after the current renovation of the museum is complete. I'm still glad I visited, since the Pergamon Museum has many other impressive pieces, and some of them are huge like the Ishtar Gate seen in the photo above.

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Berlin - Market Gate of Miletus in the Pegamon Museum

Market Gate of Miletus at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Linda Garrison

The Market Gate of Miletus, which was an ancient city in what is now Turkey, is another massive archaeological wonder in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. This gate dates back to the second century AD and was built by the Romans. Since most of the gate was destroyed during a 10th-century earthquake, most of this structure has been reconstructed. It's still impressive.

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Berlin - Golden Hat at the Neues Museum

Golden Hat at the Neues Museum in Berlin
Linda Garrison

The Neues Museum ("New Museum") was renovated during the first decade of the 21st century, and it is home to one of the world's best collections of Egyptian art and to other ancient artifacts. Its two most visited items are the bust of Queen Nefertiti dating back to 1300 BC and the Golden Hat seen in the photo above, which dates back to about 1000 BC. Both these pieces are so important that they warrant their own rooms. 

Anyone who has visited Egypt and heard all the stories of Queen Nefertiti and her husband King Akhenaton will love seeing her bust in the Neues Museum. Those who haven't been to Egypt will be amazed at her beauty. She is arguably the most important piece of Egyptian art in Europe. 

The Celts of the Bronze Age can take credit for making the Golden Hat, which was hammered into thin gold leaf and formed into the hat.  What's amazing is that four of these hats, all over 3000 years old, have been found! This hat was acquired from an individual collector in 1996 and  is made of 490 grams of gold. It has a pattern that many believe to be a type of calendar.

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Berlin - Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
Linda Garrison

Those of us who grew up during the days of the Cold War and Berlin Wall remember Checkpoint Charlie, which was the most used gate for foreigners entering East Berlin. The checkpoint and gate are long gone, but tourists love to come and have their photo taken with industrious young Germans who dress up in military uniforms at a mock-up of the former checkpoint. (We didn't get our photo made and only stayed a few minutes.) 

The area is very touristy, but many think the museum is quite interesting. 

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Berlin - Berlin Wall

Berlin Wall
Linda Garrison

Our trip to Berlin would not have been complete without visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial. The Wall was once a symbol of the divided city but now is only a memory since most of it was destroyed. The purpose of this museum is to show young people what this part of the city was like for the 25 years the Berlin Wall was in place. This photo was taken from the roof of the visitor center of the memorial and demonstrates how much of the Wall was actually two walls, with a "no man's land" in between. Very interesting and moving memorial.

All too soon our Viking Cruises' tour was over. We had seen many places in the Czech Republic and in Eastern Germany that were new for most of us. I was surprised at how much restoration and renovation had been accomplished in the region in the 25+ years since Germany was reunited. Although the crews of the two Viking Elbe River ships were as disappointed as we were about not sailing, the Viking teams on the Viking Beyla and Viking Astrild did an exceptional job of making our not-a-cruise into a memorable vacation. 

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.

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