Europe West to East

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013
Theodore W. Scull

A glance at a map of Europe shows that the most obvious navigable waterways are the Rhine, Rhone, Danube and Elbe rivers--all running mostly north and south. But then I saw that Peter Deilmann Cruises has an inland itinerary that starts near the North Sea at Amsterdam and ends two weeks later in the middle of Europe at Prague. How, I wondered, could Deilmann's MS Frederic Chopin cross northern Germany without taking a substantial detour along the North Sea coast to the mouth of the Elbe?

A closer look revealed a series of canals that branch off the Rhine in the Ruhr Valley, then wind eastward through Lower Saxony to join the Elbe at Magdeburg. Along the way, we would land at a dozen varied cities, mostly in former East Germany. These include some well-known places like Potsdam, site of the World War II conference that divided Germany; Meissen, with its fine china factory; Dresden, a magnificent city that rose from the ashes; and Berlin, Germany's new capital. But they also included lesser- known places such as Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation town of Wittenberg; a Rhine-style castle at Konigstein; and for this traveler, the completely unfamiliar names of Xanten, Braunschweig and Pillnitz. And as a bonus, we used the ship for overnight stays in Amsterdam and Prague, with landings adjacent to the city centers.

The trip began at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, where we caught a train into Central Station and were met by a Deilmann greeter who took our bags and pointed out the river landing a few hundreds yards away.

The Frederic Chopin entered service in March 2002 as a specially built two-deck river cruiser that can pass under the hundreds of low bridges that cross Europe's rivers and canals. She has a capacity of 79, but passengers on our sailing numbered only 54, almost evenly split between English-speakers and German-speakers. The balance resulted in an easy international social life where language was no barrier, as all the German staff and most passengers spoke good English.

Food and service were excellent, with menu and buffet selections at breakfast and lunch. Wines were very fairly priced. All cabins are the same size at 140 sq. ft. and have TVs with CNN. The upper deck rooms have French doors that open inward, while the lower deck accommodations have large picture windows. The observation lounge offered 180-degree viewing, a piano bar, morning bouillon and afternoon coffee, tea, cakes and pastries.

Many landings turned out to be within walking distance of the sights, and separate guides were provided for each language group, while on short bus rides, the commentary was evenly bilingual. The standard of guiding was excellent, a most important factor in unfamiliar parts of Germany.

The first excursions started in Amsterdam with a city overview; a tour of the Rijksmuseum to see the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Franz Hals; and a canal boat ride. In the afternoon we drove out to the Floriade, an elaborate world horticultural exhibition held once every decade.

Xanten, the first stop in Germany, has a 14th to 16th century town center with Gothic-style row houses. We saw the start of a local wine festival in the main square, and a tall town gate that now serves as a small hotel. The upper room guests order breakfast by phone and the delivery is via a lowered basket!

On a Saturday morning in Munster, we enjoyed watching a produce and flower market being set up and the local citizenry threading their way through the narrow surrounding streets by bicycle and foot. At Braunschweig, a family festival with rides, games and food stands was well underway, and we toured 12th century residences, a castle and cathedral. We then transferred by bus back to the boat, moored at Wolfsburg just opposite the impressive Volkswagen factory and visitors center.

The Mittelland Canal, completed in the 1930s and now being widened to the width of an autobahn, drew a constant stream of barges laden with coal, stone, sand, grain, lumber and fuels. The bridges were low enough that those of us standing on the top deck had to duck, and high enough, in most cases, to pass under while sitting down. The ship's doctor kept an eye on everyone, allowing us to remain outside to enjoy the passing scenery of farms, small towns, people fishing and swimming and the busy river traffic.

Mooring at Potsdam overnight, we visited Sanssouci, one of the great palaces and tiered gardens of Europe; and the Tudor-style Cecilienhof, a manor house that served as the site for the last World War II conference involving Truman, Stalin, Churchill and Attlee that partitioned Germany. We were now fully inside the former East Germany, where private enterprise has brought considerable investment and the closure of many uneconomic factories, resulting in unemployment rates of 20-25 per cent.

On the tour to Berlin, we found a boomtown atmosphere and the most amazing urban transformation: Empty lots left over from WWII bombing have been converted to thriving office, hotel, residential, cultural and entertainment complexes. For me, who knew Berlin before the wall and during its construction in August 1961, many sections have become unrecognizable, especially the new corporate and entertainment complex at Potsdamer Platz and the city's most famous avenue, Unter den Linden.

Returning to the ship, we joined the River Elbe, sailing up fast-flowing portions and slack water sections between locks.

Madgeburg, largely destroyed in 1945, still has some monumental buildings from the Middle Ages and Baroque period, set among monotonous rows of Communist-era apartment blocks; while Wittenberg trades on Martin Luther's life and activity during the start of the Protestant Reformation. According to the guide, the town facades, now sparkling with colorful restorations, were mostly gray and dilapidated during the German Democratic Republic days.

A Meissen china factory tour showed us how the prized porcelain is sculpted and hand painted. Then we enjoyed a scenic drive along the Elbe to Dresden, perhaps the most amazing 20th century example of a city rebuilt after total destruction during one awful night. The opera house, churches, royal residences, museums, offices, and apartments were reconstructed in their original styles, an ongoing 50-year project that returns the grandeur to one of Germany's most beautiful and cultural cities. Over the years, the sandstone has weathered, and someone who did not know about the wartime bombing would not realize that the city was newly rebuilt. At night the floodlighting is a must-see spectacle.

The countryside now becomes hilly in what is known as Saxon Switzerland, and a trip to Pillnitz Palace showed us an 18th century royal retreat with Italian and oriental influences and an English-style botanical garden. After a short drive along the Elbe, we climbed to Konigstein, a castle fortress perched high up on a promontory overlooking a horseshoe bend in the river.

On the final leg, we passed into the Czech Republic, and after an all-day scenic river transit, we docked in the heart of Prague, a once gray city I had not seen for almost 40 years. Architecturally, the capital is one of Europe's most spectacular, with displays of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Art Nouveau and turn-of-the century Paris, differing styles often lined up side by side..

We walked the city's embankments, crossed the tower-gated Charles Bridge--the city's gathering place all day and into the night--and climbed up to Prague's Castle complex. On our own, we visited the Mucha Museum, commemorating Alphonse Mucha, who created the Art Nouveau style in poster art and architectural design. At night the city is beautifully floodlit and the top deck of the Frederic Chopin gave us an orchestra seat, one that was very hard to vacate at the end of the 14 days.

Peter Deilmann Cruises, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 170, Alexandria, VA 22324. Phone: 800-348-8287. www.deilmann-cruises.com.

Per-person package rates for this cruise begin at $3,798, including the 14-day cruise, all (15) shore excursions and transfers between the airport and the ship. Port charges are $95, and airfare is additional. 2003 rates are scheduled to be held at 2002 levels.

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