Elbe River – a journey into history and nature

Dresden - Zwinger
Dresden – Zwinger

Gliding along one of Germany’s largest and longest rivers – the Elbe – on a paddle steam ship that was built in 1885 –the ” Meissen “– is something special indeed.  I do remember summer excursions with my parents and grandparents using one of these steam driven paddle boats to start a day of hiking with great fondness , but it has been years since I had the chance to experience one of these grand old ladies of the river.

The "Meissen"
The “Meissen”

The Saxon Steamboat Company was founded in 1836 and at its height had more than 40 paddle steamers in its fleet – these days there are only 9 still powered by steam engines (one of those still fired by coal)  but it is the worlds oldest and largest paddle steamer fleet. Something Dresden is very proud of and is a great tourist magnet.

Leaving Dresden by Boat
Leaving Dresden by Boat

As in many great European cities which are built along rivers (London, Paris, Amsterdam to name a few) the cruises along those waterways are special in so many ways and give the visitor views of the town and surrounding landscape that one otherwise would not see.


It is the same here – leaving the center of town –  with its famous baroque buildings – behind we are gracefully paddling along the so called “Elbwiesen” and passing under some famous bridges – the Albert Bruecke and the Blaues Wunder (Blue Wonder) Bridge, called so due its blue color and one of Europe’s first steel suspension bridges, which was the only river crossing that survived the bombing of Dresden on February 13th 1945.

Blaues Wunder - Blue Wonder Bridge
Blaues Wunder – Blue Wonder Bridge

Later the Nazis wanted to blow the bridge up but luckily some activists cut the wires just in time and thus preserving this symbol of Eastern Dresden – a true wonder bridge.


Kayaking on the river
Kayaking on the river

Near here they constructed the first mountain railway in the world in 1901 which is still in use by locals but mostly by tourists. Leaving the suburb of Blasewitz behind we are passing some rowers and canoeists that  train here on the river and have to avoid the ship – past Olympic and World champions have honed their skills on this fast flowing waterway. There are more than 20 water sport clubs along the river – anything from kayak to rowing and anything in between have their home here.

In the past the Elbe was very polluted due to heavy industry along its banks but the  water quality has improved 10fold and the river is now again home to various species of fish (more than 40 including salmon, eel and pike) and even the almost extinct Elbe Bieber (Beaver) – a type of beaver that is endemic to this river. People now swim again in the river and so it might not be such a surprise that water sport has had such a history here.

Now, a little more about the ship – there are 3 levels in all, one large open top deck which gives views in all directions on a nice sunny day. Below that, there are two decks that are more saloon like – the middle of which has also some seats on the outside. As on most of these ships people flock to the open top one first – just as well as I found a lovely two-seater area with table on first deck and can write this while we are moving. All area’s have food and drink service and on the middle deck passengers can view and admire the open engine room and the water wheels.

"Twin Seat"
“Twin Seat”

When the ship stops to let people off or on its amazing how quietly and smoothly we move back into the middle of the river – one could almost say gliding along….

As we are going past the suburb of Wachwitz with Dresdens highest building (the TV tower) the landscape changes slowly but ever so dramatically – it is greener and more so called “Villa’s” are now shaping the landscape as much as gardens and meadows along the river. The names of most suburbs have the ending “itz” which is of Slavic origin and means village or settlement and go back to the 12th century.

Here they also have old “treidler” pathways – long strong ropes were attached to ships and men towed them up river. Down river they could sail. With the introduction of steam engines in the early 18th century these men lost their jobs but the pathways are now used for recreational purposes – they follow the river all the way to the German – Czech border and many people use them for hiking or biking. In fact one of Europe’s best international long distance cycle paths runs along the River Elbe from Prague to Hamburg.

Laubegast Shipyard
Laubegast Shipyard

As we are passing the last remaining shipyard along the river it is noteworthy that even with maintenance contracts in place, ship building is ultimately a loss making industry here – with competition further down stream and in Eastern Europe this local ship yard almost went out of business last year but the ability these specialists bring to a fleet of paddle steamers like the one I am traveling on now is price less. Luckily someone with deep pockets saved the shipyard and it seems they are busy again.

Passing“Maria am Wasser” a small baroque church that was built on the  foundations of an older one from the 15th century we are reminded of the perils of traveling along a river in the centuries before. Right in front of the church used to be a sand bank on which many ships perished – so to pray for safe passage the god fearing people built a church on this spot. It is still used today for romantic weddings in particular.

Church - Maria am Wasser
Church – Maria am Wasser

We’ve reached Pillnitz Palace, its history dates back to the middle ages but the present form has been built as a summer palace by our most famous former ruler Augustus II. the Strong.

Leaving Pillnitz Palace
Leaving Pillnitz Palace

It’s a Baroque gem and now belongs to the state of Saxony. In the garden one can find the oldest Camellia in Europe – more than 250 years old which has its own purpose built green house on wheels. Opposite the lower or Water Palace is one of the last islands of the River Elbe – a nature reserve where humans are banned and evidently beavers have made a new home now. There used to be more than 50 islands until the 19th century.

August the Strong built the palace for his mistress Anna Constantia of Brockdorff but when she fell out of favor he took the palace for himself. He wanted it to be as grand as Versailles and modeled parts of the areal also on Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam (the Prussian King’s summer palace). The Palace is situated right on the river’s edge and that makes it prone to flooding and the record floods from 2012 when the river reached well over 9m did some major damage to the buildings and grounds which are still in places been repaired.

Hallmark signs of a beaver on the island in the river
Hallmark signs of a beaver on the island in the river

Pillnitz also marks the end of the city of Dresden (the river runs through Dresden for more than 20km) – from here it is not far to the famous hiking and free climbing area’s of Saxon Switzerland (or Sandstone Mountains) – a National Park that shares it’s key zone with the Czech Republic.


One of the first and largest towns in this area is Pirna which has its origins in the 12th century but evidence from flint tools take the human occupation in the area back to the late Paleolithic. The town used to be a major military outpost for the Saxon Kingdom and the fortress of Sonnenstein still pays tribute to this history – however Sonnenstein is also infamous for a very different reason – more than 15.000 disabled people where gassed here during WW2 by the Nazis.

Pirna - Castle Sonnenstein
Pirna – Castle Sonnenstein

Also nearby is the small village of Graupa where one of Germany’s most famous composers Richard Wagner spent his summer holidays and composed the opera “Lohengrin”. He drew inspiration from his excursions and walks into the Sandstone mountains of Saxon Switzerland.

As Wildflowers, Poplar and Elm trees give us the impression that we are far away from civilization it is easy to imagine how our ancestors used the rivers as major highways. It is no wonder why most major towns and cities owe their origins their location along a river or ocean for easy transport. If one looks at all the main rivers of Europe and follows them along one can see how important they where and still are to this day. The Elbe is by no means as big as the Danube or the Rhine but one could go by boat from Prague to Hamburg on it and would pass many great cities that where shaped by the river on the way.

Dresden - Public Transport - from Bus to Ferry
Dresden – Public Transport – from Bus to Ferry

It is also worth mentioning that in Dresden the public transport system (which by the way Auckland! is VERY efficient and convenient and relies a lot on trams and trains as well as buses) also incorporates ferries for river crossings.

On this trip we are also often reminded of the destructive forces rivers can harbor. The commentator just reminded us that in the big flood in 2002 the small river Müglitz that is just entering the Elbe here, destroyed many towns and villages and claimed quite a few lives. Much has been done since those 3 big flood events (another just last year – see my post from June 2013) but ultimately – mother nature always has a joker up her sleeve.

Sandstone Mountains - Bastei Bridge
Sandstone Mountains – Bastei Bridge

As we finally reach our destination – the town of Königstein – within the Saxon Switzerland National Park (details in the next post) it is time to disembark and bid farewell to one of the grand old dame’s of the river until next time – hopefully in the not to distant future.

As always – photos of this trip will be on my flickr page here.

Koenigstein Fortress
Koenigstein Fortress

1 Comment

  1. Kia ora Rita

    What a fabulous journey you are on!! Great that the Elbe is clean enough now for swimming and the beavers are coming back (though not so great for the trees perhaps!).

    arohanui Annie

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