A Cruise Along the Elbe River

Though navigation along the Elbe River has improved and developed over the years, the course of the river remains remarkably natural. Sections of the Elbe, before being controlled, tended to silt up quickly, making a cruise or shipping difficult. Despite such impediments, the Elbe River served even a thousand years ago to transport freight. Both leisure cruise travel and commercial shipping along the Elbe have changed over time but remain popular today. In fact, eight of the paddle steamers built as river cruise vessels in the 19th century are still in use.

Regional Geography

The Czech Republic is a landlocked central European country comprising the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia and parts of Silesia. Its capital and largest city is Prague (Praha in Czech). It is bordered by Poland, Germany, Austria and Slovakia.

Both rivers and mountains shape the landscape of this region. The Elbe River originates in the Riesengebirge, or Giant Mountains, near southwest Poland. Czechs call the river “Labe,” while “Elbe” is its German name. These names derive from Indo-Germanic or Latin roots meaning "white" or "shining." A Czech river cruise through the region reveals the beauty that must have inspired these descriptive names.

The longest river in the country is the Vltava, known as the Moldau in Germany. Both of these names, from similar roots, mean “wild water.” The Vltava inspired Bedrich Smetana to produce a well-known symphonic poem that follows the course of the river in something of a musical river cruise. It empties into the Elbe River north of Prague. As the river that flows through the heart of Prague, the Vltava is one of the nation’s most important rivers.

Historical Background

Settled by Celtic and Germanic tribes since the Neolithic era, the Czech lands were under Habsburg rule from the 16th century on and were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until its dissolution after World War I. Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 after World War I. It was occupied by the Nazis during World War II and fared very poorly, with approximately 390,000 of its citizens being killed and hundreds of thousands of others imprisoned. There was an active resistance movement in Czechoslovakia, and Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in 1942 in Prague. The occupation ended in 1945 with the arrival of Soviet and American troops; in the succeeding years, most German residents were deported to Germany and Austria. Czechoslovakia then became a Communist state from 1948 until the 1989 Velvet Revolution. At the beginning of 1993, the country peacefully split into the Czech and Slovak republics. Writer and dramatist Václav Havel, whose work was at one time banned from theaters, was the ninth and final president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, serving from 1989 to 2003. The country’s economy recovered quickly following the Communist era and is very healthy today, with tourism being a significant factor.

Places of Interest on Cruise Itineraries

Due to its great beauty, Prague is a very popular destination with river cruise travelers. Though so many cities in the region were devastated during World War II, Prague’s structures survived the war remarkably intact. Consequently, its architecture, a beautiful representation of the city’s long and colorful history, is available for cruise visitors to enjoy today. The Charles Bridge over the Vltava River is a gothic masterpiece that displays examples of Bohemian sculpture. The bridge is the true center of Prague, and trade bustles in its gateways.

The Czech Republic is famous for its love of puppetry and marionettes, and for originating Pilsner-style beer. Many delicious wines come from the Bohemian region, and tastings are a part of some cruise schedules. Cruise visitors may also discover the charms of other towns such as Melnik and Litomerice. Exploring the enchanting Central European region on a cruise provides unforgettable travel experiences of many unique cultural delights.