Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 10.26.14
Just Outside Washington


From Magdeburg to Dresden

On Sunday morning, the full touring group of 112 travelers set out in three coaches; we were informed that coaches are different from buses because they have a bathroom.

The group came from America, Australia, England, and Scotland. We left the Hilton Berlin headed for the Viking ship, Fontane, in Magdeburg, which is almost 100 miles from Berlin. There are port facilities in Berlin on the Spree and Havel Rivers and the Havel is connected to the Elbe by the Elbe-Havel Canal, but the bridges are too low for the Fontane. Our travel group was now six having been joined by my brother, Dave, and his wife Mary.

On the way to Magdeburg we stopped in Potsdam and toured the Schloss Sanssouci -- our first of many palaces -- which was built by Frederick the Great in about 1750.

The palace is a small intimate palace in a great park setting including the grand staircase (about 120 steps) and vineyard that leads up to an entrance from the paths and fountain below. The park comprises 740 acres, includes a second huge palace, and many things to see. After the tour, we found a nice little Italian restaurant for lunch and then returned to the coach.

Our next stop was palace Cecilienhof built by the Crown Prince Wilhelm for his wife Cecilie in 1914. It is known primarily as the site of the Potsdam Conference of Churchill/Atlee, Stalin, and Truman. This was historically interesting and architecturally just a big tudor house. After another hour on the coach, we reached Magdeburg and checked in aboard the Fontane, got briefed, and were treated to a great dinner. The 'house' wines were included, not great but very presentable. During dinner, the Fontane got underway; very smooth and quiet.

The scenery during dinner included several churches, the cathedral, several bridges -- not a lot of clearance -- and an abandoned chemical factory. After leaving the urban areas, the land was devoted to farming with an occasional field of solar panels. The current runs swiftly in the Elbe -- we estimated six knots -- and so the Fontane going upstream against the current made about six knots net.

On Monday we docked in Dessau and after breakfast went ashore and traveled by coach to the gardens and parks of Wörlitz, a World Heritage Site. The garden, 17 square miles, was done in the English style about 1780 by Prince Franz Anhalt-Dessau and was fantastic. We had a nice walk through the garden and a gondola (not the Venice style) tour of the lake and its shoreline attractions. During our gondola tour of the lake, the grey sky changed to rain; it poured.

The principality of Dessau-Wörlitz was one of 40 that made up the German Confederation, each ruled by a prince and supported by serfs and merchants in style. Serfdom was abolished in Germany in 1807.

The town of Dessau has architecture ranging from Renaissance to modern; it was the second home of the Bauhaus led by Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The school/workshop building and facuty homes are situated on a lovely tree-lined street and are well maintained. The Bauhaus architecture and art was not popular with the Nazis so it was closed in 1933. Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and others wound up in the U.S.


The Fontane got underway during lunch and while the sky was still overcast. The Elbe wandered through bright green farmed fields and past small towns. The terrain was pretty flat, being part of the North German Plain. At Rodleben the Elbe made a great 'U' bend before proceeding eastward. We saw many modern power-generating windmills, part of Germany's green energy program.

Just before Wittenberg is a large industrial area with chemical plants that were clearly in operation. During dinner, we arrived and tied up at Wittenberg. Wittenberg is a World Heritage Site and a fully functioning city of about 50,000 people.

Wittenberg, like East Berlin, was undergoing much construction, including the Castle Church where Martin Luther posted his 95 theses that kicked off the Reformation. However, unlike many other historic German towns, Wittenberg proper was not bombed in WWII.

We had a walking tour of the town with a guide who was a fountain of information. She pointed out that Luther had a collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon; they are equally honored with statues in the town square. One of the key issues they raised was the practice of the Catholic Church selling indulgences, which wiped away sins; an early pay-to-play system.

Luther also asked why the Pope, who Luther said was rich, built St. Peters on the backs of the German serfs. He translated the bible into German, essentially defining the German language.

Luther and the other monks of the Reformation smuggled 12 nuns out of the Nimbschen convent in herring barrels. The guys married off all but Katharina who was difficult. So two years later Luther married her and set the policy that Protestant clergy could marry.

We took coaches back to the Fontane, which got underway as we had lunch. Lunch on the Fontane came in two sizes; light and full. The light lunch was soup and salad with wine, which was served in the lounge on the middle deck. The full lunch, which I avoided -- too much food and too much temptation -- was served in the dining room on the lower deck.

The crew of the Fontane were great and provided terrific service. All but one of the 42 crew members were from Eastern Europe; Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, Czech Republic and Rumania and spoke English. The Chief Engineer was German.


The afternoon was warm and sunny, which made the upper sun deck ideal. The picture shows Anne and Kathy catching some rays on the upper deck.

The Elbe meandered through farmland turning south, passing a cable ferry, several villages including Wörblitz, which had an old Soviet exercise ground nearby that the Soviets left along with a bunch old stuff. The Elbe River traffic isn't just tour boats although there were plenty of tour boats. In addition to Viking there were local tour boats many of the side paddle wheel design from the early 20th century. We saw a lot of commercial traffic carrying scrap metal, machinery, and farm products.

About dinnertime we docked at Torgau, which was where the U.S. Army met the Soviet Army in April 1945. As agreed at the Yalta Conference, the Americans pulled back to the west leaving Torgau and all the area along the Elbe in the Soviet Zone. After dinner Boyjan, our Program Director, lead a tour of the historic town center, which was restored after the unification. The tour included, the brewery, the monument for the meeting of the Russian and American troops and a Russian military cemetery.

The early Renaissance Hartenfels castle dominates the town. The town of 20,000 is home to several manufactures including a Saint-Gobain solar panel factory. Martin Luther's wife Katarina is buried in Torgau.

We got underway again about breakfast time and headed to Meissen, famous for its porcelain. We were still in the North German Plain so the terrain was still pretty flat and the river meandering. Since Magdeburg the land has risen only 155 feet, from 141 feet about sea level to 256 feet, in a distance of 110 miles. The weather was warm and sunny, as we cruised by many villages: Belgern, Stehla, Köttlitz and Mühlenberg; there seemed to be a town every couple of kilometers.

Mühlenberg was the site of the prisoner of war camp, Stalag IV-B during WWII, and it was operated by the Soviets after the war. Other scenery included cable ferries, a sugar factory, and several pit mines for the porcelain clay used in the Meissen factory.


As we approached Meissen during our lunch, we could see the Albrechtsburg castle and the Gothic Meissen Cathedral on the promontory above the river and town, as shown in the picture. The town flooded in June 2013. The water mark shows in the picture as the light tan along the bottom of the tan building in the foreground coming just above the lower window sills.

After docking, we disembarked for a tour of the Meissen factory where we were treated to demonstrations of forming a porcelain pitcher on a wheel, attaching handles and final decoration. In addition, we had a narration of the entire process, which involves multiple firings. Meissen was the first manufacturer of porcelain in Europe. Naturally, we concluded our tour with a stop at the Meissen factory store. We resisted buying. After the factory we did a walking tour of the town and explored our way back to the Fontane.

The Fontane was under way before dinner and the terrain became hilly and more urbanized -- we had left the North German Plain and reached the height of 348 feet above sea level. For scenery we were treated to several castles and industrial facilities including a power plant and a former shipyard. It was dark when we sailed into Dresden and the buildings were lit up, which made a grand scene. We were settled in the lounge and enjoying the scene and the after dinner drink.


Dresden was destroyed by bombing by the British and Americans toward the end of WWII with at least 25,000 dead; it was not really known how many people were in the city. Dresden was rebuilt after the war as can be seen in the picture. We were scheduled to tour Dresden both by coach and by foot in the morning.

Next Episode: Onward, to Steti