Spirit Quest on Life As A River

Spirit Quest

Life As A River

Ugly And Beautiful

By The Rev. Dr. Hanns F. Skoutajan
True North Perspective

1 November 2015 — When speaking about river cruises one is immediately reminded of the famous Rhine/Danube cruises that have become so popular. Many of my friends have taken these excursions through Europe’s famous waterways from Holland to the Black Sea.

There is, however, one other mighty European river, lesser known, and perhaps not quite as spectacular as the Rhine/Danube. The Elbe also carries cruise ships but I have hardly ever seen it advertised. Look it up in Google for contact and itinerary. One friend of mine took the cruise upstream from Berlin to Prague and enjoyed it very much. I had the opportunity to read the brochure of the trip written by a very knowledgeable historian and geographer.

  Image: Masaryk Water Lock on the Elbe River and Střekov castle in Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic, via Wikipedia.
  Masaryk Water Lock on the Elbe River and Střekov castle in Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic, 2005. Photo by Ondrej Konicek, via Wikipedia.

The cruise ship was very much like the ships that ply the Rhine/Danube, a bit shorter but the accommodation and the food and wine were excellent she told me. I was very tempted so sign on. But the real temptation was that it traversed my old homeland. I was born in the city of Aussig on the Elbe, now Ustai nad labem, that straddles the Elbe river close to the German border. It is now the 5th largest city of the Czech Republic.

Prague, which is the southern terminus of the cruise, is in itself inaccessible to large cruise ships thus the passengers are taken by bus to the confluence of the Elbe and the Moldau of which Smetana wrote in his popular tone poem the Vltava or Moldau.

After boarding, the ship takes you down river. Vinyards line the banks. In my youth their wine was sneered at but over the past fifty years they have made vast improvement in their product, though probably still no match to the German, Austrian, Hungarian and French wines. I have a painting on the wall of my dining room of the Czernoseki valley and its vinyards and the beautiful river.

On the first day the ship takes you through what was once known as the Sudetenland, an area which, before the war, though part of Czechoslovakia, was ethnically German. In 1945 at the end of the war Czechs revenged themselves on the Germans and drove 3.5 millions of them out of their homeland.

Litomericice is the first larger city you encounter. It is located on a hill. The cruise itinerery gives you time to walk its cobblestone streets, visit its cathedral and shops.

Once again on board the hills you pass get appreciably higher. Soon you approach the first lock that takes the ship past a large power station. On the right bank is a high promontory which is adorned by the ruins of an ancient castle’ known as Schreckenstein, (rock of fear). Its Czech name is Strekov. Unfortunately you are not given an opportunity to go to the top where there is a pleasant eating place or to see the room where Wagner wrote the scenario of his opera Tannhauser. From the pinnacle there is a beautiful view of the river.

Once cleared of the locks the river makes a sharp right turn past my old home town, Aussig. It has always been noted as an industrial area with coal mining and chemical works, not a healthy climate. You may see the tower of St.Mary’s Church which stands at a rakish angle, the ravages of a bomb that landed nearby. The ship will now pass under the Benes Bridge. It was here that the Massacre of Aussig took place at the end of the war when Czechs hurled German workers returning from work over the bridge and shot at them if they surfaced. Some 2000 were killed in this atrocity.

The river then flows on to the city of Decin. I knew it as one of the centres of social democratic resistance in the prewar days. Many of these activists who managed to escape the Nazis came to farm in Canada. They were a tough and committed lot.

From now on the river becomes truly spectacular as it winds its way through the Saxonian Alps. These are high sandstone bluffs in places joined by dizzying walkways . By now you will have passed into Germany. It becomes a notably livelier river. You will see many side paddle wheelers some still belching black smoke. On shore you pass pleasant communities that cater to the tourist trade.

Soon Dresden comes into view. On the left bank is the old city that was totally destroyed in the fire bombing in February 1945 shortly before the end of the war. The city has been rebuilt. The passenger will be taken to the restored Church of Our Lady the Frauenkirche, which despite its name is a Protestant church. It is a masterpiece of masonry and engineering. I have had the privilege of seeing this work from the time when they gathered the rubbles to its finality as a beautiful cathedral with a gold cross on its dome, a donation from Coventry with which the city it is twinned. I have relatives in this city whom I have visited from time to time and observed the rebuilding. The passengers will also be taken to the Zwinger, the magnificent art gallery whose masterpieces the Germans managed to protect in underground bunkers. Your ship will also rest overnight in Dresden which may give you a chance to attend the famous Semper opera house.

Next morning it is off down river past the city of Meissen famous for its china. Indeed the day previously there may have been an excursion to the china works if so desired.

I suppose that the Elbe tours cannot compete with the Rhine/Danube cruises who offer spectacular views of castles and mountains all the way. The Elbe terrain now flattens out. There are some places of interest such as the bridge at Torgau where Russian and American soldiers managed to crawl over its ruins to join hands.

Luther City Wittenberg also is located on the banks and the itinerary gives you opportunity to visit the Schlosskirche, or Palace Church, where Luther nailed his 95 Thesis. I recall sitting in the town church where Luther often preached his reformation gospel: By grace you are saved. As I looked at the damp stained walls I recalled that his voice probably echoed off these very walls 500 years ago.

There are other places such as Magdeburg that you will visit. The Elbe does not go to Berlin but is connected by a series of canals. The tour ends in this capital of Europe but the river flows on to Hamburg and thence merges with the North Sea. Smetana’s tone poem ends with a rousing finale.

His composition is about the course of a mighty river. It could be the Moldau/Elbe, the Rhine/Danube, or even the St.Lawrence, though its ambience is definitely Czech. However, it is also a parable of life from a tiny brook to a might waterway, from childhood to old age. I think of it often as I contemplate my life. More than anything it is my wish to have my ashes scattered in a river that would sweep them out into the sea where they would mingle with all of life, and be at peace.