East Germany & the Glorious Czech Republic | Part I
When designing our East Germany & the Glorious Czech Republic tour, I went back to the old ‘Eastern Bloc’ to piece together not what was obvious, but rather what was off the regular touring radar. We knew that we would hinge the tour around 3 nights in Berlin and 3 nights in Prague, and that Cesky Krumlov and Salzburg would be included, with slightly shorter stays. The big question though was what else was out there that absolutely demanded to be included. We had a short list, but by the time we got back to Australia it had grown longer…. much longer.
The Palaces of Potsdam
Did you know that it takes just 2 hours to drive from Berlin to Dresden? At Albatross Tours, we have chosen to take 3 whole days to make the journey as there are so many sights to see.
Miraculously transformed Berlin is once again one of the great cities of the world. Not just because of the dramatic Brandenburg gate and elegant broad Unter Den Linden Strasse (Street under the Linden Trees) and its staggering museums, parks and monuments, but also the vibrant life, energy, and the amazing people who live there.
And that was my dilemma! You see, I absolutely knew you will need 2 full days to explore Berlin, yet I also wanted to include a trip out to nearby Potsdam. I had to put my thinking cap on. So, travelling out to Potsdam where the local tourist office provided a charming guide to show us around. Yes, of course we would visit the magnificent terraced gardens and staterooms of Sanssouci Palace, once the summer home of Frederick the Great, former King of Prussia. But there was so much more of equal importance. We visited the glorious recently renovated Neues Palace (New Palace) – 16 times bigger than Sanssouci, the street cafes in the Dutch Quarter and of course the fascinating rooms and museum in Cecilienhof Palace where the WWII Potsdam Convention was held between Churchill, Truman and Stalin. Then there were the massive parklands filled with over a hundred pleasure palaces, and of course the famous ‘Bridge of Spies’ A whole incredible day to soak up the beauty of Potsdam. Hmm maybe we need to add an extra day in Berlin…?
An Enchanted Forest
The next stop was the Spreewald Forest. My plan was we should stop here for a short punt ride through the peaceful marshland of this UNESCO listed biosphere. After checking in to our hotel, we walked into the ‘marshland port’ and discovered a hidden world. It was late afternoon, again the sun was shining, and it was so angelically peaceful. You see, this was a day trippers’ destination and the tourists had all gone home. Once again this bought home the absolute necessity of our formula of longer stays and being in places when the massed tourist hordes has gone home. We walked over wooden bridges, spanning tranquil forested canals, past parklands to a beer garden by the water. The following morning, we jumped on a punt and we were poled through the delightful forest, past waterside timber houses, bulging hay stacks, to a car- less, street-less marsh island town called Lehde. A perfect lunch-stop! Our groups would obviously have to stay 2 nights in Spreewald and I had also just found the ideal hotel – an historic German Schloss!
The Unique Landscapes of Saxon Switzerland
That is when the ‘tour planning’ penny dropped. We don’t need a 4th day in Berlin. We could take our travelers on a delightful day exploring Potsdam en route to a relaxing 2 night stay in the Spreewald Forest.
And that created another opportunity. You see, Dresden is just over an hour away and this 2 night Spreewald stay meant we could plan another very special full day, en route. So where to? To Dresden’s east is a fantastic National Park called Saxon Switzerland where there were not one but two of my ‘Bucket list’ destinations.
The Bastei Bridge is an ancient stone bridge linking a series of volcanic rocky outcrops 194 metres above the River Elbe. An easy flat walk, the views were striking. An awesome experience. Gazing across the river valley you can also see a series of rocky outcrops and perched high on one are the bristling stone ramparts of one of Europe’s greatest castles – Königstein! Meaning ‘Kings Stone’, their forbidding ramparts are built on top of forbidding cliffs. Perhaps that is why it is utterly impregnable! We can access it externally in an open lift that climbs the ramparts, or internally in a more conventional elevator. I preferred to take a short walk up across the huge drawbridge and on through the ‘keep’ with its lines of spikey portcullises. On top there are cafes and restaurants, museums and a fabulous 1.5 kilometre walk round the ramparts. Again, with amazing views.
Pillnitz and an Elbe Cruise into Dresden
So how to complete the day? I love a good river cruise and I felt the most dramatic way to enter the gorgeous city of Dresden would be along the river. After a visit to Pirna, with a stroll enjoyed through the ornate river side gardens of Pillnitz palace, before jumping on an Elbe paddle steamer. Passing the UNESCO listed river side farmlands we dock under Dresden’s famous Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl's Terrace). With its old buildings and al fresco café’s on top we could see why it is nicknamed the ‘Balcony of Europe’. And we could see why we absolutely must stay here for 3 nights!
Dresden and the white grand piano
A city which was bombed into oblivion during the Second World War, and for most of the time since had been part of Eastern Germany. I knew so much had been lovingly rebuilt, both during the communist regime and more since then. But how much had been rebuilt?
Never venturing to Dresden previously, I was absolutely enthralled as we explored the reconstructed old city. The Semper Opera stood grand, the baroque Zwinger Palace was beautiful; the Imperial Palace housed startling collections of bejeweled crowns, gold orbs, gilded eggs, emerald boxes and other outstanding pieces of art and treasures.
But it was sitting in a café in the gorgeous Neumarkt (New Market) Square facing the recently re-built Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) that I was ambushed by this remarkable city. The sun was shining down casting deep afternoon shadows, and in front of me sat a burly man playing classical music on a ‘grand piano’. He was tanned and muscly and his tattoos danced on his biceps as he played Chopin. But the thing is, his piano was white, and on wheels. He was a busker wheeling his piano from café to café, collecting coins and leaving happiness. And there was one more thing…. there were so few tourists.
Dresden is full of depth, beauty and peaceful charm, and is located within 2 hours striking distance are some of the most remarkable sights and visits you will find anywhere in Europe.