Along the Elbe

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Along the Elbe

Along the Elbe
Against the current

The longer a river, the more stories it can tell. A voyage of discovery along the Elbe from the North Sea to studying sources in the Czech Giant Mountains.

Joachim Deleker


The river flows uphill. No doubt. A soaked margarine carton bobs by. A few hours ago he was still on the other side, the Elbe pushed him into the North Sea. But this uses the rising tide and transports the waste back into the river. But what does river mean and what does sea mean? Where does the Elbe end, where does the North Sea begin? From the Steubenhoft in Cuxhaven, once the berth for the liner steamers to America, the other bank of the Elbe can hardly be made out. There – 15 kilometers away – a few white wind rotors can only be seen vaguely, tormenting their way through the evening haze. What later only requires a ridiculous jump in the Giant Mountains can take hours here at the mouth: the river crossing. There is not a bridge connecting the banks between Hamburg and Cuxhaven. A huge container ship interrupts the lazy silence. The gray hull slowly slides downstream. The red flag of China flutters at the stern. Wanderlust comes up. Past the wooden Kugelbake, the official end point of the Elbe, the steel colossus disappears into the North Sea. 1091 kilometers to the source. On the way to Hamburg, the Elbe rarely does the honors. It is hidden behind high dikes that offer protection from the autumn storm surges. When Birgit and I reach the Hanseatic city at noon, the thermometer shows 31 degrees. On the hottest day of the year, even the ships don’t feel like moving. Only a few smugglers are looking for work. In Hamburg, the river changes its face, branches into the North and South Elbe, into countless water arms and docks. But finally, after everything is over, the busy Elbe becomes a large, peaceful river. Another 970 kilometers. Behind Neu-Darchau, east of Luneburg, there are finally the first bends. However, bikers can only enjoy the fun during the week. At the weekend there is a strict fun – uh – ban on motorcycles. It gets lonelier. For a long time, the Wendland was the last western tip that ventured into the GDR territory, the border area. A bumpy path follows the dike from Hitzacker. Every now and then a mini village like Menkefitz, Penkefitz or Wussegel with red brick and half-timbered houses. Black and white cows wait for the cool evening, imaginative anti-nuclear slogans decorate house walls and streets. Gorleben is not far anymore. Early the next morning we wait for the Elbe ferry to Lenzen. Seven years ago this was the boundary between the worlds. The GDR began on the other, inaccessible bank. Now five marks are enough to cross the Elbe. A gray watchtower with shattered windows greets us as the last witness of the old border fortifications. With its coarse cobbled streets and old houses, Lenzen looks almost like it did before the fall of the Wall. Just the many new cars – where have all the Trabbis gone? – don’t really fit into my old GDR picture. The highways are smooth asphalt. Carefully painted median strips and clean delineator posts bring them to a uniform level. But the numerous wooden crosses adorned with flowers on the roadside make it clear that many were overwhelmed with the fast cars on the new roads. The river in the Altmark curves through the Elbe valley undisturbed by roads. Many oxbow lakes and alluvial forests offer perfect living conditions for frogs to storks. So it’s no wonder that we come across a national superlative: Ruhstadt, the village with the most storks in Germany. There is hardly one of the red brick houses that is not crowned with a nest. Most of the young storks have already flown out at the end of August. Only in a few eyrie is hectic when an adult bird floats in, greets the partner with a loud clatter of beak and feeds the offspring. Many kilometers further south we reach another natural event, the “Middle Elbe Biosphere Reserve”. Almost untouched nature that was largely left to its own devices during the GDR era. Even the beavers survived here by the hundreds, despite the contamination of the Elbe by the nationally owned industry. We turn off the engines at the small ferry from Aken, on the edge of the nature reserve. It smells of forest and the rain of the night. The morning sun evaporates the moisture from the asphalt. Four gray herons stand in the shallow bank water and hope for an early breakfast. In the pale blue sky, a pair of storks use the thermals to effortlessly gain altitude. Contemplative idyll on the big river. The little greed ferry, like most on the Elbe, is hopelessly behind its time, and yet it is ultra-modern. It crosses the river without a motor, is – held in position by a wire rope anchored in the middle of the river – by the current gently and slowly across the river. The Aken ferry has even more to offer, on one side it shows off a massive steel mast. When I asked about the purpose of the mast, the ferryman grinned from ear to ear: “That was a design flaw. After the launch, the ferry was listed. So the shipyard built the mast on the lighter side. The basket on top has no function at all. ”Aha. When you get to the other bank, it’s time for breakfast. An old man comes by and wants to know if my Honda is a BMW. I can’t do him a favor, but I tell the story of the mast, which he confirms with a nod. “Do you also know that our ferry sank three weeks ago?” Sunk? In the two meter deep river? Sounds suspiciously like sailor’s Latin! “Yes, yes,” confirms the man, “a truck had false loading papers with it, was much too heavy and sank the ferry. Only the masthead was still sticking out of the water. ”The function of this curiosity suddenly becomes clear to me. Another 645 kilometers. Between Aken and Torgau, the Elbe becomes narrower and the landscape boring, time to make a few kilometers. Riesa greets us with a jumble of diversions. The U1 suddenly becomes the U4, which meets the U2 a little later in order to continue to accumulate as the U1. There is building and digging everywhere. Around the old town there is a belt of modern consumer temples, Aldis alternate with Lidls, gas stations and hardware stores loosen up the new suburbs. The former state can only be recognized in the city center. But here, too, he loses face and has to allow a new, smooth identity to be imposed on him. As great as the contrasts between the new town and the old town are, there are elements that unite them: the traffic jams. 480 kilometers to go. It is not far to Dresden, around which we are initially bowing – from there a threatening black wall of clouds is approaching. No desire to get into the center of the thunderstorm. So we try to escape, bypassing the huge cloud. And indeed, when we reach the Elbe again in Konigstein, we can admire the thunderstorm from behind. We are finally in the mountains. The river runs in wide curves through Saxon Switzerland. Steep table mountains and pointed pinnacles protrude from the wooded plateau. A paradise for mountaineers. The Konigstein Fortress, which towers high above the valley, promises the best view of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. For seven centuries the fortress served as an armed garrison camp, a state prison or a huge pub. Here people filled up and drank as much as they could. The 248,000 liter wine barrel was usually emptied far too quickly. The fortress was so well secured that it was defeated only once – embarrassingly by a chimney sweep. In 1848, with a touch of youthful recklessness, he climbed through the cracks and crevices in the rock base of the castle to the top. No wonder the boss of the fortress was very angry with the chimney sweep and threw him into the dungeon for twelve days. The Elbe curves in a wide arc through the valley. An old, perfectly restored paddle steamer makes waves on the calm, brown river. Another summer thunderstorm is brewing over the mountains. Bright lightning bolts soon sweep across the dark sky. Crashing claps of thunder shake the heavy clouds until they vomit violently. The rain accompanies us as far as the Czech Republic. After 721 kilometers the Elbe ends at the border, from here on the river goes by the Slavic name Labe. The border guard waves us through, which was an unthinkable act a few years ago. We drive the longest street on the Elbe as far as Decin. Light girls, dressed boldly in spite of the bad weather, hope for heavy money. The traffic is getting sore, the Czech coalfield is announced. Smelly trucks obscure the view from arm-thick exhaust pipes. Only from Terezin, the former Theresienstadt, does calm return. But we too become very quiet when we visit the memorial and the former Nazi prison. The horror becomes tangible in the face of the many pictures and thousands of gravestones and yet remains incomprehensible. The gray weather accompanies us to Melnik, where the Vltava flows into the Labe. At the church we discover a small sign “Ossuary”. Curiosity arises. A young priest opens the heavy door with a giant key. We descend into the musty semi-darkness of a pale-lit vaulted cellar. This is where death lives, the remains of over 10,000 plague victims from 1512 are stored. Bones and skulls are piled up to the ceiling. Somebody discovered his macabre creativity while sorting and modeled letters and patterns into the bone walls with the skulls. The grotesque climax is a large cross made of arm bones and skulls. Another 260 kilometers. To Hradec Králove, the former Konigsgratz, the Labe is a boring mixture of canal and regulated river. Only the beautiful Pernsteinplatz in gray Pardubice with its renaissance facades provides a ray of light. At Jaromer we leave the annoying European route and the Bohemian basin. Green hills dare to emerge, and the sun finally pierces a few tentative rays through the clouds. The Labe has become a small river, barely 20 meters wide. Clay-red water bubbles through green meadows. The road is also awakening again, it follows the Labe in a curvy way. In the distance, the Giant Mountains are already peeling out of the haze. The closer we get to the mountains, the more violently the young Elbe foams down to the valley. Spindleruv Mlýn, the first place on the river, lives exclusively from tourism. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir vendors are waiting for customers. We are still ten kilometers from the source. So we lace up our hiking boots and follow the Labe uphill. The path soon becomes steeper and plunges into the paradisiacal tranquility of the Elbgrund. Only the brook gurgles and bubbles, enjoying its freedom, which it is still allowed to live out here in an unregulated manner. Ancient, gnarled spruces block out the sunlight, poison green ferns cover the mossy forest floor. A fairy tale forest. But the higher we climb, the more the fairy tale turns into a nightmare. At first only a few dead trees appear, but soon we are surrounded by corpses of spruce. Forest dieback in a never-seen-before stage. The white trunks rise accusingly into the sky like skeletons. A few trees support each other, creaking and groaning when the wind moves them. Can you make it to the next storm? The heavenly tranquility turns into dead silence, not even birds can be heard. The tree wrecks accompany us to the Elbe Falls, where we climb steeply up to the plateau. No tree grows up here any more. The harsh climate is similar to that of Scandinavia. We follow the mini-Elbe through wet meadows, jumping sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right bank, until the path ends at an ugly, water-filled concrete ring. We stare speechlessly into the calm water that would like to become a really big river. A few coins shimmer on the floor. Is that supposed to be the source of the mighty Elbe? A small sign announces seriously: “Pramen Labe, 1387 m”. But what did we expect? Perhaps the cute trickle seeping out of the concrete ring just collides with our old pictures of the great Elbe. But that’s the way it is, whoever swims against the current and searches for the source will throw old cliches overboard and find surprising things. Another 1091 km to Cuxhaven.


The Elbe is the second largest German river after the Rhine. It connects such contrasting landscapes as the Czech Giant Mountains and the North Sea.

ARRIVAL Coming from the south via the A7 to Hamburg and via the B73 to Cuxhaven. From the west, take the A1 and A27 to the mouth of the Elbe. THE ROUTE The Elbe is officially 1,091 kilometers long, 721 in Germany and 370 in the Czech Republic. Older encyclopedias still know of 1165 kilometers of the Elbe. Before the fall of the Wall, the Elbe deserved the superlative “dirtiest river in Europe”. With the new construction of numerous sewage treatment plants, the collapse of the GDR industry and the modernization of the chemical combines, pollution could be reduced by 60 to 90 percent. Highlights of a trip to the Elbe are the estuary near Cuxhaven, the port of Hamburg, the Middle Elbe biosphere reserve, the breakthrough through the Elbe Sandstone Mountains and the wild river in the Giant Mountains. The change from boring and interesting passages also has an influence on the route, where any travel speed is possible, from fast federal roads to cobblestone paths. TRAVEL TIME The best time is between April and October. While the fruit trees are in bloom in the Altes Land near Hamburg at the end of April, there is still meter-high snow on the heights of the Giant Mountains. Apart from midsummer, private rooms or pensions can be found everywhere without any problems. In the Czech Republic, hotels and guesthouses offer their rooms for as little as 15 marks. LITERATURE While the Rhine fills meter-long shelves with books, a small drawer is enough for the Elbe. A beautiful and sensitive travel book is “Die Elbe” by Linder / Heinrichs, Westermann-Verlag, 39.80 marks. DuMont publishes its art travel guide Elbe for 44 marks. Two illustrated books enrich the offer: »The Elbe« by W. Chechne, Ellert & Richter Verlag, 19.80 marks. “Elbe Experience” by I. Wandmacher, ORW-Verlag, 59 Marks. Time required: one week. Distance covered: 1500 kilometers

Extra tour

If you don’t want to take the entire Elbe tour described from Cuxhaven to the Czech Republic, you can select a section of the route as a weekend trip. Saxon Switzerland, southeast of Dresden, is particularly suitable for this. There the river has created a beautiful rocky landscape (picture on the left). The Elbe Sandstone Mountains extend on the border with the Czech Republic between the Ore Mountains and the Lusatian Mountains. The highest peaks, the Grobe Winterberg and the Grobe Zschirnstein, are not exactly earth-shattering at around 550 meters, but they are highlights in other respects. The erosion of a stone slab that is 600 meters thick and over 100 million years old has created a labyrinth of gorges, caves and ravines that attracts hikers and free climbers alike. Crazy scarred and jagged rocks, solitary needles, towers and columns shape the landscape. Pirna, located directly southeast of Dresden directly on the Elbe, is considered the gateway to Saxon Switzerland and is a good starting point for a round tour through the region (the fastest way to get there is via the A4 to Dresden). The following route leads to the highlights: Pirna – B 172 – Struppen – Bielatal – Konigstein (branches to viewpoints) – small round trip south of the Elbe, then over the river to Bad Schandau and from there directly east to the Hinterhermsdorf border enclave – back via Sebnitz – Mockery. From there it goes on branch paths to lookout points of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains: the Lilienstein and the Bastei. Or back to Pirna. All the details are provided by the general map, Grobraumblatt 12. Bucherverlag offers reading material with »Sachsische Schweiz«. Important: A pair of hiking boots and a little desire to move are part of this tour if you want to experience the full beauty of the rocky landscape (see also the report in MOTORRAD 22/1994). The tourist offices of the larger towns such as Konigstein, phone 035021/261, or Wehlen, phone 035024/413 provide room records.

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