UNoticeably, Saxon becomes Bohemian Switzerland. A few minutes after departure from Dresden Central Station, the Elbe is on the left, around 20 meters wide. Red canoes go with the flow, a few rubber dinghies, scattered houses pass by.
A tall upper man, whose shoulders seem a little too broad for the narrow aisles of the train, hurries up crouching. He serves cold beer, schnitzel with potatoes and cucumber salad. The guests sit on red armchairs at tables with white sheets.
After almost half an hour in the EC, the Czech border is approaching. Bad Schandau, a treasure of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, is the last town up the Elbe on the German side. Souvenir shops line the river.
In the past tourist ships went into the Czech Republic, today the Elbe, which is called Labe in the Czech Republic, has too little water. Therefore it is best to take the train with a nostalgic factor.
Visitors from all over the Czech Republic travel to Melnik
The hour in the dining car flies by. Then it’s time to get out and change trains. Day’s destination: Melnik via Ústí nad Labem. A wine town, picturesquely situated above the confluence of the Elbe and Vltava rivers, almost 90 winemakers for a population of 20,000.
Sárka Kalfarová knows exciting things about the city. The tour guide advances enthusiastically through her central Bohemian homeland and tells of Saint Ludmilla, who took the first prince of the Kingdom of Bohemia as a husband and became a Christian. “So came Christianity – and wine.”
Speaking of wine, it is stored in Melnik Castle, among other places. The historic wine cellar is as worth seeing as the entirety of the interior of the Renaissance building. Castle owner Jirí Jan Lobkowicz chats casually about the possessions: “Three castles in Bohemia, two in France.”
80,000 tourists visit its 4,000-square-meter empire every year and make 25,000 wine tastings. “Wine sales have grown, the quality has improved,” says Lobkowicz.
In fact, the local wines surprise with their full-bodiedness. Much has happened since Saint Ludmilla planted the first vineyards. Currently, according to Lobkowicz, around 80,000 bottles are being produced. “That will be expanded.”
And so wine lovers in Melnik get their money’s worth all year round, not only when the oldest wine festival in the republic traditionally takes place here around the name day of St. Ludmilla on September 16. Usually visitors come from all over the Czech Republic.
And not just because of the wine. The once Gothic houses in the enchanting town center of Melnik were redesigned in the Renaissance, Baroque and, in some cases, Art Nouveau. In the Prager Tor, a preserved city gate with a tower and tea room, you can find peace and quiet after a long day of travel.
Springs with mineral water in the spa town of Podebrady
In the morning it’s back to the rails, next stop: Podebrady. From the train station you stumble into the spa gardens. Soft splashing of fountains, lush bushes. The path to the Elbe leads past box trees that have been cut into spheres and triangles.
Podebrady Castle stands proudly on the bank. In 1905 a dowser came across a possible water vein in the inner courtyard. In fact, a borehole nearly 100 meters deep produced a mineral spring. Since then, mainly cardiovascular patients have been treated in the Czech Republic’s youngest health resort. The number of annual spa guests exceeds the number of residents.
The bestsellers are the carbonated spring baths. You can tap mineral water yourself from several springs in the spa park. Two cups a day of the salty, earthy, sparkling mixture are recommended.
Bike tour along the Elbe in Pardubice
After a refreshment in one of the large hotels along the spa promenade, the next “rail car” is waiting at the train station. The destination of the train is called Pardubice.
There you switch from the train to the bike. Every major city in the Czech Republic has a Czech Railways bike rental service. If you want, you can of course also bring your own bike. Depending on the route, this costs between three and five euros.
Whether with your own or a borrowed bike: In Pardubice, 100,000 inhabitants, a tour along the Elbe beckons. The paths are flat, the views of meadows, deciduous forests, small canals and seemingly endless fields are magical.
Those who like it bizarre can cycle to the gingerbread house (Perníková chaloupka), somewhere in the forest not far from the Kuneticka Horá castle in Ráby. The museum, a hunting lodge from 1882, shows the famous pastries in heart to crib format. At the entrance you get a passport for the gingerbread world plus a few scary stories.
The first gingerbread bakeries existed in Pardubice as early as the 16th century. The history of the city as a venue for the Steeplechase horse race goes back to 1874.
You cycle back to the town center through the Green Gate, a 60-meter-high tower house with a green roof. The day ends there in the historic old town. In the evening there is ermine, a delicious, pickled soft cheese on a puddle of oil, and bread with tartar, an almost addicting tartar sauce.
Hiking in the Krkonose National Park
Now the source of the 1112 kilometer long Elbe river is still waiting. From Pardubice the train rattles via Stará Paka and Kuncice to Vrchlabí (Hohenelbe). Two changes later, after a short taxi ride to Spindleruv Mlyn, you can see the Elbe again.
Now is hiking time. The air is refreshingly clear in the Giant Mountains National Park. Extensive pull paths, meadows and forest stretches embed rough mountain ridges. On the way you come to a typical regional Martinova bouda over, a mountain chalet. These small accommodations, scattered in the mountains, are picturesque and await visitors.
There are exceptions, however: The multi-storey Labská bouda is anything but beautiful to look at. “A building sin of communism,” says the local mountain guide. The path stretches towards the source, briefly paved, then again sandy and stony.
Finally you reach the Elbe meadow (Labská louka) at 1602 meters above sea level. On the floor: an inconspicuous stone ring. It symbolically marks the origin of the Elbe. The actual source is 150 meters higher in the peat bog and is not accessible. But if you have enjoyed the diverse landscape and culture along the Elbe for days, then a stone ring will do too.
Tips and information
Corona: Due to the high number of infections, Prague was declared a risk area, and other parts of the Czech Republic are also affected. Current information from the Federal Foreign Office (Auswaertiges-amt.de).
Tickets: Usually with Deutsche Bahn (bahn.de) and Czech Railways (cd.cz).
Information desk: czechtourism.com