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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Seventeen: Dresden to Meissen

Michael Palin - New EuropeThe Elbe is very low at the moment and there is a real worry that Europe's oldest regular steamboat service, the Elbefahrt, may have to be suspended. It's been plying between Dresden and Meissen for the last 150 years, with a fleet of paddle-steamers that can usually cope with a shallow draught. We climb aboard the 'Krippen', named, I'm assured, after a local town rather than a foreign murderer. After some initial groaning and grinding the 'Krippen' raises her retractable funnel and heads out into the stream before turning and giving us one last look at the dark, ornate and powerful group of buildings so immaculately restored along the Brühlsche Terrace. We pass under the Augustsbrücke, the bridge that bears the name of the seventeenth-century Elector of Saxony, King of Poland and Lithuania, Augustus the Strong, who was responsible for the grandeur of Dresden, despite being, according to my guidebook, 'an exceptionally loathsome figure, as well as a disastrous political operator'. Ah, well, you can't have everything.

It being a peach of a morning, the tables on deck are soon full of bread, bratwurst and even a few beers, though it's just nine o'clock. The only seat I can find is next to a lady engineer from Lake Constance, way down near the Swiss border. She's an independent traveller, in her thirties, and although she's from the depths of West Germany her opinion on how things are going seems very similar to those of East German Felix. What she calls 'the forty years of separation' are not yet overcome and she thinks that a sense of unity will have to wait for a new generation.

'But I'm a little worried about the teenagers of nowadays,' she confesses. 'We call them the fun generation. They aren't interested in history.'

Our big red paddle-wheels chug round, smoke drifts from the newly painted black funnel. Green fields and distant low hills slide by, gentle riverine scenery reminiscent of the Thames valley. Those who aren't tucking into picnics are taking photos, or checking their hiking gear, whilst a number of sun-reddened figures, leathery and lean, tinker with their bikes. A cycle path runs the length of the Elbe and you can, if you like, pedal all the way to Hamburg. Not a bad way to see Germany.

My companion and I talk about Europe. She is oddly evasive when I ask her if Germany, as the biggest economy in Europe, feels the responsibility of leadership. To her generation, the words 'German' and 'leadership' still raise uncomfortable spectres. She shies away from politics, and thinks that the best results from Germany's up-coming Presidency of the EU will be on the less controversial ground of climate control. She expresses polite doubts about further expansion of the European Union, worrying that the rich countries will have to pick up a big bill, and is confused about Turkish membership.

'I don't know how to think,' she says, spreading her arms, 'it's half in Asia and half in Europe.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Seventeen: Dresden to Meissen
  • Country/sea: Germany
  • Place: Dresden
  • Book page no: 270

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