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Exploring ‘Saxon Switzerland’ in Nelson’s Footsteps

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

In 1800, Horatio Nelson, still celebrating his brilliant naval victory for the British at the battle of the Nile, travelled home from Naples to England overland. I recently decided to follow his route from Prague to Dresden along the Elbe River. Riding an E- bike was the perfect mode of transport; it was speedy enough while giving lots of opportunities to explore the lands beyond the river.

Image: E-bike from Prague to Dresden along the Elbe River

Our holiday which began in Croatia took us through Salzburg and Vienna to Prague. From there, MACS Adventure, a British company, organised our ride, including the hotels, E-bikes, maps and luggage transfer.

I had the idea of following in Nelson’s footsteps through 'Saxon Switzerland' while researching my novel Nelson’s Folly, the first novel of my Nelson trilogy, which includes a lightly fictionalised account of the Nelson’s 'Grand Tour' through Europe. The novel, which has been highly praised, follows Horatio’s life for ten years and examines his relationships, his battles and his political misadventures as he rises to heroic status in Britain.

At First a Warm Welcome

Image: Church of our Lady Victorious, Prague Square.

Disappointed by Admiral Keith’s refusal to lend him the Mediterranean fleet battleship Foudroyant, for a triumphant journey to England, Horatio opted to travel home overland instead, using his accumulated leave.

Horatio took with him Sir William Hamilton, the former ambassador to the court of Naples, and his wife, Lady Emma Hamilton with whom Nelson was having a love affair. For the first leg of the journey to Vienna they travelled with Queen Maria Carolina of Naples (who was sister to the Austrian Emperor). In Vienna Nelson received a rapturous welcome from the Hapsburg Emperor, Francis and his court. Buoyed by six weeks of parties, concerts and hunting, they farewelled the Queen of the Two Sicily’s, who remained at the magnificent Schonbrunn Palace (visited earlier on our travels) and took a coach to Prague where there were more celebrations.

Horatio’s plan was to embark on a sailing barge and travel downstream (northwards) on the Elbe River through the heart of Bohemia, Saxony, Prussia to Hamburg whence they would take a ferry to Yarmouth.

Modern History Leaves its Mark

Image: Crumbling Manor Houses Horin Palace, Melcik

For most of our journey we followed the river but occasionally our bike path took us into the hills and fields. The river scenery was as bucolic as it was two centuries ago. Here and there, however, the mark of the Communist era was visible in crumbling manor houses – long ago abandoned by their owners - and factory buildings, now windowless and deserted. Huge collective farms had removed the hedge rows and stone walls and churches and old houses lacked the care Europeans like to lavish on their villages. Nonetheless, the tranquil river was unchanged except for a few locks.

Horatio, unused to holidays, would have struggled to occupy his days on the sluggish river, enlivened here and there by rapids. Emma Hamilton would have been rehearsing arias from Haydn’s 'Nelson Mass'– which had been dedicated to the hero by the composer in Vienna. She gave performances at every important stop along the way.

Image: Theresienstadt

We rode about fifty kilometres per day and stayed in small towns like Melnik, Decin and Litomerice. Did Nelson and his companions sleep aboard their barge every night or did they stay at one of the many inns along the river?

Of great interest to me was Terezin near Litomerice. Horatio would have found this fortified town, built only twenty years before his visit by Emperor Joseph II to protect his Bohemian lands from the Prussians, fascinating. The Emperor named it Therersienstadt after his mother Maria Teresa. Its immense earthworks and fortifications used the latest military technology and its trenches and firing positions and moats protected a barracks town which could support 11,000 soldiers and their families.

Nelson could never have imagined what would happen there. In the Second World War it became a concentration camp for Jews deported from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria – altogether 150,000 of them, 33,000 of whom died due to the appalling density and malnutrition. It was a grim reminder of the terrors of the Nazi era.

Image: Terezin Concentration Camp

Hikers Delight

In ‘Saxon Switzerland, ’ near Bad Schandau, a picturesque mountainous area the river ran through towering gorges. The unusual mesas towering above the river make for perfect hiking.

I can imagine that Sir William Hamilton may have explored these unusual features, leaving his wife Emma and Nelson on their barge – time for dalliance, perhaps.

Approaching Dresden the river is wider and the gorge gives way to fields and woodland. Dresden can be seen from a distance and, approaching it by river, we saw the full glory of this city now fully rebuilt to the splendour it enjoyed as the Electorate of Saxony.

Society Strikes

The view of the city would have been the same in Horatio’s day. He and his friends anticipated the warm welcome they had received in Hapsburg lands but the Elector and his wife were no friends of the Austrians and suspicious of Nelson.

Amelie, the Elector Augustus’ consort had heard all the rumours snubbed the Hamiltons, refusing their visit to court. Nelson was furious but met the Elector together with Hugh Elliot, the British ambassador and brother to Lord Minto, Nelson’s supporter and friend. I explore this in detail in my novel, Nelson’s Folly. The humiliation was more than Horatio could bear – having bought into his own mythical status over two years of constant flattery. It was the first of many social set-backs as Society refused to countenance his affair with Emma.

Image: Hofkirke and Royal Palace Dresden

A Trip Worth Toasting

Today much of Dresden is a museum - and a wonderful tribute to those who have rebuilt it. All the furnishings and treasures of the palaces were stored during the war and the years of communist government. They are beautifully preserved and provide some feel for the court visited by Nelson and Hugh Elliot.

Our E-Biking was at an end but our journey took us on to Berlin and Hamburg. The Elbe carried Horatio on to Hamburg and Cuxhaven where they took a ship to Yarmouth. When they landed in England they were given a hero’s welcome by the crowds.

For the adventurous among you, I cannot recommend the Elbe River E-bike ride highly enough. Like me, Horatio must have enjoyed the outstanding local beer. Before we left Germany I raised my litre glass of Czech Pilsner one last time and toasted the intrepid travellers!

Image: Pilsner – the crown jewel of beer.

So any travel recommendations anyone? Have you ever visited a location from a historical fiction novel you’ve enjoyed? Please tell us about it in the comments below!

Find out more about my novels or sign up to ‘stay in touch’ on the home page. My debut novel Nelson's Folly is now also available as an audiobook.

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1 Comment

Nadja Filipi
Nadja Filipi
Nov 23, 2023

I love that part of the world - thrilled you discovered the hidden gems of Europe! Now looking at the sequel to Nelson's Folly - Nelson's Lost Son - when do we get the travel blog from the Caribbean? Do they have E-bikes there??

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