The Elbe river is strongly associated with the Saxon identity. With a length of 1.091 kilometers it is the third longest river in Europe. It is the largest river in Saxony and for centuries the Elbe river has considerable economic importance.
Only the Elbe river, from all the rivers in Saxony, can be navigated by ships. Before there were roads and railway lines, the Elbe river was the most important traffic and trade route and thus the “lifeline” of the country. The stream gave livelihoods to a variety of professions: boatmen, fishermen and Bomätscher (ship puller), stone crusher and wine producers. While the old lines of business are mostly extinct, the wine industry is still a hallmark of the Saxon River Valley. The memory of this ship traffic, that determined the life along the river for centuries, is kept alive today by the paddle steamers of the “Saxon steamship company”. The oldest and largest paddle steamer fleet in the world runs between the Bohemian border and Seußlitz near Meißen.
Closely related to the economic importance of the river is the political. All great and important residences of the Wettin dynasty are along the Elbe – Dresden, Meissen, Torgau and Wittenberg. The Elbe river was never a border river, but it had a military significance. The broad river is a natural barrier. Those who wanted to occupy Saxony, had to cross it. Hence the great Saxon fortresses – Königstein, Sonnenstein, Torgau – are also on the Elbe river.
Inseparable of the river is the unique landscapes of romantic Saxony. Among them are not only the vineyards along the river, but above all the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the “Saxon Switzerland”. Not only for Dresdners is a trip there one of the most popular leisure activities.
The water level of the Elbe river can vary significantly depending on the season. Heavy rainfall in the upper drainage area of the Elbe river and the melting snow in the Giant Mountains regularly lead to flood waves. In addition to the floodings one can observe regularly, especially in the summer months, very low water levels. At low tide, the ship traffic has to be discontinued.
In the early 1990s, the Elbe was still on of the dirtiest rivers in Europe. The pollution was a result of the industrialization of the 19th century, but especially the careless handling of pollutants in the often outdated factories of the GDR and Czechoslovakia. The water quality deteriorated to such an extent that many fish species disappeared from the river and the last Elbe public pools ceased its operations in the 1950s. The river has become much cleaner today. Due to the closure of industrial facilities and environmental protection measures, pollution fell by 90 percent. Today, the Elbe river is a habitat for more than forty species of fish. Indeed, also the salmon has returned to the river.