Find out about walking trails and peaks in Germany's Saxon Switzerland national park. After that discover the historic towns and castles.
The name Saxon Switzerland sounds initially like a mellow heavy metal band or a fantasy mountain kingdom. It is neither but instead a magnificently rugged region in eastern Germany dominated by bizarre sandstone formations overlooking the River Elbe.
Situated about an hour by the S1 train from Dresden and close to the Czech border, it offers some of the best walking in Germany, cycling, rock climbing and the chance to explore historic towns and castles.
We based ourselves in Bad Schandau, a compact spa town, which in 2009 was the setting for Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds. It had a helpful Tourist Office (+49 35022 90030; www.bad-schandau.de) as well as a separate National Park Centre (+49 35022 90060; www.lanu.de/en/Nationalparkzentrum.html). Excellent advice, information about the availability of travel cards and maps were all easily accessible. The town has its own recently reconstructed Toscana Therme, a thermal spa, which has several pools where guests can choose a variety of experiences. Nevertheless we were drawn to the area for the scenery, the history and the hiking.
Strolling east by the River Elbe towards Ostrau was the prelude to the climb towards the peaks of Schrammsteine. The path, like all the trails in this area, was clearly marked by the National Park authorities and was a difficult but not an exhausting climb. There was a magnificent panorama including grandstand views of daring climbers scaling sandstone stacks. It is Germany’s premier rock climbing site where practitioners have to use traditional methods.
Castled crags and extensive views dominated our daily experience. The top headline act was the Bastei, meaning “the bastion” or “the fortress”. Armed with a family day ticket (euro 11) which covered most forms of travel, we took the ferry across to the station. A brief train ride to Rathen and another short ferry crossing led us to the start of the climb.
It was not too daunting an ascent. After half an hour’s exertion, we reached these eccentric steeple-like rock formations that rose dizzily above the Elbe. Linked by a series of stone footbridges, they gave wonderful vistas of the river and the surrounding forest. It was worth getting here before the coach loads arrived and an added bonus was the opportunity to return through the valley via the town to Konigstein. Towering leafy trees, gorges and gullies reminded us why this landscape was an inspiration to German Romantic artists. The pathway had even been named the Painters’ Way and it led back to the fortress at Konigstein.
This was an impregnable castle which housed a number of famous prisoners. We explored dungeons, armoury displays and a mysterious, fathomless well. Again the views were outstanding and the trip there was enhanced by a variety of transport including an ancient bus and land train.
Saxon Switzerland was not just about castles and mountains but also featured attractive towns. Pirna was full of baroque buildings and had a splendid Gothic town hall. Its clock frontage, flanked by two lions that sprung into action at key times, was another quirky curiosity. The Marienkirche, a late Gothic church, had a striking façade and a wonderful Renaissance altar. This town was easily accessible by train from Bad Schandau but it was also possible to take a cruise on the Elbe (+49 35150160160; www.dresden.de/tourismus ).
It was appropriate to finish on a high. The Kirnitzschtalbahn was a narrow gauge tramway that negotiated its way alongside a river to the Lichtenhainer waterfall. From there it was a hike to a rock formation known as the Cow Stall and a steep climb up a flight of steps called the Stairway to Heaven.
How fitting to end with recollections of one the legendary heavy rock anthems.
Where to eat and sleep
We stayed at the long-established Hotel Lindenhof which had a wonderful restaurant and where we received great hospitality. Irish and English visitors were rare but fortunately Bille, our waiter, spoke good English and led us through the menu of the local delicacies. We opted for the fixed price menu that included wonderful wild boar cooked in mushroom sauce with noodles, ham in beer sauce with vegetables and dumplings, topped off with a dessert of quark with berry sauce. With half a litre of local red wine, the total bill for two came to a great value at euro 39. Other nights we enjoyed roasted wild boar and turkey with mushrooms in a white wine sauce served with basmati rice. We were spoilt for choice at breakfast with a vast array of meats, cheeses and breads.
It would be a mistake to be in Germany without tasting the beer. A picturesque spot on the terrace of the Elbhotel ( +49(0) 35022 570; www.elbhotel-bad-schandau.de) overlooking the river provided a perfect opportunity. Another memorable inn, slightly more old-fashioned, was Gasthof Lichtenhainer (+49(0) 35971 53733; www.lichtenhainer-wasserfall.de) next to the Lichtenhainer Waterfall.
Saxon Switzerland is a miracle of nature that deserves to be discovered. Recent television programmes by Julia Bradbury on the hiking possibilities (see video) and Andrew Graham Dixon on German art of the Romantic era may change the picture. But for now let’s toast this delightful place with a drink. On the rocks of course!