Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Sächsischen Schweiz - The Saxon 'Switzerland'

Die Bastei
I am always a little wary of regions that compare themselves to Switzerland. It's usually the sign of a fevered imagination by people who have never actually been there.

In the English Peak District for instance, the spa town of Matlock Bath was given the epitaph 'Little Switzerland' by upper-class tourists who couldn't go on the Grand Tour because of the blockade of Britain by Napoleon. Pleasant though Matlock Bath is, its limestone cliffs could not easily be mistaken as part of the Alps. Not unless Davos is inundated every weekend with a tide of motorbikers like Matlock Bath is.

Marketing folk in the regional German Tourist Boards seem not to be immune to the delusional Swissification bug either. The state of Brandenburg for example has its Märkische Schweiz Nature Park. Again, nice spa towns in a pleasant region to visit, but could only be imagined as coming close to a Swiss landscape in comparison with the rest of Brandenburg, where any hill over 50m is noteworthy.

So, my expectations were not pitched all that high when we set out for a day-trip to the Sächsischen Schweiz, or the 'Switzerland' of Saxony.

Our entry-point into the Sächsischen Schweiz was the health resort of Kurort Rathen. We reached there using an EC train to Dresden, then a regional S-Bahn from Dresden to Rathen, a journey of around three hours.

Alternatively, you could catch a paddle-steamer down the Elbe from Dresden.

Paddleboat 'PD Kurort Rathen', built 1896

Rathen is a village of some 500 inhabitants straddling the river Elbe. Towering over its northern edge are sheer limestone cliffs with interesting rock formations including one called 'die Bastei' or 'the bastion', named because its finger-like pinnacles formed part of the defenses of  Felsenburg Neurathen (rock castle Neurathen). Further information about Rathen can be found (in a kind of English) here.

That's where we are heading for - the top of those cliffs.
To cross the river from the Bahnhof to the start of the pathway up to die Bastei you must take a short ferry-trip at a cost of 1,50€ per person for a round-trip. The ferry itself is a protected monument, and ingeniously uses the flow of the river against a fixed cable to propel visitors across.

Rathen Fähre
Rathen is a pretty village of half-timbered houses that actually do have an Alpine feel about them. It is evident that the  Kurort is geared up for visitors, whether weekend Wanderinnen & Wanderer, or taking the Luftkur.

Matlock Tor
Sorry, I mean die Bastei above Rathen. 
Rathen: beginning of the trail up to die Bastei.
Last chance to get a postcard! 

For comparison with our old stomping grounds, die Bastei are 194 metres high above the Elbe, whereas the Heights of Abraham in Matlock Bath (Derbyshire's Little Switzerland) rise to 169 metres above the river Derwent. The Heights of Abraham have the advantage of a cable car taking you to the top of them. However the staired path up to the Bastei is an enjoyable climb through an enchanting forest with occasional glimpses of the serpentine Elbe getting more and more distant below. Half-way up a busker filled a dell with his crystal-toned voice as he sang one of Schumann's Lieder. Now you definitely wouldn't get that serendipitous attraction in Matlock, even if you could hear him above the roar of motorbikes.

Looking down on Rathen on the Elbe

At the top of die Bastei you can pay to have a look around the ruins of  the mediaeval Felsenburg Neurathen. Though it has an interesting history - mentioned first in 1239 when it was owned by Czech nobles until being taken by battle by the Saxon Electors in 1469 - it was constructed in wood and only the stone foundations, some rooms carved into rocks and a cistern survive.

Felsenburg Neurathen
(from the Basteibrücke)
We didn't explore the rock castle, instead being enticed by an awesome bridge between the spires of die Bastei.

die Basteibrücke

The Basteibrücke we see today was built in sandstone in 1851 to replace a wooden bridge. Its impressive seven arches span a 40m deep gorge called the Mardertelle (ein Marder is a pine marten, but we didn't see any), and it was built to accommodate a tourism boom that began in the mid-nineteenth century. The tourism continues today, and it was a bit of a squeeze getting past everybody who wanted to capture their loved ones with the view behind on their mobile phones. And the views are truly spectacular. It is astounding just to imagine what forces of tectonics, glaciation, wind, rain, and time created this landscape of eroded Jurassic limestone towers and calcareous sandstone mountains.

It looks like the steamboat from Fitzcarraldo down there!

The Lilienstein table-top mountain rises in the distance
It was a bit puzzling that so many people were around who you wouldn't have thought could have climbed the path up through the woods, either because of foot-wear, estimated physical fitness, or miniature dogs in tow. But when we reached the plateau just beyond the hotel we found out why: there is actually a hotel built on the top, with a service road for cars and the inevitable Bockwurst and Bier hut. Not that we were complaining, as we got a refreshing cup of tea there. The hotel was built on the grounds of an inn that had been erected here in 1826, and at one point there had been plans c.1900 to build a steam railway up to it from the Elbe.

This is Germany! Of course there will be Bier and Wurst to be had at the top of a mountain!
Once you have conquered die Bastei, that's not the end of the visitor's enjoyment. Oh no! There are many paths and trails to follow through the forests, with sudden breath-taking glimpses of ravines and sheer cliffs.

We descended back to Rathen on part of the Malerweg or Painter's Trail. Before the steps up from Rathen were created or the road up to the Inn was laid down, this was the way to die Bastei taken by Romatic artists in search of the awesome and the sublime. One oil-painter attracted to the region's unique landscape was my favourite 19th C. German artists, Caspar David Friedrich, e.g. Felsenslucht. Coincidently, my favourite 19th C. English artist Joseph Wright of Derby was similarly attracted to Matlock Tor.

The weather was starting to get a bit changeable, and at times the views we were seeing were straight out of a dark Gothik novel.

The route down took us on slippery steps and through narrow wooded ravines. It was like we were picking our way through the Misty Mountains and would come across an entrance to Khazad-dûm at any moment.

At the bottom of one of those limestone columns, looking up

Near the base of the cliffs we came across a guesthouse with running waterfall included.

In fact, for 30cent they would turn it on to full gush for you for thirty seconds!

Der Amselfall

You think I'm joking? Oh no I'm not!

Soon we came to the end of the trail, and the picturesque Amselsee where you could hire a boat and row beneath the shadow of the Elbsandsteingebirge.

And so, back to the railway station, and the long journey home, when we could reflect on our taste of Switzerland, Saxon-style.

So what if there weren't any ski-lifts, cuckoo clocks or Toblerone? This was a very enjoyable day out, and somewhere we will have to return to and explore further. We only explored a small part of the Sächsischen Schweiz National Park, but from the spectacular views from die Bastei it looked like there were plenty more hills to climb, even if they weren't quite as high as those mountains Maria von Trapp climbed.


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