Over the weekend I went to my second German National Park (Berchtesgaden in Bavaria being the first), Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz on the border with the Czech Republic. I was spending a few days in Prague to visit my aunt and uncle who were traveling through the area (Hi Craig and Nancy!) and because the train route back to Berlin went right through this park, I figured it would be a nice place to stop for a day of hiking. I was correct. It made for a spectacular, short but sweet opportunity to get in the woods and climb some rocks.
The name Sächsische Schweiz translates to Saxon Switzerland and apparently came from two Swiss artists who were traveling in the area in the 18th century and thought that the spectacular outcroppings of sandstone mountains, the Elbe river valley, and adjacent forests looked like the Jura mountain landscape from their home country. And Saxon, or Sachsen, is the name of the German state on the border with Czech Republic. The area was frequented by many artists seeking inspiration from natural beauty during the romantic period. Artists like Caspar Davis Friedrich, Johann Alexander Thiele, Ludwig Richter, and others from the nearby Dresden Academy of Art created works showing off the otherwordliness of this place. According to the National Park's website, even the likes of Mary Shelley and Hans Christian Andersen were visitors during this time. This is not surprising as I definitely felt some Hansel and Gretel vibes when I was walking through the forests; part beautiful, part magical, with just a touch of creepy.
So many artists from the 17th and 18th centuries used this landscape to create their artwork that there is a memorial hiking trail called the Malerweg or Painter's Route. It is 112 kilometers (70 miles) and commemorates the legacy of their works bringing attention to this landscapes and thus preserving it. Think what Ansel Adams did for Yosemite through photography but about one hundred years earlier.
Today it's well-known for rock climbing, hiking trails, cycling along the river valley, and the famous, photogenic bridge called the Basteibrücke. I hiked up to this bridge and it was magnificent, however it was completely covered in tourists like me.
Sächsische Schweiz really is a beautiful place: big, bulbous sandstone mountains spring up from the Elbe River Valley, as if from nowhere, some with little forests on top, like toupées. Geologically speaking, the mountains are remnants of when the whole area was underwater, an ocean, 90 million of years ago. Sand accumulated in the basin of this ocean and was compacted and cemented together into sandstone. After the water retreated, and through millions of years of erosion processes, these amazing mountains were created. I'm not a geologist but it appears that this guy is if you want to hear about the formation of sandstone from a professor wearing Croakies (highly recommended). I hiked to and scrambled around once such outcropping called the Lilienstein and since I was there early in the morning, I had it all to myself.
Along with forests, mountains, a river, and trails there is also a fortress in the area called Königstein Festung or King's Rock Fortress. The earliest mention of this structure dates back to 1233! That is so long ago! It belonged to the Kingdom of Bohemia at that time, Bohemia being the name of this area before Germany and the Czech Republic existed (or, currently, a particularly unfortunate fashion style championed by twenty-somethings at Coachella and reminiscent of my gypsy costume from Halloween in fourth grade). At that time the fortress was vital for controlling trade along the Elbe River. It was also a monastery during the 1500s and then an abbey. Then Prince Christian I of Saxony turned it into a real fortification where it was made larger and harder to breach. It changed hands a few times to ultimately become the strongest fortress in the area, at least until guns with longer ranges were invented. It was also used by royalty as a refuge during times of war but also as a hunting lodge or holiday home depending on the current political situation. Also, throughout periods of history it was used to jail prisoners of war. During WWII the Germans kept Polish prisoners there and then French officers. Then it was evacuated by the Americans and then the Russians used it as a hospital. Apparently a very multi-purpose establishment. This is how it looked from a plateau on my hike up to the Lilienstein.
Now you can go inside the fortress, take an elevator to the very top, admire the combination of stone and brick construction, see preserved artilleries, and the gaze at the vast valley below. Or, you can misread a local bus timetable, arrive there about ten minutes past closing time, and just amble around the outer boundary of the walls on a path that, according to signage, was used by the guards who were patrolling and protecting the grounds. Your call.
So according to this Culture Trip article, I still have at least eight more National Parks to visit during my time in Germany. Next up, I've got my eyes on Jasmund National Park to the north and Harz National Park to the southwest of Berlin. But fall, or Herbst, has definitely made its entrance—I wore a scarf yesterday and wished I had remembered my gloves as I rode my bike. So my next hiking excursions will probably have to wait until spring but I'm quite pleased I was able to ramble through this place right before the weather becomes to cold and miserable to do so. Now we will bring out our heavy coats and wool socks, drink Glühwein to stay warm, and I will keep from going nuts this winter by planning for my next National Park adventure. And maybe, hopefully, by then I will have learned how to read a bus timetable.