Explore lush forests and stunning rock formations, and take a hike along a 112 km-long scenic trail at the Saxon Switzerland National Park in Germany, says Sonia Nazareth
Table mountains on my left, rocky reefs and pinnacles on my right, ravines meandering through forests ahead and an abundance of flora and fauna all around. I am at the Bastei rocks, one of the most picturesque mountain formations of the National Park in Saxon Switzerland, in the German state of Saxony. Honestly, the landscape here is no less than a fairy tale. Standing at a lofty height, I spot the mighty Elbe river below, sweeping gracefully through the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Located between the Ore Mountains and the Lusatia Mountains, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains extend across the border into Bohemia (Czech Republic), and the part that lies in Germany is known as Saxon Switzerland.
The National Park of Saxon Switzerland, with over 700 summits, is considered one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe. It is believed that the area began to gain popularity in the 18th century, when artists, poets, musicians and nature lovers travelled to the site in search of inspiration and experiences. One among them, artist Caspar David Friedrich, captured the allure of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains in his much-acclaimed sketches.
The unparalleled beauty of the area also finds mention in Hans Christian Andersen’s book, Journey from Leipzig to Dresden and Saxon Switzerland, which he wrote after a visit to the Kuhstall, the largest rock gate in Saxon Switzerland, in the summer of 1831. It is believed that the then idyllic surroundings of the area also inspired conductor Richard Wagner to compose his famous opera Lohengrin in 1850.
The path that the early explorers charted through the rocks has come to be known as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains Malerweg trail, now the flagship trail for breathtaking views and beautiful hiking paths. Clearly, the more ways to negotiate this landscape, the deeper the insight, and there are also a variety of cycle paths (think sharp climbs and steep downhill runs) and bridle routes (horse trails) to keep one engaged. What makes the 112-km Malerweg the king of all hiking trails through these mountains is its overwhelming density of scenic and historical attractions: Königstein Fortress, Pfaffenstein, Barbarine, Kuhstall, Affensteine, Schrammsteine, Kirnitzschtal, Hohnstein Castle, Felsenbühne Rathen and Bastei. Saxon Switzerland National Park is also referred to as the birthplace of free climbing (rock climbing without the assistance of devices such as pegs placed in the rock, but occasionally using ropes) and offers a platform that is second to none in the vicinity. With 1,106 free-standing sandstone rocks and as many as 21,000 climbing routes to choose from, the area is a treat for aficionados of the sport. If you wish to learn the ropes of free climbing in the land of its origin, a number of schools here offer beginner courses.
What’s best about exploring the area is that one does not have to be a nature lover or super sporty to experience its beauty. The walking trails vary – from easy strolls to more strenuous stairways and steps cut into rocks. As I explore the Bastei rocks, I notice that some parts are wheelchair-accessible as well. Here, inclusivity is central to the experience.
In this national park, there’s also an acute awareness of how we have to play our part in protecting it. I find neither a semblance of refuse on the ground, nor a person straying off the well-demarcated trails. “Let Nature be Nature” is the catchphrase here, and she is left to regenerate on her own. Re-establishment projects of threatened species are on in full spate. Linger a while and pay attention as you walk, and chances are that you will make new acquaintances along the way – a peregrine falcon, a black stork or even a beaver! The Königstein Fortress, situated on a large sandstone table mountain along the trail, is our lunch stop. Considered one of Europe’s largest mountain fortresses, it towers over the landscape with over 700 years of history.
Apart from superlative views of the Elbe river, it also offers an overview of various architectural epochs, reflected in the different building styles employed here, such as the Late Gothic, Renaissances and Baroque. On the bus ride back to Dresden, I realise that while culture can be glorious, as the Saxon Switzerland National Park proves, it’s in nature that the sublime really lies.
The author is a senior travel writer and the views expressed in the article are her own