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Cliff hanger.

IT'S appropriate that two artists came up with the name Saxon Switzerland - actually an eastern region of Germany, and just an hour outside Dresden - because its great appeal is the stunning countryside that's a magnet for walkers, climbers and those of us who are not particularly energetic, who just like nice views.

The river Elbe flows gently through the landscape that it created 100 million years ago. South-east of the beautifully restored city of Dresden, it can be a slow and relaxing day's trip from that baroque jewel or a holiday in its own right.

Those two artists were Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff, who were appointed in 1766 to the Dresden Academy of Art.

When they visited the mountain range they felt the landscape was reminiscent of their homeland, the Swiss Jura. They sent letters home and dubbed the region Saxon Switzerland and the name has stuck.

The mountainous climbing area that is now a national park extends into Bohemian Switzerland in the Czech Republic. Saxon Switzerland alone has more than 1,000 climbing peaks and also offers protection for a wild variety of animals, from otters to the rare eagle owl.

Driving out of Dresden towards the Czech Republic, the logic of those two artists becomes clear when the curiously shaped rocks and cliffs, table-shaped outcrops and eroded pillars start appearing - and it is time to start climbing.

Painters have continued to be drawn to the landscape, particularly during the Romantic Movement. Caspar David Friedrich is perhaps the best known to be tempted to these mountains and a footpath called Malerweg (Painters' Way) has been opened. Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber also fell for its charms and his opera Der Freischtz with its Wolfsschlucht (Wolf's Gorge) scene is set near the town of Rathen.

You will see experienced rock climbers scaling the stumped mountain peaks but if you only want a gentle stroll or even travel by wheelchair to enjoy the intriguing landscapes there are routes designed for you.

So you will find challenges for the experienced along with well signposted routes without steps and easy climbs with gentle wooden and stone cut steps for we novices who just want to be similarly delighted by these pinnacles and peaks and stare out across the picturesque Elbe valley.

Most popular, I am told, is free climbing, where no aids are allowed - only traditional tools such as slings and ropes are permitted avoiding metal tools that damage the soft sandstone. Another zany style is to clamber on the shoulders of other climbers, each just clinging on to the natural holds provided by the rocks.

The most popular starting point is the 600ft cliff that towers over the Elbe at Bastei and is spanned by a bridge built for 19th-century tourists and probably the most photographed structure in this region. A few weeks after returning from the area a postcard landed on my doormat from family friends who went to discover the landscape - and, of course, the picture was the bridge.

If you have had enough exercise do as we did and take a gentle boat ride along the river Elbe, on one of the world's largest and oldest fleet of paddle-steamers.

The visit to Saxon Switzerland was a precursor to Germany's annual travel market held in Cologne and Bonn, an impressive fair that displayed the best the nation has to offer and why visitor numbers continue to soar, including holidaymakers from Britain travelling in ever larger numbers to its cities and countryside.

We were based at Bad Schandau, a small and comfortable town on the banks of the Elbe with a magnificent setting, at the bottom of wooden slopes and boasting a rather strange metal tower with a lift offering magnificent views.

The historic lift to Ostrau is a 150ft-high freestanding riveted iron construction, with cute Art Nouveau ornamentation built in 1904 and opened on Easter Sunday, 1905.

This is an area steeped in military history and most celebrated are K|nigstein and Neurathen fortresses and the Felsenbhne Rathen - a theatre built into the rocks.

The most visited castle is the gigantic construction K|nigstein, so vast that it has a small village within its mountain top walls, gardens, pretty baroque pavilions - where Frederick the Great and August the Strong had private meetings - themed restaurants and a deep, deep well.

This natural stronghold has been coveted since the turn of two millennia ago and was particularly upgraded from the 1500s onwards. One of the most interesting attractions was created in 1725 - the king's biggest wine barrel (238,000 litres) was built and kept in the cellar of the castle.

It has had a chequered history and in three wars - the German-French war of 1870-1871, World War I and World War II - it served as a concentration camp.

Since 1955 the fortification has been a museum but it is impossible not to feel the ghosts of the centuries permanently around you.

After all this healthy exercise surely you are allowed a nice glass of beer. So ask for Redeberg and do like Vladimir Putin who, during his days as a KGB agent in Dresden in 1980s, especially enjoyed the first beer in Germany to be brewed in the pilsner style.

Whether the he-man of world politics ever climbed those peaks doesn't seem to have been recorded as well as his taste in beer.

TRAVEL INFORMATION ? Double rooms at Apparthotel am Schlossberg in Bad Shandau (apparthotel-am-schlossberg.de, 00 49 35022/ 925100) from 85.

Flights ex-Manchester with easyjet (easyjet.com) to Berlin, while Lufthansa flies direct to Dresden from Heathrow or ex-Manchester via Frankfurt and Munich.

For information on Saxon Switzerland and Dresden, visit germany.travel/en

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Daring: Rock climbing above Bad Schandau and the River Elbe
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Oct 29, 2011
Words:957
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