Our train slipped quietly out of the Dresden Hauptbahnhof as we headed to Bad Schandau, one hour away. The town and suburbs soon gave way to the countryside and the Elbe river. As the train followed along the Elbe, the flat fields were replaced with hills on either side of our tracks and the river, gradually increasing in height and steepness. On the tops of the hills sheer sandstone cliffs were interspersed with forests. On one hill a castle, on another a stone bridge spanned the gap between two sandstone spires. Cyclists pedalled along a path running next to the river and rafts drifted by heading in the opposite direction to us. Every 10 minutes or so we passed small towns dotted along the river’s edge. Ever practical, I wondered how often the area flooded as there appeared no where for the water to go in heavy rains except over the towns (it turns out the area floods a lot – high water marks of floods in various years indicated on buildings in Bad Schandau were metres above our heads). All too soon we were disembarking from the train at the Bad Schandau station, only to discover that the station was on one side of the river and the town on the other. A short ferry ride up and across the river and we were at the town, ready for a week of hiking in Saxon Switzerland.
Saxon Switzerland. Notwithstanding its name, Saxon Switzerland is an area in Germany along the Elbe stretching from Pirna (18km east of Dresden) to the Czech Republic, characterised by the table topped sandstone mountains. It is said that the name ‘Saxon Switzerland’ was first used by a couple of Swiss painters who lived in Dresden in the 18th century when writing home and that the name then stuck.
Why Bad Schandau? Saxon Switzerland is well known as a good hiking area in Germany with a multitude of day hike options and, for the long distance walker, the Malerweg (Painters Way), a 112km loop trail starting in Liebethal and finishing in Pirna. Bad Schandau sits at about the middle of the Malerweg and has transport options to points on the Malerweg and into the national park. We chose it because of its convenience to hiking trails and because it was large enough to be interesting and have a number of accommodation and dining options, but small enough to still have a small town feel.
Getting there and around. Bad Schandau lies on a train line which runs between Dresden and Prague. The S Bahn services each of the towns on the Elbe on the German side of the border. Bus services run between a number of the villages and ferries run up, down and across the Elbe. We bought a weekly ticket for 17 euro which allowed us to use the trains, buses (excluding the red vintage tourist buses) and some ferries between Stadt Wehlen and Schöna.
Day 1 – Konigstein. We decided on a short walk combined with the more tourist activity of a castle visit to Festung Konigstein (Fortress Konigstein). The day started with the crossing of the Elbe by ferry and then on to the S Bahn, disembarking at the first stop, Konigstein. From there we followed the Malerweg up a reasonably steep path to the fortress. The signs indicated it was a 45 minute walk, but the reasonably fit will do it in 30 minutes or under. For those not inclined to steep walks, a bus leaves Konigstein regularly for the short drive to the fortress. A castle has stood on the site since at least 1233 and was converted to a fortress by order of Elector Christian I in 1589. Other writers have suggested that you need 1 – 2 hours to visit the fortress. We, however, happily spent several hours walking around the grounds, dining in the sunshine and visiting the excellent new permanent exhibit detailing the history of the fortress (amongst other things it has been a fortress, prison camp in World War II and re-education camp for troubled youths in the days of East Germany).
Day 2 – the Bastei. The Bastei is probably the most photographed and most visited site in the area. It consists of a series of sandstone spires which reach a height of 305m above sea level, some of which have been connected by a sandstone bridge built in 1851. We got there by catching the train to Stadt Wehlen and following the signs to the Bastei. Including a side trip caused by a misunderstanding of the signs, it took us about 2 hours to get to the Bastei up a fairly steady, but not too steep, incline. On reflection it may have been better to have continued along the path we had mistakenly taken as the Bastei was very crowded with tourists, most of whom had obviously who caught the bus up from Rathen, the town which sits directly below the spires. Not lingering because of the crowds, we crossed the bridge and took the steep path down to Rathen. From Rathen it was a short ferry across the Elbe to catch the train back to Bad Schandau.
Day 3 – Dresden. You can’t be in this area without a visit to Dresden, particularly when it is only 1 hour away by train. In high school I went through a Vonnegut phase, so all I knew about Dresden was that it had been firebombed by the allies in World War II and the Alstadt completely destroyed. We contented ourselves with walking around the city and didn’t visit the museums (given we are in Europe for an extended trip we are pacing ourselves when it comes to things like museum trips). It is impressive to think that much of what you see today has been rebuilt since the war and it makes you wonder how it must have looked before the bombing when Dresden was known as the ‘Florence of the North’.
Day 4 – Exploring the Saxon Switzerland National Park above Bad Schandau. On Day 4 we decided to take the Kirnitzschtalbahn, a historic tramway, up the hill to the Lichtenhain Waterfall in the national park. We didn’t wait for the half hourly addition of extra water to the waterfall (accompanied by music) but pressed on along the Malerweg to Kuhstall (cow stall), a natural rock arch with acoompanying mountain inn. Fortunately, we were there early enough to beat the crowds and had the Kuhstall to ourselves. From Kuhstall we continued along the Malerweg down ladders and stairs through rock crevasses before the path opened up on the forest floor. At this point we left the Malerweg and headed up to Kleine Winterberg. It was a steep climb, but once at the top we again had the area all to ourselves and had a great walk along an escarpment with views across the range. From there it was a short walk to Grosse Winterburg (which despite its name was just a short walk up a slope) and a stop at the mountain inn for kaffee and kuchen. After a chat with a local who offered numerous other suggestions for hikes in the area we headed down the mountain to Schmilka and the bus back to Bad Schandau.
Day 5 – The Czech Republic and Pravčická Brána. We have visited Europe several times but the Australian in me still gets excited about crossing over into another country other than by plane. On this occasion we decided to take the Wanderschiff (the hiking ferry) up the Elbe for 11km into the Czech Republic at the border town of Hřensko. The Pravčická Brána is the tourist destination of choice in Czech Switzerland, nearly rivalling the Bastei in numbers of visitors (I suspect that the only reason it has fewer visitors is that you have a minimum hike of 2.5km up hill, there is no bus to the top as is the case for the Bastei). It is the largest natural stone bridge in Europe and a natural monument of the Czech Republic. To get there we walked up the road from Hřensko for 1.5km and turned off onto a well beaten tourist footpath up to the Pravčická Brána (a further 2.5km). Pravčická Brána was naturally accompanied by a historic holiday chateau (3 euros to enter the chateau area). A quick stop for soft drinks at the chateau and we headed along a path which followed along beneath the ridge and overlooking the forest for 6.5km to Mezní Louka. This easy path was simply stunning, relatively tourist free and one of the highlights of the trip to this area. At Mezní Louka, a quick look at the bus timetable seemed to indicate that we had missed the bus back down the hill by minutes and would have a two hour wait to the next one, which would have meant that we would miss the ferry back to Bad Schandau. There were a couple of other trails back to Hřensko, but uncertain of how long they would take we opted to walk back down the road (7km). About half an hour after we set out we were passed by the bus that we thought we had missed. It was, however, a fairly easy walk down, albeit that we had to dodge some traffic and a bit over an hour later we were back in plenty of time for the ferry.
Accommodation. As there were four of us we booked an apartment through airbnb which was very comfortable. There are, however, numerous accommodation options in Bad Schandau and neighbouring towns.
Information: There are information centres in each town. In Bad Schandau there was an information centre both in town and at the bahnhof . The website for tourism in the area provides detailed information on the Malerweg and other walks (click here).