Sächsische Schweiz and Spreewald - September 2000
In September, we spent a week visiting two interesting and beautiful areas in the "Neue Bundesländer": parts of East Germany that were under Communist rule for three decades and re-united with Western Germany in 1990. One of the first acts of the German government was to declare these areas as a National Park. Another was to raise a special tax on West Germans to pay for the rehabilitation of the infrastructure (we are still paying it and they are still building roads)!, so here was a chance to enjoy some of the benefits of our tax dollars (oops, Euros) at work.
The label Sächsische Schweiz refers to an area of sandstone "mountains" near the river Elbe and close to the Checkoslovakian border at Bad Schandau/Hrènsko (not far from Prague) - the German part is in the German province of Saxony. The area was covered by the ancient Cretaceous sea that laid down the sediments which later became the rock. After the sea vanished, weathering created many interesting rock formations. Mountains? Well, cliffs on a large scale would be a better description!; generally, the tops are about three hundred meters above the Elbe, or just imagine mountain scenery with the bottom part removed. Though the area is quite unique and has its own beauty, some compare it with areas in Montana.
The Spreewald is a waterlogged area starting somewhat north of Dresden and extending north towards Berlin. For centuries the area was served only by waterways; a vast network of rivers and canals. Areas of dry ground are used for mixed farming and the produce is, even today, shipped out by barges. Today tourists provide much of the income and tourists travel the region in droves.
We travelled in the company of three Germans: Beate, Bernd and Stephan. Leadership was shared by Bernd and Stephan. Bernd had planned three days of walking tours in the Sächsische Schweiz in some detail - with maps, descriptions and pictures downloaded from the Internet. Stephan's main job seemed to be to make sure that we did not miss anything, and Beate came to the rescue when things went a bit wrong.
From a meeting point in Munich, we departed in two cars for the long and boring drive up the motorway - planning to meet at the former border town of Hof.
Unfortunately, our tax dollars were at work building wider roads and many bridges to improve travel to and from the NB. The result was many diversions and delays. And then Keith and I were caught in a long wait (as ambulances and police cars pushed through) behind a fender bender at one of the diversions. The other three meanwhile had studied the map underway and found that we should leave the motorway before Hof. So mobile phones to the rescue! And we met finally at a very primitive restplace near Zwickau - welcome to the NB - chemical toilets and plastic-roofed junk food stand.
Off the motorway we stayed closer together. The small towns we drove through were a bizarrre mixture of old, renovated and new: rows of ugly renovated apartment buildings, houses renovated in former style and garish huge shopping malls.
We crossed the Elbe River together at Pirnha and proceeded to the tourist resort of "Kurort Rathen". (Kurort signifies some kind of a license for the town to levy extra taxes on tourists because they might be cured of something by the wonderful air - actually the air stunk of sewage.)
Bernd had assured us that in September there was no need to book accommodation! the tourist season was over! Not so! Here we were at 6pm, after 8 hours travel, and the place was very, very full. We went to the Tourist Information - in Germanic fashion it was closed (because it was a weekend and some tourists might come to disturb them). But it did have some local phone numbers and a phone to call them from.
However, our chosen place in a castle above the town was full, and no B&B could handle a party of five wanting three rooms. Beate to the rescue! she had brought more Internet information and had information on a castle not far away in Hohnstein. We phoned there and were assured that we could be accommodated.
The castle Hohnstein sits on the top of one of the sandstone peaks and dates from medieval times: since then it has been used for everything - Robber Barons, Konzentrationslager, Youth Hostel, and now is operated in YH style by the "Naturfreunde". Views from OUR castle were superb.
We had to make our own beds and carry our own breakfast dishes out - but no other chores. Keith and I had a double room and the others a room with 8 bunk beds. The room was comfortable, but we had to go elsewhere for toilets (upstairs on the cold castle stairs, 2 flights for Gents) and showers (another building). We slept in the dark part at the back right of the castle. In front is a museum which was never open in the time that we were "at home"!
In the front of the picture, you see the part of the old town of Hohnstein; also very interesting. The castle had its own "Schänke" - run by a Slavic family with an unpronouncable name. The father served and his son cooked. The restaurant carried its history well, and provided a varied menu, friendly service, excellent local beer and homemade Krauter Liqueur. The garlic soup was just that, and enjoyed immensely by all. Other items suffered from general German problems that are even worse in East Germany: too much salt, too much grease, the tendency to drown all food in something liquid, and pathetically small amounts of anything green or fresh. But we all found something interesting on the menu to keep us going for the three days that we stayed here.
This area is a border area, which has been invaded constantly over the millenia. Hence the preponderance of castles and mixture of Slavic and German races and customs. It is very evident in the names of towns and people, and in the "cuisine". For our first day's tour we chose the most famous walking tour in the National Park: the Bastei. We enjoyed Indian summer weather. Mobile phones to the rescue again here: on the way up to the Bastei, we took a sidetrip (prompted by Stephan) to a waterfall. Keith and I followed the others up beside the waterfall and then some, but somehow they vanished (actually into a tourist museum) as we continued chasing them up the hill and they returned to the detour point. The water level was low so the tourist potscard-selling place turned the waterfall on for a short time - whenever someone gave them 50 pfennigs! Re-united by our mobile phones, we continued our way up to the Bastei!; about 800 steps and walkways through steep ravines.
To the right you can see the backs of Stephan and Keith as they toil up the fern-covered ravine.
Many other tourists were on their way up, and at the top there were many more who had arrived by bus, horse sleigh ride or any other way of taking money.
Most of the other tourists were Germans from the north of Germany: this area, though fascinating, has yet to hit the best-to-see lists in America and elsewhere.
Very enjoyable was the mixed forest through which we walked - a nice change from the evergreen plantations common in Bavaria. The forest here was reminiscent of Eastern Canada: note the birches in the picture of Bernd (our leader), taken on a Stephan-inspired side trip.
The side trip led to a lookout,
where we could watch the tourists on the big cliff at the other side, and they could take photos of us too. Here is Keith at the lookout ; behind is a deep valley and in the back the cliffs of the Bastei.
This picture-postcard on the right shows the other side of the Bastei - the view is taken across the Elbe (with the monstrous restaurant complex to the left and the Bastei stone bridge to the right).
From here there is access to the early middle age fortress Felsenburg Neurathen. Amazingly, the folks built a city fortress within the walls provided by the cliff tops and sides of the separate rock pyramids. Little evidence is left today except the notches in the rocks where it is supposed that they mounted wooden ladders, a quite advanced filtering and pumping water station and remnants of systems that catapulted stone cannonballs on invaders. Today we pay money to walk safely, on well maintained ladders, around the parts of the old fortress.
After this fairly strenuous day, we returned to Rathen and enjoyed Soljanka soup and beer by the river. Soljanka soup varies widely but signifies solidarity between the former Soviet controlled states: lemon and spices are necessary ingredients but otherwise it varies widely. And then home to another meal in our castle.
For our second day, we had a longer and more energetic tour - this time just over the border in Checkoslovakia (Böhmische Schweiz). For the safety of the car, we parked in Bad Schandau and walked over the border at Hrènsko. The border area was pretty unpleasant - 0.7 km of no man's land followed by 2 km of Asians selling clothes and running-shoes from makeshift stalls. After another 2km on an uphill road, we entered a pleasant mixed forest and the path wound gently up to the Prebischtor - a natural rock arch 16m high, 26,5m span, 3m thick at centre. Garish red and green building (formerly mountain hut) guards entry to the rest of the sights, food and toilets. After paying, we were able to climb an adjacent rock for good view of the Prebischtor and other rock formations. For an idea of size, the white things are sun umbrellas in a beer garden underneath.
Next, the path travelled around other cliffs before descending into Mezni Louka. Here we drank another beer, before realising that it was still far to the Edmundsklamm and the boats which would carry us out to civilisation.
We rushed down the rough path through the Klamm (gorge) along with a party of youths, hoping that we would not miss the last boat - the only way out of the Edmundsklamm. The Klamm was very steep and impressive: the path was sometimes through dark tunnels in the cliffside and sometimes hanging out over the river on supported rusty metal grills, some of them loose. There are actually two boat rides, operated by "Kahnfähre auf der Wilden und der Stillen Klamm" (opened 1890 and 1898).
Here too were waterfalls that could be "opened", for tourist entertainment, by the boatman swinging on a rope. In between the two boat rides, we had to walk round some waterfalls.
Here you see our driver and the Wilderklamm.
Finally we reached the end of the path near Hrènsko, and repeated the weary walk past the Asians (now packing their goods away for the night) and through no man's land back to the car and a nice meal in Bad Schandau. It had been a long day (9 hours and 25 km walking), but a very rewarding one.
For our third day, Bernd had chosen a shorter easier tour - but also packed with attractions. Again we started in Bad Schandau, but this time travelling up the valley 8 km in an ancient tram - the Kirnitzschtalbahn. After a quick look at the disappointing Lichtenhainer Wasserfall (not enough rain), we had an easy walk to the Kuhstall.
This massive sandstone arch (11m high, 17m wide, 24m deep ) was used by robber barons in the fifteenth century to hide the cows that they had stolen from the peasants. We climbed 27 metres to the top of the rock on a "Himmelsleiter" - mostly pieces of narrow aluminum bent at right angles to make steps and slipped into a crack in the rock - one way traffic only. After enjoying the views, we took an easier way down to the beer garden below. We travelled down more steps, through ravines and then climbed a small peak, the Kleine Winterberg. Here we had great views of the Elbe and further to tabletop mountains beyond. Then, after talking Stephan out of ascending the Gross e Winterberg, we followed the path around the sides of spectacular cliffs and back down to the tram.
Our tax dollars have been spent well in the National Park: the footpaths were all maintained in excellent condition, steps safe and with railings, and the signposting always superb. Well , almost always: the steps down from the Kleine Winterberg were many and in atrocious condition - shaky, with fallen-off handrails, rotten steps, and some missing steps. We were quite relieved to reach the bottom. Ten years after the end of Communist rule, most of the buildings have been restored to their former beauty. All of the towns and villages that we very visited were very picturesque. Again the exception - a house where we waited for the tram was in very bad condition waiting to be saved.
On our fourth day it was time to leave our castle and head up to the Spreewald. We paused for a couple of hours to see the historic sights of Dresden. Unfortunately, our tax dollars were very much in evidence here and the castle and cathedral were one massive reconstruction site. From Dresden, we headed for our target for the night, Lü bbenau.
Keith and I approached the town from a different direction than the others, and we could not find a way across the railway tracks from the new town to the old town, which was our target (more tax dollars at work!). The new town is quite horrible: streets and streets of identical old Communist flats. Mobile phones rescued us again and we met in the very beautiful Lü bbenau Altstadt.
Again Bernd had no accommodation booked and again things looked pretty grim, especially as the weekend was near and many Berliners holiday in this area. We managed to check in to the "Spreewald-Idyll" - a nice friendly small and reasonable hotel for one night. Luckily, Beate had the idea of checking out the neighbouring hotel, "Zur alten Feuerwehr", and was able to book it for the remainder of our stay. There is strong Slovac influence in this part of the country and the people are extremely friendly. Lü bbenau has two harbours (Kleine and Grosse) mostly catering to tourist "Kahnfähre". We checked them out to choose our tour for the next day. The Spreewald is famous for its fish and also for "Gurken". Germans use the same word for cucumber and dill pickles - well sort of. "Gurken Teller" produced a plate of dill pickles and "Gurken Salat produced a plate of sliced cucumber. The owner of our hotel was also a fisherman and the fish dinner was truly excellent. The service was also good and friendly.
Now for our tour by barge: We chose almost the longest tour, nominally four hours, from the Kleine Hafen.
The Kahn is a long ugly barge, but decked out with seats and tables with flowers on the table. It was quite surprising how fast our Kahnfahrer pushed our boat with the weight of all those people through the water. He punted (Cambridge style) with a long stick with two metal prongs on the end, as he told stories about the region, the wildlife, his father etc. etc. The trip included two stops in the historic villages of Wotschofska and Lehde: here tourists got out of the boat, went to the toilet, ate and drank in a restaurant, went to the toilet and got back in the boat again. Fascinating were the toilets - they were "Pacht-Toiletten", which means that they were operated by "Pächter": people who rent the toilets from the hotels and then make money by charging everyone 50 pfennigs to use them. As boats were arriving one every few minutes, each carrying 20 to 30 people, each of whom went twice to the toilet, this has to be a profitable, if not a nice, job! In the restaurants, traditional food and beer was served by waitresses in local dress - service was fast, as they had to get people out ready for the next ones. One of the traditional dishes is very interesting - "Kartoffeln, Leinöl und Quark" - a half of the plate contains boiled potatoes and the other half Quark, a German milk product resembling thick yoghourt. On the side come a small jug of linseed oil. The combination tastes quite good and is supposed to be very nourishing. The villagers live an old lifestyle: we saw them piling up cucumbers and pumpkins by the river read to be taken away by boat. The mail is delivered to letterboxes on the river by a yellow-clad postmistress - pushing a yellow-painted Kahn of course. They live in traditional houses - very small and raised on stones above the swampy ground. Because they have no space to keep hay for the animals, they build haystacks also in the manner of former centuries. At least this is the tourist view from the river. Other views from the water, especially the smaller streams, were sometimes reminiscent of parts of Canadian canoe trips. Very dreamy and peaceful as the water slides quietly by.
In the evening, we drove to Luben - a historic harbour at the North end of our section of the Spreewald. We walked around the town and harbour, and then ate an expensive, very bad meal in the "Schloss Hotel" - another converted castle.
For our last day, we toured the other view of the Spreewald on bicycles!; three borrowed from the hotel and two rented. For the first time the weather
did not look too promising, and indeed we did not get very far before torrential rain began. We stopped in the "Kolonieschänke" to dry out a bit and wait out the storm and eat more traditional dishes. After that we had only occasional showers. In the beginning, we cycled on pleasant bicycle paths and some small roads; the hinterland of the Kahnfahrt. We saw mostly vegetable farming, with an emphasis on pumpkins and also hay; some of the hay was in traditional stacks, but modern machine-made plastic bundles were also common. Later in the afternoon, the path degenerated into a Communist road of concrete rail-sleepers laid laterally - very unpleasant on our rented bikes - and they went on and on and on. To make matters worse the signposting stopped in the middle of nowhere: we had to stop and study maps while millions of mosquitos woken by the rain came to eat us. We went miles on the concrete sleepers before we found out where we were, and had to race to get the rented bikes back on time. Despite our bruised rear ends, we enjoyed a nice meal on our last evening together.
All good things come to an end! And so on the next day we had a long and boring drive home on the motorway; an uneventful six hours.
Sächsische Schweiz and Spreewald - September 2000