Anyone who has ever taken the train from Berlin to Prague may have noticed the picturesque valley that stretches from Dresden to the Czech border. This stretch of the journey along the River Elbe passes through lush woods, with pretty villages on one side, and imposing mountains and the odd castle on the other.
What many foreign tourists may fail to realize, however, is that through those dense forests on either side of the track lies a unique and spectacular landscape, known as the Sächsische Schweiz or Saxon Switzerland.
The area is famed for its sandstone formations and table mountains, almost like canyons in the American West except set amongst dense woodlands instead of desert scrub.
The unusual landscape, with its waterfalls and romantic gorges, has been a huge draw for tourists since the late 18th century. But the fact that this national park was locked behind the Iron Curtain for decades means it is still less well known than many of Germany's other natural attractions.
In fact, of the 1.4 million overnight stays in the region, only around three percent are foreigners, though a somewhat higher number make a day trip to the area while visiting nearby Dresden.
Tino Richter, director of the Saxon Switzerland tourist board, said the area had developed significantly as a destination since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with a marked improvement in the accommodation on offer.
“It is an advantage to some extent that there has been so much investment in the past 20 years,” he told The Local. “Everything has been modernized.” The terrible flooding in the region almost a decade ago also forced hotels and restaurants to renovate significantly, he explained.
But while there has been a development of the infrastructure, with thermal baths as well as a new five-star hotel at Bad Schandau, once a notable spa resort and now a tourist hub on the River Elbe, the main focus here is always nature.
Adrian Hughes, an Irishman who has lived in Berlin for years, was captivated by the uniquely romantic landscape when he visited. “It makes you feel as if the last Ice Age had melted away just a few weeks ago, depositing huge stones all over the place,” he told The Local.
For Hughes, the attraction of the region was also that it seemed less developed and organized than other nature parks in the country. “It was a quite wild and unkept,” he said, something that appealed to him greatly. “You feel very much alone wandering through it, directly in nature.”
Richter said that the main target group was definitely active holiday makers such as Hughes. “Most visitors come here to go hiking, cycling and climbing,” he said.
One example of what draws the more adventurous tourist is the Schrammsteine, the biggest rock formation in Saxon Switzerland. It towers above the valley and stretches from Bad Schandau all the way to Schmilka on the Czech border and beyond. Scaling the stone is no easy feat, with climbers having to tackle sheer rock stacks and hike along narrow paths, and climb steep steps and ladders to reach the view at the top.
Yet there is also much for the more culturally minded visitor to explore, with the spectacular Königstein fortress hugging the hills as well as pretty gateway town of Pirna and other picturesque villages.
Königstein, which towers 240 meters above the Elbe, was first mentioned in 1241, and in the 16th century its heavy fortifications and location meant it was considered unconquerable. Eventually the king of Saxony turned it into a prison for political enemies and one of its most famous inmates was August Bebel, a founder of the Social Democrats, who spent two years in its cells. The castle now gets around half a million visitors a year and in December it holds a historic Christmas Market.
Less active tourists can also take trips down the Elbe on steam boats or hop aboard the old-fashioned tram, the Kirnitzschtalbahn. It has been transporting guests through the romantic valley since 1898 and recently British actress Kate Winslett took the trip for a scene in the film “The Reader.”
The newest attraction in Saxon Switzerland is a new hiking path known as the Malerweg, or “Painters Path.” The 112-kilometre trail leads up and down both sides of the Elbe, breaking off at intervals to delve into the national park. The name harks back to the area's popularity with artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Gustav Carus and Ludwig Richter, who would traipse through this lush rugged landscape, sketching and painting as they went.
“Artists have been coming here since the late 18th century,” Richter says. “And the term Malerweg was around even back then.” However, it was only in 2006 that the tourist board developed the path, placing specific signposts along the way so that visitors could retrace the steps of the creative types of times past.
While the revival of the historic path has added a new interesting element to the Saxon Switzerland experience, in the end it is the landscape that really takes one's breath away.
“The voluptuous nature,” was what surprised Irishman Hughes the most when he first went there. “It was a much more primordial experience than I had expected.”