Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Like Hiking Through a Fairy Tale: Pictures of the Saxony Switzerland

I've decided to mix up the order of the Saxon Switzerland posts, as I've been frantically writing an essay (that's due today *coughs*). My last post was day 1, and this post is day 3 of our time in the Saxon Switzerland. I'll be writing about day 2 hopefully next week.

The hike we did on the third day was a continuation of the hike we'd started on our first day. If you recall, we'd planned to hike from Stadt Wehlen all the way to Hohnstein, but ended up cutting the hike short in Rathen instead. This time, we took the bus back to Bastei and then continued the hike from there (we really didn't mind another opportunity to admire the Bastei bridge!).

Mist over the rocks near Bastei. Hard to capture with a camera, so please forgive the quality!
It had rained the night before, so there was mist rising as we started the hike. The mists in this region are famous - the painters I talked about last time loved them, as I'm sure you can imagine.

Mists or not, I'd argue that this section was the most beautiful one of the hike. We also loved that it was quite varied, from Bastei through to different valleys and over the heights in between. I'm sure you'll agree as you look through the pictures :). Since all the pictures make the post long, you'll find the remainder behind the cut.

Mist as seen from the Bastei bridge.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Saxony Switzerland Day 1: Hiking Bastei, and Hiking Mishaps

From Erfurt we went on to the Sächsiche Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland), a nature region and national park to the far east of Germany, near Dresden (it continues on over the Czech border as well, as the Bohemian Switzerland). The area is known for its sheer sandstone cliffs, which makes it very popular with climbers. It’s also really picturesque, and has excellent hiking, so it attracts all kinds of tourism.
One of the views form close to the Bastei bridge.
 When we were planning this trip, this one of the first spots that came up, due to Tristan having seen a single picture of the region and deciding he had to go there.

Specifically, the picture he saw was of the Bastei Bridge:
The Bastei Bridge. Can you really blame Tristan?
The bridge is on a multi-day hiking trail aptly named Malerweg (Painter’s trail). The trail (purportedly) follows the footsteps of the 19th-century German Romantic painters, many of whom painted (and made prints) in and of the surrounding region.
I'm sure you can understand why the painters loved this area.
Our goal was to spend two nights on the trail, hiking from town to town before heading on to Prague. We decided to start with stage 2 (according to the tourism website for the region), which leads from Stadt Wehlen on the river up to the village of Hohnstein, passing over the Bastei bridge and by the spa town of Rathen.

At the start of the hike.
Your not-quite-so-photogenic author after a while hiking in the heat and with the heavy backpack.
Both of those plans fell through quickly. It was horribly hot and sunny (30°C! Pretty ridiculous for Germany), and our backpacks were heavy and mine, at least, was hurting me pretty quickly. I figured out (much) later that even though we’d packed lightly for travel, we didn’t pack sufficiently lightly for backpacking/trekking, which is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Add in a lack of training, a too-late start, that fact that I should have gotten my bag fitted (as I tell others to do…oops…), etc. Ah well, live and learn.

We did hike to Bastei (a further problem – we probably spent too much time there wandering around and taking pictures!). This is where you’ll encounter crowds and foreign tourists, but the views are still worth it.

 Bastei comes from an old word for fortification (similar to “bastion” or the French “bastille”), as there was one near one end of the bridge (pretty well gone now, although you can take a look at what’s left for a small fee). The bridge itself was built in the 19th century to encourage tourism; it's long been popular with tourists (and at least two of the aforementioned Romantic painters).
On the bridge itself.
From Bastei we hiked down to Rathen with the intent of calling it a day. Having already booked our campsite, we hoped to catch a bus up to Hohnstein. Well, it was Friday evening, so no more busses (assuming there were busses to/from Rathen in the first place, which I'm still fuzzy on). Well, was there a campground around? No campground here, said the souvenir stand guy with an apologetic expression. A hostel then? No such thing either (Rathen is a spa town, so it's aimed at those who want comfort and are happy to pay for it...which is to say, not a pair of dirtbag backpackers. Hikers generally skirt it and head on to Hohnstein).

The guy finally pointed us to a private bus company that generally ferries tourists to and from Bastei but can occasionally be convinced to take hikers up to Hohnstein. Since it was near the end of the workday, the driver agreed to take us to our campground (link in German only) - for a fairly hefty price (admittedly not unfair for that town, just more than we'd hoped).


the website for the hike gave the impression that one could arrange luggage transfer between the different accommodation locations, but we asked around and found nothing of the sort. Our hosts at the campground told us that it was (to the best of their knowledge) only done by hiking tour companies, and only as part of such a tour. If you do intend to do the hike independently, try contacting your accommodation(s) and see if they can help you with luggage; otherwise your best bet is to try and leave your luggage somewhere, either in your first accommodation (or in Dresden), or in a train station, which may or may or may not have sufficiently long storage.

A knowledge of German will come in handy in this region. It’s out in the country, where you’ll often find less English knowledge (and thicker German accents, which may challenge your German comprehension!), and few foreign tourists come here outside of Bastei. That said, anyone who works in tourism will be able to communicate with you.

Campgrounds aren’t generally located in the towns, and not always along the trail; they’re aimed at people driving in for the weekend – or the week – staying there, and doing day hikes around the region (a la National Prak campgrounds in North America). Your best bet is to hike like the Germans do, from one hotel/hostel/guesthouse to the next.

The high season starts around May. I recommend going during the week – you’ll find fewer crowds and better bus service.

Next post I'll be talking about some further mishaps we had, as well as some successful adventures in the region. Expect lots more beautiful landscapes and old buildings!

Wednesday, 11 May 2016


For anyone that read my last post, I have now wrapped up coverage of Eisenach. After a week there, staying with my grandparents, Tristan and I set out on our own. Our first stop? Erfurt. We were quite excited for what would be our first time travelling independently, together.

Of course, we promptly failed miserably. We hadn’t looked up hostels beforehand, due to a combination of not-great internet in Eisenach and not knowing when exactly we were going to travel there (and also the fact that looking up hostels is time-consuming, a fact we were to become very acquainted with by the end of our trip). We got to the train station in Erfurt around noon, and promptly spent about an hour eating, finding internet (more challenging than you’d think!) and, once we’d found a hostel, phoning them in hopes of finding room. Then, once we’d gotten to our hostel, we found the price they were charging us was ridiculous (it ended up being our most expensive night on the trip with the exception of the castle stay, which I’ll talk about later. Crazy!) Then we got lost trying to find our room (it was in the hostel’s second building, several blocks away from the reception building). By this point it was getting well into the afternoon as well, and we only had that day in Erfurt. I promptly had a breakdown.

After that rocky start, however, we found Erfurt a lovely city. The hostel, horrendous pries aside, is located in or close to the Villenviertel (the area with all the 19th-century villas) and thus in a beautiful area of town. We ended up spending our evening exploring "our" area.
A not-stellar picture of the Villenviertel.
However, prior to this, our first stop was the medieval town centre. The town centre is amazingly well preserved (I suspect this is largely due to the fact that Erfurt would not have been a target in the Second World War, unlike Eisenach which had a car/airplane factory). We also timed our trip wonderfully: it was a glorious hot (but not too hot) summer day, perfect for leisurely wanderings in a town.

As previously mentioned, the town centre is wonderfully preserved, with narrow rows of brightly painted half-timber houses lining twisting, cobbled streets.

There's another narrow house!
Particularly fascinating for us were the narrow alleys, some of which actually felt as though you had stepped into the past. (They provided the added advantage of being free of crowds, which may have helped...)

Ok, so the graffiti isn't medieval, but who cares. Also, there's a little toy store to the right!
What makes the town centre even lovelier is that a river (the Gera) cuts through it. In many European towns, small rivers and streams like this one were moved underground at some point. This one, however, was left at the surface, and it adds a lot of beauty and character to the town centre.
We really liked that house in the background with the four balconies overhanging the river.
In particular, this river produces one of Erfurt’s most distinct attractions: the Krämerbrücke (Krämer-bridge, from an old German/Austrian word for merchant). This bridge is completely covered in houses and shops (hence the name) on either side of the pedestrian path that crosses it. When crossing the bridge, it is easy to miss that one is on a bridge, since the water isn’t visible. In fact, we missed it completely and had to double back and cross the bridge again before we realized where it was!

The Krämerbrücke from the outside.
However, in a carless street lined with half-timbered houses, with shops in the ground floors and living spaces in the stories above, we couldn’t help but feel as though we’d stepped back in time.
Looking over the Krämerbrücke from one end of it.
Other than this – and the novelty of knowing we were walking across a bridge when it looked like a normal street – we found the Krämerbrücke much nicer and more interesting from the outside. Beside the bridge and on the river, we found a lovely park where we spent some time and took far too many pictures.
You can see the park by the Krämerbrücke here.
It seemed like half the city was out in the park, enjoying the wonderful warm weather. We were quite happy to sneak in with them and imagine we lived there as well!

On top of being beautiful, the town is also delightfully quirky. This is a fountain of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten (Bremen city musicians) from an old fairy tale.

Bremer Stadtmusikanten as a water founatin
Giant "flower" pot, with Tristan for scale
The other big attraction in Erfurt – the Erfurt Cathedral – was our next stop. Walking there took us through further sections of the old town, so no cause for complaint! The Cathedral is a spectacular example of the late Gothic style. Gothic churches were built to be grand and impressive and this cathedral delivers, helped by the fact that it is located on a small hill above the city. We were certainly quite awed by it.
The cathedral from the front. The light was behind it when we went, so please excuse the picture quality.

One of the entrances
A picture of the inside, with the mandatory high ceilings!
The altar
A stained-glass window
There is nothing in this cathedral that isn't super ornate…just like a good gothic cathedral should be!

Further attractions included the city hall (with this adorable postbox outside)...

…more time wandering and sitting in parks…

and a very important stop for ice cream.

As you can see from the pictures, Erfurt is beautiful, and we couldn’t have picked a better day for city wandering. We were so charmed by the town, particularly the city centre, that we promptly started discussing moving there and opening an ice cream café. We’ll see, I suppose ;).

In this house, of course.
Next up will be our extensive adventures in the Saxony Switzerland National Park. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


Hi all! I've been lax posting here again. I had grand plans of posting every 3 days...or maybe every 4 days...or...

I just came back from a conference this past weekend. While a fantastic experience, it also monopolized my time - not just during, but also before, as I had to prepare a presentation for it. I also started taking a summer class last week that's 2 hours every day, on top of researching full-time.

All of this is great, no complaints, but it's seriously cutting into my time. So, with that, I will officially try posting once a week (hopefully Tuesdays, if not then Wednesdays). My next Europe trip post is almost done and I will try my best to get it up tonight.

Thanks for you patience, and please stick with me, I have more stories coming up!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Hiking around Eisenach

One of our big goals for our time in Eisenach (and for the trip more generally) was to hike. Eisenach borders on the Thüringer Wald (Thuringian Forest) area, which is renowned for its hiking.

We actually hiked to get up to the Wartburg, which I talked about in my previous post. It’s not a long hike, but it is fairly steep. We were definitely feeling our prairie legs afterwards. If you don’t want to hike, you also drive can drive or take the bus to the Wartburg, but once you see how terrifyingly steep the road is you might prefer the hike! The hike starts very close to the road up to the Wartburg and roughly parallels it.

Prior to the castle hike, we warmed up our legs with another, slightly easier one. This hike leads up to a memorial for the Burschenschaftler (the town website translates it as "Fraternity", but that's not a very good translation). 
The monument, seen from just underneath.
The Burschenschaftler were a student movement in the 19th century with nationalist, progressive, and anti-feudalistic leanings (keep in mind that at this time what is now Germany consisted of a multitude of small kingdoms). When I talked about the Wartburg being the birthplace of German unification in my previous post – this is the group of people who met there and brought about unification.

There's a monument below the, uh, monument, commemorating those members who lost their lives in the First World War.
Neither the Nazis not the Communist regime particularly liked the group very much, and so they were disbanded for decades and the memorial allowed to fall into disrepair. It’s been mostly repaired – although when we were there, work was still being done – and the interior turned into a mini-museum. I found the museum interesting; however, most of what’s in there is in German so it’s probably not worth paying the few Euros admission if you don’t understand/read the language.
It is beautiful on the inside, however...

You do, however, get fantastic views over the town, the castle (the location was deliberately chosen!) and the surrounding area.
A view over Eisenach from the memorial
In the same region, there is a famous long-distance hike known as the Rennsteig (it’s from an old German word - I still don’t know what it means!). It’s fairly famous, and Germany's oldest distance hike, according to Lonely Planet. I’ve long been wanting to hike at least a segment or two thereof.

I also wanted to hike – and show Tristan – my favourite hike in Eisenach, the Drachenschlucht (Dragon’s Gorge). In a nice, convenient twist of fate, the latter hike connects to the former, and so a plan was born.

However, before we did that one, my grandparents wanted to give us a bit of an introduction to the Rennsteig. In the nearby village of Hörschel, there is a traditional German Gaststätte (sort of the German equivalent of a pub and guesthouse) called Tor zum Rennsteig (gateway to the Rennsteig - the website is also only in German), where they took us for lunch. I want to highlight two things about German cuisine: 1), it varies greatly from region to region, and 2) it’s traditionally very meat-heavy. Point 1 was my grandparents wanted to take us there; point 2 was why I (I am vegetarian, for those who don’t know) was a bit worried about what I’d eat.

As it turned out, I could have saved myself the worry. I was blown away to realize that this traditional pub had, not one, but two vegetarian options. I had vegetarian “Schnitzel” (essentially a bunch vegetables stuck together with what I think was a slightly cheesy sauce, and breaded and fried) and some local beer. Considering that I like most vegetables and will eat almost anything if it’s covered in either cheese or breadcrumbs, I was over the moon. Tristan order pig’s heel – a traditional dish – and also loved it.

Which brings me to the hikes.

The Drachenschlucht hike takes you into and through the eponymous gorge. It’s very narrow and with steep walls, so for the much of the hike you actually walk on a kind of grating over the stream that formed the gorge, since there’s no space for an extra walkway! You see dark stone walls carved form millennia of water flowing through them on either side of you, narrow beams of sunlight coming from the top (and sometimes no sunlight!), miniature waterfalls, even narrower side gorges, and the forest beside and above you. This was one of the narrowest portions of the hike:

A particularly narrow portion of the Drachenschlucht hike. Note the grating you walk on!
So you can see how high and narrow the canyon is! In this picture, the sunlight does penetrate into the gorge, but as you can see in the picture above sunlight can’t actually reach the bottom in all sections of the gorge. You can see where the stream carved out the gorge over millennia, including “pockets” in the wall where whirlpools would have carved the rock at one point in time. It’s a really cool hike and unlike any I’ve done elsewhere, and I’d recommended it highly if you’re in the area. It’s also not a difficult hike – it’s only 2.5 km and not very steep (we hiked uphill, you can also hike downhill to make life a bit easier). A map and more information can be found here.
A side canyon. You can see how little sunlight actually makes it down!

The Drachenschlucht hike ends (or begins, if you go the other way) at a small food stand and seating area. At this point, it also intersects with the Rennsteig. After a brief break, Tristan and I then turned and wandered on along the Rennsteig.

This hike mostly follows a ridgeline in the (low) mountains near Eisenach, making it in some ways the opposite of the Drachenschlucht. The segment we hiked was flat – a nice break after hiking uphill in the Drachenschlucht! – and led primarily through a light, airy forest. The day we picked to hike was a lovely sunny day and so for much of the hike we had the sunlight falling through the leaves and branches, forming sunbeams and dappled patterns on the forest floor. It was beautiful.
From one trail to the next

This neat little rest spot and watering spot (?) gives you a bit of an idea of what the hike looked like.

The best part? Ending up at a guesthouse, so we could restore our energy with ice cream and Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake, a very important afternoon ritual in Germany!).