The views from my cliff-top nest – 200 meters above the ground – are extraordinary. The mountains lurk in the distance. Closer at hand is a mosaic of deep green forest and golden fields, interrupted by isolated, flat hills. A mighty river flows below me. But most surprising of all is the grasp of sandstone fingers pointing skyward – now spanned by stone bridges but once home to a hill fort, tightly wrapped in what look like a pair of petrified hands.
These gravity-defying formations bring to mind the fantasy landscapes of Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic whose sequel hits theaters this winter. Land comparisons could be made with the karst mountains of Guilin, or Ha Long Bay.
I’m not in China or Vietnam, however, but much closer to home: Germany – or, to be exact, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the state of Saxony, the most beloved natural landmark.
Their otherworldly nature has inspired artists for centuries. Indeed, the dreamy depictions of Caspar David Friedrich and other romantic landscape painters put these lofty peaks on the map. The Swiss roots of two other artists, Anton Graff and Adrian Zingg, also gave rise to the region’s nickname – Saxon Switzerland.
Eager to see for themselves the scenes so beautifully captured on canvas, 18th-century visitors traveled from nearby Dresden by steamship to Bad Schandau – a pretty riverside town and favorite summer resort.
Such scenic navigations along the Elbe are still offered, but I had opted for the faster train journey (it takes less than an hour) after a stay in the city to discover Dresden’s buildings and monuments. Many were built using sandstone extracted from the Elbe cliffs, including the Frauenkirche: the Baroque cathedral rebuilt to its original design after the Saxon capital was destroyed by Allied bombing.
Fortunately, the extraction of sandstone has never profaned the rock formation of Bastei, where those precarious stone bridges are found. They remain little changed since they were immortalized by Friedrich and Graff.
Today, the driving force of the landscape attracts kayakers, rafters and rock climbers, but what brought me here is the promise of hiking parts of the Malerweg (Painters’ Path), which winds through Saxon Switzerland through places where a long time ago artists looked for their palettes.
With easy ferry and train connections, Bad Schandau and its grandest hotel, the Elberesidenz riverside, are a convenient base for exploring the region. After conquering Bastei, I tackle more than the Malerweg to reach Königstein, a spectacular fortress on one of the valley’s characteristic flat outcrops, or mesas. Buses depart from the city along the river that shares its name, but the 45-minute uphill hike makes for a much more memorable approach.
The path winds through beech woods to emerge under sandstone cliffs, above which rise the impenetrable walls of the citadel. Combined with drawbridges, ramparts and other defensive structures, I am not surprised that this was considered the safest place in Saxony. Its barracks and castle are impressive, but it is the views from the walls towards Bastei that reward the effort. Far below, the Elbe flows in a perfect horseshoe curve. I’m not equipped to paint the scene, so settle for taking a couple of selfies.
To change the pace, I mix things up by going up the river on an e-bike rented from the activity center near Elberesidenz. My first discovery is Schmilka, a village of almost fairytale beauty grouped along a cobblestone path.
In the wake of German reunification, many Schmilka residents have relocated, and a local entrepreneur spent three decades renovating run-down, stone and wood properties into vacation rentals, a hotel and a brewery. He also brings to life a centuries-old bakery that uses organic ingredients (including flour ground from the village’s water mill) to make life-size bread and cakes.
Organic ingredients also shine at Schmilka’s StrandGut restaurant, whose terrace sits next to riverside plots that grow kitchen products. A delicious lunch here of braised ox cheeks, potato dumplings and Schmilka beer is perhaps not the wisest choice before an afternoon on the bike. I cast longing glances at the rocking chair hanging from a willow tree by the river, but the promise of what lies further down the road brings me back in the saddle.
It is a stone’s throw from Schmilka on the Czech border, where I pass the now unmanned checkpoint and aim for Děčín, the next crossing, 10 miles upstream. The dense forest reveals only the water as I go, but it’s a different story when I return along the opposite shore. Here, the traffic-free bike path offers an unobstructed view of the Elbe as it flows through the deep wooded canyon it has carved. It makes the return to Bad Schandau an absolutely memorable trip.
When I reach Elberesidenz, I’m ready for a dip in the rooftop pool and a well-deserved laze on a lounger to watch the river go by. I fall asleep soon, but come back to life when a couple in bathrobes drop down nearby. Dropping their robes, it is evident that they respected the local culture by going without a bathing suit into the hotel sauna.
The landscapes may be otherworldly, but it reminds me that I am definitely in Germany and the view of the Elbe flowing below has never been more compelling.
How to get there
Ryanair (ryanair.com) serves Dresden from London Stansted. Or travel via Berlin or Prague, both about two hours by train from Dresden.
Stay in Dresden at Gewandhaus (double from € 255 / £ 221, gewandhaus-hotel.de), in Bad Schandau in Elberesidenz (double riverside from € 236 / £ 204, toskanaworld.net) or in Schmilka at Hotel Helvetia (from € 249 / £ 215, schmilka.de). Check out more great places to stay with our guide to the best hotels in Germany.
What to do
For guided hikes or city tours (in English) see tourguide-dresden.de. More information at visitexony.com and germany.travel.