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Germany

Hike the craggy mountains of Germany's Saxon Switzerland

Germany is home to 67 regions nicknamed after its southern neighbor. But only the one in Saxony earned its moniker from a pair of Swiss artists. DW's Jefferson Chase took a hike along the region's famous Painters' Way.

"These Switzerlands are getting smaller and smaller," novelist and outdoorsman Theodor Fontane wrote in the late nineteenth century. "There’s no longer just a Switzerland in the March Brandenburg - there’s even one in the town of Ruppin.

View of rock formations Photo: Jefferson Chase

It's not Switzerland, but it sure is pretty

Indeed. If you look at a map of Germany, you find an astonishing number of Switzerlands in the country, even though large areas of Germany’s terrain are basically flat. This "Swissification" of Germany was the result of the nineteenth century tendency to romanticize nature to the point of kitsch.

The trend first began in 1766, when two now-obscure Swiss painters, Adrian Zingg und Anton Graff, were appointed professorships at Dresden’s Art Academy. They fell in love with a 93-square kilometer (58-square mile) area of mountainous woodlands near the Elbe River on what is now Germany’s border with the Czech Republic. Since then the region has been known as Saxon Switzerland, conjuring up vaguely humorous images of people yodeling and blowing into Alpine horns. How much Switzerland can there possibly be in Germany? To find out I got in my car and drove southwest.

Climbing to Cow Shed

Andrian Zingg's The Cow Shed in Saxon Switzerland Photo submited by Jefferson Chase

The Cow Shed as Zingg saw it

Two hours from Berlin, the landscape turns hilly, and the bizarre, jagged rock formations typical of the region appear in the distance. Not the sort of thing I associated with Switzerland. More like something from the backdrops of Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.

Adrian Zingg’s wonderfully named and best known picture is called The Cow Shed. It depicts an unusual round gate through mountain rock atop a peak near the spa town of Bad Schandau. Rumor has it the locals hid their livestock here during World War II. So that’s my first destination. I drive past the city center and park in front of a field where an older folks sit in lawn chairs sunning themselves amidst bales of hay.

I enter the forest and start my ascent along a stretch of the "Painters' Way," which is 112 kilometers (70 miles) long, total. The path is well-groomed and marked clearly enough for any idiot to find his way. But it’s also pretty steep. These are the sorts of inclines I usually only take on with the help of a golf cart.

It’s a rare occasion for a city slicker like me to find himself in the forest, and I have to admit it’s a bit eerie. Not a soul in sight, not even any animals with the exception of my dog Thin Lizzy, and the only sound is leaves rustling in the wind. The air is cool and smells like moss. To my right, the ground plummets down into a ravine.

The forest is made up of primeval beeches, firs, and pines. It feels strange to be looking down at the tops of such gigantic trees. The forests in the Swiss Alps may be quite different to this one, but the contemplative calm here probably reminded Zingg and consorts of their Swiss homeland. Gradually I lose track of time. A clearing opens up ahead. Without realizing it, I’ve arrived at my destination. The Cow Shed.

On top of the world

Crack between two cliffs Photo: Jefferson Chase

Things in the mountains can get pretty tight

Before I continue along the Painters' Way, I stop for a cold one in the rustic tavern Gasthaus zum Kuhstall. I am relieved to see relatively few full-blown nature nerds with knee socks, Nordic walking sticks, and Hubble-strength binoculars. Saxon Switzerland may be a famous hiking destination, but I don’t stand out too badly in my golf shirt and jogging shoes.

Unfortunately an ugly maintenance building now blocks the perspective on the Cow Shed, which Zingg used in his painting. But once I pass through the opening, the views are as impressive as their Swiss equivalents. I can see for kilometers, and wherever I look, I see strange geographic formations, with a seemingly endless sea of green below.

But I’m still not at the very top, so I climb "Heaven’s Ladder," a diabolically narrow set of metal steps leading up though a crack in a cliff. At the end the view is even more spectacular. I’m pretty much in the same place as the subject of the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich’s, "Wanderer above the Sea of Fog," except that the weather here is crystal clear.

I do my best to burn the panorama view into my memory before I head back down the Painters’ Way to my car. Hiking down a mountain, I find, is lot more fun than hiking up it. At one point, I even hear someone in the distance yodeling.

Eternal recurrence of the same

Marks indicating flood levels in Bad Schandau Photo: Jefferson Chase

Marks on the walls show the water levels reached by various floods

Back at the bottom: what now? A thermal bath? Too boring. Rock-climbing? Way too much work. A leisurely cycle along the Elbe River? Sounds like fun, but too time-consuming. I decide to have a look at the town of Bad Schandau.

The historic town center is full of stately buildings with bell gables that recall Saxony’s wealthy past from when it was an independent kingdom. It’s picturesque, but after a few minutes of wandering, something strikes me as not quite right. A look at the lines marked on the walls of some of the houses reveals what that something is.

The floods last June were only half as bad as the historic ones of 2002, yet every second shop is empty, and wherever you go, you hear sounds of people fixing things or trying to dry out buildings. The only sign of life at the luxury Elbresidenz hotel down by the river banks is a stand selling sausage and beer. The bank in the neighboring town ofKönigsteincurrently resides in a bus parked on the market square.

Luckily, the beer garden at my hotel in the district of Ostrau, located atop a large hill, is open. While I attract some funny looks when I jokingly try to order fondue, the steak is excellent, and the light local red wine goes down well with the Romantic landscape in the backdrop. Isn’t it terrible living in a place that floods at regular intervals? I want to know.

The economy constantly suffers when the town floods. But, the bartender tells me, they just suck it up and get on with their lives.

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