Oberwiesenthal, the highest town in Germany, used to be known as the St. Moritz of the East. But times have changed. DW’s Elisabeth Jahn visits a town still clinging to its past and yet striving to revamp its image.
The steam train that chugs along the Fichtelberg Railway from Cranzahl to Oberwiesenthal dates back to 1897. Out of my window I can see snow-covered peaks, scattered villages and thick forests. It's half-term in Saxony, so the carriages are full, mainly with families keen to make the most of the crisp February weather and enjoy some winter sports. Down in the valley, the snow is long gone.
Germany's oldest cable car to the peak
As the train pulls into Oberwiesenthal, at an altitude of 914 meters (2,998 feet) above sea level, it greets the throngs of skiers and snowboarders on the nearby slopes with a friendly toot.
The cable car that runs to the peak of the 1,214-meter-high Fichtelberg is the oldest in Germany, taking passengers past the huge jumps where legendary ski jumper Jens Weissflog trained as a young man. Today, they're still used as an Olympic training center. The cableway, with its striking red cars, was built in 1924 and played a major role in putting Oberwiesenthal on the map as a ski resort.
Close ties to Czech neighbors
The view from the top of the Fichtelberg is breathtaking. The ski resort of Klinovec is nearby, a few kilometers away on the other side of the Czech border. Before I arrived, I'd spoken on the phone with Mirko Ernst, the mayor of Oberwiesenthal, who'd told me that local authorities were keen to promote cross-border projects in the region. "The health and spa options on either side of the border are designed to complement each other," he said.
In 2012, Oberwiesenthal officially became a "climate resort," luring visitors with its fresh mountain air. The idea is that spa tourists will come all year round, including in summer, when guests traditionally stay away. Most of the town's 2,500 residents work in the tourist industry. Hotels are one of the region's biggest employers.
Guesthouse of the former East German State Security
I'm staying in the boxy, six-storey Hotel Birkenhof, built in 1969. In communist East Germany, it was used as a guesthouse by the Ministry for State Security. After Oberhof in Thüringen, Oberwiesenthal was the country's second main winter sports resorts and a bustling place in peak season.
But when the Berlin Wall fell, its fortunes turned. The friendly woman at the reception tells me that even the Hotel Birkenhof, where the interior design got a makeover in 1991, was deserted for a few years. East Germans preferred to head to the Alps and glamorous resorts such as St. Moritz they'd never expected to be able to visit.
Oberwiesenthal offers a wide range of activities
Oberwiesenthal has long since grasped that tradition and great pistes aren't enough to attract visitors. Several businesses have diversified as much as possible.
I've signed up for a snowshoe hike. It's supposed to be relatively easy to get the hang of, and I like the idea of a long hike through the snowy landscape. The tour is led by local Heike Lautner, who juggles her job as a tour guide with another as a lace-making teacher.
Cross country with my snowshoes
We start out in Loučná on the Czech side, and as soon as I do up my laces, I start to feel invincible. The snowshoes help you get up slippery slopes and navigate icy terrain, and I'm amazed to discover that their broad soles mean I don't even sink into deep snow. On the way back down, I find myself wishing I could just slide most of the way, but it's certainly fun. I'm with a group that includes two couples from Chemnitz on holiday together, and we have such a great time I don't even notice how exhausting the hike is.
Lautner also fills us in on the history of the region. It boasts valuable natural resources and has belonged to both Saxony in Germany and Czech Bohemia at various different times. In 1938, against the will of the then Czechoslovakian government, the predominantly German-speaking part of Bohemia was added to the Third Reich. After the Second World War, the German-speaking population was expelled, making it all the more remarkable that today the tourist industries on both sides of the border are working together.
Meeting a high flyer
Former athlete Jens Weissflog has been running a hotel in Oberwiesenthal since 1996 and also gives guided tours of the border region. Despite his sporting success, he seems shy and unassuming when I meet up with him in the conservatory of the hotel restaurant.
He's won Olympic medals, world championships and the Four Hills Tournaments, but Jens Weissflog is a down-to-earth kind of guy. When an elderly man interrupts our conversation asking if he can take a picture, he's patient and friendly. He sees it as part of his job. When he left sports, he converted the holiday homes once used by the East German secret police into the "Appartmenthotel Jens Weissflog", aware that his fame would be good for business and marketing.
When Weissflog starts to talk about marketing and Oberwiesenthal, his shyness melts way. "Oberwiesenthal has so much untapped potential," he said. He feels it needs to do more to promote itself, "but of course that costs money."
"If no one knows how fantastic it is here, they're not going to come," he added.
Even though the resort is often referred to as the St. Moritz of the East, it needs more than a catchy tagline. Moreover, if winters in the Ore Mountains are going to continue to get milder, as experts fear, Oberwiesenthal can't afford to rely on an image that lost its gloss a long time ago.