The meandering river Elbe has played a leading role in carving out a visually stunning set of mountains, southeast of Dresden.
It’s not easy listing the mountain ranges in Germany; the Alps, yes, and the Harz. Possibly the Swabian Alps and the Eifel, although the latter’s volcanoes don’t actually look much like mountains. But there’s one other range that definitely looks mountainlike, although it rarely gets higher than 550 metres: Saxon Switzerland, the German section of the Elbe Sandstone Mountain range, which extends across the border into the Czech Republic.
What they lack in height, the sandstone peaks of Saxon Switzerland, southeast of Dresden, more than make up for in drama. They rise steeply in fingers and thumbs of bare rock, over 1,000 of them, several of them towering over the meandering river Elbe, which is partly responsible for carving them in the first place.
What they lack in height they more than make up for in drama
They make ideal climbing territory, and over the years Saxon Switzerland has become a magnet for the climbing community, thanks to the purist so-called ‘Saxon rules’ which were drawn up here limiting the amount of artificial assistance a climber may use. This has since become known as ‘free climbing’, with ropes and bolts only used for protection, but never as a means for climbing. One Saxon peculiarity is the concept of a Baustelle (literally ‘construction site’) where climbers pass a difficult part by climbing on top of each other’s shoulders.
Much of the unusual landscape is protected by the Saxon Switzerland National Park, one of whose aims is actually to limit the human presence in order to maintain one of Europe’s few pristine natural environments. In places its fissures and canyons make it look a bit like a more wooded version of Arizona’s Monument Valley, and it is almost as thinly populated.
Some buildings are in the most inaccessible places, such as the Felsenburg Neurathen castle, built in the 11th Century on the Bastei, natural stone towers above the Elbe, from where it dominated the landscape for three centuries until burned by a besieging army in 1484. Sadly there is little left but ruins, but people come here for the view, and a bridge has been built between the towers to accommodate the increasing tourist traffic.
The other big tourist attraction is the spa town of Bad Schandau, down on the banks of the Elbe, where thousands of visitors come for the mineral water and the invigorating climate. Bad Schandau is only 45 minutes from the centre of Dresden – or rather longer if you choose to make the journey on one of Dresden’s famous old paddlesteamers. A great way to arrive.