Nature is key in Saxon Switzerland

Story and photos by Uta Mayr-Falkenberg
Contributing writer

Ever since Germany was reunited, the Saxon Switzerland has been a magnet for tourists. The area east of the Baroque city of Dresden, which since 1990 houses the 93-square-kilometer national park with the bizarre rock formations of the “Elbsandsteingebirge,” Elbe sandstone mountains, turned — after a slow beginning in the 18th century — into a multisided vacation area. Hikers and climbers, as well as bikers and paddlers, can feel at home here. No matter if it’s families or art and theater enthusiasts, everybody will find something they like. Guests who like treatments in health resorts will find various possibilities.

Today, about 2 million people from everywhere come to this region, which in the national park alone has more then 400 hiking trails. Here, officials are proud to have managed the balancing act between a sound nature and picturesque landscape on one side and tourism on the other. The Saxon Switzerland smoothly crosses over into the Bohemian Switzerland. The whole landscape ruled by nature has a surface of more than 270 square miles. It’s more than fair to call it one of the last boondocks in Europe.

The pivot of the Saxon Switzerland is a 70-mile-long hiking route with eight stages called “The Painters’ Way.” It was designed in 2006. About 300 years ago artists with pad and pencil went out to find their motifs in the Elbe sandstone mountains. In 1766, two of them, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff from Switzerland, came up with the name “Saxon Switzerland” an adequate term for a landscape that also inspired famous painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, Carl Gustav Carus and Ludwig Richter.

In 2008/2009, the Painters’ Way was elected the most popular hiking trail and, recently, an expert magazine awarded it the “nicest hiking trail in Germany.” Hikers can put their own route together and follow the well-placed signs. Printed material and Internet information is available.

There also is a brochure called “Malerweg,” Painters’ Way, with detailed descriptions of each stage and a lot of tips.

The first stage leads through the “Uttewalder Grund,” Uttewalder gorge, with the famous rock gate. Many painters got their inspirations from the romantic gorge with elves and goblins, where only the singing of birds interrupts the silence. Also, composer Carl Maria von Weber used the gorge as a model for the wolves’ gorge in his opera “Der Freischütz.”

Biologist and national park guide Daphna Zieschang will help turn the hike into a special adventure. She points out rare fern and moss species, which grow well in this climate as well as weird rock formations that give the gorge an almost mystic imprint. Of course, Zieschang carries along literature with drawings of famous painters.

Whoever feels like it and is well conditioned, can attempt to walk across “Höllengrund,” hell’s gorge, and the “Steinernen Tisch,” stone table, to the “Bastei,” bastion — the token of Saxon Switzerland and its most impressive scenery (the second stage of Painters’ Way).

A steep rocky reef falls down more than 600 feet toward the Elbe River. On one side of the river, there are 745 approved climbing rocks with about 11,000 climbing paths. It is said that climbing was invented in Saxon Switzerland.

The “Bastei,” bastion, is a meeting point for everybody: car and bus tourists, travel groups and families, hikers and excursionists, sporty and disabled people. Everybody should attempt, at least once, to walk across the 250-foot-long stone bridge, which was built in 1851. Restaurants, a hotel, souvenir shops, an exhibition with historical landscape presentations await visitors.

As you walk step by step closer to the “Schwedenlöcher,” Sweden holes, down to the Amsel gorge it gets much quieter. There, during the Thirty Years’ War, the population hid in crevices from the Swedish troops. From the bottom, a side path leads up to the open-air rock stage of Rathen, a health resort with about 400 inhabitants. The resort will celebrate its 75th anniversary through October with about 80 performances, including operettas, plays and concerts.

Nature reins in Saxon Switzerland. Whoever wants to fully enjoy this, should come equipped with proper hiker’s equipment, boots, a backpack, a water bottle, a rain shield and maps. Stairs or iron ladders lead the hikers to the nicest locations in the gorges or on top of the hills. One popular location is the 1,300-foot-tall Schrammstein (the fourth stage of the Painters’ Way), which from a little stone plateau offers a wide view over the forests of the national park, the neighboring rocks and the Elbtal valley.

The Schrammstein path has an Alpine character. Jens Posthoff from the 29-member national park guard knows of hikers who overestimated their abilities. That’s why the signs give the time needed to complete the trail, but not the distance in kilometers. Posthoff is also in charge of the many national and international film teams looking for a suitable background.

With a surface of 9.5 hectares and about a mile long, one of the biggest medieval fortifications in Europe is just around the corner: the Königstein (the seventh stage of the Painters’ Way). Annually, more than 70,000 people visit this fortification, which has a 750-year history.

Here, the famous Saxon king August the Strong lived, loved and reined. The fortification was a monastery, hospital, state prison and youth workshop until it turned into a tourist attraction.

Throughout the year, a lot takes place over the surface of 30 soccer fields: guided tours to the lowest well in Saxony (500 feet) and the historical wine cellar, tours for children, visits of theater and museums, art displays, civil marriages, and a historical Christmas market. And people can spend their vacation right here in the fortification.

The Evangelical-Lutheran garrison church St. Georg from the 13th century is Saxony’s oldest garrison church with a fascinating history. It was a smithy, a brewery, a gunpowder storage, a gym and a movie theater. In 1992, renovations started and in 2000, the church was inaugurated. All yearlong, there are worship services, marriages and musical events.

For information material on Saxon Switzerland, go online and visit or You may also e-mail or call the tourist office in Pirna at 03501-470147.

For details on Königstein, visit or e-mail