The train network in Germany is impressive sight to behold. The trains are quick, modern and go nearly anywhere a car can. Sometimes, they’ll even go where the cars can’t. And it was thanks to these extensive networks that I was able to travel to such unique and untraditional places during my travels in Germany. One of these places is a tiny dot on the train networks maps – the little village of Rathen.
Rathen is a small spa town of less than 400 inhabitants located on the shores of the Elbe River. A small ferry takes visitors across the river from the train station and into the town. There are no bridges across this river oddly enough, and I really didn’t feel like swimming in December.
The town is nestled among the giants of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. These mountains form part of the Sächsische Schweiz (or “Saxon Switzerland”) National Park.
This National Park is split over Germany and the Czech Republic. The German side is called the “Saxon Switzerland” after two Swiss painters living in Dresden during the 18th century thought that the Elbe Sandstone Mountains looked like their Swiss Jura Mountains back home. The painters then referred in letters to their homeland as “real Switzerland” and the Elbe Sandstone Mountains as “Saxon Switzerland”.
Saxon Switzerland National Park encompasses an area referred to until 200 years ago as a “hinterland”. I knew I was pretty far off the tourist trail when I learned that I was voyaging into an ex-hinterland. The area was originally settled by Bohemian Slavs during the Dark Ages. Around 1000 AD, the area was controlled by three Slavic tribes: the Nisane tribe in the east, the Dacine tribe in the south and the Milzane tribe in the north and west. The area did not become German until the 15th century. Even today, the area has still not truly been conquered.
Many artists of the Romanticism movement visited and were inspired by the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Painter Ludwig Richter is one of the most famous visitors. Composer Carl Maria von Weber set a scene from his famous German opera “Der Freischütz” in Rathen.
The most famous location in the Saxon Switzerland National Park is the Bastei rock formations. Towering nearly 200 meters above the Elbe River, their jagged shape was created by water erosion over one million years ago. A bridge has existed over the Bastei rocks for over 200 years, giving amazing views from its high vantage point.
The foundation of Neurathen Castle, the region’s largest rock castle, is in ruins among the Bastei rocks. Some carved rock rooms and passages are still visible. Castles like this one were built right into the rock of the Elbe Mountains. They almost always served as guards, but what exactly they were guarding could differ greatly. On one hand, some rock castles would watch over the important trade routes through the mountains and the surrounding forests. On the other hand, they were also used to watch over the hidden treasure of robber barons trying to hide their assets. These were feudal warlords who willingly participated in unethical and monopolistic practices to amass immense wealth and widespread political influence. I suppose you could say then that these rock castles were the first tax havens in Europe.
After conquering these sandstone giants, it was time to catch the next train to Schöna, which lies on the border with Czech Republic. It was time to conquer the Bohemian side.