Rambles In The Saxon Switzerland
( Originally Published 1889 )
After four days' sojourn in Dresden we shouldered our knapsacks, not to be laid down again till we reached Prague. We were elated with the prospect of getting among the hills again, and we heeded not the frequent showers which had dampened the enjoyment of the Pentecost holidays, to the good citizens of Dresden, and might spoil our own. So we trudged gaily along the road to Pillnitz and waved an adieu to the domes behind us as the forest shut them out from view. After two hours' walk the road led down to the Elbe, where we crossed in a ferry-boat to Pillnitz, the seat of a handsome palace and gardens, belonging to. the King of Saxony. He happened to be there at the time, on an afternoon excursion from Dresden; as we had seen him before, in the latter place, we passed directly on, only pausing to admire the flower-beds in the palace court. The King is a tall, benevolent looking man, and is apparently much liked by his people. As far as I have yet seen, Saxony is a prosperous and happy country. The people are noted all over Germany for their honest, social character, which is written on their cheerful, open countenances. On our entrance into the Saxon Switzerland, at Pillnitz,
we were delighted with the neatness and home-like appearance of everything. Every body greeted us; if we asked for information, they gave it cheerfully. The villages were all pleas-ant and clean and the meadows fresh and blooming. I felt half tempted to say, in the words of an old ballad, which I believe Longfellow has translated :
"The fairest kingdom on this earth,
Going along the left bank of the Elbe, we passed over meadows purple with the tri-colored violet, which we have at home in gardens, and every little bank was bright with cowslips. At length the path led down into a cleft or ravine filled with trees, whose tops were on a level with the country around. This is a peculiar feature of Saxon scenery. The country contains many of these clefts, some of which are several hundred feet deep, having walls of perpendicular rock, in whose crevices the mountain pine roots itself and grows to a tolerable height without any apparent soil to keep it alive. We descended by a foot-path into this ravine, called the Liebethaler Grund. It is wider than many of the others, having room enough for a considerable stream and several- mills. The sides are of sandstone rock, quite perpendicular. As we proceeded, it grew narrower and deeper, while the trees covering its sides and edges nearly shut out the sky. An hour's walk brought us to the end, where we ascended gradually to the upper level again.
After passing the night at the little village of Uttewalde, a short distance further, we set out early in the morning for the Bastei, a lofty precipice on the Elbe. The way led us directly through the Uttewalder Grund, the most remarkable of all these chasms. We went down by steps into its depths, which in the early morning were very cold. Water dripped from the rocks, which but a few feet apart, rose far above us, and a little rill made its way along the bottom, into which the sun has never shone. Heavy masses of rock, which had tumbled down from the sides lay in the way, and tall pine trees sprung from every cleft. In one place the defile is only four feet wide, and a large mass of rock, fallen from above, has lodged near the bottom, making an arch across, under which the traveller has to creep. After going under two or three arches of this kind, the defile widened, and an arrow cut upon a rock directed us to a side path, which branched off from this into a mountain. Here the stone masses immediately assumed another form. They projected out like shelves sometimes as much as twenty feet from the straight side, and hung over the way, looking as if they might break off every moment. I felt glad when we had passed under them. Then as we ascended higher, we saw pillars of rock separated entirely from the side and rising a hundred feet in height, with trees growing on their summits. They stood there gray and time-worn, like the ruins of a Titan temple.
The path finally led us out into the forest and through the clustering pine trees, to the summit of the Bastei. An inn has been erected in the woods and an iron balustrade placed around the rock. Protected by this, we advanced to the end of the precipice and looked down to the swift Elbe, more than seven hundred feet below! Opposite through the blue mists of morning, rose Konigstein, crowned with an impregnable fortress, and the crags of Lilienstein, with a fine forest around their base, frowned from the left bank. On both sides were horrible precipices of gray rock, with rugged trees hanging from the crevices. A hill rising up from one side of the Bastei, terminates suddenly a short distance from it, in an abrupt precipice. In the intervening space stand three or four of those rock columns, several hundred feet high, with their tops nearly on a level with the Bastei. A wooden bridge has been made across from one to the other, over which the traveller passes, looking on the trees and rocks far below him, to the mountain, where a steep zigzag path takes him to the Elbe below.
We crossed the Elbe for the fourth time at the foot of the Bastei, and walked along its right bank towards Konigstein. The injury caused by the inundation was everywhere apparent. The receding flood had left 'a deposit of sand, in many places several feet deep on the rich meadows, so that the labor of years will be requisite to remove it and restore the land to an arable condition. Even the farm-houses on the hillside, some distance from the river, had been reached, and the long grass hung in the highest branches of the fruit trees. The people were at work trying to repair their injuries, but it will fall heavily upon the poorer classes.
The mountain of Konigstein is twelve hundred feet in height. A precipice, varying from one to three hundred feet in height, runs entirely around the summit, which is flat, and a mile and a half in circumference. This has been turned into a fortress, whose natural advantages make it entirely impregnable. During the Thirty Years' War and the late war with Napoleon, it was the only place in Saxony unoccupied by the enemy. Hence it is used as a depository for the archives and royal treasures, in times of danger. By giving up our passports at the door, we received permission to enter; the officer called a guide to take us around the battlements. There is quite a little village on the summit, with gar-dens, fields, and a wood of considerable size. The only entrance is by a road cut through the rock, which is strongly guarded. A well seven hundred feet deep supplies the fortress with water, and there are storehouses sufficient to hold sup-plies for many years. The view from the ram-parts is glorious-it takes in the whole of the Saxon Highlands, as far as the lofty Schneeberg in Bohemia. On the other side the eye follows the windings of the Elbe, as far as the spires of Dresden. Lilienstein, a mountain of exactly similar formation, but somewhat higher, stands directly opposite. On walking around, the guide pointed out a little square tower standing on the bank of a precipice, with a ledge, about two feet wide, running around it, just below the windows. He said during the reign of Augustus the Strong, a baron attached to his court, rose in his sleep after a night of revelry, and stepping out of the window, stretched himself at full' length along the ledge. A guard fortunately observed his situation and informed Augustus of it, who had him bound and secured with cords, and then awakened by music. It was a good lesson, and one which no doubt sobered him for the future.
Passing through the little city of Konigstein, we walked on to Schandau, the capital of the Saxon Switzerland, situated on the left bank; It had sustained great damage from the flood, the whole place having been literally, under water. Here we turned up a narrow valley which led to the Kuhstall, some eight miles distant. The sides, as usual, were of steep gray rock, but wide enough apart to give room to some lovely meadows, with here and there a rustic cottage. The mountain maidens, in their bright red dresses, with a fanciful scarf bound around the head, made a romantic addition to the scene. There were some quiet secluded nooks, where the light of day stole in dimly through the thick foliage above and the wild stream rushed less boisterously over the rocks. We sat down to rest in one of these cool retreats, and made the glen ring with a cheer for America. The echoes repeated the name as if they had heard it for the first time, and I gave them a strict injunction to give it back to the next countryman who should pass by.
As we advanced further into the hills the way became darker and wilder. We heard the sound of falling water in a little dell on one side, and going nearer, saw a picturesque fall of about fifteen feet. Great masses of black rock were piled together, over which the mountain-stream fell in a snowy sheet. The pines above and around grew so thick and close, that not a sun-beam could enter, and a kind of mysterious twilight pervaded the spot. In Greece it would have been chosen for an oracle. I have seen, somewhere, a picture of the Spirit of Poetry, sitting beside just such a cataract, and truly the nymph could choose no more appropriate dwelling. But alas for sentiment! while we were ad-miring its picturesque beauty, we did not notice a man who came from a hut near by and went up behind the rocks. All at once there was a roar-of water, and a real torrent came pouring down. I looked up, and lo! there he stood, with a gate in his hand which had held the water imprisoned, looking down at us to observe the effect. I motioned him to shut it up again, and he ran down to us, lest he should lose his fee for the "sight!"
Our road now left the valley and ascended through a forest to the Kuhstall, which we came upon at once. It is a remarkable natural arch, through a rocky wall or rampart, once hundred and fifty feet thick. Going' through, we came at the other end to the edge of a very deep precipice, while the rock towered precipitously far above. Below lay a deep circular valley, two miles in diameter, and surrounded on every side by ranges of crags, such as we saw on the Bastei. It was entirely covered with a pine forest, and there only appeared to be two or three narrow defiles which gave it a communication with the world. The top of the Kuhstall can be reached by a path which runs up through a split in the rock, directly to the summit. It is just wide enough for one person to squeeze himself through; pieces of wood have been fastened in as steps, and the rocks. in many places close completely above. The place derives its name from having been used by the mountaineers as a hiding-place for their cattle in time of war.
Next morning we descended by another crevice in the. rock to the' lonely valley, which we crossed, and climbed the Little Winterberg on the opposite side. There is a wide and rugged view from a little tower on a precipitous rock near the summit, erected to commemorate the escape of Prince Augustus of Saxony, who, being pursued by a mad stag, rescued himself on the very brink, by a lucky Now. Among the many wild valleys that lay between the hills, we saw scarcely one without the peculiar rocky formation which gives to Saxon scenery its most interesting character. They resemble the remains of some mighty work of art, rather than one of the thousand varied forms in which Nature delights to clothe herself.
The Great Winterberg, which is reached by another hour's walk along an elevated ridge, is the highest of the mountains, celebrated for the grand view from its summit. We found the handsome Swiss hotel recently built there, full of tourists who had come to enjoy the scene, but the morning clouds hid every thing. We ascended the tower, and looking between them as they rolled by, caught glimpses of the broad landscape below. The Giant's Mountains in Silesia were hidden by the mist, but sometimes when the wind freshened, we could see beyond the Elbe into Bohemian Switzerland, where the long Schneeberg rose conspicuously above the smaller mountains. Leaving the other travellers to wait at their leisure for clearer weather, we set off for the Prebischthor, in company with two or three students from the Polytechnic School in Dresden. An hour's walk over high hills, whose forest clothing had been swept off by fire a few years before, brought us to it.
The Prebischthor is a natural arch, ninety feet high, in a wall of rock which projects at right angles from the precipitous side of the mountain. , A narrow path leads over the top of the arch to the end of the rock, where, protected by a railing, the traveller seems to hang in the air. The valley is far below him-mountains rise up on either side-and only the narrow bridge connects him with the earth. We descended by a wooden staircase to the bottom of the arch, near which a rustic inn is built against the rock, and thence into the valley below, which we followed through rude and lonely scenery, the Hirnischkretschen (!) on the Elbe.
Crossing the river again for the sixth and last time, we followed the right bank to Neidergrund, the first Austrian village. Here our passports were visčd for Prague, and we were allowed to proceed without any examination of baggage. I noticed a manifest change in our fellow travellers the moment we crossed the border. They appeared anxious and careful; if we happened to speak of the state of the country, they always looked around to see if anybody was near, and if we even passed a workman on the road, quickly changed to some other subject. They spoke much of the jealous strictness of the government, and from what I heard from Austrians hemselves, there may have been ground for their cautiousness.
We walked seven or eight miles along the bank of the Elbe, to Tetschen, there left our companions and took the road to Teplitz. The scenery was very picturesque; it must be delightful to float down the swift current in a boat, as we saw several merry companies do. The river is just small enough and the banks near enough together, to render such a mode of travelling delightful, and the strength of the current would carry one to Dresden in a day.
I was pleasantly disappointed on entering Bohemia. Instead of a dull, uninteresting country, as I expected, it is a land full of the most lovely scenery. There is every thing which can gratify the eye-high blue mountains, valleys of the sweetest pastoral look and romantic old ruins. The very name of Bohemia is associated with wild and wonderful legends, of the rude barbaric ages. Even the chivalric tales of the feudal times of Germany grow tame beside these earlier and darker histories. The fallen fortresses of the Rhine, or the robber-castles of the Oden wald had not for me so exciting an interest as the shapeless ruins cumbering these lonely mountains. The civilized Saxon race was left behind ; I saw around me the features and heard the language of one of those rude Sclavonie tribes, whose original home was on the vast steppes of Central Asia. I have rarely enjoyed travelling more than our first two days' journey towards Prague. .The range of the Erzgebirge ran along on our right; the snow still lay in patches upon it, but the valleys between, with their little clusters of white cottages, were green and beautiful. About six miles before reaching Teplitz, we passed Kulm, the great battle-field, which in a measure decided the fate of Napoleon. He sent Vandamme with 40,000 men to attack the allies before they could unite their forces, and thus effect their complete destruction. Only the almost despairing bravery of the Russian guards under Ostermann, who held him in check till the allied troops united, prevented Napoleon's design. At the junction of the roads, where the fighting was hottest, the Austrians have erected a monument to one of their generals. Not far from it is that of Prussia, simple and tasteful. A woody hill near, with the little village of Kulm at its foot, was the station occupied by Vandamme at the commencement of the battle. There is now a beautiful chapel on its summit, which can be seen far and wide. A little distance further, the Emperor of Russia has erected a third monument to the memory of the Russians who fell. Four lions rest on the base of the pedestal, and on top of the shaft, forty-five feet high, Victory is represented as engraving the date, "Aug. 30, 1813," on a shield. The dark, pine-covered mountains on the right, overlook the whole field and the valley of Teplitz. Napoleon rode along their crests several days after the battle, to witness the scene of his defeat.
Teplitz lies in a lovely valley, several miles wide, bounded by the Bohemian mountains on one side, and the Erzegebirge on the other. One straggling peak near is crowned with a picturesque ruin, at whose foot the spacious bath buildings lie half hidden in foliage. As we went down the principal street, I noticed nearly every house was a hotel; we learned afterwards that in summer the usual average. of visitors is five thousand. The waters resemble those of the celebrated Carlsbad ; they are warm and particularly efficacious in rheumatism and diseases of like character. After leaving Teplitz, the road turned to the east, towards a lofty mountain, which we had seen the morning before. The peasants as they passed by, saluted us with "Christ greet you !"
We stopped for the night at the foot of the peak called the Milleschauer, and must have ascended nearly 2,000 feet, for we had a wide view the next morning, although the mists and clouds hid the half of it. The weather being so unfavorable, we concluded not to ascend, and taking leave` of the Jena student who came there for that purpose, descended through green fields and orchards snowy with blossoms, to Lobositz, on the Elbe. Here we reached the plains again, where every thing wore the luxuriance of summer ; it was a pleasant change from the dark and rough scenery we left. The road passed through Theresienstadt, the fortress of Northern Bohemia. The little city is surrounded by a double wall and moat, which can be filled with water, rendering it almost impossible to be taken. In the morning we were ferried over the Moldau, and after journeying nearly all day across barren, elevated plains, saw late in the afternoon the sixty-seven spires of Prague below us ! The dark clouds which hung over the hills, gave us little time to look upon the singular scene; and we were soon comfortably settled in the half-barbaric, half-Asiatic city, with a pleasant prospect of seeing its wonders on the morrow.
Prague.-I feel as if out of the world, in this strange, fantastic, yet beautiful old city. We have been rambling all morning through its winding streets, stopping sometimes at a church to see the dusty tombs and shrines, or to hear the fine music which accompanies the morning mass. I have seen no city yet that so forcibly reminds one of the past, and makes him forget everything but the, associations connected with the scenes around him. The language adds to the illusion. Three-fourths of the people in the streets speak Bohemian and many of the signs are written in the same tongue, which is not at all like German. The palace of the Bohemian kings still looks down on the city from the west-ern heights, and their tombs stand in the Cathedral o the holy Johannes. When one has climbed up the stone steps leading to the fortress, there is a glorious prospect before him. Prague, with its spires and towers, lies in the valley below, through which curves the Moldau with its green islands, disappearing among the hills which enclose the city on every side. The fantastic Byzantine architecture of many of the churches and towers, gives the city a peculiar oriental appearance; it seems to have been transported from the hills of Syria. Its streets are full of palaces, fallen and dwelt in now by the poorer classes. Its famous University, which once boasted forty thousand students, has long since ceased to exist. In a word, it is, like Venice, a fallen city; though as in Venice, the improving spirit of the age is beginning to give it a little life, and to send a quicker stream through its narrow and winding arteries. The railroad, which, joining that to Brünn, shall bring it in connection with Vienna, will be finished this year; in anticipation of the increased business which will arise from this, speculators are building enormous hotels in the suburbs, and tearing down the old buildings to give place to more splendid edifices. These operations, and the chain bridge which spans the, Moldau to-wards the southern end of the city, are the only things which look modern-every thing else is old, strange and solemn.
Having found out first a few of the locations, we hunted our way with difficulty through its labyrinths, seeking out every place of note or interest. Reaching the bridge at last, we concluded to cross over and ascend to the Hradschin-the palace of the Bohemian kings. The bridge was commenced in 1357, and was one hundred and fifty years in building. That was the way the old Germans did their work, and `they made a structure which will last a thou-sand years longer. Every pier is surmounted with groups of saints and martyrs, all so worn and time-beaten, that there is little left of their beauty, if they ever had any. The most important of them, at least to Bohemians, is that of the holy "Johannes of Nepomuck," now considered as the patron-saint of the land. He was a priest many centuries ago, whom one of the kings threw from the bridge into the Moldau, because he refused to reveal to him what the queen confessed. The legend says the body swam for some time on the river, with five stars around its head. The 16th of May, the day be-fore we arrived, was that set apart for his particular honor; the statue on the bridge was covered with an arch of green boughs and flowers, and the shrine lighted with burning tapers. A railing was erected around it, near which numbers of the believers were kneeling, and a priest stood in the inside. The bridge was covered with passers-by, who all took their hats off till they had passed. Had it been a place of public worship, the act would .have been natural and appropriate, but to uncover before a statue seemed to us too much like idolatry, and we ventured over without doing it. A few years. ago it might have been dangerous, but now we only met with scowling looks. There are' many such shrines and statues through the city, and I noticed that the people always took off their hats and crossed them-selves in passing. On the hill above the western end of the city, 'stands a chapel on the, spot where the Bavarians put an end to Protestantism in Bohemia by the sword, and the deluded peasantry of the land make pilgrimages to this spot, as if it were rendered holy by an act over which Religion weeps.
Ascending the broad flight of steps to the Hradschin, I paused a moment to look at the scene below. A slight blue haze hung over the, clustering towers, and the city looked dim through it, like a city seen in a dream. It was well that it should so appear, for not less dim and misty are the memories that haunt its walls'. There was no need of a magician's wand to bid that light cloud shadow forth the forms of other times. They came uncalled for, even by fancy. Far, far back in the past, I saw the warrior-princess who founded the kingly city-the renowned Libussa, whose prowess and talent in-spired the women of Bohemia to rise at her death and storm the land that their sex might rule where it obeyed before. On the mountain opposite once stood the palace of the bloody Wlaska, who reigned with her Amazon band for seven years over half Bohemia. Those streets below had echoed with the fiery words of Huss, and the castle of his follower-the blind Ziska, who met and defeated the armies of the German Empire-moulders on the mountain above. Many a year of war and tempest has passed over the scene. The hills around have borne the armies of Wallenstein and Frederic the Great; the war-cry of Bavaria, Sweden and Poland has echoed in the valley, and the red glare of the midnight cannon or the flames of burning palaces have often gleamed along the "blood-dyed waters " of the Moldau !.
But this was a day-dream. The throng of people coming up the steps waked me out of it. We turned and followed them through several spacious courts, till we arrived at the Cathedral, which is magnificent in the extreme. The dark Gothic pillars, whose arches unite high above, are surrounded with gilded monuments and shrines, and the side chapels are rich in elaborate decorations. A priest was speaking from a pulpit in the centre, in the Bohemian language, which not being the most intelligible, I went to the other end to see the shrine of the holy Johannes of Nepomuck. It stands at the end of one of the side aisles and is composed of a mass of gorgeous silver ornaments. At a little distance on each side, hang four massive lamps of silver, constantly burning. The pyramid of statues, of the saine precious metal, has at each corner a richly carved urn, three feet high, with a crimson lamp burning at the top. Above, four silver angels, the size of life, are suspended in the air, holding up the corners of a splendid drapery of crimson and gold. If these figures were melted down and distributed among the poor and miserable people who inhabit Bohemia, they would then be angels indeed, bringing happiness and blessings to many a ruined home altar. In the same chapel is the splended burial place of the Bohemian kings, of gilded marble and alabaster. Numberless tombs, covered with elaborate ornamental work, fill the edifice.
It gives one a singular feeling to stand at one end and look down the lofty hall, dim with incense smoke and dark with the weight of many centuries.
On the way down again, we stepped into the St. Nicholas Church, which was built by the Jesuits. The interior has a rich effect, being all of brown and gold. The massive pillars are made to resemble reddish-brown marble, with gilded capitals, and the statues at the base are profusely ornamented in the same style. The music chained me there a long time. There was a grand organ, assisted by a full orchestra and large choir of singers. It was placed above, and at every sound of the priest's bell, the flourish of trumpets and deep rolls of the drums filled the dome with a burst of quivering sound, whilé the giant pipes of the organ breathed out their full harmony and the very air shook under the peal. It was like a triumphal strain; the soul became filled with thoughts of power and glory -every sense was changed into one dim, indistinct emotion of rapture, which held the spirit as if spell-bound. I could almost forgive the Jesuits the superstition and bigotry they have planted in the minds of men, for the indescribable enjoyment that music gave. When it ceased, we went out to the world again, and the recollection of it seemed now like a dream-but a dream whose influence will last longer than many a more palpable reality.
Not far from this place is the palace of Wallenstein,in the same condition as when he inhabited it, and still in the possession of his descendants. It is a plain, large building, having beautiful gardens attached to it, which are open to the public. We went through the courtyard, threaded a passage with a roof of rough stalactitic rock, and entered the garden where a revolving fountain was casting up its glittering arches. Among the flowers at the other end of the garden there is a remarkable fountain. It is but a single jet of water which rises from the middle of a broad basin of woven wire, but by some means it sustains a hallow gilded ball, some-times for many minutes at a time. When the ball drops, the sloping sides of the basin convey it directly to the fountain again, and it is carried up to dance a while longer on the top of the jet. I watched it once, thus supported on the water, for full fifteen minutes.
There is another part of Prague which is not less interesting, though much less poetical-the Jews' City. In our rambles we got into it before we were aware, but hurried immediately out of it again, perfectly satisfied with one visit. We came first into a dark, narrow street, whose sides were lined with booths of old, clothes and second-hand articles. A sharp featured old woman thrust a coat before my face, exclaiming, "Herr, buy a fine coat ! " Instantly a man assailed me on the other side, " Here are vests ! pantaloons ! shirts ! " I broke loose from them_, and ran on,. but it only became worse. One seized me by the. arm, crying, "Lieber Herr, buy some stockings ! " and another grasped my coat : "Hats, Herr ! hats ! buy something or sell me something ! " I rushed desperately on, shouting, "no! no ! " with all my might, and finally got safe through. My friend having escaped their clutches also, we hunted the way to the old Jewish cemetery. This stands in the middle of the city, and has not been used for a hundred years. We could find no entrance, but by climbing upon the ruins of an old house near, I could look over the wall. A cold shudder crept over me, to think that warm, joyous Life, as I then felt it, should grow chill and pass back to clay - in such a foul charnel-house. Large mounds of earth, covered with black, decaying grave-stones, which were almost hidden under the weeds and rank grass, filled the inclosure. A few dark, crooked, alder trees grew among the crumbling tombs, and gave the scene an air of gloom and desolation, almost fearful The dust of many a generation lies under these mouldering stones; they now scarcely occupy a thought in the minds of the living; and yet the present race toils and seeks for wealth alone, that it may pass away and leave nothing behind -not even a memory for that which will follow it.