On Foot Through Saxon Switzerland
( Originally Published 1887 )
TRAVELLING on foot is a very common thing in Germany, — and a most enjoyable method it is, too. The Germans make many excursions into the country, walking tours, and certain friends or clubs make it a rule to take one or two days each month, winter or summer, for such a tramp. Herr Hauptmann belonged to such a club, and, rain or shine, he set out. Without having learned of this custom from intercourse with the natives, the foreigner would soon be led to this conclusion, for everywhere the whole country is penetrated with paths and roads, and all provided with rustic benches, lunch-tables, guide-posts, directions as to roads and distances, occasional restaurants — all of which indicates the national custom of pedestrianism. There are a peculiar pleasure and benefit in such travel, which are lost to the conventional traveller. One remembers the foot tours with more genuine pleasure than any others, and the remembrance constantly grows sweeter with time of those hours when Nature was a near and intimate companion, and taught many secrets which have forever opened the senses to more glorious, more entrancing, more soothing beauty in the outer world.
There is in Saxony, along the Elbe, just below Dresden, a region with such picturesque scenery that it is called Saxon Switzerland. Although it bears no resemblance to Switzerland, — no lofty peaks, ice-crowned mountains, glistening glaciers, smiling lakes, threatening chasms, gentle valleys, yawning canons, still it has a picturesqueness all its own, remarkable for wildness, romance, variety, and beauty, if not sublimity. This region is most charming for foot tours ; and, although conveyance may be had, still, to derive the highest enjoyment, one must wander through the flower-starred valleys, climb the fragrant wooded mountains, hang over steep cliffs, struggle up ascents, rest beneath forest trees, talk with the peasants by the wayside, linger at the primitive houses, lunch at all hours and in unexpected manner, — and all this is only to be had by the pedestrian.
Whatever is to be seen, or learned, or enjoyed, is never missed by American students ; so, of course, we could not omit this pedestrian tour, and, with hand-bag strapped over one shoulder, German guide-book in hand, the huge lunch-basket to be carried two by two in turns, we boarded a train at Dresden, on a bright June morning. It was a third-class car, too, for that suited our purpose ; the communicative peasant, the good-natured middle-class German, the well-to-do citizen travel so (the American fashionable summer tourist is avoided), and so many little things occur and are said here that give an insight into the national life of the people, which, after all, music and art notwithstanding, is the most fascinating study in Europe. At Pötzscha we take the ferry, and cross the Elbe to the little town of Wehlen, quaint with red til roofs and steep, cobbled streets: Donkeys in gay trappings await the travellers ; horses and chairs, too ; and one may recline in the latter, and be gently carried by trusty bearers. This seems very hard work, and we feel it would be almost cruel to ask the service ; yet, as these men depend upon this labor for their living, it may be more cruel to refuse to employ them. However, we are for a foot tour, and, as for guide, what could be better than our German Frau and her poet-husband, her Mann, whom we generously call " Unser Mann."
There is the usual crowd: a vivacious circle of German friends ; a stiff English couple, who, of course, go in chairs ; a Russian and his lady, who prefer horses ; German students, who will walk, but whom we shall outwalk, as our lunch basket excuse for lingering at way side some strange fatality, the solitary young man is here, whom we seem to have met on every. tour we have made. Whether he is German, French, Italian, or Russian, we do not know, —we are only sure that he is not English.
What so rare as a day in June! Never was rarer day than this, and life seems very beautiful on a June day, on the banks of the Elbe, just entering fresh forests, with health and spirits, the charm of a foreign land about us, and such a sky above us! We think this a little like our American sky — that shows our glad spirit, for a German sky knows not the deep, refreshing, gentle blue of the American heavens. The sunlight is streaming upon the paths through the sheltering trees. Forward, then, with happy hearts !
The German imagination delights in making figures, tracing resemblances, and every feature of nature bears a name thus received. Throughout this region, every rock, cliff, passage, cavern, has its name somehorrible enough, too. As we pass through the dark ravine just beyond the village, a dark valley with towering cliffs on either side, here where the sun has never shed its rays, this is called Hölle, and everything in it belongs to its sovereign. That grotto is des Teufels Küclie, that cave his Keller, where the overhanging rocks represent the hams hung here for preservation. He has a Wein-Keller also ; a great hollowed rock is his basin, and another his arm-chair,, Wild and fantastic is this Uttewalder Grund: lofty, grotesque rocks, decorated with moss and fern, protrude from each side of the ravine : and in these rocks, somehow, trees have found root, and stretch to the upper air, the branches above intermingling to shut out the light of day ; huge half-tumbled boulders each moment threaten to continue their fall. The drip-drip of trickling water, unites with the sad cadences of the wind sighing through sunless clefts. We have gradually ascended, and 875 feet above the sea, 600 above the Elbe, rises the precipice, the Bastei. Its towering pinnacles are united by a stone bridge, and a view of exhilarating beauty lies beneath. Above here are the fastnesses of the old bandit robbers, who assailed the boats on the Elbe below and demanded tribute : on this side a steep descent, wooded gorges dark in shadow; the glittering line of the river, and then meadows and fields in charming contrast, the touch of life given to it by the laboring peasant women : and beyond other pinnacles, Pfaffen (Pope), Lilien (lily), Koinig (king), and Baren bear Stein, rivals of the Bastei.
Schandau is the night's resting-place, and the primitive house tempted us as a chance for "experience," but the enticing music of the band at the Kur Halle (cure establishment) had the same old power of Orpheus' "classic golden shell." This is a fashionable water-cure, yet in its simplicity quite a contrast to the American establishment of the kind. The Trink Halle is made poetic by rhyming inscriptions; and, here, early in the morning, as the band plays, the guests take their chalybeate water. It must be a pleasant place to sojourn. Romantic paths appear on the hill-sides, but we are on a " tour," and must move onward.
What if all these rocks would assume the spirit of their names! that lamb begin to bleat, the locomotive to rush upon us, the stone stork to change to the other leg, the lion, — O, it might devour the lamb ! and there Dr. Faustus, who sold him-self to the Evil One, might be helped through the intercession of that old gray stone Pope. So the peasants have named every rock and cliff, and we, on the bright June day, revel in imagination likewise. A waterfall is beyond, called Grosse Wasserfall (Great Waterfall), and we anticipate its beauty. " Unser Mann " has been "dropping into poetry," à la Silas Wegg, at every mention of the waterfall. We pass a little artificial basin filled with Forellen, probably caught and placed there. Such fishing is scarcely the ideal trout-fishing of the old angler Isaac Walton. There is the water-fall ! It is only a gentle trickling,— but no, hold ! now it rushes ! We look up mystified ; a man above has turned on the machinery, and this is the Grosse Wasserfall ! and this to Americans ! Probably we enjoyed the absurdity and fun of it more than we would the natural beauty that we had anticipated.
As we march steadily onward, with pedestrian tramp, through the woods, we are hailed ; and there, in the shadows, is the young man who has seen us so often that he seems to forget we are strangers, and who now calls us (and in German !) to enjoy an impromptu Conditorei that a brown faced barefooted peasant lad has set up in the woods with a basket of wild strawberries, a paper of sugar, and a few saucers and spoons. These tiny, sweet wild berries, here in the fragrant woods — never, never, were any so delicious ! All along the road to the Kuhstall there are surprises, and suddenly we stand before the entrance of the great arch or cave. Kuhstall (cow-stable) is so called from the fact that in time of war the peasants concealed their cattle here. It is a high, deep arch, and opposite the entrance is another opening which overlooks the ravine and a perfect labyrinth of rocks of many shapes. German life is here : tables for guests out in the open air ; some women violinists perform in the pavilion, and several young people, in the exhilaration of the surroundings, whirl about in a rude dance. We prefer the stone table within the cave, and enjoy our German lunch of rolls, kase and Würst, as it is seldom enjoyed.
From this point onward is the height of the pleasure of the trip. The surroundings grow more wild, and the climbing more difficult. The guides with the chairs are in demand, but we march on bravely. The basket is inconvenient, especially as the Mann will never take his turn. His Frau, however, offers to do double duty for him if we will allow it. We sing our native songs, we sing German songs, and the Germans beg for their favorite " Suwanee River." The various parties in all directions chime in in the singing, and we set the wild echoes flying. All at once, in the thick woods, three women step out and offer us wild strawberries. Of course we must take them, as these poor peasants have few opportunities to secure a few pfennige. One of them told us that it is quite a labor to collect a few berries, and " one must often walk a dozen steps for each separate one." And yet we gave but two cents for a saucer ! There was a tender charm in this encounter with short-skirted peasant women, with the soft intonated voices and appealing eyes.
The steep walk requires all our American courage and will. Then, too, we want to linger and look through every opening in the foliage, the sunlight streams so beautifully on the trees below, and ever the prospect widens as we ascend. At the top, more peasant women await us with fragrant berries and goat's-milk. We like the idea even if we do not enjoy the drink. At the highest point, Grosse Winterberg, the whole panorama of the wild, fantastic region lies before us. In the distance is Silesia, Bohemia, far-off mountains, and the wide outlook seems to expand the very soul of the beholder. Thought falls upon man, possesses him : one experiences that the higher we ascend in spiritual, in intellectual life, the broader the outlook upon the world, and this wider vision, this world of greater expanse, is well worthy all the labor and trial expended in reaching the height. We would like to remain in this purer air, 1773 feet above the sea ; but we are pedestrians, and a little trip into Bohemia will end the tour. You can tell the moment Germany is left and Austria entered. The roads are less cared-for, and beggars are seen on all sides. On this tour we rather like the beggars ; they seem to add to our enjoyment, and we render them the coins as well earned. The musician by the roadside with accordion or violin or hand-organ has enlivened our steps, and the prattling child holding out the bunch of flowers has added yet another charm to the happy day, and we feel like imparting some of the happiness with which our hearts are over-flowing, and so the coins fly.
Prebisch Thor is the climax of these stone wonders, these great monuments of those early earth revolutions in this part of the chaotic world. It is a bow or an arch hung ninety feet in the air, a natural rocky bridge. In sight of this monument we rested in the Vienna Café, refreshing ourselves with the most aromatic coffee and cake which we declared the best we ever ate. Yet we did not resign ourselves to this inglorious ease before we had made its ascent, gazed far below in the chasms, and took up the strain of Lorelei that our German friend, far below, was lustily singing.
The straggling town, with the straggling name of Herrenskretschen, lies below, and here we find the steamer for Dresden. A ride on the Elbe in the evening twilight ; past old König-stein, the fortress deemed impregnable, and where the crown-jewels are taken in time of war ; past the Bastei, the palaces, and then the glittering lights on the terraces of Elb Florenz (Dresden, the Florence of the Elbe), and the music wafted from its gardens recalls us to the world of man from the world of nature. The young man greets us as we land it is now a formal bow the Russian resumes his dignity, and we ourselves feel a new old-constraint. Nature bids us be natural, light-hearted, happy, joyous. It is man's intercourse with man that throws over this the conventional, that makes us hide what may be the best of our hearts.
Without conventionality, however what then ? On another foot-tour, to Jaservitz, where Schiller wrote his " Don Carlos," while visiting his friend, the poet Körner, as we walked through the village we saw a house all covered with picture-painting, — scenes from nature and romance, and verses of poetry in every intervening space. We learned that a young artist lives here, — a most eccentric genius. His first public efforts have been upon his house. He has a sweetheart across the river, and on the night before her birthday, he hung all the trees and bushes and shrubbery in her yard with paper roses and flowers, illuminated the place, and then, starting a love-song upon his guitar, thus wooed his love to. the window to see his devotion. Is not this true to Nature and in defiance of all conventionality ? Can we call the nineteenth century devoid of romance and chivalry ?