Interrail 2017: Saxon Switzerland National Park
Halfway through my Interrail trip, I was bored of city life. I had time whilst on the high-speed train from Hamburg to Berlin, so I went to Facebook to ask for recommendations. One suggestion from an excellent well travelled photographer caught my eye. “Rural, weird and wonderful” he said of the place. Firing up Google search, my eyes grew wider as pictures of the landscape loaded… I had to visit.
A quick rundown: Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland National Park) isn’t located in Switzerland, rather the German free state of Saxony close to Dresden and the Czech border. Full of dense forest, the landscape is shaped by colossal and imposing sandstone mountains, some stretching 562 metres above sea level into the sky.
Interrailing meant I could visit some of Europe’s best art museums, and one artist I discovered along the way is Caspar David Friedrich (his paintings inspired these photos from my Copenhagen trip). The German Romantic took numerous walks across Saxony—galvanised by the impressive rock formations and waterfalls—200 years later, and a 112km hiking trail named 'Malerweg (Painters Way)', lets you physically actualise the oils of the past.
One painting, ’Felsenpartie im Elbsandsteingebirge (Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, 1822)’ intrigued and inspired me: it depicts the Bastei rock formation years before construction of a bridge across it. Fredrich’s exquisite brushwork captures enormous amounts of shadow detail: subtle reds, pastel oranges, and dusty brown hues, emphasise delicate vivid green foliage in the darker areas of the canvas. A tense, dramatic work.
I wanted to follow in Fredrich’s footsteps; translating into photography his paintings colour, mood and tone. Pontificate on the sublime, unfathomable, and eternal solitude of life… you know, emotions that arise hiking through a German forest in the middle of winter.
An aside: I’ve never hiked, ever, however my housemate (also an excellent photographer) has many times. He flung a few tips my way—ensuring I wouldn’t slip into a ravine—and recommended I purchase Yaktrax. Alas, being in an isolated village with my German limited to “Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch”, purchasing them was unlikely. My trusty, inappropriate Doc Martens will have to do.
After a hearty German breakfast of strawberry jam, seeded bread rolls, yogurt, cheese and ham, I braved 10am daylight and ventured to my first trail. Immediately I slid into a snag… ice. Hidden ice; skiddy ice; slippy ice; glimmering, shimmering, smooth, slick, concussion shaped, coccyx shattering, death trap sheets of ice… and it was everywhere.
Inordinately ill-equipped but optimistic, I attempted other trails. In two hours and five kilometres I had made no progress, halted each time by an icy staircase or a winding path of icy death. Wondering if there would be less ice in busier parts of the park, I hopped on a bus, a train, and a ferry, arriving in nearby Kurort Rathen.
Upon arrival the village had departed for winter, and had taken the convenience shops with it. I was starting to appreciate my Airbnb hosts big breakfast.
I spotted a trail entrance and, desperate to progress, struggled up a banister married to a staircase. A hill hundreds of metres high greeted me; snaking tree roots and rocks washed with snow ensnared a doomed climb.
In the distance brandishing merely two sticks, a man in his late sixties progressed down with little fuss. We made a glimpse of eye contact.
“Guten Nachmittag!” I said.
He glanced away, saying nothing.
This too was a dead end. I tracked back and searched for more ways into the park.
I walked five kilometres along a snowy road. My breath, my heart, my feet, the snap of a branch echoed in the isolation. It had been some time since meeting another person. Thoughts of death swept through my head. If I got lost, or stuck, or hurt—how long would it be before someone found me? Would they find me?
Remembering the podcast 'Criminal with Phoebe Judge' that I had listened to days prior. She spoke to Elizabeth Greenwood about the best way to fake your own death. “Going for a hike and never coming back, lots of people unfortunately do disappear […] sadly, it looks more believable”. Comforting.
Hiking alone has connected me to my mortality in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I can see why painters make the effort of indulging their inner-voices, and go to great lengths to leave behind the distractions of humanity.
Walking further along the road a ginormous static waterfall glides into view, its progress frozen by ice. It felt apt. Time doesn’t have meaning in the thick underworld of the forest, everything here is blue, still, and quiet. Much like practising photography, wandering becomes meditative and soothing.
I jumped. Voices. People. In the distance. The figures drew closer. A cherry-faced lady in her fifties sporting a reflective pink coat approached me. “Können Sie bitte ein Foto von uns machen?” she asked.
“Entschuldigung, ich spreche kein Deutsch”, I responded drearily, in my only practised German.
The pink coated lady became eclipsed by her greying mustachioed husband. “A photo could you, please.”
I obliged, muttering they were ruining my brooding internal monologue about death. I took their photo and they left me in silence again.
I setup my tripod and snapped the same photo.
Climbing higher, clinging precariously to an inadequate railing aside an utter drop into darkness; I finish my ascent and advance along a tiny path neighbouring a cliff edge, with little room for mistakes.
Passing secluded boulders dusted by snow, gusting wind adjusts the forest canopy above, casting rays of sunlight into my face. I have what feels like an infinite amount of time to observe every subtle glisten of the rippling stream next to me. Everything in the forest is a photographers dream.
Self-control is an important discipline when faced with constant visual stimuli. I consider my setups, I observe the frame, only then do I reach for my tripod. The Sony A7R II pours batteries regularly, so I must be conservative.
Escalating further and making progress, the signs pointing to Bastei are everywhere but lead nowhere; I let my subconscious dictate what path I should take. Another few kilometres, and the trees around me are all freshly cut. A crash, a log to my right hits the ground, an engine thunders past and I realise I’ve wandered into an excluded area. I dash off before I must repeat my only German phrase.
The light was fading. I had trekked over eleven kilometres, and was tired, hungry, and quite done with my internal monologue. Walking towards a hotel nestled in a cliff, something beautiful peeped behind it; I had arrived.
Bastei is a popular tourist destination, but today it was mine. My goal: capture a self-portrait hundreds of metres away, with the mentality of a Fredrich painting. The sun faded faster every minute, so I needed to rush. Placing the camera on a timer, I dashed towards the bridge, skating across a flight of steps and, in the rush, almost braining myself.
I take my position. I’m ready for my selfie. *shutter*
Returning to check the exposure I feel hugely rewarded in my struggle. I pause and stare out at the setting sun for a moment; tranquillity, serenity, peace… until I realise the last ferry will be leaving in 20 minutes.
Grabbing my gear I bolt over an unmarked path, dodging trees and glad the ice has started to melt. With moments to spare I make it to the crossing.
The Airbnb host agreed to pick me up from the train station, at least, that was the idea. I hadn’t realised some trains in Germany require the rider to request a stop; shooting past, I place several frantic phone calls to my host.
Greeted by the abandoned Ulbersdorf station, I wait for my ride. Seeing a good composition, I grabbed my camera a final time.