Thursday, August 22, 2019

A One Day Guide of Lovely Hiking in the Sächsische Schweiz

I did my first hiking at the crude age of 5, in the Carpathian Mountains, back in the old country. Since then, the legal three months of summer vacations were most of them spent in a similar way: exploring the mountains from the area of our summer house, step-by-step, a bit longer each year. Until 14, when I started my own travel adventures, the mountains were my second home and was not only able to distinguish between edible and non-edible fruits, but also to properly set up a camping place, make the fire and have some basic self defense knowledge about fighting wild animals, like bears. 
Wherever my travel and life steps lead me, hiking - and nature walking in general - continued to play a great role into my life: Was I professionally and personally happy? I was booking a hiking. I was heartbroken - a hiking will cure my pain. Was I in love? Only a walk in the nature will give me time to cool down and take the right decision. Was I looking only for a way to pleasantly spend my weekend? The simplest way to recharge my energies is by going to the mountains. Most of the time, I preferred to do it completely on my own, regardless if it was someone waiting for me waiting at the end of the hike. Me, alone with the mountains, is the highest form of personal reconnection I offer myself and it should be done in complete silence and privacy. It was not only like this, but I got easily used with that.
Since moving to Germany ten years ago, I moderately did a couple of hiking, mostly in the Harz Mountains. I become too busy with life, heartbreaking, recovery, family and other hectic events. I was always longing for nature and that feeling of tiredness when you are on the top of the mountains, but, again, I was too busy to recollect the broken pieces of the mosaique that was my life of the last years. 
Until I got the most serious wake-up call of my life and figure out that my biggest problem was that my beautiful life was partly hijaked and if I want - literally - my voice back, I have to detox completely. Trying again that genuine connection with nature that was such a faithful companion during all my life changes was part of my plan to spare myself the pain of not fully expressing my inner thoughts and beliefs. 
Out of time, I wanted a place close from home, relatively easy - I do a kind of random physical training but not strong enough for complex hiking - but with an impressive natural landscape. After doing a bit of research, the famous Sächsische Schweiz area - Saxon Switzerland - seemed as the most recommended destination. Which coincided at a great extent to my German travel wish list, as it was one of those places every reliable travel bloger I follow in the country and abroad already visited but me. 

First and foremost, I might state it very bluntly. I deeply disapproved comparison between places. I am at odds with all those comparisons between Paris or Venice and other cities - 'Paris of the East', 'Paris of the Middle East', 'Venice of the North'. Such relationships might help travel branding but in fact it takes out the possible uniqueness out of special places that most probably would be able to survive completely based on their own special features.
I have the same feeling when it comes to Switzerland. There are several places in Germany compared to Switzerland - a country which I know, oh so well, especially the mountain area - but as for now, none really made me feel like it. The answer is not that I am such a cold person, but because those places are beautiful as they are, no comparison needed.
In the case of this part of Saxony, the comparison was made by two Swiss themselves, students at the Art Academy in Dresden, probably longing too much for their home. The reference remaines after over a century and keep being proudly repeated in touristic documents and travel logs. For this blog, I keep the name for official references only as my personal belief is that this place has its own features and unique vibe.

There are many locations from where you can start your journey through the mountains, but after in-depth documentation, I've chose to start my journey from Rathen Kurort, 45 minutes away by train from Dresden, round trip covered by a one-day 14 EUR. ticket which can be used for going to other destinations along the road, such as Bad Schandau. From the train station, we took a boat to 'spring' on the other side of the Elbe, surrounded by an early morning misty landscape.

On the other side of the river, the rain is about to start and the small groups of tourists covered in colourful raincoats are looking rather for a place to be protected by the showers than to try to feel how it is to wake up with the mountains. The place looks neat with clean cobblestone-streets bordered by 2-3 story big houses, mostly hotels. At the Dofladen - village's shop - we stop for a generous piece of cake, hopeful that the rain, which is becoming real and aggressive, will leave soon.

After almost one hour, it really stops and we are ready to finally fill the lungs with fresh air. Maybe there will be some quiet pathways as well, which looks less likely, as it is weekend during the school vacation time therefore, hard to avoid the shoulder-to-shoulder cramped placed.

When we are looking around, it is expansive green trees that we see, and we forget the crowded city feeling.

The after-rain mist is slowly fading away, revealing the typical abrupt stones of the mountains, a typical feature for this part of Germany.

The rough appearance of the wilderness - although nature was so beautifully 'humanized' by poets and painters, it is just pure vital energy which emanates and human words and descriptions are just attempts to make this frightening force bearable - is mildered by the artificial waterfall. Although there are so many people, the ambiance remains silent. Or at least, it was, until we arrived...

At Amselsee, you can rent boats for small lake tours. It is one of those times when I really regret for not being able to swim.

At least, we are saving some time for hiking and the more we walk, the wilder the surrounding is.

Which does it mean that it makes the hike more difficult. You can easily walk through the forest and after a couple of hours I still haven't felt the burden of too much physical effort.

Far away from the restaurants area, we find natural energizers, small berries, which reminds me of the times when my only deterrent to not finish all the raspberries from the trails we were following was that if a bear will come, he will get distracted by some berries therefore, need to leave some for emergency situations.

The eyes are mesmerized by the beautiful stone structures. It gives a sense of lonesomeness but in the sense that it opens the eyes about those things that really matters and, as the stone, will stay there after all the storms.

I bet there are some parts of the mountainous area where you can climb the stones. I haven't done it in a long time either, but would love to get back in shape to do it in a foreseable future.

The landscape looks like it went through many strong storms that wildly took away trees and rearranged the huge pieces of stone. The rays of warm light coming from above are taking away the thoughts that maybe will be better not to stay too much around if eventually a new storm will start.

But the settled human presence is a sign that things cannot go that much worse. Quiet horses having their lunch are a beautiful view after the relatively long hike.

And so are the field, which are a good reminder that it is not too much left until the autumn, and with it, the long dark cold days. Carpe Diem is our motto while we are slowly taking a different way back to Rathen (one of the lessons I've always followed during my hiking years: always take a different way back - not a superstition but a smart way to see more than one side of the mountain)

We have enough time left to continue our trip with a short trip to Königstein - by a steam boat operational since the end of the 19th century. Despite its venerable age, it moves energetically alongside Elbe, welcoming with high-picked sounds other younger boats along the way. A two-way trip from Rathen to Königstein costs 19 Euro, amount that can be also paid by card.

Not bothered by the noise and the human presence in general, the sheeps are continuing their intensive diet on the other side of the river.

Although the human presence is relatively settled around, with many houses on the shores, there are also some points where the river meets the sky and the trees which make the journey memorable. 

The 'free state' of Saxony is a part of Germany with many castles, as it was made of different independent kingdoms which confirmed their presence and the limits of their power through fortified structures on the top of the mountains.

History, nature, culture, personal thoughts, there are so many things to consider during this journey which unfortunatelly comes to an end in less than one hour.

Instead of going further on to Bad Schandau, we decide to finish our trip to Königstein and enjoy a little walk in this town before heading back to Dresden. From here, you can take some small hiking trip or just enjoy its urban charm. We are going on with the second variant.

There are a couple of things to do here, just hanging around in the Musical Garden, where benches are shaped as musical instruments.

Or explore the narrow cobbled streets bordered by pastel houses.

Or get used with the specificities of the modern Saxon architecture - also painted in pastel colours.

We did all of this, plus offered a bonus for the hard hiking, with a layered cake at the very family-friendly Café im Sachsenhof. Delicious treat, indeed, and hopefully the right celebration of many more hiking trips that I want to take in the coming months and years. We all should have our little secrets to recharge our energies and eliminate daily poisonous negativity and overthinking after all.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Bautzen, more Surprising than a Jar of Mustard

Bautzen doesn't mean too much outside Germany and locally it is often associated with the always appreciated brand of Baut'zener Senf (mustard). However, when randomly mentioned in short travel notices, the capital city of Upper Lusatia, is often described as similar to Tuscany, with a certain unique charm. 
As I am about to spend some holidays in Saxony (more to come in the next posts), I started my stay in this region which was frequently in the media of the last months for not so glamorous reasons, with a day trip here.

From Dresden, my headquarters for this long trip, I am booking my round ticket for 16 EUR. It takes 45 minutes to arrive and I have no idea what exactly to expect.
The district administrative building is the first noticeable sight upon around 15 minutes of arrival. It looks like a residence of an old court, and the generous touch of gold at the entrance make its presence even more impressive. 

During the Cold War, Bautzen, like another Saxon town that I fancied a couple of years ago, Görlitz, used to belong to the former GDR. During those years, its name was often mentioned in a less auspicious context as it hosted a prison for political prisoners. 
On the streets leading to the central - old - area, the buildings keep an austere, unattractive outlook, which combines the post-war scarcity of construction resources and the brutal lack of inspiration of communist city planners.

Fortunatelly, this impression lasts only for a couple of streets, as there are enough streets packed with pastel colouredd buildings, elegantly decorated and more welcoming to the eyes. Goschwitz Str. is a good example in this respect.

On the map of the European ethnic diversity, Bautzen is marked as an important center for the Sorbian culture. Descendants of two small Slavic tribes, the Sorbs are speaking a language - officially recognized as a minority language in Germany - close to Polish and Czech. On the way here, the name of the train stations from Dresden on where also mentioned in their Sorbian variant. 
At the Haus der Sorben (mentioned as a museum, but rather a cultural point where you can gather various information about this minority and purchase traditional items pertaining to their culture) I have a stop to refresh my information about this minority, which is present in this part of Germany, bt also the area around Cottbus, for instance. Considered the smallest Slavonic minority, without other big groups or country to connect in the bordering area, they have unique costumes, folk traditions and customs, such as the colourful painted eggs for the Easter holidays. 
As someone with a PhD and years of research in the field of ethnic minorities in Central and Eastern Europe, I will definitely be back in this part of Germany for some more research and throughout documentation.

Right now, I am wearing the hat of the curios travel writer on her way to discover the beauties of just another destination off the beaten path. And as I am heading closer to the central area, the eyes are pleased with the views of old stone towers with carved horse-back cavaliers.

The old fortification system reminds of the times when Bautzen was also important for its strategic role. The sound of war was loud here in 1813 when a Russian-Prussian army confronted Napoleon.

I am generally insensitive to most of the post-war architecture, especially in the Eastern part of Germany, but I cannot ignore the creative way in which some fragments of the old constructions were integrated into new stru

Soon, my eyes and my camera are both pleased by the view of the stylish New Baroque/Art Noveau area around the city hall. Each and every building looks like a fragment of a simple fairy tale.

Glorious entrances, good balance of the elements, perfect geometry, matched colours. My only regret is only that the central area is so busy with intensive construction works that I cannot find any decent angle for a big main square photo.

The building of the city hall is painted in vivid yellow and looks like a mixture between a religious establishment and a countryside palace. As it is Friday afternoon, people of all ages, are just hanging around in the front of it. The human element brings you back in time otherwise you might have thing you forgot your Baroque outfits at home and you cannot be allowed to take part to the Friday evening ball at the palace.

I am more on the hunt for colourful buildings, but it is becoming harder and harder to avoid having some construction marks in the picture. 

A short tasty stop - and some journalistic documentation, of course, at the Baut'zen museum featuring the famous local mustard. The museum as such - that can be visited for free - covers a big room where various stages of the development of this tasty products are features, including the preparation and the ingredients, as well as the material culture associated to it - jars, branding etc. Once a top food brand in the GDR, the products branded under the logo of Baut'zen - mostly mustard, but also vinaigre - are an important chapter in the book of successful German brands.
At the entrance, on the other side of a 19th century counter, the vendors are encouraging the customers to try various sortiments, the first step before a serious investment into local products. I am curiously trying several of it, my favorite being the exotic fig mustard.

And there is more to discover in Bautzen, while taking slowly the empty cobblestone alleys, like this abandoned abbey, which adds a fully romantic touch to the urban landscape.

Or the hidden alleys, were remnants of the old walls are facing wooden balconies of 3-storey buildings. The modest outlook of most of the urban look in general is not surprising: during the 20th century Bautzen was a relatively poor city and after the war, the city was shortly taken over by the Red Army and afterwards not necessarily priviledged during the GDR years.

Surprisingly, at the end of such an alley one can encounter an old tower, but there is no princess to rescue there.

After so many hours of wandering, it is about time to have a taste of the local eating culture. We are heaving lunch at Zum Karasek, but although the service was very friendly and the ambiance outdoors very welcoming, my menu choice wasn't as satisfactory as my big hunger was. The food was a bit too salty and not too tasty. Maybe I would have better tried the Senfgulasch?

Hopefully, there are more foodie temptations as well as many shopping opportunities as we are going down the Reichenstrasse, that at this time of the week is bubbling with lazy energy and also a couple of tourists - beside us. We are here with an aim though, to reach the end of the Reichenturm, described as one of the steepest leaning and still passable towers in this part of Europe.

Climbing the stairs went uneventful and the view from the top, embracing the entire area is rewarding. However, after a bit of consideration, I might contradict those comparing this part of Germany with Tuscany. As usual in such circumstances, I prefer to avoid comparisons and rather unleash the uniqueness of the place. 

The last stop of this trip is the Stadtmuseum, an excellent destination for learning about the region's cultural, natural and historical heritages. It offers enough material to keep you busy for at least two full hours and it is fully worth it, because you can learn faster than by reading thousands of pages.
From details about the geological evolutions in the region to reproduction of original Sorbian interiors with richly decorated interior, the museum displays in a very classical way fragments of local knowledge.

Noticeable for me was the arts section, where I was able to discover representatives of the apparently active art movement, with new painters, such as Carl Lohse added to my list of interesting artists.
After Görlitz and Chemnitz and of course, Dresden, Bautzen revealed unique stories about this part of Germany. Saxony remains still a mystery for me, therefore, I would be more than happy to discover more and more stories in the next weeks and months.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

How to Spend a Full Day of Adventures at IRRLANDIA Park

Trips are (almost) perfect when all its participants, especially when children are involved, are happy. Happiness is subjective, I know, but when it comes to a group of small and big people, it's important that the highest coverage is offered. Like, for instance, giving some photographic corners for the adults and a lot of outdoors active fun for the rest.
It worked very well when we visited the Elstal Strawberry Village and also in the Jurassic Park of Germendorf. This time, we tried the IRRLANDIA Adventure park, just an adventure park one hour away from Berlin.

With this good will and armed camera on our shoulders, we stopped to Storkow, via Konigs Wusterhausen. It is a very simple train ride, and as it was weekend, we get ready for the low-age ambiance, while socializing with the many kids in the train with ages between 2 and 5. Good start, at least for some.
Stork means stork in German and I suppose the name Storkow means that we might expect many of such birds which we only encountered in the wooden format. Good news for the camera owners though.

With or without storks - we not even spotted any huge nests - Storkow looks like a lovely little village, with wild bushes of roses bordering the streets and 1-2 storey small houses silent under the summer heat. We carefully watched the directions to the adventures park, while trying to get the best of the urban landscape.

Surprisingly,  the doors are beautiful to look at, with various colourful painted motifs which bring a different mood to any house.

Where the colours are absent, there are small little iron wrought shop signs, or just reminder of businesses from the old times. 

Storkow seemed to be a middle-class hard working town, at least according to the signs on the facades.

The old city area, is even more full of life, with half-timbered houses hosting at the ground level small stores and café houses that we purposefully avoid because, you know, we are on a mission to make some wild children happy.

Years of training the attention taught to find the interesting details, regardless how high is our walking feet speed. Click on the camera to keep a memory of this massive wooden door!

The mobile wooden bridge which is still operational nowadays is an interesting technical achievement but also offers a good platform to catch some relaxing view just a couple of meters away.

After 30 minutes of walking we are about to reach the desired destination of the other half of the travelling team: the IRRLANDIA adventure park. First, as a lone view of a purple-reddish castle under a heavy curtain of maze.

Similarly with Babelsberg Film Studios in Potsdam, IRRLANDIA is open only for a limited amout of time: this year,  between 18.05 and 06.10, with a daily schedule between 10 and 6pm. By purchasing the ticket, the children are able to use it for a short tour in a carrousel.

Inside, there are so many attractions for all the possible tastes and age interests that you can easily spend a full day only testing various attractions, again and again. You need to be dressed casual and eventually take your swimming suit too, as you can play a lot with water. And which kid doesn't love to play with water? (Although maybe a more environmentally-oriented education would be necessary to avoid too much waste)

You can organise here birthday parties and any kind of parties, or to take part to regular events organised by the adventure park itself.

As an adult, you can take a seat on the chair and leave the small ones to use their energy. Refuel options are gallore, with a small fast-food outdoors area and a waffles corners too. Just be ready, especially during the weekend, for some extra waiting time. If you are more careful with your diet, you can bring your own food and have a picnic, either directly on the grass or on one of the big wooden tables.

With 12 different labyrinths and thematic areas, IRRLANDIA is a big source of entertainment. And everything looks so safe and done according to the highest German standards in terms of security that half of your worries are away. At least for now.

The biggest newest attraction in July was the maize maze. Not so spectacular like the ones in Cornish, rather at a very low level, but complex enough to get lost. Upon starting the journey you got a map with numbered places and you need to follow carefully the directions. When you are wild - like us - and go without a map, you risk to get claustrophobically lost. And no, what I've read long ago in J.L.Borges writings that in a labyrinth you should always keep left doesn't apply at all in this case. 

Time passed very fast in this adventure park, and we left only with the regrets that at least half of it was not accessible on age reasons. Which means that most probably will be keen to give it a try to another visit the next year too. And the year after. Maybe one day will spot those storks, who knows?