This year I finally came to finish the Malerweg hiking route, located in Eastern Germany. One of the best trails and getaways within the region. Behind every peak and overhang is a valley steeped in wonder and history. The eight-day hike, totaling 112km cushions the Elbe River alongside the Czech border. It’s a journey that takes you through separate microcosms, as the route peels atop gaping basins, through sprawling fields and down pathways carved through sheer slabs of rock.
The Malerweg is dominated by its rugged sandstone landscapes. Hills, cliff-faces and ridgeways hack through backdrops of woodlands filled with old, industrial era relics. Sawmills, guesthouses and baroque fortresses. Facades that change texture with every different pathway, intercrossing the Elbe, through pristine, picturesque villages. The route took its name from its previous use by European artists during the Romantic era, who would come to depict the myriad of colours of sites onto canvas. Johann Carl August Richter, Johann Alexander Thiele, and Caspar David Friedrich all wonder wander down to the region, paintbrush in hand.
The route is easily accessible once you get to Dresden. With the S-Bahn you can travel to any of the start points, within reason. Starting at Pirna-Liebethal, the route wanders through the woodlands, past quaint bars, and through cave passages until Stadt Wehlen. The second stage of the route is the easily the most recommended. Cutting across the river’s ridge, through pine woodlands, and descending down metal-cast stairs into unworldly, folds into the ground –once used as hideouts during the war- the path finally crosses the Bastei, the most recognizable landmark in the region. Through a stairway next to an epic, theatre built into the rocks- which acoustics and surrounding clifffaces – of grandiose enormity – to a turquoise boating lagoon. In the other direction lies the riverside town of Rathen, where its recommended to make a short descent and stop-off at Forellenräucherei Leuschke for a fish sandwich.
Back on the route and you eventually come to the Amsellfall, a small little waterfall where you can grab a beer before climbing into the village of Rathewalde. From here, there’s a short march through some fields before descending into a rock-face, cut through with a steel-ladder, before making the final 140m ascent to Hohnstein, a fairy-tail like village, with a 12th century Bohemian fortress, cobblestoned roads and rustic, roadside restaurants.
Stage Three, is a day for heights. The woodlands absorb and smother you in green. Along the way, you can peer through clouds and into ravines, before getting to the official ‘Saxon Schweiss Balcony’, peering out 170 metres above the sprawling countryside, of golden and green. That is if it isn’t cloudy, in which case you will only stare into the abyss of nothingness. Next to the augenblick is an old-fashioned bar called the Brande-Baude. Here you should grab a soup and a beer to prepare you for the stairwell to the valley’s bottom, consisting of over 800 steps. Through deep woodlands, and streams you follow into Kohlmühle, an old, almost deserted industry town, with the long lost feeling of something out of Twin Peaks, with its deserted mill, train tracks and eerie quiet.
Stage Four is a passage through time, into the Kirnitzschtal valley until the Lichtenhain Waterfall. Along the way there are disused mills, and storage buildings from a previous industry era. The path diverts and takes you up to the Schrammsteine, a series of sandstone pillars 400 metres above the wilderness, looking out across the entire district. Stage Five takes you into the heart of the Nationalpark, far away from civilization. Disused factories, and former castles litter the roadside, before you climb to the highest point on the trek, the 550 metre high Gross Winterberg. Passing over great giant sandstones, looking across the landscape you come across a giant Basal Rock formation on the Czech border. Cruising through the clouds, and the perpetual golden-leaf covered floor, you eventually come back to the Elbe, and the village of Schmilka, with its stream-side mills, coloured houses and - the first organic brewery in Saxon Schweiss. Stopping here without grabbing a beer and some cake would be a crime.
Stages six to eight I only recently finished. Catching the trail in a period of good weather, we took the train to Schmilka, hiking upwards and onwards through open fields, and remote villages. In spring the countryside brings out the best in wild flowers, and blossoming trees. Along the way we spy children hunting for eggs in the garden, as Easter looms around the corner. The Southern side of the river offers a different atmosphere. Trees are replaced by fields. The Sandstone ridges jut out of the landscape, like spots on a serene backdrop. The landscape opens up to you with every corner. Along the way you join the Caspar-David-Friedrich, a route in which several landscapes are merged into one for his famous painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog; an image that captures the Zirkelstein, and Kaiserkrone – all visible along the way. Before Gorsich we decide to cut off to stay in Königstein, where there are more boarding and restaurant options.
Cutting back onto the Malerweg the next day, you ascend the steepest incline there is, up the 430 metre, Sandstone high Pfaffenstein. With it’s narrow, steel staircase, sliced into the rockface, like a knife not-through-butter, it’s a winding, and narrow ascent. From the top there are 360-degree views as far as the eye can see. Here there’s a restaurant, look-out tower, and the famous Barbarine, a ragged, free-standing rock pinnacle that has become the symbol for Saxon Schweiss. The route descends back down into Königstein, following a stream and past 200-year old mills, and thatched roof cottages – one of the most beautiful sites along the whole route. The route then swings back up atop the valley and past the 400-year old Königstein Fort – an impenetrable castle used as hide-aways, and prisons for various empires across time. Finishing in Weißig, we went to stay in an old farmhouse, next to the river, and by the tracks. Sleeping in the open countryside, with the sunrays creeping in to wake you the next day is a sublime feeling, and our host even brought freshly laid eggs for breakfast.
The last day to Pirna creeps along the river, ascending up more Sandstone plateaus and past former quarries on the way to Pirna. A lot of the final route takes you along roads, until you finally reach the Sonnenstein Fortress, a rather somber end point to the Malerweg – a former 15th century castle turned euthanasia centre by the Nazis. Following on, you can descend into the regional capital, with an old square dating back hundreds of years. There is no sign to acknowledge your accomplishment, no parade or fanfare on your arrival. Hopefully the sun shines upon your journey’s end, and the bars are open to commemorate your achievement.
When to go:
It’s best to avoid this route during the summer due to the amount of people traffic. As the seasons start to turn at the start of the year you can catch the mist dragging across the peaks, and see the environment gradually come to life.
Where to stay:
Although I’ve never stayed here, I met some hikers who did. Stay in this historic fortress, turned hostel for just EUR 25,-. To be fair, there aren’t many places to stay in Hohnstein, but this places looks like the real deal.
Gasthaus & Pension Buschmühle
At the end of day four, this former industrial mill sits alongside the flowing stream deep in the valley. Home cooked food, a cinema during the summer months, and a local meeting point for those hikers for EUR 25,- a night.
Located just on the edge of Königstein, the little hostel can be used as a stop-off point for several treks, but is closer to day six’s finishing point. In between the Elbe, and a large sheer face of rock, the hostel is a great stop-off for hikers, with a games room and breakfast included.
Past the finising point of the day seven, through Weissig, down to the river you follow a tiny road lined with old farmhouses and cottages. At Drei-Lindenhof you can stay in a former barn, converted into a hostel, with added kitchen room, and extra amenities. Waking up in the countryside, next to the river is devine, and the beds are only EUR 10,- each.
More can be read about the Malerweg here: