If the boundaries of countries were determined by the geology under them, Europe would have two Switzerlands.
There’s the Switzerland you already know - the German-speaking one that spreads unevenly over one side of the Alps, made of green meadows and snow-lined mountain passes. Nothing unexpected there.
You’d find the other far, far to the northeast, where the Germany southeast of Dresden meets the border and turns into the northwest edge of the Czech Republic. It’d be easy to see from the ground - or ideally from the deck of a riverboat cruising down the Elbe, as we’ll be doing in late 2020.
All around, huge rock cliffs and pillars emerge from the surrounding forest, rising higher and higher until they cover the skyline in all directions.
Welcome to Saxon-Bohemian Switzerland - and to the sea floor of an ocean millions of years old.
The rock that’s all around you right now is made of sand. Yes, exactly the kind that somehow gets into anything and everything after a trip to the beach. Somewhere between 70 and 140 million years ago, rough sand mixed with clay on the sea floor, layer after layer, over timescales and in quantities that the human mind is not designed to comprehend.
The result, after the kind of staggering pressure you’d expect from having 600 metres of sand on top of you, was the geological miracle of diagenesis, or lithification, or using a term that even non-geologists would understand - it squashed the sand into solid rock.
Elsewhere in the world - say, Switzerland - the presence of rock would lead to the kind of jagged-peaked, fang-like mountains that wouldn’t look out of place in Lord Of The Rings. However, this is sandstone, and in mountain-making terms, that’s a whole other story.
It may be incredibly compact, but it’s still made primarily of grains of sand cemented together, making it naturally porous. If it’s porous, the rain can get in and soften it, and the wind can scour away what’s left. Add an immense depth of time, and you end up with weathered, rounded spires of rock, deeply eroded valleys filled with fertile sedimentary deposits - and, of course, lots and lots of sand.
In 1776, two Swiss artists came to Dresden to study at the Academy Of Art, and in their free time they went for a walk outside the city.
“From their new, adopted home they look eastwards and saw, about a day's walk away, a hill range. It had a strange, flattish profile, without any actual summits..”
They dubbed it Saxon Switzerland - and since these soft, weather-chiselled mountains stretched unbroken into Bohemia on the Czech side of the border, the place was given a name that’s stuck for centuries.
In both countries, the Elbe Sandstone Mountains have been declared a national park, united by the river that carves through them. The Elbe is the mightiest of its waterways, drifting a thousands kilometres until it meets the Kiel Canal and the North Sea on Germany’s Baltic coast.
(On our cruise, we cover the entire stretch from Berlin to where it joins the Vitava river, which takes us into Prague).
However, it’s not alone. This entire mountain range is crisscrossed with the waterways that shaped it and blunted its hard edges. The land is well-watered, the soil is rich - and it’s one of the most biologically diverse places you’ll find in Europe, richly carpeted with forests of trees, ferns and moss, underpinned with sandstone bedrock hundreds of metres deep.
None of this was lost on the locals. As you might expect, pretty much everything round here is fashioned out of sandstone, which is protected from the weather by a naturally occurring surface patina that helps protect the rock, and gives it a gorgeous, smoky-looking finish. (Cleaning sandstone is a tricky business - if inexpertly-applied water or chemicals take that patina away, the weather can do some serious damage.)
For entirely obvious reasons, it’s been the local architect’s material of choice for centuries. Take the incredible hillside fortress of Königstein, rising 240 metres above the Elbe just outside Dresden - its ramparts are built of towering sandstone walls.
But the Elbe sandstone’s most spectacular use can be seen a little way outside the spa town of Rathen, on the outside edge of a long, stunningly beautiful curve of the river. Here the rock reaches long fingers into the sky - and in 1824, someone decided to build a bridge across them.
Fifty years after its naming, Saxon Switzerland was becoming a major tourist attraction, and the pillars of Bastei (“Bastion”) were attracting more and more walkers, naturalists and German Romantic artists every year.
By 1812 a local butcher was selling refreshments to visitors before they scrambled their way up, and in 1824 a wooden bridge was built, linking each rock together.
In 1851, the wood was replaced by (you guessed it) Elbe sandstone - and the present seven-arch, 76-metre-long bridge was complete. It’s a stunning sight, and part of the reason for all the visitors that throng this stretch of the river during the summer months. The other big draw is what’s above it - the Bastei itself, 194 metres above the river and, and centuries of hikers will attest, giving you one of Europe’s most spectacular view.
Sail a few more days, over the border and through the mountains in northern Bohemia, and the sandstone will disappear once more, absorbed into the dazzling greenery and giving way to plateaus, rolling hills and meadows. At last, it feels like you’re in a different country - and behind you, the second Switzerland waits for the right moment to be discovered all over again.
Interested in exploring one of the major rivers of Central Europe? Join us on our Wheel & Anchor Elbe River cruise happening in September of 2020...find all the details here!