The highway on the drive from Bavaria to Saxony in East Germany is so empty that I could stop in the middle of the road and orchestrate Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Clearly it is not a hot tourist route. I begin to remember a somewhat wistful song about an old East German city: “Frankfurt Oder” by the German singer/songwriter Axel Bosse. But I am on a mission: I want to scratch the Bastei Bridge off of my Bucket list; I want to visit my pen pal in Dresden who I have not seen in five years; and I want to reunite with a part of my family living in the Ore Mountains that I have only met when I was a baby.
After a seven-hour drive from Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps to Germany’s Saxon Switzerland National Park, I get out of the car for a little bit, feeling slightly dizzy from the heat. After having almost floated away from the heavy rain in Bavaria on an inflatable raft using an icicle for a paddle, I now enter the scorching Serengeti. Arriving at my apartment, I am a little afraid that I will understand the Saxon dialect of German only as well as the Bavarian dialect of my hosts in the south – that is, not at all. But then I did understand the most important thing. “Wö-Loan,“ the nice gentleman murmurs genially as he points to a Wi-Fi router in the corner. The life’s blood of a digital nomad. Now I’m off to a wild start: climbing stairs into the Sandstone Mountains, up at dawn to the Bastei Bridge, up at midnight for a film night, and off excitedly to a very special family reunion.
The most iconic structure in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains is the Bastei Bridge, which runs through the high, rock towers like a magical prop in a fairytale movie. But I start my tour of discovery by investigating the more distant and much less known Schrammsteine, a long, strung-out, very jagged group of rocks in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. It is blazing hot when I park beside the Elbe River, which is slightly overflowing its banks. The previous days have not been as dry as it is today. Then I fight my way up on foot through a small forest. Luckily, I did crazy things in Bavaria, such as climb 3,500 vertical feet to an ice cave, so this is almost a cakewalk. I am looking forward to a simple zig-zag hiking trail leading to the top, so I continue cheerfully forward.
Until I suddenly find myself standing in front of an iron ladder. Huh? Did they forget to take it down after doing some construction work? So, I climb it up to get a better overview. In front of me I find sandstone stairs leading to an abyss, a crevasse where Kevin James would have been stuck instantly and more ladders! I am realizing that my concept of a Senior Citizen trail was a total illusion. Now I am climbing. I am as excited as a child, which causes my hands to become sweaty and I begin to see myself slipping and falling headlong from the ladder into the bottom of the chasm. But when a real Senior Citizen suddenly appears behind me, I must give the impression of a brave adventurer and continue to climb higher and higher. Until I reach the top, where there is a spectacular view of pointed rock formations and green forests. So, a very hot tip: visit Schrammsteine. Thills, climbing fun, great views – and all for free!
After a day of this intense activity, a person should sleep in and live up to the word "vacation." But this trip is no longer a vacation. What I am now doing is one of my crazy road trips with the motto, “dead, but happy!” The alarm goes off at 3:30 in the morning. If you want to see a relaxed sunrise, you shouldn’t try to do it in June when the accursed Great Orb wants get up in the middle of the night. But it is the end of June. And I am here. I drive from my Wö-Loan-Hood with only one half-open eye to see the Bastei Bridge. The day before I had gone on a scouting expedition and found an optimal spot for a sunrise photo on a rock tower called Ferdinanten View. When I arrive, I am alone except for a family who also wanted to see the sunrise and has already driven a couple of hours from Cottbus, Germany at 2 (!) in the morning. I get one of the front seats on the small platform. And now nothing happens. I forgot my cell phone and I try to check the time on my camera: 7:30 PM. Great! I have not reset the camera time since I was in the USA some months before. And it is too early in my morning for my brain to calculate the time in Germany. So I am waiting. At some point, the sun will rise.
And that is exactly what she does about 15 minutes later. I watch the rays as the sun rises slowly above the horizon, painting the sandstone monoliths with a pink-orange color beginning at the top above the Bastei Bridge, and then lazily drifting downward. Alpenglow in the German state of Saxony. Beautiful. White birches shine unnaturally in the golden light and for a moment I begin to think about the German fairy tale character, Jim Button, gently driving his puffing locomotive over a bridge. Bucket list: another checkmark!
After two days in Saxon Switzerland, I drive on to Dresden, about an hour away. Dresden is a beautiful and an incredibly exciting historical city, but it is also the city in which my pen pal of almost 10 years lives. Because of the great distance between our two cities, one in the west, and the other in the east, we have only met face-to-face once. And that was five years ago. We are both film and music freaks, so he immediately gets tickets for a film night at a huge open-air screen on the bank of the Elbe. The film is Bohemian Rhapsody, the story of the musical group, Queen. At 10 PM we sit in the stands by the river sipping cold, elegant drinks. The skyline of Dresden, dominated by a Lutheran cathedral called the Frauenkirche, is illuminated by the yellowish glow of city lights as the last rust-red remnants of the sunset stand in the sky. The evening is still warm and I'm excited and relaxed at the same time. Then Freddie Mercury's story begins to flicker across the screen. Great music mixed with great emotions. I want to jump up and shout out a line from the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “GALILEO FIGARO!" At half past twelve we walk back through the Dresden at night and I feel like I'm arriving in a big city summer.
During the next few days, we will go to a few classic sights such as the palatial complex, Zwinger, and the magnificent opera house, Semperoper. However, it seems as if the whole of Dresden is currently one huge construction site. My pen pal counts fifteen construction cranes at once.
"As a copywriter for the tourism industry, I can talk nicely about any place," I declare.
"Then say something about Dresden!" my buddy replies, grinning.
"Um," I say. "Visit Dresden... the old charm... Retro... Honecker (a backward-thinking politician from the Old East Germany) and so on!"
We grin and the term Retro-Honecker accompanies us the rest of the days.
One evening we enjoy a private beer tasting in the Kunsthofpassagen, a collection of courtyards designed by artists. Attached to the facades of the buildings we find musical instruments, golden leaves, and animal figures. On another day we pick strawberries and visit the English gardens of the Pillnitz Castle. My pen pal is a rather quiet fellow while I am an absolute chatterbox. But we somehow fit. There are people you can talk to about more than Netflix and French fries. And that is how it is with us. We walk along the Elbe a few times at night and talk about God and death. We see bats and hedgehogs. The evening before I am to leave, we sit on the balcony of his flat and enjoy vanilla ice cream covered with our hard-earned strawberries while there is thunder in the distance and the odor of warm rain encircling us. This is living. And living is now.
My last stop in East Germany is the Ore Mountains. Because that's where my grandpa's younger brother lives, with his barely perceptible 88 years. My grandpa, who turned 96 this year, can only smile tiredly at such a young people. With age, it has become difficult for both my grandpa and his brother to overcome the long east-west distance between them, which is why the two family members have not seen each other for an awfully long time. In addition, during the division of Germany and the Wall, the brothers were unwillingly separated for decades.
I have seen my grandfather’s brother only once before – but I was still a baby and the only memory is a family photograph.
I park in front of the house where my grandfather was born 96 years ago and start to go inside. Brother and Wife stand in the doorway. Although they suffer from various physical ailments, they are both mentally very sharp.
Shortly afterwards, as we sit on the terrace munching on cake, Daughter and Husband join us. It’s strange how you can have no memories about anything or anyone, yet, from the beginning everything seems so familiar. We laugh a lot, tell each other about the missing decades, leaf through an album together, and everyone is incredibly happy that we are finally see each other. It’s after midnight and yet everything is still not said. The next morning, I run around the place with the camera in hand and take photos for my grandpa.
My plan is to go home at this point. But suddenly I am gripped with a wild desire. The sea! You will soon find out what happens next. Part One of my road trip through Germany can be found under The Castle in the Clouds and Tibet in the Alps – Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Part 2 of the report under From Fairytale Forests, Ice Caves and a House in the Lake – Berchtesgaden.