After completing the Lechweg on July 20th, 2018, we drove across Austria and Germany, via the Danube valley town of Kelheim where we did a river cruise to the Weltenburg Abbey to sample its excellent beer (monks are expert brewers!), to Pirna, just south-east of Dresden.
We had been led there by a sales assistant in the travel department of the Dussmann bookstore in Berlin who recommended a couple of hiking guides to me, one of which was for the Malerweg (The Painters’ Path), a trail that I had never heard of before in an unfamiliar corner of Germany (south-east of Dresden, near the Czech border). After a little research on the web and receiving information from the local tourist office, which featured some spectacular photos of the landscape, we decided to walk it the week after the Lechweg on a central European trip that would subsequently take us to Bamberg in Germany (for the beer) and to the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland (for the hiking). It looked like a pretty easy trail but a closer examination of the guidebook (and a better understanding of German) would have told us otherwise!
Even though we arrived by car, the Malerweg is very easy to access by public transport. Pirna, the start and end point, is a quick train ride from Dresden (within that city’s suburban public transport network) and the trail head is just a short bus ride from the station. In a normal summer, it’s possible to travel from Dresden by boat, but the summer of 2018 was one of intense heat and drought, and the level of the Elbe was too low to allow for river traffic other than the occasional kayak and the small ferries that run from bank to bank in the absence of bridges.
Pirna is a beautiful little town with a variety of accommodation and eating options. A friend in Berlin told me that before the reunification of Germany it was a sad and grey little place, but you would never guess that now.
The trail proper begins at Liebethal, 5 km from the centre of Pirna. This is a short bus ride from the railway station or a walk along heavily-trafficked roads. We opted for the former, but a hiking purist could do a full loop by walking from Pirna to Liebethal.
From the very beginning of the trail, we found ourselves in the enchanting setting that we would be hiking through for the next few days: narrow, wooded valleys with towering limestone cliffs on either side. A babbling river accompanied our first steps along the trail, birds were singing and, despite the continuing heatwave striking Europe that summer, it was cool in the valley. All of a sudden, we heard what we thought was a phone’s ringtone, but the sound continued and grew louder. As we walked along, we had unwittingly triggered a sensor that started up a recording of the prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin. Wagner was particularly fond of this area and composed part of Lohengrin at a mill in the valley. When we arrived a minute or so later at the Wagner memorial, the orchestra was in full flight. This may sound totally kitsch, but there was something magical about it. There was no one else around, the natural setting was stupendous and we had an orchestra playing for us. What a great start to the trail!
After this magical introduction, the first day was a a true joy as we walked through wooded valleys (with a couple of fields to cross), meeting friendly locals and just basking in the atmosphere of this forest straight out of a Grimm tale that was nothing like the Fontainebleau Forest close to home. The walking was very easy on this first day, with just 150 m of ascents and 170 m of descents. It was quite a short day too – just 11.7 km to walk to our first stop at Stadt Wehlen on the banks of the Elbe where we arrived in the early afternoon. Our hotel, Villa Sophie, was a great little place with a comfortable room and an honesty bar/lounge in an adjacent building. There was not a lot to explore in the small town, but we took a ferry across the river as we were told there was a swimming pool over there. However, we did a quick U-turn on discovering that it was an open-air pool filled with kids and floating toys, rather than a pool for serious swimmers. At least the trip across the river allowed us to scout for a restaurant for dinner as there were not a lot of places on our bank. We had a great meal that evening in the flower-filled garden of Flüsterklause where the friendly owner seemed to be alone to run the place and cook.
The second day was when the real surprises began, after a great breakfast and best wishes for our hike from the friendly lady running the hotel.
Firstly, the setting that we found ourselves in. Nothing, in the guide book or tourist literature that we had received, had prepared us for the spectacular landscape that awaited us. The photos had been tempting, true, but the reality was a thousand times better: towering limestone cliffs with weird formations, thick forest, an incredible trail burrowing through the heart of rocks at times and amazing views all along the way.
Secondly, the hiking itself. In the guide book, I had checked the relatively short distances to cover (between 10 and 18 km) and the time needed, but hadn’t really paid much attention to the very accurate topographical cross-sections of each day’s hike. I’ve learned my lesson since and now check those views that feature in the excellent guides published in Germany by Rother and Esterbauer. But, on the Malerweg, we set off blithely for the 10 km to Hohnstein without realizing that we were in for some very steep climbs and descents in the course of the day.
And, finally, the heat. The temperature rose a little each day, hitting 38°C by day five. Even though our packs were pretty light, even just 10 kg feels like a lot when the temperature exceeds 35° and stays there. Fortunately, most of the hike was deep in the woods, in the shade, but when we did step out into full sunlight, the heat was overpowering. Luckily, this being Germany, there were cafés, bars and restaurants all along the trail to supplement the day’s supply of water which quickly ran out.
We began the day with a steepish ascent from the banks of the Elbe to the Bastei, a viewpoint overlooking the river that is a huge tourist attraction because of the footbridge between the various limestone pillars with amazing views of the surrounding landscape. With its souvenir stands and tourist café, it was not the kind of place we’re naturally drawn to, but there were some great views to be had on the way up, notably by veering off the main path to the different viewpoints. The Felsenbühne just before the Bastei, a sort of amphitheatre of amazing rock formations, was particularly spectacular.
The trail wound its way over the heights, offering us views of the Bastei footbridge before leading us across it. There were frequent steep climbs up steps to the top of some rocks fitted out as viewpoints with sturdy railings. We spent a good half-hour clambering up and down around the Bastei for the different views.
From the footbridge, the trail continued to follow the cliffs, wending between the rock formations. And, as with so many popular tourist spots, once we were past the souvenir stalls and café, there were very few people around, just a handful of hikers like us. The views back along the Elbe Valley from the cliffs were pretty impressive and we were able to see Stadt Wehlen in the distance to judge how far we had come that morning.
The trail then headed steeply downhill (a loss in elevation of around 250 m in less than a kilometre). There were quite a few people heading uphill on this trail from Kurort Rathen, a popular tourist town on the river. On reaching the foot of this steep descent, the trail followed the shore of a small lake, the Amselsee, ringed by thick woods, before heading into a narrow valley. We made our way along it, steadily climbing until we reached the Amsel waterfall with its small café where we had a refreshing apfelschorle before carrying on into the village of Rathewalde where we emerged from the woods for the first time that morning. It was only 11:30 or so but the heat as we crossed a field at the side of a main road was already crippling. We were glad to plunge back into the woods on the other side of it.
Shortly after, on ascending to another viewpoint, the trail seemed to disappear into thin air. But, on looking around, we realized that it in fact plunged into a cleft between two huge rocks, taking a very steep and narrow flight of steps, only wide enough for one person at a time. Luckily, no one was coming up as we went down as I have no idea how we could have passed. Around fifty metres lower, we emerged from the rocks into another valley, catching glimpses of Hohnstein, our goal for the day, high above us.
We took a break in the valley at a small inn where we had a refreshing beer and a huge, healthy salad on the shady terrace before setting off again along a narrow, wooded and very leafy valley up to Hohnstein.
On emerging from the woods, we had a pretty steep and hot climb through the sleepy streets of the village up to Burg Hohnstein, a castle converted into a youth hostel and simple hotel where we would be spending the night .
The castle was a great place to stay, with friendly managers, a simple but comfy room, a good little bar with great beer, decent food (a buffet dinner and breakfast were included in the very reasonable price) and fantastic views over the surroundings. That evening, there was an incredible sunset that looked like something out of a Caspar David Friedrich painting.
The third day (16 km) was even hotter and muggier with a terrific storm mid-afternoon. Once again, there were a number of steep descents and ascents – we had realized by now that this was one of the features of the trail. For the first couple of hours, the trail was fairly level as it wound its way through the woods. It then plunged steeply into another deep valley before heading up the other side to Waitzdorf where we had an early stop for the local speciality of steamed potatoes and quark (low-fat curd cheese) in a pretty garden setting.
After this stop, the trail continued uphill through more woods before descending to Kohlmühle were we were surprised to find a huge, abandoned and very ugly linoleum factory in the middle of the wooded setting. From there, because of the heat, we took a variant on the main path that shortened the day’s hiking a little. It led uphill fairly steeply to emerge from the woods into fields where the heat hit us hard, especially as the atmosphere was getting muggier and muggier, with storm clouds gathering. Just after the village of Altendorf, as we headed downhill again, the storm broke. As we couldn’t really bear the idea of putting on our rain gear in this heat, we decided to wait it out in the valley campsite that the trail passed through. The laundry room roof had a good overhang that protected us for an hour or so as we waited for the storm to blow over.
When we set off again, we headed up a steep, stony and root-filled section of the trail, before branching off to descend to our accommodation through a section of forest with some amazing rock pillars in the heart of thick woods.
The night’s hotel, the simple and friendly Pension Schrammsteinbaude, was 2 or 3 km off the official trail, located by a road in a quiet valley. It had a pleasant terrace where we had a good dinner after the storm had taken the edge off the heat.
The fourth day was a killer. We made an early start, but the heat was already back with a vengeance despite the previous evening’s storm. We had a pretty steep climb up from the valley that the hotel was in to return to the trail as it wound its way around the Falkenstein peak. The going was pretty tough, with the trail climbing up over rocky outcrops and down the other side, before we came up against the biggest surprise of the whole Malerweg: a steep ladder leading to a metal staircase that headed straight up a cleft in the rocks before a series of via ferrata-style fixed cables to get us up the last few metres (on rereading the guide book that evening, I discovered that there was an easier route to the top, but we missed the turn-off somehow). This “stairway to heaven” was a tough undertaking in the heat but we made it to the top where we collapsed in a heap. Just then, a cool-looking, fluorescent green trail-runner without a drop of sweat on him ran by with a friendly “Guten Morgen”, a greeting that we could barely return as we struggled to catch our breath!
The views from the top of the Schrammsteine and all the way along the undulating trail that followed the ridge for the rest of the morning were outstanding, making the effort of getting up there worthwhile. In fact, despite the fairly exposed south-facing trail and the heat, it was a great morning’s walking. We made numerous rest stops along the way (in the shade) simply to gaze at the view.
After winding its way along the ridge and around a number of summits, the trail headed down into thicker and slightly cooler woodland, before following a fairly level track that took us to the Kirnitzsch valley that had some pretty amazing rock formations looming over it. We had a very pleasant lunchtime nap in one of the clearings.
On reaching the valley, we headed up the road to the inn at the Lichtenhainer waterfall where a celebration was in full swing. It seemed that some sort of summer festival was underway in the valley that day. There was live music, sausage stands everywhere and a huge crowd. We managed to find a table at the inn for a drink and a slice of cake. With the afternoon heat at its peak, we considered our options and decided to opt out of the last section of the day’s trail – another steep ascent before returning to the valley – preferring to take a ten-minute bus ride to our stop for the night, the fantastic Neumannmühle, a beautiful old mill in a deep valley where we had booked a couple of places in the big dorm. The managers had written to me to warn that they would be having their annual party that evening, with live music until late. The place was pretty quiet when we arrived but, after a rest and a shower, we found things warming up when we returned to the restaurant. We shared a table with two friendly German couples who were hiking for the weekend and had a good dinner, washed down with the excellent beer that had been laid on for the event. There was quite a crowd, which was surprising as the dorm was far from full (just a few cyclists and climbers, plus a young Czech couple whom we had met earlier that day on the trail). The live music was of good quality and didn’t really prevent us from sleeping after such an exhausting day, despite going on until about one a.m.
The fifth day was a tough one, with a lot of steep climbs before a very sharp descent to the Elbe at Schmilka. After a hearty breakfast, it began pleasantly enough in the calm valley before most people were up and about, apart from a few who had camped out on the carpark and were bathing in the river. The heat was still bearable at that point but by the time we began the climb to the Pohlshorn an hour later, we were suffering. As on the previous day, once we reached the top, the path was fairly exposed and south facing. Once again, we made numerous stops for the views, resting in the shade to escape the intense heat.
From the Pohlshorn, the trail plunged back down to the Kirnitzsch before leaving the river behind to head up and down again to reach the national park information centre at Zeughaus where there was a welcoming bar/café that allowed us to rest and have a cool apfelschorle before the steep 400-metre ascent to the Grosser Winterberg, the highest point on the Malerweg. This was a really tough climb, luckily in shady woods all the way, but it was a true relief to reach the top where we found a huge, abandoned hotel that must have been a fantastic place to stay in its prime. Today, there’s just a small snack bar run by a friendly Czech couple who have had the excellent idea of setting out deckchairs on the huge terrace for weary hikers. We made the most of them after the climb, chatting to a few people also walking the trail and who were all suffering in the heat.
From the Winterberg, there was a very steep descent to the Elbe. On the way down, we passed a pile of wood and foliage that had clearly been cut in spring and left there. It was now bone-dry after the heat and drought. I suddenly realized that we were in fact in a huge fire-trap in these woods. One negligently discarded cigarette butt (some hikers do smoke, after all) and the whole area would have gone up in flames. That really freaked me out and we didn’t linger long on the descent.
Schmilka turned out to be a charming and peaceful village of beautiful houses and would have been a great place to spend the night but, because of some confusion in my planning, I had booked us into a place 8 km further along the trail, on the other side of the Elbe and with a couple of steep climbs to reach it.
During a rest stop at the Schmilksche Mühle, we weighed up the situation over an excellent beer from the local brewery. Even though we had only walked 14 km that day, we were exhausted from the heat and our weather app showed that the next two days would be even hotter (the temperature hit 40°C three days later in Dresden). They were going to be pretty long days and, looking at the map, it was clear that the woodland was not as thick on the south bank of the Elbe, with the trail crossing a lot of fields and open land. Plus I couldn’t help thinking about that pile of dried-out wood that we had seen. So rather than force things and possibly regret it, we decided to admit defeat, taking the ferry across the Elbe to the railway station on the opposite bank.
We thus travelled by train between our last two hotels and Pirna, spending the next day at the thermal spa in Bad Schandau where we managed to stay fairly cool, before bumping into the young Czech couple from the Neumannmühle who had also surrendered in the face of the heat.
So that was the end of the Malerweg for us that year. We’ll go back one day to do it in full, perhaps in early autumn in more hiking-friendly temperatures as it truly is one of the most beautiful trails that we have come across so far.