Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/21 posted by hidden europe on

The thrice-daily local bus service from Altenberg to Teplice is a blessing for cross-border travellers. The bus crosses the mountains that define the border between Saxony and Bohemia. When we rode this route last Thursday, there were just five passengers on the lunchtime bus. The half-hour journey rolls back through two hundred years of history and is a link between two worlds. Altenberg is distinctly a place of the hills; its vernacular architecture is pseudo-Alpine with lots of impressive wooden gables and window boxes overflowing with geraniums. All very German.

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Dear fellow travellers

The thrice-daily local bus service from Altenberg to Teplice is a blessing for cross-border travellers. The bus crosses the mountains that define the border between Saxony and Bohemia. When we rode this route last Thursday, there were just five passengers on the lunchtime bus. The half-hour journey rolls back through two hundred years of history and is a link between two worlds. Altenberg is distinctly a place of the hills; its vernacular architecture is pseudo-Alpine with lots of impressive wooden gables and window boxes overflowing with geraniums. All very German. As a lady waiting as the bus-stop observed, Altenberg is "much like Bavaria but without the Bavarians."

Teplice, just seventeen kilometres to the south and on the Czech side of the border, has seen better days. Atlantes, caryatids and peeling kaisergelb replace the geraniums of Altenberg.

Teplice oozes faded Habsburg style, and has a palpable sense of a place that has somehow lost its way. It is all the more interesting for that. "Yes, we know that most visitors head straight for Bohemia's more celebrated spa towns," said a waiter as he served tea to us - the only customers - at the Prince de Ligne. If you are in any doubt as to Teplice's erstwhile credentials as a stopover on the European spa circuit, the smattering of French and Russian names are a strong reminder.

We set off to take the waters, following the waiter's directions to the source primaire. What was once a torrent is nowadays no more than a dribble, surrounded by multi-lingual warnings that the Teplice spa water is strictly not to be drunk.

Beethoven in Bohemia

Times have changed since Beethoven regularly came to Teplice on holiday. It was a congenial spot to while away a summer break. And the town attracted such a distinguished crowd of well-connected visitors that July in Teplice was never boring. Indeed, two hundred years ago today, Goethe made the third and last of three visits to Beethoven in Teplice. The two men had met the first time the previous week but the mutually positive first impressions did not last. After their 23 July 1812 encounter, Goethe remarked to a friend that Beethoven's impressive talent was undermined by his "tumultuous personality."

The Beethoven card is played to good effect in Teplice nowadays. In a town that has no modern celebrities, history always comes in handy. And in the spa quarter of Teplice, hardly a building does not claim some Beethoven connection. The town's roll call of distinguished visitors includes emperors and tsars. Metternich was a Teplice regular, using the spa resort more for politics than relaxation - indeed the town in Bohemia was a good spot to meet European leaders who might sign up to Metternich's anti-Napoleonic alliance.

Serendipitous discoveries

None of those distinguished visitors who helped shape star-studded Teplice summers of yesteryear arrived, as we did, on the local bus from Germany. And none left, as we did, on the slow train that meanders through the Bohemian hills. We wandered without a guidebook and learnt a lot. Slow travel at its best. We chanced on a castle where Casanova once worked as a librarian. We found a little Orthodox church. And, in a small village in the hills, we found the one-time home of a Czech mathematician. "He was so clever," said a lady laden down with shopping, "that he even swapped letters with Einstein."

In our slow circuit through the hills, we took buses, boats, trams and trains. And we concluded our journey yesterday afternoon, walking back across the border from the Czech Republic to Germany in the Elbe Valley. We enjoyed the Sunday afternoon sunshine, walking north. There were a few boats on the river and all around the towering sandstone turrets of the hills. Erosion can be a marvellous architect, producing in that region fabulous crenellated ridges. By the bank of the river, we chanced on a sign explaining that two hundred years ago this month, the German artist Caspar David Friedrich had walked that very route, along the way making pencil sketches that later formed the basis for some of his most well-known paintings.

We tend on the whole not to go in for celebrity tourism. Yet there was a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that two hundred years ago this very week, when Napoleon's forces were busy marching east to Moscow, back in central Europe summer holidays were still taking place as normal.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.