hidden europe 50

Sidelined by History: The Czech-German Borderlands

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: High meadows in the Erzgebirge. The tame demeanour of the landscape is misleading; this scene is around 800 metres above sea level (photo © hidden europe).


The border between the state of Saxony in eastern Germany and neighbouring Bohemia is defined by a range of mountains which have provided a rich bounty of minerals - from copper and silver to uranium. Join us as we explore the Ore Mountains.

Up in the hills, it was the season for haymaking. Then, as the days grew shorter, the haymaking was done, leaving neat rolls of hay spaced evenly over the upland meadows. Wood was chopped and stacked by a thousand cottages and barns. The last of the soft and juicy pomes fell from the rowans and, where those trees lined roads, there was a bright patch of red on the tarmac under each tree — a colourful reminder that here brunch was enjoyed by thrushes, starlings or sparrows.

Down in the valley, the band played for the last time and then the chairs by the bandstand were folded and taken away for the winter. Morning mist hung heavy over the spa park, and soon there was a scattering of leaves over the inscription by the footpath which marks the spot where Goethe met Beethoven while out walking in July 1812. It was an encounter which displeased Goethe. Writing to the Berlin musician Carl Zelter a few weeks after his awkward encounter with Beethoven, Goethe remarked that the master of many symphonies was ill-tempered and impolite — a trait which Goethe attributed to Beethoven’s loss of hearing.

The last of the soft and juicy pomes fell from the rowans and, where those trees lined roads, there was a bright patch of red on the tarmac under each tree.

Autumn has come to the Erzgebirge — that’s the range of hills which marks the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. The passage of the seasons inflects the texture of everyday life in the hill country of northern Bohemia, just as it did in Goethe’s day. The high roads between mountain villages are often made dangerous by drifting snow in winter, while the warmth of spring comes much later than in the valleys. The summer heat, often very intense in the lowlands of northern Bohemia and neighbouring Saxony, is tempered by a fresh breeze in the mountains. Sensible summer travellers make for the cool hills, taking time on the summits to sit and survey the scene.

The hill above the mining town of Krupka is easily reached by even the most indolent of travellers, for there is a chairlift to the very top and a road also winds up through the forests to the bare summit of the mountain. From the top there is a panoramic view north across the German border to the hills and forests of Saxony. In the far distance, the eagle-eyed observer might pick out the city of Dresden in the Elbe Valley. Closer to hand there are a dozen Saxon villages along the old post roads which ran south from Dresden over the hills into Bohemia.

Healing waters

Looking south from that mountaintop above Krupka, there is a good view over the spa town of Teplice, which is nowadays no longer the stylish retreat which it was in its Habsburg heyday. There was a time when Teplice (Teplitz in German) rivalled the great trio of Bohemian spas at Karlsbad, Marienbad and Franzensbad — the closest of which, Karlsbad (nowadays called Karlovy Vary in Czech), is about 100 kilometres away to the south-west, though the view in that direction is obscured by a haze which shrouds the chimneys of chemical plants and other industrial facilities.

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