The area from Pirna, 18km east of Dresden, to the Czech border is commonly known as Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz), but that was always a conceit of the Romantics. This is classic Middle Europe – 275 square kilometres of rolling fields through which the Elbe River carves a broad steep valley, much of it protected as a national park (nationalpark-saechsische-schweiz.de). What comes closer to the nub of some of the most distinctive scenery in Germany is the area’s second title, Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains): table-topped outcrops rise suddenly above the fields like miniature mesas, their summits sculpted over the aeons into fantastical pinnacles.
With a maze of gorges to explore and iron ladders that ascend sheer faces, this is superb hiking country, notably on the long-distance Malerweg (Painters’ Way) track if you have a week to spare. Indeed, the story goes that the area’s name stuck after eighteenth-century Swiss artists Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff wrote postcards home from a walking holiday saying, “Greetings from Saxon Switzerland”. Later hikers included Caspar David Friedrich, who added the picture to the postcard with works such as Rambler Above a Sea of Fog. Rock climbing is also excellent. At a push you could tick off the main sights on a long, rushed day-trip from Dresden – the Bastei area, then a brisk walk that skirts around the Lilienstein outcrop to Königstein, for example. However, these are landscapes to savour and which are at their best away from the premier sights; set aside a couple of days at least.