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The international friendship trail

Ore MountainsVogtland
Start at the Wartburg Castle in Thuringia

Why seek distant destinations when adventure beckons on your doorstep?

Guest post and photos by Rebecca Maria Salentin

Long-distance hiking trails are becoming increasingly mainstream. Since the success of the film “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon, the most popular through-hikes are no longer hidden gems. But few people know that Saxony also has a hiking trail of superlatives! Anyone who has always wanted to follow the call of the wild, to hike through unspoilt countryside with not a soul around and to camp where there are bears and wolves just has to grab their rucksack and go a short hop from their front door. This type of trip could hardly be more sustainable and eco-friendlier (excluding any necessary flights or train travel from outside Saxony). The fabulous 2,700-kilometre (1,678-mile) trail traverses some of the most spectacular parts of Saxony.

The international friendship trail from Eisenach to Budapest

The international friendship trail from Eisenach to Budapest (EB for short) is 2,690 kilometres long, a hiking route that fewer than a hundred people have officially completed. Established in 1983, the EB was the only long-distance, cross-border hiking trail linking socialist states. The route was conceived with the idea of fostering understanding between nations and took in the GDR, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, who together named it the “Path of Friendship”.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the EB was incorporated into the network of European long-distance paths. Due to the border posts existing at the time, the original route avoids the Krkonoše Mountains and the High Tatras; thanks to the Schengen Agreement, it’s now possible to tackle these hugely attractive sections without any problems.

The EB is also of interest in terms of culture and history. Time and again, you stumble across moss-covered bunkers, monuments to great battles, Prussian fortifications, wooden churches with onion domes, Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. Although the EB passes through some popular tourist regions, it mainly runs far from civilisation along steep ridge-top paths through ancient forests, across silent moorland and over snow-covered peaks.

The German section of the EB

Whether you decide to do the trail in stages or in one go, regional transport services make it possible to join the EB at almost any point. It officially starts at Wartburg Castle in Eisenach in the German state of Thuringia. Below the drawbridge is a wall chart depicting the daunting route in its entirety. The first hundred kilometres, however, make it easy for hikers by following the popular Rennsteig ridge walk.

Wartburg Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Bohemian Switzerland

The first quarter of the EB lies in Germany, with 375 kilometres going through Saxony. This section of the trail is simply stunning and rich in history. With lace in Plauen, wooden toys made in Seiffen, the MiG-21 of German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn at the space museum in Muldenhammer and wood craft from the Erzgebirge mountains, the region has a rich cultural heritage. Above all, though, following the call of the EB means embracing wildly romantic scenery. The course of the White Elster river is notable for its stone arch bridges and lush water meadows populated by herons, swans and even the occasional black stork. Farm life, rich green hills and monumental viaducts define the landscape in Vogtland – where it’s not covered in dense coniferous forest. Many a time, walkers will have one foot in the Czech Republic as they traverse the border ridge.

Crooked avenues of fruit trees lead from valley to valley. The Erz (Ore) Mountain Mining Region was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Almost every village shows evidence of a long tradition of mining. There are candle arches and wooden pyramids all around and the local greeting is the miner’s typical “Glück Auf” (good luck). The silence deep in the forest is broken only by the call of the cuckoo. Basalt cones rise up in sombre isolation from the forest green, ancient mine shafts have long been sealed, the ski lifts wait patiently for the next snow, while postal milestones mark an old network of paths. Then it’s on to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains – dubbed Saxon Switzerland by the Romantic painters – a picturesque sea of rocks and reddish reef-like formations.

The most striking landmarks are Königsstein Fortress and the Bastei Bridge feature, high above the river. The bizarre reef cliffs, sandstone needles, famous paddle steamers and clattering mill wheels attract many tourists to the national park every year.

The Rathewalder Mill in Saxon Switzerland
A hostel (“schronisko”) in the Polish part of the Krkonoše Mountains

The EB beyond Germany

After some 700 kilometres, over the border in the Czech Republic, you climb up to the Pravčická Archway and are soon hiking through wild gorges, villages with half-timbered houses and across high moorland. The path over the Krkonoše ridge takes you into Poland, where crystal-clear streams and ice-cold springs offer a chance to cool down. Rustic cottage inns in the mountains are likewise appealing places to stop. Coarse ham sausages dangle from the ceiling, and bearskins decorate the walls. Smoke rises from the chimneys. The steaming food is served in small, chipped enamel pails: hunter’s stew (bigos), borscht, goulash, halušky dumplings.

In the Malá Fatra mountain range, parts of the trail are more like climbing routes. At the foot of the snow-covered High Tatras, shepherds produce aromatic smoked cheese while the bells of their flocks fill the valleys with their silvery sound. Time seems to stand still: horses work in the forest, dogs guard the farms and land, water is obtained from wells.

Malá Fatra, a 55 kilometre long mountain range in the north-western part of Slovakia
The Tatra Mountains

The Tatra Mountains

In the Beskids range, you fight your way through waist-high grass, stinging nettles, yarrow, St. John’s wort and wild mint. Ruins, icons and wrought-iron crosses bear witness to the Byzantine Orthodox religion of the erstwhile population. In Herlany, Slovakia, a tall erupting geyser is a highlight. Thermal baths dating back centuries provide a welcome source of relaxation.

In Hungary, the EB becomes the Kéktúra (National Blue Trail) and runs through forests of beech, fields of sunflowers, villages and Roma settlements where life takes place (noisily) outdoors. The route passes houses with balcony verandas, castle ruins and the gigantic caves of the Aggtelek Karst region, following the vineyards until it finally reaches the bend in the Danube.

A forester’s lodge in Hungary
Author Rebecca Maria Salentin shortly before the finish

Travel information

The best time to travel is between March and October. The seven hiking guides by Martin Simon are useful. It is also advisable to download the route onto your mobile phone as an offline map. Wild camping is only officially permitted in Hungary. The stages given in the hiking guides are designed around reaching convenient accommodation options each evening.

About the author

Rebecca Maria Salentin is a freelance writer living in Leipzig, where she opened the summer café ZierlichManierlich in 2009. She is the 13th person to have completed the EB as a through-hike. You can find out more about the author on her website and on Facebook.

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