As cross-border travel was opening up and looking safer for those living within Europe, we started daydreaming again about the countries and regions we moved here to explore: France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Scandinavia… the list goes on. We’re not yet comfortable flying in the Covid environment, so we started planning a trip that was drivable from Luxembourg, incorporated some of the places we’re excited to visit, and steered clear of Covid hotspots.
We settled on France. We planned a wonderful two week trip that would take us through the French Alps, the French Riviera, and Provence, making a nice loop from our home in Luxembourg. We had recently purchased a used VW, so this was going to be its maiden voyage with the Rusk Family. We booked the AirBnbs and started putting together a list of the sights we wanted to see in each area. Then two weeks before leaving, Europe’s second Covid wave started to hit– and it hit France hard, especially in the areas we were planning to visit. So we scrapped those plans and planned another trip– this time to Switzerland and Italy. We would drive to Zermatt in Switzerland, then past Lake Como on our way to Tuscany in Italy, stopping in small towns along the way.
Then Luxembourg’s Covid rate started to rise. Shelby remembered that last time Luxembourg’s Covid rate was high, Switzerland required Lux citizens to quarantine (regardless of negative Covid tests). So with only a few days before the start of our trip, we scrapped those plans and looked towards our neighbor to the east: Germany. Again. We quickly planned a trip to Germany that would introduce us to new sights, give me a much needed break from work, and be Covid safe. And it was a good thing we pivoted to Germany, because the day before our vacation, Switzerland added Lux to their quarantine list, which would have stopped that trip dead in its tracks. While this trip to Germany wasn’t our first choice of holidays, we absolutely loved it and appreciated the opportunity to see a part of the world we may not have otherwise seen.
Our trip consisted of three different national parks, starting in Eastern Germany in the Saxony region, then heading north to the Baltic Coast and the island of Rügen, then wandering the Harz Mountains in Central Northern Germany before ending back in Lux. We hiked a lot and made nearly all of our meals in our AirBnb- it was perfect.
Part 1 – Saxony and the Saxon Switzerland National Park
Our first destination was the Saxon Switzerland National Park in Eastern Germany, right on the border of the Czech Republic and in the middle of the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Named after Swiss painters that first introduced its sights to the world, we picked this area for its rumored fantastic hiking trails and natural beauty. One could spend weeks hiking here, getting lost in the thick forests, wandering through deep gorges, exploring the fascinating natural rock formations, and relaxing in the many German spas on the banks of the Elbe River. The cozy towns of Bad Shandau, Königstein, and Hřensko on the Czech side are places we would want to return to during Covid-safe times. Our time here is best remembered through the sights we saw.
We hiked along Gabriela’s Trail to Pravčická brána on the Czech Republic side of the park, called the Bohemian Switzerland National Park. We quickly learned the Czech word for hello on this hike (Dobrý den).
Hiking to Bastei Bridge and following the Malerweg (Painters Trail)
Day trip to Dresden
A hike up Pfaffenstein and exploring the town of Konigstein, where we celebrated our anniversary one year of living in Luxembourg
Exploring the cinematic town of Görlitz (AKA Gorliwood) and walking across a footbridge into Poland
Most of the beautiful sights we saw, from the craggy rock formations to the deep gorges, can be seen by following the Malerweg. One day we’d like to come back and hike the length of this 111km trail, stopping in spa towns and at gausthauses along the way.
Part 2 – Rügen and Jasmund National Park
On our last day in Saxony, we were driving to a hike when our car’s dashboard flashed warning signs that the engine was overheating. Shelby and I are complete newbies when it comes to cars, so we frantically pulled off the highway and called a nearby VW dealership and repair shop. We struggled through some language barriers with the first person that answered our call. Shelby was on the phone while I Google-translated different combinations of words that would explain the problem we were having. Then, we finally got on the phone with someone that spoke perfect English and told us to bring our car to the shop. Within a couple hours, they had identified the problem (broken water pump) and we were off to our hike in a new rental car while ours got repaired– gotta love German efficiency!
One day late with our newly-repaired VW, we finally hit the road to the Baltic Sea, skirting Berlin and driving past a Tesla mega factory under construction, while taking full advantage of the lack of speed limits on the autobahn and cruising at a cool 100mph. Before this trip, we thought the fabled autobahn was a single stretch of road. After lots of Googling, we learned that it’s rather any stretch of road in Germany labeled as an autobahn. As long as you see the autobahn sign, and there aren’t signs indicating a speed limit, you can drive as fast as you want to until you see a sign saying otherwise.
When we finally made it to the island of Rügen, which is almost the most northeastern point in Germany, we were hit with a wave of nostalgia and immediately reminded how much we missed living on the coast in Ireland. We were only in Ireland for a short four months, but it created a new love for and appreciate of coastal living. We drove through verdant farm fields, along tree-lined roads, and past fishermen wading out into the shallow waters, to the town of Sassnitz, where we had a cozy AirBnb at the Villa Victoria that looked out onto the ocean. This part of the trip was a chance to slow down and relax with walks along the beach– and some hiking thrown in, of course.
Since we had already lost a day here due to the car mishap in Saxony, on day one we hit the Jasmund National Park. It’s known for stunning white chalk cliffs made up of algae skeletons over millions of years and an ancient beech forest. From our AirBnb we hiked to the northern tip of the park before heading back along the coastline. The wind was howling but the sun was shining while we hiked with some of the most beautiful coastal views I’ve ever seen. These pictures won’t do the views justice, but hopefully they give you an idea.
Over the next couple of days we took things slow. We enjoyed walking along the beach, exploring the tiny coastal towns of Binz and Sellin, and loading up on tasty strawberry goods at the famous Karls, a strawberry farm/kids amusement park.
On our last day in Rügen we took a wassertaxi to the island of Hiddensee, a tiny island with only 1,000 residents and no cars. We enjoyed a lazy day of playing on the beach, meandering through little neighborhoods with thatched roof homes, and walking the length of the island. We would love to come back.
Our last coastal stop was Wismar, on the way to the next phase of our trip. It was a bit dreary, but fun to explore a bigger coastal town and I finally got that backfisch sandwich I’d been wanting.
Part 3 – Central Northern Germany and the Harz National Park
The final stage of our trip was to Harz National Park, where we hiked, hiked, and hiked some more. And we had a few sweet half timbered towns thrown in. While the region didn’t necessarily wow us with dramatic views and incredible hikes, it did seem like a perfect area for families. The hiking was relatively easy and accessible, and there were lots of attractions for kiddos. This part of Germany also has a fascination with folklore, and you are reminded of it everywhere you go. From murals of witches and warlocks, to entire witch-themed amusement parks, you can’t help but feel the magic– especially on a dark night with fog rolling in from the mountains. We stayed in the town of Gernrode, and spent each day pairing a hike with exploring a small town. Here are some highlights of the hikes and towns we enjoyed most.
Exploring Quedlinburg, where I ordered chimney cake using German I learned on Duolingo– and got what I was asking for!
I did a solo hike around Gernrode, and while resting on a rock looking out onto the mountains, an older man named Curt walked up and talked to me for 20 minutes about what I can only assume was the geology of the area. He spoke no English, and I only knew a handful of words in German– barely enough to order at a restaurant, let alone have a discussion about rocks and trees. A lot can be communicated through hand gestures and a willingness to engage. 😉 It was a sweet interaction and was topped off by Curt showing me his logbook of hikes from the area. The warmth of German culture continues to invite us back.
Hiking in Thale
Hexentanplatz- a children’s theme park up in the mountains, complete with an upside down house!
A mural on the side of a building in Thale, depicting Walpurgisnacht.
Hiking up Mt. Brocken along the Hexenstieg (Witches’ Trail)
Exploring the town of Goslar
Hiking along Teufelsmauer (Devil’s Wall)
The one and only Roseburg Castle! Throughout the trip we kept seeing signs for Roseburg, and having grown up in Roseburg, Oregon, Shelby felt a calling to visit. We drove there on our last day to discover that it is a privately owned castle opened to tourists. We arrived at the castle only a few minutes before it was supposed to close. The woman at the ticket booth only spoke German, so we struggled to communicate. After lots of hand gestures and Shelby’s persistence, she finally let us in.
Thus ended a wonderful trip to Germany exploring national parks and developing a greater appreciation for German culture with its warm, kind people and natural beauty. It’s easy to look at these Covid times and think about all the trips we’re not able to take- all the trips we moved here to take. But these times have forced us to get creative and explore parts of Europe we would not have seen otherwise, and we’ve absolutely loved it. When traveling Europe it’s easy to stick to the big metropolitan areas, where you get a lot of bang for your buck, but you miss so much when you ignore smaller regions and everything they have to offer. Even as travel opens back up and we can travel to big cities again, I know we’ll keep this lesson close to heart.