IF MIDDLE EARTH EXISTS, it is here at the Bastei rock formation along the border of eastern Germany and Czech Bohemia. Towering up to 640 feet over the Elbe River in the heart of Saxon Switzerland National Park, spires break through soil like giants' hands reaching for sky. It is cold and damp this time of year, a light mist perpetually enshrouding the land, hovering between the pines and clinging to the gray rocks. A bridge spans the gap between terra firma and the labyrinth of rock towers. I look up as I walk the expanse, the hairs raising on the back of my neck as if being observed by the ghost of a sentry with a drawn crossbow.
This unlikely site marks the foundation of former Neurathen Castle (c. 1000 AD), a stronghold which once-upon-a-time perched here. The lands that make up modern-day Germany changed boundaries and rulership for centuries. The political landscape during the Middle Ages was volatile and living within fortresses was common for the ruling class. Rock castles were built atop natural outcrops in such a way that geological contours dictated the building structure. The work of stone masons blended with natural rock, creating a daunting fortress with an unshakeable foundation.
Roosting here, inhabitants of Neurathen enjoyed an ideal vantage point for surveying the lands below. The footbridge was constructed in 1851 to accommodate tourists, but originally, a draw bridge spanned the distance from mainland to fortress, making it nearly impossible for invaders to approach.
Soaring wooden platform walkways would have connected the various sections of the compound. Tip toeing across installed metal grates, I peer between my feet into crowns of black-green pine, happy to reach the other side. This was definitely not a place to hurry; one stumble would send a careless speed-walker flying into a forest abyss.
Today, the only evidence of former human habitation is primitive, found only in the limestone. Walking through smoothed corridors, my hands run over hollowed squares, which once secured cross beams. Hand-chiseled steps and chimney vents, as well as the original cistern, are also visible.
The cause of abandonment, and consequent disappearance of, Neurathen is unknown. The fortress merely vanished, like an eagle's aerie blown off a cliff, never to be mentioned in writing until the late 1700s. The site was popularized in the 1800s by artists, such as famed Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich.
Among the recreational crowd, Bastei holds the reputation for some of the best rock climbing on the European continent. Thankfully, today you're more likely to see a climber summiting a nearby spire rather than an armed sentry.
Saxon Switzerland National Park, Germany