Time traveller: All aboard the steam train

William Cook leaves behind the modern world aboard a steam train that takes him through medieval villages of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic - all in one day

In a quiet Saxon town called Zittau, in the south-east corner of Germany, there is a railway station where past and present overlap. You step off an electric double-decker train from Dresden, and board a geriatric steam train that chugs into the beautiful woods and meadows where the German, Czech and Polish borders meet. The open carriages of this ancient locomotive still bear the initials of the pre-war Deutsche Reichsbahn. Changing trains in Zittau is like travelling back in time. Zittau is the gateway to the Three Country Corner, a strange but beguiling place where three contrasting cultures collide.

It's in Germany, but only just. You can walk across the border into Poland or the Czech Republic. A cul-de-sac since 1945, Zittau is a crossroads once again - but it isn't just its troubled history that makes it so intriguing. Strolling along its leafy boulevards, which soon dwindle into leafy country lanes, it's hard to believe you're less than 50 miles from Dresden. I've been all over Eastern Germany, from Brandenburg to the Baltic, but I've never been anywhere so atmospheric - or remote. Zittau came through the Second World War relatively unscathed, and since reunification its historic altstadt has been painstakingly restored. A lick of fresh paint has given the old town an optimistic, almost jaunty air.

In a single street you can trace all the upheavals of the last century, from the Kaiser to Hitler, from East German Communism to the West German Bundesrepublik. Yet, with its Italianate church and town hall (both designed by the great neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel), Zittau feels more Latin than Teutonic, and after half a century of socialism it's rediscovering its sense of fun. Since the Berlin Wall came down Zittau's population has been shrinking, as locals go west in search of work. Less than 30,000 people live here today. Yet despite this exodus Zittau still feels cheerful, in a Sunday morning sort of way. There are derelict houses on the side streets, but the cobbled squares are lined with smart new shops and chic pavement cafés. Sitting here sipping pale Saxon beer in the pale Saxon sunshine, it's easy to forget that the Cold War ever happened.

This tipsy bonhomie evaporates as you walk across the Polish border. Before the war this was Silesia, a German stronghold since the Middle Ages. Today a pretty cycle path runs alongside the narrow river that marks the great divide between Germany and Poland, but it still feels like no-man's land - an eerie, alluring hinterland, full of bad memories and restless ghosts. In the Polish town of Sieniawa, the road is lined with makeshift shacks, selling cheap booze and tobacco. Zittau is only a mile away. It seems like another world. I walked on, beneath an avenue of enormous oaks, along the overgrown riverbank to Porajow - another Polish village in the shadow of the border. On my right was Germany. On my left was the Czech Republic. I turned left. Across the Polish-Czech border I arrived in a medieval town called Hrádek - more ramshackle than Zittau, but quaint and welcoming all the same.

"The quiet small town is becoming an important transit place with good conditions for travel enterprising," read the garbled blurb in the tourist office, but there were no signs of transit - enterprising or otherwise - in the sleepy market square. Here German, not English, is the lingua franca. The signs are in three languages - German, Polish and Czech. On my way back to Zittau, I arrived at the Three Country Corner. I wasn't expecting anything special - maybe a café and a gift shop. In fact there were no shops at all, but it was far more special than I'd supposed. Where the River Neisse forks, three flags fly side by side. The stream that runs between them is so shallow, you could roll up your trousers and paddle right across it. The lush green fields all around me were completely silent. There was no one else in sight. It is weird to think this obscure borderland had provoked a world war. Now it is such a peaceful place - the perfect spot for a family picnic. Its tranquillity is especially poignant, when you consider how much blood has been shed over it. Suddenly, to my surprise, I realised I felt quite tearful. Feeling rather foolish, I told myself not to be so bloody stupid. In this forgotten corner of the Continent, the past feels very close. Stepping in and out of history is part of the magic of the Three Country Corner, but the past isn't the only fascinating thing about this place. The Zittauer Mountains that form the border between Germany and the Czech Republic provide a superb playground for hikers and mountain bikers. With no peaks higher than 800m, you can scale a summit or two and still stop off for Kaffee und Kuchen (the Germanic equivalent of high tea) along the way. In this area alone, there are 300km of meticulously marked trails.

These densely wooded hills are crowned by gigantic sandstone boulders that poke up through the treetops, sculpted into extraordinary shapes by centuries of wind and rain. The most picturesque resorts in this gentle mountain range are Oybin and Jonsdorf, and the most picturesque (and practical) way to reach them is on a 40-minute trip from Zittau by steam train. Oybin is a delightful little town, a cluster of half-timbered houses, but its main landmark is the dark sandstone cliff that towers over it, with a ruined abbey perched upon its summit. Struck by lightning in 1577, it's been a burnt-out relic ever since. Captured on canvas by the brilliant Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, it's still a favourite spot for artists. There's a museum and an open-air theatre, but the best bit is the view - a giddy panorama across three countries. Just don't look down.

On the steam train from Oybin back to Zittau, the narrow gauge railway divides, and a branch line veers off to Jonsdorf, a jumble of gingerbread houses. The station doubles as a homely guesthouse, if you'd like to stay the night. There are fewer sightseers here and the forest is even closer. These woods are full of wild boar, but you'll be lucky if you see one. Since they make such tasty sausages, these shy, ferocious creatures have long since learned to stay well out of harm's way. There are several border crossings here, over the wooded ridge that marks the end of Saxony and the beginning of what the Germans used to call the Sudetenland. I walked through a deserted checkpoint, my passport still in my pocket, and along an unmarked road through thick forest, past Hansel and Gretel cottages straight out of the Brothers Grimm. It was idyllic but slightly sinister. Outside one of these houses was an ornate crucifix. "Erected 1819, Restored, Heimattreffen, 2003," read the gothic script on the plinth below. Heimattreffen is a homecoming. A German family must have lived in this house before the war. After the war, they'd been deported. Now they'd returned to restore the cross that stood outside it.

To me, this summed up everything that was best about new Europe - the stuff we hardly ever hear about. It felt like a fitting end to my journey, but now there was something far more important on my mind. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I was famished. I'd passed a friendly Czech café up the road where I'd spotted two German hikers tucking into some delicious homemade strudel. If I hurried, I'd have just enough time to wolf down a plateful before the last steam train back to Zittau.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting There

Zittau is about 90 minutes by train from Dresden (Deutsche Bahn UK: 08702 435 363; www.bahn.co.uk). The writer flew to Dresden with Lufthansa (0870 8377 747; www.lufthansa.com) from Heathrow via Munich. Lufthansa also flies to Dresden via Frankfurt and Dusseldorf from around the UK. Alternatively, Berlin is served by Air Berlin (08707 388 880; www.airberlin.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) and BA (08708 509 850; www.ba.com); The Berlin-Zittau train takes just under four hours.

Staying There

Dresdner Hof (00 49 3583 57300; www.hotel-dresdner-hof.de). B&B from €64 (£46).

Hotel Dreilandereck (00 49 3583 5550; www.hotel-dle.de). B&B from €75 (£54).

Zum Bahnel (00 49 358 447 6371; www.bahnel.de). B&B from €55 (£39).

More Information

German National Tourist Office: 020-7317 0908; www.germany-tourism.co.uk

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