Schmilka: The progressive German town stuck in the past

The half-timbered houses, the isolated location deep in eastern Germany’s forested hinterlands, the eerie rock pinnacles bounding the town on one side and the tempestuous Elbe River on the other – throw in an evil witch and Schmilka would be straight out of a 19th- Century Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Or, at least, of that age: the buildings go back around two centuries, the food and beer are prepared using techniques just as old, and I had to run up and down the town’s one street (cobblestoned, of course) to find a wifi signal. Talk about a time warp.

“Schmilka used to be a holiday village 200 years ago,” said Andrea Bigge, a local art historian. It is again, she added, but it still feels like it exists in that era.

“You have time here,” added guest-house owner Ansgar Rieger. “No schedules, no lists. You come to Schmilka to ‘do nothing’.”

A day trip from Dresden, Schmilka lies just barely within the German border with Czechia. It was founded around 1582 by Czech lumberjacks – the town’s name even comes from a Slavic word meaning “a place where timber is harvested”. Pitch-makers taking advantage of the local spruce trees and ferrymen working the Elbe soon followed, and by 1665, the hamlet had become more substantial. People seeking a country escape appeared in the 1800s, but Schmilka never got much beyond a rural backwater enclave.

So it was a bit of a head-scratcher to me that this barely-there townlet is one of the most respected wellness retreats in Saxony, one of its most sustainable and organic communities, as well as one of the state’s most beautiful villages. The food in Schmilka’s restaurants, the beer from its brewery, the bread in its bakery, even the furniture in its hotels and guesthouses are prepared with sustainability at the forefront. The mill still uses water to grind its grain on millstones, the brewery uses 200-year-old techniques, and the buildings, all original, are made of stone, wood and daub. Plus its wellness offerings draw on old traditions like saunas and baths, and lean heavily on the surrounding outdoors for experiences like nature walks. I thought I had fallen down the rabbit hole; Schmilka looks, feels, sounds and even tastes the way it did centuries ago.

While locals seem to love this way of life – and the town owes its survival to it – Schmilka’s present-day success can be largely attributed to one man.

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