After several decades in a rut, Saxony (Sachsen), the one-time state of the Saxons, is back in the groove. Under the GDR, the three largest cities of the regime outside the capital – Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz – found their ambitions stifled, or, worse, were simply allowed to moulder. Government masterminds even attempted to re-create Mother Russia in Chemnitz. Nowadays, as its Baroque city reappears, Dresden is restored as a cultural marvel, while Leipzig is once again vibrant, in trade as much as in one of the most dynamic modern arts scenes in Europe. Of all the East German states outside Berlin, Saxony has benefited most from reunification.
With its economy secure, Saxony likes to promote itself as the “state of the arts”: the Land where Johann Sebastian Bach spent nearly half his life; which nurtured Robert Schumann; and whose distinctive landscapes in Saxon Switzerland inspired some of the finest work from Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It is also the state that pioneered porcelain outside Asia and created some of the most ebullient Baroque architecture in Europe, both the products of eighteenth-century strongman Augustus the Strong, a Saxon Sun King under whose rule the state blossomed into an artistic powerhouse. His legacy is evident wherever you go.
Erudite stuff. However, the state capital Dresden is evidence that Saxony doesn’t only live in its past. Since reunification it has set about re-creating the Baroque city that was shattered by the bombing raids of World War II, but it also fizzes with life in a bar and club scene that’s as good a reason to visit as some of the biggest art blockbusters in Germany. Leipzig is similarly sized but entirely different in character: a dynamic mercantile city that has rediscovered its rhythm after off-beat decades. The Land’s communist legacy is most evident in erstwhile “Karl-Marx-Stadt” Chemnitz, worth visiting for its art and a nearby castle. Of the small towns, the most appealing is cobbled charmer Meissen, closely followed by Görlitz, hard against the Polish border, and Bautzen, capital of the indigenous Sorbs. Yet Saxony also provides more visceral pleasures: pottering for crafts in small towns of the Erzgebirge and the fantastical cliffs of Saxon Switzerland, by far the most scenic corner of the state and a paradise for walkers and rock-huggers alike.