Three destinations within 15km of Dresden have been day-trips at least since Augustus the Strong’s day: two summer palaces of the absolutist Saxon Elector, Schloss Pillnitz and Schloss Moritzburg, and small town Pirna. Although all are accessible by public transport, other options make the getting there as enjoyable as the destination: to Schloss Pillnitz and Pirna a river cruise along the UNESCO-listed Elbe Valley; to Moritzburg a vintage steam train. The Elberadweg (elberadweg.de) cycle trail is another option for Schloss Pillnitz and Pirna; S-Bahn trains and ferries will transport bikes off-peak to save a return cycle-ride.
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Augustus the Strong conceived Schloss Pillnitz as a love nest in which to dally with his mistress, the Countess of Cosel, an easy 10km southeast of court. But when their affair soured, Anna Constantia got the boot and in the early 1720s Augustus turned to his favourite architect, the Zwinger’s Pöppelmann, to create a Versailles-inspired retreat spiced with a pinch of Oriental mystery; this was, remember, a ruler who admired the autocratic rule (and porcelain) of Chinese emperors. The complex’s first two palaces – the Wasserburg, erected on the river bank in an allusion to Venice, and Bergpalais – either side of a courtyard garden appear unexpectedly exotic in such a Middle European landscape; Baroque rooflines swoop to pagoda points and beneath the lintels are fanciful (and none too accurate) Oriental scenes.
The village of Moritzburg 15km north of Dresden is another pleasure-park of Augustus the Strong, who was never going to be content with the hunting lodge he inherited from the House of Wettin. He ordered his beleaguered architect Pöppelmann to model it into a luxury Baroque palace along the lines of a French chateau. The product is pure theatre. Schloss Moritzburg rises like a wedding-cake decoration above an artificial lake spanned by a grand walkway on which stone trumpeters announce visitors. While the interior, on the whole, fails to live up to the outside promise, it is hugely impressive in places like the Speisesaal (Dining Hall), bristling with plaster hunting trophies or the Federzimmer, where the regent slept in a bed canopied by a tapestry of over a million multicoloured feathers like a fairytale prince. The surrounding naturalistic Schlosspark is tailor-made for lazy summer days.