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.
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.
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.
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.
Just under 15km east of Chemnitz, the tiny town of AUGUSTUSBURG drapes itself picturesquely over a rocky knuckle above lush rolling hills. The colossal white-and-pink wedding-cake decoration at its summit is Schloss Augustusburg, created as a hunting lodge by Saxony Elector Augustus in 1572. Guided tours explore historic apartments of the Lindenhaus. Asweet Schlosskirche, the high-water mark of Renaissance ecclesiastical architecture in Saxony, with an altarpiece by Cranach the Younger, of the Elector and family beneath a Crucifixion set before his castle; and the Brunnenhaus wellhouse, whose wooden machinery is still able to draw water from a 130m shaft, albeit without the two oxen originally required.
Other areas can be visited individually. For historical character there’s former banqueting quarter Hasenhaus, which gets its name from the murals of anthropomorphized hares which gambol over the doorways, more appealing than the so-so hunting and regional nature displays of its Jagdtier- und Vogelkundmuseum.
The former kitchen opposite houses the Motorradmuseum, a rev-head’s paradise of shiny motorbikes – from Gottfried Daimler’s 1885 boneshaker, capable of a giddy 12km per hour with stabilisers, to sports and classic roadsters of international marques, including a section on Saxony brand DKW, the world’s largest bike producer in the 1920s and 1930s.
The former stables behind contain a gilded Cinderella carriage (1790), which was pulled by six white chargers for the imperial coronation, among displays of coaches in the Kutschenmuseum; while the Schlosskerker dungeon is an orgy of torture instruments and grisly illustrations. There’s also a tower for an elevated view over the quilt of fields and forest that roll back to the Erzgebirge south. By the castle gateway the Sächsischer Adler- und Jagdfalkenhof stages free-flight falconry displays in homage to the castle’s hunting roots.
BAUTZEN, 60km east of Dresden, is the capital of the Sorbs, Germany’s only indigenous minority; they’re derived from the Slavic Wends who migrated west around fifteen hundred years ago. Apart from the thrill of exotic street-names and the occasional institute and museum, or unless a visit coincides with a Sorb weekend market five weeks before Easter or an Easter Sunday festival, you’d be hard pushed to know, however. Only five percent of the local population are native Sorb – the Czech-influenced dialect is heard more commonly in villages north, linked by a cycle route.
Instead, what defines a settlement that is a thousand years old is its historic Altstadt – a maze-like kernel guarded by seventeen medieval bastions that march above a river valley. The Spree River flows north to second Sorb stronghold, Spreewald.
CHEMNITZ (pronounced “kemnitz”) is a curio after Leipzig. When the GDR regime wanted to create its own outpost of Stalinist Russia to celebrate Karl Marx’s seventieth birthday in 1953, it turned to Saxony’s third-largest city, probably inspired by an industrial heritage that had earned it the nickname of a “Saxon Manchester”.
In places, a city known for four decades as Karl-Marx-Stadt is a Soviet-style throwback that’s as bizarre as it is controversial. Even reunification brought its own problems in the form of depopulation, although award-winning recent investment has reversed the trend and revived the city centre. Nowadays Chemnitz declares itself a “Stadt der Moderne”. From a tourist’s point of view it is a curio worth a detour partly because of its glimpse at a Soviet past that’s all but absent from Leipzig, but also because of a brace of modern art galleries and good day-trips in its backyard.
No matter that the pretty provincial town provided prized white clay for the Baroque china of Saxony Elector Augustus the Strong. Never mind that the Schloss was a Renaissance palace of the state’s ruling House of Wettin. COLDITZ, 50km southeast of Leipzig, is inextricably linked in British minds with high-security World War II POW camp Oflag IVC.
Mention Colditz to most Germans and you’ll be met with a blank look. The most famous of German POW camps among Britons, popularized first in a book by former inmate Major Pat Reid, The Colditz Story, then a film of the same name, certainly looks the part.
The Schloss stands on a high bluff above the town and probably would have been as secure as the Nazis believed were it not for the ingenuity of its inmates, most of them incarcerated here following their recapture after escapes from other camps. Wooden sewing machines manufactured fake German uniforms, forgers produced identification papers and banknotes.
More astonishing were those plans that were never used: a glider built of wood and bedsheets, or a 44m tunnel dug by French prisoners over eight months in 1941–42 – they were just 14m short when it was discovered beneath the Schlosskapelle. Of the three hundred escape attempts, over a third were made by the British, who scored eleven home-runs. French escapees boasted an impressive hundred-percent record for their twelve attempts. Castle tours focus on the war history and permit a look at the French tunnel alongside documents and photographs in a Fluchtmuseum (Escape Museum).
“Simply the most beautiful city in Germany” the marketing board proclaimed recently – hyperbole, certainly, yet the accolade was one bestowed by the chairman of the German Foundation for the Protection of Historic Monuments. Geographically speaking, though, it’s only just in Germany. The postwar redraw of the map shifted the German–Polish border onto the Neisse River, thereby cleaving GÖRLITZ in two.
Perhaps that’s apt for an Altstadt that is pure Central Europe – it flourished on the east–west Via Regia route that linked Kiev to Santiago de Compostela, and in 1815 was amalgamated into Silesia, a definitively Central European province along the Oder River that took in slices of modern Poland and the Czech Republic. The GDR regime surveyed the town and slapped a preservation order on the entire Altstadt, while Untermarkt is arguably the most romantic town square in East Germany: less a collection of buildings than a living Old Master, gorgeous at dusk. “At nightfall I long to be in Görlitz,” Goethe once sighed.
In recent years, film directors have taken notice: Görlitz was Paris in Jackie Chan’s Eighty Days Around the World (2004) and its streets featured in Kate Winslet flick, The Reader (2009). The urban fabric is tatty outside of the centre, however, and Görlitz is probably not worth a long detour. Yet more than most towns in east Germany, the Altstadt rewards those who stray down whichever lane looks interesting.
“Leipzig is the place for me! Tis quite a little Paris; people there acquire a certain easy finish’d air.” So mused Goethe in his epic Faust. The second city of Saxony is no French grande dame – indeed, it’s not much of a looker despite efforts to patch up the damage of war. But nor is it as languid. After decades in a socialist rut, LEIPZIG is back in the groove.
Those architectural prizes that remain have been scrubbed up, and glass-and-steel edifices are appearing at lightning pace. No city in the former East Germany exudes such unbridled ambition, but then none has so firm a bedrock for its self-confidence. In autumn 1989, tens of thousands of Leipzigers took to the streets in the first peaceful protest against the communist regime. Their candles ignited the peaceful revolution that drew back the Iron Curtain and achieved what two decades of Ostpolitik wrangling had failed to deliver. Not bad for a city of just half-a-million people.
It’s seductive to believe that its achievement was inspired by the humanist call-to-arms Ode To Joy that Schiller had penned here two centuries earlier. In fact, the demonstrations were simply another expression of Leipzig’s get-up-and-go. Granted market privileges in 1165, it emerged as a rampantly commercial city, a dynamic free-thinking place that blossomed as a cultural centre to attract names such as Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner and, of course, Goethe as a law student.
Even the GDR rulers cultivated trade fairs, allowing the city to maintain its dialogue with the West when others were isolated. In recent decades the same energy has found an outlet through one of the most exciting contemporary arts scenes in Europe and a nightlife that is refined and riotous by turns.
In the city of Bach what else should you expect but music festivals? Europe’s largest pub crawl, music festival Leipziger Honky Tonk, does the rounds of 100 boozers one Saturday in May; over Whitsun (first weekend in June or last in May), 25,000 Goths gather for the Wave-Gotik-Treffen (wave-gotik-treffen.de), the world’s largest Goth doom-fest; and week-long Bachfest (bach-leipzig.de) is in the middle of June.
MEISSEN’s fate is to be synonymous with porcelain. All its coach-tour day-trippers make a beeline for the prestigious china factory founded by Augustus the Strong in 1710. Even if you don’t visit that outlet, it’s hard to escape porcelain in the town that pioneered its large-scale production outside of East Asia.
Yet Meissen, 25km northwest of Dresden, is better visited for a picture-postcard medieval Altstadt, complete with charming cobbled streets and the Albrechtsburg castle and a cathedral standing proud above the River Elbe on a rocky outcrop. Though hailed as the birthplace of Saxony because it has the earliest castle in the state, Meissen never developed into a major city. The famous porcelain factory is a twenty-minute walk southwest of the Altstadt. That you can reach the town by steam river-cruiser as well as S-Bahn only adds to its appeal as a day-trip from Dresden.
The northern slopes of the River Elbe around Meissen are sufficiently sun-drenched for viticulture. White wines are generally medium dry and sprightly; Müller-Thurgau (aka Rivaner), a fresh Muscat, is the most popular grape, followed by Riesling and Weisserburgunder (Pinot Blanc). If you can find it, Elbling has been cultivated in the area since the Middle Ages.
Reds – Traminer and Blau Spätburgunder – tend to be aromatic and rich. While you can taste local tipples in Weinstuben in Meissen – try Der Weinladen at Burgstr. 17 – wine buffs should visit the acclaimed Schloss Wackerbarth estate (open daily for sales, tasting & tours; schloss-wackerbarth.de) in Radebul near Dresden.
The area from Pirna, 18km east of Dresden, to the Czech border is commonly known as Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz), but that was always a conceit of the Romantics. This is classic Middle Europe – 275 square kilometres of rolling fields through which the Elbe River carves a broad steep valley, much of it protected as a national park (nationalpark-saechsische-schweiz.de).
What comes closer to the nub of some of the most distinctive scenery in Germany is the area’s second title, Elbsandsteingebirge (Elbe Sandstone Mountains): table-topped outcrops rise suddenly above the fields like miniature mesas, their summits sculpted over the aeons into fantastical pinnacles.
With a maze of gorges to explore and iron ladders that ascend sheer faces, this is superb hiking country, notably on the long-distance Malerweg (Painters’ Way) track if you have a week to spare. Indeed, the story goes that the area’s name stuck after eighteenth-century Swiss artists Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff wrote postcards home from a walking holiday saying, “Greetings from Saxon Switzerland”.
Later hikers included Caspar David Friedrich, who added the picture to the postcard with works such as Rambler Above a Sea of Fog. Rock climbing is also excellent. At a push you could tick off the main sights on a long, rushed day-trip from Dresden – the Bastei area, then a brisk walk that skirts around the Lilienstein outcrop to Königstein, for example. However, these are landscapes to savour and which are at their best away from the premier sights; set aside a couple of days at least.
The Czech borderlands south of Augustusburg are pillowed in soft woodland and rolling fields. These are the Erzgebirge, literally the “Ore Mountains”, whose rich deposits of silver, tin, copper and cobalt earned the fortunes of their handsome small towns. None are worth a trip in their own right, but with a car the region offers lovely backroads touring between Chemnitz and Zwickau.
An added incentive is that when reserves were depleted, miners turned to folk crafts, which is why the so-called Sächsische Silberstrasse (Saxon Silverstreet) offers both historical romance and an opportunity to buy beautiful Christmas and Easter wooden toys and lacework. That strong crafts heritage comes to the fore in December when the region feels like a German Christmas card made real.
It seems rather unfair that a medium-sized city which gave to the world Romantic composer Robert Schumann and the prestige Audi marque is known instead for the Trabant. Yet such is the ironic nostalgia for GDR kitsch – Ostalgie as it is known – that the plastic “people’s car” used throughout the communist bloc is the most famous export of ZWICKAU, which lies in the foothills of the eastern Erzgebirge range.
Such is the price of being the regime’s Motor City for four decades. The tradition of motor manufacturing in Zwickau, ongoing in major Volkswagen plants in surrounding suburbs, was initiated in 1909 by August Horch, an entrepreneurial engineer who caught the wave of industrial success in the late 1800s. His legacy is an excellent motor museum north of the centre, the premier reason to visit – the centre is a pleasant enough but unremarkable assortment of historic islands, nineteenth-century grandeur and modern commercial shopping arranged around two squares, Marienplatz and Hauptmarkt.