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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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.