Formerly in East Germany Saxony has often been the poorer cousin to the high-flying relatives of Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. Bordering the Czech republic and Poland it has something of a Bohemian atmosphere. I started my visit in Leipzig, only 90 minutes flight time from the UK and an airport that is a short train ride or 20 minute cab ride into the centre of the city.
Also know as ‘Hero City’ after the Monday demonstrations that were a significant part of the fall of Communism in 1989 it is now heralded as Germany’s boomtown and the most liveable according to market research.
I discovered more about Leipzig later but my first lure and I must confess the reason that motivated this trip was nearby Colditz Castle. To a certain generation that name will evoke memories of the BBC TV series in the 1970’s starring David McCallum, Edward Hardwicke and Robert Wagner amongst others. If you ever watched it I bet you’re humming the theme tune right now. Ever since I was a 10-year-old boy I had wanted to visit and experience for myself the location of escapee Pat Reid’s memoires.
A short train ride and a couple of buses took me to the village of Colditz. Dominated by the Renaissance castle there’s a large market square, a river and a train station all of which have historical importance in relation to escape attempts during WW2.
Schloss Colditz as it is known in German was used as a high security POW camp for officers, Oflag IV-C. It was where they placed persistent escapers. On arrival the officers were told, “For you the war is over”. It became a kind of escape academy where the detainees honed their craft. Now run as a youth hostel and music academy and museum. At its height it housed as many as 500 prisoners. Thought to be escape proof by the Germans it had one of the highest records of escapes of all the POW camps (320).
The list of notable interns is long but just a few of those names included Douglas Bader (flying ace), Airey Neave (Conservative MP), David Sterling (founder of the SAS) and Desmond Llewelyn the actor who played Q in the James Bond films. With daring escapes through tunnels, over the 90ft walls with hand made ropes and dressing up as German officers, the most audacious plan was the construction of a two-man glider with a 39ft wingspan. It was built in secret behind a false wall. It was never used as the US Army liberated Colditz village before they had a chance to. There is a replica housed in the rafters.
Steffi Schubert, who clearly had a soft spot for the prisoners, took me on a guided tour. Her knowledge was extensive and she had that kind detail and historical background that made the discovery of the castle a real treat with plenty of anecdotes. At the end she told me in her strong German accent “For you the tour is over”. It was a brilliant historical location to visit for anyone remotely interested in the history of WW2, a must visit.
One of the unexpected pleasures of Leipzig is discovering inner courtyards. They are plentiful and always interesting housing apartments, shops and cafes often in an Art Nouveau style. The city has plenty of fine examples of architecture. Madler Passage is a bit like London’s Burlington Arcade full of fascinating independent shops and restaurants.
Auer Bachs Keller is a large underground beer cellar and restaurant where Faust is supposed to have made his pact with devil. There is an impressive statue outside depicting the two characters. I had a great meal there and the service was second to none. The waitress (dress in traditional costume) explained a German expression that seemed to sum it up. Fliegender Wechsel, which translated means ‘When something changes very quickly but stays the same’ I recommend the restaurant as it is well run and food is not bad.
J S Bach was born here, as was composer Robert Wagner who became a conductor by the age of 23. There is a music heritage trail you can follow and learn more and discover these highlights on foot by following the 5km trail of curved steel marker in the pavement around the town.
Dresden is a short train ride from Leipzig but could be from another world. Largely rebuilt in its original vernacular it has impressive stone buildings sitting on the banks of the River Elbe. This jewel box of Rococo and Baroque architecture has royal lineage going back 1485 when it was the seat of the dukes of Saxony. A cultural heavy weight it thrives on music and art. Vladimir Putin was stationed here when he was a KGB agent in the 1980’s. Since reunification it has thrived and is referred to as silicone Saxony. As well as the rich historic buildings there are a few gems left over from the Communist era such as the Kulturplast, which has a fantastic propaganda mural along one wall.
The highlight of my visit was the Royal Palace. Full of a well-curated romp through Germany’s rich history from baroque in all its over the top gilt to modern artists of 20th century. I found coins, medals, and Ottoman art of five centuries plus tournament and parade memorabilia. You should allow a couple of hours at least as there was a lot get through. I was feeling fit so climbed the numerous steps to a viewing tower whilst making me breathless there were fantastic views of the city from the top.
The city of Dresden is a pleasure to walk around with large squares and superb restored Baroque buildings and much new statement building underway. Sitting on the bank of the Elbe I watched the continuous stream of cyclists and picnickers on the grassy fields opposite the city. I saw a hot air balloon take off from there, a magical view of the city for those in the basket I’m sure.
The Old Gunpowder Store proved an amusing evening with traditional food think suckling pig, potato dumplings (very hard to eat many) sauerkraut and plenty of lager. Touristy? Yes but with walking minstrels and magician wandering around the diners (really) it was hard not to smile.
The Saxony region is well worth visiting for a variety of reasons not least the beautiful rebuilt architecture. The highlight was undoubtedly Colditz Castle where the tales of derring-do still make the mind wonder. In one fantastic example of the ‘cat and mouse’ game that was played by the prisoners and captors the inmates asked to use the vast library. The guards consented thinking that it would take their minds off escaping. Only after a few days they realised one of the books was proving very interesting. It was a history of Colditz Castle with maps and scale drawings of the building and its surroundings. It was confiscated too late as they had made detailed copies of everything. And so the game continued.
During my visit to Saxony I stayed at these hotels: