Photography by the authors
Dresden’s fame might direct visitors’ attention exclusively to the city offerings leaving them unresponsive to the surrounding countryside. That would be a shame. There’s a lot to see out there.
Pillnitz Castle, for instance, the summer residence of Augustus the Strong on the eastern edge of the city can be reached by bus in less than an hour from the city center. The grounds offer a pleasant walk; there’s also an attractive restaurant in the castle whose peaceful paintings on the wall portray a distant, more leisurely era.
But you are going to be busy out there finding little towns like Koenigstein and its fortress 12 miles southeast of Dresden and the Baroque castle at Moritzburg — the same distance northwest of Dresden — whose photogenic exterior is perhaps more interesting than its contents. (You are not allowed to photograph the interior of Moritzburg — a surprise at a time when even point-and-shooters are allowed to wave their cameras in, for example, the British Museum, the Prada in Madrid and the Vatican Museum.) What’s inside Moritzburg Castle includes “the heaviest red deer antler in the world weighing 44 lbs and 71 red deer antlers up to 405 years old.”
The castle was once the shooting lodge of this Augustus II the Strong (1670-1733) a duke of Saxony who converted to Catholicism to become king of Poland. Guidebooks like to talk about this womanizing monarch who nevertheless did much to advance the arts — but also increased his country’s population. He supposedly fathered 365 children. His mating prowess is said to be one of the possible reasons for the title “Strong.” We assume he didn’t get it from shooting deer!
The history is more palpable at Koenigstein. The first written reference to a castle on this rock plateau — almost 800 feet above the river Elbe — was in 1233; however, it took until the end of the 16th century to develop this vast fortress, the second largest in Germany. It stretches over 50 buildings including, at 500 feet deep, the second deepest well in the country.
The fortress needed more than 1,300 gallons of water a day to support the prison population, the guards and livestock. Digging a well was a significant priority if Koenigstein was going to be able to withstand a siege, although it was never attacked in its 400 years. Until a steam engine was introduced in 1878 to pump water, four prisoners would work a treadmill like hamsters for 17 hours to bring up a day’s supply of water.
The fortress lay on the border between Bohemia and Saxony and was at times safer for the king’s family than Dresden. The border was the most stable and unchanging one in Europe for 600 years. Koenigstein has had many roles in its life including its use as a prison. In World War I, 300 Russian officers and two generals were imprisoned here and, in World War II, 98 French generals.
“Everyone in the French army was a general!” offers a nearby German tourist in fluent English overhearing our genial guide, Ted Ehrlich, give us those prison numbers.
Koenigstein Fortress contains many castles with many identities; it was a Russian Army hospital in the 1940s, a museum in 1955 and, way back, a treasure house with walls six feet thick and a roof 10 feet. The fortress is now a prime tourist attraction and visitors can walk the original parts of the fortress including where 400 barrels of coins (with a value today of €190 million) were kept safe in the 18th century during the Seven Years War. We surreptitiously tap the glass on the cabinet face of one barrel to see if it will open.
We are glad it doesn’t because Oberstleutnant Freiheir von Oer who was commander in 1900 to 1904, one of the Royal Barons of Saxony, doesn’t look as if he would be too sympathetic to anyone pocketing his silver.
You could spend a whole day in the fortress from the special room in Friedrich Castle where the electors of Saxony met to vote for their choice of monarch to the room of the green bottles in what used to be the barrel cellar in Magdalene’s castle.
This cellar is part of Koenigstein’s and Augustus the Strong’s history. He made a bet with other Saxon dukes that he could create the largest beer barrel in Germany and ordered his state architect to get busy. He won his bet in 1725 with a wine barrel that held 63,000 gallons; the losing cask can still be seen in Heidelberg. The Koenigstein barrel lasted until 1818 when it had to be broken up. It was replaced later by a room of thousands of green Bordeaux bottles created by landscape and stage architect Hans Dieter Schaal to evoke the excess of Augustus II.
Those with only one day to check out the countryside might want to consider visiting Meissen, on the other side of Dresden from Koenigstein Fortress. The Deutsche Bahn S train from Dresden takes passengers past villages so small they have only one platform but with typical German efficiency the platforms all carry their number: 1.
Meissen, on both sides of the Elbe and now with a population of about 30,000, has a history that goes back to the year 929. It is the oldest town in Saxony. In comparison, Dresden was established in the year 1206.
Meissen porcelain graces many museums throughout the world. It’s an easy S-Train journey from Dresden but remember to get off at the second train station in town. We were told that and, of course, got off at the first, but with a lot of sign language caught the five-minute bus between both stations. The Meissen factory offers an interesting audio tour with a recording in English that explains the stages of porcelain manufacture.
Even more interesting is the Meissen Museum itself. We stand in front of a delicate piece designed in 1745 by Johann Joachim Kaendler, the most famous of the Meissen sculptors. It is labeled Der Gichtkranke, the Gout Sufferer, and anyone who has endured this affliction might feel the German words (especially if snarled) catch the pain better. The porcelain figures show it all: The attentive spouse holding an ice pack to the forefoot, the discarded slipper and the cushion beside the patient’s foot, the wine bottle suggesting excess and perhaps a look to the heavens for sympathy.
The second design may be even more intriguing. Kaendler created it four years earlier in 1741. He called it At The Dentist. The museum guide sidles up to us aware of our health professional background.
“See how triumphant the dentist is!” she says. “But the tooth he has pulled is healthy! The patient, not helped, is still fingering the bad tooth.” She points: “See! The jester holds bottles of medicine and there’s another bottle on the table; the clown is there to amuse and distract the patient especially to distract him from the dentist’s big bag that’s under the table where it’s ready to collect his fee!” Then the guide smiles archly at us and murmurs, “Do you think this could be a lawsuit for medical malpractice?”
We protest mildly. “Hey, we’re not dentists.”
We walk on through Meissen, yet another exquisite example of small-town Germany so it’s all walk-able. On a beautiful river location it has much to offer including its cathedral, one of the smallest in Germany — there was barely room for it beside the imposing Albrechtsburg Castle. It’s very Middle Ages in ambiance yet has a Mediterranean feel. Visitors take delight in making their own discoveries such as the Marketplace, the 1555 apothecary, the Augustusburg Palace and that jewel, the Vincenz Richter restaurant, a former clothier company’s guild house dating from 1523 lying just off the Marketplace.
Our genial host Gottfried Herrlich greets us enthusiastically; he’s obviously a people person but most restaurateurs are. His restaurant is noted for its Saxon German cuisine and its own wines. He walks us around his wooden-beamed building that the family (now in its fourth generation) has looked after so lovingly since 1873. He waves his hand over medieval armor and weapons, rare documents, a Bible from 1729 and several small busts of musicians on top of the piano.
“With wine,” he says, “You look, you smell, you taste but with German wine you additionally hear music.”
“You get wine in your ear,” he says, sitting down at his piano. “For example, Bach is a white Burgundy, Mozart a fresh Riesling and Beethoven…“ he hesitates then grins and says, “Beethoven is a Traminer.” That’s apparently an aromatic, rose-scented wine cultivated in Saxony since the 1880s “that’s perfect with cheese and sweet dishes.”
There are other wineries around Meissen and Moritzburg which like Castle Wackerbarth offer popular wine tours.
Visiting the countryside around Dresden demonstrates the convenience of Europe’s public transportation. From Dresden you can meander by paddle steamer along the river Elbe to Saxony Switzerland in the southeast marveling at the rock climbers who delight in what they find here. Or you can use your Rail Europe pass for a quicker journey if, for example, you are a typical American tourist in a hurry and taking a Deutsche-Bahn train.
But if you’re in a hurry you’ll still need to relax. You’ll be coordinating some interesting forms of travel into your train schedule in the Dresden countryside. Isn’t that what vacations are all about? And isn’t it nice that the trains run on time?
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.