By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
Konigstein Fortress: Dramatic and Impregnable
We get our first glimpse of Konigstein Fortress, perched on a 24-acre rock plateau high on a hilltop, 240 meters above the river, as our ship, CroisiEurope’s Elbe Princess, sails past. It is formidable. Known as the “Saxon Bastille,” it is Germany’s largest fortifications and one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe. It was never conquered and never invaded (though our guide tells the story of a local teenager who managed to “invade” the fortress by scaling the walls; he was initially taken into custody but released after they could not find a law to charge him with breaking, and he became a local hero).
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison). The fortress has been an open-air, military history museum since May 29, 1955, and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
100 million years ago, this place would have been at the bottom of the ocean, our guide, Gerold Jahn, tells us. Now, because it is the highest perch, there are lightening conductors everywhere (100 years ago, three tourists were killed by a lightening strike) and there is a safety talk and posters.He takes us to his favorite views of the Elbe Valley and villages well below.
The fortress is a complex of more than 50 buildings, some more than 400 years old, including a dramatic medieval castle, with ramparts that run 1,800 meters and walls up to 42 meters high, which for centuries was used as a state prison (political prison), and is now one of Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, visited by 700,000 a year. ((I keep thinking it should have been used in a James Bond movie).
Originally, there was a monastery here, which was closed after Luther’s Reformation. It took 40 years to build the fortress, beginning 1580 until 1620, just after the start of the Thirty Years War (half of all Saxony people died in that war). The fortress was built to be invincible, though in fact, it was not built for defense, but as a refuge for the townspeople, scientists, and government.
It was designed as a refuge (Dresden is 28 km away) to accommodate as many as 4000 people (the fewest number of full time residents is 40, the present number of permanent occupants). Peak occupation was during the Seven Years War, in 1756.
What I find most fascinating is how they solved all the problems – water, food and sanitation – to make this place totally self-sufficient (not just impenetrable). The secret to its steady supply of water is a 152.5 meter deep well, which is the deepest in Saxony and second deepest well in Europe – and the key to how this fortress was made to withstand any kind of siege. We get to see how it was built by local miners over a four-year period. The well is fed by rain that filters through the soil over a period of 6 to 7 months (they calculated) and naturally refills and could not be poisoned by an enemy. They devised a system to a 130-liter barrel into the well to collect the water.
Also, every household had a patch of land and was expected to cultivate their own food. The fort has a self-sufficient town with its own butcher, bakery, brewery, hospital and treasury. Even today, young children attend school at the fortress and older ones are picked up by bus.
The fortress was used to protect the Saxon state reserves and secret archives during times of war. In 1756 and 1813 and during World War II, Dresden’s art treasures were also stored at the Königstein.
Its main function since the 17th century was as a prison. Some of the more notable prisoners incarcerated at Königstein (likely after secret trial) include: the Crypto-Calvinists, including Caspar Peucer (1574–86) and Nikolaus Krell (1591–1601), chancellor of the Electorate of Saxony; Johann Friedrich Böttger (1706–1707), co-discoverer with Tschirnhaus of European porcelain; Count Karl Heinrich von Hoym (1734–1736), cabinet minister of the Electorate of Saxony; committed suicide in his cell; Mikhail Bakunin (1849–1850), Russian anarchist and revolutionary; Thomas Theodor Heine (1899), caricaturist and artist and Frank Wedekind (1899–1900), writer and dramatist.
The fortress was never bombed during World War II, even though nearby Dresden was famously destroyed, That is because it was known not to be a military base but rather, American, French and Polish POWs (mainly officers) were kept here. “They were kept in very humane conditions – one day a week they could leave to hike,” Gerold tells us.
The fortress was considered impregnable – “The only way prisoners left was when their dead bodies were thrown over the wall” – but there is a famous legend of the daring escape of a French general Henri Giraud, who was kept here 1940-1942.
“We never knew how it happened. One theory was that he was smuggled little pieces of rope that he joined together until he had 45 meters, repelled down, and that a special agent met him at the bottom with clothes, false passport and he escaped to Switzerland. Another theory is that he had inside help and the Germans wanted him to escape because Giraud was an enemy of DeGaulle and if was free, there would dissention. The French claim it was Resistance who helped him. But after only two years, he died in airplane crash in North Africa.” (I’m thinking, murder???? What a film!)
In May 1945, the 20 soldiers (more like police) here waved a white flag to welcome the Russians. “They came with art experts. The Soviets confiscated the art, but when Stalin died in 1953 and Khruschev wanted to have détente, they and gave back the art.”
“It is a masterpiece of engineering, of architecture,” Gerold, who has a background in civil engineering, tells us.
I am grateful that we have about 40 minutes to explore on our own, and I go into a marvelous exhibit about the history of this place and this area housed within the castle (a treat to see inside).
We walk down from castle the through the four gates (coming up, we used the modern elevator). Really wonderful.
Dresden Rises Like a Phoenix
We sail on to Dresden, where we are supposed to dock for the night, and are invited to take a 9 pm walk through Dresden city center. We are all excited and standing around, when we just sail passed. It seems that the docking spot which is reserved for us was occupied by another ship, and because it is Sunday night, there is nobody to complain to or address the issue. So we sail on to Meissen while the ship’s manager scrambles to arrange for a bus to take us back to Dresden for the morning’s excursion.
In the morning, we are bussed back to Dresden by bus. Our excursion is first by bus for an overview and then walking, and between the two, we get to see – from the outside at least – Dresden’s highlights and get a sense of its history, but this is certainly a city that deserves more time.
Most of Dresden’s city center was destroyed in World War II, but the “suburbs” survived the so-called “moral bombing” in which 25,000 out of a population of 650,000 died. But you would hardly realize it – except that our guide pulls out black-and-white photos of the destruction so we can compare.
It’s fairly amazing, then, that the bombing could not stamp out Dresden’s extraordinarily rich history, heritage and culture, which in so many instances, have risen literally from ashes.They have restored and reconstructed the architecture, saving the facades where possible and in many cases reusing the stones;.
It was here, August 26-27,1813 at the Battle of Dresden that Napoleon had his last big victory in Germany. It was fought on the outskirts of the Saxon capital of Dresden, between Napoleon’s 120,000 troops and 170,000 Austrians, Prussians, and Russians under Prince Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg. Alas, victory was short lived – a week later, Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig.
Dresden is a “green city’ boasting more trees (600,000) than humans (550,0000). We drive through an enormous park – like Central Park – where among the sites is the intriguingly named German Hygiene Museum, Europe’s only science museum to focus on the human being and body within the context of the environment and society, culture and science.
We drive by the New Synagogue, built in 2002 to replace the 1840 synagogue designed by Gottfried Semper, destroyed on Kristalnacht, Nov. 9-10, 1938. At its peak, Dresden had 5000 Jews; today there are 700. “Most had escaped before World War II, so we have Jewish life again.” The New Synagogue has Star of David finial from the old synagogue. “A fireman who put out the fire in 1938 saved it, then gave it to survivors after the war.”
We pass a street named for Fletcher. “The Soviets arrived May 8 1945. 200 soldiers had died in combat; Hitler had already committed suicide. Fletcher took white flag to surrender to the Soviets. The SS shot him in the back. He was martyred.”
Dresden also shows its history under Soviet occupation. There is probably no sight that better encapsulates the Soviet era than “The Red Flag” mural and wall fresco, “Our Socialist Life” on the exterior of the Dresden Kulturpalast. It was the pride of GDR architecture when it opened in 1969 as a “House of Socialist Culture”. Today it is the home of the Dresden Philharmonic.
“The revolution against Soviet rule started in Dresden and Leipzig churches in 1989. It was the only successful revolution in German history. Then the Berlin Wall came down a year later.”
We get off the bus and start a delightful walking tour through this beautiful city.
We start at Frauenkirche. Completed in 1743, the Baroque church was considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. After it was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945, the ruins were catalogued and stored for its reconstruction. 4,000 of the original stones were used in the rebuilding, which began after Germany’s reunification, in 1990 and reopened in 2005. Great Britain, which was responsible for the bomb that had caused so much of the devastation, sent a gold cross to place at the top.
Our guide, Alexandr Klein, points out Taschenberg Palace, built in the 18th century by the Saxon King, Augustus the Strong for his mistress. (Augustus “had ambitions to be like Henry VII”; a mistress was an actual official position, he tells us). There is a bridge, reminiscent of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, connecting it to the Royal Palace. The original building burned down and was faithfully restored in 1995 and transformed into the luxurious Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski Dresden, owned by the Thai royal family (rooms can cost as much as 10,000E/night). A member of Historic Hotels Worldwide since 2017, it is within the historic city center, steps away from the most renowned sights, such as Semper Opera House, Royal Palace, Zwinger, and the Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche). (Famous past guests of the Taschenbergpalais include Prince Albert II of Monaco, designer Karl Lagerfeld, and President Jacques Chirac of France, https://www.historichotels.org/hotels-resorts/hotel-taschenbergpalais-kempinski-dresden)
Along a Tuscan-style arcade with 22 rounded arches leading to the Court Stables, is the famous Fürstenzug – the Procession of Princes – a 102-meter-long portrait of the Dukes, Electors, and Kings of the house of Wettin, together with leading German figures from the arts and sciences. Commissioned in 1870, it consists of 25,000 Meissen Porcelain tiles.
One of my favorite parts of this delightful walking tour is strolling along Brühl’s Terrace (Brühlsche Terrasse), also known as the “Balcony of Europe.” Our guide explains that by the 19th C, Dresden already popular for European tourists. This half-mile long promenade is built on the old city ramparts and was laid out in 1738 as a private garden; it was opened to the public in 1814.
Klein points to where novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who fought with Americans in World War II, was held as a POW in the slaughterhouse district. He wrote “Slaughterhouse 5,” a science-fiction infused anti-war novel, based on his experience.
Klein leads us to the Zwinger, a magnificent early 18th-century palace and a stunning example of Baroque architecture. Inside is The Old Masters Picture Gallery with 750 paintings from the 15th to 18th centuries, among them Italian Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces by Raphael, Titian, Correggio, and Tintoretto, and Dutch and Flemish paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Vermeer.
Also worth visiting (we don’t have time) is the Royal Palace, which houses some of Dresden’s most important museums, including the Green Vault and the Numismatic Collection. You can also visit the State Apartment, a suite of rooms that have been faithfully restored to their original condition.
The tour gives us an overview, but I wish we had the afternoon to explore on our own.
(You can get a Dresden museum card with gives two days and free admission to the city’s must see museums and exhibitions: Old Masters Picture Gallery with Sculpture Collection until 1800; Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments; Collection of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, Porcelain Collection; The Royal State Apartments of August the Strong and the Porcelain Cabinet, Coin Cabinet; New Green Vault; Renaissance Wing; Giant´s Hall of the Armoury; Turkish Chamber; Albertinum with Art from the Romantic Period to the Present Day; Lipsiusbau Exhibition Hall; Museum of Saxon Folk Art and Puppet Theatre Collection; Special Exhibitions in the Japanese Palace; Joseph Hegenbarth Archive; Hausmannsturm, 22E pp)
Meissen: World Famous for Porcelain
We are returned to the ship for lunch, and in the afternoon have a walking tour of Meissen.
We ride an elevator to the hill top, and visit the Cathedral, a three-nave Gothic hall church built between 1260 and 1410 and preserved in its near-original medieval state. We buy a ticket to see inside where there are paintings by the renowned Lucas Cranach., and stained glass windows from the 13th century.
We walk around Albrechsburg, a palace built between 1471 and 1500 by Duke Albrecht of Saxony that dominates the city and the beautiful historic square.
After our brief walking tour with our guide, Brigetta, we are taken by bus to the Meissen “manufactory,” where you go room by room to see demonstrations of the remarkable artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making these porcelain treasures.
It is remarkable to realize that they have been doing this very same thing for over 300 years, the oldest porcelain manufactory in Europe, founded in 1710 by King Augustus the Strong, who put together a team of physicists, alchemists and metallurgists to come up with the new technology. There’s also a museum with some 2,000 Meissen items.
Back on the ship, we sail from Meissen through the late afternoon and overnight to Wittenburg.
We are always a stone’s throw from shore. We sail by people’s backyards and front yards, close enough to exchange greetings. Bicyclists keep pace and even go faster than boat, as they ride along a path beside the water. I see one man on horseback as the sun goes down. The scenery is beautiful, and the cruise so peaceful.
Dinner this evening is spectacular, beginning with an olive paste on toast, salmon with cheese, filet mignon, goat cheese with salad, raspberry/cream pie.
Photo: CroisiEurope’s Prague-Berlin cruise on the Elbe River brings us to Dresden, where we see a historic city that has risen from the ashes like a phoenix © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
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