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Saxony, in Germany, is like something out of a picture book with its baroque castles, distinctive cobblestone streets, the beautiful Elbe river, the towering Ore Mountains, lush green meadows and a vibrant cityscape.
Where Saxony scores over other places in Germany, is in its huge contributions to the fields of architecture, art and music. Artists like Caspar David Friedrich have immortalized its beauty on canvas and J.S. Bach wrote some of his most famous works in the city of Leipzig in Saxony.
Saxony was at the peak of its glory till the Second World War, when much of its 1,000 years of history was obliterated. The curiosity of visiting a state that was once part of the Iron Curtain, before the reunification of East and West Germany had a powerful pull on me.
A large part of the credit for Saxony’s impressive artistic collection goes to Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who was able to fulfill his vision of a Baroque synthesis of the arts by his acquisitions, though he left his exchequer pauperized in the process.
Augustus’ obsession with wealth resulted in him commissioning and imprisoning a goldsmith Johann Bottger to create gold. This resulted in the desperate Bottger cracking the secret of making porcelain, which ironically came to be known as “white gold!” Thus Saxony became the first European country to invent porcelain. Augustus the Strong’s porcelain is displayed among the State Art Collections, which has the largest porcelain collection in the world.
Saxony and India
One of the most interesting aspects of a visit to this beautiful place, is discovering Saxony’s connection to India.
Through my research about Saxony, I found that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, one of India’s freedom fighters, recruited Indian prisoners of war in Germany and attempted to train them at Konigsberg, in Saxony, in preparation for the battle to free India from British yoke. However, with Germany losing the Second World War, the preparations at Konigsberg were dissolved and Bose left Germany in 1943 for Japan, where he formed the Indian National Army.
Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel Laureate, had long ties to Saxony, too. His German publisher, Kurt Wolff established a publishing house in Leipzig in 1913 and published Tagore’s books starting in 1914. Tagore visited Wolff in Leipzig many times. He also visited Dresden, on numerous occassions, conducting speeches and seminars at different art houses. His 150th birthday was celebrated with great fanfare in Dresden in 2012.
Two of Saxony’s best known cities are Dresden and Leipzig. After the rise of Romanticism, Dresden became a center for intellectual and artistic movement, attracting poets and porcelain decorators. In 1883, four porcelain manufacturers registered their famous blue crown Dresden mark, and the Dresden porcelain style was born.
What is fascinating about Dresden is its resilience. The city rebuilt itself after the bombings by the Allies, during the final months of the Second World War. For a peace-lover, it seemed cruel that 25,000 people had to become collateral damage and that 15 square miles of the city center had to be destroyed in an attempt to end the war. The indomitable spirit of the Saxons who preferred to look ahead, and the government’s efforts to restore Saxony to its former glory, should be commended.
Swissotel in Dresden proved to be a haven during the five days of my stay in this state. My room was well-decorated and comfortable, though the open bathing area could have proved a challenge if one was sharing with a friend. The presence of seasonal fruits at breakfast is a big bonus for vegetarians who sometimes tire of bread and cereals. It was amazing to find that the lady who served so many people in the buffet breakfast area was able to remember my tea order on Day 2!
My first stop in Dresden was the New Green Vault Treasury Museum, where I was enthralled to discover the “Court of Aurangzeb” display. This was a resplendent artifact showing “The Royal Household at Delhi on the Occasion of the Birthday of the Grand Mogul Aureng-Zeb.” It portrayed the grandeur of India’s royalty. The display was made using 4,909 diamonds, 164 emeralds, 160 rubies, a sapphire, 16 pearls and two cameos. It was created between 1701 and 1708.
Also at the museum is the Green Diamond, at 41 carats—one of the largest diamonds in the world—which was extracted from the Kollur mine in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1700s.
The Old Masters’ Picture Gallery at the museum was a wonderful display of Impressionist paintings. Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna” occupies pride of place here with the cherubs holding their own at the bottom of the painting.
A stay in Dresden would be incomplete without a steamboat ride across the Elbe River. It appeared calm and showed no signs that it had breached its banks during the floods of June 2013. The boat ride to the city center revealed a view of the city that combined both man-made architectural wonders and scenic beauty. On a hot summer day, it might be advisable to take this ride when the sun goes down a bit!
The German traits of precision and discipline were visible during the guided tour of Volkswagen’s Transparent Manufactory in Dresden. Even I, who views cars purely as a utility, was charmed by the process combining both robots and human industry. A slinky pose for the camera in front of the Phaeton turned out to be the icing on the cake!
Cathedrals and Castles
Language can be such a roadblock, more so when I found myself separated from my friends at Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen. The castle and the adjoining cathedral are located on a hill and tower above the city. I could see the rooftops of the houses as I made my way downhill, largely with the help of sign language, some British tourists who allowed me to use their phone (and to whom I actually posed the question, “Do you speak English?” only to be told in proper British tones, “Of course, we do!”) and a map! But that can in no way take away from the grandeur of this purely residential schloss (castle in German), which has the added fame of providing the base for the triumphant march of Meissen porcelain by acting as its first manufactory. The paintings and monumental murals on display provided clarity on the history of the Saxon state and its dynasties. In one area of the castle, I had to slip my feet into over-sized soft chappals. As I shuffled along, I marveled at the thoughtfulness of those who, without depriving visitors, also ensured protection of the wooden flooring.
Augustus the Strong’s footprints are indelible in the annals of Saxony history. He had his best architects and artists convert a Renaissance building into a majestic hunting and pleasure palace called Schloss Moritzburg. The paintings, furniture and porcelain inside were impressive and imposing.
The Federzimmer or Feather Room, where unique production techniques were used to create material from a million colored bird feathers and the sight of the world’s heaviest red deer antlers (supposedly Europe’s most important collection), left me wondering about the way in which man exercised power over lesser creatures.
I visited Leipzig, which was home to two of the greatest Western composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and Mendelssohn. While Bach spent the last 27 years of his life in Leipzig, the city also boasted the presence of other composers whose houses and other musical sites make up a “music trail,” across the city center. Steel inlays in the shape of musical notes are embedded in the ground and these are visible in front of St. Thomas School, where Bach worked as a teacher, and also in front of St. Thomas Church, where he served as a Cantor and where his remains are buried.
Identifying the stained glass window in which the image of Bach has been immortalized inside the church, was as much of a thrill as viewing the organ that he used. Just across the church is the Bach Museum, which expands on the life of the great musician. His handwritten compositions are on display, as also his instruments and costumes of those times. The museum is interactive and by tapping some pillars and putting my ears to them, I could hear Bach’s ethereal music. This prompted me to pick up The Best of Bach CD from the souvenir counter.
St. Thomas Church also has a stained glass impression of the great Reformer, Martin Luther, who is shown translating the Bible into German. Another famous sight in Leipzig is “Madler’s Passage,” where Mephistopheles (a demon featured in German folklore) is supposed to have persuaded Faustus (in the play written by Christopher Marlowe about Faust) to accompany him to Auerbach’s Cellar. The place has been memorialized by Goethe, who gained more recognition from his play Faust than perhaps its original author, Christopher Marlowe. Statues of Faust and Mephistopheles are visible at the passage leading to the cellar. Dinner at the Auerbach Cellar was an enjoyable experience, surrounded by images of Faust and his famous companion!
Being a vegetarian, there is always some anxiety about food, but the Saxony experience was a pleasant surprise. Vegetarian fare was always available, and in some cases, unforgettable, like the lunch at the Panorama Restaurant in Leipzig, which comprised a fabulous soup and cutlets with yummy fillings! Besides the seasonal vegetables, asparagus, artichokes, cheese and mushrooms are the options available to vegetarians and since I enjoy all of these, I could relish the fare in most of the places, along with a liberal dash of pepper and chilli sauce!
Wine-drinking is cultivated to a fine art in Saxony and there were several delightful opportunities to visit wineries and indulge in some wine-tasting. The interaction with Herr Herrlich, the restaurant owner of Vincenz Richter, a restaurant outlet of a Meissen-based winery, was particularly heart-warming and made me wish that I had learnt some German before the trip. He linked each wine to a particular composer and played a composition while I sipped. He dedicated George Handel’s “Hallelujah” to me!
The desire of Saxony’s rulers to use their wealth wisely and to convert some of it into the preservation of art and culture, has made the state a place worth visiting and revisiting. I still have regrets about what could not be accommodated into my itinerary and hope for another opportunity soon.
Melanie is a Bangalore-based writer and Literary Reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and Mass Communications.