The Cradle of Saxony, Gothic glories in Meissen

Meissen, the historic centre of European porcelain manufacture, is a beautiful, historic town with an extraordinary castle and cathedral that rise majestically above the River Elbe. Most visitors still come for its associations with Augustus the Strong’s ‘White Gold’, but the narrow cobbled lanes that wind upwards from the river, through a lovely town square, to the 15th century Albrechtsburg Castle makes it well worth a visit in its own right.

Built between 1471 and 1524, the Albrechtsburg Castle is a Gothic beauty that sits on top of a rocky outcrop. It’s a dramatic sight that is now globally famous for being the birthplace of European porcelain. It was here that, in 1708, the failed alchemist Johann Frederick Böttger claimed to have found both the correct ingredients and process to produce porcelain in Europe for the first time. For the next 153 years, the castle was transformed into a factory churning out magnificent porcelain creations.

Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Rathaus, Meissen, Germany
Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

The history of Meissen dates back much further though. It was founded in 929 on the orders of Henry I, known as Henry the Fowler because of his passion for hunting. The Duke of Saxony, Henry built his town on the site of an earlier Slav settlement. It’s a history that seemed to seep from the walls as we walked the quiet streets in the early morning. Meissen fills with tourists later in the day, but early morning is wonderfully atmospheric.

Ringed by Gothic buildings on all sides, the central marketplace sits at the heart of the Altstadt, including the lovely Rathaus. The equally beautiful and Gothic Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, looms over one end of the square. The carillon in the church tower is visible from the square, it’s the oldest made from porcelain in the world. We walked past the Frauenkirche down deserted streets, before climbing steeply upwards towards the expansive castle complex.

As we climbed, we got views over the red-tiled rooftops of the Altstadt, the River Elbe and surrounding countryside. On a sunny Sunday morning it was absolutely beautiful. We wandered through the cemetery of the Church of Saint Afra, before turning a corner to find ourselves walking across a small bridge and through the gatehouse into the courtyard of the castle and cathedral. We’d timed our arrival well, the castle cafe was just opening and we sat in the sun eating a traditional cake of poppy seeds.

Viewed from the top of the town, Meissen and the surrounding area is a picturesque place. We finished our cake and took in the views over the river, from where we could see what looked like vineyards. Surprisingly, there’s an active wine industry in Saxony, one of the most northerly. Making our way down winding stairways to the town square the streets were still remarkably quiet, but as we reentered the square we came face-to-face with a tour group.

Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Meissen, Germany
Albrechtsburg Castle, Meissen, Germany

Meissen had one more surprise, but only because I vaguely recognised a name as we walked back along Hahnemannsplatz. The last time I saw the name Hahnemann, I was in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The medical charlatan and pseudoscience  inventor of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, was born in Meissen in 1755. The third child of a porcelain painter his contribution to the world might have been greater if he’d stayed in the family business.

Porcelain was invented only a few hundred metres away by an alchemist who claimed he could turn base metal into gold. He lied, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Meissen could turn out other scientific cranks as well. The spirit of making things up was very 18th century, but it did at least lead to genuine scientific breakthroughs.

6 thoughts on “The Cradle of Saxony, Gothic glories in Meissen

  1. Seeing your German posts makes me think you must be delighted.
    You can enjoy your love of encountering quaint old little places out-of-time.
    Europe is ripe with them. But it seems Germany has its own.
    Tschüss Paul.

    1. I do like a small historic town, although in Germany it’s sometimes difficult to know whether it’s been reconstructed as a replica following 1945. Mind, better a reconstruction than the alternative in many cases.

      1. Yes, better a reconstruction than nothing. In the 80’s I went to Germany a lot for business and all the large cities had clearly been levelled out. Brand new buildings everywhere. But I think the small cities or villages were not bombing targets. Which is why they “may” look authentic?

  2. It looks glorious! Oh, and I highly recommend investigating some of the Saxon wines. There’s some very good stuff going on there now, and of course because it’s a very small wine region, not much of it escapes to anywhere else.

    1. German wine has been (still is largely) a mystery to me, but we went to a wine festival in Berlin a few months back where we could meet the growers, sample the wines and (of course) buy a few bottles. It was a huge learning curve … and a lot of fun!

      1. You’ve a lot of fun to come then. I’m about to embark on a professional wine course because I’m so fascinated by the subject.

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