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.
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 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.