Nowhere in Germany does the sun rise earlier than Görlitz. This town, in a far flung corner of Saxony, has the distinction of being the most easterly in Germany. There are also few places in Germany where you’re more likely to spot Hollywood film stars going about their business. Görlitz isn’t that well known, but if you’ve watched any of the hundred plus films that have used it as a backdrop since the 1950s, it’s likely you’ve seen it more than once.
The town’s history dates back to the 11th century and it emerged from the Second World War largely unscathed. Today, it boasts over 4,000 wonderfully preserved historic buildings making it one of the most beautiful towns in Germany. Between the Untermarkt surrounded by Renaissance buildings, and the numerous Gothic, baroque, rococo, and art nouveau buildings in the old town, Görlitz is a thousand years of European history in microcosm.
Görlitz grew wealthy in the Middle Ages, mostly from the manufacture of linen and trade along the River Neisse, and was a major economic centre. That heritage makes it catnip for film locations, and the town has hosted Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray filming the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Kate Winslet in The Reader. George Clooney and Matt Damon were here in Monument’s Men, as were Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush in The Book Thief. This, though, is a case of a close call.
Görlitz suffered decades of neglect under the East German Communist government. It became so dilapidated that they almost demolished it. In 1990, when Germany was reunified, its future success as a Hollywood darling was definitely not guaranteed, but then something extraordinary happened. In 1993, an anonymous West German started donating a million Deutschmarks annually for the restoration of the Old Town.
Given how few towns in this region survived destruction in the war, Görlitz truly is a remarkable place. Yet, a visit provides one of those all too frequent reminders of Europe’s terrible 20th century history. When the Second World War was over, large parts of eastern Germany were given to Poland as compensation for territory lost to the Soviet Union. The River Neisse became the new border, Görlitz sits on the River Neisse.
This was doubly contentious since Görlitz straddled the river and in 1945 the town was cut in half. The western half remained in Germany, across the river it became the Polish town of Zgorzelec. Here, in 1950, the Communist East German government signed a treaty with Poland accepting the new border. It took West Germany until 1970 to agree to the border, a deal Germany had to reconfirm in 1990 as part of German reunification.
The contrast between the two towns could not be more pronounced. Görlitz is an historic gem, it feels prosperous and attracts the attention of international filmmakers and tourists. Zgorzelec, on the other hand, has to endure a lot of post-war buildings that only a devout 1950s communist could love and feels a bit depressed. A steady stream of Germans cross the border to buy cheap cigarettes and alcohol.
We only had one day here while on our way to Bautzen. While it’s a small place of around 55,000 people, and the historic centre is tiny, it’s a town that deserves more time to do it justice. There are plenty of reasons to stay for a few days, none more so than sampling traditional Silesian food in its highly rated restaurants. We wandered around and discovered a small market in the Untermarkt where an oompah band was entertaining a crowd.
After lunch we made our way across the pedestrian bridge over the Neisse into Poland. The eastern bank of the river provides great views back to Görlitz, and especially of the St. Peter and Paul Church which dominates the skyline. Luckily, while Görlitz at times feels like the set of a movie, it’s a down to earth place packed with history in need of second visit.