Bautzen is an incredibly well-preserved medieval town perched on a dramatic rocky escarpment overlooking the River Spree. It boasts a cityscape dotted with seventeen ancient towers and medieval fortifications, inside of which lies a magnificent Old Town that encapsulates more than a thousand years of history. A local saying goes, “If the wind doesn’t know where to blow, it blows over Budyšin,” as Bautzen is known in Sorbian. The wind made the right choice.
If this wasn’t enough, at the Gaststätte Zur Apotheke (the Apothecary Restaurant) we ate one of the best meals we’ve had in Germany. A wonderful menu of local dishes that take their inspiration from traditional Sorbian cuisine. I was particularly happy to wash it down with a glass or two of the ‘red-blond’ Kupfer beer from the Bautzener Brauhaus, all while sat in the shadow of the Ortenburg Palace.
Bautzen’s recorded history began in the early 11th century, but this spot had been occupied for at least 700 years by that time. The Slavic Sorbs arrived sometime around the 6th century and continue to carve out a spot for themselves and their culture even today. They are an officially recognised and legally protected minority in Germany, the Sorbian language while closely related to Polish, Czech and Slovak, is unique.
Bautzen acts as the unofficial capital for Sorbian culture. As few as 60,000 Sorbs are left in Germany (the Spreewald has an open air museum dedicated to the Sorbs), assimilation and economic necessity means a living breathing culture and language hangs by a thread. Bautzen goes out of its way to preserve their traditions, including in the informative Sorb Museum housed in the 15th century Ortenburg Palace grounds.
We arrived in this fascinating town on a late autumn day and the Old Town was buzzing with German day-trippers. We were staying the night and had the luxury of time to explore the ancient cobbled streets, and to take a walk along the escarpment on the opposite bank of the Spree. The perspective from this vantage point offers magnificent views over Bautzen and gives pause for thought of the town’s lucky escape.
Fierce fighting raged in and around Bautzen during the final stages of the Second World War. The town suffered serious damage as German forces attempted to break through Polish and Russian defences and relieve Berlin. The German army retook Bautzen but to no avail, and the town was lucky not to suffer far worse destruction. Not that you’d notice today. With a few exceptions, Bautzen looks like it fell from the pages of a medieval fairy tale.
After a pleasant walk, we climbed up a steep staircase back into the fairy tale and past St. Peter’s Church, construction of which was completed in the 15th century. In almost every way, it looks just like every other church in this region except, remarkably, it has been shared by Roman Catholics and Protestants since 1523. Given the religious violence Europe endured in the wake of the Reformation, this must be unique.
Nearby is the mustard yellow clock tower of the Town Hall, which casts its shadow over the pleasant Hauptmarkt. Here we ordered some lunch, settled in to do some people watching, and were finally able to sample Bautzen’s true culinary delicacy, mustard. If anything, Bautzen is more famous in Germany for mustard than for its medieval architecture – there’s a reason the town hall is that colour.
Bautz’ner Senf, as the mustard is known, gets its unique flavour from mustard seeds, a heady mix of spices, and brandy vinegar. It is probably one of the most enduring (and one of the very few) former East German foods to survive in the post-reunification era. It’s a spicy surprise that seemed to perfectly complement the surprising charms of Bautzen.