Brandenburg, a city shaped by water and war

Brandenburg an der Havel, to give this pretty and historic town its full name, came as something of a revelation after walking from the railway station through dreary and almost entirely deserted streets. It was only after crossing one of the many waterways that define the geography of the town, that we finally discovered evidence of human existence. This is a typical Sunday experience in Germany, where it is still normal for shops to remain closed.

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Town Hall with stature of Roland, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Loriot Pug, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Town Hall with stature of Roland, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

There are numerous islands dotting the landscape around this area amidst the region’s many lakes and rivers, but the three that form the historic parts of Brandenburg are all easily reached on foot – and it’s a town best explored at a leisurely pace. Despite heavy bombing during the closing stages of the Second World War, which destroyed large parts of the city, Brandenburg today retains the feel of the medieval regional capital that grew out of an earlier Slav settlement.

The oldest surviving buildings date back to the 12th century and provide a glimpse of Brandenburg’s former glory. As a regional capital it flourished in the medieval period, and its fortunes grew even greater when it joined the Hanseatic League. This sprawling confederation of towns and city-states once dominated trade across northern Europe, its tentacles spread far and wide in the search for commercial gain. Brandenburg grew rich as a member of the Hanseatic League, wealth reflected in its churches, homes and civic buildings.

The town suffered badly during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, after which it slipped into a period of decline and relative obscurity. Potsdam to the east would take its place as regional capital, and become home to Prussian monarchs. I suspect that meant Brandenburg was saved the degradations of military conquest later on, and allowed it to preserve much of its historic integrity. That is, until the outbreak of World War Two, when an airplane factory in the town attracted waves of bombing raids.

Today, the town is probably better known for a more notorious role during the era of National Socialism. Here, in 1933, the Nazis opened one of their first concentration camps in a newly built prison. An Aktion T4 site – a centre for involuntary euthanasia and ‘medical experiments’ – was established to murder people with mental or physical disabilities who were deemed to be ‘racially inferior’. Brandenburg was also where the Nazis experimented with gas as a method of mass murder, later used in the Holocaust.

Even amidst the glories of this ancient town it is impossible to escape Germany’s 20th century history. At the Steintorturm, where we crossed into the old town, there is a Soviet memorial and cemetery dedicated to the Russian soldiers who died ‘liberating’ the city during the Battle of Berlin. Later on we’d walk past the town’s old synagogue, destroyed during the Kristallnacht in 1938. The plaque outside stating that the Rabbi had been murdered in Auschwitz.

The Steintorturm once formed part of the city’s defensive walls, and as you wander around there are several other towers dating back several hundred years. We walked along cobbled streets lined with pretty houses before arriving in a market square near a large church. At another of the town’s former defensive towers, the Mühlentorturm, we left one island and entered another, passing a row of fishing huts turned eateries on Mühlendamm next to the water – being Sunday they were all closed.

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Loriot Pug, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Soviet War Memorial, Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

Brandenburg an der Havel, Germany

We soon found ourselves at the cathedral before crossing over several waterways to reach the oldest part of town where the red-brick city hall can be found. Here are two competing statues, one of Roland (of Song of Roland fame), the other of a small Pug dog with what appeared to be antlers. This is one of many similar tributes to the German comedian, Loriot. Real name, Bernhard-Viktor Christoph-Carl von Bülow, and born in Brandenburg in 1923.

He loved Pugs and spun a tale about how, before being domesticated, they had once been wild with huge antlers. They only discarding them so they could leap into the laps of old ladies. It’s the sort of whimsy that seems to fit the relaxed feel of Brandenburg.

La Maladie d’Amour … Berlin Street Art

When it comes to street art, Berlin is truly the gift that keeps on giving. The Berlin that has emerged following reunification in 1990 has become synonymous with street art. The city’s revival as one of Europe’s most dynamic capitals has, in part, been forged by its association with cutting-edge street art. Formerly grim neighbourhoods have been revitalised and many are now in different stages of gentrification. For better or worse, street art has been a significant driver behind this trend.

Street Art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany

I’m a little fascinated by the role of street art in communities, and the way it changes perceptions of a neighbourhood – good or bad. The evolution of street art from fringe, barely legal, activity to mainstream culture in which the most famous street artists can command serious money for their work, is a phenomenon. One that begs a number of question. What is street art? How does it differ from graffiti? Who gets to adjudicate on what is art and what is graffiti?

Ugly and alienating, graffiti is viewed by many as vandalism and is strongly associated with crime and anti-social behaviour. Ever since the Broken Windows Theory became popular in the 1980s – which influenced the zero tolerance approach to policing in New York City in the 1990s under the leadership of the increasingly deranged Rudy Giuliani – a debate has raged over whether illicit or illegal street art is socially acceptable. Does it feed the sense of social disorder that leads to increased crime?

Dynamic, attractive and increasingly seen as a ‘must have’ accessory for the modern urban environment, contemporary street art seems a millions miles from the former image of graffiti. It can position a city on the global stage and lure lucrative tourist euros into local businesses. So much so that street art festivals have become popular ways of expressing the modernity and dynamism of an aspiring city. This runs the risk of the corporatisation of street art and the loss of its anti-establishment appeal.

This is especially true in a city like Berlin, where street art is often overtly political, a chain of thought that began when I came across a story of a street art ‘installation’ in a communitiy in the Tegel district. Nicknamed ‘bloody refugee’, it depicts a young girl refugee bloodied and bruised, and standing in a pool of blood. At 42-metres in height, it’s a massive piece that covers the side of an apartment block, and is so life-like that it upset local residents when it was unveiled in 2016. They started a petition to have it removed.

Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art by Nomad Clan, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Street art, Berlin, Germany
Captain Berlin, street art, Berlin, Germany

Perhaps the powerful message was more shocking because of the political context of Germay’s acceptance of over a million refugees, but isn’t that the role of art? Especially, perhaps, of street art? It may not be on a par with Picasso’s Guernica, but it cemented for me the idea that street art can and should be challenging, even if it’s hard to view sometimes. I get the feeling that in the rush to be ‘liked’ and ‘accepted’, street art has lost some of its soul. I’ve yet to visit this bit of town, but one day soon hopefully.

Meanwhile, our meanderings around Berlin have brought us face-to-face with plenty of interesting peices of wall art. Some new favourites include the Wolf of Prenzlauer Berg by Argentinian artist, Alaniz, a mural of rabbits burrowing under the Berlin Wall by British artist collective, Nomad Clan, not to mention Captain Berlin, found on the walls of a comic book store.

A stroll along the River Spree

Berlin has transformed with warmer spring weather, after several cold grey months it’s time to dare to believe that summer is only days away. The city’s many parks and open spaces have once again filled with life, but it’s the slow-moving River Spree that draws most people. Berlin has designed the areas alongside the river to accommodate people at leisure rather than buildings or cars – looking at you London – and you can walk for several uninterrupted kilometres on or close to the waters edge.

The River Spree runs a 400 km course from the Lusatian Mountains on the border of the Czech Republic. On its journey to Berlin and beyond it creates the wetlands of the Spreewald and Berlin’s largest lake, the Müggelsee. Not long after leaving the city – in Spandau – the Spree disapears for ever, merging with the River Havel at the site where the enormous Spandau Citadel watches over the water. It is in Berlin though that the most famous stretches of the river can be found.

Berliner Dom, River Spree, Berlin

Reichstag, River Spree, Berlin

Three Girls One Boy Statue, River Spree, Berlin

Statue, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Spittelmarkt, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

We live close to Spittelmarkt (one of Berlin’s old markets) and the Spreekanal. A short walk brings you to Museum Island and the River Spree at the point where it passes the historic heart of Berlin, Nikolaiviertel. Head west from here and the river will take you past many of the city’s most famous landmarks. The banks of the river are crowded as you pass the massive Berliner Dom, and the Bode and Pergamon Museums across from Monbijou Park, but the views are worth it.

A bend in the river brings you to Friedrichstrasse train station, or the Palace of Tears as it was known during the Cold War. Although the Berlin Wall was further to the south of the station, where Checkpoint Charlie once was, West Berliners could use the station to transfer to other rail lines, making it a high security zone. West Germans with the right papers could enter East Berlin here to visit family. This was also their final point of departure back to the West, and a place where many tears were shed.

On a recent sunny day, we walked along the river and decided to continue going all the way to Alt Moabit. Not far from Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof, you find yourself marvelling at the Lazarus-like Reichstag with its Norman Foster-designed glass dome. It may be the second most visited attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral, but stay on the northern bank of the river and you can avoid the crowds. The views are also better from across the river.

The next stretch of the Spree is one of the most attractive, passing stylish government buildings designed to be counterpoints to the neo-classical Reichstag. The outstanding building here is the German Chancellery, a vast post-modern structure affectionately (I think) known as the ‘washing machine’. With views over the Spree and the Tiergarten, this is where Chancellor Angela Merkel spends her days. It proudly claims the title of ‘largest government headquarters in the world’.

Bear, Berliner Brücken, Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Government buildings, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Bridge, River Spree, Berlin

Alt Moabit, River Spree, Berlin

Nikolaiviertel, River Spree, Berlin

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to cross the river on the historic Moltkebrücke, where German forces made a desperate defence of the Reichstag from the attacking Russians in 1945. The reason will soon become clear when you see the umbrellas of Zollpackhof beer garden. This is the perfect place to stop and sip a refreshing beer or indulge in gut-busting Bavarian cuisine. Fortified, carry on until you hit the impressive Schloss Bellevue, home of the German President.

You could make a detour to the Victory column at one end of the Tiergarten here or, as we did, head straight on into a small park before emerging into Alt Moabit. The lovely Berliner Brücken, guarded by two pairs of jaunty-looking bears, awaits. You could carry on from here to Schloss Charlottenburg, but a little bit further on there’s a small bridge that you cross to reach Tiergarten S Bahn and a train back to town.

Lübben and a walk through the Spreewald

Arriving at Lübben train station isn’t a thrilling experience. It certainly doesn’t give you the impression that you’ve arrived in a charming small town at the edge of a beautiful nature reserve. I double-checked the map and set off towards Lübben’s historic centre, a couple of kilometres away. Things improved almost immediately. I passed a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died fighting in the area and entered a lovely woodland, Der Hain, before arriving in the town proper.

It was still early morning and Lübben seemed half asleep, although I suspect that may apply regardless of the time of day. I’d planned to walk the 10km to confusingly named Lübbenau, but wandered around the streets before heading for Schloss Lübben. The castle dates back to the 12th century, but this version of it was built by Duke Christian I of Saxony-Merseburg in 1682. It is a striking building that sits on the edge of large parklands with picturesque waterways, and it was of course closed.

Paul Gerhardt Church, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Schloss Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Paul Gerhardt statue, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Russian war grave, Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben was in the East after the Second World War, and there are plenty of buildings that carry the stamp of Soviet brutalist architecture. One that doesn’t is the Gothic Paul Gerhardt Church. I’d never heard of Gerhardt, but he is considered to be the most important German hymn writer of the 17th century, some claim the greatest European hymn writer, of all time. A staunch Lutheran theologian, he worked as an archdeacon in Lübben from 1669 until his death in 1676.

In 1931, the city renamed the Church of St. Nicholas after him. It too was closed. I took this as a sign that it was time to leave town. I made my way through the Schloss park to a branch of the River Spree, the Hauptspree, which I’d follow all the way to Lübbenau passing through green meadows, verdant forests, and slow-moving waterways on the way. Even though it was a weekend, and this is a popular walking and cycle route, it was very peaceful.

The Spreewald has a rich and fascinating ecology, with wetlands, forests and meadows in seemingly equal measure. The whole area is criss-crossed by the hundreds of small waterways that have been created as the River Spree passes through this area. Tall reeds densely fill areas of the water, attracting a multitude of small birds. Occasionally I saw the flash of a brightly coloured kingfisher, while birds of prey glided effortlessly along the meadow floors. Frogs lept into the water. I even saw an otter.

Today, these natural charms are protected by law and the whole area is an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Wind back to April 1945 though, and things were anything but peaceful. The Spreewald was the epicentre of the Battle of Halbe, part of the larger Battle of Berlin. It was here that 150,000 soldiers of the German 9th Army, surrounded by a vastly superior force of three Russian Armies, attempted a daring escape: to break out and head west to surrender to the Americans.

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Lübben, Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Spreewald, Germany

Things did not go as intended, with only around 25,000 German troops escaping death or capture at the hands of the Russians. The Russians had already surrounded Berlin and the operations in the Spreewald were merely ‘mopping up’ exercises. The German efforts to escape were chaotic and casualties were very high on both sides, but several thousand civilians also managed to escape with the German forces. It must have been a terrifying ordeal at the end of the cataclysm of the Second World War.

It’s a struggle to reconcile these facts with the charm and tranquility of the area today, but every year the remains of those who died in the fighting are found. That though, should not prevent anyone from exploring this wonderful region.

Lehde, a Sorbian ‘city’ of punts and pickles

The attractive village of Lehde is known (presumably ironically) as the ‘city of punts and pickles’. Calling a place that’s home to around 150 people a city seems a bit far-fetched, but the rest of that description is pretty accurate. Lehde sits in the Spreewald, a district of Brandenburg that is crisscrossed with waterways that were traditionally navigated on flat-bottomed punts, and is also at the epicentre of Germany’s gherkin industry.

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

The village is built on small islands surrounded by multiple branches of the River Spree, which turns into an extensive wetland in this area, that are only connected by wooden pedestrian bridges. Remarkably, access to Lehde was only possible by boat until as late as 1929, when a road finally connected it to nearby Lübbenau. Today, it forms a not quite continuous whole with the larger town but, amongst tall pine and birch trees, it still feels every inch an isolated village – some farms still only reachable by boat.

I arrived in Lehde after a 2 km walk through the surrounding woodlands. The village is an interesting place to wander around but the main reason for coming here is to visit the truly excellent Freilandmuseum Lehde, an open-air museum that explores the lives of villagers in this fascinating region in the 1800s. There’s little better than an open-air museum, particularly one featuring people in period costumes. The Freilandmuseum didn’t disappoint.

The museum is best known for telling the history of the Sorbs, a distinct ethnic group of Slavic origin that have lived in this region for at least 1,400 years. Historic Sorb farm buildings, with traditional and video displays of what rural life in the Spreewald was like in the 1800s, are fantastic. There is a brilliant film using original footage from the 1950s of how the whole community harvested the cucumber crop. It then follows the cucumbers on their journey from field to pickle jar.

It was the Sorbs who introduced the cucumber to the region when they migrated here from the Carpathians. Sorbs haven’t always had an easy time in Germany, with periodic attempts to eradicate their unique culture. Counterintuitively, they fared pretty well under National Socialism – which viewed other Slavic peoples as subhuman. They were protected during the years of communist rule, and today their culture and language are protected by law.

There are perhaps only 80,000 Sorbs left in Germany, the vast majority in this region of Brandenburg and across the border in Saxony. Sorbian is taught in schools, a Sorbian-language newspaper exists, and the Serbski Institut continues to research their history, culture and language. That said, economic drivers and voluntary assimulation into German society present a greater challenge these days than ealier efforts at forcible integration.

What remains is a fascinating culture that draws on thousands of years of history, and even if Lehde is a little touristy it is an insight into Sorb life that isn’t readily available elsewhere. Houses, then and now, are built out of wood, many with reed roofs. They also have what looks a lot like a Viking design on their gables. These are Sorbian snake symbols. The traditional dress of sorb men and women is also unique, although they did remind me a bit of some traditional regional Dutch clothes.

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Freilandmuseum, Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

Lehde, Spreewald, Germany

I spent a couple of hours in the Freilandmuseum and afterwards strolled through the village. It was mid-afternoon and the waterways had become much busier with people taking tours in punts, but also many people in canoes – another hugely popular way to explore the waterways. It took me a while to find the route out of the village, but I was soon on my way back to Lübbenau and the promise of a beer in Brandenburg’s smallest brewery.

The Spreewald, spiritual home of the gherkin

There is a scene in the wonderful film, Good Bye, Lenin!, that revolves around the need to find a specific brand of East German gherkin. The sudden collapse of the GDR leads the main character on a desperate search for an authentic jar of Spreewaldgurken, the pickled cucumbers that come from the region south of Berlin. So beloved were they, that they were one of the few products from the former Communist East Germany to survive reunification.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lutki in Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Gherkin, Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

They didn’t just survive though, they thrived. Visit any supermarket in Berlin and there will be several metres of shelves dedicated to gherkins. Their appeal? A perfect balance of salty, sweet and sour. There are many gherkin brands, but the Spreewaldgurken has a special place in the hearts and minds of Germans. Despite eating no small number of gherkins since we moved here, I gave no thought to where all those pickled cucumbers came from. The good news is, the Spreewald is only an hour away by train.

Today, an astonishing 1 million jars of pickled gherkins are bottled each and every day, all of them in local facilities. They account for about half of all the gherkins consumed in Germany. That’s a lot of gherkins, most of which are still picked by hand. Tradition is big in the Spreewald, and pickling methods and recipes have changed little since they were introduced by Dutch settlers in the 17th century. In summer the gherkins grow so quickly that the plants can be harvested every two to four days.

It’s the Spreewald’s mineral soils that makes it such a good region for the growing of cucumbers, but it would be doing the region a disservice to reduce it to a stereotype of only a pickled vegetable. This is a region of ancient forest and picturesque waterways that is deservedly popular for hiking and cycling. It’s also dotted with pretty towns and villages that, while connected by road and rail today, for centuries relied on small boats as the main form of transport.

Surrounded by forests of birch and pine, Lübbenau is the Spreewald’s largest town, and is easily reached by train from Berlin. I arrived on a sunny morning excited to discover the land of the gherkin. I was a bit disappointed not to be greeted at the train station by gherkin food trucks, but paintings of traditional scenes that covered the walls of the station were enough to whet the appetite. These included what looked like goblins or elves.

Like many parts of Germany, the heavily forested Spreewald is home to many legends and superstitions. One of the central characters of Spreewald myth are Lutki, dwarves who help the good and make fools of the bad, which originate in the sagas of the Slavic Sorb people who have inhabited this region for centuries. It’s easy to imagine the tall tales that took root in such an isolated part of the world, including one about a dragon called Plon that I was hoping to avoid on my walk to the village of Lehde.

First though, I wandered around Lübbenau. It’s a pretty place with a decent museum and a friendly tourist office. I walked over to the 19th century Schloss Lübbenau and through the landscaped grounds, before heading to where the real action in Lübbenau can be found – the harbour. Boat trips on traditional flat-bottomed boats, punted through the wetlands by a ‘captain’, are big business in the Spreewald.

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

Lübbenau, Spreewald, Germany

The small harbour was busy with day-trippers selecting a boat ride. I was planning to walk to the historic village of Lehde, so grabbed a fish sandwich with obligatory gherkin before setting off. The walk would take me through woods filled with bird song and the occasional sound of a woodpecker. I glimpsed a kingfisher diving into the waters and saw birds of prey in the high branches of the trees. It’s no wonder this area is popular with Berliners seeking tranquility.

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.

Meissen’s ‘White Gold’, inventing European porcelain

The invention of European porcelain, one of the most valued and valuable commodities in 18th century Europe, was ironically a byproduct of the failed attempt to turn base metal into gold. This though was no runners-up prize. Porcelain was imported from China – where it had been invented centuries earlier – at immense cost. So sought after was porcelain that it was known as ‘white gold’, and European rulers competed for the glory (and wealth) that discovering its hidden secrets would bring.

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

The King or Prince who controlled the production of porcelain would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Well, maybe not beyond the wildest dreams of the man who would eventually own the secret of porcelain. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was a man who, on his death-bed, confessed that, “all my life has been one ceaseless sin”. His pursuit of porcelain was pure avarice combined with the desire to make Saxony the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire.

It would fall to the alchemist and part-time charlatan, Johann Frederick Böttger, to do the actual inventing. Augustus believed the knowledge Böttger claimed to have was so valuable that he made him a prisoner, albeit a comfortable one, for twelve years. First in Dresden, where he was put to work trying to invent the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical substance that would turn base metal into gold, and Augustus into a very rich man.

In 1705, after four years and numerous failed attempts (and at least one failed escape attempt), Böttger announced that he would produce his first gold in 16 weeks. At the end of which, and presumably fearing for his life, he announced that although he had failed again, he would unearth the secret of porcelain instead. That may have saved his life, but it only meant a new prison, this time in Meissen where Böttger was held in the Albrechtsburg, a dramatic 15th century castle.

Here, in collaboration with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, European porcelain would be produced for the very first time. This discovery didn’t lead to Böttger gaining his freedom, after all he might sell his secrets to another European ruler. Augustus kept him prisoner for several more years. Tschirnhaus was almost certainly the real inventor of the wonderous white pottery but he died in 1708, allowing Böttger to claim it as his. Soon afterwards, Europe’s first porcelain factory started production in Meissen.

I first came across Böttger and the quest to invent European porcelain when I read The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain. I’ve been intending to visit Meissen ever since and, more importantly, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, the direct descendent of the one founded in 1710. Today, it’s located a couple of kilometres outside Meissen in a state-of-the-art factory where the still impossibly valuable ‘white gold’ is produced by hand to the very highest standards.

When I say ‘impossibly valuable’, I mean a €72,000 price tag for a porcelain vase filled with porcelain fruits. Seriously, who’s buying this stuff? Even the tea cups come in at a not entirely reasonable €69. Admittedly, some of the more elaborate pieces – and they are truly elaborate – can take months to make by highly skilled craftspeople with years of training and decades of experience. Which might justify the pupil-dilating cost of the items on display in the manufactory’s showrooms.

Böttger bust, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Augustus the Strong, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Germany

Albrechtsburg, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Meissen, Germany

A ticket for the factory tour – actually a series of rooms where people perform the hand made processes – came with a €15 voucher for the shop. Until I learned how expensive everything was this seemed like a nice gesture. After the tour we went to the museum, where pieces sparkle under the lights. Here we learned that the formulas for 10,000 different porcelain colours are kept in a secure location, as are plaster moulds dating back 300 years, allowing the factory to reproduce ancient designs and colours.

I don’t really get the appeal of porcelain but its history, filled with deceit, intrigue and even murder, is fascinating. Afterwards, we headed off to Meissen to see where it all started.

Dresden’s old New Town

The entrance to Dresden’s Neustadt is marked by a big and exuberantly golden statue of Augustus the Strong riding a horse. The statue of Saxony’s legendary 18th century ruler is the largest piece of bling in the entire city. Illuminated in the spring sunshine the reflection is blindingly bright. You can probably see it from space. I got the feeling that it was painted this colour as a visual joke, it looks absurd on its sooty plinth. Locals call it the Golden Horseman.

The other non-visual joke about the Neustadt is that it’s actually older than Dresden’s Old Town. Right up until a devastating fire burned it to the ground in 1685, the New Town was the Old Town. The baroque reconstruction was very modern so the name was changed. In another irony, the old New Town received comparatively light damage during the massive bombing raids of February 1945, and remains home to some very attractive period buildings.

Augustus the Strong statue, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We started our exploration of the Neustadt by wandering up Hauptstrasse, the broad avenue that heads north from the Golden Horseman towards Albertplatz. It’s a lovely tree-lined street that, architecturally, mixes the old and the new, and gives you a real sense of the grandeur of Dresden in the 18th century. Several arrow-straight avenues lead away from the riverbank, which is still home to multiple grandiose palaces. This was town planning intended to impress.

We’d come to the Neustadt because it’s the living, beating heart of the contemporary city. In places, it has an alternative, counter-culture vibe that felt similar to areas of Hamburg – although even Hamburg hasn’t renamed a square after US whistleblower, Edward Snowden. This only serves to underline the Jekyll and Hyde personality of Dresden. The former East German town is, after all, a stronghold of the German far-right.

It was across the river in the new Old Town, in October 2014, that far right supporters of the extremist anti-Islamic PEGIDA movement began regular marches and protests against asylum-seekers and immigrants. At its height, the PEGIDA movement was able to rally 20,000 people in Dresden. According to Deutsche Welle, Dresden is officially the only major German city that is right-wing. No surprise then that far-right political party, Alternative für Deutschland, gained 27 percent of the vote in Saxony.

Even as 20,000 far-right protesters marched in the city, equally large numbers of anti-fascist protesters held countermarches. Many came from Dresden itself, and in the Neustadt evidence of their existence can be found everywhere – from the occasional squat, to street art. The Old Town is the main tourist draw, but the Neustadt feels like a more grounded place, with diverse communities and the city’s best eating and drinking options.

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Street Art, Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

Neustadt, Dresden, Germany

We spent the best part of half a day wandering the streets, exploring traditional hofs and alleys that contain art galleries, bars and restaurants. In the end the Museum of Military History, designed by Daniel Libeskind, was just too much effort to get to. It will be on the list when we return – although I’m not sure the most right-wing town in the country is the best place for a museum dedicated to 800-years of German military history.

We had a late lunch sat on the street under a warm sun before heading back towards the Old Town, making a detour so we could walk the wide sweep of a bend in the River Elbe along the way. The grassy banks of the river had been transformed by dozens of families and groups of friends having picnics and barbecues. The atmosphere was jovial and happy as we walked in front of the massive former royal palaces. It was a perfect way to spend our last day in the city – at least on this trip.

Dresden, the city of Augustus the Strong

Too excited to sleep, I was up early to wander Dresden’s quiet streets. There was a chill in the air, but the city was at its most evocative in the early morning light. It may just be my overactive imagination, but the ghosts of Dresden’s legendary history, ancient and modern, seemed to accompany me as I passed down cobbled streets in the shadow of Baroque churches. I was stopped in my tracks at the open space in front of the sublime Semper Opera House. The sun transforming the brown stone with golden hues.

A short stroll brought me to the courtyard of the magnificent Zwinger Palace, partially under reconstruction but still one of the most beautiful buildings in Dresden. I had the entire place to myself, and I sat on the edge of a fountain to drink in the atmosphere. On the orders of Saxony’s greatest ruler, Augustus the Strong, the Zwinger was built in imitation of the Palace of Versailles. As the sun crept over the gardens, I walked around admiring the Baroque flourishes of the buildings.

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühl’s Terrace, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Brühlschen Garten, Dresden, Germany

Dresden is in many ways the city of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Although the Dukes and Electors of Saxony had made Dresden their capital in 1485, it was the man known as “the Saxon Hercules” who has left perhaps the greatest mark on the city. During his rule Dresden became one of Europe’s great cities and a leading cultural centre. Augustus may have left a mixed legacy as a military ruler – he was no Frederick the Great – but Dresden thrived.

Perhaps the finest of all Augustus’ cultural legacies is the Grünes Gewölbe, the Green Vault, one of Europe’s earliest museums that he filled with priceless treasures. The tickets aren’t cheap, but a visit to the Green Room in a former royal palace is worth the €21 price tag. The entire building was destroyed in the Second World War, but it has been lovingly restored to its former glory. Photography isn’t permitted, so you’ll have to take my word that it alone is a reason to come to Dresden.

Around the corner from the Green Room, Augustus features in one of Dresden’s other iconic sights, the Fürstenzug. This time though he doesn’t take centre stage. That honour goes to Conrad I, who founded the dynasty that would rule from Dresden until the catastrophe of the First World War. This 102m long depiction of all but two of the rulers of Saxony contains 23,000 glazed porcelain tiles made in nearby Meissen. The 35 rulers depicted cover a period from 1127 to 1904.

The presence of porcelain tiles gives a hint of another reason for Dresden’s fame and wealth. Augustus the Strong was responsible for inventing European porcelain, a much sought after luxury product. He sponsored unsuccessful experiments in Dresden before efforts moved to Meissen, where they bore fruit. Porcelain would decorate the palaces of Saxony for centuries to come. The Fürstenzug is close to Augustusbrücke, where I crossed to the north bank of the River Elbe.

Fürstenzug, Dresden, Germany

Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany

Zwinger Palace, Dresden, Germany

Katholische Hofkirche, Dresden, Germany

Augustusbrücke, River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

River Elbe, Dresden, Germany

The views back across the city were magnificent, the spring sun illuminating the spires and domes that punctuate the cityscape. The views of the city were ever-changing as I walked along the riverfront towards the main road bridge, and for the first time it was possible to truly understand why Dresden was known as “Florence on the Elbe”. The Brühlschen gardens provided views over the Frauenkirche, before my stroll finished along Brühl’s Terrace with views over the Elbe.

It was time for a late breakfast, but Dresden had already proven itself as the capital of Saxon royalty – with architecture to match.