Beauty and history of Saxony’s castles — Europe The Star Online

Beauty and history of Saxony’s castles - Europe The Star Online

Beauty and history of Saxony’s castles

The first sight of Albrechtsburg Castle with the Gothic Cathedral in the background, as seen from the bridge on the river Elbe. — Photos ANITA RAO KASHI

Our writer revels in the architecture of and history behind Albrechtsburg Castle, Konigstein fortress, Moritzburg Castle, Zwinger and Dresden Castle.

JUST a few kilometres out of Dresden, south of Germanys capital of Berlin, buildings became sparse and gave way to a landscape of lush green fields and bare brown farms dotted with rolled up bales of hay. In the distance, a set of rolling hills, greenish-grey in colour, seemed like a made-to-order backdrop for the fields and farms in the foreground.

There was an occasional house, with gabled brown roof and stark white walls, standing in splendid isolation amidst this wilderness. Slowly, the road began a gentle ascent and wound its way past tiny villages filled with pretty clapboard houses whose balconies and window sills were spilling over with a profusion of bright red flowers.

It all seemed idyllic and the road trip could have gone on forever, but the sequence was rather abruptly broken when the road turned into a bridge across the gently flowing Elbe River. And across from the bridge stood the arresting Albrechtsburg Castle, with the twin spires of the brooding Gothic Cathedral rising into the sky behind it, dominating the landscape of Meissen.

As first impressions go, it was a jaw-dropping moment.

Moritzburg Castle is a square and squat castle with four domed towers, sitting in the middle of an artificial lake, and brings to mind fantasy images from Walt Disney cartoons.

And yet, it was not as if this was the first castle I had seen. In fact, it was not even my first castle in Saxony. Over the last two days, I had seen a handful; each of them was spectacular in its own way, captivating me with their inherent beauty and accompanying history.

So, as the road ascended again and wound its way precariously up the hill, I could barely suppress my anticipation, even as I caught tantalising glimpses of the castle and the spires. True enough, as I swept into the courtyard of the castle, the full Aha! moment came upon me, as I gazed at the castle and adjacent cathedral. They rose majestically, contrasting perfectly against the pale blue sky scattered with a few puffy white clouds. I viewed the scene for a moment, before heading inside the castle and continued to be mesmerised by everything I saw.

Built around the late 15th century by the Wettins, the rulers of Saxony, the castle was their centre of power and one of their most important residences. I walked under beautifully arched rooms, corridors and halls, some of which were filled with beautiful patterns and murals depicting scenes from local history and the Bible, while the floors were laid out with ceramic tiles bearing intricate designs. But what captivated me most was the castles association with porcelain and the beautiful displays throughout the castle.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, all of Europe developed an insatiable appetite for porcelain manufactured in the Far East and named it white gold. According to documented history, Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, who ruled over the area in the early 18th century, was so smitten with it that he was known to have suffered from maladie de porcelaine (porcelain disease).

Konigstein Fortress, an impregnable military castle sits on a 9.5ha rocky plateau about 240m above the river Elbe.

According to legend, he even surrendered 600 soldiers in exchange for 151 pieces of porcelain! But he hit the jackpot when German alchemist Johann Friedrich Boettger, who was experimenting with producing gold, escaped to Saxony and was imprisoned by Augustus in the castle and ordered to produce gold.

Unable to do so, he serendipitously stumbled upon ceramic and thus Meissen porcelain was born in 1708. Because porcelain was so highly regarded, the castle became a fortress and the lone entry the bridge where I first spotted the castle had tight security. Everyone working on the porcelain was sworn to secrecy and traitors were sentenced to life imprisonment; this brought back to mind some of the dark and dingy parts of the castle that I had seen earlier. Though the story was a bit dismal, I was fascinated with the elaborate ceramic fireplaces, gorgeous dinner sets and artefacts displayed throughout the castle.

Albrechtsburg Castle was in complete contrast to Konigstein fortress which I had seen a couple of days earlier. Konigstein was everything I had imagined a fortress castle would look like. It was built on sheer, craggy rocky formations that rose vertically and I craned my neck to catch the top which towered almost 228.6m where a stone wall ran around.

An elevator quickly deposited me on top of what was once an impregnable fortress, built more than eight centuries ago, and enjoys the reputation of having never been conquered. The grounds the size of 13 football stadia were dotted with more than 50 buildings, including Saxonys first garrison church and Germanys oldest remaining barracks.

The sprawling Zwinger Palace, adjacent to the Dresden Castle, was Augustus the Strongs reward to himself, and was built as a party and festival space.

But what caught my fancy was an ancient well in a dark stone building, supposedly the deepest one in Saxony, with a depth of 137m. To demonstrate, an employee routinely dumped a pailful of water and I heard the sound of it hitting the water surface a good many seconds later; a video camera set up inside demonstrated the process.

A few hundred metres away, I was also captivated by a giant wine cask inside a wine cellar which was dark and dank which probably did the wine a lot of good, but it gave me the creeps. I was glad to get back out into the light.

I wandered around aimlessly and stepped into the buildings that caught my fancy. The Schatzhaus (Treasure House) was simple, with a gabled roof, and did not seem that it could have once held the state treasures of Saxony.

The Krieglsazarett (Wartime hospital) seemed bleak but functional, and the air was heavy with the quiet anguish and pain of the wounded soldiers who had passed through the hospital. But the gloom was dispelled by Friedrichsburg (Fredericks Castle), a symmetrical pretty yellow building with a green roof and staircases running around.

Inside the Albrechtsburg Castle, the walls are adorned with paintings and the statues of Saxonys rulers stand proudly along the walls.

Originally a watch tower with cannons, it is now known more for its banqueting hall, with stunning views of the Elbe flowing amidst lush green meadows and woodlands. This image stuck in my mind long after I had come away.

Beauty and history of Saxony’s castles - Europe The Star Online

The next day, it was Moritzburg Castle that took my breath away. A lovely fairytale kind of castle, like something straight out of Disney cartoons, it sat in the middle of a lake in perfect symmetry surrounded by beautifully manicured lawns and well-laid gardens. It was approached by a long avenue lined with trees and water beyond.

A 16th century Baroque castle built for the Duke of Saxony as a hunting lodge, the pale yellow, square structure was topped by four round, red, towers that stood out and caught the suns rays, turning them into brilliant orbs. Inside, a series of rooms served as a showcase for the vestiges of the life and activities of those who had occupied the castle.

A roomful of deer antlers some looking graceful and delicate; others, vicious and dangerous pointed to the castles primary purpose. That the buildings residents were well-to-do was adequately demonstrated by the sheer opulence of the things on display, such as plush lacquered and ornate furniture; hunting weapons studded or inlaid with precious metals and ivory; exquisite Meissen porcelain; and painted leather wallpaper on the walls.

But what beat everything was the feather bed made from a million hen, duck, guinea and pheasant feathers that had been converted into an art piece. As lasting impressions go, that was pretty hard to beat.

Meissen porcelain originated in the Albrechtsburg Castle under the rule of Augustus the Strong. Examples of this exquisite craft are found throughout the castle.

I saved the two royal structures in Dresden Zwinger and Dresden Castle for last. Located adjacent to each other, the Zwinger was a squat, rectangular and sprawling structure housing a massive courtyard within it. Built in Baroque style in the early 18th century, it was a party and festival space for Augustus the Strong who wanted an ostentatious and opulent building to show off his power and importance.

In the still morning light, I had the place to myself as I walked around under the arcaded galleries and pavilions. Though everything was quiet, the sheer magnificence made me believe that I could hear the sounds of merry-making if I listened carefully. But all such notions came from my over-active imagination; the sound that I imagined was actually water gushing out from an elaborately carved water fountain hidden in a nook.

From here, the roof was just a flight of steps up, where I encountered a parapet topped by a row of intricately carved and embellished statues, which added to the richness of the building. The Zwinger suffered extensive damage during the bombing of Dresden in World War II but was restored soon after the war ended.

But if the Zwinger points to the ambition of a ruler, then Dresden Castle aptly captures what an entire line of ambitious rulers could amass. The seat of the Wettins from the early 13th century, the castle is massive, with a series of towers and spires. Built in a mix of styles Baroque, Renaissance and Classical it too had been destroyed during the war but was completely rebuilt later on. It is currently a museum complex housing some of the most fantastic historical pieces. The New Green Vault is perhaps the most prized, as it is considered Europes largest collection of this nature.

As I walked from room to room, I saw exquisite artefacts made of gold, silver, ivory and ceramic; royal art and jewellery. In fact, such is the extent of the accumulated wealth that entire rooms are dedicated to each type of artefact ruby, emerald, jade, etc. Miraculously, the collection was saved during the bombing and some pieces were moved to the Konigstein Fortress for safekeeping.

The last eye-popping thing I saw was the Dresden Green Diamond, an extremely rare 41-carat green diamond, believed to have originated in India. It is surrounded by two large and 411 smaller diamonds. Acquired by Augustus the Strong in 1742, it was set in gold and made into a hat clasp. Resting on a cushion of red velvet in a thick glass case and flanked by tight security, the diamond was a delicate apple green in colour and flawless. It caught little pinpoints of light and sparkled brilliantly in its setting.

Dazzled and mesmerised, I stumbled out into the castles courtyard and exit, all goggle-eyed and speechless. Every castle I had seen over the last few days had struck a different note, but as finales went, the Dresden Castle, more importantly the Green Diamond, were peerless.

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