My first thought, when my family told me that they were coming to see me by car, was that they had lost it completely. We drove to Berlin for a family holiday three years ago and my prevailing memory of that journey is my father pulling into a service station somewhere in Holland to tell us that if we didn’t stop squabbling, we would turn around and go home. Apparently, though, time had lessened the memories of that hellish drive, and, with the added luxury of one less person in the car, they were ready to give it another go. And so last Saturday morning they arrived, tired and achey, having driven through the night.
There was, it turned out, method in their madness. Driving is not only cheaper than flying, but it also hugely increases luggage allowance. And so, I have been reunited with all sorts of wonderful essentials, like my winter coat and boots, books I’d forgotten, and a huge block of M&S Cornish Cheddar. (I was, undeniably, most excited about the latter). It also meant that we were free to explore Saxony without the restraints of train times or booking bus tickets. And exploring Saxony was something I was very keen to do.
Day Trip no.1 took place on a perfect autumn Sunday, the kind where the fact that the sky is grey is no barrier to the vibrant oranges, yellows and golds on every tree. Our destination was another landmark of Saxon Switzerland, the same National Park I visited with Tash when we went to Königstein a few weeks ago. But this time we went to the Bastei, a jagged rock formation towering up to three hundred metres above the winding River Elbe down below, caused by erosion over one million years ago. Due to nothing but its sheer beauty, this area has been a tourist destination for over two hundred years. In 1824, a wooden bridge was built here to give visitors a better view. In 1851, this bridge was replaced by the sandstone bridge, which remains the highlight for visitors today.
It’s amazing. There’s something very humbling about being such a small person, teetering precariously on rocks so big – even if you are sharing your moment of humility with lycra-clad adventurers and tourists with cameras so big they look as if they might overbalance. In my excitement to visit here, I’d forgotten that mum and Lana share quite a fear of heights, and I’m sorry that they didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did. But for me, it was wonderful to be somewhere so beautiful, staring out at the same dramatic landscape that has been impressing visitors and artists for centuries.
I left my family to their own devices on Monday and Tuesday as I faced up to the grim reality of real life: an internship with absolutely no official holiday leave whatsoever. But on Wednesday, thanks to my sympathetic supervisor, I had the luxury of all luxuries: my first day off in eleven weeks. Determined to take full advantage of dad and his car being here, I asked the other intern, who grew up in Dresden, where we should go for our day out. Meißen, she told me, and then Moritzburg. So, having done very little research, I put these names into Dad’s satnav and off we went.
Meißen, it turns out, is completely beautiful, and not just because we went on the most stunningly sunny autumnal day I’ve ever experienced. Known as the cradle of Saxony, it’s renowned for its very distinctive style of pottery, its cathedral, and its beautiful castle perched on top of a hill, overlooking the Elbe.
We started by walking up a really steep hill. I’m always slightly shocked in situations like these at just how horribly unfit I am. But it was rather an important hill. In 1260, Meißen Cathedral was built here, on the same hilltop as Albrechtsburg Castle, which is even older. The resulting lack of space means that the Cathedral is one of the smallest in Europe, sitting almost inconspicuously in the old town square. It looks somewhat like Köln Cathedral, but a rather scaled down version. It is also, I’m told, one of the purest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere in the world. I’d have liked to go inside, but Lana’s priorities – “it’s pretty and all, but can we just have lunch now?” – were a little different.
And so – not wanting to let Lana be hungry – we headed down into the lower part of the Altstadt for our lunch. The walk down is rather striking. Since the Cathedral overlooks the river, it makes sense that, as you descend, you look out over it too. The rest of the town is nestled among rolling hills, patches of forest, and strips of wine land, and on this sunny day in late October, it couldn’t have been any prettier.
The other stop on my fellow intern’s recommended day out was Moritzburg, an even smaller town about ten kilometres from Meißen. Its only real attraction is its beautiful Baroque castle, which sits on an artificial island in the middle of a lake. There is, I’m sure, a great deal of history to accompany and explain the existence, development, and purpose of the castle, but I must admit my complete ignorance. We didn’t even try to find out. We didn’t even go in. Instead, we gave in to the ultimate tourist temptation and climbed into a horse-drawn carriage, where we snuggled under blankets and drove around the lake. It wasn’t quite as relaxing as I’d anticipated, as our very-friendly-but-a-little-too-keen driver told me far too much for me to take in, in a Saxon accent so strong that I sometimes didn’t even recognise his words. The stress, though, couldn’t detract from the sight of this perfectly symmetrical castle in the wonderful wintery evening light.
Anyway, if I’m learning anything from my time in and around Leipzig, it’s that East Germany is incredibly underrated. I feel so glad to have not fallen into the temptation of spending my year abroad in Berlin, or one of the countless western cities along the Rhein, and to be spending my weekends exploring this beautiful Bundesland.