Keys jangle as the stern-faced fraulein unlocks the heavy wooden door and pushes it open with a creak, ushering us in and flicking a switch to throw a glimmer of light into the dingy cell. Beyond the small window, the sheer, white stone walls plunge 100 feet to the rocky crag on which this imposing edifice stands tall, dominating the town below and surrounding landscape.
There’s no escaping where we are: this is Colditz Castle, the notorious German prisoner of war camp.
The castle was the enforced home for around 1,500 Allied officers during the Second World War, up to 550 at any one time. All had been sent there after escapes or attempted break-outs from other PoW camps.
Originally built in the 11th century and subsequently used as a royal residence, hunting lodge, poorhouse and mental hospital, Colditz was turned into the Oflag IV-C PoW camp in 1939 and deemed escape-proof. Would-be escapees faced a 400-mile trek to the nearest border with a friendly country. Yet throughout WW2 there were more than 300 escape attempts – 31 of them successful.
Thankfully I am merely visiting for the day from Dresden, an hour away by road, while on a Great Rail Journeys rail tour of the former East Germany that is also taking me to Berlin. After the War this region became the German Democratic Republic, part of the Soviet Bloc, until the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany in 1990.
For 50 years until 1996, Colditz was once again a hospital. But following restoration, the castle opened for tours and now attracts around 30,000 visitors a year, many of them from the UK. Strangely, although its name is legendary back home, few in Germany seem to know of it, a point underlined on the train from Dresden to Berlin when I sit next to a businesswoman curious about my travels who replies after hearing I have visited Colditz: “What is that?”
Indeed, my Colditz ‘jailer’, Steffi Schubert, was unaware of it while growing up in nearby Leipzig and became a guide eight years ago because she was fascinated by the prisoners’ heroic stories.
After scrutinising exhibits in the small museum (a larger one is planned when other parts of the castle are restored) that highlight the ingenuity of the captives, she takes our party of four on a fascinating tour. Home-made tools were fashioned from everyday objects in the camp to make cameras, passports, fake German uniforms – even a two-man glider made from sheets and floorboards in a secret partition of the castle loft. Colditz was liberated before it could be used, but a replica built in the same loft was launched and flown remotely from the castle roof for a 2012 Channel 4 documentary, proving it would have worked. The damaged replica is on display in the loft with another, more intact version.
Steffi doesn’t hide her admiration as she recounts some of the many escapes and attempts and shows us the French tunnel, partly built below the chapel, the exit point of the British tunnel and rooms of notable PoWs incarcerated there, including RAF hero Douglas Bader, who as the most senior officer was allowed out to visit local bars on condition he returned.
You can stay in Colditz today, for 25 euros a night. The former guards’ quarters are now a youth hostel sleeping 161, while the old workshop is a music academy. I eat in the hostel dining room before being driven back to Dresden.
My base there is the Maritim Hotel Dresden, in an old building on the banks of the Elbe River set between the Dresden Conference Centre and Saxony’s State Parliament. Long known as the Florence of the Elbe and one of Germany’s most beautiful cities, its historic centre was all but destroyed by Allied bombing raids in early 1945 but has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years.
Neglect during the Communist GDR era has allowed the city’s burghers to undertake a rebuilding programme that is still ongoing, restoring much of its glorious gothic and baroque architecture. My hotel is a short stroll from the historic old town and I explore it with a local guide.
We walk past the ornate Semper Opera House into the courtyard of the magnificent, early 18th-century Zwinger palace. Both were burned out in the wartime bombing firestorm but were restored in the 1950s and 1960s. Across the road, the Royal Palace, built at the end of the 15th century, is still undergoing restoration. Alongside it is the 100-metre-long Procession of Princes (Furstenzurg) mural, comprising 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles and depicting Saxony’s rulers spanning almost 800 years.
However, Dresden’s main attraction is the baroque-style Frauenkirche church, totally destroyed in the air raids but rebuilt and reopened in 2004 thanks to worldwide donations. The gold cross atop its dome was a gift from the people of Britain, but even more symbolic is a striking cross made from iron nails salvaged from Coventry Cathedral – destroyed by German bombers but never rebuilt – on the altar inside.
I digest more of Dresden’s history, along with pork and dumplings, in the adjacent Pulverturm (Powder Tower) restaurant that evening. I also walk across to the other side of the Elbe to visit both Inner Neustadt, Dresden’s Baroque Quarter, with its covered market and the bohemian Outer Neustadt, full of bars, cafes, music shops and alleyways such as funky Kunsthof Passage.
In summer, you can take cruises along the Elbe on lovely old steamboats, and the city is full of music and cultural festivals.
I take modern, double-decker local trains and a wonderful vintage steam train, the Lossnitzgrundbahn, to visit moated Moritzburg Castle, on the outskirts of Dresden. The hunting lodge and summer residence of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland, Elector of Saxony and father of at least 350 children – he was nicknamed “Augustus the Skirt Chaser” – it is famous for its painted leather wallpaper and feather room.
In Berlin, I take a two-hour City Circle Sightseeing bus tour from Potsdamer Platz past some of the city’s most famous historic, wartime and Cold War sights. They include: Checkpoint Charlie, the famous post-war crossing point between East and West Berlin; remaining sections of the Berlin Wall; the city’s Museum Island; the Brandenburg Gate; Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag; grandiose Charlottenburg Palace; and upmarket shopping street Kurfurstendamm.
Huge building projects continue in the heart of the former East Berlin, including the reconstruction of the former palace of Prussian and German royal families torn down to make way for the now-demolished East German parliament, to be called the Humboldt Forum.
I walk between the lines of grey, concrete slabs in the Holocaust Memorial – otherwise known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – close to the Brandenburg Gate, and see the gravel car park built over the bunker where Hitler committed suicide. I visit the newly-opened Spy Museum, where interactive exhibits vividly bring to life the world of espionage since ancient times, through the Cold War and right up to today’s cyber spying and hacking, with a large section devoted to James Bond.
At night, I dine in the Weihenstephaner Berlin restaurant, in one of Berlin’s oldest surviving buildings, feasting on delicious Austrian food and drinking beer from the oldest brewery in the world, Bavaria’s Weihenstephaner brewery. I return to my hotel, the Maritim Hotel Berlin, on Stauffenbergstrasse where, just across the road is a memorial commemorating a failed assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 by members of the German Resistance, all of them executed.
It is my first taste of Continental rail travel beyond France and I am impressed by the quality, comfort and punctuality of the trains, from the trams and local S-Bahn trains in Dresden to the sleek, high-speed ICE trains of the DB Bahn network, on which I pampered in first class.
The only hold-up on the entire trip is a 70-minute delay on Eurostar just before the Channel Tunnel, due to power problems, that almost derails my connection in Brussels onto a Thalys train to Cologne for my onward ICE trains to Frankfurt and Dresden.
Peter travelled to Germany with Great Rail Journeys, which offers escorted group holiday to Berlin and Dresden. For more information about Colditz, visit online site of the Society Colditz Castle, and go to the online tourist offices of Dresden and Berlin for information on the two cities.
This article first appeared in TTG.
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