The German state of Saxony, tucked away in the southeast near the Czech border, may not have the country’s most famous castles (that honor probably belongs to Bavaria’s Schloss Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Walt Disney’s faux castles).
But the seat of various powerful kingdoms, electorates and duchies has left the region with more than its share of preserved medieval castles. You’ll find about 140 historical schlosses (castles), palaces, manor houses, and churches along Saxony’s various rivers (the state’s tourism board has helpfully put together a Schlosserland Saxony website for interested visitors). On my recent SATW trip to Saxony, we spent a day exploring three castles: Burg Kriebstein, Schloss Rochlitz and Schloss Colditz.
Burg Kriebstein, an heirloom of Saxon nobility that dates back to 1384, is considered the area’s best preserved castles.
Our historically garbed guide told us cheekily that nothing of any import ever took place at Burg Kriebstein. That’s to the castle’s benefit; unlike other historic buildings that were ransacked over the centuries, Burg Kriebstein stayed out of the line of fire, thus leading to its intact appearance today.
Burg Kriebstein does have one legend of note. As the story goes, after one successful takeover of the castle, the victorious prince told the lady of the property that she could leave freely and take with her anything that she could carry. The faithful women abandoned her jewelry and possessions, picking up her husband instead. Moved by her loyalty, the prince spared both of their lives.
The castle carries an artistic secret in a basement chapel: elaborate frescoes that have suffered little damage over the centuries.
While Burg Kriebstein’s history lies on the charming site, that of Schloss Rochlitz, along the Mulde River, is considerably darker.
First mentioned in documents dating back to 995, Rochlitz served as the residence of Saxon royalty eight times over the years.
That proud history is evident in the castle’s display of princely Saxon costumes. The procession in the exhibit mimics that portrayed in the Furstenzug, a famous wall hanging of 35 Wettin Princes in Dresden made of Meissen ceremic tiles. Every August, the castle has a “living princes” festival where costumed re-enactors act out the parade on real horses.
Royalty aside, the castle was more recently used as a prison, a Third Reich stronghold and, under the East German government, even a kindergarten (can you imagine sending your kid to a school with a dungeon?). Particularly when, as this exhibit in the museum proves, there were plenty of rats around. These are mummified.
If you tour the museum, you can visit the castle’s torture chamber, with iron bars and racks still on the wall. Far more sinister is what the castle’s dark hole. a chamber where prisoners were placed without access to natural light of any kind. They received food and water from a rope that was dropped down to the stone floor below.
From Rochlitz’s towers, you do get a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.
But our final castle, Colditz Castle, took the concept of prison to a whole modern level. A one-time residence for the Electors of Saxony, Colditz served as a home for the indigent, a mental institution and starting in 1933, as a Nazi political prison for communists, Jews, homosexuals and other “undesirables.”
As World War II wore on, Colditz morphed into a holding area for Allied prisoners-of-war, renamed Oflag IV-C. Many of the captured soldiers sent to Colditz had escaped from other prisons or were considered particularly dangerous; most were officers in the Allied forces. Relatives of prominent Allied VIPs, such as Winston Churchill’s nephew, were also held here. As such, the prisoners were often awarded special luxuries and rations, and allowed to put on shows and play sports in the courtyard.
Despite its rep as a high-security prison, inmates at Colditz enjoyed a healthy record of escape attempts (which the castle now documents in a museum). Clever prisoners built tunnels (which you can see today), duplicated keys, copied maps and forged papers. They even listened to the BBC in a secret radio room and received escape equipment from the British War Office. Perhaps the most fanciful scheme never came to pass, however: While the prisoners built a glider in a remote corner of the palace, the war ended before they were able to use it.
After the war, several Colditz prisoners wrote books about their experiences. The most famous ones - The Colditz Story and The Latter Days at Colditz – both written by successful escapee Capt. Patrick Reid, were made into a BBC TV series starring Robert Wagner.
Today, you can stay overnight at Colditz Castle in youth hostel accommodations.
A day of historic building hopping can lead to castle fatigue. Of the three Saxon castles we visited, I liked Colditz the most, simply because its World War II history seemed more relevant to todays’ world. Still, it’s not like you see castles every day in the States, so it’s best to get your fill of them when you can.